The day after the Chemical Brothers played HARD Summer in 2015, which before this week was the last time they came through Southern California, there was a post on Instagram from a Gen Z individual who had seen them for the first time. It said something to the effect of, “Going back to HARD for Day Two, although I don't see the point, nothing will ever be better than the Chemical Brothers.”
For anyone who has ever experienced a Chemical Brothers performance, at any point in the UK duo's almost 30-year career, the effect is indelible. When they brought their show to the U.S. for the first time in 1994, what would now be considered a beyond basic affair was a trailblazing moment for electronic acts. What they present at the current time is a visceral experience far beyond any other custom-made visuals, be it Black Coffee's or Beyoncé's.
From the very start, it has been Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall who have been the masterminds behind the visual spectacle that accompanies the Chemical Brothers' crafted sound. Much like their aural counterparts — the duo of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons — Smith and Lyall continuously push the envelope with each iteration of the Chemical Brothers' shows, including the creation of the latest version for the recently released album No Geography.
“The music is the script,” says Smith, whose day job is as a director of film, television, music videos and commercials. “It's the spine of the show. They do a live mix which changes every night. And the live versions of the songs are different to what appears on albums and singles.”
From album to album and tour to tour, the show is in constant evolution rather than reinvention. New songs are added and old songs reprogrammed, recut and remixed. Smith and Lyall receive a running order for the set from Rowlands and Simons a few months before the start of the live shows. The music sparks ideas. Smith and Lyall send each other images and articles, watch videos of New York in the '80s and create Pinterest boards, coming up with thoughts they want to explore on the massive screen behind the duo.
“The show is very much based on human performances,” says Lyall, whose day job is creating interactive art installations — although for years he worked on visuals for bands like Metallica, the Rolling Stones, the Eagles and Bon Jovi. “A lot of shows use motion graphics. We don't do much of that. We film our visuals.”
Repetition is an ongoing thread in the show. Repetition of movement, of phrases, of beats, of rhythms and of hooks. “It's about keeping that feedback loop going,” explains Lyall. “They provide the music, we respond with visuals, the audience responds to that, and the guys respond to the audience. We try to plot that out so we can control the beast a little more.”
“That screen is huge and really bright,” says Smith, “The important thing is turning it off. It makes the lighting look better, and when the visuals come back on, they look even better. It also allows us these moments of focusing on the guys.”
“The hub, which is what we call where they play, is being used as a focal point,” he continues, “We're lighting them up so they're not shadowy figures. There are so many beautiful moments of connection between them. We want to highlight those rather than them being silhouetted behind the synthesizers. It’s important for the audience to connect with them as people.”
Where Smith's strengths lie in performance, Lyall's lie in technique. In the No Geography show, for example, Smith is more involved in the casting while Lyall is focused on costume design. Both are integrating the show with the lighting, so that a character on screen could be interacting with the light on stage. Parts of the show have characters jumping over Rowlands and Simons using 3D filming techniques to give that effect.
“With the screen we have this amazing medium,” says Lyall. “The best thing is to try and portray the emotion behind the song. It's often using samples, and because of the nature of the music, we're inventing these fictional frontpeople to bring them to life.”
One of the people brought in for this purpose is preeminent dancer Akram Khan, MBE, seen in the song “Galvanize.” Khan's body expressions subconsciously, rather than explicitly, resonate with the audience. Another is Amit Lahav, the artistic director of the Gecko Theatre, who is fantastic at directing physical drama. He put together the movements for “Free Yourself” and “Got to Keep On.” Lahav is also very present in the bold moves of the current show. Costume designer Kate Tabor realizes Lyall's 3D iterations of the costumes for “Got to Keep On,” creating the striking outfits that blur the lines between reality and computer graphics.
And then there are the robots. Two 13-plus-feet high, classic-looking, '50s style ones that fire lasers out of their eyes, then collapse with smoke coming out of their ears.
“It's got to be iconic,” states Lyall. “The fine details of complicated ideas are great, but they don't work in live performance. You want simple.”
Smith adds, “As [Rowlands] says, 'Can you can describe it in one sentence? If it takes three or four sentences to describe, it's probably not a simple enough for us.' ”
“They are very open to ideas,” he says of the Chemical Brothers. “They're clever boys, very intuitive, and they ask the right questions. They give us absolute trust and creative freedom that you don't find anywhere else in the filmmaking realm.”