Pop Matters

So I Decided to Take My Work Underground: A Conversation with the Prodigy's Liam Howlett

1997's incredibly successful Fat of the Land was the first major electronic music album to crack the US sales charts. Whereas the much-hyped "electronica" revolution was mostly a dud, the Prodigy were an unqualified hit, and helped pave the way for those few electronic acts who achieved serious success in the states. Although electronic music remains to this day something of a novelty on American radio, what little presence it has owes a great deal to the Prodigy's initial success. The strength of propulsive, rock-infused dance singles such as "Firestarter" and "Breathe" insured the group a presence on domestic rock radio for many years to come.

But after that album was out and the touring was over, the group faded from the spotlight. If you hadn't been paying attention, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Prodigy had simply disappeared. Instead of attempting to consolidate Fat of the Land's commercial inroads, they took some time off. 1999 saw the release of a mix album by group mastermind Liam Howlett -- The Dirtchamber Sessions -- issued under the Prodigy name. In 2002 the group released a "comeback" single, "Baby's Got a Temper", which was so bad that despite it's chart success (#5 on the UK charts), it was subsequently banished from the group's subsequent hits collection. Finally, in 2005 the Prodigy finally released their follow-up to Fat of the Land. Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned may not have been the resounding triumph for which the group's fans had been diligently waiting some eight years, but there was enough vigor left to convincingly announce the group's return from self-imposed exile -- with the implication that more fun was in the offing now that the long hibernation was officially over.

In 2005 the Prodigy's long-awaited hits collection, Their Law: The Singles 1990-2005, shot to number one in Britain, proving for anyone who had ever doubted that the Prodigy were still a commercial force to be reckoned with. PopMatters recently spoke with Liam Howelett on the eve of the group's first full-scale American tour in many years. Mr. Howlett proved a courteous and amiable subject, if occasionally a bit reticent at the prospect of delving into his catalog's back pages. Oftentimes when artists conduct massive publicity campaigns on the eve of album releases and major tours their press interactions can be clipped and rote, and while I attempted to avoid asking the type of questions that might lend themselves to more prepared responses, it is to Mr. Howlett's credit that he seemed to honestly enjoy being asked a few interesting questions.

Fat of the Land was the album that conquered America when nothing else had succeeded, and, with the possible exception of Moby's Play, is probably the most successful electronic music album in American history. Yet at the time the Prodigy were being hyped as merely the first in a wave of artists who would achieve massive stateside success, and this obviously didn't happen. Fat of the Land sold a few million copies, the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim had a few minor hits, and with the exception of Moby that was pretty much it for America and dance music. Looking back with almost a decade's hindsight, what do make of electronic music's failure to really capture the imaginations of American record buyers?
Well, there weren't many good records really, were there? That's the end of it. There weren't that many great records that could carry over onto radio. It's all very well having great club music... but great electronic music works in one underground area, which is where electronic music lives best. Do you know what I mean?

I definitely agree with you.
My answer to that question is that there wasn't nearly enough good music out there. I mean, our record is classed as electronic because it's been written on electronic equipment, but it's not typically electronic sounding like something like Kraftwerk. I think people might have been confused. People buy into our band not because it's electronic, [but because] of what they get out of it... obviously the power of the music, the energy of the music and what we bring live -- it's the whole package. That's for me why we happened in America. We just hit it at the right time. Plus, we'd been going to America a lot previously, but then MTV played the video... I'm suspicious of any big push. Things don't happen like that. Things happen from the underground. Things come up from the underground and happen out of nowhere, you're not told something's going to be big by a record company or a radio station.

I agree with you 100%, because from the perspective of an American fan who really got into the Prodigy... that opened the doorway to a lot of other groups who -- you're right -- would perhaps have been less radio friendly. The Prodigy, for me at least, and I know for at least a few others, was sort of a gateway. But it didn't really work like that, because I can see you're making the distinction here, the music for the radio play, as opposed to the underground, just wasn't there, and the underground in America has never really coalesced on anything more than a local level.
Don't get me wrong, if people search hard enough there are some great records out there that are electronic music, but I think it's a real complicated scenario, because people were expecting it to be a massive scene out of nowhere. In England, the scene's very blurred... it wasn't particularly an "electronic music scene"; it was like a party culture. And you can't manufacture that.

Not only was it a party culture but it had been building and growing for almost two decades.
Exactly. Still... we remember coming to America very early on and playing some massive great rave parties and stuff like that. But I think in England, maybe because it kind of started here, it lasted longer. I mean, a lot of the bands that were around in the early '90s didn't carry on. A few people did. We've kind of morphed and changed with the times and tried to stay ahead of the game and tried different things out -- we're not purists. We're not trying to be purely electronic. We're just up for excitement in music, whatever way that is.

Well, that's one of the things I always appreciated about the Prodigy in relation to the other groups. Some of the other groups who came up around the same time as you, like Orbital or Underworld -- groups who you probably would regard on some level as peers -- they stayed true to a pretty concise view of electronic music. That allowed for a lot of stuff -- that's a pretty wide definition -- but still, every album, just about, you came out and tried to do something different and add stuff to the sound.
[I think] Orbital are great because they're quite pure, and they've stuck to what they're doing. I think each different band fits a slightly different hole. Underworld are more of a club band, they've got that really heavy club sound to them. Orbital are more experimental electronic. The Prodigy, I guess, is more full-on in your face.

Well, the Prodigy change with every album.
Yeah, but we like to think we carry the same attitude within the music even though we've tried different styles out. I don't know if that's why we've stayed around... but I believe that for any artist that writes, it's all about good tunes and how people get them. Do people understand them? Do people get them? Now, I'm not really into metal, but I like a lot of [harder records]... I don't even think they're in that category but they are that type of music. I like the song because it's a good song.

And you react to the energy as well.
Yeah, absolutely.

I feel the same way about a lot of metal. I can't listen to it for long periods of time but every now and again one metal song will really hit the spot... Listening to you speak, I have to wonder, because at various times in the past it's almost sounded like -- at least through your interviews -- you've had an antagonistic relationship with a lot of the other electronic music that's been out there. Do you see the Prodigy in 2006 as having any relationship to what's going on in the dance underground now, or do you think you've really moved beyond that
Well, I wouldn't say beyond, but I think that -- OK, "beyond" had a bad connotation...
Basically... we've always been a band, I believe, that has kind of stolen and thieved elements we like out of cultures we've dipped out feet into. We came from the dance culture originally, but when that disappeared, we just kept on stealing bits we liked out of it and re-presenting them in different ways. And then we stole bits out of the punk culture that we liked, without trying to be too obvious, and [tried] to make them into something new. I think we'll just carry on stealing things -- [laughs] -- as we go along. You know, that's just what we do. I don't follow electronic music like I used to, because there's so many records... When I used to be into it, like about ten years ago, I could literally go out and buy the week's releases all in one shop.

And that'd be it -- you'd have your finger on the pulse.
Yeah, man. But now it's impossible. There's so many different types of music... I listen to a lot of pirate radio, so I kind of know what's going on, but I just take and steal what excites me.

Well, if you're listening to a lot of radio, does that mean that the next Prodigy album is going to be grime?
[chuckles] No, absolutely not, no.

Really? That was kind of a joke, but I do hear some of that attitude there.
Well, you talk about that... I'll steal what I like out of it, but it's not appropriate for us to try and jump on that and make that music because it's not real for us. But I like some of the beats, I like some of the kind-of raw production, so maybe, you know... I'll just take and steal out of that as I think would fit into my songs. You know what I mean?

Yes, I think I do. So, moving on since time is of the essence -- have you ever considered doing another Dirtchamber Session?
Absolutely. It's one of those records that just keeps getting a lot of respect. I mean, the thing's only just come out in America but it's been out here for years, and so --

The Dirtchamber Sessions? It came out in '99.
What? In America?

Alright, OK. I thought they'd just released that over there. Maybe I was wrong. Someone told me the other day -- misinformation -- that it had only just come out over there. But yeah, there will be another one. But after I've done the Prodigy album.

I can definitely understand, you've got to keep your priorities. But just from my point of view, I have to say that The Dirtchamber Sessions is probably one of my favorite DJ mix albums.
Thank you very much. It was quite early on in the whole bootleg thing -- a big bootleg scene kicked off, and it was kind of pre- that, in a way. There was a big bootleg scene here, [around] 2003 onwards.

It sort of came over here in the last couple years.
Yeah, 2 Many DJ's did a really good album. It was exciting. But yeah -- I really enjoyed that record. It was done for Radio One originally, it got a lot of respect and then we decided to release it. But yeah, I guess there will be another one.

I am very glad to hear that. A lot of DJ albums come out, and I listen to a lot of them, and most of them just don't have that long of a shelf life. But that's one of those rare ones that I pull off the shelf every now and again and it still breathes, it still has a life to it.
I like it. We played it actually on tour. We just did our English tour and it was good to hear it again.

Have you considered doing a re-release of Songs for the Jilted Generation along the lines of the expanded Prodigy Experience?
No, we're all done with that now, all the old material. We didn't actually want to do the Greatest Hits, we were ready to start our new record -- until the record company pointed out that it was in the contract. But then we got into it, and tried to be creative with it as much as [we could]. And, you know, we ended up being really proud of it. You have to have a different brain when you're doing a record like that. It's more about "this is your achievement"; I could hold in one hand all the records we've released, so that was cool. We're moving on now, and getting on with the new record.

Certainly, in terms of your Greatest Hits, if you just want to look at the stuff on the second disc -- the bonus disc -- as being the real treat. For the fans who already have the records, that's where it's at. There's a lot of really good material. Even if you feel guilty or whatever about putting out a Greatest Hits disc, that second disc makes up for it -- gives it a reason to exist.
That was our compromise with the record company, that we'd only do it if we could do that, and also make -- I know it doesn't sound much -- but we'd [also] have a good booklet, a history of the band in pictures, and the second CD goes with it. But as for other unreleased material, there's lots of old stuff floating around. The type of thing we'll probably do is stick it on our web site. We're not really into releasing any old stuff anymore. We just want to carry on.

But at the same time, at some point you'd consider making it available to the fans.
Yeah, through the web site. People can have it for nothing.

Well, hey, at twice the price it's a bargain, my friend.
It's no use to me anymore. Because a lot of the music is tied into a certain era, so to release it is interesting, but I prefer to just [put it up on] the website, maybe one track a month or whatever.

It's interesting that you say that, because I can certainly relate to your desire to keep current and keep going forward, but in preparation for this interview I was listening to the Experience again... and this is an album that is 14 years old. It came out in 1992, when some of the people reading this might not even have been born, and it still has so much energy and so much imagination that it puts most of the records being released today to shame.
Thank you. I listened to it recently as well, when we were doing this whole compilation thing. Basically, it was a total frame of mind I was in when I was writing that album. My head was bursting with so many ideas, and each track sounds like three or four ideas in one track. It's kind of... pretty mad, actually. It captures the spirit of the English rave culture at the time, it's really tied into that era. But it still [stood up against the] other tracks when we were compiling the hits album.

Another interesting thing I noticed while I was listening to the album, is that you have the album, and then on the second disc you have a lot of the original 12"s and other versions [of the singles]. And invariably, the versions of all the hits on the album, like "Charlie", "Your Love", "Fire", all the ones that made it onto the album are the fastest versions of those songs that you made, faster than most of the single versions that you made. Is there a reason for that?
Drugs, probably. [laughs] Probably on some kind of mad narcotic at the time. That's all I can say. I really can't remember.

That's probably as honest an answer as any.
Yeah. Now, with that [the Greatest Hits] record we just wanted to try to give an array. It was always about looking back, I didn't want to put any new tracks on there. I think some of the English fans were hoping we were going to stick a couple of brand new tracks that would have an insight as to where we were going next... but it was always about what happened before.

Well, usually when any group of any kind puts out a greatest hits, they usually stick one or two obligatory new tracks on there that don't hold up with all the classics.
The token new track that'll hopefully get some radio play. But we didn't want to even try for that. "Back to School" [included on the bonus disc] was basically a very old track that was written for the live show and became popular through the live show, and that ended up on the record. And a record Keith [Flint] wrote two or three years ago ended up on there. They're just artifacts, you know what I mean?

There must have been a lot of pressure from the record company to come up with a new track.
No, we talked about it, and we were happy, once we listened through to the whole thing. See, our record company -- they're cool, XL. They were happy to release the record without any of that other stuff. I mean, it still sold bucketloads over here, it's been double platinum.

Now honestly -- we saw, overseas in the UK, it was the number #1 record -- the fact that it came out, it was for all intents and purpose older material, it didn't have a new single to ride on... did it surprise you that it was so popular?
Erm, it did actually, yeah. Because, I think we'd just done an English tour -- festivals and stuff -- and we had a lot of new audience there. I think a lot of the kids were 18-,19-year-olds, [and it was] the first time they'd seen the band. So getting all the singles on one album, I guess a lot of those kids bought that album, instead of buying all three records. It's the kind of thing I do. I mean, I wasn't really into Green Day until I bought their singles album. And I'm into them now.

Well, for some reason there's this breed of music fan that really hates Greatest Hits albums, but I've always thought that compiling a really good Greatest Hits album is like an artform. Being able to compile singles like that is not something everyone can do well.
They've got to be good singles to begin with. The Green Day one...

That's a great example. And that's before they even wrote all the songs that are huge right now.
Four albums in was definitely the right time to do it for us. I think bands shouldn't consider it unless they've done at least that much. We didn't even want to do it then, but once we got the material together... 15 tracks is definitely enough for one CD, it's enough information to take in.

So to the best of my knowledge -- correct me if I'm wrong here -- you haven't played America since the Coachella festival in 2003, have you?
No, we played it last year... 2003 was the one with Oasis, yeah?

We played it last year with Nine Inch Nails.

Oh, well. That's one I didn't go to. But anyway, it's been a while since you've toured the States. Are you at all anxious about the kind of reception your going to get coming over here?
No, not at all. Never anxious. People will buzz off our enthusiasm, you know, because the band's really happy and really into it. If we weren't tight, and weren't in a good spot ourselves, then maybe we'd be thinking "fucking hell" ... but I think we've done so many shows recently, and we're really into it. We've just come back from Japan. I think we're really looking forward to it. Well, you can't ask for anything more than that.

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