Seven years. Seven long years. Back in June 1997 nobody had heard of Osama Bin Laden. Or George W Bush. Mobile phones were still the preserve of yuppies and drug dealers, and a bloke called Tony Blair had only just been elected as Prime Minister. Oh yes, the world today is a very different place to the one we knew when Liam Howlett and chums last released an album. Politics is different, gear is different, music is different. It's a different century.
Liam Howlett knows this too and is well prepared for the question he is going to have to face repeatedly now he has finally, finally finished the fourth Prodigy album, Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned. In short,
what the hell kept him?
'Right, I'll run you by year by year,' he promises. 'You could write three years off until 2000. We were doing gigs. We took the last album (Fat Of The Land) all round the world and to be honest we burnt ourselves out. I knew I wasn't going to split the band up but I didn't want to go back in the studio. So I took a year out. Then, when I was ready to come back I recorded five or six tracks - including Baby's Got A Temper.'
Oh yes, Baby's Got A Temper, The Prodigy's deeply unlovely 2002 single which, if you're lucky, you might have already forgotten about. It was terrible, a bad parody of the band right down to the contrived controversy of the 'We take Rohypinol' refrain. The critics lambasted it and two years on Liam himself doesn't have a good word to say about it either.
BACK TO THE BEATS
'It was the worst thing I'd ever done. At that time I was under so much pressure from the record company that I just put it out. It resembled the state of the band at that point - a complete mess.'
But some good came of this sonic disaster. By Liam's own admission it gave him a much needed kick up the backside. 'It was a turning point in my own head. I just thought, 'Well, it's already been five years?'. So I binned everything that I'd done up to that point and started again. This new album is a complete reversal of what people thought we were going to do. It's back to the beats again.'
Indeed Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned contains no trace of the band's two faces - MC Maxim or Keith Flint. Instead there are cut-up vocals from the likes of Juliette Lewis and Liam?s brother-in-law Liam Gallagher. It's still recognisably Prodigy. It's just that Howlett has reversed down the cartoon punk blind alley where they had been dawdling for too long.
NEW WAYS OF WORKING
'I had to reclaim the name for myself,' he explains. 'The Prodigy ain't a band. We tricked people into thinking we were but we aren't. It was always about me and the beats, and for this one I had to concentrate more on
the music than the vocals.'
'I explained this to Maxim and Keith and they were totally cool with it. They know that no one is bigger than the band. We're still together though. We've all got the job to do taking the thing live but,' he reiterates, 'this album is a Liam Howlett Prodigy album.'
The change in emphasis was accompanied by a shift in working methods and equipment. 'When I was in the studio first doing the album, I was writing on Cubase. Still. Would you believe? Not audio - just version 3.5 MIDI. My producer/programmer guy Neil McCleland and I would programme everything, write the tunes and push them over to ProTools. I spent a year doing that in my studio and got nothing done. I'd go into the studio and there would be a black cloud. It was a complete downer. I think I did about three beats that were any good during that year.'
It was a G4 laptop that eased this creative block. 'Neil showed me Reason. It is so easy to use, almost like a computer game. And I could take the laptop anywhere. I knew I had to get my shit together so I locked my studio door and took out the Oberheim Four Voice, Korg MS20, Phoenix Compressor and Culture Vulture Distortion, Manley EQ and microKORG. I locked the door and never went in there again. It?s still locked now. I put all the drum sounds and samples I'd built up over 10 years on my laptop. The studio is still as I left it - like a tomb.'
'I took all those bits of gear to Stoke Newington, we hired this cool studio and I stayed there for five months. As soon as I got in there, man, I was a different person. The music started flowing. All of the writing was done on Reason and then we'd get the basic parts of the track together. But because you can't record audio on Reason, if I recorded any bass sound I'd use the Oberheim or in particular the Korg MS20.'
COUNTING ON KORG
Liam, you see, is a big fan of Korg synths. 'The MS20 is just crazy. Every time you turn it on it's different. It's just got great bass and good filters. It's the one keyboard you go to when you want a mad noise.'
Once the writing stage had finished in Stoke Newington, Liam and his team moved to Whitfield Street Studios where the nipping and tucking began in earnest. 'When we put the music up on the big speakers we saw that there were quite a few holes to fill. There was quite a lot of low end that needed to be put in. So that was when both the MS20 and microKORG were turned on.'
The microKORG, in particular, features heavily on the album. 'It's certainly a bit of gear that has really helped me to write. It was really good when I needed a bass or a sub sound. It provided the bass on Girls (the electro influenced track which is the first single) plus a lot of sub stuff that is tucked under tracks to give them more body - sub bass on Memphis Bells, sub on Wake Up, some topline too. Also, it has this cool noise like a Human League noise that came out on To The End and Spitfire.'
'The microKORG is wicked. You?ve only got to put it on big speakers to hear the depth it's got. It's got so much power for a little keyboard. Funny, now I can recognise the same sounds in other peoples' records - like that Kelis record, Trick Me. The bass is off a microKORG. It's my favourite keyboard and I've got three now. Greedy, I know.'
It's a far cry from the first Prodigy tracks which were all made on ancient Roland set-up which Liam had saved up to buy when he was 18. With the rave scene now a distant memory, how does Liam regard those early records?
'I find it hard to listen to our music because I get critical of the production. I always thought of the first and the second album as being two different bands. It was like we split up and got back together again as a new improved Prodigy.'
Since Fat Of The Land the music scene has changed beyond recognition. Hip-hop and r'n'b have grown to be the most sonically daring music genres in the world. Garage has mutated several times in a few short years and the house-based UK dance scene has collapsed. Not that Liam is shedding any tears over this last development.
'It's nothing to do with us. We weren't in the dance scene from the second album onwards. We basically rocked on the festival circuit and all the dance people came to those festivals. This new album is quite dancy but in a Prodigy way. I'd find it hard to write a 32 bar beat that has no changes. I'd want to put bits in and get builds going. For club music to work it has to be quite tranced out and there's nothing like that on this album.'
If he is at all nervous about re-entering the fray after such a long absence he's making light of it. 'Nah. My job is finished. It's out of my hands. But I know when I listen to that record I'm excited by it,
you know? It sounds fresh. So not nervous - excited.'
But anyone expecting another seven year gap might well find that the one after this appears a little sooner than they think. Liam has just acquired the new Korg Legacy Collection of classic synths which he is just itching to put into use. 'They're laptop based so that's ideal for me now,' he enthuses. 'The old MS20 is great but at the end of the day it has no memory. So the Legacy is ideal. It's a shame it hasn't come out earlier.'
'I'm going to carry on writing now because I seem to have got into a good mode again,' he says. 'It's important to keep on a roll while you've got it. And even though the new album is finished I really feel like I have enough power to write another one right now.'