Jayne Margetts encounters The Prodigy's Liam Howlett to discover why he's gone solo with The Dirtchamber Sessions
There is no easy way to put this, but Liam Paris Howlett is the pin-up poster boy of electronic punk. Choice doesn't enter into the equation. The scions of street cred and music bibles Mixmag, Loaded and The Face would fight tooth and nail to boot the point home. The sneering and Lydon-esque posturing of Keith Flint, for all of his arsonist threats and lyrical foaming at the mouth, doesn't even come close. There's only ever been one true maverick with his finger on the sonic trigger, and the ability to ride the wave of longevity - and he ain't got a mouthful of gold teeth...
If you were to drive this point home in Howlett's presence he'd cringe. He isn't known for accepting compliments lightly. Forever lurking in the shadows, tweaking knobs and quietly moulding events as they unfold. This is always the mark of the true genius. Machismo, pouting and controversy does not maketh the rebel. Delivering the goods is what counts.
The Prodigy is currently hovering on the pause button. Howlett, however, is not. The Prodigy Presents Dirtchamber Sessions Remix Volume One trajectory is Howlett unplugged. It's cigarettes, beer, dressing-gown and all. Old skool toasting at its brashest. He flaunts, stomps and mashes his way through a crusty male bonding session, the ground work already laid by bosom buddies such as the Chemical Brothers, Bomb The Bass, The Charlatans, Propellerheads, Primal Scream, Jane's Addiction, Frankie Bones, Medicine and Fatboy Slim, as well as nostalgic heavy-weight cowboys of yesteryear: the Sex Pistols, Herbie Hancock, Public Enemy, Digital Underground and Barry White. Some will laud it as Howlett's best 'cut and paste' work to date. Others will despise its tinny vernacular, cheesy B-boy shoot-out at the OK Corral and old skool mentality.
The Sessions are the culmination of Howlett being goaded by British radio show Breezeblock to provide a mix up. The Beastie Boys, Bjork, Roni Size, Spiritualized, Primal Scream and Portishead had all obliged. But Howlett? Initially the suggestion was greeted with a point blank refusal. But challenges are the nectar of life, and slowly the boy from Braintree became seduced by the idea. "I'm not a fan of DJ mix albums," Howlett ventures cagily, "to be honest, y'know, you hear the whole track and just at the end you get a twenty-second or a ten-second mix that kind of cheats the public out of what a mix album in my head should be about.
"It should be about something exciting, and what I tried to do with The Dirtchamber Sessions was to pick out the exciting parts of the records and put them in, and it was kind of getting that across to certain people who disapproved of tracks, then I had to speak to them and sort of tell them I come from sort of Grandmaster Flash and the Wheels Of Steel, Lessons 1,2 and 3, Double-D and Starnsky.
"I can't find - especially these days -
dance records that really inspire me"
"And as far as the cheesiness factor is concerned, I think it is one of the good things about old skool. Certain tracks do have a certain cheesiness to them that appeal to people. I mean, I definitely like it. When I think of the word 'cheese' I think of kind of Euro-pop and, you've got to remember that the hip-hop tracks that were written back then weren't written for the money. It wasn't about the money then, 'cause there wasn't any money in it ... even some of the Beastie Boys tracks. When they came out, the lyrics were humorous and offensive, but they're kind of connected with that.
"It was just like rebellious youth, going back to that again, but listening to the tracks now, they still carry weight," Howlett reckons. "Some of them I'd added beats into the mix. I didn't listen to the Charlatans and feel like the production was weak, but I thought that by adding all of these huge breaks to the track, that it would freshen the track up again, somehow. "
Home - usually an alien concept for Howlett - is the lush English Essex countryside. Relaxation is found amidst the foliage of the bonsai trees in his newly-constructed Japanese garden, or mixing up The Dirtchamber Sessions over the course of five days.
Insight into what makes the man tick is left to the spaces between the lines, to the fleeting glances of the denim bondage gear, studio tan, tales of a once"gifted child and classically trained pianist. " And although Howlett is renown for warning prying eyes to keep a safe distance, he does concede that The Dirtchamber Sessions are reflective of him shadowing-boxing in the wings.
"I guess this mix album does underline the sort of love I have for that type of music more than a Prodigy release would," he shrugs. "I think the record kind of speaks for itself, and people will get their own ideas of what it is that I am about, and it should finally make people also understand what the band is about.
"It does represent a lot of music that we're into. It's funny actually, 'cause even though we're all into hip-hop, and you know Keith was maybe more into rock, and Leroy into rare groove, he picked up Public Enemy and stuff like that.
"I can't find - especially these days - dance records that really inspire me, and I always go back to like old records that kind of pull out certain vibes from the late eighties with the hip-hop stuff. I felt like the Mexican stuff on Dirtchamber was me going out on a limb, to show that the record wasn't a total dance record, you know?
"And even sort of putting the Sex Pistols in, those are just records I really like. I don't have to sort of try and be a dance DJ, you know, you've got the Chemicals and Fat Boy Slim doing that stuff. So I felt that, what I'm about, what music I do actually like, you know, is really old school hip-hop, punk and the breaks. The type of people that will buy this record will be the people that want to know what goes on inside my head when I'm in the studio writing the music, and so that's basically the whole idea behind it, you know. "
"There's nothing worse than a band that
doesn't know when it's time to say goodbye"
The late eighties were fertile times for Howlett and the Prodigy. They quickly became the godfathers of the narcotic, techno-punk brigade and the screech of the abandoned generation. So when "Charly" and "Experience" slammed headlong onto dance floors and reached into the synergy of the masses, the cornerstone had been laid.
Music For The Jilted Generation with its claustrophobic slap and morphic sting soared into the number one slot on the British album charts, spurred a Mercury Award nomination and went on to sell over 1 million copies globally. It was fractious, bombastic and blatant. Dark break beats clashed with maniacal acrylic guitars and gave Howlett kudos that he never managed to live down.
As Keith Flint adapted the modern day Johnny Lydon mantra, Howlett slipped quietly behind the songwriting ether and shrank further into the shadows, until they released their 1997 masterpiece The Fat Of The Land and unleashed the raw power of Howlett's songwriting prowess through the shards of acidic demons "Firestarter", "Breathe", "Smack my Bitch Up" and "Funky Shit".
The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One, in all honesty, is not Howlett's best work. The sentiment is undoubtedly there but the substance isn't. What one expects is a pioneering sleight of hand. A mix-up to the beat of the new millennium. But perhaps bias always lies in the eyes of the beholder. The Prodigy is the first-born son, anything else lags two feet behind like a bastard orphan. And the host that provides the cranial sperm is only too aware of mankind's fickleness.
"The Prodigy will always be together as long as we feel like we're fresh, being fresh and kind of coming up with new ideas and stuff," Howlett adds. "I think there's nothing worse than a band that doesn't know when it's time to say goodbye, and they're sort of carrying on trying to continuously lock on to different cultures that come in.
"I don't think we've ever been accused of that. I think we've always had our own style, and the thing I'm most proud of with this band is kind of, there seems to be this kind of path that most bands seem to follow. It's a sort of road through doing certain interviews, going on TV, and it's a sort of road to stardom, or whatever stardom is, and we haven't followed any of those. We've done our own thing and chose our own path, and that's something we're most proud of ... "
Liam Paris Howlett proffers the poison and remedy to the psycho-somatic addict in us all. The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One is just that, a old skool break beat in the path. An aural sniff of narcotic bliss. The tags, the kudos and the legacy matter not. Pandemonium is only ever a step away ...