IN LATE 1992, The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett stood on stage in Glasgow, bored out of his wits. “I remember looking out over the crowd thinking ‘I’m not interested in rave any more. It’s become a parody of itself’. It was so different from the scene we’d got into. A few weeks afterwards, we went to Los Angeles to shoot a video and I heard Rage Against The Machine’s first album and Dr Dre’s The Chronic. I thought ‘Wow - this is my missing link’. They were angry, they had a groove.”
He is reflecting on the origins of Music For A Jilted Generation, the dance behemoth’s landmark 2004 LP — a record that was one of the most influential electronic albums of the 1990s. The Prodigy’s place in the pantheon has been much on the musician’s mind of late; with his group’s harsh, yammering sound rivalled by the slicker beats of Avicii, Deadmau5 and others.
Howlett believes the new generation of DJs and producers are the worst thing to ever happen to dance music. He addresses the subject on ‘Ibiza’, a standout track on new album The Day Is My Enemy. Howlett went to the Balearic playground last year and was horrified to see DJs paid thousands to play pre-recorded sets. What once was political and subversive, the track argues, has been rendered anodyne and ruthlessly commercial. This goes against everything The Prodigy stand for.
“All we’re doing is reporting back to people what is going on,” says Howlett. “Of late, dance music seems to have gone very stock and commercial. It’s all one big lie. It’s all a joke, man.”
The past decade and a half have been tempestuous for The Prodigy. Following the worldwide success of their 1996 album Fat of the Land, and singles ‘Firestarter’ and ‘Breath’, the group was unsure what to do. For all their popularity, in their own mind they were ultimate outsiders. Now here they were — signed to Madonna’s record label, Maverick, with a number one both sides of the Atlantic. Where to go next? The answer, as it turned out, was down.
“We’d always tried to keep our feet on the ground. In the ’90s, we said ‘no’ to a lot more things than we said ‘yes’ to. But there’s no way around it — the more success you have, the more distant you become from your audience. You turn into this massive great dinosaur rolling along — something that doesn’t do any good for anybody. “
That said, Howlett feels the group never received the credit they deserved for their achievements. For all the acclaim heaped on Britpop acts such as Oasis and Blur, he points out how it was The Prodigy who topped the US charts before either band.
“People seem to forget we went to number one in America,” he says. “We were never hung up on chart positions. But you had Blur and Oasis trying to crack America. We just rolled over and p***ed all over it. To be honest, it was a case of the right band in the right place at the right time. After that it just went bang. If you go up — you have to come down.
“We went through quite a bad stage. Me and Keith [Flint, singer and dancer] stopped talking for a while. But we made it through. Ultimately, it made us stronger. Nothing is worth doing if there isn’t a bit of struggle along the way.”
All of those roiling emotions have fed into the genuinely ferocious The Day Is My Enemy. Assembled in fits and starts over the past six years,
Howlett sees the record as a companion piece to Jilted Generation in that it marks a reset for the group. With singers Flint and Maxim contributing to the writing, it is the closest The Prodigy have come to a ‘band’ project — and is shot through with a collaborative energy.
“It comes across as more violent in its approach than previous albums,” says Howlett. “This is the world in which we live. Electronic music has been hijacked and commercialised. All the edges have been taken off. People want something that is more abrasive, has a harder aspect. Dance music needs to be represented by a band with something to say, not just by DJs. This record is a reaction to what is going on musically. We have a right to talk about it because of where we are from.”
The Prodigy formed in 1990 in Braintree, Essex, a dour town of some 50,000 (Howlett named the band after his first synthesiser, the Moog Prodigy). Initially, fringe players on the UK rave scene, their first hit, 1991’s Charly, had the whiff of a novelty track — being built around a sample from an old UK public information film, Charley Says.
The success of that single saw The Prodigy anointed leaders of ‘kiddie rave’, a short-lived genre characterised by childlike melodies and yammering beats. Never comfortable with the perception that they were part of an establishment, Howlett bridled against the rave categorisation. He surprised fans and critics with single ‘Their Law’, a two-fisted attack on the UK government and its crackdown, via the notorious Criminal Justice Act, on underground raves.
The Prodigy were stars in Ireland almost before anywhere else. Clubbing veterans will recall their sweaty, cathartic early ’90s shows at Dublin’s Point and Cork City Hall.
“Ireland has always been special for us,” says Howlett. “The energy off the crowds are tremendous. We used to play The Point almost every New Year’s Eve. The response was amazing. We definitely felt we were among our people.”
Howlett turns 44 this year. However, he is in little danger of mellowing. Perpetually angst-ridden, he has accepted he will never be satisfied with his lot in life. That is the cause of a great deal of stress and frustration. However, it is also the energy that pushes him forward and ensures that, 25 years in, The Prodigy remain as awkwardly combative as ever.
“I don’t feel any different from when I was younger,” he says. “People said that when I became a father I would change. If anything I got more intense because everything became more important. That’s just the way I am. I have to accept it. It’s something that is in me. I think that, in many ways, it keeps me alive.”
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