Liam Howlett: Lord of the Dance

The Prodigy mastermind on how four Essex lads in dodgy dungarees managed to conquer the dance world with their iconic call to arms, Music for the Jilted Generation

Music Q+A
Liam Howlett
Liam Howlett Photography by Ronald Dick

Today, Liam Howlett and his bandmates celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Prodigy's Music for the Jilted Generation, the album that marked their transformation from pilled up Essex jokers to global electronic music icons. In the last two decades, the Braintree born producer has sold over 16 million records, made a cartoon cat into a rave demi-god, gone to outer space and back again, repeatedly set fire to charts across the world, and headlined the biggest festivals in the world – culminating in a big birthday party tonight at Sonisphere. To celebrate his masterpiece, we revisit a 2009 Dazed interview in which Howlett talks about his biggest beats, dodgiest fashion choices, and why Gene Simmons should never, ever, cover The Prodigy.

Who are you?

Liam Howlett: The Prodigy. 20 years old. 

What did you do yesterday?

Liam Howlett: I took my kids to school. I pride myself on that because that’s real. Infact, I put eight of the teachers on the guest list for our gig at Brixton Academy, and the day after one of them came up to me and said, ‘I’m going to look at you in quite a different light now!’ because she’d never seen the band play before. That was quite funny. I reckon the school fees will go down now.

How have you changed since the early days?

Liam Howlett: Honestly, I don’t feel any different. I haven’t mellowed out. I’ve got a bit madder. It’s all intensified. 

Do you reminisce a lot?

Liam Howlett: Not really. I’ve got a really terrible memory. When I do think about how we got here, it’s mad. I remember writing hip hop tunes and then a mate took me to a rave. After that first one I told all my mates about how amazing it was, and they all called me a wanker. Then I completely turned my back on hip hop because it just wasn’t right for me. It was too much attitude and not much fun. It was fine in Essex but as soon as you ventured up to London you were fucked. One time me and my mate came to a gig under the Westway and had all of our money taken off us. I was 15 or 16 and I just thought, fuck it. 

How did clubbing change your approach to music?

Liam Howlett: Going to a drug scene and dropping acid just blew my mind. Suddenly I was going out listening to music that still had beats, it was just a bit quicker. It wasn’t like I was suddenly out listening to gay house music. It had similarities to things like Big Daddy Kane, so I was able to push my own music towards that and turn up the BPM. 

Did you make such hectic beats because to match your heart rate? 

Liam Howlett: I think we caned it before the band started and then the caning slowed down and the band sort of took over. We realised none of us could cane it and go on stage – it just didn’t work. The drug taking slowed down. 89 and 90 were my going out raving years. That was all the heavy ecstasy taking, acid and all that. After that I calmed down a bit I was always a heavy weed smoker but only took Es every now and then. That was what led to Experience, it reflected what was going on in the music at the time. 

Some of the things you were wearing back then were atrocious! 

Liam Howlett: We have no qualms with agreeing with you. We take full responsibility for all the shit we wore. We can laugh at that now and we do.

Who designed all that stuff?

Liam Howlett: We did. It was rough as nuts, what did you expect? No one else is to blame, if they were to blame they would have already got the sack. We did it ourselves. We were off our tits when we did it so that’s a good excuse, init?

So how did these blokes in bad shell suits end up conquering the world?

Liam Howlett: All we wanted to do was go to the parties we’d been to as ravers. If we made it to Raindance then we’d made it. Raindance was a proper East London rave with all the best DJs, but by the time we got there we’d released ‘Charly’, and already played in front of crowds of 15,000. It was almost like we bypassed the first stage of a band. But when the rave scene died, we entered the second phase and dropped the costumes. Thank fuck. We were like a different band. We literally started again and got into a transit van around England with no money. We toured colleges and universities. It was like a new band starting. That was fun and exciting. 

"We take full responsibility for all the shit we wore. We can laugh at that now and we do. We were off our tits when we did it so that’s a good excuse, init?"

You just mentioned Charly. How much of you career do you owe to that cat? 

Liam Howlett: He’s had his money’s worth out of me. I was a complete acid head when I wrote that shit. I made it to play in my car after a night out. We’d all be tripping and I’d stick it on and just watch their faces in the mirror. It would do their heads in. It was a wind up. I just did it to make my mates laugh but then it took off and went somewhere else. Americans tried to read some deep meaning into it. They didn’t get it because they didn’t know who Charly was. Americans didn’t get it until the third album. Clueless, fucking clueless. 

Do you regard Jilted Generation as a masterpiece? 

Liam Howlett: I haven’t listened to that album in its entirety since I made it. When they played it the other night I listened to it in my car and took a detour just to take all of it in. I just couldn’t believe how long it was! There are bits that I actually can’t remember how I did it. I obviously did, but I couldn’t remember how I made the sound. That record was a reaction to everything that was going on around us, even the jungle scene. The tempo was going up and up, so I thought fuck that we’ll go down and we wrote ‘Poison’, which was a hip hop track. ‘No Good’ was a reaction to the shit Euro dance thing that was going on. It’s an angry album.

Have you mellowed with age? 

Liam Howlett: No. I was 25 when I made that album and I don’t know what it is with me but I’m just as angry. I think if I wake up content then I’ll just be lazy and lose what I’m about. I’m happy with the way things are but I couldn’t tell you what I’ve been angry about. It’s just the way I am since day one. I’m just angry at what goes on around me. Although if someone was to examine my head I’m sure they’d probably say I’m really happy.

Many of your songs came to define the 90s. Do you see that as a blessing or a curse? 

Liam Howlett: That’s got to be a blessing man. Better have it done then not have it done. But I think we get overlooked because of the whole Blur versus Oasis thing. We were always more underground. We weren’t involved in anything to do with Britpop, which was good because we had something different going on.

Although you did have your own feud with the Beastie Boys at Reading in 1998

Liam Howlett: Yeah! Don’t forget I was a fan of those boys. I grew up with Ill Communication, and still think it’s amazing. But I was sitting at home a day before Reading and Ad-Rock rings me up. It’s all’s friendly to begin with, then he goes to me ‘we feel that if you play your song ‘Smack Your Bitch up’, we would have to say something about that.’ And I just felt myself going red with anger. Who the fuck are you, ringing me in my house and telling me what song I can’t play! And you’re in my fucking country as well! I was like ‘alright mate, see you tomorrow' I was ready for it, I was ready to bash. Then Mike D came up to me before the gig and it booted off, this row erupted. He tried to give me some story about how a friend of his was smacked up and abused and I was like, ‘you knob, aren’t you rapping about underage girls on your first album? But I didn’t I ring you up about that!’ They’re welcome to their view, but don’t fucking ring me up and tell me not to play my tune. They basically proved they were too old at that point to even be on that stage with us. So that was that really. 

Did the fallout from that track and Firestarter piss you off? 

Liam Howlett: That was just a few old women complaining because Keith looked a bit scary on TV. The thing about Smack my Bitch Up was the song wasn’t getting played so we thought we’d go and make the most wild video and that’s what we did. 

You don’t personally do that much in Prodigy videos. 

Liam Howlett: (laughs) That’s all I can do, stand there. I look good though. That’s the band joke. That’s all I ever do. I did get the hammer out and my top off in ‘No Good’ though. And for ‘Voodoo People’ we had to run down a spider infested field in St. Lucia. That was pretty insane. 

How did it feel to have a number one album in 26 countries?

Liam Howlett: I thought I was Bono. It didn’t blow my brain at the time, I was really blasé about it – it just didn’t register because it wasn’t important to us. The only thing that was important to us was playing to all these different countries, but then the live thing became more important than recording and I stopped recording for years. The momentum stopped and it’s really important to keep on edge. It was impossible to get anything together so I got really fucked off with it in 2000 and just said I’ve got to stop right now, I can’t do this anymore, I’m fed up with you guys, I’ll see you later. So I stopped. When I came off the road I wasn’t ready to go back in the studio so it was a weird situation. I didn’t want to do Fat of the Land Part Two so I fell out with the record company as well.

“Madonna wanted us to do something with her album because we were signed to her label, but nah, I didn’t want to do that. Same with U2 and David Bowie, they didn’t mean anything to me when I was young”

Did you like Keith and Maxim’s solo albums?

Liam Howlett: I didn’t speak to Keith for a year while I made Always Outnumbered. I never had a problem with Maxim it was only really Keith. There was a bit of paranoia and drug use happening, but I just knew that it had to be a beats album. It actually freed my mind up. I knew it wasn’t going to be a big record but it was a process we had to go through and we came out of it. It’s a very confusing record for a lot of people, but it’s a record that I really enjoyed doing.

Why didn’t you just become a producer for hire? 

Liam Howlett: Madonna wanted us to do something with her album because we were signed to her label, but nah, I didn’t want to do that. Same with U2 and David Bowie, they didn’t mean anything to me when I was young. If Terry Hall would have come up to me and said something maybe I would have said yeah, great. Bowie is a wicked guy, I like him and I’m into him more now than I was then, but through my youth I wasn’t listening to that so it didn’t mean anything. I don’t regret it, I don’t regret anything I’ve done. 

Who has done the worst cover of Firestarter?

Liam Howlett: Gene Simmons. It was fucking awful. They carbon copied the music beat by beat. If you go on to YouTube you can check it out. It was a joke. My missus is a huge KISS fan, and I was more excited abut telling her than him actually doing it. She was like, ‘you’re joking, he’s the original firestarter’. I said ‘don’t be ridiculous, there’s no way he can kick that up a notch’. When we watched it, she said, ‘oh, that’s fucking shit.’ It’s so bad.

Do you all still cane it?

Liam Howlett: Keith’s giving up everything, he doesn’t drink or nothing. He used his party tokens up a year ago. He took way too much of everything. It was just fucking ridiculous – he couldn’t keep on staying up for five days and seeing people staring back at him that weren’t there. Ridiculous mad shit. He had to stop all that.

Have you chilled out on that side of things? 

Liam Howlett: No. I still party the same amount but what I’ve discovered I also like is waking up in the morning and going for a run. I’m a bit of a schizophrenic. It sorts your head out. Do it at the same time and it gives you a heart attack. As soon as it gets dark I know my head is gone and I’ll go out now but in the morning I’ll be up and out again. I just buzz off it, I buzz off them both the same. 

Do you feel old in this business? 

Liam Howlett: It’s kind of weird. I see all these other bands like Primal Scream. I love Primal Scream, but I’m young compared with them. I don’t feel old. I’m just doing what I do naturally. We defy time. 

Out of all your newer tracks, “Warriors Dance” is the one with a real old skool Prodigy vibe to it, were you tempted to go back to the Jilted Generation sound for Invaders Must Die?

Liam Howlett: I wouldn’t want anyone to think this is any kind of retro album because it’s definitely not. We’re really happy that we’ve written something that retains what the Prodigy were at the beginning without feeling like it’s just rehashing the old ideas. That track samples an old skool track called True Faith. I still get a buzz out of going to a record shop and looking at the covers. There’s a sample on every record. This has been a prolific writing time for me. Over the last two years I’ve written more music than I’ve written in the last 10 years. I don’t know what’s happened to me. I’ve suddenly just buzzed off it. 

You previously said Firestarter set a new standard for British music do you think you’re still capable of doing that? 

Liam Howlett: Yeah this band is more relevant than ever. If Blur can come back without any new tunes and get on covers then I’m going to stamp on Damon Albarn’s head to get on the front cover. I’m on a mission, we’re not going to be ignored. We should be protected like national heritage cos there ain’t many other bands around like us. Oasis are the same, they get respect and they deserve respect. Maybe it’s all gone to my head, but I believe we should be revered like The Specials, Oasis, and The Sex Pistols. 

Are you angling for a knighthood or something?

Liam Howlett: No, I’m not interested in that. We just want respect.

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