Coming to boiling point

By Paula Yeoman

It is a chilly - 1C outside and a severe weather warning has just come out as Liam Howlett picks up the phone in his North London home.

In less than a week he will be taking to the stage with The Prodigy at Auckland's Big Day Out and despite the dismal weather in Britain the dance music maestro says the band is well and truly feeling the effects of festival fever.

"We are so amped about it. All of us together down there - it's like good band therapy. It's summertime as well and we really look forward to it because after Christmas it's so cold over here. And of course, the people down there are always well up for a party."

The Big Day Out circuit - starting at Mt Smart Stadium and then making its way across Australia - starts a new chapter for The Prodigy, who remain one of the most influential - and controversial - forces in dance music.

Their 1994 album Music for the Jilted Generation spawned the anthem Voodoo People before they sent clubbers around the world into a dance floor frenzy with their groundbreaking, The Fat of the Land, in 1997.

The album's first single, Firestarter, caused an uproar thanks to Keith Flint, strutting his stuff in devil-like attire, sneering punk vocals over top of jarring loud industrial beats.

It is now considered one of the best music videos ever made.

But it wasn't a touch on the scandal that followed, with the release of the album's third single, Smack My Bitch Up. Many took the lyrics at face value and called for the song to be pulled from the airwaves, saying it was a catalyst for domestic violence.
But the band said the phrase simply referred to having a good time and "doing anything intensely". The controversy went on to spark one of the great moments of "festival folklore", when, at Britain's Reading Festival in 1998, vocalist and MC Maxim defied a request by the Beastie Boys to pull the song in case it caused offence, telling the crowd, "I do what the f*** I want".

That helped to catapult The Prodigy further into the heights of superstardom. But Howlett, the band's keyboardist and founder, says fame, and constant touring, finally took its toll.

"We'd been touring for three years and it got to a point where it had overtaken the studio work. So I just had to say let's stop for a bit - but we never split up and at no point did we say, 'That's it'."

However Howlett, a classically trained pianist often referred to as the musical mastermind behind the band, admits his relationship with Flint became strained to the point where they didn't speak to each other for years.

It led to Howlett releasing 2004's Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, without Flint and Maxim. And, while the album peaked at number one in the British charts and reached number six in Australia, it failed to capture the brilliance of The Prodigy's earlier work.

But, four years down the line, trouble is clearly behind the trio. "These guys are like family to me", says Howlett, 37. "You have little upsets along the way, but we all respect one another."

Now, with new album Invaders Must Die, due for release in March, the focus is on doing what The Prodigy does best and taking their music to the masses.

Although their new album has been met with mostly sellout crowds in Europe, some critics have been quick to point out it's not The Prodigy of old. Howlett is just as quick, however, to knock the criticism on its head.

"We don't want to try and recreate anything. We are just carrying on and moving forward. This is not us doing a rehash of what we did before. This feels really fresh to me. Yes, we've had a lot of success and this is the next wave in our career," he insists.

As seasoned Big Day Out performers who have seen the festival from every angle possible, including the highly sought-after main stage, Howlett says they can't wait to get back to where they really belong: the Boiler Room.

"We're the right band to have in there. That's what we were built for. We'll blow the roof off the place - that's what our music is designed to do. We want it hot, we want it sweaty and we want to raise the roof."

"We've spoken to promoters and they tell us the Boiler Room is much bigger this year - so we're hoping to steal some of the crowds from the main stage," he laughs.

With their gig overlapping with the festival's other headliner, Neil Young, it'll be a tough challenge but it's not one Howlett is fazed by.

"If you want to be mellow and lie in the field, go and watch Neil Young. But if you want to watch us and have your head blown off, that's what you should do. That's our job; that's what we're bought down here for - the party."

He also puts to rest suggestions that The Prodigy - a band which rocked a generation of 90s ravers - has had its day.

"We have been playing to a new audience in the UK for a year and a half now. A lot of them are a lot younger and we hope to have the same sort of crowd down in Australia and New Zealand.

"We're not dinosaurs on stage with guitars. This is about letting off and blowing the place apart."

And Howlett says there's no better place to do that than at what he describes as one of the best festivals in the world.

"Glastonbury is often looked upon as the King of Festivals. But, personally, I'm not a big fan of it. The weather is always shit, it's really hard to get to. So, the whole Big Day Out experience we rank up there with the best."

* The Prodigy plays the Boiler Room at the Big Day Out from 10.15pm to 11.30pm

- Herald on Sunday

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