The Music

Liam Howlett: 'It's Too Easy For Musicians To Do The Same Shit'

Godfathers Of Rave The Prodigy never court controversy “for the sake of it” as their fearless bandleader Liam Howlett tells Bryget Chrisfield: “To us, Smack My Bitch Up was never shocking.”

Spewing out onto the street after The Prodigy played Melbourne’s Palace Theatre back in 2009, drenched, parched and panting, a passerby paused to ask whether there had been a fire inside the venue. It was still pushing 50 degrees outside and what The Prodigy officiated was a baptism of fire. The experience of being part of their congregation is equal parts terror and euphoria. “Yeah, that’s the look we’re going for,” The Prodigy mastermind Liam Howlett cackles. “Funnily enough, we’ve never ever discussed [it].” The outfit’s forthcoming album The Day Is My Enemy contains 14 tracks, eight of which Howlett reveals will be premiered live in their upcoming shows. “When you’re doing a whole new record – we have to rehearse so we know what we’re doing. But, basically, we never rehearse hardly… It’s all totally natural. So we might have a conversation going, ‘Oh, fuck me! That’s great that. It really kind of was effective there’. Or more that there’s a bit in the song which kind of needs shortening or making longer to make it more effective, those types of things are quite common, but that just comes from playing a song. So, for example, like, there might be a bit we really wanna drag out, but we can do that live; I can do it live on the spot if we wanna make the songs kind of different and stuff. It’s really easy to do that with the equipment I use, you know.”

"It’s too easy for people just to do the same shit, you know."

Liam Howlett

Oddly enough, Howlett’s speaking voice sounds a lot like Neil from The Young Onesand his speech is regularly punctuated by “d’you know wha’ I mean?”. He explains The Prodigy worked through the witching hours to create The Day Is My Enemy, hitting the studio around 6pm and working through until morning. No interruptions as well as the creepy headspace one enters on a vampire’s watch are cited as benefits. Howlett expresses impatience toward beatmakers who use “the same kind of sounds as everyone else, because it’s what’s available”. “So I kind of rebelled against that and just thought, ‘Nah, fuck it! I’m gonna not go down that route at all, because it turns my ears off when I hear a piece of music and I can hear what machine has made it, d’you know wha’ I mean?” he declares. “People need to, like, go a bit deeper into it and try and come out with some original sounds. It’s like: I perfectly steer clear of most kind of like plug-in computers synths, d’you know wha’ I mean?      

“I mean, me personally, I prefer to set up a few guitar pedals, set up an old synth and get some distortion through a guitar amp happening with a keyboard. It’s much more hands on, d’you know wha’ I mean? You can hear it; you can hear what you’re doing more.” Howlett reckons electronic beatmakers need to get more creative. “The internet’s made it easy for everybody, hasn’t it? And it’s made people lazy, actually… I think people in bands, like, guitar bands that don’t rely on compu’ers so much, they have to go down the old-skool route ‘cause, obviously, picking up a guitar – there’s no compu’er way to fast-forward yourself in learning how to play that, d’you know wha’ I mean? You have to go through the learning how to play it. But, I mean, anyone can pick up a compu’er, download some drum sounds and there can be a beat within, you know, 20 minutes. So that makes it harder for people to do something more original, d’you know wha’ I mean? You’ve really gotta try harder, really. It’s too easy for people just to do the same shit, you know.”

Much discussion about courting controversy leads us through syringe-strewn alleyways to The Prodigy’s Jonas Åkerlund-directed video for Smack My Bitch Up. The killer plot twist is genius, albeit contentious, and the film clip was banned from television in several countries before massive demands on MTV eventually forced them to agree to add it to rotation, but only after midnight and following a warning. “I mean, it’s weird, really, because basically, like, to us,Smack My Bitch Up was never shocking,” Howlett confesses. ”The more it got banned, the more people wanted to see it and it’s basically our anthem so it didn’t ever detract from anything. And we just went out of our way to make a controversial video. We were sick and tired of being restricted and the restrictions put on our stuff. I mean, that’s a one-off; it’s not like we wanted to do that in all our videos, d’you know what I mean?     

“There’s a time and a place for stuff like that, d’you know what I mean? All the stuff we ever did was totally natural and we also pulled a lot of stuff that didn’t feel right. And, as far as controversy goes, I mean, you’ve gotta be real, d’you know what I mean? ‘Cause we don’t do it for the sake of it. And it’s kind of, like, it has to feel like it’s kind of spontaneous. I mean, Marilyn Manson is the king of being controversial and I think what he does is cool, it suits him, but at the end of the day I always get a bit suspicious like, you know, the public aren’t stupid, you know? They see through things if they’re too pushed, d’you know what I mean? My take on it is: doin’ it for the sake of it is just not – we’re not interested in that. But, um, yeah! I mean, I’ve got a lot of respect for Manson, for what he does, you know? That’s just on a different level.”

Smack My Bitch Up dropped pre-internet and the music video subverted stereotypes in a trailblazing way. “People go on Google and basically look at far more shocking stuff,” Howlett opines. “I think people have been sort of sanitised from any kind of shock. I think people really aren’t so shocked anymore at stuff. I mean, I dunno, I’m not really interested in [courting controversy] anymore. It’s fine if it’s great and it works and it’s something original, but everything’s sorta been done.”  

"We were sick and tired of being restricted and the restrictions put on our stuff."

Liam Howlett

If you could be transported back to any time in history for a night-following day-next night on the pingers, The Second Summer Of Love in Britain would have to be right up there. And hearing Howlett’s reminiscences will make you gurn with envy. “The whole London rave scene started in East London from Essex inwards, but we were from Essex, and, basically, you’d literally get a flier with a phone number on it and the phone would be dead up until the point of two hours before. You’d ring the number and then it would be a message telling you where to go, and you’d just drive out. And sometimes you’re driving in the middle of nowhere, into fields and stuff like that, and suddenly it’ll be, like, in a barn in the middle of the country or it’ll be in a warehouse that someone’s broken into, d’you know what I mean? So there were a few of those going on, but obviously the police clamped down on those. But it was really exciting times and then basically, you know, the gangs sort of moved in – you got a lotta gang-led [raves] and money, there was a lotta big money to be had. And that kind of ruined it a bit and then it drove it back into the clubs. But by that stage we, the band, was already on its way. So when all the illegal rave scene started to die down, the legal ones started happening and they were good as well, d’you know what I mean?

“This is, like, 1991: there was loads of massive outdoor parties that year – we did quite a few of them – and by the end of ’92 it had kinda worn a bit thin. I was certainly bored of it, it didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and so that was the start of when I started to write the second album [Music For The Jilted Generation], which was a bit different, you know. We thought, ‘Well, we like our band, we’re not gonna go down with this. We can either start a new band or carry on.’ And I just said, ‘Well, let me write some songs,’ and I think what happened is: we spent some time in LA, I think we were in LA doing something, and heard Rage Against The Machine’s first album, Dr Dre The Chronic and I just got – I dunno, suddenly my mind opened up to, like, lots of different music. Because before I was just listening to rave music – pirate radio stations and rave music – and so I went back with a head full of inspiration. Then I just went BAH! in the studio and whatever came out still had a Prodigy feel, but it was a little bit more open to influences, d’you know what I mean? Guitar and stuff. I just sucked it all in and that’s what happened. From that point – because then the rave parties were no more – we started again and started playing universities and stuff like that, you know. It was mega. It was really mega.”

Can someone please hail us a time machine already? When asked whether he’s read any books on the early acid house culture that he would recommend, Howlett laughs, “Oh, fuck knows! I don’t read. But, I dunno how many stories that people could listen to of guys off their heads, d’you know wha’ I mean?”

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