SOS (Sound On Sound): interview with LH – recording AONO (October 2004)
Nowadays, plenty of hit albums are recorded in bedroom studios — but Liam Howlett of the Prodigy has gone one better, by recording his latest in bed.
It’s been seven years since the Prodigy had a worldwide hit album with Fat Of The Land. And that’s a long time in the rock business. Sitting in a London pub with an afternoon of press interviews ahead of him, Liam Howlett, the band’s main man, anticipates the questions he is likely to face about this lengthy absence. “Everyone’s bound to ask what we’ve been up to and why it’s taken so long to get our new album together,” he says. “But actually it’s not that long — not when you consider we were on tour for over two years and then I recorded half an album and ditched it before I started on this one.”
The Prodigy’s new album, Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, was released in August through XL Records. Described by the label as ‘a trashy, adrenalised, sleaze-funk masterpiece’, it has a very different feel to Fat Of The Land. It is more fluid and less formulaic, thanks to the way Liam Howlett has treated the vocals almost like samples, using them to create an overall sound rather than focusing on up-front performances. “The most important thing for this album was to concentrate on the music and bring that to the fore,” he says. “I wanted the vocals to be less important and for the album to be about energy and aggression, so that we pushed the music forward without a vocalist carrying the weight. I wanted this album to be about getting back to the beats, because this is what the Prodigy has always been about.”
Getting Away From It All
In order to do get back to the beats, Liam had to rethink the way he worked, although it took him a while to realise this. He obviously enjoys the recording process and despite professing to be no expert in the studio, he has actually written, produced, engineered and recorded the whole of the Prodigy’s output. But for this album he ended up shutting the door on his studio in a bid to free himself from his own preconceptions about how music should be created.
“People always go on about bedroom studios, and when I first had a studio it was in my bedroom,” he says. “But this album was the first time I’d taken the concept a stage further and actually written songs in bed.”
Understanding how that came about is convoluted but fascinating, as it shows how the creative juices can really dry up if the environment and mood don’t work. Liam is the first to admit that he struggled for a while, messing around with tracks that he ended up dumping. It was only when he went right back to basics — and back to bed — that the new album began to work. “Touring Fat Of The Land kept us out of the studio for quite a long time because we were always on the road,” he says. “We’d be away for three weeks, back for two days, then off again, so there was never enough time to get into the studio and do anything new. By the beginning of 2000, I’d had enough and I decided I didn’t want to do it any more. I wanted to take time off. I didn’t want to be in the studio. I didn’t want to be Prodigy. I just wanted to be Liam and go out with my mates and get drunk.”
So Liam took time out to relax, eventually returning to his home studio in Essex in 2001 with the aim of making a start on a new album. But after writing five or six tracks, he realised his head was still in Fat Of The Land mode and that he wasn’t inspired by anything he’d created. Even though the sessions resulted in a hit single, ‘Baby’s Got A Temper’, which was released in 2002 and reached number eight in the UK charts, it felt like a dead end. “I wasn’t happy with that record,” he says. “It felt like a step backwards, both sonically and musically. It was quite slow and had no energy — it certainly didn’t sum up what the Prodigy is all about.”
When a band is known for its distinctive sound, there’s always a danger of becoming formulaic, and Liam believes this is exactly what happened with those five tracks. “I had become lazy,” he admits. “The single came out but I decided to bin all those tracks — half an album. I knew ‘Baby’ wasn’t right and all those tracks were grouped in with that sound. The songs were OK — bits of them, anyway — but I wasn’t particularly excited by any of them. I felt it was better to start from scratch and be brave, because it’s only when you’re brave that exciting things happen.”
What followed was a period of four months that Liam describes as “the most frustrating four months of my life”. Working with producer Neil McClellan, he sat in front of a computer screen in his studio in Essex, surrounded by every bit of kit imaginable, and achieved absolutely nothing.
“My studio is crammed with equipment, but I ended up feeling I was being overcome by it all — it was just too much,” he says. “I used to go to bed every night thinking ‘Tomorrow, I’m going to write the tune, tomorrow is going to be the day,’ but nothing ever happened. Eventually Neil pointed out that we’d been in the studio for four months without having anything to show for it. When you’re in the middle of something mad you don’t really realise what’s going on. You just go round in circles. There were a lot of distractions at home. Nat [his wife, All Saints’ Natalie Appleton] was doing her own record so we weren’t spending a lot of time together, but there were always dogs to stroke and videos to watch and gardens to walk round, so I didn’t ever feel like I was at work — I was too laid-back. And, of course, my house is very peaceful; it’s in the country so it doesn’t have an edge and it wasn’t giving me the right inspiration. Neil said we had to get out, get back to London. I knew I physically couldn’t sit in my room any more, and for the first time in my life I listened to someone else and realised I actually needed help. It wasn’t that I needed help with the writing, just that I needed help finding the right headspace to get into the right frame of mind. I wanted to write a good album — one I was happy with — but to do that I knew I’d have to jerk myself out of situation I was in and start again.”
Liam Vs Noel
Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned features some interesting collaborations with vocalists, notably Oasis’s Liam Gallagher and actress Juliette Lewis. Given that Liam Howlett is married to one Appleton sister and Liam Gallagher lives with the other, it would be easy to assume that this particular collaboration came about through family connections. Not so, says Liam — at least not initially.
“I met Liam Gallagher six years ago at a festival, soon after Noel had released his collaboration with the Chemical Brothers. He said he wanted to do a track with the Prodigy so he could blow the Chemicals out of the water. Liam Gallagher carries the attitude and the spirit of punk rock, which is why I had to work with him. I was curious to see if we could capture that.”
Years later, the family connections did come into play. “My house is a party house — we always have people over at the weekend and there’s always stuff going on,” Liam says. “It was during one of those weekends that Liam and I finally made it into the studio. We were both really pissed and it was three in the morning but we thought what the hell — let’s go up and do that track now. So we went into the studio and recorded the vocals. I had various tracks lying around and I played him through some stuff and let him choose the one he liked. It was just a loop with a guitar and he spat loads of lyrics down. We listened to them the next day, picked what we liked and laid them down properly. The funny thing was, because I was really pissed, I managed to set the mic up and get levels on the mic but I was so knackered I couldn’t work out how to get his voice on to separate tracks on the tape machine. So I ended up recording his vocal onto the same track as the music. The next day I had loads of wicked delays and mad effects set up and was all ready to use them when I realised what I’d done. Liam was saying ‘Let’s use that bit,’ and I was going ‘I can’t — it’s all on two-track.’ Somehow we managed to piece it together by re-recording the bits of the vocals that were really screwed, and eventually it worked.”
The track, ‘Shootdown’, is the album’s most garage guitar-driven tune. The original version was even rockier, and at first Liam wasn’t sure if it fitted in. “There were a couple of different versions to start with, so I messed around with them until I got a track that sounded how I wanted it,” he explains. “It was almost the last track to be finished because it was quite different from the others. I wanted to retain its raw, punk-rock spirit without making it too electronic. It sounds weird because we’re known for really crunching up the speakers, but I didn’t want it to be a dance record. I wanted it more of an open rock production, more loose and organic than heavily programmed and with lots of unquantised guitars.”
The track ‘Hot Ride’, featuring Juliette Lewis, was always destined for the album. “I’m always up for doing the unexpected,” he says, “and I like challenging people’s perceptions about who should be on a Prodigy album. It’s exciting when two different things clash together. Anyway, I think Juliette is a rock star trapped in an actress’s body. She’s completely insane — more rock & roll than most people in bands that I know.”
The collaboration was inspired by a friend who saw Lewis playing a gig at the Viper Rooms in Los Angeles and was blown away by her voice. At that time few people knew she was into music, but Liam got in touch with her management company and discovered that she had a demo she was shipping around. “When I got the demo I was really excited because her voice was menacing but also melodic. We messed around for a couple of weeks, sending each other stuff through the post. I sent her a track called ‘Good Morning’ and she sent the vocal back, but being so far away made communication difficult and I eventually decided we needed to be in the same room. Luckily, she was working in France so we got her over to England and that’s when I discovered just how well she fitted into the Prodigy vibe. We recorded ‘Good Morning’, which is a straight punk-rock track, then I played her the instrumental to ‘Hot Ride’ and she started telling me about this other vocal idea she had, a lyric about escaping in an air balloon. That got me thinking about the Fifth Dimension track, ‘Up Up And Away In My Beautiful Balloon’, and I decided it would be really bizarre to steal it. I’m seriously into the idea of blatant beat thievery. The whole bootleg scene excites me because it allows you to do mad things by mashing up all kinds of different genres. Juliette wasn’t sure at first, but when we put it down we both thought it was just bloody cool. I can’t pinpoint why that track works, it just does. It’s not a dance track, nor punk — just weird — but it rocks.”
Escape To The City
Turning his back on most of the equipment in his studio, Liam bought a laptop and, after hearing about it through a friend, a copy of Propellerhead’s Reason software. He then selected just five pieces of kit from the studio — a Thermionic Culture Phoenix valve compressor and Culture Vulture distortion unit, a Korg Micro Keyboard, a Manley valve EQ and a 1980s Korg MS20 analogue keyboard.
“Since 1993 I’d written everything in Cubase, with hardware synths and Akai samplers as my main setup,” he says. “But when I bought the laptop I realised it didn’t have to be that way. The laptop and Reason gave me the freedom to work anywhere I wanted. It was very liberating.”
Liam adds that the laptop-Reason combo reminded him of the early days of Prodigy when he was a big fan of the Roland W30 workstation. Indeed he stayed a big fan for a long time, despite its limitations (only 16 seconds of sampling time being one of them!) because he loved the idea of having everything in one box. “Part of the W30’s appeal was having a simple machine that did everything. It was refreshing to go back to that. Reason allowed me to work my ideas through using just one machine. Initially I just wrote beats on it, but before long I was bringing in more and more sounds and building up a library of samples on my hard drive. Once I’d got the beat, I’d gradually introduce a bass line. It just progressed from there and eventually I was writing entire tracks on it.”
Liam is now a firm fan of Reason, which he describes as “like a computer game to use”. He also credits it with getting him back on track when the creative juices had temporarily dried up, and for making the process of writing music fun again.
Armed with his laptop and his few chosen pieces of equipment, Liam decamped to London with McClellan, hooked up with Pro Tools operator Damian Taylor and hired a studio called The Mews in Stoke Newington. “The Mews is a very small studio owned by some friends of ours. Its main advantage is that it has a Mackie desk, which I was keen to use for pre-production and recording,” Howlett explains. “The Prodigy sound owes a lot to Mackie because I’ve been using their stuff for years. The first mixer I ever bought was a Mackie CR1604, which I got when I was a teenager, and I’ve now got a 32:8 analogue eight-buss console that I love because it gives us our distinctive Prodigy sound. It’s a desk that lends itself to being driven very hard. It has a naturally warm sound that allows you to push the channels as far as they’ll go. Part of the appeal of The Mews was that it had a 32:8, so I immediately felt at home.”
Working at The Mews, often for 11 hours at a time, then driving home listening to the sounds they’d created that day helped Liam capture the sense of excitement he’d been looking for. When he got home he was so fired up that he couldn’t stop, which is where his bed comes in.
“I’d get into bed, put Moonraker on my DVD and create this idyllic cocoon of happiness that allowed me to think really clearly. I’d know exactly what I wanted to do. Reason really helped because it’s so quick to get ideas down and that was when I really started writing. I wrote ‘Spitfire’, ‘Wake Up’ and ‘Girls’, which is the single, in bed. I’d get the demos and ideas down on Reason — the beats, the programming, the basic layouts and the initial vibe — then I’d go into the studio the next day and play the boys the results. When they knew I was writing stuff in bed they joked about getting a replica of my bedroom set up in the control room because it worked so well.”
At The Mews, the sounds were transferred into Pro Tools so that vocals and overdubs could be added. “Reason is purely for sequencing,” Liam says. “It has its uses but moving to Pro Tools allowed us to up a gear and get the tracks sounding pretty good. Damian Taylor is without doubt the best Pro Tools operator I’ve ever met — he’s incredible. He’s very precise with his fades and really likes to get deep into the system to make sure everything is accurate. I wanted a more cut-and-paste approach to the sound of this album, so I really had to fight his natural instincts and hold him back. But even so I couldn’t have done without him. He was with us throughout the entire time we were at The Mews and then came to Whitfield Street for the mix. At The Mews, we recorded stems — drums, keyboard parts, vocals and so on — on to stereo pairs in Tools so we could finish everything off. That worked well because Reason integrates really easily with Pro Tools.”
Soundbites & Samples
Liam’s mobile approach to writing has injected a new spontaneity into this latest collection of Prodigy tracks. They are still dirty and punky, but they do feel fresher and more exciting than anything he has done for a long time. Part of this is definitely down to the vocals, provided by an interesting range of artists including Kool Keith, Twista, actress Juliette Lewis and Liam Gallagher (see box on previous page).
Liam explains: “I didn’t want this album to turn into a collaboration album. The full vocal collaborations were with Liam, Juliette and Twister. All of the other vocalists were used as soundbite lyrics that I incorporated into the track in the same way that I’d use a sample. They back the attitude of the song without taking the focus away from the music. Even with a track like ‘Spitfire’, where the lyrics are very much ‘in your face’, there’s still the sense that the music is the main thing.
“The first single, ‘Girls’, was written in an ‘Old Skool’ sense. Usually I write a track and then fit samples into it, but with this one I thought about the vocal sample first and wrote the track around it. When it was done I realised it lacked sexiness and trashiness, so I brought in the Ping Pong Bitches, who are friends of mine, and used them to give it the vocal the edge it was lacking. That’s when it really came together.”
The majority of the vocals were recorded at The Mews using a valve Neumann microphone and heavy compression. Liam explains: “There isn’t a specific formula we use to record vocals. Usually it’s just a case of trying out whatever outboard equipment I’ve got in the studio and seeing what works. The Culture Vulture distortion unit was crucial to this album — we used that a lot. We also compressed Paul Jackson’s vocals two or three times on ‘Action RADAR’ to get them sounding really crunchy, and we used the [Logic plug-in] clip distortion on the Ping Pongs’ vocals because it added a definite trashy close sound, which was sexy.”
The vocal contributions from Liam Gallagher and Juliette Lewis, however, were not recorded at The Mews. Gallagher was recorded in Liam’s Essex studio (before he locked the door on it) and Juliette Lewis did her sessions at Whitfield Street — in the large orchestral room where one of the booths was turned into a cosy faux living room complete with nice rug!
Mixing It All Up
The writing and recording process went on for 10 months, from March 2003 to January 2004. Then the project moved to Whitfield Street, which is where Liam and McClellan mixed the album. Liam explains: “I assumed we’d use Whitfield Street to just balance the mixes on the big speakers. I’d mixed the tracks at The Mews on the Mackie using Yamaha NS10s and I knew we needed to hear them through big speakers to check everything was OK. I thought we’d just push the stems up through Whitfield Street’s big Neve console and it would all sound great. But when we got there I asked Neil to humour me and let me spend another day mixing one track, ‘Spitfire’ — and bang! It sounded so good I just had to mix the whole album again.”
Despite having a Neve at his disposal Liam still wanted access to a Mackie desk, so he borrowed a 32:8 and used it as a submixer because it was able to create that signature Prodigy sound. He also raided Whitfield Street’s extensive equipment store and found loads of old valve stuff, including five Fairchild compressors, which he carted up to the studio.
“We had all the tops of the studio units covered in retro gear, which was great,” he says. “The new mixes gave us the sound we wanted. They still retained the trashiness that is Prodigy, but somehow they were fresher without losing any of their edge.”
Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned was eventually mastered in the Lodge Studios, New York, by Emily Lazar. “She’s brilliant — she does a lot of hip-hop and she totally understands bass,” Liam says. “And she gets volumes that other people can’t get. I went to New York for the mastering and the sound was monstrous. It just shifted up a few more gears. We had Pro Tools set up and were still tweaking the tracks in another room linked to the studio, adding more bass until we were happy with it. It was a good idea to take Pro Tools to the mastering room and I’d certainly do it again.”
A Cure For Equipment Overload
So, having written this album in bed, what about the next one? Will Liam Howlett be returning to the Essex home studio where he was so overwhelmed by equipment overload? His answer is simple: “No. The whole lot’s up for sale.”
Qualifying this, he adds: “Now I’m back home with the baby [five-month-old Ace] I need somewhere to sit and be comfortable. I’m going to take all that stuff out, put in a couch and get rid of the boxes and racks. I’m going back to basics with two or three favorite analogue vintage keyboards and a nice big Manley EQ. I’ll keep the Akai Z8 and a few compressors but I’m getting rid of the digital stuff, including the Mackie digital eight-buss and the big speakers, which I’m replacing with Genelec 1030As because that’s what I used on this new album. All that other stuff has served its purpose and earned its money, but I want to go back to how I worked in the beginning — purely in my head and not swayed by all this equipment.”
What else he plans to keep is easily listed — his laptop, Reason, a sample library, his own imagination and his DJ mates Nobby and James, whose ‘amazing’ record collection is always at his disposal. He’ll also keep his Oberheim Four-voice synth, Korg MS20, Culture Vulture distortion unit, Phoenix compressor and Korg Micro Keyboard. But apart from that lot, the rest is going up in the loft.
“You have to be happy with your surroundings when you are in a studio, regardless of what type of music you play,” he says. “I still needed to be happy, even if our sound is aggressive. It’s more to do with having a creative frame of mind. The reason I write music is because I’m constantly battling with myself. I push myself hard. I’m always hungry to write something better or tougher, so finding the best time and situation to write a song is really important to me. For kids who are new to it, inspiration comes easy but when you’re this far down the line you have to search for the inspiration — and search for the right headspace to slip into.”
He’s a nice bloke is Liam Howlett, and this new album is really good, so let’s hope that by simplifying his working setup and by going back to basics he’ll keep finding his headspace.