Neko: interview with LH (December 2003)
Andrea Schnepf aka Neko interviewed Liam Howlett on 17th December 2003
Liam Howlett: The reason for doing this is to let everyone know that now there is an album. It’s not like ‘oh it might be coming, it might not’ or ‘it might be coming out in 8 months time’ and all that shit, it’s actually nearly done. The music is well on its way, tracks are finished and we’ve got our deadline now and that’s the one we’re going to deliver on.
After ‘Babys Got A Temper’, for me, I was never happy with that record. I felt like, at that stage I had slipped into a formula of writing and it felt stale — it’s easy now to look back and say what we should or shouldn’t have done — you know what I mean? But I think that in hindsight, it was definitely the last time we could write a record like that. And for me, it gave me a big wake-up call. And so the underlying big thing for me was writing a ‘new’ new album. I had already written like 4 or 5 tracks that were kind of in a similar vein as that track, and releasing and playing that track live really kind of highlighted the direction we shouldn’t be going in. So I actually binned all the material I had written, I just threw it away. Some of the sounds I had used kind of ended up on different songs.
Neko: The new Prodigy album …
Liam Howlett: So that made me step back and think, ok, I need a change of environment and start messing around with some new ways of writing music, you know? And the outcome is a more — it sounds sexier! The tracks I’ve done sound like me, they sound like The Prodigy, but they kind of have, erm [thinks] they are punk in attitude, but not kind of ‘I’m gonna fuckin scream it down your throat’, you know. For me, that was then. That was when we were doing ‘Firestarter’ and that last album. And for me, it has to be a different thing again, because we’ve done that. We’ve carried the spirit of that vibe over in this album. I realized that just because you shout more and louder on a record doesn’t mean people feel you more, so I decided to take the beats back to the street.
Like every Prodigy album, the new album isn’t going to be like a band playing, with five guys in a band and guitar and every track sonically sounds the same. The sonics is what it is. The Prodigy have never been like that, every track has its own feel, because it starts in the studio with electronic music. It’s not like grabbing a guitar and playing the same sound on every song. It just has to have that fukin energy that I feel, whether it’s fast or slow, as long as it has that then it’s right.
They are punk in attitude, but not kind of ‘I’m gonna fuckin scream it down your throat’.
Liam Howlett: Let me tell you about some of the tracks I’ve written:
- The way it is
- Who you’re fooling
- Slang Technology
- No Souvenirs
- Wake Up
- The Gun
So that’s 10 tracks we’ve got more or less in the bag now and there’s about 6 others we’re messing around with, so there’ll be like 12 tracks on the album or something plus b-sides and shit. The sound is more electronic and sparse, stripped down. To be honest this album is more like the 2nd album than the last album — more experimental. ‘Sandstorm’ is a track that has kind of a cinematic feel and it’s more like a journey kind of tune. ‘Girls’ is an electro punk rocker and ‘Lovebuzz’ is definitely sexy, it’s a tough grooved demented sounding tune. I think this album is definitely an album that people will play in their cars more.
The last album was kind of like really representing what we did live on stage. When I wrote that album we were playing live all the time, and that really came across in the last album. This time around, because we’ve stopped doing gigs, the actual emphasis is more on the music. The last album was almost like ‘tools to play live with’. It was written within mind of ‘playing live maximum impact’. This album, we still got the good live tunes on it, but it feels more 3 dimensional, it ain’t mellow though.
We’re definitely leaning more towards the electronic side than the guitar side cause, as you know, Keith has done his side project. And it’s very important that what Keith does with his side thing is different from what we do. He is well aware of that, I mean you’ve heard his stuff, it’s kind of more like your basic rock sound. So I’ve definitely moved away from using too many straight guitars.
This album is definitely ‘Liam Howlett on the beats again’, that is an important thing to say. It feels more personal than the other albums, it’s more me. It’s very hard to explain, but the last album, ‘The Fat Of The Land’, felt like the ‘live shows’ album. This album is Liam Howlett on the beats again, yeah!
‘Baby’s Got a Temper’ for me underlined the fact that we absolutely couldn’t carry on producing tracks with Keith and Maxim like that anymore, I wanted to use them in a cleverer way.
Liam Howlett: With his own record, Keith has taken what he does vocally in The Prodigy and pushed it to the extreme. So what we have had to do is to see that what he does within our band is different from what he does, otherwise, it’s fucking boring to me. I have to think about the vocals like samples and sounds, if they have a fucked up energy, they’re in.
‘Babys got a Temper’, Keith wrote the original track, then I took it further with The Prodigy sound. That was kind of the start of his record, and it wasn’t particularly a direction I wanted to go in. Because you know me, I’m more into the beats. I’m more into things that make me rock on a production level as well. And kind of the sound sonically has got to be really fucking ‘bang’, so when you put that record on, it’s just gotta explode. But with ‘Babys got a Temper’, once it had come out, it felt tired and I knew it wasn’t gonna be on the album.
To be honest, that track [BGAT] kicked me up the ass. It was the biggest kick up the ass that I needed, it was the only time I kind of thought ‘Nah, this ain’t totally right’. I’ve made the decisions, all the way through, and to me, this was my least favorite record. And that’s why we had to change. It felt like it was a tired formula, it was more like ‘Here we go again’; it didn’t feel fresh to me. It was like 3 alright ideas crammed into 1 song, but I liked the dub mix.
Definitely not many samples on this record.
Neko: In the period of time around the release of ‘Babys Got A Temper’ you said you were going to use less samples and more live instruments, have you changed your mind about that?
Liam Howlett: Not really, no, because I still play all the instruments. I played guitar on this album; I’ve actually played all the guitars myself! I’m not a fuckin guitarist but who cares, if it works, it’s in. Definitely not many samples on this record. There’s one really big sample that I can’t actually talk about, that’s probably on one track the major sample that I used, which is something pretty mad, but I can’t talk about that just yet, because it’s not cleared.’
We ended up just going ‘we’ve got more than enough material, we don’t need to go back to that’.
Neko: What happened to tracks like ‘Nuclear’ and ‘Trigger’?
Liam Howlett: Good question! Those tracks were definitely written in the old skool vibe of the prodigy, like 3 years ago. Those tracks I wrote when I came out of ‘The Fat Of The Land’. They were kind of cool at the time, but I always thought that they were demos and they needed a lot of work. So when it came to this new phase of recording, I found that the sound didn’t fit in with where I wanted to go. And so what we did is – some of the musical parts of ‘Nuclear’ were really good — so I pulled some of those parts out, and I think ‘Nuclear’ ended up being two different tracks. One of which is what I am working on at the moment. So ‘Nuclear’ actually survived pretty well actually, thinking about it. It isn’t ‘Nuclear’ anymore and it hasn’t got Maxim on it, but it’s a different track. Actually ‘Nuclear’ turned into ‘Action’ and we used a bit of Maxim’s voice on that. That one sounds still like an old Prodigy song; it still needs a bit of work. And as for ‘Trigger’, that one got kind of binned. There were a couple of guitar parts on it that were really good, that made it into a track called ‘The Gun’. And then the rest of the track just didn’t fit into the flavor of the new album. We ended up just going ‘we’ve got more than enough material, we don’t need to go back to that’.
I think as well when you start writing, like I always said with the last album, that when I had written ‘Firestarter’ it was like a great platform and then everything came quite easily — well not easily — but it seemed to flow and I seemed to get a feel where the album was going, like a natural path. And with this record, it’s been exactly the same. Until I had written like two things I was kind of happy with, the rest of the stuff didn’t really know where it was going, you know. Once I found a sound I liked I can kind of be quite consistent throughout the album. In a way of like, the way it hits.
Neko: No Souvenirs…
Liam Howlett: No Souvenirs still isn’t finished. It’s a very difficult track to finish off. I think for me, it has to go on the album, because it has been like a birth, a painful birth. It’s got some really good parts. It’s not like a normal Prodigy tune, but it’s definitely got its place on the record as its very important to me because it’s been so long in the making. We did the original version, which was meant to be on ‘The Beach’ soundtrack a couple of years ago. But we put it on the shelf and listened to it about 3 or 4 months ago, and thought it still sounded good. So it’s on the list of things that need finishing.
Neko: Has it changed since you first wrote it in 1999?
Liam Howlett: Yeah, it’s changed a lot. Basically in that phase, in 1999, I was still in the ‘old skool kind of Prodigy mode’, sort of like ‘The Fat of the Land’. So it definitely needed updating, cause it sounded like an old piece of music. And it’s important to me that this album sounds fresh and relevant to what is going on in my head now. You sometimes hear things and you think it’s cool, but it could have been made 3 or 4 years ago, you know? It’s important to me in my own head that I feel like I pushed it a bit more and go forward.
Neko: What is Maxim and Keith’s involvement in the new album?
Liam Howlett: We’ve penned a few tracks together, and we’re gonna be finishing off these tracks in January. Kind of like before, I’ve used their involvement in the same amount as before. I didn’t feel it was totally necessary to have Keith’s or Maxim’s vocals on every track. It’s not really what The Prodigy have ever been about. Plus, Keith’s album is all vocals, all the way through. So anything that can make the sound of our record be just Prodigy, that’s good. And as well, with vocals, I always thought that Keiths and Maxim’s or anyone’s vocals that appeared on the record aren’t the most important thing; the music is the most important thing and the vocals kind of fit around the music. Where I think with Keiths and Maxim’s solo projects, they are more about the vocals, you know. We’ve got a few ideas and are just trying to figure out which ones to put on.
Neko: In an old interview you said you wanted to take the new album like a step further from ‘The Fat of the Land’ and wanted the new album to be a further progression with more vocals.
Liam Howlett: Yeah, that was probably when I was in the same mind of thinking that that’s what the band should have done back then. It was probably during the time of doing ‘Trigger’, ‘Nuclear’ and all this. There are a few vocals on the album, it’s not an instrumental album; it is a vocal album. But not necessarily using Keith and Maxim all the time. I think that the Prodigy have always been a band that can release instrumentals as a single, you know. It’s not like we have to have Keith or Maxim to front every single.
It’s kind of like when we did ‘Smack my Bitch up’; we wanted to rock it out there because the actual tune just represented what we were about at that time. It isn’t important to me to always think that we have to have the guys on every record. Like when we put down the tracks with Maxim and Keith in January, we will see where they are going. All that matters on the album is whether it is a good track or not. If it works well as a single, then it’s a bonus.
So as whole, the album is [thinks] probably a bit more vocals than the last album, but erm, yeah, it is actually quite vocal heavy, thinking about it. Kind of 50/50 I would say.
I want people to go ‘fuck, is that The Prodigy? I didn’t expect that’
Neko: When do you expect the album to be released then?
Liam Howlett: This may be frustrating for a lot of people, but it’s just the way record companies go with their timing and everything. They need 3 months to do all their lead time, to do promotion and all that bullshit, so the schedule is for the album to come out in June-July 2004. And it really is fuckin’ coming out this time, it’s no joke. I think they released a lot of things in the past that was wrong information. When I had sort of written 3 or 4 tracks before, they thought it was on its way and they calculated roughly that it would be ‘this year’ or ‘out now’ or whatever they were thinking about it. And actually I was fucked off they had done that, because it made me look fuckin lazy. And it was actually my right to just turn around and say ‘Oh actually, I’ve thrown all these tracks in the bin and am starting again. Unlucky, you know!’ — I think we may put something out on a white label, and people won’t know what it is. I think people will be surprised when they hear this record. I want people to go ‘fuck, is that the Prodigy? I didn’t expect that’. It’s different this album, it’s fuckin’ different. People I’ve played it to were going ‘This isn’t what I was expecting’. If you’re looking for shouting over a more standard guitar sound, you better buy Keith’s album, you know. Because this album isn’t that, it is more beats and hard production and kind of toughness that’s on a street level.
Neko: Are you planning to release any of the tracks as singles before the album?
Liam Howlett: I think that’s more a record company thing. I’m just writing the music. I mean, for me, out of the tracks I have done so far I think there’s probably like, I’ve definitely done 3 or 4 singles already, things that move in different ways. But they’re still not finished. For me, a good album has 3 good singles. If you release 4, you’re kind of pushing it, you know. But we won’t make any decisions on what the singles will be until we’ve got them all, but certain ones definitely sound like singles.
Neko: Do you think ‘No Souvenirs’ might be one of the singles?
Liam Howlett: At the moment the direction ‘No Souvenirs’ is going in, is more an album track, but that’s as specific as I can be really. We’ve tried to make ‘No Souvenirs’ go in a certain style. And that was kind of like back in 1999 but now it feels like it has its place as a great album track. It’s kind of very musical in its current form, it may still change. I can’t really say anything else about it, as we still have to do more work on it, but I think, as it stands, it needs to be quite long so it doesn’t fit into a single format.
Neko: Have you changed your writing process, compared to the last album?
Liam Howlett: Yeah, totally, that was one of the biggest changes that helped me, to break out of the monotony. Because I felt like during the years 1999 and 2000, I took time off, but I felt like I was doing the same thing over and over again. I was just sitting in my studio, same fucking equipment, and everything just got me down. I thought ‘Nah, this is shit, I need to find a new way of working’. I thought I was gonna have to go to America and spend like 5 months in New York and try and open a different place. That was the plan originally. And then, basically I bought myself a laptop computer and had all my tools I needed to write on that. So then I was able to just go anywhere and put all my ideas down. That was the biggest change, I had a new program on my laptop and that basically did it for me!
Neko: Yeah, I just saw an interview you did for a program called Reason
Liam Howlett: Fuckin hell, you saw that? I can’t fuckin’ believe that. Ok then, I’ll elaborate on that. I wasn’t gonna say that, because I didn’t think you would know what that is. So basically, when I bought that laptop someone said to me ‘you gotta have to check that program out, it’s like a computer game.’ — but obviously it’s more than that, it’s a full program to write music on. So it became like a sketchpad for doing this album. It literally saved my head from going mad. Because I was sitting in my studio, can you imagine? The same fucking room for like 6 years! I was just like in a rut, thinking I’m just doing the same thing that I was doing before. So I had to change the way I did it, and that took quite a while. There is no reason for the album taking all these years apart from that obviously I wasn’t ready [laughs]. I wasn’t ready, because if I had done it earlier I wouldn’t have been happy with what I’d done.
When I first started writing music, I used to use a W30, which is like a really basic Roland keyboard. It’s what I wrote the first album and the first couple of singles on. It’s pure back to basics, nothing around apart from that one element, that one keyboard. And Reason reminded me a lot of that. Cause it’s everything in one box and there’s no confusion for sort of bringing in complicated equipment. All you’re dealing with is what your brain can think of. So that has probably been the biggest help. I didn’t want to make it sound like I was licking those guys’ asses but they really helped me sort my writing out. It helped free up a big space in my head.
Neko: What does this all mean for the live show of The Prodigy? Are you going to go on the road with the new material?
Liam Howlett: Well, of course, because that’s what we do, you know. I mean, things change but that is where we rock it, we love it live. For me, the first thing was to write a good record. And a record can only be taken live once it is a good record. It’s been on the back of my mind, to make the tracks so we can play live, but not as the main issue. Not like with ‘The Fat of the Land’, which definitely had about 80% written to be played live.
I think bands don’t really want to play whole albums live, you have to balance it. It’s important to mix the new with the old. And also, things can be changed when played live. So for example one track as it appears on the album, might not initially sound like a good live track. And then when we go and do some gigs, we can change and fit around to make that work live. And that’s the way things move forward. A probably good example is ‘Baby’s got a Temper’, we started off with a really really slow version. and the idea was kind of there, but I thought it definitely didn’t work live. It still wasn’t brilliant live in the end, but it got better. But I just felt that track didn’t really cut it, not like some of the other stuff.
Neko: You used to always test new material on the road. Was it different this time, as you didn’t really have a testing ground to experiment with it?
Liam Howlett: In some way, it was actually quite refreshing to have just that. Cause for the last record that was the formula that worked back then. But I had to break out of that and find interesting things to be different on this record. Cause for me the first thing is to make a good record. This is my first interest, not to have a live album that can be played live. I mean, it is of course very important, and I can’t take any of the importance away from it. But I have to make a good record because that’s basically for me the reason for doing it. We’ve taken some of the things live, some of it you’ll recognize from some of the old tracks. Some of the kind of jams and things we used to do and stuff like that. But as a whole, I would say that 50% we can do live and 50% is not live.
Neko: Is the album still going to be called ‘Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned’, or is this just a working title?
Liam Howlett: It’s always still a working title until the artwork is finished, you know. Things are always going to get changed. I’ve told you all the tracks that we’ve got names for so far, but maybe some of those still get called something different. So everything is just a working title until it goes to artwork, really. I always change my mind in the last minute. Basically, for me, that’s what the album was called 3 or 4 years ago and it still feels like that’s what the album should be called now. So right now it is called that.
Neko: Wasn’t there once also a track called ‘Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned’? I’ve never heard it but I remember you mentioning it before.
Liam Howlett: Yeah, yeah. I think that probably changed along the way. Maybe we actually lost that one or we called it something else. I can’t remember what track it was; it might have been ‘Action’ actually. It still might have a title track on there called that, but at the moment there isn’t one. There are still 3 or 4 tracks that I haven’t got titles for at the minute.
‘No Souvenirs’ will hopefully be on the record
Neko: What about collaborations and guest appearances on the album?
Liam Howlett: I can tell you which ones didn’t work. Peaches didn’t work. We tried to do something. The vibe started good, and then it just didn’t work. I mean, I love her, she rocks it, she’s the real fuckin’ deal. There’s no fake ‘I wanna be a punk’; that’s why I wanted to work with her. But as well, when we did it, we did the track about 8 months ago and when it came back to do more work on it, she was all stressed with her own record and she had just done the track with Iggy Pop and stuff like that. So she couldn’t find the time to come over and do some more work on the track, so then what we had from the session just didn’t fit in well with where I wanted to go. So that one didn’t work. ‘No Souvenirs’ will hopefully be on the record, that’s a collaboration with Rob from Massive Attack. I’ve got a track with Kool Keith again — he’s almost like a member of the band, being on so many of the old tunes, know what I mean! And a track with Noreaga — they’re the ones I can talk about. Some of the tracks are full vocal tracks on the other hand Prodigy is also about the music being good without the vocals. The tracks shouldn’t always be full vocals, there should always be enough space to let the music speak. And I think that’s where, like I said before, Maxim’s and Keith’s music differ. They don’t pay as much attention to the music side, they’re more about delivering the vocals.
Neko: Is the ‘Wake Up’ track a collaboration?
Liam Howlett: Yeah, Kool Keith!
Neko: Just because there was this ‘note from Liam Howlett’ on the XL website, I don’t know if you have seen it?
Liam Howlett: Oh, yeah, I saw that, that was funny. Yeah, it’s a Kool Keith track. I mean, everyone knows I’m into the Ultramagnetic MCs and Kool Keith still to me has the best flow, ‘Diesel Power’ really did it for me. And you know, with a track like that, obviously people may get frustrated because you can’t play it live, but that’s the way things fucking go sometimes! And you can play it in your car and enjoy it there. And I can’t think of every track being a live track, I have to think about the balance of making a good record.
Neko: You’ve done a cover of ‘Fuel my Fire‘ on ‘The Fat of the Land’, ‘Ghost Town’ at Reading 1998, and then ‘Nightboat to Cairo’ at Reading 2002. Are there going to be any covers on this record?
Liam Howlett: ‘Nightboat to Cairo’ and ‘Ghost Town’ were more just humor, really. They were tracks that were special to me when I was young, but they were never ever going to be released, they were only ever going to be played once or twice and then put on the shelf. So these tracks are definitely never going to be heard again.
Neko: You’ve released an instrumental version of ‘Ghost Town’ on the Warchild album last year though
Liam Howlett: That’s true. That one actually worked out quite well, cause what happened was, it was an old track that was done at Reading in 1998 and then the Warchild thing came along and it was like ‘record a cover version of a number 1 record’, and I was like ‘oh, as it happens, I’ve got this here’. And it was a charity thing, so it was a good vibe. So yeah, that’s true, but it wasn’t ever going to be on a Prodigy album. There’s actually… [thinks] there’s one cover version of an old record that’s probably not many people have heard of, but it’s definitely our own version of it. But that’s all I can tell you about it at the moment.
Neko: Have you got any other artists that have influenced you in writing this new album?
Liam Howlett: Not really, no. I never had that before and I still don’t get that now. There aren’t really specific things I can pin down, not like a specific sound or an artist, but it always comes from the Sex Pistols energy and Public Enemy. That’s The Prodigy. That’s basically the main influence, and it’s never going to change because that’s what I’m about. It doesn’t mean that — when I talk about the Pistols, I talk about the spirit of the Pistols in the way they just walked around with their fist in the air, you know, that’s the spirit. That’s what drives me with my music. I’m not saying that the music has to sound like the Pistols, I just feel that spirit in my music when I write it.
So with this album, I started writing a couple of tunes and then I thought ‘Hang on, this album sounds quite slow’ so I kind of had to start and write some faster tracks because it really started to sound very slow. A lot of the tracks were sort of ‘Poison’ kind of speed and ‘Baby’s Got a Temper’, so we’re doing a couple of faster ones now.’
I want to do another album, and I want to do another album after that!
Liam Howlett: I don’t know where these last five years have actually gone. It’s quite scary really, because it’s almost like I’ve been in a time capsule. I feel like I’ve just stepped off stage at Reading and I’m in the studio again, whereas that was actually 3 years ago. To me it feels really short, but I’m sure to everyone else it’s frustrating cause it’s such a long time. And, you know, we’re now just fucking ready to spit this album out next year. And it’s gonna be different this time, that’s all I can say. It’s been different every time, yeah. We don’t want to come back and be the same Prodigy as we were before, you know, because that’s boring, we have to feel like we have moved forward. I want The Prodigy to carry on. I want to do another album, and I want to do another album after that! I think this album allows me to do that, because it is a step sideways from ‘The Fat of the Land’, rather than to try and push that idea further. To push that idea from ‘The Fat of the Land’ further would fall flat on its face, this one moves forward in a different way.’
Neko: Do you miss playing live?
Liam Howlett: Absolutely, I totally miss it. I miss it now, but back then when we’d done it I fucking hated it, because we’ve ran a ground like a ship. It was just boring and we felt like we were repeating ourselves. We did the whole album touring thing, but then just comes to a point where you think ‘ok, enough is enough for the time being’. Yeah, I love playing live, it’s fucking great.
Neko: Last year when you played Reading festival you had this massive build-up and made it look like it was going to be this big comeback, you changed the stage and the show compared to earlier shows that year, but then it all went completely quiet afterwards.
Liam Howlett: I think the reason why we changed it was to make it, in our eyes, kinda special, you know. Australia for me was some of the best shows we ever did, Australia was just fucking amazing, I loved the place and I had a really good time there and loved the different bands that were playing there. I hated Reading, I fucking hated it, we should have never done it. That combined with ‘Babys got a Temper’ was the point for me ‘Fucking stop now. Just fucking stop everything. Let me get back in the studio’. You can only do something so many times, before it feels like you’re doing the same thing. After Reading and releasing that record we just had to stop, because I wanted to have time to think about where I was going to go. I can’t remember what year that was, when was that?
Neko: It was last year, August 2002
Liam Howlett: Reading? Was it really last year? I thought it was longer. So yeah, that was the last gig we did, fucking hell, feels not long enough, I thought it was like two years or so.
I love playing live, it’s great, but the Prodigy never played Wembley, the Prodigy much prefers to do 4 nights in Brixton or whatever, just because it’s more, it’s real. We never sold out on that level, we never signed to any major record companies, we just kept it real on that level. That’s what it’s about for me, it’s about being totally real and not being at a level where you think ‘what the fuck is all this about’. And I think stuff like playing Wembley and major record deals just fucks the reality out of what you are trying to do. That’s why we stayed with the same record label and played the same sort of venues.
Neko: Do you think you will only start touring again once the new album has been released?
Liam Howlett: I don’t know it’s hard to say really. There is going to be a period when I finished the record, the three months when I finished and delivered it until it comes out. It’s quite a long period. And during that time we can look at which tracks to play live, we can look at which ones we can do live and which ones we can change to do live. And then in that time it’s a good time to get our shit together and then punch it when it comes out. Maybe we will play a few small shows to lead into it and by that time people will start hearing the record. But a lot can change in the next 2 or 3 months!