DJ Times: Liam Howlett – Lone Prodigy
For His First Full-Length in Seven Years, Liam Howlett Shed His Band Mates and Found Inspiration in His Laptop.
By Brian O’Connor
Photos by Rahav Segev
Published in the December 2004 issue of DJ Times Magazine
Volume 17 – Number 12
Liam Howlett has come a long way, baby.
In just a couple years’ time, not only has The Prodigy mastermind switched to Propellerhead’s Reason software, but he’s also gotten hitched, become the stepfather of a 13-year-old girl, and excluded Keith and Maxim from Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned (Maverick), his latest breakbeat-frenzied effort and first since “Baby’s Got a Temper” single in the summer of 2002.
None of these decisions came easily—except for the switch to Reason software. “I don’t really know why I hadn’t done it earlier,” says Howlett, almost sheepishly, when DJ Times talked to him recently in New York City. “I can now remove the pressure of recording in a studio, and throw ideas down onto my notebook computer whenever they come to me.”
Howlett believes the results speak for themselves. Always Outnumbered…bristles with Howlett’s signature, big-kick, gritty breaks. By not being anchored to Keith Flint’s vocals, Howlett is free to employ the talents of Juliette Lewis, Princess Superstar, Kool Keith, Liam Gallagher and Paul Jackson—whom he met while the pair were picking up their daughters from school; more on that later.
While retaining the punk-meets-hip hop approach that has been his calling card, Howlett stretches into Timbaland beats on “Memphis Bells”; sleazed-up ’80s synth lines on “Action Radar”; Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” gets tweaked on “The Way It Is” and Liam Gallagher offers an opening salvo on “Spitfire.”
As age takes its course, Howlett’s no longer got the temper he had; his country estate among the hedgerows in rural England has had a calming effect, too. But when we spoke to him recently, remnants of the DJ-punk we once knew were in effect.
DJ Times: There were a half-dozen tracks that you had recorded for this record that you trashed. Why?
Liam Howlett: I’ll give you a brief history of how that happened. Fat of the Land, 1997, I toured that for two years, and had a great time. By the end of that tour we were getting irritated with each other, on the road, it takes its toll. What used to happen was the music would feed the gigs, so we always had fresh stuff going on. But by the time two years passed, we were playing the album over and over again—it was getting a bit monotonous. I wanted time off in 2000, so I took time off—basically went out drinking with my friends, just didn’t do any music, for about a year. I met my wife, late 2000, and just lived my life. Just had a party and I wasn’t ready to go into the studio. Come 2001, I was ready to go back into the studio. I recorded five tracks, and my head was in the previous mode, of Fat of the Land, and I think the record didn’t have the same energy the last stuff had, and it felt like we stagnated ourselves, and formulated what we were about. The Prodigy was always about never being able to pinpoint what we were about. The underlying energy to Prodigy—from “Poison” to “Voodoo People” to “Firestarter”—it was always, like, unpredictable. I think with “Baby’s Got a Temper” we formulated ourselves with that record, Keith’s lyrics were really dark and, looking back, I’m glad the record came out, but for me it was a bit of a low point, and all the tracks I’d written were of that kind of nature. I guess it would have been fine to release those tracks two years after Fat of the Land. It would have been a natural progression. But all this time later, I wasn’t happy with all the time it had taken and it sounded like it was too much like the last record, and it didn’t excite me. I had to go with my gut reaction and, basically, at that stage I decided to trash all those tracks.
DJ Times: Of those trashed tracks, did any of those loops or breaks find their way onto the new material?
Howlett: There was one track, called “Trigger,” which had a sample of “Sagittarius” from the ’60s, that found its way onto one track on the album. But quite a lot of stuff is guitar-based. There was one track called “Nuclear,” it almost sounded like the [Sex] Pistols, like the Prodigy trying to sound like the Pistols. It was just three chords with beats—it was really like a cartoon version of “Firestarter.” I looked at it and thought, “Nah, it isn’t right.” The record company was, “$&*#, are you going to start again?” And I was like, “Yeah.” So then I went back into my studio in my house in Essex. It’s quite a big house, and it’s got gardens and it’s really relaxed. It’s a good environment and I went back into the studio for four months straight, me and my producer. We just sat there and I think the only thing I completed was the Michael Jackson [“Thriller” sample] track [“The Way It Is”]. At the end of four months, it was obvious things were moving far too slow, and my friend once said to me, “The definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting new results.” I was going through the motions, sitting in front of my computer screen, saying, “Is this it? Is this what writing an album is all about? Is this fun?” My friend said, “Lets’ get out of here, go mobile, go to London.” So I took my gear, six bits of equipment, set up a new base. It was vibrant, with a raw atmosphere, I could write at home, I could write in the studio, but it was cool to actually get up and drive and go to work. That changed everything. London’s great for when you’re working and you want to go out and socialize. It was really great being amongst the shit.
DJ Times: What did you find specifically inspiring in London?
Howlett: I chose to remove myself from any inspiration. I didn’t want to buy any new music. I didn’t want to see any bands play. I was walking down the street in Hackney one day, and it’s quite a noisy area, lots of cars, sound systems, general noise. And I would just walk into the shops and just soak up what was going on. Sometimes I’d hear music and sometimes I’d hear noise. And then I’d go back to the studio—five minutes down the road. Another time I was in a restaurant with my wife, and it was supposed to be a romantic dinner; we sat down and this music started coming out of the kitchen, it was like “What’s this music?” And I was trying to explain to this Lebanese guy who couldn’t speak English, “Tell me what this CD is.” He eventually wrote it down, and the next day I went off to get the cassette and that became part of “Medusa’s Path.” It’s an Iranian singer. It’s this one part that I thought would make a good loop. I think I’ve got the ability to hear stuff and think, “Yeah, I can do something with that; I can manipulate that sound.” The point is, I was getting inspired by my surroundings, rather than by a band or that sort of thing. It was really refreshing, you know?
DJ Times: Studio-wise, you really just have a Powerbook and outboard gear?
Howlett: I had all my sounds for the last 10 years on my hard drive, all my drum sounds, all the stuff I collected. I took out my analogue keyboards—classic Korg and Oberheims. A couple of nice EQs, the Akai sampler and my laptop with [Propellerhead’s] Reason.
DJ Times: You formerly used Pro Tools, right?
Howlett: Reason is a great escape from the usual heaviness of ProTools in the studio. It’s really fun to use. It’s like using a computer game. It’s very similar to when I first wrote music in the beginning—it almost became full circle. It became very easy to put ideas down. If I had something in my head, it was down in 10 minutes. It was a great path. All the initial writing was done in Reason, and then we shifted across to Pro Tools to overdub guitars—or I played bass—and added vocals. So it freed space up in my head, so I could sit back and go, “OK, now I can think about what extra parts can go in the tracks.” That’s it for now; that’s the way I’m going to do it. It’s wicked. I can write on the plane, instead of having all this pressure of the studio. I don’t know why I didn’t do it before. I used to watch the Aphex Twin—he used to have his laptop with him all the time, and I use to think, “What’s that all about?” For me, it’s like jumping on a vibe when you’re in it instead of waiting.
DJ Times: On “Action Radar,” you’re using an Oberheim to get that Gary Numan-like synth?
Howlett: Yeah, that was actually the last track recorded on the album, and I met [vocalist] Paul [Jackson] in a strange circumstance. My 12-year-old daughter had her friend around and she was playing this music, and I was like, the dad, “Turn that f—ing music down; it’s too loud.” She kept running in, “This is my friend’s dad, he’s a singer.” The next morning, she was playing the CD again and I listened to it, and it was pretty mad. I listened to it more, and I thought, “I’d like to do something with this guy.” He was kind of unknown and the idea of working with someone unknown was pretty exciting. I actually met up with him outside of a school when I picked up my daughter. And I said, “Do you know a band called Prodigy?” He said, “Sure.” So at first I tried to get him to do some stuff on this one track, but it didn’t work out. But I kept him in the back of my mind and when I was mixing the record in London, I had a separate vocal room set up, and I finished “Action Radar” as an instrumental and I gave it to Paul and it’s a track I really like.
DJ Times: How did you get Liam Gallagher on board?
Howlett: That track [“Shootdown”] came about from six years ago. We met at a festival, and he was like, “My brother Noel just did this track with the Chemical Brothers. We can make a track better than that—that’ll blow them out of the water.” I remembered that all these years later. He goes out with my wife’s sister—I met my wife at a festival, and the next day we went off on our first date, and she says, “Should we go to my sister’s house?” I said, sure. So we go over there and Liam Gallagher’s sitting on her couch. The two Liams; that’s great, isn’t it? We had a laugh about that. Then two years later, we were around my house—my house is a great party house. There’s always people flowing in and out on the weekends. And we were sitting there at three in the morning, and we were like, “Should we go upstairs and do that track?” So we did, for three hours everyone wondered where we were. We got the ideas down, and we were trying to do something that he doesn’t do on his own records; his own records are quite melodic and basically chorus verse situation. It was just giving him the platform to do something that was very direct and simple—more punk rock, I guess.
DJ Times: All tunes start with you in the studio…
Howlett: It all starts with me in the studio. I didn’t get too many players on this record—just a flute player and the assistant engineer on guitar. I play bass enough to rock it into the sampler and create some weird shit. I did the bass on “Shoot Down.” Noel [Gallagher] has this amazing studio in the country where he’s got all old valve ’60s gear. He’s got the desk that Pink Floyd did Dark Side of the Moon. So I went down there, and I asked if I could use his studio; he said, “Sure, you can have it for free.” So I went down there for a week and we started recording stuff, and I asked him if he’d heard the track I recorded with his brother. He said he hadn’t. So I played it for him and told him I had to record the bass again. He said don’t bother; he’ll record the bass. So it happened by accident, really. So he repaired my dodgy bass playing. I couldn’t turn him down—he’d lent me the studio for nothing.
DJ Times: Are there any new challenges to making beats?
Howlett: There’s always a more perfect beat. The reason I continue writing music is because I’m constantly challenging myself. I want to always write a better tune or a better beat. I’ll always write music, but I think with this music I didn’t want it to be frenetic breakbeats; I wanted it to be big strong drums, but very simple. That frenetic breakbeat sound is kind of 1990, that era; with this record it’s important to show something different. With “Spitfire,” I decided to keep the drums real heavy, like John Bonham; “Girls” was more electro, just pushing the beats in different areas throughout the whole album. Some drums were really trashy sounding, but never going back to frenetic style.
DJ Times: Beat-wise, what was different?
Howlett: On “Memphis Bells” I was inspired by Timbaland, his half-time beats—the jerkiness of it. I hadn’t done anything like that before—that was original for me. Throughout the whole record I tried to think of what I did with Fat of the Land and try to make it different. I went to a trashier sound, a sexier sound, and I tried to get more of a live drum sound—a live kick.
DJ Times: You decided to record this record alone, without Keith and Maxim. Why?
Howlett: This was a big collaboration album, in the sense that I had all the tracks with different people. I had already made the decision that I wasn’t going to use Keith and Maxim on this record after I had recorded “Wake Up Call” and “Girls.” I called them in the studio, and told them that I was happy with these tracks and this is the direction where I’m going. I told them I’m doing what I used to do, but making it sound fresh again. I thought it was important to focus on the music rather then a front man. I wanted people to be drawn toward the music. Their initial reaction was confusion. They thought they should be on the record. I told them I was going to make a brave record, and I played the two tracks for them and they understood. A lot of people might find it odd, because they might think of us as a traditional band, but we’re more erratic than that, and I never wanted to limit myself to having a vocalist on one record all the way through. The main thing to them was that we could play it live, and there’s about five or six tracks on this record that will play live.
DJ Times: No hard feelings?
Howlett: They’re my friends, and it had to be made in the interest of the music. I have to be excited by what I’m doing. It was the right decision, and it’s freed me up. Once I got back to the stage where I could grab a female vocal, grab a hip-hop sample, a guitar sample and be free with the sonics of the record, that was when I felt like I was going back to the philosophy of the second album—beat thievery. But Keith and Maxim came around to the way I was feeling. I’m the boss, man, and I had to make a brave decision.