It’s the day before The Prodigy’s ‘No Tourists’ tour kicks off in Australia. I naturally find a tired Liam on the other end. It’s clear they’ve certainly got a soft spot for the land down under.
‘Yeah, I think I have got a bit of jet lag actually,’ answers Liam Howlett, who is chilling in his hotel room in Perth. ‘I hit a brick wall for a bit. I’m beginning to get a second wind now though.’
‘We’ve got a really old skool relationship with the Australian fans. We’ve been coming here since 1992 when it all began.’
I’ve heard urban legends about Keith having to be put on a drip following a particularly intense show in Brisbane; a time when it was that hot for a Melbourne show that an industrial water hose was fired at will into the crowd. I’ve been deliriously crushed in a mosh pit at Ushuaia in Ibiza as Maxim roared for everyone who was moshing to ‘mosh harder’; sweated on by Keith at Futuremusic festival and lost my mind to the opening klaxons of Warrior Dance in Manchester, before the MEN arena exploded full throttle. Nothing can compare to seeing The Prodigy live. You leave with a proud rainbow of battle scars, saturated in rave juice; seething with Promethean fury. They are the original button pushers, nihilists and riot gods, spawning the kind of music that makes you want to blow up your office and abseil off the burning wreck, wearing nothing but your pants on backwards and an asylum-issue grin.
‘My madness meter is a bit mixed up,’ laughs Howlett. ‘I don’t know what’s mad and what’s normal anymore.’
What is one hundred per cent certain is that the high priest of rave knows how to smash the test of time. Released last November, ‘No Tourists’ is the band’s seventh studio album, a rave-laced Molotov cocktail served with a triple shot chaser of anarchy, 500 milligrams of happy hardcore and a speedball of seething rage. It’s great to see that they stayed so true to the rave sound they created and never called off their frenzied attack.
I looked back at the early inspiration; the rave stuff, but it was really important to not make it feel too old skool. It was never envisaged as a purely retro trip. We’re not into that. We’re into pushing boundaries and keeping things sounding fresh.
‘Our last album, ‘The Day is my Enemy’ was pretty full on edgy rock stuff,’ says Howlett. ‘I had been intending on going back to the old school for a couple of new tracks. I actually had no intention of making another album, I was just planning on doing EPs. But in the end, it was this non-intent that drove it. When I went back into the studio without any album pressure on me, I found it had quite a psychological impact. I like the pressure when the only pressure comes from myself. I think that’s good in the studio.’
So, is this album one big old trip all the way back to the old skool? Not exactly.
‘I looked back at the early inspiration; the rave stuff, but it was really important to not make it feel too old skool. It was never envisaged as a purely retro trip. We’re not into that. We’re into pushing boundaries and keeping things sounding fresh.’
‘I tried not to put that much thought into the start of it. A track feeds another track and then direction appears. The first thing I wrote was ‘Timebomb Zone’. It was sitting there without any drums on for a good few months. If you can’t get it right, put it on the shelf and come back to it.’
‘The next one was the collab track with American hiphop group Ho99o9. Originally, they wanted it for their record, but I took it back off them. They weren’t happy to begin with but in the end they were cool. We are all friends.’
‘The new album has a dirt and a swagger to it. I think this was achieved by creating a very raw, low fi sound. It’s homegrown DIY shit. I did all of the production on this record myself in my studio. Instead of spending an extra three months in a big studio, I did it myself. I always hate that bit of the process. You build the tracks and then you have to strip them all down again. I took that out of the equation and it made me much happier with the result, as well as speeding up the process. But it was a very concentrated work cycle. I didn’t allow any downtime for myself. I didn’t see any of my friends for a year.’
‘Awwwwww!!!’ says me.
‘Don’t feel sorry for me!’ he laughs. ‘My mates came into the studio to check I was still alive. I worked all night until I couldn’t work anymore. Then I would go to bed for a few days, then straight back into the studio. It was the only way to keep in the creative zone. It really worked for this record. It came together much quicker than other Prodigy records.’
‘When we went on the road, I was writing. The purest form of this is when I was writing lyrics with Maxim after the gigs. Straight after we come off stage, we are still in live mode. If you write a lyric at that particular moment, there’s so much clarity and energy in its rawest sense. That’s exactly what The Prodigy are about.’
The thinking behind the No Tourists album is basically about a need to be derailed. To not follow the beaten path. It’s quite obvious that Howlett isn’t going to be patting koalas and feeding kangaroos in his downtime over here. ‘I’ve done it before,’ he laughs as I put the question to him. ‘I mean how many fucking koalas can you see. I’m a night time guy. I tend to peek out of the curtains in the day. Either that or I’m asleep. The band has always been a nighttime band.’
But it’s not always hundred miles an hour crazy.
‘I’ve got a wife and a great family. When I snap out of recording or touring zone, it’s great to be able to chill and have Christmas with the family. My wife’s in a band. They’re all on tour over here at the moment too.’
Reminiscing the mid 90s, I’m suddenly caught in a time capsule in 1997 somewhere between making up All Saints dance routines – that’s his wife Natalie’s band – queuing up at Our Price record store to buy ‘The Fat of Land’ on CD and tasting my first dose of rave listening to ‘The Experience’ on the cassette I bribed a boy in my high school to tape for me. I quickly snap out of it before I ask him if he had a favourite Spice Girl.
Instead, we talk about The Dirtchamber Sessions, Howlett’s seminal 1999 mashup album, a seamless, epileptic carcrash of hip hop, punk, breaks, electro and everything in between that ever inspired him, with special attention to his breakdance/hiphop roots. With snapshots of the KLF, The Charlatans, Bomb the Bass, everything you ever dreamed of and more, it is for many still the best mix album they got their grubby paws on. I’ve always felt cheated that it teasingly said ‘Volume 1’ on the paper cover, as I fawned over the artwork of Howlett in his studio surrounded by kit, and the nail-scratched graffiti-on a-blackboard-tracklist in the insert. I’d heard rumours that there might be one in the pipeline, two decades since the release of the first. It was time for the man himself to confirm or deny.
Drum and bass is the true underground sound of the UK,’ says Howlett. ‘Back in the day, Pendulum did a lot to revive the dnb culture. When they came out they injected a whole new sound into it – a stadium sound and a rock influence. While we’re not quite in the same zone, I have a of lot respect for the genre. Drum and bass strips it back to the raw underground sound. I’m into dub reggae. Jamaican sound systems. Drum and bass carries the same culture across.
‘Yeah it’s coming. It’s a priority for 2019, I just need some downtime. I’ve written a tracklist on my computer. There are so many tracks I have in mind for the second one.’
I ask him if he could share even just one track from his Dirtchamber vol 2 shortlist. There is a pregnant pause, while he thinks about it.
‘No I can’t do that,’ he says, with a smile in his voice. Damn. I thought I’d twisted his arm.
But there’s a good reason for it.
‘It was a total nightmare doing Volume 1. It was so tough to get clearance for all the samples. My solution was simply to get on the phone and ask. I think people appreciate it when you do. I mean I wouldn’t want people using my tunes without my permission or putting bits of my tracks on some record company compilation. I’d react in the same way. I spoke to John [Lydon] about using the Pistols and he wasn’t going to let me use it. But we got there in the end.’
‘Sampling becomes more and more difficult the more time we go forward. The Loleatta Holloway sample in ‘Need Some1’ was like a snapshot of me going back and standing in a rave. Combining that with the new school elements of the track felt really fresh. I find it really exciting to draw from our history. It was just about finding the right way to do it without it sounding retro. There aren’t many samples on ‘No Tourists,’ probably five all up. Not many for a Prodigy record. I took a completely different approach. This time round, we went a long way to create samples, instead. We did a lot of recording in the studio. I worked with my mate Brother Culture, who is a reggae singer. There was a lot of turning speakers on loud and reacting to it, putting on a record and seeing what happens.’
The Prodigy’s choice of support for both their UK and Australian tours, BBC Radio 1 bass stalwart Rene La Vice and Perth’s Shockone, as well as the Friction remix of ‘Need Some1’ and of course that iconic Pendulum banger of ‘Voodoo People’ show that they obviously froth hard off their dees and bees.
‘Drum and bass is the true underground sound of the UK,’ says Howlett. ‘Back in the day, Pendulum did a lot to revive the dnb culture. When they came out they injected a whole new sound into it – a stadium sound and a rock influence. While we’re not quite in the same zone, I have a of lot respect for the genre. Drum and bass strips it back to the raw underground sound. I’m into dub reggae. Jamaican sound systems. Drum and bass carries the same culture across.’
‘Rene La Vice is a good friend of mine now, I met him outside my house a few years ago. He was just walking past and went “Hey, you’re Liam aren’t you?” I’ve been working with him on and off for few years off the back of that chance meeting. I’ve also been good mates with Andy C since the old school days. Drum and bass will always influence the Prodigy because it strips it back to the fundamental basis of the band angle, drums and chaos, even though the tempo is different. Fundamental drums and bass is what this band is about – without them we wouldn’t be The Prodigy.’
So what’s next for everyone’s favourite firestarters? ‘Last year was so intense,’ says Howlett. ‘We finished off last year with European and UK tours. But we just rock on. We know what festivals we’re doing this year and we’ll be back in the studio of course. There’s no time to take your foot off the gas in this band. If we do that we may as well forget about it. we want to keep the pressure on. Keep on rolling. That’s who we are.’
Ravers and gentleman, that was Liam Howlett. I’ve still not wiped the grin off my face.