Long before DJs became America’s new rock stars, U.K. electronic dance-gnash crew the Prodigy were an abrasive, shouting, reverse-mohawked Trojan horse, scoring a Top 40 hit and a multi-platinum album in 1997. Nearly 20 years later, a deep house track is the song of the summer, Deadmau5 can headline a night at Bonnaroo and Electric Daisy Carnival promoters boast an estimated 130,000 revelers a night.
While it’s a boom time for the Axwells and Ingrossos of the world, the Prodigy’s North American appearances are limited to rock festivals (Riot Fests in Denver, Chicago and, this weekend, in Toronto); and their charged-up sixth album, The Day Is My Enemy, is a slice of brittle digital hardcore with tempos more appropriate for ranting than raving. Rolling Stone caught up with producer Liam Howlett, who told us about going against the EDM grain and why the band is done with the album format.
It’s a boom time for electronic music festivals in America and you guys are only hitting rock festivals. . . .
Yeah. I know. It’s weird, isn’t it? I guess America is more segregated as far as that music goes. In the U.K. we have, like, Creamfields. It’s kind of like a dance festival, but still, bands play there, guitar bands and stuff. In the U.S., it just seems to me, things are much more in their own place. Your EDM big festivals tend to be more DJs — they don’t really cater to bands, so it’s kind of difficult.
You made this harsh, punk-noise record in the middle of electronic music’s American moment. . . .
It’s always a reaction to what’s going on when I write music. We’d written five tracks in 2012, and that kind of got shelved. It just didn’t feel right. But yeah, I don’t like . . . the whole EDM and electronic music scene is very commercial. It’s pop music, and to me, there has to be a band that can represent the harder edge end of electronic music, and that’s always been our job. And basically a lot of it’s live-driven. This record wasn’t written with radio in mind, it’s purely written to sit on stage.
Are there rock, punk or metal records that you were inspired by?
Yeah, I guess. Various things, more harder-edge stuff. In the U.K., after dubstep died sort of died off, everything went more into the clubs, and went more back to house music. And obviously, that sound doesn’t interest us whatsoever. The record I guess is a reaction to that, just the monotony of EDM, and the laziness of the music. . . . You can listen to various things in the record when I was making the record, but always still referencing my original inspiration — Public Enemy, stuff like that.
Just going back to that stuff, instead of listening to Mastodon or whatever?
Although I do like them. But I’m still listening to electronic music as well, but just the harder-edge stuff. I started listening to a lot of drum ‘n’ bass again, because drum ‘n’ bass, to me, it’s always been underground. It’s always been there. If you think it’s like the one style of underground dance music that’s not disappeared. Dubstep had its moment. Drum ‘n’ bass — it was obviously big in the Nineties, then it kind of died off, but it’s always stayed really solid.
How do you feel about DJ Snake’s “Turn Down for What”
Great tune. To me it’s closer to hip-hop than it is to pop music. So I’m a fan of that anyway. The guys that produce that kind of trap stuff, some of those guys are turning to house now.
When did you realize that “Smack My Bitch Up” was becoming your legacy song?
We’re more aware of it being our anthem everywhere else because we’ve spent much less time in the States, do you know what I mean? For example, Europe and in the U.K., it’s more the anthem. In England, I’ve seen that record drop in the middle of a house night. It’s just one of those tunes you can just play and people react to it. It drums up some kind of primal shit in people.
In 1997 or 1998, in America, it seemed like maybe your third or fourth most popular song, but it slowly grew over the years.
“Breathe” and “Firestarter,” those tracks are obviously fronted by Keith [Flint] and Maxim. “Smack My Bitch Up” is kind of faceless. I guess you could refer to it as a “DJ tune” in that sense. I can see why people would connect with that maybe more than they would with “Firestarter” now.
“The Wall of Death,” the final track on the record — is that at all inspired by the moshpit move?
A bit of that, yeah. That definitely was in the mix somewhere. Although funny enough, the times we’ve played it, that hasn’t ever happened in that tune. Whenever we play in Germany it seems to be, from way back, it seems to be a country what started the kind of more madness in the crowds. They’re spinning round the circle pits, all that bollocks. It’s kind of like stuck with us when we’ve gone around, but the wall of death thing they’ve never done that in any of our songs — but it’s in there somewhere. The lyric was actually written at a time when me and Keith weren’t particularly getting on and I think some of the lyrics of the song are basically aimed at me, actually. It was quite a difficult record to give birth to. It was written in quite a bad time in the band between me and Keith’s relationship. The great thing about finishing an album, it sort of resets, it reset our friendship. It was a great feeling . . . the album is done and our friendship is reunited.
What’s next for you guys?
I’ve had a rest and I’m about to start writing again. Basically I don’t feel like I want to do any more albums because they just take too long. It takes too long to get the music out to fans, it takes too long for us. We want to do something that can turn around quicker. So what we’ve decided to do is to do EPs from now on. And I think the whole music industry and such, if you want to call it that, is changing. We’re excited about doing a four-track EP next, getting that out, and while that’s out, we have the next one prepared. It seems much more of a better way to get music information to our fans. It’s just a quicker turn around and I think that would be, for us, as a band, much better.