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The Chemical Brothers are reflecting on their histories, cosmically

Long-time Chemical Brothers associate and author Robin Turner was on the bus in Bristol when he saw the posters for his book Paused in Cosmic Reflection. It tells the story of The Chems with over 300 pages of artwork, photography, video stills and interviews with Tom Rowlands, Ed Simons and their many creative collaborators.

“I texted a mate when I saw them and said – and this sounds ridiculous – it feels like being a pop star. Something you’ve done has been plastered all over the walls. I never thought I’d experience that,” says Turner, who has worked for the band as a writer and press officer on and off for the last 30 years. “I’m always one step removed. I see posters for bands I work with. I see a Chemical Brother’s poster and I feel proud because I’m part of it, but the book – it’s weird. It’s a very warm feeling.”

Paused in Cosmic Reflection positions the band as the centre of a hyper-visual world. Turner went into the Chemical Brothers’ archive in their south coast studio to select iconic images, flyers and posters, and there’s a bespoke cover designed by their long-term artist Kate Gibb. Design duties went to filmmaker and visual artist Paul Kelly (Finisterre and This Is Tomorrow). It had been out for less than a fortnight when Rough Trade Books named it #3 in their top books of the year after Jeremy Deller’s Art Is Magic and Thurston Moore’s Sonic Life memoir.


Words by Emma Warren

“The book is mainly due to Robin Turner, who was one of the first people who ever came to one of our early DJ gigs in London, in the basement of a pub,” says Tom Rowlands. “He would go round telling anyone that would listen that you should hear these DJs. He’s been with us since the start. He was always saying we should do a book, there are so many different angles of the band. We have this whole visual world, people we’ve worked with, and the history. Robin pointed out it had never been collected in one place.” Initially, he didn’t want to look back, preferring to keep moving forwards. Deciding to do the book contained some unexpected benefits. “It was quite interesting and it was quite emotional really, going back and looking at all these experiences Ed and I have had. All the things we’ve done, the music, the people we’ve collaborated with and all the friends we made through music and through our live shows – and celebrating that.”

Pages tell the story of early days running clubs whilst at university in 1990s Manchester, with snaps of the teenage friends in photobooths and on holiday. Ancient bits of kit are photographed and laid out on page, alongside scans of early releases, in the days before the band acquired their current name. There are photographs from the pair in Belfast in 1994 when most artists still avoided the city due to the ongoing Troubles and flyers from the nights they ran, in the era when they were known as the Dust Brothers. The pair changed their name when the actual Dust Brothers – who produced The Beastie Boys – expressed an opinion through the medium of a cease and desist legal letter. Magazine articles, and then covers, offer another perspective on their story which now includes ten albums, six of which went to number one, and thirteen top 20 singles including two which hit the top of the charts.

Joseph Cultace
Mark McNulty

The 300+ page coffee table hardback is built on brand-new interviews with their longstanding tour DJ James Holroyd and artists including Aurora, Beck and Beth Orton. Directors Michel Gondry, Dom & Nic and WIZ appear, telling stories of iconic videos. Managers, friends and tour promoters add to the story, appearing around the interviews Robin conducted with Tom and Ed over fifteen months whilst they were recording their new album For That Beautiful Feeling.

Turner ends Pause in Cosmic Reflection with a nod to the memorable sample in ‘Hey Boy, Hey Girl’, one of the biggest of the Chemical Brothers’ big tunes. It’s both a welcome to the readers and an instigation to celebrate decades of music, visuals and dancing. It’s a simple set of three words: Here we go.

Mark McNulty

What’s the connection between the world of your book and the world of the flyposter?

In the culture that Tom and Ed emerged from, flyposting was a big part of communication. It was the signal for records coming out or clubs you might want to go to. You’d aspire to flyposting – no way you’d get that for five hundred 12”s you’re knocking out from the back of your car. Flyering and flyposting was a big part of how communication happened. I loved it back then. Our house was absolutely decorated with posters we’d nicked off the street. It’s portable art, isn’t it?

You write in the book about when you first met Tom and Ed. Will you tell us again now?

I first met them in the Heavenly office, 72 Wardour St. I had just started working there, doing press, working with Underworld and we were about to do Primal Scream’s ill-advised Memphis album Give Out, But Don’t Give Up.  Tom and Ed had just taken on Heavenly’s accountant Robert Linney as their manager. Music was splintering off, it was either dingy and dark or much more dressed up. Tom and Ed came into the office and they did not look like people who DJ’d. They looked like they were at a rock gig, or even on stage at a rock gig. Equal parts Check Your Head era-Beastie Boys, Royal Trux and a blonde Ramone. We immediately hit it off. We were the same age and they invited me to the back room of Gossips, just off Dean St in Soho. I went down and it didn’t feel like anything else. It felt like a rock n roll gig, with peaks and troughs and the power of it. If you wanted to hear that again, you had to go and hear it. There wasn’t a mixtape or a pile of records to recreate it. The chaos of it was unique to when they played. I went more and more, and became part of a friendship group. There was a crazed group of people that would follow them around. They’d turn up with this crew – a crew of people who’d go bananas, jump off speaker stacks and break limbs. You didn’t get that with other people. It was a crazed energy that felt like fun.

It’s an enduring relationship isn’t it, between them walking into the Heavenly office and you writing this book. Why did they want to do it now?

I don’t think they’d ever been particularly interested in doing a book. Last year it just seemed to resonate in a way it hadn’t before.

Phat Jazz

What about the title?

I was going through loads of lyrics. Nothing was leaping out, nothing was making a connection. Then I was listening to ‘Golden Path’ featuring The Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne and I heard that line ‘I paused in cosmic reflection’ and I thought – fuck that’s it. That’s the moment at their gigs when it just overtakes you. It’s what Tom talked about a lot, about creating music with the power to overwhelm you. This rapture moment. You’re having an out of body experience because of music, not drugs – the power of the sound. That title fitted.

There’s a line early on, this is Tom and Ed’s story but that it involves many more voices…

I don’t think you’d have got the whole story, and I don’t think I’d have got a book if I’d just spoken to them. I’m sure they’d be in agreement. A track like ‘A Private Psychedelic Reel’ it’s an incredible piece of music. There’s their story of how it came together. That’s one part of it. Speaking to Jonathan Donahue from Mercury Rev, his story adds so much to this incredibly emotional piece of overwhelming music. His story was that Mercury Rev had made a record, it had stiffed, they’d sold every bit of kit they owned for heroin. Then he said ‘I got this call out of the blue, and I can genuinely say that day a DJ saved my life’. I don’t know how many times he’d said it before but it worked. When I was talking to Tom he said he wanted to know about one of the instruments on the record. There’s a credit for a ‘dub ‘tetix Wave’. I asked Jonathan and he said it was a bit of kit the crew had made because they’d sold everything else. It’s just an fx pedal we’d made that no-one wanted to buy because it was a piece of old crap – but it made the sound that made the record. In terms of building the big picture, Tom and Ed’s bit is one bit, but there’s this other bit too. The track isn’t just them.

Hamish Brown

You’ve got producers, videographers, musical collaborators. The importance of the visual aspect really comes through…

I wanted it to feel really vibrant and trippy. It’s hard to do that with just words, unless you’re going to go for some William Burroughs technique. There’s such a rich history. Going through the videos, live footage, thinking about the progression of how that went. There’s been a hell of a lot of photos taken over the years and I wanted to show the progression. Live-wise, they’re in a place almost like an electronic version of The Grateful Dead. It’s something people go to across generations, and they go repeatedly, time and time again. They end up taking their kids. Their audience has got younger. You’ll have all these old heads, silver ravers, and 18 year olds. Visually I wanted to reflect what’s bringing people into this meeting place, this community. It felt like an important part of the story. It’s the music but it’s this touring machine that blows your mind. It carries on doing that.

The book talks about their origins on the dancefloor, and you write about it in the book. It feels like that dancefloor connection remains, even though it’s on a massive scale. Didn’t they play the 250-cap venue, The Social in London a few years ago?

They played when we were going down, when we did the Save Our Social campaign. It was 2019, pre-Covid. That Social gig was pretty nuts. Their own DJ sets, I think Printworks was the last one. I heard them do Motion in Bristol. The volume was punishing, like your DNA’s being reassembled in real time.

Jake Davis
Laure Vasconi

What were the challenges for you of turning a creative community like this into a story?

The challenge was trying to keep them engaged, because it’s not their comfort zone to be interviewed. They don’t really like it. The interviews all happened concurrently with making the record, which was being recorded at a point where there were no dancefloors. At points it felt like it was never going to go back. With Tom we’d always spend time talking about the record. I was curious and he was trying to fathom it out. There was a period where there was an uncertainty about what it even was. Lots of bands you get that, until the point comes when you pull the laces and tie it together. There was an uncertainty and it crept into the interviews as well. It was a period of reflection, looking at nearly thirty years, whilst trying to nail the record. There were a lot of thoughts about what they’d done over the years, what it all meant. I can’t say if I landed that, but when Tom’s wife Vanessa got the book she texted me saying she’d learned things about Tom and the process, things he’d never really talked about before. So maybe that’s a success.

Having that broad spectrum of different voices in there helps when you’ve got artists who aren’t very keen on being interviewed. Although there are extensive interviews. How long did you spend talking to them?

Loads. Hours and hours on Zoom. Each very different. Ed much more philosophical. Tom questing for working out what was happening with the record. We spoke for hours, days. That’s one of the things I loved about interviewing them. You could speak to them on the same day and they’d have a totally different take on it. Ed’s very much about the power of community and live music and how loud music, live music affects you. Tom’s more on the granular detail of how a record was made. It made me realise why they’re a really good pairing because they have very different takes on things that end them up in the same place.

There’s a bit in the book where Ed’s talking about ‘a transcendent crackle’ in the air…

That came up again and again. I interviewed them after the book because Virgin/EMI put a USB stick of the record. They wanted some extra stuff for it. So I wrote a chapter ‘after the event’. I had this moment at Glastonbury, when they were DJing at Arcadia. I was right at the top of the hill by the farm. There was this cacophony of noise. Over the noise I could hear ‘Goodbye’, the track Erol’s remixed. I was like ‘how the fuck has that happened?’ This synth noise just carried above every single thing on site. Every soundsystem just goes into this mush, and they sat on top of it. I asked them about it and Ed was just like ‘you heard it because you wanted to hear it’. It’s the sense of connection. That sound, at that point in time – it was the focus. All this stuff is going on, but you focused on us. They said that’s how it was in the field. All these people focused on one point. The track finished and everything drifted away, and it was just boom boom boom again, hearing the whole site at once. It was like a radio frequency, that cut out everything else. Then back to the mush. I love that sound, a thousand soundsystems going at once.

Maybe that is the effect of the Rowlands Audio Research Centre. What is it?

It’s the band’s studio, on the south coast, in this real country idyll. You get to this little outhouse and it’s insane. Something like the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise, the Sixties version. It’s got their archive of stuff. There are loads of boxes. We’d just go through boxes and boxes and find mad stuff, amongst the old laminates and tour books. I found Tom’s original KLF hat which was a kind of Russian military hat but in KLF fabric, an official thing from back in the day. I said ‘where did you get that?’ He said ‘I wrote to them, I originally had one, wore it early days at the Hacienda and this bloke came up and lifted it off his head.’ He wrote to the KLF and they sent it. There were letters between him and Bill Drummond or King Boy D as he was back then. Tom’s got all this stuff, a really rich archive. So the studio is the studio but it’s also boxes and boxes of a life in music. It’s a brilliant place.

Hamish Brown

How does this book relate to the other books you’ve made? You’re also the author of Believe In Magic which tells the story of Heavenly Recordings and Looking For The Moon Under Water.

It came together in a similar way to the Heavenly book. Same time period, but different bands, different genres, very different stories. This one, there’s a tight thread running through it because it’s a band. I can’t imagine doing it for anyone else. They’ve been so generous with their musical space. People can bring in their uniqueness but it ends up sounding like the Chemical Brothers, without assimilating them or taking off their edges. I don’t think anyone else occupies the same position.

Were you working on the two books, Believe in Magic and Pause…  at the same time?

Believe In Magic was finished early days of Covid. Did a few things online, no launch party. It’s quite nice to have a book and walk into a shop and see it. The idea and the look felt like it would lend itself to them. Not to anyone else. A Manics (Turner also works closely with the Manic Street Preachers) book would never look anything like this. The generosity worked both ways. It came from the collaborators but from Tom and Ed to those people. There’s a lot of love there.

Sarah Cracknell (Saint Etienne)

How has the book gone down?

It seems to have gone down really well with band and fans. I got hundreds of friend requests on Instagram from all over the world when it came out. They’ve got a lovely community of fans, but I don’t think they really want to see my kids dressed up as Super Mario. There’s a few people missing from the book. Not many, but there are a couple that would have been nice. We had to press send before Q-Tip came back. It’s lovely to be part of the family. I’ve been on the outskirts for a long time but now I feel a tiny bit of what it’s like for, say, the people who do the visuals.

In a future book of the Chemical Brother’s output, your book is in the book.

That’s getting very meta now.

OK, last thing. Why you think authors are generally not fly postered?

Money. It’s different to back in the ‘90s when there was flyposting everywhere. It feels slightly subversive to have a fly-posted book up on Stokes Croft.


Paused in Cosmic Reflection by Robin Turner is out now on White Rabbit Books.

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