Almost without lifting a finger, alternative dance giants The Prodigy achieved an important breakthrough in 1995. Even though all they really did was release one single, Poison, 1995 was a year when the group consolidated their position as one of the UK's key acts, with sales of their second album, 1994's Music For The Jilted Generation, reaching a million units worldwide. Meanwhile, a string of excellent live appearances, most notably a show-stealing performance at Glastonbury, saw them complete a five-year journey from bedroom rave act to post-dance supergroup. The Prodigy also decided at the end of the year to re-sign to XL Recordings following the completion of their initial contract with the company. That ended almost a year of industry speculation that the group were about to succumb to one of the various majors chasing them.
Founder and guiding light Liam Howlett says, "One of the labels after us was Island and, to be honest, it would have been the only one I really would have gone with, because I like the people there and the artists they have. But, in the end, I decided why mend something that's not broken? I just didn't want to get involved in that bigger picture. I have complete freedom to do what I want at XL, which I might not have somewhere else, so why change things?" All this settled, Howlett can now concentrate on following up the groundbreaking Music For The Jilted Generation. The first step is a new single, Firestarter, released next month and certain to add to The Prodigy's tally of eight top 15 hit records in the UK.
Originally, the group had planned to have an album ready for release now. "In the end, it didn't happen," says Howlett. "We spent last year doing live work and bringing that side out instead. Also, when the last album took off, we decided to really tour it out, so I decided to do the album for this summer. "
However, the fruits of that live work are evident on Firestarter which features the band's MC and dancer Keith Skint on vocals, a development that parallels the importance that the group's other members have assumed on stage. "I wrote the song and it really just needed something else rather than a sample. Keith is a really good performer and he'd done some vocals on Poison so we tried it and it worked. It's quite sort of punk," says Howlett. The single, according to XL's managing director Richard Russell, is typical of Howlett. "From their first hit, Charly in 1990, Liam has had this great thing of accidental hooks," Russell says. "He wouldn't be thinking in terms of pop but would come up with these great hooks for his records just instinctively. "
However, even given these gifts, it would have been a brave man who would have predicted back in 1991 that the Essex rave group with a line in hooky singles would, five years later, turn into the internationally successful album-selling monster that The Prodigy have become today. Russell ascribes a lot of the group's longevity to a sense of direction and certainty in Howlett, who eventually began distancing himself from the rave scene that had spawned the band and concentrate instead on wooing the new audience the group were attracting from the rock scene. "For me, the whole turning point of the band was when I got sick of the rave scene. It got easy to do a track, get a catchy sample and whack it in the charts. It didn't interest me, so I stopped and started listening to lots of different things," says Howlett.
The group's subsequent success in building a new sound and audience sowed the seeds of what's known as the alternative dance scene. Howlett is an enthusiast for many of the bands that have followed in The Prodigy's wake, singling out Coldcut's Ninja Tunes label and The Chemical Brothers. "A lot of our new stuff is like that," says Howlett. "We obviously started to head in that direction on the last LP. The good thing about the dance scene now is that it's really open and people have real respect for different types of music. "
But Howlett is wary of being typecast as a techno boff. "I don't want to be scene as futuristic or some type of techno purist. Most of the inspiration I pick up is from old rare groove records and hip hop. I mean, I hate Kraftwerk," he says. In keeping with this technological ambivalence, the equipment Howlett uses to produce his records remains essentially unchanged from his early records. "I'm not one of these people who convince themselves that they need loads of new equipment or read magazines to see what's coming out. There's a new analogue keyboard that I bought last year but, in general, I just prefer working with a sampler which I've always done," he says.
In terms of the long-term future, Howlett has few fixed plans for his group. "We'll continue as long as we're progressing," he says, also aware that the group have already come a lot further than most of their contemporaries, "We started as a rave act and tried to turn it around. There aren't many other acts that really pulled that off. "