The Rolling Stone
Liam Howlett is excited to get back on American soil for two desert performances later this month -- April 27th in Las Vegas, and April 28th at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California. It's been four years since he and his band, the Prodigy, have played the U.S., and four years is a long time for any band to be away -- particularly one that led a revolution in electronic music that is still being felt today.
A lot of younger, less-experienced producers have built refractive electronic versions of Howlett's immensive wall of sound that he and band mates Keith Flint and Maxim refined and revealed on their American breakthrough release, 1997's Fat of the Land. But few have been able to overtake the sheer energy of the band, which fell under its own weight in the release's aftermath. "After Fat of the Land came out, we toured really heavily for two years," Howlett says from his home in the English countryside. "Then I took a year off -- I didn't want to record. I wasn't sure if the band was going to split up or not. I wanted to do something other than music. "
The time away from the limelight and from writing new material reinvigorated Howlett -- long credited as the creative force behind Prodigy's aggressive amalgam of roaring guitars, ear-shattering percussion, old hip-hop samples, breakbeats and Detroit techno. Prodigy are almost ready to drop their latest bomb, Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, on a fan base that is slightly unaware whether the group, which formed around 1991, ever planned to return. "There are two main differences on this new record," Howlett says of the still-in-progress Always Outnumbered. "I haven't used my record collection as a source of sounds and samples, and I've tried to bring in other musicians and play a lot of instruments myself. "
While the end result isn't remarkably different sounding than Prodigy's previous work, Howlett admits that the sound is more refined -- a step forward for the group, as songwriters. Truth be told, it's not that difficult to rise above incisive lyrics like: "Breathe the pressure/Come play my game I'll test ya," or "I'm a firestarter, twisted firestarter/You're the firestarter, twisted firestarter. "
"The lyrics on the last album didn't have much of a direction," Howlett says. "This time the lyrics and the music have more of an equal role. We've come from a dance scene where lyrics aren't very important. We've really tried on this record to make and ask ourselves what we're about. "
The songs that they've come up with thus far include the likely first single, "Baby's Got a Temper," which Howlett describes as a very aggressive track, with vocals by Flint. And "Nuclear," whose lyric -- "You say you've got guns, but you ain't seen mine" -- Howlett describes as "a piss-take on bands that think they're punk rock, but are too poppy to ever be punk. "
While Howlett describes the already written and recorded tracks as "attack" songs, he says any aggression comes with tongue firmly planted in cheek. "There's a certain humor in our music," he explains. "It's not going to be a mad, aggressive album. No one can do that better than Rage Against the Machine, and now they're gone, so no one should be doing that. "
Most of the completed songs have been road-tested over the past couple of months, as Prodigy reinvigorated their live chops with shows across Europe, including a stint at Australia's Big Day Out festival. "It was great to take the ideas, play them and see the direction they needed to go in. Some worked and some didn't worked -- we knew right away when we played them. You don't always get that when you're writing songs in a studio," he says.
What's this? A hardcore electronic dance band vetting things against audiences at live music festivals? Seems a bit unusual. "What we've always done is create music in our own heads that was rock & roll the only way we knew how," Howlett explains. "We didn't want to be a four-piece band playing instruments. But we also didn't want to be a dance band with two DJs and such. The dance scene is very snobbish. We felt in ourselves that we had songs that were big enough to stand up and didn't need to be part of a scene. "
That attitude has also done well for the group with the fickle British press, which is always looking for the next big thing to promote the hell out of and then drop when another big thing comes along. "In the past it was us, Oasis. Last year it was Travis, this year it's the Strokes," Howlett says. "They've been elevated so much by the English press. I mean, the record is good, but, fucking hell, they hardly ever do that with British bands.
"When English bands stop their touring or recording, their space is filled by someone else," Howlett continues. "In my head, when we stopped, no one really seemed to fill our spot. That's down to the characters in the band and the music I expect. "
Whatever the reason, the plans for Always Outnumbered are ambitious. The group's British label, XL, plans to release "Baby's Got a Temper" in July, followed most likely by "Nuclear" and then the album in late 2002. The band's American label, Madonna's Maverick Records imprint, will follow the lead of XL and release the singles and album as it becomes available. Howlett says he hasn't played any of the new songs for the label.
"We never speak to Maverick," he says laughing. "[The label's president] Guy Oseary has called me a few times. He sent me a signed Sid Vicious picture for my birthday, and I haven't spoken to them in four years. I've spoken to Madonna more than I've spoken to Maverick. "
Howlett is more concerned with reaching the people who bought more than 2 million copies of his group's record the last time around. "We had a good fan base in America," he says. "A lot of people were around before Fat of the Land. So when we come back to America, we hope people know we're still here. Just wait and see what we're going to do. "