April 26, 2002
In late November 1997, two British electronica songs broke into American pop culture in a major way. MTV and alternative radio stations played the Prodigy's "Firestarter" back-to-back with the Chemical Brothers' "Setting Sun."
It seemed as if the pop music landscape was about to embrace electronica.
Instead, the budding music style fizzled on radio and MTV, although it began taking over nightclub playlists. It also gets blended into some pop and rock music, and it's used as background music at the cinema and on TV.
But what happened with radio and MTV?
In the mind of the Prodigy's main songwriter, Liam Howlett, there just weren't enough good electronica acts to propel a revolution.
"It's not our fault. We sold a couple of million records. We can't be responsible for other bands not writing good tunes," says Howlett, who brings the Prodigy to the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay on Saturday. "People liked the whole image of the band. That's why we happened. That's why the Chemical Brothers sold their music, because it's (expletive) good.
"And we can't be held responsible for the electronic movement not bursting into flames in America. It didn't blow up, but maybe that's a good thing. It's just like the punk movement. That's blown up in America and it's blown up in England.
"But most of it's kind of" redundant, Howlett says, and he starts humming a Blink-182 song. "It's the same song, over, three chords. I'm (expletive) bored with that."
In the meantime, the cool, underground level of music has fostered plenty of good electronic music, Howlett, 30, says.
"It may not have exploded in its own way, but it's crept into the other music fields."
The Prodigy, itself, found its rise to prominence complicated when the band was briefly attacked by rappers the Beastie Boys and electronica's Moby. Those acts thought the Prodigy's hit song "Smack My Bitch Up" was overtly machismo.
For "Smack My Bitch Up," Howlett sampled the title lyric from an old hip-hop song, and dropped into a quick, fat rhythm that carried along a wild loop of a catchy melody. It wasn't meant to support violence. It was an ironic, tongue-in-cheek song.
"No one in England complained about that record. It was only Moby and the Beastie Boys," Howlett says. "I had a confrontation with the Beastie Boys about that record, and that was all sorted out and it's fine."
But Moby -- who had a big MTV hit last year, the duet "South Side" with Gwen Stefani -- wouldn't relent.
"He should have got his facts straight before he started to spout off about our band. I still respect him, but I'm just like any other person. If someone attacks our band, I'll attack them back. That's my right, you know," Howlett says.
"Smack My Bitch Up" was later resurrected in cartoonish, live-action movie "Charlie's Angels." In a long action sequence, the song plays while the movie's three heroines beat up a bad guy in an alley.
"When we got asked to do that, I was a bit dubious," at first, but was eventually won over, Howlett says. "It was quite a big club record in England. It was played in gay clubs, because it was tongue-in-cheek. And I liked the fact that the `Charlie's Angels' thing was the same thing. And it almost looked like a video to the record. It was cut so well to the actual song."
Among fans, the biggest complaint about the Prodigy is the extended waits between albums. Although Howlett has released a few remix albums of songs by the Prodigy and other acts, he's still working on a real follow-up to 1997's "Fat of the Land."
Howlett says he's just deliberate and that creating good music is harder for electronic acts than it is for rockers.
"The way I write songs is much slower than actual bands who go into studios with their instruments and sit down and write songs. It's a much slower process. It (takes) a lot of time finding sounds and kind of finding the right drums. I'm searching for certain sounds," he says and chuckles at another reason: "That's not an excuse. I'm slow, you know?"
But the Prodigy does plan to release a single this summer, then another later in the year, followed by the new album "Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned" by the end of 2002, Howlett says.
Some reports that the album will be dubby and rockcentric have been wrong, he says.
"It definitely won't be dubby. Dubby conjures up elements of slightly laid-back (vibes). But this record is very much on the edge, even more than on the last record."
As usual, the Prodigy's music will "attack the public" with immediacy.
"All I want to do when I write songs is: `Let's do this!' " Howlett says. "I always say, when I go in the studio, I'm only trying to re-create (rap group) Public Enemy in my own head. That's what I try to do. That's the records that blew my mind when I was 16, 17 years old."
The Public Enemy influence is also "basically mixed in with the Sex Pistols and a certain kind of British punk sound. That's basically what spits out the Prodigy."
The Prodigy's punk sound is not what is normally considered punk music, though.
"If this new kind of wave of American and English bands (is punk), then we're not punk," Howlett says. "A lot of (legitimate) punk comes out of the discos and the nightclubs. Punk comes out of underground nightclubs. I find that more `punk' than three guys with spiky hair. That's pop music.
"We won't be having anything to do with the punk-rock (revival). It's plastic. They're rereleasing `God Save the Queen' by the Sex Pistols, but some dance mix of it. It's ... awful."
Howlett also says of the next Prodigy album that it won't include samples of his old record collection.
"I've basically exhausted my old '70s and '80s hip-hop records," he says. "So I've basically just locked the room up, so I can't use any of the records.
"And I've brought people in to re-create things, like a guitarist, and we've just been working a lot more on the sound. So it's a kind of new step for us, internally. But maybe, externally, it might not sound drastically different, you know?"
"Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned" will also be more "vocal heavy" with lyrics than previous Prodigy albums, Howlett says.
"To me, having something like a Fatboy Slim thing going round and round and round, it's fine for a couple listens," he says. "Everything he's done is good, and he's a nice guy. (But) he's not gonna write music that's gonna stir people up in a mental way.
"The vocals have to mean something. `Firestarter' is basically a description of (vocalist) Keith (Flint). But also, it works on a very unintelligent level. People can pick up on the unintelligent level of the hook. It's something that happened by accident."
Long before the next singles and the new album, though, the Prodigy has headed to the States to perform two shows, the first tonight in Las Vegas, and the second Sunday in Indio, Calif., for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
Howlett says the Prodigy's record label executives weren't quite sure if the group should play here.
"When we said we were coming to do some gigs, they were almost, like, `Well, shouldn't you be waiting till you have material ready?' And we're, like, `No. We want to play, and remind people we're still here.' And we've never been to Vegas before. We're doing a small gig in Vegas. I requested to do that," Howlett says.
He's hoping to run into former Las Vegas residents Scott Kirkland and Ken Jordan of the electronic outfit Crystal Method. Howlett hung out with them during an Australia festival not long ago, he says.
known for, like, drinking tequila and stuff like that. So I went to
find Scott, yeah, and I said, `I want to get drunk with you guys.
Where's the tequila?' He's, like, `Oh, no, we've got a new drink here.
Flaming Dr Peppers.' We had, like, four in a row. And we just, like,
had a laugh. So I hope they're around."
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