Why does Liam Howlett think he’s overqualified to be a club DJ? Why does he reckon Pete Tong isn’t fit to wear fat laces? And has he really designed a Japanese garden? Step inside...
LIAM’S DIRTCHAMBER : ”WHEN I went to my first rave parties and heard dance DJs I was fucking amazed. I thought they were all some kind of joke because all they were doing was beat mixing, which is easy to do. Some of those guys couldn’t even do that very well, so I tell you, I felt totally overqualified.”
Liam Paris Howlett is sitting at his kitchen table, staring out across his almost finished Japanese garden. His jet black hair, denim bondage trousers and year round tan give him the look of a punk rocker made good. The TV set over his shoulder is permanently set to Playstation mode with ’Cool Boarders 3’ rolling through replays of digitized snowboarding moves. The only other sound in the house is the constant ringing of the telephone.
”The difference between me and those dudes if that I had real DJ skills,” he continues, referring to early raves at The Barn in Essex, where DJs like Mr C first introduced Liam to raving. ”I’m not bothered if that sounds arrogant because it’s true. I was overqualified.”
Liam Howlett IS the Prodigy. Long before Keith, Leeroy, Maxim and original female dancer Sharkey appeared, Liam used the Prodigy name as his tag. When he first gave a tape of his tunes to Keith and Leeroy, the only word written on the inlay was Prodigy. It was a b-boy thing. An open brag that the boy from Braintree meant business. Liam was the ”gifted child”.
It was no idle brag – the Prodigy went on to become the world conquering, multi-million selling, award winning, conservative-baiting rave renegades they are today.
This month, Liam’s first mix album, ’Prodigy Presents The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One’ is released. The king of electronic punk is ready to take on the the dance DJs of this world, and justify his posts about his decksterity.
But why on earth is the album named after a hardcore gay porn mag? ”Ha! I never really thought of that,” laughs Howlett, revealing, somewhat disappointingly, that the Dirt Chamber is also the name of his home studio. ”When you’re on tour, the first thing you do is check the porn channel in the hotel. We sometimes check in under porn star names as well. The studio wasn’t named after any porn though – I just wanted a name that reflected where my head is at creatively. The last place was called Earthbound, but that didn’t work for me any more. I’ve left that vibe well behind me.”
The Dirt Chamber studio, facing out across the Essex countryside, is a mass of keyboards, effects, wires and decks. CDs and old mix 12”s like Steinski’s infamous ’Lesson’ series are scattered on the floor.
The studio takes pride of place in Howlett’s new converted barn. From its oak-beamed interior, the building provides few clues as it its owner’s profression. If Lloyd Grossman came looking through the keyhole, he would be confounded; there are no outward signs of showbiz opulence. No platinum discs on the walls, no MTV awards on the shelves. No photos, album sleeves, gig posters or any of the other trappings associated with the music world.
”I gave my discs to my dad.” Howlett confesses. ”I don’t need that stuff around to let me know who I am. This place is my escape from the music industry and all the shit that goes with it. When I’m here I want to shut the door to it all.”
Howlett is very private about his personal life. Maximag had to agree not to describe his house in any way in this interview. He may have earned more than most people dream of, but he doesn’t get off on rubbing people’s noses in it.
”I hate it when people go on about the cars they’ve got and shit,” he says. ”People know I’ve always been into my cars. Me and Keith have always been open about that shit, but it’s not really important is it? I’m not the kind of person that likes to go on about my car or my other possession. It’s not because I feel in any way guilty of what I’ve acheived, it’s just that I don’t see the point.”
So success hasn’t changed him? ”I’m lucky because I’m the only member of the band that gets to hide behind equipment on stage, so I don’t get recognised too much. Keith has to wear his hat and stuff when he goes anywhere, but I can still go down to Tesco’s. I do get kids asking for my autograph, but it’s not been overnight success, so it hasn’t seemed too strange. I don’t sit there counting my money or anything.”
What has he been doing then, to fill his time since the endless touring finished last August?
”Normal shit, you know, I had a holiday, went out a bit. I wanted to get straight into the studio, but I had a few things to get out of my system.”
”I spent some time designing my garden, which was really cool. A lot of thought goes into a Japanese garden, it’s not something you can just randomly put together. It’s all about balance – different rocks have different meanings. I really wanted to get that kind of vibe at this house.”
Then he changes tack, as if interrupting himself. ”The main thing I’ve been doing, to be honest, is working on the mix album. It’s taken a lot of work. From putting the thing together to trying to get the songs cleared. But all of this,” he shrugs, looking round his living room, ”just isn’t important. The most important thing is the music. That’s all that needs to be discussed.”
The mix was originally recorded for Mary-Ann Hobbs’ Breezeblock show on Radio 1. For Liam, the show offered a perfect space for his own eclectic tastes. The resulting session was a high-speed meltdown of breaks and snippets which fused the Beatles with The Chemical Brothers, Hendrix with Bone Breaks and Grandmaster Flash with the Sex Pistols. It was a a cut and drop showpiece which employed all the eclecticism and roughness of the old skool – listeners could almost imagine the sticky tape holding it all together. The radio show drew unprecedented attention, prompting Liam to rework the mix into a tighter, more beat-bound version for general release.
”Recording it was one of the most inspirational times I’ve had in ages,” continues Liam, as we walk into the studio to listen to an early mix of the album. ”Just sitting listening to all your favourite records over a few weeks is such a brilliant thing. I’m not a regular DJ, so I never sit down and listen to records that much.”
”One of the best things about DJing with breaks is that you can find a break anywhere,” he says, as the mix cheekily moves between the Prodge’s ’Smack My Bitch Up’ and The Beastie Boys’ ’It’s The New Style’. ”I’d listen to those rock records and here an awsome break and use it in my mix. Then I’d listen to the whole track and realise it was just a fucking dope tune. Breaks aren’t just from 70s funk, they come from country and western, rock, everywhere really. I’ve used country and western breaks that are tuff.”.
Howlett’s experience of working on the mix album has had the effect of making the new Prodigy stuff ”more funky and much deeper”, he says. ”I reckon the next album will put a lot of people off, but I know it’s time to tkae the music into a different direction. This doesn’t mean I’m going to start doing Massive Attack-type stuff just because they’re my favourite band. I still want to keep the energy there. What I don’t want to do is to start making music people would expect from me. There were couple of times on that last album which I fell into that trap which, in the end, I wasn’t happy about.”
’Dirt Chamber’ certainly isn’t what most people would expect the Prodigy to put their name to. It’s more like the end of a chapter in their career, crediting the pople who’ve massively influenced Liam and the Prodge to date. And it certainly isn’t a straightforward dance mix.
”I’m from hip hop,” says Howlett, dismissively, ”and it’s a hip hop mix. I know hip hop fans will get it even if dance people won’t. This mix isn’t me pretending to everyone that I was into old skool so I can be cool,” he continues, as the raw funk of ’It’s Just Begun’ by the Jimmy Cast Bunch brings the album to a close.
”That fucking old skool revival was a piece of shit man. It was just people who don’t know more than fat laces and Run DMC. My mix is supposed to be an education for those people who think they know what it was about, but didn’t really. It’s me saying ’this is actually what I used to do’. I was a b-boy and I can do those old skool mixes. I was into it at a young age. I know the music, I know the breaks.”
”If commercial DJs dropped an old skool mix they’d use all of the tunes that were crap, but people who wanted to seem like they were down would always be into them,” he laughs.
”Whenever people talk about old skool, they always name Run DMC’s ’Walk This Way’ or that Jason Nevins shit. I reckon Pete Tong would drop both those tunes in his old skool mix. When I say Pete Tong, I mean every single one of those commercial DJs. They’re not fit to wear fat laces. They’ll never know what old skool is about.”
Liam Howlett – telling it like it is.
”Absofuckinglutely. That’s what this album is all about. Telling it like it fucking is.”