There were an unlimited number of ways the new Chemical Brothers album might have turned out.
Gathered in the studio, the duo — Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands — presided over a glut of music made during the pandemic. Unsure of what to do with it all, they considered assembling a triple LP, or a quadruple LP, or maybe something more loose and kitchen sink-ish that would highlight the nuances of their creative process.
“I was thinking, ‘Maybe that’ll be cool, to do something really different to how we’ve made our albums before,'” Rowlands tells Billboard over Zoom, “And then in listening to it, it was like, ‘Hm, that’s not so good.'”
So ultimately the pair, friends since their days at the University of Manchester and icons since the release of their groundbreaking 1995 debut Exit Planet Dust — did what they’ve done for the last 30 years and pared it all down to the 11-track collection For That Beautiful Feeling, their 10th studio LP, out Friday (Sept. 8) via Republic Records. With many options for how to Tetris the project together, the guys just let their moods dictate.
“We always want our music to not be a technical exercise, but to reflect how the two of us are feeling,” Simons says. “And I guess, you know, it has been a very strange four years.”
He’s not wrong. Much has gone down on a global scale since the Brothers released their last album, 2019’s No Geography. The world went into lockdown a few weeks after the LP won dance/electronic album of the year at the 2020 Grammys. Amid the pandemic, Rowlands tucked himself away in his Sussex studio and started banging out music, which Simons picked up when it was safe to do so. “It was the longest period we’ve spent apart for a while,” Simons says of that time.
As COVID eventually waned, the war in Ukraine began, living costs spiraled in the U.K. and elsewhere and the climate crisis became increasingly tangible and exponentially scarier. It was, is, a lot of psychic weight for them, and for everyone else. But there were, of course, moments of daily joy. That, altogether, was their mood, and thus that is the album.
For That Beautiful Feeling catapults from ecstasy to dread (“we have no reason to live!” declares track two, “No Reason”), to sadness, to a sort of hectic waking dream state, to hope, to the transcendent title track that closes the LP. In total, the project reflects the anxieties and exhilarations of life on earth in 2023 through the same sort of tightly wound, acid-soaked, elegant, raucous, rock-ish, blissful and often subversive style that’s defined their discography.
This oeuvre contains many moments of grace and soaring beauty (“Swoon,” “The Sunshine Underground,” etc.), and it’s this same spirit of connection, love and hope that ultimately centers and steers the new project. Just listen to Beck assuring “When you feel like nothing really matters/ When you feel alone/ When you feel like all your life is shattered/ And you can’t go home/ I’ll come skipping like a stone” on the momentous “Skipping Like a Stone” and try not to feel at least a little uplifted.
“It can’t but affect what sort of music you want to put out,” Simons says of the global crises in play while the album was made. “But we didn’t necessarily want to dwell in that place. We feel like what we create is perhaps a way of having moments of release and escape. ‘Rousing’ became kind of a touchstone. Obviously there’s reflective music within the album, and there’s kind of quite sad bits, but generally we wanted the tone to be one of, not necessarily celebration, but — how can we get to the the part of people that wants to come alive and wants to not stay in this disenchanted, stagnant place?”
“I mean, but it all starts with the desire of uplifting myself,” adds Rowlands. “That’s also what the title of our album is about… For that moment when you hear something, and it affects you and you just kind of get overwhelmed and overtaken. That moment is always the thing being in the studio or playing live is chasing.”
Anyone who’s seen The Chemical Brothers live knows their efficacy in achieving such a feeling in the live setting, with shows bringing audiences to heavy, cathartic, deliriously joyful and yes, ultimately beautiful places.
For U.S. audiences, though, the opportunity to partake has been fewer and farther between than many of us would prefer, with the Brothers playing only roughly a few U.S. shows over the last several years. This includes a primetime slot at Coachella’s Outdoor Stage this past April, a headlining gig at Portola in San Francisco last fall (“It felt really like a real post-EDM festival,” Rowlands says of the event. “We didn’t naturally feel at home in that EDM world”), along with dates in Santa Barbara, New York, Seattle and the Denver area. While they’re touring heavily in the U.K. this fall, they don’t currently have any U.S. shows on the schedule.
“The costs have gone up so much,” Simons says of touring in the States post-pandemic. “It’s just not really viable at the moment… I’m apologetic to the people who do want to see us that it is increasingly difficult for us to get to America, because we have had the times of our lives playing there.”
While the guys and their team have discussed paring down their show to make touring the U.S. more affordable — “a debate that has raged over Zoom,” says Simons — they don’t necessarily want to risk disappointing people who’ve seen social media clips of their current production, which involves a wall of equipment, a strange and captivating visual show and a pair of giant marching robots.
“[The production] originally came from the fact that we didn’t want to inflict [audiences with] just the two of us awkwardly standing with the synthesizers,” says Simons, “so we wanted a big back job, but it’s just grown and grown, and now we’ve got these 40-foot clowns voicing the words.”
But if U.S. audiences can’t catch the guys live in the near future, access is available through Paused in Cosmic Reflection, a Chemical Brothers biography coming Oct. 26. Written with author and old friend Robin Turner, the book includes interviews with Simons and Rowlands, along with pals including Beck, Wayne Coyne and Noel Gallagher. The book tracks the Brothers since their earliest days, when they carried their own gear to sets and woke up the morning after to finish essays on Chaucer.
“I guess there’s no end date,” Simons says of this retrospective, “but we are nearer to the end of The Chemical Brothers than we are the beginning… It has been good to reflect and remember some history. I guess you’ve got to do it before you start forgetting everything, and I’ve got a really good memory.”
“He remembers, like, every small gig above a barber shop we ever did,” says Rowlands. “Then someone would produce a photograph of it and I’d be like, ‘Oh, gotcha. Maybe we did do that.’ … But one of the things about our band is, we don’t like stopping and reflecting. I always want to move on to the next thing. This book really felt like stopping and reflecting.”
They agree their biggest takeaway from all this contemplation is that, Rowlands says, “Our friendship is at the heart of it. That’s the thing that has enabled us.”
“Without being too trite, there’s a chemistry between us,” adds Simons. “We’ve just grown up together. We know what makes each other tick, what makes each other upset… We like each other, it’s as simple as that.”
In terms of legacy, neither sees an expiration date for what they do. Rowlands, who assures that he’ll always be in the studio making music, is pragmatic: “When no one shows up to your concert or your DJ gig, no one listens to your record, then it’s time.”
Simons says the legacy is simply the body of work they’ve created and continue adding to. Then he thinks about it a bit more and tells me a story about an all-ages gig they recently played in the English countryside.
“After, lots of our friends bought their teenage kids backstage, and they were all wearing Chemical Brothers T-shirts. And then there were little kids, and they had little Chemical Brothers baseball caps.
“Usually,” he continues, “when people come back it’s like ‘Do you want a beer?’ And this time it was like ‘Do you want some chocolate?’ Just seeing 10 or 15 kids who are all children of our friends, and they loved the gig. They lasted till the end. It was cool. That’s the legacy.”
He agrees that it was even, in fact, a beautiful feeling.