Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom is an amazing building, its décor breath-taking. Built in 1896, the place forms part of the Winter Gardens complex and before you ask, no, I wasn’t there to participate in a dancing competition but to witness The Prodigy in concert – considered the ultimate live act by many in the industry today - ahead of the band’s confirmed April 30 live performance in Malta. More importantly, I was also there to interview the band’s core members, Liam Howlett, Maxim Reality and Keith Flint.
As I wait for them to arrive, I got chatting to Rob and Keith of UK-based duo South Central, who would later play a warm-up DJ set before The Prodigy went on stage. They’ve been touring with The Prodigy for much of the Invaders Must Die tour, and have come a long way since the last time we met in 2008, ahead of their debut CD release. It felt especially great seeing them also because Rob and Keith – whom The Prodigy have clearly taken a shine to - are both Maltese by the way, and their star is firmly in the ascendant.
As they left to prepare for their performance, I made my way to The Prodigy’s dressing room – excited but nervous – where I was greeted first by Maxim, who, having noticed my Specials T-shirt, asked if I’d seen them live (I have) and we got chatting enthusiastically about the Coventry Ska band’s reunion tour. Like myself, The Prodigy are big Specials fans, having also recorded a cover of the 2-Tone titans’ classic Ghost Town at one point. Time however is precious and after a few final checks of the recording equipment, we got down to business.
In recent years, the band had spent some time apart, but as of last year, The Prodigy have been very much back in the picture. They released their fifth album, Invaders Must Die to great acclaim (and commercial success too) and they even launched their own label, Take Me to the Hospital. Both Liam and Maxim talked of the excitement of getting back in the studio and making a new record, with Maxim elaborating further: “The whole buzz of creating a new album and getting on stage again; that’s what we live for”. Keith agreed, “I think that bands go through significant steps and this period felt like a good opportunity to come back out of the box. We were really the underdogs, so it was a good place to fight out of – it gave us the fire…”
That’s the fire to get back out there and reclaim their position at the helm of the music scene, in case you were wondering. With so many electronic acts vying for their crown, it was quite a challenge, which was fine by Liam. “It’s always better when people don’t expect it. People had forgotten about us, which makes the next album harder because now they remember us again, but we’ll deal with that when we get to it”. The album did what it was meant to do, and reinstated The Prodigy’s popularity and appeal. “We wanted it so much’, Maxim said. “I think that’s the key to a good band; you’ve got to want to do it. We knew we had it in us to create new music and get to the next level”.
Setting up their own label was also an integral part of the plan. “We were with XL, which is a great label, but we’ve always been a bit independent” Liam explained. “We have no interest in being on a major record label and even when we license our music out we’re still in control”. And the new label, which is backed by Cooking Vinyl, isn’t only there for The Prodigy either. “It is there for us, but the plan is to gradually sign up bands and build a little roster. They’ll have to be bands that play live, that’s really important, and not necessarily all dance music either”. At the heart of it, they’ll also be, as Maxim put it, “looking for that same kind of energy and elements we all look for in music, in a performance”.
This is particularly interesting also because of the band’s extended appeal, which bridges the electronic and rock scenes with their mesh of powerful beats and punk rock attitude. Keith doesn’t agree that it’s the music that bridges the divide. “It’s the crowds that merge. Someone who’d go and watch Rage against the Machine at Download Festival will most probably also go to see The Prodigy at a dance event”, to which Maxim added, “I think that music isn’t so segregated now. People are a little bit more broad-minded and will just listen to music in general’. Liam pointed out matter-of-factly that the House clubbers aren’t into The Prodigy, to which Keith suggested that “it probably goes back to the band’s early days. People kind of described us as a dance band, but we were also like a rock band, and they were like ‘We don’t know who they are?”
People certainly seem to remember it well enough now though, as Invaders Must Die went straight to Number One in the UK after just one week; but were there any doubts as to how it would be received? In his calm and collected way, Liam explained “I think that any band that releases stuff wants people to dig it. We wanted our fans to like it but it wasn’t the main thing. We were so confident in the studio we had a good album that we didn’t really care”.
The new album also fronts a radical line-up, especially compared to that of previous album Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned, which didn’t feature Keith or Maxim. Liam admitted that “People saw that as a solo album, which is fair enough, I mean it was a confusing time for us. We didn’t know what was going on and we just did our best to get through it but we always knew we’d be back to do another record together. It’s kind of the record that had to get written. Keith described it as the ‘lost’ Prodigy album, like people didn’t really know about it because it was quite low profile, but they’re going back to it now and thinking it’s an exceptionally good record”. It must be because, even if he can’t quite remember, that album had also got to Number One in the UK back then.
“The thing about Invaders Must Die though” Liam continued, “is that it’s a band album. It’s all about us three; that was really important, we didn’t want to have any collaborations on this record. We just wanted to make a record where we were in the studio the whole time. With Fat of the Land, I’d finish a tune then Keith or Maxim would come in. We wouldn’t necessarily all be in the studio, but this album is a band album”.
On a different note, I suggest that the album’s core energy feels like it’s inspired by the spirit of 1990’s rave and crafted with the heavy breakbeat signature that fuelled the albums after that. “Basically”, Liam clarified, “we wanted to write an album about everything that was great about the band. We didn’t want to write a retro album so we were careful to make sure the tracks don’t sound like we were going back to 1991. Warriors Dance is probably the most obvious one that does go back to that kind of style”.
Keith was quick to explain that this particular song was written specifically with that in mind. “We were going to perform at Gatecrasher and the event was celebrating 20 years of Acid House and as a mark of respect we wanted to write a tune for the occasion. We really wanted to do something off the album but weren’t ready to take what we had out there, so we thought it would a good idea to adopt that ‘cut-and-paste’ old school sampling kind of thing - and out of that came that track. Then it became a favourite with the fans”.
According to Liam, they had only intended to play the song once or twice. It wasn’t even going to be on the album. Keith admitted that “It does have that vibe, but watching Liam write in that way, it also made us aware that we own that sound, we own that way of writing. That is our foundation”, to which Maxim added “We nearly forgot that…it was something we were trying to find and we stumbled across it while writing that track”. Liam summed it up as “We were definitely making life too complicated before. We were in the studio, scratching our heads trying to come up with a song”. There were lots of ideas all over the place, some of which, Omen for example, became songs, but once they’d written Warriors Dance, “it kind of unlocked the key to it all”.
Keith pointed out that the music was intended to end up onstage, so that’s the energy they tried to evoke in the studio, though “It’s quite hard to get that massive sound”, he concedes. When I watched the concert later that night, the spontaneity and energy, that massive sound he referred to is there in abundance, not just onstage but also in the packed audience before it. The Prodigy’s trademark sound is evidently still well-loved and needs no overhaul. It made me think of Liam’s earlier comment that he hated bands that change direction. “We want to write music that excites us” he said, but it was Maxim who had perhaps coined it best. “We know what we’re about, we know what works”.
And on that night at the Empress Ballroom, it was certainly working. The band was absolutely on fire. I had earlier asked them what fuels that fire, and in Liam’s case, it’s all down to Keith and Maxim’s performance. “I never wanted to be in a band that was static. We’re not trying to be anything, it’s just expression”. Keith had more to add. “When the music drops, it’s like causing a riot. When you’re a DJ and you drop a track, you want to drop big tracks that make everyone jump and the whole place move. That is the ethic of the dance scene, and all the scenes really. Like, you were talking about The Specials earlier…you couldn’t go to a Specials gig that wasn’t absolutely pumping”. Very true, but then, as Liam points out, “The Specials were a dance band anyway”.
So with dance music on their (and my) mind, I asked about their forthcoming visit to Malta in April. Keith pointed out that Liam had been to Malta on holiday in the 1990s. “I went to Gozo” Liam specified, “and I also went to this concert while I was there”. But what of their upcoming Malta concert? “We take our music anywhere, anybody that wants us” Maxim responded. More than that, Liam added that “We want to be surprised so we want the people to show us what it’s all about. We don’t want to be disappointed when we come there. We’ll do our job, if the crowd does its job”. Keith thought it all an exciting prospect. “We haven’t been there, and it’s exciting to go to a new place, a new crowd. You know, if we’ve got fans there, then we want to go and play to them – that’s what the band has always been about…yeah, we’re buzzing to come!”
The Prodigy Live in Concert on April 30 2010 (eve of a public holiday) at MFCC Ta Qali is being organized by Knockout Events. For ticket information, log on to www.knockoutevents.info.
An edited version of this article was first published in The Sunday Times of Malta (31 January 2010)
*The setlist performed during this concert is available here