DJ Ron Slomowicz: interview with LH (August 2004)
From DJ Ron Slomowicz
Is electro the new punk rock? On The Prodigy’s new album, Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, Liam Howlett goes back to his punk roots, exploring his influences and mashing them together in his laptop. Inviting people as varied as Kool Keith, Juliette Lewis, Princess Superstar and Twista along for the ride, the CD is like one we have never experienced before.
DJ Ron Slomowicz: So what was your motivation for the new album, did you start with a specific vision in your mind for it?
Liam Howlett: I wrote half the record in 2002, which basically concluded with us releasing “Baby’s Got A Temper,” the last single. I think after the disappointment of that record for myself with the lack of energy and the way the record came out, I would say that was probably the low point of The Prodigy. I threw five of the six tracks I’d written away and decided to start again. All I knew was I had to find the excitement and energy in my music that I used to have, so I set out to start finding myself again. Finding what the fuck I was about and what did I like? What were The Prodigy about and what was I really about? Getting back to the stage of putting the music first. I didn’t want the focus to be on Keith or Maxim or the front bit. I wanted to focus it on the music first and bring that to the attention of people again. I started off and wrote “Wakeup Call,” which I did with Kool Keith. It was a direct answer to “Baby’s Got A Temper” in the way I wanted to implant an alarm clock in my head and go, ‘wake up! Remember what you’re about, you’re about the beat, and remember you’re about achievement.’ A wakeup call to write a record that made myself remember about that sort of stuff.
RS: You mentioned Kool Keith, which came first, the tracks or the vocals for most of these songs?
Liam: Each track kind of develops in a weird way. Kool Keith approached me in 2002, when he heard I was writing another Prodigy album and he wanted to get involved. We actually recorded a full rap version which is probably going to be on the B side of one of the singles. We’ve done a stripped-down version on the album, because it takes the attention off the vocal and we didn’t want the record to be too collaboration-heavy. I have written a record that I wanted to play live and not have too many guests all the way through on full vocal tracks. Even though Maxim and Keith weren’t on the record, we had strong ideas about having the ability to play these tracks live.
RS: Did you have an idea of who you wanted to get vocals from for the album, or did it just appear to you?
Liam: Again, various ways. For example with Juliette, I was half-way through the record and my friend in L.A. he phoned me up after he saw her perform as Juliette Lewis and The Licks. He said she was fucking insane on stage and had a great voice. I got in touch with her management and got a CD sent across. I loved what I heard. We were up for doing something unexpected and challenging people’s preconceptions of who should be on a record or who shouldn’t be on a record.
RS: Going back to Kool Keith for a second. On “Smack My Bitch Up,” you sampled Ultramagnetic MCs; how much fun was it actually to have him in the studio with you for “Diesel Power” on the last album and for the two tracks that he’s on for this album?
Liam: Great. Kool Keith can change. I’ve been into the Ultramagnetic MCs for years and I think that I always push Keith into trying to get the flows like Ultramagnetics, like the old skool kind of flow, because that’s what I like. Kool Keith has so many different personae and styles that I have to pull him out and set him into this persona of the style that I’m working on for the records. It was cool and then he went off and just did his thing, it was fucking great. I think that it’s important to be in the studio with people. Working with Juliette, we messed around through the post for a couple of weeks and it wasn’t really working so we brought her over to London. It’s great to get in the studio with the people you’re working with because you really make a connection. It was really easy and exciting to work with the different people.
RS: Speaking about working with the different people, how difficult was it to clear that Michael Jackson sample?
Liam: Well basically what happened is, I found out that Michael Jackson didn’t actually write Thriller. It was written by Rod Temperton who luckily lives in London. I sent him the track and then I had a meeting with him in his penthouse. He’d went out that morning and bought The Fat Of The Land, my last album, and we had the most bizarre conversation. He said that the music was quite aggressive and “Smack My Bitch Up” sounds X-rated. I explained the idea was the nostalgia thing of taking the record, tearing the ass out of it and spitting it out as something else. He said to me that since you write melodies, why don’t you recreate it. I thought well that’s not really it, that’s getting round the situation and the point really is the nostalgic trip of using the original piece of music and then tearing it up and just kind of spitting it out as something else. Once I’d explained it to him he kind of understood and he gave me permission to use the publishing side of the sample. Then we could actually recreate Thriller. We spent over a week in the studio and it was very hard to recreate but we recreated the actual sample ourselves. He certainly wouldn’t let us use the original recording.
RS: Talking about nostalgia, I hear a definite 80s electro sound throughout the album, where is that influence coming from?
Liam: It’s my childhood. I think I had to look back a while with this record to find the music I like that inspired me. My influences, you could write them down, The Specials and The Sex Pistols, Grandmaster Flash and The Wheels of Steel, the whole electro thing, in to Public Enemy, Ultramagnetic MCs, that’s been the path of all my inspiration. So I had to look at myself and look back to what I was into. I didn’t want it to sound retro, I wanted to use the inspirations and then bring it into what we’re doing to make it sound fresh again. On the album, “Flip Side” comes on as the first track and it’s kind of like the traditional Prodigy big beats and aggression, and when you think you’ve put your finger on where this album is going, “Girls” comes in and it’s more electro, kind of dancey, seems like an electro punk track.
RS: I’ve got to ask you a geek question. You work on your laptop a lot, what software do you use on your laptop?
Liam: For this album I used Reason. It’s a consumer-based product, that’s very kind of like low-fi and just perfect for what I wanted to do. I started off on this Roland W30 and I’ve kind of ended back on the equivalent of what the W30 would be now, which to me, is Reason, a self-contained program. Obviously you can’t record vocals or actual audio into it, so when I wrote all the demos on Reason and then we shifted across to ProTools and it went up another gear. That’s basically how I wrote the record, all on the laptop.
RS: Speaking about low-fi, are you inspired at all by this whole mash-up craze that’s going on over there?
Liam: Yes, of course, that’s how the track Phoenix came about. I was out in the party scene here in London and it’s probably the most exciting scene at the moment. It’s very cut-and-paste and very instant when you hear records that are put together. It’s not like going to a techno club, it’s just anything can get played. I heard this mad one the other day, “Eye of The Tiger” and Craig David put together and it just sounded fucking great. I wouldn’t listen to either of those two records in any other situation, apart from hearing them like that mashed together, because it’s punk rock. The idea with “Phoenix,” I’ve heard some Shocking Blue tracks around where I’m standing in and out of bars, the original version of that track. My friend was DJing and I told him that I was going to make a bootleg of that record and just rock a beat over it, as simple as that. I’m going to do some things over that track for you so you can spin it on a white label and DJ it out. That’s basically how that track was born, I did that track and just give it to him on a white label. I really liked it and so I thought why the fuck can’t I actually release that as a Prodigy track? I’m honest about it, that I’ve taken that record and put a beat on it and it’s as simple as that. That’s the basis of this record, the idea of not being scared to just steel things, use them and manipulate them. Do you know what I mean?
RS: Yes, and I think you’re probably going to answer my next question really succinctly. Why do you hate house music?
Liam: Because house and some dance music lacks the dirt and the sleaze of rock and roll. I’m into electronic music, but I want to inject more sleaze into it. There’s been a few records that are really cool that have come out in the electronic scene but I don’t think there’s enough. People moan about why is rock and roll is more popular than electronic music. The reason why is because there’s not enough kick. It would work if four little punks turned up and said we like electronic music and we’ve got our drum machine, not being afraid to put there face to it and be a band and not being scared to bring some rock and roll attitude into like electronic music. But dance music is very DJ-led and the house thing is too clean, it just doesn’t have for me enough dirt and sleaze in it.
RS: Let’s go back to your live shows. The Prodigy is know for the live shows, you’re one of the few electronic artists that can perform and really drive a crowd crazy, how do you envision touring with this album?
Liam: The way that I’ve wrote this record, it was always in the back of my mind that we should be able to play these records live. We’re not going to play every track live, but we’ll take like five or six of these tracks and we’ve already been into the studio and sussed-out which tracks we’re going to play. Tracks like “Wake Up,” “Straight Across The Spitfire,” “Memphis Belle,” the Michael Jackson track, and “Girls,” those are all tracks that are very easy to play live. To the extent of the gang, Prodigy on stage, we may be bringing a couple of other people with us and so sonically it shifts up a gear as well. The live side is so important to the band.
RS: Let’s talk a little industry. What was your reaction when you heard Madonna wanted to sign you to her label?
Liam: I think that putting all the stardom aside, she believes in the band. She had the balls to ring me up and speak to me. I talked to her direct, she wasn’t hiding behind lots of little businessmen, she was dealing with it directly with herself. She’d heard “Firestarter” and loved the record and genuinely went out to find us. She came to the gigs. It wasn’t like a suit of a major record label cloaked in a crowd of A&R guys. She was the one who signed us, she didn’t have a gang of kids who knew what was hot on the street. She came out to find us, and to me that gets respect. So I’ve got nothing but good shit to say about Madonna, she’s fine and she helps us.
RS: Going back to your punk rock roots, I thought that the ultimate punk rock move was when you turned down her request to remix her song. What was going in through your head at the time?
Liam: It was all done in good humor. I’m not aggressive but I’m from a background of being real and living how I am, not changing what I’m about ever. I said to her that you have signed the band but don’t think that gives you the right to make me or make me want to produce your music. Madonna’s very clever and I think she picks the people who she thinks can take her to the next stage herself, but I wasn’t having it, why should I change my roots?
Here’s a story that might explain this. My wife used to be in the music business and she was friends with Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics so we went to his wedding in France on the beach. It was a very celebritiy wedding with Mick Jagger and Bono was there, and I was sitting there unimpressed. I don’t really give a shit about them, Bono and Mick Jagger, they don’t really mean anything to me, they weren’t part of my youth. I saw Terry Hall from The Specials sitting at a table and I was like fucking hell man, I better fucking get over there and speak to him. That’s basically what I’m like, people that have been really important through my youth I’ve got respect for, because that’s part of my make-up. Just because we’ve been in the lucky position to sell records, doesn’t mean I’ve shifted up with the hierarchy of music. I only work with people that I’ve got respect for. I respected Madonna but she was never part of my youth. I think it would have been whacked if I had produced like these tracks for her.
RS: I’ve got one more label question for you, in the US you started off on a major, Elektra, and then went indie with Mute, and then came back to the majors with Maverick. Did these shifts have like any major effect on your work or your state of mind for approaching the US market?
Liam: I think Elektra was always a load of shit for The Prodigy, because they didn’t get it. It just wasn’t right, it didn’t feel right. I think the first time we felt comfortable was when we were working with Mute. I think that was a great label, it was right for The Prodigy but they just didn’t have enough weight. When “Firestarter” came along, Mute went in with Maverick to work the Prodigy together. We didn’t ever say good bye to Mute, it was basically Mute and Maverick together, and that was the cool thing, we felt like we’d got the equivalent to XL Recordings in England. I think that Elektra never really got it. I remember one time when I had a meeting with the guy from Elektra and he said we had to get some house mixes done of our records. I was like hang on a minute, what are you going on about? Prodigy is not house and we can’t do that. Basically they went ahead and got some whack house mix done of some fucking nonsense shit and it just wasn’t Prodigy. Yes, we have to reach the clubs, but people are forgetting what the band’s about. Why do you want to make it house – that’s not what we’re about. So the real fail I think was Elektra, all the way from the beginning, they just didn’t get it. But I think it became easier for the record company once we could play live shit together and had a live show. We could bring our music forward and people got it more.
RS: So what’s in your CD player right now?
Liam: TV On The Radio. I’ve only just found out about them because they’re on Beggars Banquet which is part of our record label. They gave me the record and I just love it.
RS: How do you feel about having your track “Funky Shit” be the end credit music for the film Event Horizon?
Liam: I thought it was completely out of place. I liked the film, but I thought that the soundtrack should have been more consistent. I think the soundtrack was done by Orbital wasn’t it?
RS: Yes, them and Michael Kamen.
Liam: I’m really weary of blockbuster films and don’t usually approve many. I judge each thing on whether the visual aspects really enhances song, or the song enhances the visual thing. One usage that springs to mind is when we did Charlie’s Angels with “Smack My Bitch Up.” It was incredible to have literally taken part of that film and used it as the video to “Smack My Bitch Up” and it was just fucking great. The movie played on the cheeky humor that I thought the song had. I think that was a good usage.
RS: And that’s funny, I was going to ask you about that next. One question about the last album, the video for “Baby’s Got A Temper,” what was the idea behind the milk and what did that symbolize to you?
Liam: Drug use. The cows were radioactive and milk was meant to be like a drug that made these people get into the band. That’s basically what it resembled, it was a weird stage of The Prodigy. “Baby’s Got A Temper” wasn’t on the album The Fat of the Land it was inbetween these two albums. The best thing about that record was the artwork for the sleeve. I loved the artwork for the sleeve and everything else I wasn’t really that excited about.
RS: Let’s end where you began. Going back and listening to The Experience album, do you ever do that and how do you feel about it fifteen years later?
Liam: I think, I can’t dance that fast. It’s very nostalgic. I like to listen to it in a way that it brings back fond memories of us partying and just mad times of like early rave scene stuff, that was really exciting. I’d like to remix some of the tracks because they’ve got really good elements but they need to be slowed down and brought back to a more sensible tempo.