15 Years Ago: Chemical Brothers Ramp Up Their Sound on ‘Come With Us’
At the turn of the millennium, the Chemical Brothers were as popular as ever – multi-platinum sales, worldwide hit singles, collaborations with respected rock stars and a record-breaking set at 2000’s Glastonbury. And yet, there was a sense of disappointment among the faithful and the music press.
Part of it might have been a response to the state of electronica in general. The Chemical Brothers’ 1995 debut, Exit Planet Dust, had ushered in the big beat era, just as 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole rode the crest of the wave (even breaking through in the U.S., where it went gold). But there was a sense that 1999’s Surrender ceded too much musical ground to the duo’s crossover tracks with rockers (members of Oasis, New Order, Mazzy Star and Mercury Rev). Whether or not Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons thought that was an issue, the pair wouldn’t repeat that structure on the Brothers’ next big release.
The album that would be titled Come With Us began with the sound of the track that would become “It Began in Afrika.” The duo sought to make something with the energy of their initial creations but would break new creative ground in the Brothers’ catalog.
“The idea was for future primitive,” Rowlands explained to Enjoy the Music in 2002. “You get loads of percussive house records that are just OK. We wanted one that was mad, using percussion in a really intense way rather than in a vibey way.”
The track, which includes a vocal sample from Jim Ingram and bongos and congas from percussionist Shovell, was premiered during the Chemical Brothers’ opening sets for U2 in late 2000. Rowlands and Simons then sent a “white label” release to DJs in the summer of 2001 as a sort of test balloon, to see how it went over in the clubs. When it was embraced, the duo released it as an official single in September – a precursor to the forthcoming album.
In the meantime, the Brothers were creating the rest of the album, drawing on the relentless beats of “It Began in Afrika” as inspiration for the likes of “Galaxy Bounce” (heard on the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider soundtrack) and other compositions, but also influenced by a new instrument. The pair got their hands on a Parker MIDI Fly Guitar, which they found did a superior job at integrating guitar sounds and electronic music.
“We are not very good keyboard players,” Rowlands said. “Our hands fall a lot easier on a fretboard than a keyboard. Playing an old synth like an ARP 2600 with your guitar was great, we got totally weird s--- that we didn’t mean to do.”
“‘Star Guitar’ and ‘Pioneer Skies’ happened when we got bored with the machines,” Simons added. “That whole morphing sound on ‘Star Guitar’ came from a thing Tom was playing on the guitar then processed through an effect to the computer. So you have a sound that is sometimes a guitar, sometimes a big, synthy swoosh sound. It morphs between the two.”
Watch the Video for "Star Guitar"
In addition to the sonic experimentation, the Chemical Brothers also incorporated their newfound maturity into Come With Us. Both Rowlands and Simons turned 30 while working on the new album, and Rowlands and his wife had welcomed a baby six months before the album was released. Although the duo were still providing the soundtrack for all-night parties in Ibiza, they were no longer part of the bouncing masses in attendance.
That sentiment is expressed in the album’s closing number, “The Test,” one of only two tracks to feature guest vocalists. The finale includes the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, who sings, “I almost lost my mind, but now I’m home and I’m free.”
“I really love the words about being home and being free,” Simons admitted to the Guardian. “For five solid years, I’ve gone out every Friday night in some form or another, but now if 10 o'clock on a Friday night rolls around and there’s nothing on, I’m in for the night. I think both of us feel out of that trap, where we have to be out every night. It’s not everybody’s idea of freedom, sitting around at home, but for me it is. There’s a tyranny of going out.”
Listen to "The Test"
Despite being created by a pair of newly minted homebodies, Come With Me continued the Chemical Brothers’ winning streak on the U.K. charts after it was released on January 28, 2002. It became the pair’s third straight album to hit No. 1, and went gold a month later. “It Began in Afrika” and “Star Guitar” each were U.K. Top 10 singles, while dominating the U.S. dance music charts at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively. A massive worldwide tour followed, in which Rowlands and Simons continued to revel in the sound.
“If you can sit in front of a computer in the studio and feel totally transported by the sound you’re making, then that’s the most fun there is to be had making music,” Rowlands said. "Sometimes when we’re onstage… and it’s really loud, you just don’t feel that you’re anything to do with this piece of music. It’s just happening and you’re holding onto the sound desk, going, ‘F---ing hell!’ It sounds like there’s a plane going over your head.”
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