Inspiration can come in many forms, even rejection.
Shortly after the Prodigy released their 2002 single "Baby's Got a Temper," frontman Liam Howlett received a bracing wake-up call from critics, who universally panned the track. So he scrapped the other five songs he had completed, which were in the same vein, and started again from scratch.
He retreated to his house in Essex, England, and strove to write an album that would mark a new direction for his music, a diversion from past hits like "Firestarter" and "Smack My Bitch Up." The problem was, Howlett had no idea what musical direction he wanted to pursue. That's when madness set in — a dementia that kept him in an Axl Rose-like state of unproductivity for another year.
"I would go to bed every night thinking, 'Tomorrow's the day I'm going to write something cool,' " Howlett said. "But I really thought everything was fine. A friend once said the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. That was me. I was in the studio every day, doing virtually the same thing and scrapping it, and at the end of four months I had, like, two beats done."
At that point, Howlett's producer bailed and the songwriter changed his entire mode of operation. Instead of composing away from the pulse of civilization, Howlett relocated to a busy section of London and dumped all of his samples and loops onto a laptop so he could work wherever inspiration hit. Over the next year, he wrote in gardens, in restaurants, even in bed.
"I created a cozy cocoon in bed where I could just sit with my laptop and create," he said. "I had 'Moonraker' playing on my DVD and I'd have a few glasses of Jack Daniel's and really be happy. It was like a childhood nostalgia trip with James Bond and music. From that moment on, I was enjoying myself again. I wrote three tracks like that, and the rest of the album flowed from there."
The resulting disc, Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned — which debuted at #1 on the British charts this week — is a striking contrast to the group's menacing, cacophonous 1997 album, The Fat of the Land. There are still heavy beats, brash samples and swarming rhythms, but the songs are simpler, sleazier, more dance-oriented and more rooted in new wave and electro-pop (the album will be released in the U.S. on September 14).
"This whole record is about re-establishing the sound of the Prodigy," Howlett said. "A lot of people know us from tracks like 'Firestarter' and 'Smack My Bitch Up,' which were really punklike. But our early stuff wasn't like that at all. I want to re-educate people about what I'm about."
Instead of staying on top of the electronic music scene during the creation of Always Outnumbered, as he had done in the past, Howlett stopped going to clubs and listening to new artists, and he started taking inspiration from the world that blossomed around him. "One time I was out with my wife [ex-All Saints singer Natalie Appleton] in a Lebanese restaurant having a romantic dinner, and I heard this music coming out from the kitchen," Howlett recalled. "I ran to the back of the restaurant and asked this guy what this music was, and I wrote it down. The next day I went off to find this sample, which I used in 'Medusa's Path.' "
While most of the songs do, indeed, sound like nothing the Prodigy have ever recorded, many of the sounds on the album are instantly familiar. "Phoenix" resurrects Shocking Blue's 1969 song "Love Buzz," lyrics and all (a track later made famous by Nirvana). "The Way It Is" cops the main passage from Michael Jackson's "Thriller," and "Hot Ride" nabs the chorus from the Fifth Dimension's "Up, Up and Away."
"I'm a beat thief. That's the way I make music," Howlett said. "I mean, why shouldn't I release a complete jack of someone else's tune if it sounds good? Some of it comes from my twisted sense of humor, I suppose. Like, I love that the lyric to 'Hot Ride' goes 'Up, up and away in my beautiful balloon' and then we add, 'Now get out, I'll push you out.' I think that's really funny."
Something that wasn't nearly as funny to his cohorts — rapper Maxim and screamer Keith Flint — is the way Howlett approached vocals on the disc. Instead of relying on his usual sidekicks, he invited a bunch of guest performers to contribute, including actress Juliette Lewis ("Hot Ride"), rappers Kool Keith ("Wake Up Call") and Twista ("Get Up Get Off"), and Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher (see "Twista, Kool Keith, Juliette Lewis Smack Up New Prodigy LP" ).
"I wanted to do something fresh," he explained. "I met Liam six years ago. He came up to me at a festival, and was like, 'Me brother's just done a track with the Chemical Brothers. Me and you should do a track to f---ing blow that out of the water.' And I was like, 'OK, let's do it.' Many years later, we're really f---ed up at my house at three in the morning and we decided to go in and record. I was so messed up, I couldn't even remember how to open the studio door. But somehow, I managed to wire his mics up and I laid down a bunch of stuff and he just went crazy."
When the Prodigy tour next year, Maxim and Flint will be back on board and the Prodigy will perform songs from their new record as well as vintage material. Of course, there's no guarantee that the shows will draw the fanatical following the band had in the late '90s. Many years have passed since the band broke into the mainstream with The Fat of the Land, and lots of modern rock, pop and electronic-music fans aren't familiar with the group's snarling, bile-spewing back catalog. But rather than being distressed by such a reality, Howlett looks forward to the challenge.
"I'm not worried if people remember us or not because, for me, this record is like starting over," he explained. "I've always wanted to be in a new band again. It's really exciting to stand there and perform for people who don't know who you are."