THE PRODIGY may be one of the biggest dance acts in the world but, increasingly, they've been developing a rock 'n' roll attitude. As the band line up for their Friday night headlining slot at Féile, techno guru LIAM HOWLETT talks to STUART CLARK.
OOPSY DAISY! I think I may have committed a bit of a journalistic faux-pas. Having spent the past 15 minutes pleasantly chatting to Liam Howlett about everything from Coronation Street to roast chicken - cutting edge stuff or what? - The Prodigy mainman has taken grave exception to the suggestion that he displays trainspotterish tendancies.
"That really fucking pisses me off," he snaps sounding, er, really fucking pissed off. "We did a tour with Richie Hawkin and Moby and they were sitting in the front of the bus with all these Kraftwerk videos going, 'wow, this is the roots of techno', and I'm saying, 'maybe but it's crap'. Seriously, anyone who puts robots up on stage to perform for them and will only communicate by FAX has to be pretty sad.
"Certain members of the dance fraternity might aspire to that level of electronic obsessiveness but -to use a cliché -we've got a rock 'n' roll attitude. I love jungle and hip hop because they're human and I also love loud wailing guitars. In fact, a mate of mine who's into Pantera and Soundgarden has started playing guitar with us on stage and it feels totally natural."
In fairness, a quick perusal of Howlett's bijou Braintree residence -which touchingly is just round the corner from his Dad's -reveals no trace of a furry-hooded parka. And if he does spend days, nay, weeks hunched over the sequencers and samplers in his home studio that's because Liam, like all artists of substance, won't settle for adequate. The Prodigy have to be the best.
This leads us neatly onto another of the 23-year-old's surprisingly few pet hates which doctors have christened 'faceless techno band with two ample-breasteddancers to compensate for their lack of charisma' syndrome. Very nasty.
"I really don't know how to say this without seeming big-headed but I look at those acts and think, 'how fucking sad!' This thing of having a wailing female vocalist and a couple of not totally unattractive women wiggling their bottoms is so formula -not to mention insulting. There's a calculated attitude, spreading all the way down from the boardroom to certain parts of the underground, that if you throw enough shit at the dancefloor it'll stick because people are too bombed out to know if it's good or not.
"That might possibly have been the case during the height of the illegal rave scene when the buzz was as important as the sounds," Howlett continues, "but the only place where that fuck-the-music-let's-pop-another-E attitude exists nowadays is in Scotland. 90% of the clubs there are drugged-up young kids jerking to nosebleed techno with their white gloves and designer tops on and that's not what we're about. Perhaps I'm getting old but for me it has to be deeper and more mature. "
It may appear to those of you whose knowledge of The Prodigy begins and ends with the nursery-rhymish 'Charly', that Liam is talking through a large orifice in his bottom but, lo, slap on a copy of last year's Music For The Jilted Generation and you'll realise that these particular Essex boys are as far removed from 2-Unlimited as Tramore on a wet Monday is from Waikikki Beach.
"I think singles need to be pretty 'up', though as 'Poison' proved you don't need to do things at a hundred million miles an hour to get that sense of energy and power. An album's different because you don't have to pack everything into a four minute tune -you've got time and space to experiment and demonstrate your full range of ideas. The first LP did that with a couple of tracks, ...Jilted... took it a step further and the next one's going to be half typical Prodigy songs and half weird shit that you'll have to work harder to get into. "
This doesn't sound entirely dissimilar to what Messrs. Gilmour, Mason and Waters might've said at the start of the '70s.
"It's kind of scary that maybe we'll wake up one day and people won't be able to connect with what we're doing but the only way to avoid that is playing safe which, as far as I'm concerned, isn't an option.
"I'm not sure about us being the new Pink Floyd," he laughs, "but I hope that our fans would be broad-minded enough to appreciate that we can't make the same record over and over again. "
Not something that has caused The Wedding Present sleepless nights but an admirable sentiment. As readers of Right-On And Angsty Teenagers Monthly will tell you, Music For The Jilted Generation derives much of its inspiration and a good deal of its bile from that masterpiece of fascist legislation otherwise known as Britain's Criminal Justice Bill. Not that it's without its supporters -Nora Owen likes it so much she's trying to bring in her own version here. Come to think of it, have you ever seen the TD for Dublin North in the same room as Michael Howard? Thought not!
"It's a fact of life that every time the Conservatives are doing badly in the polls, they bring in some outrageous piece of legislation to prove to middle-class voters in the Home Counties that they're the party that's 'tough' on law and order. Whatever else they are, they're not stupid. Remember that big riot which took place in London during the CJB protests? When the police went in to make their arrests they made sure it was in front of the TV cameras. They knew it was going to cause aggro but pictures of ravers and travellers attacking poor defenceless police horses on the 9 O'Clock News was just the sort of propaganda they needed to sway public opinion. The lack of tolerance in the UK towards different lifestyles is frightening. "
If anything positive could've come out of Stephen McMillan's recent E-related death, it would've been a reasoned debate on how to equip people with the pharmaceutical facts of life that might just prevent future tragedies. Unfortunately, Owen and Co. have massaged the public's understandable fears to justify a knee-jerk package of measures that's big on detection but skilfully glosses over the need for a on-sermonising drugs awareness programme.
If Liam Howlett was somehow given a platform from which to address the 'ordinary' law-abiding citizens of Ireland what would he say to them to put the Ecstasy issue into perspective?
"We've played the Point a couple times, so I know the venue, and the death of anyone in those circumstances has got to be a cause for concern. Those guy's parents are obviously grieving right now and my heart goes out to them but you're not going to magically solve the problem by banning raves. Because it's become so sociable people have forgottten that if you're stupid or unlucky, drugtaking can kill you.
"Generally, though, when you consider how many Es are being necked every week, the number of deaths and injuries is pretty small. "
While Liam admits that The Prodigy still engage in the "sensible" ingestion of illicit substances, the group's drug of choice these days is adrenaline, with snowboarding top of the athletic thrills list. Not a pursuit that's easy to follow when you're living in Braintree but, hey, when you can afford to flip over to Colorado for the weekend, no problemo!
"Yeah, I'm afraid it's my one concession to flash bastard-ness," Liam admits as he subjects the English language to a spot of GBH. "The scene in the States is a bit too posey for my liking but the snow there is brilliant -you can hurtle down the side of a mountain at God knows what speed, fall over and usually not break anything because it's so powdery and soft. If you're starting off, though, I'd recommend France or Switzerland 'cos they're into having a laugh. "
Thank you Judith Chalmers. Word has it that Island have banned Dolores O'Riordan from skiing, absailing, pot-holing and, indeed, any other dangerous sport following her ligament-tearing antics on those same Colorado slopes. Has anyone ever tried to persuade The Prodigy that it's not in their contractual interests to go down a mountain at 60 mph on what is basically a plank?
"No, XL were well aware of our deathwish when they signed us, so apart from the odd, 'be careful lads', they don't give us any hassle. To be honest, we're more likely to do ourselves in on stage -especially Keith who announced recently that he wants to set himself on fire as part of the show. Diving into the crowd's bad enough -I mean, there isn't an insurance company in the country who'll give him cover - but dousing yourself in fucking paraffin!"
As yes, Keith Palmer. Him of the spiky-hair, barbell through the nose and studded dog collar. A man who is to restraint what Shane MacGowan is to sobriety and proud executor of the sort of aerobic workouts that even Jane Fonda would find knackering.
"The bloke is a complete lunatic," Howlett enthuses. "When I met him five or six years ago, he was driving round in this battered up old Ford Escort and there was one night we went out doing three-point turns in the snow, off our faces on E and mushrooms. I'm not saying this was acceptable behaviour -in fact it was fucking stupid -but it'll give you an idea of where our heads were at at the time. "
Amazingly enough still attached to their shoulders. Accepting the fact that journalists are sadistic swine, who are never happier than when they're destroying careers and promoting human misery, it's remarkable that I can't remember seeing a single bit of press this year which slags them off. Even the most hardened of dancophobes have a good 250 words to say about them, suggesting that a) XL have an inordinate amount of showbiz sherbet with which to grease the right nostrils or b) The Prodigy are the canine's testicles.
"We've never consciously thought, 'we have to cross over', but as the music's progressed, more and more of a rock 'n' roll attitude's crept into it. There was a time when dance fans wanted nothing to do with the indie scene or vice versa but you only had to be at Glastonbury last month -which is probably the best gig we've ever done -to see that that sort of snobbery is on the way out. Punks, hippies, rockers, bikers, mods -you name 'em, they were down the front going mental.
"It definitely helps that instead of just standing behind a bank of keyboards, we've got Keith, Leroy and Maxim out front putting on a show. And as for getting so much press coverage, it has to be said we give pretty good interview!"
That they do and, rest assured lads, we're swallowing the lot!
While their Glasto appearance was notable mainly for its sensory-overloading brilliance, The Prodigy were caught up in some authentic mad-nutter-on-stage drama when they played their other major headliner of the year at Vince Power's Tribal Gathering in Oxfordshire.
"Yeah," Liam winces. "We still don't know how it happened but this guy, who was completely out of his head, climbed onto the stage and ran towards where I was. He didn't make any attempt to be violent but he stumbled onto me, fell and knocked all my gear over. The music stopped and I was left standing there thinking, 'fuck, I'm going to be stabbed!', but security got hold of him and threw him back into the crowd. That proved to be a mistake because later on he went into one of the tents and beat two girls up.
"Apart from that, though, The Tribal Gathering was great. I spent all day walking round, checking out what was happening and never got any hassle. It's the nearest you're going to get to an illegal dance party without the police turning up at three in the morning to cart you off to the nick. "
In a moment of perfect synchronicity, the timer on Liam's oven goes 'ping' at precisely the same moment as the Coronation Street theme strikes up on the telly. Chicken & Chips, Derek Wilton's gnome and girlfriend Ange await on the sofa, so a few final words please on The Prodigy's trip to Pairc Ui Chaoimh?
"Park E what?" Young Mr. Howlett may have an Irish name but he's not much cop when it comes to waxing lyrical as Gaelige. "Nah, I'll never get my tongue round that "We've hit a patch where every gig is better than the last one, so if Glastonbury was good, Cork should be a fucking riot!
Kids, local residents and G.A.A. committee members, you have been warned!