15th April 2009
The Prodigy made their new album, Invaders Must Die, in a tiny studio that looks like a teenager’s bedroom. It’s a dark nook stuffed with a computer, some monitors, and a maroon couch. A horror movie poster hangs on one wall, and every available surface is strewn with synths—including the Moog Prodigy, for which the outfit is named.
There’s some half-empty water bottles here, a stick of deodorant there, two turntables with XL Records slipmats, and stacks of old acid house and hardcore records—like Bug Kann and The Plastic Jam’s “Made in Two Minutes” and Kariya’s “Baby Let Me Love You”—on the floor.
They didn’t plan it this way. The three originally tried to make the album in grandiose rock ‘n’ roll tradition, blowing loads of studio time and money on wild ideas and all-night parties. “It was pretty vibing in studio originally,” laughs MC Maxim Reality. “I was debating with myself all the time where I should park my car so I could go have a drink.”
“We came at it from every angle,” says fellow MC/maniac/firestarter Keith Flint. “We left nothing unturned. [It wasn’t] about walking into a studio, and the door shutting, and [makes a sucking air noise] silence, like, ‘You have to write music now.’ That’s horrible. That’s like walking into a room and someone saying, ‘Have an idea,’ and you saying, ‘What idea?’ And someone saying, ‘Any fucking idea!’”
“I think I said that a few times!” says Liam Howlett, the “mad controller” of the group, with a sly grin that suggests he was frustrated more than once during the making of this album.
Yet after six months of renting a large room at London’s Sarm Studios, having loads of friends come down and jam, and downing liter after liter of alcohol, The Prodigy found themselves with only a few mediocre (by their own admission) demos. “None of it worked. Not a single fucking thing,” says Liam Howlett, the band’s real production prodigy. “Eight months later I reverted back to doing it myself and I think that’s when it started to happen again. It was a learning process more than anything else.”
Invaders Must Die is 40 minutes of breakbeat punk, the style that The Prodigy has defined since the start. There’s some thrillers on here: “Omen” is the best track that drum & bass stadium-fillers Pendulum never made, all distorted bass and screeching synth pads topped by Keith’s signature sneer; “Take Me to the Hospital” pulls out every gloriously catchy rave trick (sped-up vocals, tweaky synth stabs) over a kick-your-head-in break. Not every track is a keeper—the title track is a bit play-by-the-numbers electronica and the synthetic-sounding guitars and fight-club vocals of “Colours” feel dated. Still, nearly 20 years after their first record, The Prodigy’s beats are as hard-hitting as ever, and there’s no contesting their talent at bringing electronic, hip-hop, and rock together in the right way.
And if their aesthetic is a bit stuck in the ’90s, well, at least they own it. “Even though people have said we reinvented ourselves, I don’t believe we have,” explains Howlett. “We’ve always done the same thing. The foundation is the drums and the bass and the energy behind the music. It’s really important for us to remain focused and keep that strong instead of doing a weak version of something else.”
That said, Invaders Must Die’s best moments are its oldest- sounding, from the hands-in-the-sky piano breakdown that bisects the grinding, apocalyptic drums of “World’s on Fire” to “Warriors Dance,” which revolves around a sample from Final Cut and True Faith’s 1991 rave hit “Take Me Away.” It’s the latter track that served as the lynchpin for the album; the rallying cry that found the three reclaiming the old-school flag (and their friendship) at the same time.
“The shape of the album didn’t come in until we had this gig coming up last May, a Gatecrasher party in England,” explains Howlett from a sunny living room at Sarm. “Keith or Maxim was like, ‘Let’s just forget about the album for a minute. Let’s write a track to play live.’ That became ‘Warriors Dance.’ It helped me. It was almost like doing a remix for someone else. It took a week to write, and the energy [for the rest of the album] came off the back of that. Having the freedom and headspace, I was able to move on to a different track. I was out of the doom and gloom at that point.”
“That freedom was important,” Flint says to Howlett, nodding supportively. “It seemed like you kind of went back the old-school way of writing [with ‘Warriors Dance’]. The way you used the samples and did the soundscape up seemed a lot different to me. It seemed like going back to the beginning.”
“‘Warriors Dance’ is like us doing ‘Smack My Bitch Up,’” Howlett concurs. “It’s a banger. I think it’s a big statement as well. The way pirates do, we fucking steal. We steal from other people’s music still. It’s part of going back to the old-school way of thinking. Sampling is still really important to this band, and it can’t lose that.”
Not only are The Prodigy musical pirates, they actually look like pirates. They’re covered in tattoos, and wear chunky silver rings on every finger—a warning, perhaps, that you do not want one of them to punch you. With his massive ’70s-style fur-collared coat and dreadlocks, MC Maxim Reality could be a space pimp from The Matrix; during the entire interview, he never takes off his wrap-around sunglasses. Flint (sometimes lovingly called Flinty) busts in late, a sinewy mass of kinetic energy in a candy-striped dress shirt and blazer, his preppy affectation offset by a large ball piercing that hangs out of his nose like a metal booger.
All three are forthcoming and genuine, but the two MCs are much more chill than one would expect, given their maniacal onstage personas. Actually, it’s Liam who talks the most, Liam who looks like he’s seen the backside of the most haunted nights, and Liam who is the quickest to jump to the band’s defense. He sits right next to me, but conducts nearly the entire interview looking out the window over the London rooftops, giving me a prominent view of a tattoo on his neck: a crown emblazoned with the words “I Have Arrived.” It seems funny. I mean, like he needs proof?
But maybe he does. Though The Prodigy seems rock solid now, sitting here reminiscing as old friends, there have been a few times when their future was uncertain. After their first gig in 1990, at Dalston’s rough cave The Labyrinth, the crew quickly ascended to underground fame, playing back-to-back weekends for a few years. Rammed full of hits like “Out of Space” and “Your Love.” their 1992 debut, The Prodigy Experience, defined XL Recordings’ early years with high-speed, hands-in-the-air hardcore anthems that continue to be revived and reworked by other bands.
After that, you can derive a lot of meaning from their album titles. The band ollied off dance culture’s demise with 1994’s Music for the Jilted Generation, its dystopian dark breakbeats neatly referencing the death of rave while showing The Prodigy could be successful independent of the ups and downs of dance music. Having achieved rock-star status, the crew got large on 1997’s aptly named The Fat of the Land, delivering some of their biggest hits with the incendiary “Firestarter” and “Smack My Bitch Up.”
And then, things started to go wrong. “After you’ve had a big record, it’s very difficult to drum up the hunger,” offers Howlett. “After Fat of the Land I didn’t want to be lazy, but I was fucking content. I wasn’t pissed off about anything. I was like, ‘Heyyyy, everything’s beautiful.” Perhaps perceiving they didn’t need each other, the band started to splinter. “2002 and 2003 was quite a down time for the band,” recalls Howlett, starting to explain the “invaders” of the album’s title. “Me and Keith weren’t speaking for about a year or so and the band had started to pull apart. And people over here did nothing to help us put it back together. I’m not talking about journalists and stuff—I’m talking about people close to us, some of our friends. People would be like, ‘Oh, Keith’s working with them. What do you reckon to that? Check him out. What the fuck’s he doing?’ Like a total wind-up. Paranoia. The invaders could [refer to] them… but it’s more than that. It’s like… all these horrible thoughts that get into your head.”
Right around this time, Howlett announced to the band that he was making the next Prodigy record... by himself. He bought a large house in Essex, installed a home studio, and isolated himself with producer Neil McLellan. Days were spent exploring fruitless ideas, but as soon as Howlett tried to go to sleep inspiration would strike—he’d end up spending all night in the studio, drunk-dancing to his new loops.
2004’s Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned found Liam alone on the range, but using Prodigy’s status to call in vocal contributions from such unlikely suspects as goth icon Siouxsie Sioux and high-speed rapper Twista. The record, which came out around the same time MSTRKRFT and Justice were starting to reboot dance music, was received tepidly at the time by journalists and fans, but tracks like “Memphis Bells” and “Action Radar” stand up surprisingly well after a few years; I dare say better than tracks by the producers they may or may not have been inspired by. (The Prodigy refuses to name any current influences.)
At some point, Always Outnumbered had to be toured, forcing Keith and Maxim back into the studio to figure out how to rework songs other people had written, and forcing the trio to figure out how to get along again. This process took another few years, during which time someone said to the band “Invaders must die,” and the phrase became the mantra of this record.
“We’ve come out of a bad time for the three of us,” confesses Howlett. “It feels like we really fought to make this record the best record it could be. That struggle is the only way you can make a good record. We are quite abrasive people and I wouldn’t have thought we would make an uplifting record on this one, but we did.”
The band is totally comfortable discussing their dynamic, their struggle to stay together, their creative process. The only time they bristle is when I suggest that their live show has set the standard for electronic acts to live up to.
“I’m not into Kraftwerk, so when I think of electronic I’m thinking four geezers behind a fucking laptop. Boring,” says Howlett. “If that’s what electronic music was, we hated it. We wanted nothing to do with it. I was into the Beastie Boys. I was into chaos, I was into fucking noise, like Public Enemy. Public Enemy didn’t come along and say, ‘We have to have one DJ and two rappers and this is what it’s got to be.’ They had that, but they did something more with it. And their music turned the whole fucking thing upside down. That’s punk rock. It wasn’t like we wanted to be a band and we wanted to have a frontman. It’s just our personalities. We’re not here to hoist up the electronic music scene. We’re here for our fucking selves and that’s the end of it.”
“We’re going it alone,” agrees Flint. “We don’t want to go down with anyone else’s mistakes or anyone’s shit. We’re going to be us against the world and that’s it.”
A few more questions for The Prodigy.
What are your favorite tracks to do on stage?
Liam: “It’s exciting to do the new stuff, like ‘Take Me to the Hospital.’”
Maxim: “It varies from show to show. ‘Voodoo People’ came back over the last year. ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ is a constant tune. It’s always there. It never drops. It never dips. Everything else just rises to that level.”
Keith: “‘Spitfire’ was a great trigger, up until maybe the middle of this tour, but now I love doing ‘World’s on Fire.’ It’s got kind of a ride to it.”
What is the first record you ever bought?
Liam: “We all bought a similar type of record...”
Keith: “Mine was The Specials’ ‘A Message to You, Rudy,” followed by Gary Numan ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ And then probably All Mod Cons by The Jam.”
Maxim: “One of my favorite records was ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials. I lent it to one of my friends, this rude girl, and she lost it. I was just so gutted. She was a hard one, a proper little rude girl with the monkey boots and the jeans and the crombie. The Specials records were everything to me. Lending your records out and someone losing them was like the end of the world.”
Liam: “My first was the [ska compilation] Dance Craze. I used to have an alarm clock radio that you could set to a cassette. Every morning I used to wake up to Bad Manners’ ‘Lip Up Fatty.’”
What did you blow your first big paycheck on?
Maxim: “Mine was 50 quid and I went and bought a cashmere jumper. My mother had a go at me because I went and spent all my money.”
Keith: “What, you mean, my first check from the band?”
Liam: “You never had any money before the band!”
What quality do you most like in people?
Keith: “Yeah, dishonesty.”
After putting out an album, do you feel tapped out, inspiration-wise?
Liam: “Not at all. It’s like a switch gets turned on and you don’t know when it’s going to get turned off. At the moment, we’re on a good roll and you got to keep on that roll while it’s there. That’s what I’ve learned.”
Maxim: “When you’ve got an album done and you’re on the road and everything’s in place that’s when the inspirations and ideas are flowing better. That’s when the ideas are at their peak.”