None of the success ever went to our heads, we weren't interested in being rock stars... we just wanted to keep it real Liam Howlett
On the wall of Liam Howlett’s North London studio there’s a piece of art that fans of The Prodigy will recognise instantly. Painted by Les Edwards – the same artist responsible for the diabolical beast on the cover of Metallica’s 1984 single Jump In The Fire – the artwork depicts a longhaired youth flipping a middle finger at riot police as he prepares to sever a rope bridge that marks the chasm between authorities and a field full of music fans. Featured on the inner album sleeve of The Prodigy’s 1994 release Music For The Jilted Generation, it’s an image of rebellion, defiance and ‘fuck you’ attitude, the same spirit that has fuelled Liam’s own art since 1990.
In the past, Liam Howlett has admitted that even his best friends might describe him as a “moody fucker” on occasion, but this morning the 47-year-old Essex-born musician is charming and welcoming as he invites Kerrang! into his compact workspace at Tileyard Studios. Crammed with keyboards, speakers, vintage synths and all kinds of expensive tech, it’s here that Liam wrote, recorded and mixed The Prodigy’s seventh studio album, No Tourists. Over the past year, he would regularly clock up 18-hour days as he obsessively fine-tuned the details.
Sitting on the same couch where he’d take power naps during his working day, Liam confesses that his original plan was to make an EP to reintroduce his band. “I didn’t think we’d survive another five-year break,” he admits, but having struck upon “six really good ideas within the first five months”, a full-length follow-up to 2015’s The Day Is My Enemy was assembled.
It’s a typically uncompromising and powerful body of work; fierce electronic punk rock from a group who have never surrendered their underground edge despite huge mainstream success. It’s good to have them back.
In the run-up to releasing No Tourists you were quoted as saying “there’s always more danger and excitement to be found in straying from the set path”. Was that a mission statement for you, even as a kid?
“Yeah. Back then it was music and graffiti that gave me that buzz. When I was maybe 13 I remember jumping over my back garden fence, once my parents had gone to bed, and spraying graffiti on the back of the youth club with my mate. My dad was mowing the lawn the next Sunday and he looked over the fence and saw all this shit on the wall and he said, ‘You didn’t have anything to do with that, did you? You fucking better not!’ Because I had graffiti bits everywhere in my room. I was never a club-goer, or a drinker, that just didn’t interest me. Hip-hop culture gave me so much more excitement than getting pissed in a pub.”
Before music entered your life, what kind of a child were you?
“I was a pretty quiet kid early on. The rebellion came later, with the music. I got into the Two-tone movement when I was 11 or 12 and that had a big effect on me. My dad brought home this album, Dance Craze, which had a drawing of a loafer and a Sta press trouser leg on the cover, and that was a live Two-tone album, which became the soundtrack to my life. I remember looking at The Specials and thinking, ‘They look cool as fuck.’ Two-tone was street music, it had balls and anger and I appreciated the multiracial aspect of it. And then electro was coming through and I really liked the DIY aspect of turntablism. When I heard Grandmaster Flash for the first time I thought, ‘I could do that.’ It wasn’t until Nirvana that I started to appreciate guitar bands.”
So you moved from the hip-hop scene into the dance scene?
“Yeah. In like, ’89, I was into Public Enemy and N.W.A., and my mates and I used to follow [hip-hop DJ] Tim Westwood around. He’d do weekend gigs in coastal places like Yarmouth or Folkestone, and me and my crew used to drive down. So, one night the jam finished, and Westwood left, and suddenly it turned into an acid house party. All these zombies started coming out of the woodwork and I was thinking, ‘What the fuck is this?’ It seemed really dangerous, the music was hard as fuck. All my mates were like, ‘Let’s get out of here,’ but I stayed, and it blew my mind. The hip-hop scene was moody, rolling into other people’s territory could get pretty lively, and I was getting fed up of it.”
Did ecstasy come into your life around the same time?
“Yeah, it was a drug culture without a doubt – acid and pills. Anyone who says that dance culture wasn’t built around drugs then is mistaken. But I didn’t fully dive into that. I was always a bit freaked out by it. I used to smoke weed, but that made me a bit paranoid, so I gave it up. And although I never had a bad acid trip, taking acid only really lasted to when the band started, and I never took it again. One of my mates lost it, drove down a ditch and never came back, and I thought, ‘Fuck that.’ I’ve had my fun, but it was well and truly out of my system by the early ’90s.”
You describe the hip-hop scene as “moody”, but presumably the early rave scene was sketchy too?
“Yeah, it was heavy, man. East London into Essex was heavy as fuck. Club UK was run by the Essex mob, and that got intense. Anywhere there’s money to be made, people roll in and it gets nasty. In our first year, we found ourselves playing to 20,000 people at some of these parties, so you can imagine how much money was being made.”
Do you remember how much you got paid back then?
“A couple of hundred quid each. Fifty quid at the first gigs. And we were happy. When I got my first record deal I was working as a junior graphic designer at a magazine. The phone rang and someone shouted, ‘Liam, there’s a call for you. Nick [Halkes] from XL Recordings.’ I put the phone down, said, ‘See you later, I’m outta here,’ and walked out. I was still living at home and my dad went mad, like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ He was worried like any parent would be.”
The first Prodigy single, Charly, was an instant Top 10 hit. Did your life change in any substantial way?
“That took us by surprise. We were so focused on being true to the underground that when we heard the single might go into the charts, we were like, ‘What the fuck?’ So straight away we were like, ‘No TV, no Top Of The Pops, none of that bullshit.’ The record company had the hump, because that was the usual route, but we were like, ‘Nah.’ The rebellion started from then. We were so in tune with rave culture – it hadn’t gone shit in ’91 – and we were a strong unit, with the same views about integrity, and I don’t think the record label had ever encountered people like us. People usually feel lucky to have a record deal, but we had the live thing as well, so we were just like, ‘This is how we do it.’”
While you always kept a foot in the underground, by 1994’s Music For The Jilted Generation you were a big band. Did it feel like you were becoming mainstream then?
“We always pushed against it, whenever we felt uncomfortable. We never bent to anyone. Like, you’d hear that [then-radio 1 DJ] Chris Evans refused to play Firestarter and think, ‘Who gives a fuck? Look at what we’ve done already without you.’ We did not care. The band was constantly building, but we didn’t really notice our size because we never sat back.”
When did you start to tire of the dance scene?
“I remember standing onstage in Scotland thinking, ‘I’m not into this anymore.’ Rave had lost its rawness and potency and I didn’t want anything to do with it anymore. Around the same time we went to Los Angeles to do a video for Wind It Up, the last [single] on [1992 debut album] Experience, and the Rage Against The Machine album had come out, and The Chronic by Dr. Dre, and we spent the whole time listening to those albums. I came back a different person and wanted to bring that energy to our music. That’s when I started writing …Jilted. Almost every track rebelled against the dance scene.”
The 1994 Criminal Justice Bill, which explicitly attempted to restrict gatherings where “repetitive beats” were played, passed into law around the same time. Did that actually impinge upon your life?
“Absolutely. It was in our fucking faces. We’d get pulled over on the way to gigs, and police raided our van – all that shit. None of the success ever went to our heads, we weren’t interested in being rock stars, we were totally grounded. We always felt like any of us could have jumped out of the crowd on to the stage. That punk rock thing, without us ever thinking about it being punk rock. We just wanted to keep it real.”
By default, after Firestarter, you were proper pop stars, though. Your dislike of celebrity has been well documented, so did that start to interfere with your freedom?
“It impinged upon Keith [Flint, vocalist]’s life, big-time. Me and Maxim [Reality] just hid behind Keith. Creating that song and listening back to it was a special moment, though. I remember driving back to Essex from London after recording Keith’s vocals and we played that shit over and over again. We knew it would change things, but we didn’t know it would change to the extent where Keith couldn’t walk down the street or walk into a pub without someone going, ‘Oi! It’s the Firestarter!’ But it gave us more strength to know who we are, and who we didn’t want to be. It gave us something to rebel against again.”
Around the time of 2002 single Baby’s Got A Temper, the energy in the band seemed different. Your Reading festival appearance that year might have been the only average Prodigy show I’ve ever seen…
“We hit burnout for sure. We’d overworked ourselves. That single was a really good representation of where we were as a band: it was sluggish and had no buzz. The best thing about it was the artwork. When you’re saying that about music, it can’t be great. I remember agreeing to do that Reading festival, but I was like, ‘I’m not sure we’re in a good place.’ So, yeah, I appreciate that. And then it got worse. The whole band fell apart at a point. I stopped talking to Keith, he stopped talking to me, and the non-communication bred paranoia. He started his Flint [solo] project, and I pulled right back, and thought, ‘Fuck this shit.’ I never thought we’d break up, I just thought, ‘I need to cool off here, and you can cool off there.’”
Did you write 2004’s Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned as a solo album?
“No, but it certainly felt like a solo album at the time. We’d totally fallen out. There was no way of communicating with Keith then, because he was dead-set on doing his Flint thing. I was like, ‘Well, I’m writing an album and it’s going to say The Prodigy on it.’ I think whoever signed Keith thought they were getting me too. And they didn’t. Then I remember the label wanted to do a singles compilation [Their Law: The Singles 1990 – 2005], which I initially didn’t want to do as I thought, ‘Does this signify the end of the band?’ But it actually brought us back together, because we started having a laugh. It really glued us back together. Off the back of that tour we rolled straight into Invaders [Must Die] and it was a brand new Prodigy, revitalised. We buried all our hatchets and just fucking got on with it.”
Are you something of a control freak?
“It has been said before, by a couple of my close friends. I probably am. But I look at it more like someone’s got to steer the ship. Anyone can climb into the driving seat if they want to have a go – and to be fair, Keith did with Firestarter, and I was backing him up. Me, Keith and Maxim have all had our time behind the wheel. We became more of a band from Invaders… onwards.”
Are you obsessional in the studio?
“I can be, yeah. At the beginning of the year, one of the guys in the team heard one of the new tracks and said, ‘That’d be a great single,’ and something in my mind locked up. I went into – not meltdown, but it was like I couldn’t write any music anymore. That one comment knocked me off the creative way. Even though it was a positive comment, it was like I had to rebel against it, subconsciously. It’s weird.”
Have you ever had therapy?
“No, but it could be interesting. I’d like to know about myself. It’s a very American thing, isn’t it?”
There’s been more discussion of mental health among musicians in recent years.
“That’s true. I think, honestly, that there’s times I tip towards the edge of it, because I feel like I have to do it to drag the creativity out of me. I pushed the envelope, proper, at times, with sleep deprivation and stuff. My friend actually started a programme for musicians, specifically a course that helps people who’ve got mental illness from being in studios, because it is a thing. Mixing can drive you insane.”
<pa>You’ve talked about the new album being about escapism. What do you do to escape, when you’re not immersed in music?
“Nothing! ( laughs) Apart from enjoying family life we just hang out and have a great laugh – me, Nat [Appleton, All Saints vocalist, who married Liam in 2002] and our boy Ace, who’s 14. I have a daughter too, Rachel, who’s 26, but she left home years ago; she works in a gallery in London and she’s cool. I think we’re good parents. They can come to me and ask me anything, we don’t just throw rules out there. And I think I give good advice, because I’ve been out there and experienced stuff. I’m not like, ‘Don’t do that, don’t do this.’ That’s shit.”
Has having a wife who is also involved in the music industry been helpful to you?
“It’s mega, man. We’ve always discussed it, mainly in terms of venting our frustrations. She understands this shit, she’s in a touring band herself, and she gives me total support. I couldn‘t be more lucky on that side of things. All Saints are as fucking rock’n’roll as we are!”
Is this a good time to be Liam Howlett? Are you happy right now?
“Well, the word ‘happy’ doesn’t come into my world. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy when I’m with my family, but when I’m working, I’m not interested in being happy, because it breeds laziness and stops the hunger. It’s important for us to stay on a knife edge. That’s how The Prodigy survives, being sharp as fuck.” K!
THE PRODIGY SURVIVE ON A KNIFE EDGE, SHARP AS FUCK LIAM HOWLETT