Prodigy Conquer America, Part 2
Keeping things dangerous. “We probably will turn something around that will cause us to self-destruct,” said Howlett.
Addicted To Noise: Are you going to continue to put all your creative producing energy into the Prodigy?
Liam Howlett: Well, anything I do at the moment is for Prodigy. This is what’s happening for us. I shouldn’t be detracted in any way from what I’m doing here at the moment. Now that it’s on a roll, it’s important to sculpture it right and make sure it’s pushed right. I think that I’m not doing any more remixing. So no one ask. I’ll probably do some collaboration work; like for example, I would find it interesting collaborating with a band like, say, Korn. You know Korn? Extreme sort of electronic music with a groove, metal, sort of heavy sound would interest me. That would be good. As far as spreading myself around producing other people, that’s something I see happening once the band starts going down, you know. Maybe people won’t want me then. But at the end of the day, I can’t be detracted from what I’m doing now with this. I’m not one of these people that feels like he has to spread himself out too much. I’m doing this thing and that’s good enough for me.
ATN: Are you going to do a collaboration with Korn or has that happened already?
ATN: It’s pretty cool.
Howlett: It’s a very simple track. People shouldn’t hype it up too much. I hate that when everyone says “Oh, this is the best thing” or whatever. It’s a very simple track. It’s just like Tom and me grooving on this track. He’s very experimental. He’s got some scratchy stuff he does with a guitar and it’s quite a slow groove. It was written for the film. It’s nothing too complicated. I literally had about four days so it was kind of rushed. I was happy with the results but I wish I had another week on it to really sculpture it. Yeah, it sounds good. I’m happy with it.
ATN: Do you have a goal for the Prodigy, something you really want to accomplish with this? You’ve been at it now for seven years.
Howlett: Well, to be honest, as soon as we stop progressing, the band stops. We’re not one of these bands that want to flog a dead horse. Me personally, I don’t want to be going on forever doing the same thing. But at the moment, it’s rolling under its own momentum. America — it’s all so new here. When we play on stage, it all seems so new. It’s a good vibe. At the moment I don’t want to do another album. I’m not prepared to put myself through committing to another album. For the moment, this is the last album. It doesn’t mean it’s the end of the band. It just means for the moment, I’m not thinking that in the next year I’m gonna start a new record. I think that’s just something I say just to make myself feel comfortable.
ATN: Kind of take the pressure off.
Howlett: Yeah, just have the pressure off myself. I don’t even want to be thinking about that. So if the record companies come to me and say we should start thinking about a new album, I’ve told them there isn’t one. I never allow myself to look ahead more than a year anyway. In the next months what I imagine we’ll do is release maybe one, at the most two records off this album and do some interesting mixes, record some new material, put out some new singles. But basically not commit myself to another album. It’s such a big step to do another album. Unless I feel all the steps are right, there’s no point in doing one.
ATN: This last album took two years of your life.
Howlett: It didn’t really. It appeared that way. It basically took a year and two months to write. But in that time was a lot of gigging. I went on holiday twice, snowboarding. I went on holiday with my girlfriend. I spent a lot of time out in the studio. It isn’t like I’m actually in the studio everyday. In some weeks, I might only go in there one day a week just to catch a vibe of what I’m doing. I only actually go in there when I’ve got inspiration off of something. People were a bit unfair when they were saying it took two years. When Jilted was released, I didn’t literally go in the studio the day it was released to start the new record. I waited a long time. After Jilted I said that that’s the last record. I don’t want to do another one. But then once I’d written “Firestarter,” it was like a springboard for the next album. It was like, “Right now I’m ready to start this album. We’ve got something new here. This is a progression.” And “Firestarter” was a springboard for Prodigy.
“You wouldn’t think the Prodigy are about beating their girlfriends up and shit like that.”
ATN: On the first Prodigy album, you did a version of the old Arthur Brown song, “Fire.” And on Jilted there was “The Heat [The Energy].” I wondered about this fire theme…
Howlett: Pure coincidence, pure coincidence. A lot of people ask me that. I had some nutter come around the house at three in the morning, knocking on my door, asking me if I was obsessed with hell and fire and stuff. He was like, “It seems like you’re into the devil. You must be obsessed with hell because you’ve got ‘Firestarter.’ You’ve got ‘Fire,’ ‘I’m the god of hell fire..’ and all that crap.” And I was just like, “You’ve completely lost it, just fuck off.” I actually ended up having a fight in my driveway with this guy at three in the morning, some local guy. He wasn’t drunk. He might have been out of his head on acid or something. It was quite absurd. To be honest, the whole fire thing… It’s just a pure coincidence. When we did “Firestarter,” “Firestarter” seemed like the right lyric for that song. It describes what Keith does. It describes Keith’s personality. It describes the live shows. It describes what he does on stage.
ATN: What’s your interpretation of that song?
Howlett: Keith’s personality. The song is Keith’s personality. That’s it. Plain and simple. A lot of people can relate to different lyrics in that song but I know when he was writing that song, he was talking about himself. Like the lyric “mind detonator.” Speaking about Keith. He’ll think about something until it just does his head in so much that it’ll be a big problem. Keith thinks a lot; he thinks too much, you know. He used to smoke too much weed. He’s calmed down now. “Mind detonator” is a lyric that just describes Keith really well.
ATN: You collaborated with Crispian Mills of Kula Shaker on the nine minute long “Narayan.” Why him?
Howlett: I approached Perry Farrell a year and a half ago to do a track. I’d written a track I thought was a really good instrumental. It had a real psychedelic feel about it. And I just liked Perry’s voice. I think he’s got a really unusual voice. It was gonna be like an album track. It wasn’t gonna be a single. It was gonna be a track that had a certain psychedelic feel about it, just like a breather for one track amongst all this other hard music. I pictured it working really well. And basically Perry’s voice fit the track perfectly and I couldn’t think of anyone else whose voice would work.
I got in touch with Perry. I sent him the track. He really loved the track. It was at the time when the last Lollapalooza [the 1996 tour] was going on. He didn’t have anything to do with that. He’d left the Lollapalooza to do his own festival called Enit. He’d already agreed to do the track. He was like, “Yeah, I really like the track, I really want to get together and we can do it.” I was like, “Great, OK. Let’s start recording it. Let’s go into the studio and do it.” And he said, “If I agree to do this track, can you play at my festival, the Enit festival.” And we were like, “OK, we’ll check the dates out, make sure they work and then we’ll do it, we’ll do that.” It seemed to me funny at the time that he was trying to strike up some kind of deal. We were like, “Well, let’s go back and check out the dates.” We went back to check on the dates and unfortunately, we had like Phoenix, Redding, a lot of big English festivals which were important to us. So I just got back to him and said, “Look, I can’t do this Enit thing because we’ve got other bookings.” And he basically said, “Well, I can’t do the track then.” He turned the track down.
And that to me wasn’t cool. It’s like you should be into the music for the right reasons. And that seems like it was being too much of a deal going on and it just wasn’t right. In the end, I just threw the track away.
[Perry Farrell was not available to comment at press time.]
And then I heard “Tattva” by Kula Shaker and I didn’t know anything about the band. But I got a similar type of vibe. It wasn’t quite the same. But I got a similar feeling that if I used Crispian in the way he delivered the vocal [on “Tattva”] on some beats and stuff, it could have a similar vibe. And as always, things turned out different from the original idea. But I think that track did the right thing. It has a real cinematic, building feel to it and it’s really big. It’s in the right place on the album. It’s kind of a listening track. It’s kind of like a journey. Basically that’s the way the whole track came about. I didn’t know anything about Kula Shaker. We basically did the track and we were both happy with it.
“To replace a powerful rock band that’s cool with two guys on keyboards isn’t cool at all. That’s never gonna happen.”
To be honest, I’m not really a fan of Kula Shaker. I’ve got to be honest. I think that I’m not really into what they do. I think some of their tracks are good but I’m not really into the Indian influence. I used the Indian vocal on “Smack My Bitch Up” and also on “Narayan” but not in a really over-the-top way. It’s just like a mantra to me, just another sound I use. They really play the Indian and the acidic vibe too much for me. That kind of took it away from the music a bit.
But Kula Shaker’s Crispian Mills was in, no problem, man!
ATN: You told NME when they asked you about “Smack My Bitch Up,” you said “it’s probably the most pointless song I’ve ever written. I’ve got no explanation as to why I’ve got that lyric in there.”
Howlett: That song is probably the most pointless song I’ve ever written. But live, it works. It works well. Sometimes things can be so fucking simple and you don’t need an explanation of the lyrics. Why explain the lyrics? It either works or it doesn’t. And for us, it works well live. It’s a really exciting track and it’s just a good hard track.
To be honest, there’s a few angles on this sample thing. Like “Smack My Bitch Up.” I was into hip-hop and I was into the fact that MCs could rap about anything, they could rap about smacking women up and it’d just be more comical than anything else. You wouldn’t actually take it serious. You wouldn’t think the Prodigy are about beating their girlfriends up and shit like that. It has a certain amount of b-boy style in the actual song. It’s just basically bringing that through.
It’s obvious that “Firestarter” is not about starting fires. It’s about Keith’s personality. I thought, “Well, if people are going to kick up a fuss about this, then they’re really gonna kick up a fuss about ‘Smack My Bitch Up.’ ” It was kind of a joke on the English press in a way, as well. There’s lots of different angles. The main angle is it works and it’s a simple track and it’s got hard vibe. That’s why I use that lyric. The other vibe is what I was saying about the press. To be honest, we’re ready for whatever is thrown us. You can’t not be ready and use a lyric like that. To be honest, people, if they think that song is about smacking girlfriends up, then they’re pretty brainless.
ATN: Were you in a sense mocking some of the gangster rap vibe?
Howlett: Not mocking it. I’m not mocking gangster rap. It was a respect to that. I was mocking the English press. In fact, I knew, when I wrote that track — it wasn’t the main reason — but it became apparent to me afterwards, after I’d written the track, that it would be a real piss take on the English press the fact that they will pick up on it and create something out of it. If you can create that much trouble in one vocal then let’s create some trouble. For us, it’s just about doing what we want, doing it our way, having fun. That’s our way of just having fun. But it’s serious in other ways. It’s not a joke. This song isn’t meant to be taken like a joke. It’s a hard song. The sample just works. There’s not really one explanation why I put it in there. When I was young and I was listening to Ultramagnetic MCs, Public Enemy, Schooly D about guns, drugs and women, it just had a good vibe. I just liked the vibe it had and tried to pick some of that up in that song, really. The whole album to me has got a more b-boy feel running through it than Jilted had. It’s much more rhythmatic and I worked with drums a lot more. The whole vibe has a strong almost hip-hop element running through it.
ATN: Was it exciting for you to work with Kool Keith?
Howlett: Yeah, very exciting. It’s even more exciting to work with him than doing the Kula Shaker thing. I’ve been into the Ultramagnetic MCs since ’86 or something like that. When I heard that he was up for doing the track, I got a good buzz off that. The original version of the track I sent him — it was a really simple hip- hop track, much like the one on the album. And he sent the vocals back. And it was like, “I think I want to take the vocals off this track and write a new track and just do something different.” My original idea was to put lots of synthesizers and make it complicated. I tried it. It just didn’t work. I didn’t really get the feeling it was what I wanted to do. Once I’d simplified the track — I’d taken all the elements off — I just had these really raw sounds going quite hypnotic through the whole track and just using his voice to pick up on the flow of the whole tune. It’s [“Diesel Power”] a very simple track on the album. But I don’t know. It’s the track I always put on in my car. It’s the track I always play at home. It’s just a real head nodding track and when I put it on, it’s just raw, you know. And it has the right vibe for what we wanted to accomplish.
Howlett said Kool Keith (AKA Dr. Octagon) is “the best MC on the planet without a doubt.”
ATN: So he didn’t come to your studio. You sent him something and then he cut the vocal and then sent it back.
Howlett: Yeah. Basically what happened was I’d done an interview with Urb magazine in San Francisco about two years ago, three years ago. And a friend of mine was over there from England and he knows Keith and he basically writes for a hip-hop magazine in England. His name is Angus Batey. He read the article. In an interview with us I was saying I would like to work with Kool Keith, do a track for the new album and stuff. But I don’t know if he’d be up for doing it, you know because he’s more sort of dance-oriented stuff. He phoned Keith up and he basically asked him. He said, “You know these guys have got this track…” Kool Keith said, “Yeah, I know ‘Poison.’ ” He knew the records, which is quite surprising.
“That’s what’s punk about it, the fact that Keith can’t sing and he’s up there, he’s up on stage. It makes people think that they could get up on stage.”
I sent him a track and he liked the track. And obviously he couldn’t agree to doing a track unless he heard what we wanted to do. He wouldn’t just agree to doing it. But once he’d heard the track I produced, he liked it and he put the vocals on it. He was really happy. It was interesting working with him. He did send the vocals across on a tape and that’s the way it worked. I’m really strange when it comes to working. I like to do everything myself. I can’t have anyone else in the studio. The first embryonic stage of writing a track and starting the music, I have to be on my own. I have to be stumbling around in the studio, catching a vibe with no one else around. That’s the way it works best really.
ATN: Have you hung with Keith or talked with him much since?
Howlett: Yeah, I spoke to him loads. Yeah, he’s kind of strange. He’s like really out there. He’s definitely the best MC on the planet without a doubt.
ATN: You’ve got these political slogans or mock political slogans in the CD booklet. “We have no butter, but I ask you, would you rather have butter or guns? Shall we import lard or steel? Let me tell you preparedness makes us powerful. Butter merely makes us fat. Steel? Lard?” What’s that about?
“This is actually like a Nazi quote,” said Howlett.
Howlett: Do you know where that came from? This is actually like a Nazi quote. It’s like Hermann Goering, Hitler’s right hand man. This is the quote he made during the war. Now a lot of people have picked up on this in England. You can imagine what the press have been like, “Oh the Prodigy are Nazis…” All this crap, you know. To simply answer that question: yes, the quote is a Nazi quote and no, we’re not Nazis. Obviously we’ve got two black guys in the band. So to even suggest that is totally brainless anyway. To be honest, that quote is like me using a sample. I look upon that quote as like a sample. I take it out of its original context, put it in my own context and it means something completely different. I look at that quote and that’s like a b-boy quote. That’s like someone out of a hip-hop scene could have said that. And that’s the reason I used it ’cause it’s a totally different context. It’s like a completely different thing. And it just works well. It has power and it has the right message for what we want. It has nothing to do with what it’s originally about.
ATN: What’s the message that you’re communicating?
Howlett: It isn’t really a simple message. It’s just a vibe it has. It has power. For me, it just made me laugh. This is like the first b-boy quote. Do you know what I mean? It’s like something that was made in 1946 or ’47 by a German can be related to 1997 in kind of a hip-hop community. It’s really kind of quite humorous in a way. I guess I thought it had the right vibe. It wasn’t like that message is so what we’re about. It wasn’t like that message is what we’re about. It just had the right feeling really.
“We’re not the new Sex Pistols.”
ATN: At least at face value, it seems like you’re talking about governments spending money on guns and ammo and ignoring the fact that there are people that are hungry, homeless. That’s one interpretation.
Howlett: One interpretation, but the wrong one. Basically, we’re not political. We don’t even talk about stuff like that. Like I was saying before, certain people can pick up certain things and it’s up to me to sort of like let people do that or give them a new direction of thought of what that track’s about or whatever that vocal’s about or that quote, whatever. But we’re up for letting people deciding for themselves and letting them bring the vocals into their own head space, their own world and letting the vocals mean something to themselves. Basically, if I sit here and explain exactly how it is, it doesn’t leave any room for head space. It basically works in our world of sort of like the b-boy feel of the album. It has the hardness and the vibe we want to put across on the album. There isn’t any deep meaning or explanation of why we used that quote, to be honest. And I’m not gonna pretend there is.
ATN: Do you think Prodigy is subversive?
Howlett: You might want to explain a bit more.
ATN: I said this earlier but there’s this kind of dangerous vibe to what you do…
Howlett: Prodigy will actually probably end up self- destructing ’cause we build so many things up, then we turn it around. And we probably will turn it around to our death. We probably will turn something around that will cause us to self- destruct. That’s just the way we are. And that’s the whole fun of it. It is dangerous. It is playing a game… It’s not a safe path. That’s what keeps it alive, I think. That’s what we’re about. It’s what keeps the whole thing alive. It’s about taking risks and really throwing things in people’s faces and pushing it and pushing limits. It’s not about playing the whole thing really safe.
During our show, we play most of the tracks from the album. We do the whole show playing some old stuff, some new stuff. And at the end of the show, as an encore, we do “Fuel My Fire,” which is an L7 cover, which is the last track on our album. We almost build up the whole show of all this solid dance music and then we destroy it with one song. We destroy the whole show with one single punk rock song that probably most people won’t like.
We started doing this because at the end of the show we’d finish with “Firestarter” or another well-known song and people would be shouting “Out Of Space” and “No Good (Start the Dance)” and old stuff that doesn’t really fit into the show. To fuck them off we’d do this song and it would almost destroy the whole set we built up. That’s how self-destructive we are. We kind of get a buzz out of that.
Howlett claims the Sex Pistols aren’t an influence. Sure they aren’t.
It’s really hard to explain but that’s just what it’s about for us. We’re about turning it around at the last minute and not playing it totally safe by doing an encore that was going to get a real huge reaction. It was like, well yeah, we build up the whole set with all these songs, the hits, “Firestarter,” “Breathe,” whatever, tracks from the album, old tracks, “Voodoo People,” and basically just coming in with one last track that we imagine people can’t really dance to and they can’t really get the vibe because it’s not a dance song and it’s just totally different to the rest of the music in the set. It still has the same energy but it’s a different energy. We really enjoy doing it. We wouldn’t play any songs we don’t enjoy, but I’m just saying that basically, it was like almost destroying the whole set with that one song and in our way, it’s quite self-destructive. And I think that’s the way we’ll always be and that’s the way we are.
ATN: Is Prodigy the Sex Pistols of the late ’90s?
Howlett: No. Prodigy’s the Prodigy of the ’90s. It always annoys me when people need that security of relating something to what was going on before. Like, for example, the new Rolling Stones, the new this, the new that. Obviously not us but other bands, they like to have that safeness or that security in saying this is the new Sex Pistols or Keith’s the new Johnny Rotten.
We’re not the new Sex Pistols. There hasn’t been any bands like us before. There’s never been any electronic bands that have done what we’ve done, that have incorporated this style of music. This is something new. So when people say that to me, it does annoy me slightly. I think people will have to accept that this is something new. This is something happening now. This is something that’s coming out now. Certain elements of it have relations to the Sex Pistols or punk rock or certain attitudes in that scene, but you really cannot compare what we do to the Sex Pistols.
“People, if they think that song [“Smack My Bitch Up”] is about smacking girlfriends up, then they’re pretty brainless,” said Howlett.
Just because Keith’s got spiky hair does not mean he’s John Lydon. People who say he sounds similar, he doesn’t sound similar. I’m a fan of Lydon and Keith doesn’t sound anything like Lydon. He doesn’t have the same depth. Keith cannot sing. Simple as that. Keith cannot sing. Lydon can sing maybe five percent. Keith cannot sing one percent. That’s what’s punk about it, the fact that he can’t sing and he’s up there, he’s up on stage. It makes people think that they could get up on stage and do that. They can get up on stage and be Keith or whatever. That’s just the way it is. Simple. He’s not standing on stage thinking he’s a singer. He’s standing on stage because he can get up there and he can do it. This is his chance to do that. That’s basically the whole vibe. That’s what’s punk rock about it.
ATN: Obviously it’s not your intention to inspire people but do you dig the fact that people can get that out of Prodigy?
Howlett: Absolutely, yeah. That’s probably one of the most important things, that people can draw that from the band. Just to take that element and draw from that. I think it’s important, really important.
Howlett said he’s met stars like Bono and Bowie, and they’re just like you and I. Well, if you and I had egos the size of stadiums.
ATN: So pissing on the idea of rock stars…
“We destroy the whole show with one single punk rock song that probably most people won’t like.”
Howlett: Absolutely, absolutely. At the end of the day we’ve never been on the vibe that we’re different from anyone else. I’ve met most of the biggest rock stars in the world. I’ve met Bono, I’ve met David Bowie, I’ve met these people. They aren’t any different to us. And we’re just saying that it makes us laugh when people think they’re different. When I was younger, I’d go to Glastonbury when I was young and I’d be thinking “Man, what goes on behind that back stage? What goes on behind the stage? It must be a big party. It must be crazy shit going on.” Being there, it isn’t like that. It’s just so fucking normal. For example, we’re in a club two, three years ago. Jilted was at #1 in the charts. We’re in Germany or somewhere like that. It’s at #1 in the German charts. We were just in there getting drunk in this club. Totally inconspicuous.
We were just chilling with a few friends. There’s quite a few people in there. Then all of a sudden all these bouncers come in, clearing everyone out of the way. They clear the way for this dude, meant to be this big rock star. And he sits at a table. We’ve never heard of this guy. He’s got a hit in the charts. It’s about #78 or something. He’s never had any records out before. It’s his first record but he’s a star now and he’s arrived in this limousine and he’s arrived with all these bouncers around him.
Basically, it’s like a record company attempt to make this guy seem like he’s big. So any photographers that were in that club take pictures of him turning up in that limo, take pictures of him in the club with all these girls and these bouncers. We just sauntered up to him. We were like, “Who are you?” He was like, “Don’t you know? I’ve got this record out. I’m in the charts.” We’re like, “Yes, so what?” He just felt such an idiot after we told him who we were. He just got embarrassed. He left. That’s always stuck in my mind, that story. Anyone who thinks they’re a star just needs to realize that it’s not all about that. It’s about the substance of what you’re doing. We’ve always been totally against that. For us it’s just not what it’s about.