Contrary to popular opinion, Stormzy’s blockbuster grime sermon was merely Glastonbury Festival 2019’s epilogue. Over on The Other Stage, ‘90s big beat pioneers The Chemical Brothers stunned Glasto-goers across generations with their visual show. The duo walked onstage as a prerecorded Q-Tip began his verse for ‘Go’. Giant grid humanoids towered over Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons on the LED screen above, obscuring the pair as miniature pilots of the 95 minute dance-blast to come.
Even Glastonbury’s current ruling dynasty Emily and Michael Eavis could hardly believe what they were seeing. On side of stage, Marcus Lyall and Adam Smith were grinning and dancing.
“Someone called it the Zenith. I don’t even know what the Zenith is,” Smith says.
“It was definitely the top of something,” Lyall adds.
The pair are The Chemical Brothers’ live show co-directors, a role they’ve held together since 2007 after 13 years working on the project in other roles. The Chemicals (as they are affectionately known) are currently touring off the back of No Geography, their ninth studio record and arguably the freshest they’ve sounded since their ‘90s landmark LP Surrender. No Geography’s motorik rhythm begins with a robotic apocalypse on ‘Eve of Destruction’ and culminates in soft-EDM reflection on ‘Catch Me I’m Falling’.
“Best ever, I think,” Smith quips.
Smith began his journey with the Chemical Brothers as a tale of two musical cities played out in Manchester, England during the early ‘90s. A filmmaker and projectionist at the time, Smith skipped Oasis and the Manic Street Preachers at the Social on Sunday nights, and instead went underground. The tiny, sweaty pub basements Smith hung out in “stank of amyl nitrate” and were home to DJ sets from future Chemical Brother Rowlands. The big beat scene was in its infancy, and was led by the vanguard of Underworld, The Prodigy, Orbital and Orb.
“I think [Tom] warped some of that. I think that’s what sets the Chemicals apart from those others. They brought some of that indie rock attitude to their music,” Smith says.
Smith got to know Rowlands and Simons by hanging around enough of these tiny sweaty pub basements, and eventually got asked to do the duo’s visuals when they decided to go out live.
“25 years ago it was unusual. It seems odd to say it now, but there was some speculation about an electronic act going out live. What was the point in the era of the throes of early-britpop and it was guitar based bands? Why would a coupla of studio dance guys go live? They proved them a bit wrong I think,” Smith laughs.
In the beginning, the visuals were innovative but DIY, consisting mainly of a 16mm projector and slides.
“We were drawing on a tradition that’s been there since the ‘60s, the whole Vortex lights concerts, The Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd. It felt a bit like picking up the baton that we love and running with it,” Lyall says.
Rowlands and Simons don’t want to be the stars of a Chemical Brothers show; instead, Smith and Lyall’s work is the visual component of the performance. Four metre high robots, a mad king and catwalk models all gel fluently throughout the show.
“Particularly live music is all about feeling, isn’t it? So it’s almost a bit different from music videos where there’s storytelling involved and much more about, how can we make it even more so for the audience?” Lyall explains.
Things evolved with technology; the scale of the show today is earth shattering. Smith and Lyall work with a 50 metre wide LED screen, 8000 cues and a crew of about 20-24 people to set up and run each show, working as sound, lighting, rigging, power, lasers, video and production staff. Many of their video shoots rely on a regular cast of dancers and choreographers that the pair motion capture and abstract. Even with the scale of the operation and a time code to play along to, room is left for improvisation and manual cues. No Chemical Brothers experience is exactly the same.
“There’s a real atmosphere of faith, trust, openness, playfulness and fun, and hopefully that comes out in the performances,” Smith says.
Smith and Lyall run fifteen minutes over our interview time without hesitating, in large part to express a deep gratitude for the work they are able to do. Even after 25 years, they still sound like breathless uni students talking about their pet project.
“The show comes from love. It comes from a love of the music and a love of what we’re doing. That love shines.”