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Prodigal return

Once the biggest band on the face of the earth, The Prodigy are back having survived solo albums, acrimonious departures and a 10-year album dry patch. Andy Buchan chats to band leader Liam Howlett ahead of their debut Dubai date to see where the band fit in today’s musical climate.

It’s 1997 and The Prodigy – the most exciting, genre-clashing and parent-troubling band to emerge from Britain since the Sex Pistols – have just unleashed their most successful album to date. Fat Of The Land would chart at No1 in the US – unheard of for a predominantly electronic album – become the fastest selling UK album and ingratiate the band with the rock and dance community. Doting parents, however, were less than enamoured. Keith Flint – the band’s singer – caused uproar thanks to his appearance (think a piercing-riddled Chucky meets Jack Nicholson’s Joker), while the lyrics to ‘Smack My B**** Up’ were seen as obscenely misogynistic despite that band’s claims they are parodying gangsta rap.

Fast forward a decade, and the band have seemingly been overtaken by the still flourishing punk-funk scene. During that time, their lanky dancer Leeroy has been unceremoniously dumped from the band and the now-three piece effectively disbanded – discounting the utterly forgettable 2002 single ‘Baby’s Got A Temper’. Liam, meanwhile, became more of a family starter than a firestarter, having a kid called Ace (!) with All Saint Natalie Appleton and double dating with her sister and her partner – the one, the only Liam Gallagher. With music still the driving force in his life, Liam embarked on a solo album in all but name (aided by Juliette Lewis and the other Liam), the electro-edged Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned which garnered lukewarm reviews. With their leader no longer requiring their services on the album, Maxim Reality became a rapper while Keith Flint became a moto-X rider for Ducati and briefly fronted an eponymous band. Remember them? Thought not.

Now, the band are back together and eager to define another generation. Their typically turbo-charged Best Of: Their Law – has served to whet appetites around the world, but what will today’s rave-nu world make of their new material?

‘In our heads, we’re in the best band we could be in,’ says Liam confidently in his spitfire, Essex-wideboy accent. ‘We’ve got a lot of respect for all the new bands that have come out and done their thing but if they try to take the crown off us, we’ll be there to rip it off them, mate. If I don’t write the killer tunes, then the band won’t be here, it’s as simple as that.’

As such, the band’s new album is slowly gestating in Liam’s head. Again, it’s a solo writing process but Liam is quick to insist that it’s not merely ‘Always Outnumbered MK II’.

‘I’ve got no want to do another solo album,’ he says from his studio in his Essex country manor. ‘The aim with the band is to write music and then go onstage together and do the damage together – it’s no fun doing it on your own, doyouknowarramean? Without the live side of things, it gets pretty boring.’ And that is the last thing The Prodigy should ever be.

A riotous blend of breakbeat, scuzz-heavy electro and of course full-on rock swagger, the band’s live sets are spectacles that have been witnessed the world over. It’s also, Liam claims, the reason why fans have had to wait so long for new material. ‘We are so slow, I know man…the last album took aaaaggggeeessss,’ he says. ‘I’m not making excuses but we go out and play live a lot more than other bands – for Fat Of The Land we were on the road for three years solid’. But it’s an unusual place that the band finds themselves on the Desert Rock bill for their debut Dubai performance.

‘It’s definitely a bizarre scenario warming up for Iron Maiden, and certainly one that we never thought we’d be in,’ says Liam with genuine surprise in his voice. ‘We haven’t played live for about three months now as well so we’re dying to get back on the road again. We’re stupidly excited about it. The way we look at it is that they’ve got to follow us so they need to raise their game. They’re gonna have pyrotechnics going off and we’ll have a couple of strobes and maybe a smoke cannon so we’ll have to play them off the park’.

However any fans looking for new material are likely to be disappointed. Liam’s reluctance to play new songs for fear they’ll be ripped to the internet where unfinished symphonies will be passed off as gospel truth has faded over time. But with only four of the 20 tracks they’re currently working on earmarked for the new album, they’re unlikely to get an airing. ‘We’re less scared about our music appearing on the internet now but we’re still unlikely to play much new stuff,’ says Liam. ‘We haven’t been to Dubai before so I’d say the majority of our set will be old stuff – we’ll probably drop one new song. But we’ve re-written a lot of my solo tracks to make them into Prodigy tracks to include Keith and Maxim. We’re also going to keep the older stuff fresh as we’ve been playing ‘Firestarter’ for yeeeaarrrsss now, man.’

Despite all the rock star bluster, however, there’s a nagging suspicion that The Prodigy – and, more importantly, the band’s creative force, Liam – have lost the drive that made them such a phenomenon in the 90s. Back then, the band would play 48 hour raves, they’d record seemingly endless mixtapes rammed full of new material and, crucially, they united indie and dance in a sweaty endorphin rush. As our strict time limit with Liam ticks to an end, we wonder if Liam has been enjoying the celebrity lifestyle a little too much and whether the Prodigy can still be a pivotal band?

‘Our new album is rocking,’ he says, almost hurling the words down the phone. ‘As long as it’s got that Prodigy sound and production and as long as it’s us. It’s all about the music. I’m f****** well hungry for it. I’ve been enjoying the good life since 1996 when we did ‘Firestarter’. We’re on it, we love it – it’s what we do.’

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