Photo: Andy Cotterill

The Prodigy Are Not Done Shaking Up Music

The Prodigy don’t do things by halves. The electro-punk band is back with their seventh album, No Tourists, and, come January, they’ll be touring Australia. The Prodigy – its core members rapper Maxim Reality (aka Keith Palmer), vocalist/dancer Keith Flint, and producer/musician Liam Howlett – were last here for the Future Music Festival in early 2015, promoting The Day Is My Enemy. They were supposed to encore that show the next year at Soundwave, only the festival was canned.

The Prodigy are the great survivors of the UK’s original electronic music boom, repping a visceral counterpoint to the cerebral Underworld. Formed as a collective by Howlett in Essex at the start of the ’90s, The Prodigy crossed over from the rave underground with 1991’s cartoony ‘Charly’ prior to their debut album, Experience. Defying any novelty status, their follow-up, Music For The Jilted Generation, would be the first of successive UK #1 albums. The Prodigy officially became a global supergroup after ‘Firestarter’ – the lead single from The Fat Of The Land – with Flint adopting his iconic demonic quiffs.

Still, the big beat faves generated controversy with their anthem ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ off The Fat… – women’s activists accusing them of fostering domestic violence (in fact, the lyrics were sampled from Ultramagnetic MCs’ ‘Give The Drummer Some’). A sensationalist video, transgressively centring on an aggressive female hedonist, didn’t exactly help. ‘Smack…’ was banned by radio and MTV, with The Fat… removed from US stores like Walmart. The Beastie Boys called on The Prodigy to drop the song from their set at 1998’s Reading Festival – which some deemed hypocritical considering the Americans’ own history of misogyny, disavowed or not. Regardless, Howlett has consistently defended ‘Smack…’ as a (figurative) motivational party song.

The Prodigy resurfaced from a seven-year hiatus in 2004 with Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned – which featured neither Maxim nor Flint but guests such as Princess Superstar, Ultramagnetic MCs founder Kool Keith, and both Noel and Liam Gallagher. In the meantime, Howlett wed Natalie Appleton of the pop/R&B group All Saints – a reluctant celebrity couple.

For all their irreverence, The Prodigy do mind how they are positioned. Howlett & Co have correctly distanced themselves from America’s EDM explosion. However, they’ve also shed their old association with rave culture – strangely revisionist. Yet, in the ultimate punk move, The Prodigy may have transcended every scene. These days, they straddle the worlds of electronica, alternative hip-hop and metal. The Prodigy even influenced David Bowie’s EART HL I NG – notably its single ‘Little Wonder’. Howlett declined an offer to produce Bowie. And they presaged noise rebels like Justice.

No Tourists is hardcore breakbeat with a rock ‘n’ roll verve. The initial single, ‘Need Some1’, has what Howlett refers to as a “sample, smash and grab-type of beat,” using the voice of the late US disco diva Loleatta Holloway. Maxim returns for the second banger, ‘Light Up The Sky’ – very hardstyle. But, if The Prodigy have achieved longevity, it’s because they’re the world’s most high-energy live band. And, says Howlett, they’re not done with shaking up music.

Music Feeds: You’re coming back to Australia and you’ve got a new record, No Tourists, so it’s all nicely synchronised. But I was actually surprised you were doing another album, because in the-not-so-distant past you said that you were switching to the EP format. How did you get sucked into doing another one? Were you just on a roll?

Liam Howlett: No, I was surprised myself, to be fair, because I did say [that] after this last album [The Day Is My Enemy] – purely for the reason that it takes so long. As a band, it’s frustrating for everybody – for myself and the other guys – waiting for that period where the album gets written. So, basically, I started to do the EP and, within five months, I’d written six ideas. I was like, “Listen, I’m on a bit of a roll here.” It just happens like that sometimes – I can’t control it. I’ve got no control over when I feel like doing it or when I get inspired. It just so happens – like this particular time it just really came together. But there’s a few things that I changed.

I mean, when you’re writing a record, and you’re working in a studio and it’s the same every day, you can’t expect different results. You’ve gotta change it up. So I think, with this record, I was much freer with the writing. After the shows, for example, we did the gigs, I’d go straight to the nearest hotel, sometimes literally five minutes away [to write]. So the feeling of being on stage, I was able to get off on that and carry on with the writing. I kinda joined the dots that way. So there’s really no gaps in anything during the writing of this record. There was no stopping. It was just really fucking intense all the way through. And that’s how it got done, really.

MF: You’ve described No Tourists as being “equally aggressive as the last records – but in a different way”. I wondered what you meant by that?

LH: Well, I think the last record was pretty extreme in its approach – you know, it was quite violent-sounding, I guess. There wasn’t so much let-up from it. This record, it feels like it’s got a bit more swagger. It’s a bit more old school. I did tell people I was gonna go back to the beats; back to some kind of inspiration that I was feeling on the first couple of albums; to bring some of the rave influences back, which is something I wanted to do, but bring [them] into the more recent beats that we’ve been doing. So you’ll hear on the record that kind of inspiration come through on tracks like ‘Resonate’ and ‘Timebomb Zone’ – basically those tunes where you’ve got the early Prodigy sound.

MF: The Prodigy exists both within and outside a music spectrum. You’ve transcended almost everything at this point. How do you feel you have evolved sonically? What is inspiring you musically?

LH: Musically – nothing! Not really. I have to dig deep and see what we’re all about. Very occasionally I’ll hear things… Sometimes it’s not even music. It might be films or art or just walking down the street. It’s a sense more than anything. Tension. I think tension in Prodigy music is always really important – tension and atmosphere – and that can come from watching films or really anything.

I’m not the sort of person that would hear a brand-new artist and get inspired and go and write band songs. I’ve never really done that. Maybe right at the beginning. But I think, when people see the name “The Prodigy”, they have a certain expectation – and I do, we all do, actually – of what the foundation of it’s gotta be. It has to have that foundation of the drums and the bass to make up the sound of The Prodigy. And then, after that, it’s about writing a good song on top of it; writing a good tune. So that was the main goal [with No Tourists], really.

We’ve all got the fire and the hunger to just keep it going. When we enter into the recording – it wouldn’t happen unless we all felt it. That’s one of the reasons this album got done so quick, because we all wanted to pull together. We’re all really excited about it. It only takes a couple of tracks to get it rolling – and it just snowballed from there, really. But, yeah, like I say, the inspiration can come from the live shows, very occasionally [from] watching bands or listening to new music, but more from just being open to everything.

MF: The Prodigy is very much a unit, but you’ve always been like the captain of the ship. How has the dynamic changed over time between you, Keith and Maxim?

LH:Well, that’s interesting, actually… People do assume that, because I write the music, I am the main person in the band pushing it. And that is true for most of the time. But, looking back over what we’ve done, there’s been various really important points where the other band members have come forward and taken the lead. Maxim really took the lead on [Music For The] Jilted Generation, when he did ‘Poison’ – he pushed that. So we took his lead. Then, of course, Keith with ‘Firestarter’ – that was really all Keith. It’s a great unit, doing this band. We’re not pretentious. There’s no dictatorship going on. You have to have a vision, but any one can have that vision and have the drive. So that’s what’s great about it, really.

MF: I’m pretty sure The Prodigy will never be a ‘heritage act’. But obviously you do have some older fans who might lean towards nostalgia. How do you resist the nostalgia of those older fans who just want a formula?

LH: I think the way you resist that is you keep writing music. You write music and, if you’re happy with it and you believe in it, you put it out. That in itself gives the freshness and brings a fresh attention and fresh drive to the band. If the music stopped getting written, if that stopped, then we’d just be running on empty; running on your old tracks. So that would become tiresome pretty quickly for us. But, listen, you can’t keep everyone happy. We’re proud of what we’ve done, and we’ll always play the old tracks and we love ’em, but we don’t wanna ever be like a retro, heritage band. We have been around years, but it’s important to us to keep the fire burning. The only way to do that is to keep feeding it with new stuff.

For example, like ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, when we played that song last tour, I just changed the front end of it and that was enough to make it fresh. These type of things usually happen when we’ve got 20 dates in a row and we’re playing the song every night and we’re playing the songs… I’ll change a bit of them to keep them fresh for ourselves. We’re really happy to play the songs, but we have to just keep in mind to keep it fresh all the time.

I think this whole sort of way these [seasoned] bands come back and they play their first album, or they come back and they haven’t got any new material, but they play an album that they’ve done before – it’s good sometimes. It works for people. If you’ve missed the band, and you didn’t see them the first time ’round, and they come back and they play the old album, that’s great. But I think that only works for some bands. Otherwise it shows a real tired [mentality], no ideas, and why display that? I’m not really into that. But I think it does work for some bands. I saw The Stones Roses and I loved it. I loved seeing them again.

MF: I was talking to Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream and they’re another band that keep on reinventing themselves. So I see The Prodigy as a parallel. They’re older than you, of course!

LH: Great band, great band – I love them. I’ve always liked Primal. I do actually think that, in the UK, as well as being around probably a similar time, maybe a bit longer than us, they do have a real underground following still. It’s very similar to us in the UK, actually. I think they’re fucking great, Primal Scream. Always loved them.

MF: One thing you definitely have is energy. A lot of the hip-hop coming out now is very introverted with drawn-out trap beats – the emo-rap thing. What do you think generally about music now?

LH: I think, over the last three years, it seems to have been re-energised again, actually. The last record we released three years ago, [during that time] it seemed to have got a bit stale. It seemed to be just EDM and kind of pop electronic music. But I think, just over the last three years, there’s been people coming with fresh ideas. I find some of the new stuff quite experimental – and just people are pushing it a bit more.

I know what you’re saying about hip-hop. It’s mainly in the US, hip-hop has hit a bit of a stagnant zone for me. It’s mainly because I come from a time when hip-hop was Public Enemy and NWA and stuff like that – and that music had the energy. But Snoop Dogg has been doing this for years – and that’s dope. So it’s kinda not a new thing.

But I think, at this point, the thing for me really is just people are happy to have their records sounding like the last guy – in hip-hop, I’m talking about. Even down to the sound – like you mentioned the trap sound, that’s been around years. So that does annoy me a bit. It annoys me when people happen to have the same old beat on their record, because 20 years ago every hip-hop record sounded different. Every hip-hop record. I think people will get bored with that. Another guy with tattoos on his face and another mumble rapper – it’s like, how many of those do you need?

Music now as well – I think the way people get music; people receive music… I’ve got a 14-year-old boy [Ace Billy] – I just watch him. Music is almost like a secondary thing now. It’s like a soundtrack of a game or a soundtrack of a film. The way he would hear music first of all isn’t the way we used to hear it first off. So that’s changed quite a bit. But, hey, this is what we live in; this is where we’re at. It’s all good.

MF: The other big change has been social media and wider debates about music. It’s 20 years since your non-feud with the Beastie Boys over ‘Smack My Bitch Up’. Today you’d probably generate even more controversy over that track. Do you think you could release that now? And could you justify it in the same way? Do you often think to yourselves, “Blimey, we couldn’t do this now?”

LH: I don’t think “Blimey”. I just think that record represents a time and a space. I must point out again that – I’ve said this a million times – the record is not about smacking anybody up! Do you know what I mean? It’s clearly not about that. So, to talk about this again, you’ve first of all got to start from the right starting point. Basically, we personally never repeat ourselves, anyway. But the answer to the question is, I don’t know! Because now we don’t feel like the need to be controversial. We don’t feel like we need to strive to do things that are kind of like – we’ve done them when we were younger. It’s like, ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, everyone understood at the time the way the words were used, in what context, and it obviously was not about smacking a woman up. There’s certain knowledge you use in a certain way. Yeah, I mean, it’s a different world we live in now.

MF: It’s exciting you’re coming back to Australia. What can we look forward to from the shows?

LH: Yeah, it’s always exciting to come to Australia. There was a time when we used to come every year to Australia. We’ve been to Australia literally from the start. So we’re excited about being back with the new record. I think we had the chance to come before, but we like to come with new music ’cause we want people to see us fresh again. It’s like a new album invigorates the band. We’ll come with a different show and just bring the energy; bring the noise again. Also we’re about to do a UK/European tour, so the songs will have been played, and played a lot, and we’ll probably know what we’re doing by the time we get to Australia.

We’ve played three songs of [No Tourists] live and we’ve got another three prepared. The thing is with playing loads of new tracks live, not every one wants to hear new track after new track. I mean, I don’t when I go and see a band. I wanna hear it mixed up. So we’ll be rotating the set with new and old stuff all the time so it doesn’t get boring for us. You can’t ignore the old stuff. We take pride in making that fresh, too, and keeping that alive. You talked about ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ – that is still our anthem as far as live [performance] goes. That and ‘Take Me To The Hospital’ [from 2009’s Invaders Must Die] – those two tracks. We played ‘Take Me To The Hospital’ the first time, we premiered it, in Sydney. And we recorded a live film of that. So, yeah, that was exciting, when we did Invaders… Yeah, we’re just looking forward to coming back down and doing the new tunes, you know?

MF: It seems like The Prodigy is going to just keep on going forever. Are you happy to keep on going?

LH: I’m happy I’m still alive now, do you know what I mean? We roll from month-to-month. The music got written and then we were like, “OK, should we do another track?” Then this Australian tour got booked and we were like, “Great.” We only know what we’re doing up ’til April. So it’s kinda like we don’t have a master plan. There’s never been any master plan in this band. When we did our first gigs, we were like, “Who would think we’d get to play the parties we were going to a year ago?” – and then a couple of months later we were on those stages. That’s the way it’s always been. It’s always had a natural roll. We’ve never had any expectations out of it – even at the height of it, when ‘Firestarter’ was written. It was just me and Keith, a couple of friends, had written a track. So we don’t ever plan ahead. We just let nature take its course and see what happens. If people are feeling us, and we’re feeling them, we’ll be there.

MF: You did some production for Pendulum years ago [the track ‘Immunize’ on 2010’s Immersion]. Would you like to do more of that stuff with other artists or do you prefer working on your own?

LH: Well, with this album, I worked with Ho99o9, a hip-hop band from New Jersey [on ‘Fight Fire With Fire’]. I like working with people in my area. So when Rob [Swire] from Pendulum asked me to do a track with them, it was very straight-forward. It was like some synth parts – and there you go. But I think, working with other vocalists, production on other people’s tracks, it’s an area that I’m interested in. I’m interested in doing a soundtrack. I’ve probably got a soundtrack sitting in some studio somewhere – ’cause I’m always writing music. Not all of it is Prodigy-related. Some of it’s more soundtrack-related, I guess. I kinda feel the need to do a horror soundtrack at some point!

The Prodigy’s new album ‘No Tourists’ is out today. The band will return to Australia for a 2019 headline tour. Head here for dates.

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