The Chemical Brothers' Tom Rowlands: 'Belfast's got a good musical appreciation so it's exciting to be starting our tour at Belsonic'
One half of The Chemical Brothers, Tom Rowlands tells Chris Jones why the dance music duo chose Belsonic in June to launch their UK tour and how local fans can expect the old classics.
Even from the sofa, The Chemical Brothers' set at last summer's Glastonbury Festival was a scintillating experience. More than 20 years into their career, the Manchester-forged dance duo can choose from a formidable arsenal of hits - Hey Boy, Hey Girl, Galvanize and Block Rockin' Beats to name just three - while their psychedelic visual and light show is utterly peerless. Tens of thousands of people in that Somerset field left delirious, as did many more watching at home on the BBC, but for Tom Rowlands it was an unusual experience.
In late 2014 fellow Brother Ed Simons announced that he was quitting touring in order to focus on his academic work, and so his place on stage last summer was taken by Adam Smith, the music video director who has designed the band's visuals for over two decades. "It was hard but it was an amazing concert," he says. "Adam had done three or four before that and was thrown into it - he did amazingly well."
However, he does admit that it was "weird". "It was odd to look round," he says. "I'm used to seeing Ed there, and the words of communication - 'I'm going to do this, you do that and then we'll do this' - it was hard to relearn that. It'll be nice that he's coming back - to look over and know that Ed's got it under control."
Indeed, contrary to what fans may have feared, Simons is now very much back in the saddle and ready to go back on the road - starting with the duo's gig at Belsonic festival in Belfast's Titanic Quarter. Rowlands bats away the suggestion that his partner's live hiatus is an indicator that they might be nearing the end of the road, but aside from stressing that Ed is "excited to be back", he's not willing to make any promises about the band's future.
"We're about to embark on a long cycle of touring, and as for another record or new music, we're not really thinking about that at the moment. We're still working through this album [2015's Born In The Echoes]. And then, who knows? We'll see when we get to the end of the year."
The Chemical Brothers are hardly strangers to Northern Ireland, but they haven't visited as frequently as you might imagine. This month's gig will be their first in the province since a show on Portrush's East Strand in 2008 and their first in Belfast since 2005, but you have to go all the way back to the early Nineties to recall their first ever gig in the city. So long ago was it, in fact, that Rowlands can't remember the year. "The internet knows better than us," he laughs.
"I remember playing David Holmes' legendary early Nineties club Sugar Sweet when it was upstairs in the art college. Ending up in a hairdresser's after is the main thing I seem to remember - and a good night all round. That is a long time ago ...
"You know, it's a town that has got a good musical appreciation so it's an exciting place for us to start off the tour. It's been a long time since we've played there and I know it's a place that appreciates electronic music."
So what can Chemical Brothers fans expect on the duo's long-awaited return to the city? Tom promises some new visual ideas and some musical works-in-progress - he describes it as "an evolution" - and as their fans will already know, the duo are absolutely not too proud to play the classics.
"You get some people where it's almost beneath them to play their hit," he says. "It drives me mad - someone put their hand in their pocket to come to your concert and they're like, 'Oh, I don't think we'll play the one song that they want to hear'. It drives me insane.
"It's exciting for us to play the music we've just made and see it hopefully connect with people, and then you'll play a record that people have had moments to in their life. It's the old and new coming together that's exciting."
It's common for dance acts to rework and update old material when they play live, but The Chemical Brothers prefer a light touch, playing the original tracks with minimal adornments aside from mixing from one song to another. It's clear they see the live show from the fan's point of view.
"I like it as a moment," says Rowlands. "People will do a track and put, you know, '2016 drums' on it or something. But for me, I want Block Rockin' Beats to sound somehow connected to Block Rockin' Beats. Part of what it is is how it sounds - it isn't like a classic song where you can play it on a banjo and it will still sound amazing. Block Rockin' Beats would not sound amazing on a banjo."
The Chemical Brothers started playing these huge outdoor shows over 20 years ago, partly inspired by their own formative musical experiences.
Born in 1970 and 1971 (Rowlands is the younger by six months), they came of age at a momentous time for dance music. They were 17 and 18 during the so-called Second Summer Of Love, when DJs who had discovered house music in Ibiza returned home and started to put on their own parties around the UK - including at the Haçienda in Manchester, where Simons and Rowlands were students. Meanwhile, their family homes were on the outskirts of London, within easy access of the infamous, illegal "orbital raves"that were taking place just off the M25.
"You'd go to some field and there would be 20,000 people listening to Carl Cox or something," Rowlands recalls. "Being 17, 18 and going to those things. You'd launch off into the night - no Google Maps in those days and no guarantee that there would be anything there when you got there."
It wasn't a stretch of the imagination, therefore, for The Chemical Brothers to play large events themselves a few years later, even though live dance acts were, in the mid-Nineties, rarely to be found on festival bills alongside guitar bands. Compare this to this year's Belsonic bill, which features Disclosure, Tiesto, David Guetta, Fatboy Slim and Faithless as headliners alongside The Chemical Brothers.
For a few years at the start of their career, guitar music was back in with the Chemicals left to fly the flag for dance music alongside contemporaries like Underworld, Orbital and The Prodigy. "It's a very different world now - back then you'd turn up to a big European festival and there wouldn't be any other bands like us on the bill. I'd seen Orbital at Glastonbury in 1994 and people were amazed that two guys making electronic music could make a field of people go nuts, but we'd seen that happen in raves for a long time," he says. "It didn't seem that weird."
The Chemical Brothers have worked with a who's who of stars from the rock and indie world, from Noel Gallagher to The Flaming Lips, and, on their most recent album, Beck and St Vincent. None of those artists have much dance music pedigree, but Rowlands and Simons approach collaborations as wide-eyed fans of all kinds of music.
"The first music that really gets you excited lives with you and for me it was when I was 15 in about 1986," says Rowlands. "So it was Public Enemy, but also the Jesus and Mary Chain. Those two things have always excited me and keep going on as an inspiration for me. Making records with the Flaming Lips or somebody, they're musicians who have made music that I really love and it's a chance to work with them and to get their creative ideas. The best reason for doing anything is because you like it."
The Chemical Brothers will play Belsonic in Titanic on Friday, June 10 at 6pm. General admission tickets cost £38 from ticketmaster.ie