For “nice middle-class kids, quiet and reasonable people”, as they described themselves to Spin in 1997, The Chemical Brothers’ Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands had big, noisy ambitions.
“The trouble is that too many people involved in dance music want to keep the scene down to their little clique,” Simons told Muzik magazine in 1995. “They don’t want artists with something to say. They’re just interested in faceless boffins sitting in their bedrooms, putting out their tunes on white labels.
“That’s part of the reason dance music hasn’t progressed over the last three or four years. What dance music needs at the moment is a big album. An album the scene truly deserves.”
Simons and Rowlands made good on their declarations, delivering a hefty slice of what that ambitious dance record would sound like with 1995’s Exit Planet Dust. They consolidated that promise with the bombastic blast of the follow up, 1997’S Dig Your Own Hole.
When they weren’t hitting their medieval history books, Ed and Tom were out at clubs most nights of the week. These extracurricular excursions, and the desire to express their experiences on their own terms, would inform the energy of the music they’d make.
“Why is it left to a group like Oasis to express the way that young people want to go out and get battered every weekend?” Simons complained to The Guardian in 1995. “That’s what the Chemical Brothers are about. Tom and I are out all the time, off to clubs and gigs, living fast, living it up. That’s what I hope we’re putting across on our records.”
When it comes to The Chemical Brothers, it’s not just about pace. It’s also about the scope and the depth of the listening and dancing experience.
“We like the thing where you’re on the dance floor and you just hear things that take your breath away. Big moments and sounds you’ve never heard before, or just that big surge of emotion you get from the dancefloor’ Simons explained in an interview with Peter Paphides on the group’s Radio 1 Anti-Nazi Mix released in 1997.
Aside from those big encompassing moments, they loved crafting the smaller, unsuspecting moments.
“We construct a record out of so many disparate things,” Rowland explained to Paphides. “It might be part of some rubbish record with a bit of you playing guitar, and a bit from your synth and forcing them all together and making a cohesive thing out of it in the end. I really like that. But doing it is quite difficult.
“To a lot of people sampling is still stuck in the realms of Warren G’s ‘I Shot The Sherriff.’ For us, the creative process is turning one thing, into another thing kinda thing, it's alchemy baby!”
With Dig Your Own Hole your ears are in the palm of their hands. From the opening slow surge that explodes into ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, to the hypnotic propulsion of ‘It Doesn’t Matter’ to the swirling dive and momentous uplift of their collaboration with Mercury Rev’s Jonathon Donahue on ‘The Private Psychedelic Reel’.
Some songs emerged out of unexpected situations. The bass riff for the title track came from a rejected remix they did for Björk. They reworked it into the funky and frenetic ‘Dig Your Own Hole’.
One of the album’s key tracks, ‘Setting Sun’ came about when Noel Gallagher approached the duo at the Glastonbury Festival and said he wanted to have a go on a song, having heard The Charlatans singer Tim Burgess guest on Exit Planet Dust’s ‘Life Is Sweet’.
Rowlands and Simons, after laughing the possibility of a collaboration off, found themselves making a track which could do with lyrics. They sent it off to Gallagher, although the Oasis songwriter didn’t know what to make of the thick corrosive, bellowing, sounds he heard.
“I could have taken it as a joke to fucking piss me off,” he said. “There didn’t seem to be any tune to it.”
Gallagher is pretty pleased about how it turned out, though.
“I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done, to be honest,” he said.
But he spares some praise for the duo too.
“They’re one of the few dance acts who’ve made a couple of pretty good fucking albums, you know what I mean. I like the fact that it can be quite scary but it can be quite soulful as well, they are as good as it gets.”
Soulfulness and a mangled respite sweep in with ‘Where Do I Begin’. Rowlands explains the complete ease of working with their mate Beth Orton as well as the significance of this track.
“You can trust the way she sings,” he said. “The layers of voices just slooping round and stuff, then it’s off into the stratosphere. People just associate ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’ is what we do, but this is kinda equally important.”
Their sound helped define the 1990s, their impact was a full throttle thrust for electronic music in a decade dominated by guitars and teen angst. How they broke through and made themselves heard is perhaps best summed up by Rowlands attempting to describe their sound to Neil Strauss in The New York Times in 1997.
“It's not pretty music we make,” he said. “It's quite rough and abrasive. In that way, it is kind of dance music for rock fans. If you buy one of our records, it doesn't mean you have to go and burn all your Offspring CDs.”