RemixMag (Martin James): Behind the curtain (1st Aug 2004)
Wait a minute, Liam Howlett has finally released another album? The Prodigy isn’t fading into obscurity? Somebody get some smelling salts. (“Behind the curtain” by Martin James; Remix Magazine, Aug. 2004)
“To tell you the truth, I hate talking about technical shit. I don’t give a shit about any of it. It’s just fucking boring.” Liam Howlett leans back in his seat, flashes a wicked smile and pushes his hands through his blond-streaked punk mullet. The only thing sparkling more than the glint in his eye is the skull ring on his finger. He is without a doubt a happy man.“I just like to get to my end result quickly and as painlessly as I can,” he continues, his right hand tugging on the skin around his Adam’s apple. “In fact, the main thing about this album is that it’s untechnical!”
He has every right to be happy. After a seven-year hiatus, which has seen The Prodigy go from actively redefining the zeitgeist to becoming a near parody of itself, Howlett has finally returned. And what a return it is. A masterpiece of electronic production — nonetheless underpinned by a belligerent DIY approach — Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned (Maverick, 2004), the long-awaited fourth album, is stuffed to the grooves with trashed-up, adrenalized sleaze-funk a million miles removed from the electronic-punk formula of The Prodigy’s 2002 single, “Baby’s Got a Temper.”
BABY’S GOT GROWING PAINS
As Howlett clicks iTunes into action on his Mac G4 laptop and provides Remix with the world-exclusive playback of Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned in its entirety, it’s hard to avoid the obvious pride he has in this new creation. It’s also hard to imagine this is the same Liam Howlett who only two years ago was a mass of pensive, nervous tension, laboriously working the desk in London’s Rollover Studios trying to find the right balance for the final “Baby’s Got a Temper” mix.
“I was never really happy with that record,” he says. “When it came out, I had a feeling that I had never had before, that something wasn’t right. It was forced, you know?”
Forced, perhaps, but it was the record that made him face up to his growing doubts about where The Prodigy was headed and, more to the point, what the band was losing: the beats.
“‘Baby’s Got a Temper’ made me take a real hard look at all of this shit,” Howlett says. “I had to ask myself what the fuck I was about. Even with The Fat of the Land, I don’t think the music had been comfortable with itself. Tracks like ‘Firestarter’ and ‘Breathe’ were always my favorites — you know, ‘Diesel Power,’ ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ and shit like that — but I wasn’t consistently happy with the rest of the album. It worked more as a live album.
WHERE’S THE FIRESTARTER?
“The new album is doper than Fat of the Land,” Howlett says. “I think it’s got a lot more in relation to the second album [Music for the Jilted Generation] than the last one. This record’s less forced; it feels like it’s not going, ‘Arrrrrrrrrgh!’ The music’s still got the tension, but … tracks like ‘Wake Up’ [featuring Kool Keith] have this old-school Prodigy feel about them. Maybe that’s to do with Keith [Flint] not being on there. Maybe it’s because you’re not focusing in on one singer.”
The lack of either Flint or Maxim on the mics for this album does seem, on paper at least, a bit contentious. However, taken in light of both the history of The Prodigy and the sound of the new album, it all makes sense. Historically, Prodigy was never about lead singers performing over Howlett’s beats. Until the release of The Fat of the Land (XL, 1997), vocals had been used like samples and cut up as a part of the overall sound. Always Outnumbered marks a return to this approach.
But that’s not to suggest that there aren’t any vocal collaborations. Guests include well-known names such as Oasis’ Liam Gallagher, whose voice is manipulated to the extreme on “Shoot Down.” Also present are hip-hop mainstays Kool Keith, Twista and Princess Superstar; punk actress Juliette Lewis; and Shahin Bada (whose haunting Eastern melodies previously underpinned “Smack My Bitch Up”). The remaining lineup comprises relatively unknown Londoners: Ping Pong Bitches (who were on an earlier, even more densely crafted version of “Baby’s Got a Temper”), Tasty and Dirt Candy’s Paul Jackson.
That breathtaking collaborations with 3D from Massive Attack and Noreaga (among others) haven’t made it onto the final cut of the album says a lot about Howlett’s new confidence in his brand of beat alchemy. “The whole approach of this album was that the vocals weren’t the most important thing, so not using Keeti [Maxim] or Keith isn’t a diss to them,” Howlett says. “I just treated the voices I’d recorded as samples and used the best ones for the tracks. I wasn’t bothered about how well-known people were.”
Fans of The Prodigy’s live shows needn’t be alarmed at the absence of the front men, however. Maxim and Flint will be very present on the tour to follow early next year.
Freeing himself up from the restriction of using lead vocalists was an important step in the creation of this album. However, perhaps more significant was the decision to write entirely using Propellerhead Reason on his G4. The move followed a near fruitless year of working in his home studio with long-time cohort Neil McLellan. It was slow going, and Howlett sank into the depths of creative depression. Ironically, one of the things holding him back was the huge amount of equipment he had amassed.
“It was everywhere,” Howlett says. “The studio floor was just covered in kit, three rooms of my house. I couldn’t think straight. It got to the point where I’d be doing anything to avoid working on something.”
Almost at the breaking point, he installed 10 years of sounds onto his G4 and started messing around with Reason. It was a revelation to him. “I was feeling very stale in my studio, and the more equipment I bought, the less I seemed to be feeling the vibe,” Howlett reveals. “I just found myself going back to the same equipment; it was always the reliable old stuff. More and more, I had this whole thing about just not wanting to be in the studio, and I just started doing more on the laptop. This whole thing about wanting to write on the laptop was that it was pure, you know? No one else could fuck with it. And the mobile way of writing was just so refreshing that I took the kit I needed and locked the door. The rest of the shit is still in there.”
And it looks set to remain locked away for a while yet. “When we were going to take the photos for Remix in the studio, we couldn’t get the door open,” Howlett says. “It’s fucking jammed shut. And I think that kind of represents the fucking story of this album; it’s quite ironic. The fact is, I didn’t write the album in the studio; I wrote it in the bedroom or in the garden on the computer. The album feels more natural for it.”
Howlett’s introduction to Reason allowed him to work in a much more direct and immediate way. Gone were the hours cutting up on Akais. Instead, he was able to deliver ideas almost instantaneously. It was, he says, “like a guitarist jamming a tune.” For Howlett, the impact was immediate: “I just started to rock the beats again.”
Of course, Reason has its dissenters among the programming community. Despite the fact that it emulates vintage-synthesizer technology for one of the most versatile integrated production packages available today, many have suggested that the soft synths lack the power of true analog sound. Furthermore, the inability to control external MIDI synths can make its use beyond the notepad stage a little restrictive.
“I don’t really use any of the soft-synth sounds in Reason,” Howlett says. “I program and manipulate my own sounds. This makes it sound like I didn’t use it that much, but it was the most important piece of kit. What it did was take the tune to the stage where we could just concentrate on tweaking.”
QUICK LIKE FIRE
The creation of Always Outnumbered emphasized the importance of the initial creative process. “Because my attention span seems to be getting very limited these days, I have to get things working in the first half an hour of trying, or it just gets chucked out of the window,” Howlett admits. “But Reason made things more immediate. It’s just a really fucking good notepad, a fun way to make music.”
The opening track, “Spitfire,” with its low-slung break and sleazy Juliette Lewis vocal ambience, offers the perfect example of Howlett’s working process for the album. “It’s how more or less 90 percent of the album was made,” he explains. “I’d find a place I’d be happy in — usually in my bedroom, usually at about midnight, usually with a couple of glasses of wine — put James Bond on … you know what I mean. I was in bed writing for the fun of writing. ‘Spitfire’ was written in one night.”
Howlett subsequently took the track into a small working studio in the East End of London. Howlett set up that studio, dubbed Muse, to work on the album with McLellan and Damien Taylor. “So I’d be coming in, in the morning,” he continues, “and they’d have a track all set up, and I’d be like, ‘Fuck that shit — listen to this!’ and play them something I’d written the night before, like with the Michael Jackson tune [the album’s penultimate track, ‘The Way It Is,’ an insanely funky jam that subverts Jackson’s ‘Thriller’]. I was able to manipulate the loops quickly. You couldn’t do that on an Akai ’cause it would take a week to chop all the parts and stuff. But Reason was really good to just get things going. When I brought it in to play to them the next day, they were — well, we — were rocking!”
CLEAN UP, AISLE FOUR
The production process at Muse took a slightly different turn. There, Taylor re-created everything in Digidesign Pro Tools to allow for greater freedom in the tweaking stage. “Basically, I’d written all of the songs,” Howlett says. “I’d taken them to a good place, and the vibe was there. But then I got my headspace freed up by putting it onto the Pro Tools system. I was then in a good place to add shit. So I wasn’t getting all screwed up by the programming because it was already done.
“Damien is the best Pro Tools engineer I’ve ever worked with; he’s just so quick. He’s like me, ’cause I want to get the ideas down straight away. We had to get into the right frame of mind because he’d crossfade everything, which smooths all of the edges out. He’d crossfade all the chops, making sure they were all butted up to each other. He had to sort of step back from all of that to learn how I work, which is much more rough and ready. At first, he’d be spending, like, 20 minutes tidying all the shit up, and I was like, ‘Fuck that. Get the idea in there and just fucking rock it!’ So, basically, a lot of the tracks were very untidy for him.”
Once the tunes were in Pro Tools, Howlett could start tweaking and overdubbing. “We just rerecorded the sounds that were naff in the Reason programming,” he says. “I’d replace these with analog keyboards to try and retain fatness. Then, things would develop from there to take it to the next process.”
True to the back-to-basics approach to writing the tunes, the rooms at Muse were stripped of the usual studio paraphernalia. In the tiny control room, the trio restricted itself to Howlett’s old Mackie 32-channel 8-bus mixer, those few pieces of gear he’d retrieved from the home studio and “some shit speakers that were really hard to balance on.”
RATCHET UP A NOTCH
Howlett’s excitement at the resulting tracks was quickly dashed, however, when he booked into London’s Whitfield Studios to rebalance on pro monitors. One listen and he realized that the Muse mix simply wasn’t powerful enough to release.
“I’m not particularly into big studios, never have been,” he says. “Unless you know what you’re doing, you can get quite lost. So we got in there, put it on these big, accurate speakers and then played it against something else, and I just went, ‘Nah, this is wack!’ So we remixed it in Whitfield and basically mixed through all old ’60s and ’70s valve equipment on a big Neve desk. But we still had the Mackie set up in the corner so I could set up keyboards to beef up the sounds. A lot of the analog shit went through the Mackie first because you can punch it up a lot more. I couldn’t believe how many gears it went up. We had the old demo versions and then played the new versions, and it was just BOOM! — fucking huge.”
Even at that stage, Howlett demanded that the working method allow complete spontaneity. Next door to the control room (Room 2) at Whitfield, he had another work space set up in Room 1. “I was still writing shit,” he says with a laugh. “I was still working on the Twista tune (‘Get Up Get Off’) and was still doing ‘Wake Up,’ the Kool Keith tune. I was still altering tracks, as well, because we’d get the tunes up, and there would be drum sounds that weren’t powerful enough, so I had to re-create things and put it right.”
AND UP ANOTHER
The spontaneous aesthetic was even carried to the final mastering stages, in which Howlett opted to use Emily Lazar at The Lodge in New York instead of his usual choice of The Exchange in London. The Lodge is favored mastering house to many of hip-hop’s major players, as well as older rockers like David Bowie. The studio offers everything from vintage analog tools to cutting-edge digital equipment, which combine to create a balance of both. Among the gear commonly used by Lazar are products from Avalon Design, Pultec, TC Electronic, Tube-Tech, Weiss and Z-Systems. She also runs software and hardware combination systems like Sonic Solutions SonicStudio HD and digital platforms like Pro Tools and Emagic Logic Audio.
“I couldn’t believe how the tracks just went up a few more gears,” Howlett says of Lazar’s input into the album. “She would put hers up against ours and go, ‘This is what you’ve got, and this is us,’ and it just jumped up another five decibels.”
At The Lodge, Howlett had yet another workroom set up next to the mastering room. “We had the Pro Tools setup, so we were still tweaking even at this stage,” he admits. “But it was the right thing to do. It’s the same as the idea of having the laptop and being able to take it anywhere and being able to tweak it at any point. It was so good to do that.
“We’d run off stems of each track, so, for example, on ‘Spitfire,’ there would be vocals on two tracks, all of the drums on another two tracks, a selection of keyboard tracks that don’t play at the same time and so on. So everything was totally separated. We had the basic two tracks of each part so we could do level rises and stuff. And that was really helpful; I’m really glad we did that, because there was always another tweak on this album.”
Despite the impact of the state-of-the-art gear at both Whitfield Street in London and The Lodge in New York, Howlett maintains that the most important piece of kit for the creation of the album remains his laptop loaded with Reason. Indeed, it’s a tool that helped him not only smash through an extreme dose of writer’s block but also knock out classic tracks at an alarming rate. Judging by the nonalbum tracks, Howlett suggests that it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility if another new Prodigy album arrives in the near future.
“I could sell all of the equipment in the studio tomorrow,” he says in defiance. “I couldn’t give a shit about that stuff anymore because all of the new album came from my sample sources and the laptop running Reason and those few pieces of kit I mentioned, which is about as technical as it got — and about as technical as it should get.”
Welcome to the next level of The Prodigy. Howlett may have “dropped the punk and rocked the funk,” but his approach is still more punk than most guitar bands could ever hope to be.
Liam Howlett’s Essential Kit List