The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett on 28 years of rave anarchy
27th September 2018
The UK music icon discusses the futile allure of celebrity, becoming a rave dad, and channelling chaos on their new album No Tourists
Draw a venn diagram between the original rave children of 1988, teenagers who drink far too many energy drinks, and religiously devoted Download attendees, and you’ll probably find The Prodigy somewhere in the middle. They’re the only act to headline Sonisphere Festival, Europe’s premiere gathering for metalheads and thrashers, while hitting number three in the UK charts with a record not-so-subtly nodding to late night, cocaine-fuelled conversations.
Ever since Liam Howlett brought together the devil-haired vocalist Keith Flint and MC Maxim in 1990 Essex to form the band, The Prodigy have become poster boys for hedonism and vice. They put middle England into a state of panic during the later years of acid house, and while the tabloids were drumming up hysteria around spaced-out youngsters guzzling ecstasy pills in UK fields, they were fuelling the fire with records like “Smack My Bitch Up”, a song that was banned by the BBC and MTV and was once voted the “most controversial track” ever by PRS.
The Prodigy have never shied away from anarchy, mind. The anti anti-drug anthem of “Charly”, or the tectonic breakbeats of “Everybody In The Place”, are freewheeling love letters to weekend mayhem. Their new album No Tourists is yet another frantic collection of stadium-filling dance tracks that hark back to more halcyon days, a no-apologies LP that recalls the cut-and-paste hip hop and rave culture that The Prodigy was formed on.
On a rare away day from touring, we found Liam Howlett at his home in North London, eagerly recalling through his gravelled voice how he channelled chaos for their soon-to-be-released seventh album, the futile allure of celebrity, and the trials and tribulations of parenthood when videos of your dilated pupils are forever embedded on YouTube.
Where in the world are you now?
Liam Howlett: Just at home at the moment in north west London. I’ve been away, backwards and forwards with gigs, so I’m just having a few days off. It’s been pretty mad. The album, when I was finishing that, that was really fucking mad. It was really full on and plus, we were doing gigs at the same time I was trying to meet the deadline. So I finished that and had about two more weeks of gigs.
Do you still work in the same way as you did when you were a kid?
Liam Howlett: I try to put my head in every single zone I can to pull as much creative stuff out as I can. I try sleep, no sleep, different things to, let’s say, keep me awake. In the end, I’d go into the studio at 9am, do a couple of hours work, and then I might have a kip for a few hours. I’d work in the morning, do whatever I had to do, emails and bollocks, then I’d work until 12 and come home and work again until three. I found that’s the best way to get the most from the day, but it was fucking hardcore.
How do you manage to decompress and find some sort of normality after four or so months spent in a room listening to distorted guitars?
Liam Howlett: I touch on madness with every album I make, but I was probably closest to madness on this one. Not from the pressure, just the chaos of it all. Some tracks on this album showcase the purest roots of what we’re about, but I just couldn’t get them right. I sat in the studio for a month doing nothing. I need a psychiatrist to explain what sort of emotion I was going through at that point, but looking back…
“I’m always angry, man... ask my mates, they’d probably say I’m a moody fucker” – Liam Howlett, The Prodigy
Are you still angry at the same things as when you were younger? Does that still drive the records?
Liam Howlett: I’m always angry, man. It’s nothing political, whatever happens happens, but it’s always internal things, and those things can be pushed in the right directions. Some things are bigger things to be angry about, some are small, and in general I’m easy to get on with, but if you ask my mates, they’d probably say I’m a moody fucker.
Do you ever get the feeling of a record never being done until you send it over?
Liam Howlett: Nah, it’s done when it’s done. Usually, with these things, I’m in the studio mixing it with someone else, but I did the whole thing on my own this time. Pure DIY, all done on a laptop as the main machine. Fuck big studios, those days are over.
Has that taken it back to your beginnings in a way?
Liam Howlett: Totally. Everyone knows I wrote good songs, but nobody knew I mixed the songs, so it was like going back to that time.
That time when you were skint and looking for samples on videotapes? I assume you live in a bigger house now...
Liam Howlett: Well, I mixed ‘Firestarter’, ‘Breathe’, and ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ in my home studio. I like shit like that, it’s all about what comes out the speakers. If it sounds good, it’s fucking good.
Do you still get those same moments of when you’re playing around with something and you think ‘Fuck, this is phenomenal’? Like when you found that original ‘Charly’ sample?
Liam Howlett: Yeah, that’s the feeling. If I get that feeling, I know I’m onto something. It has to hit that magic mark.
Some tracks on the new album remind me of The Dirtchamber Sessions. The high-pitched vocal samples on your new song ‘Light Up the Sky’ are particularly reminiscent of mid-2000s hip hop. Are you still influenced by the same mixtape culture The Dirtchamber Sessions helped define?
Liam Howlett: That’s what I grew up on. That was the first introduction to music for me, so I don’t think that can ever leave me.
And can we expect more Dirtchamber Session tapes to come out?
Liam Howlett: Yeah, I’ve actually made a list of everything I want to do for the next one, I just haven’t got around to it yet. It was such a ballache to clear (the original mix). I was on the phone to Jimmy Cauty of The KLF, saying ‘Come man, let me use your song,’ and he’s only in it for 15 seconds. I was on the phone to John Lydon, getting his permission to let me use ‘New York’. But I have written a wishlist and I do want to do another one. I’ll probably do that next year.
That’s incredible news. Do you think a mixtape can have the same cultural impact in the same way today, when you can find infinite mixes on Soundcloud and Mixcloud?
Liam Howlett: Definitely not, I don’t think so. That’s why I hadn’t done it before, I’d lost interest in it. The original Dirtchamber Sessions had everything in it, and there was loads of mad stuff we couldn’t clear. This was also pre-Ableton – we had one turntable, a tape deck, and a drum machine, and that’s how I did the whole thing. It was really old school, and I want to do the next one like that too.
“I did the whole thing on my own this time. Pure DIY, all done on a laptop as the main machine. Fuck big studios, those days are over” – Liam Howlett, The Prodigy
Do you still get your kicks in the same way as when you were younger?
Liam Howlett: Absolutely. But I didn’t really enjoy it when I was younger. The beginning was an ecstasy haze, and I can’t remember anything about it, but when then the band started to evolve around ‘Firestarter’, it started to become something different.
We finally found the right way to play our music live just before Invaders, when we did our singles album. With the right mix of live instruments, everything came into itself. That’s when I started to enjoy it. I really took it for granted before then. I didn’t enjoy going on the road as I’d just prefer to be in the studio, but then of course (with) the studio being mobile, you can take it anywhere – so I guess since the mid-2000s, I’ve enjoyed it.
Obviously you’ve still managed to do all these huge shows, which is quite rare for someone who’s been in the game for as long as you have, but you no longer have the same strange celebrity status as you did in the 90s and 2000s, when you were being photographed leaving clubs and were on the front page of tabloids. Is that a relief?
Liam Howlett: I’m anti-celebrity, so I’ve never been into that. The world of celebrity isn’t a world I know anything about, and back then, it could never give me anything I needed or wanted. At the height of ‘Firestarter’, we’d be walking down the street and people would just hassle you. I’m cool because people don’t recognise me,– I always have my hair a different colour, or I could sneak in places through the back door – but because Keith’s so recognisable, me and Maxim would always leg it away and let Keith take the brunt of it. And he did take the brunt of it I’m, sorry to say.
Once you get to that level, it’s natural to get sucked into it, at least a little bit. And even if you don’t encourage it, that doesn’t stop paparazzis chasing you.
Liam Howlett: For us, we’ve reached a status where the kids… well, I know because my son and his mates are into our band, so it’s gone full circle, and they’re discovering us now. Dance music keeps revolving and people always want to party, and our records just keep getting played. And he has a laugh, because it’s funny to see me in a rave video.
Do you still get up to the same stuff when you’re on tour? You said you’ve maybe chilled out a bit more – have you had to reign it in?
Liam Howlett: Listen – a straight person can’t be expected to write this whole album, but an off-their-tits person can’t be expected to write that album, either. So I’m only interested in playing with the mind, to put the mind into different aspects, to test myself, to see what music I can pull out.
When I’m on tour, I keep pretty on the ball, though. Being fucked up for the first week is alright, but I just can’t do it. And Keith can’t either. Keith will go mad in between, lose weight, and then he’ll see the date at the start of the tour and then everything will stop. I don’t know anyone who’s got willpower like Keith.
Now, looking back, how do you see yourself as a face of UK music culture?
Liam Howlett: I’m aware of what we are. We all know the importance of what we’ve done, musically – but too much thought on that takes the hunger away from where you’re going. And I’ve been there before back in the 90s. If you do too much gear and wreck yourself, people overtake you, so we’ve never sat down and patted ourselves on the back. I am about respect, though. If I’m walking down the street and someone says ‘Good tunes!’, I like that. That means more to me than any other pats on the backs.
The Prodigy release No Tourists on November 2, 2018