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Exclusive interview with Neil McLellan (March 2021); Part 1

Neil McLellan. Shot from his Instagram @deputymarshall

In March 2021, theprodigy.ru team took a huge interview with Neil McLellan. Fans of The Prodigy are well aware of this man and his activities: Neil co-created and co-produced practically all of the band’s records from 1993 to 2015 and really much influenced the sound of the band. Most of Liam Howlett’s music would have sounded completely different without Neil’s job.

Neil McLellan is an English record producer, composer, and mix engineer. Bands and artists Neil has worked with include: Madonna, Oasis, Nine Inch Nails, Orbital, Carl Cox, Telepopmusik, Manu Chao, UNKLE, and of course The Prodigy.

The interview turned out to be so massive that we decided to split it into 2 parts: the first will be devoted to The Prodigy and work with Liam Howlett, and the second will concentrate on music production and the music industry in general.

In the first part of the interview, you will learn about the first meeting of Liam & Neil, about the recording of Jilted Generation, Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned and The Day Is My Enemy, about the rejected Matrix soundtrack, about the legendary No Souvenirs, and you’ll be also pleased to read a bunch of small details that are really exciting to know for a true The Prodigy fan.

We express our deep gratitude to Anton Armtone (questions, translation), Sergey Burdey (transcript), Dima Wuks (transcript, translation, editing), and of course to Dima Gordi, without whom all this would never have happened.

Russian translation can be found here.

Dima Gordy is taking an interview with Neil McLellan in Bali at Neil’s studio, March 2021

How did you meet Liam for the first time?

I was in a band called Guru Josh — for the first time Liam just came up to me and said «I like what you’re doing!». Those times The Prodigy were doing much more ravey stuff, and Liam said he wanted to do something a bit more edgy and move away from the rave scene. I didn’t know too much about them, and he invited me to his house in Essex.

He picked me up from the train station in a very, very customized car (I think it was some crazy Ford or something, I’ll never forget that ride). He picked me out, took me to his house, which was a barn, and showed me his Volkswagen camper van: the whole back of it was one speaker — I just looked at that and thought: «This guy’s really cool!»

The insides of the house looked like Egyptian pharaoh kind of stuff, and he had a rope bridge right the way across the top of his house, — so he could walk from one end of the house on the roof to the other. I was really inspired by the view.

The old Liam’s house that Neil is talking about

Those times I was desperate to get out of where I was: I didn’t like the environment of the band I was in (it was quite toxic) and I’d always wanted to go back into the studio. Meeting Liam was really good for me just to get out and explore other things. My background was much more studio-based anyway. Most of the stuff that I learned was about how to really record something and how sound really works rather than from the bedroom, you know. And I think Liam really liked my expertise in that part of things because I could take something that he’d done and make it really fat. I love bass, and Liam’s music was really based on its strongness.

So he just got in touch with me, I went to his house, and then we just hit it off. The Prodigy were already quite famous at that time, they went through the sort of rave side of their life like Out Of Space and stuff, but they hadn’t done any of the Voodoo People kind of things, so that’s where I got involved — with One Love and things like that.

Liam Howlett in 1992. Shots from Out Of Space music video

You’ve been working on every The Prodigy album from 1993 to 2015! And you are still good friends with Liam, right?

Yes, hundred percent! I think the whole The Prodigy family is amazing. It’s awesome that it’s been the same people for a very long time, and that’s something that creates this great band — I haven’t seen it with many others. In this case, you have that unit that operates more like a family than like a business. Everybody goes the extra mile, rather than it’d be a job, if you know what I mean. And then once you start understanding everybody really well, it’s like when you just throw the ball and someone’s going to catch it. It’s really nice. I’ve been chatting to Maxim and talking to him a lot throughout the pandemic. I’m also still in touch with Leeroy.

Leeroy came back to the UK, by the way.

Yes, I saw that. He looks very cool!

And Liam is just what I consider my best friend. He’s just an amazing human being with the priorities in life in the right place. As a friend second to none. And when you’re working with him, he expects the best, so it’s always taxing you. I’m always pushing myself because I want to do something amazing every day, and it’s really good for your growth.

Liam Howlett & Neil McLellan (2012 / 2019)

What period of working with The Prodigy was the most interesting for you personally?

Well, from a personal point of view I’m really friendly with everyone and all the rest of it, but I also have a job to do. So there have been times when it’s been really hard. There were several points in the whole thing where everything was a bit fragmented, and I was sort of in the middle trying to bring it together, — those times were really difficult. But we got over it all and that’s what was amazing: when you get over it, and you push through, and you don’t have a situation where everything falls apart.

I have to look at Jilted Generation because of the way that we did that. A lot of things were done in Liam’s house and then we took the main singles to Strongroom Studios, and there we did those in a big way. But a lot of that record was also done on Liam’s Mackie board, his Mackie mixing desk, which at the time was the first budget-priced mixing desk you could use.

Mackie 3282 32-channel mixing desk
More details about making of the Jilted Generation here >>

The cheapest one?

It was not the cheapest, but it was like top-end cheap. So a lot of people ask me: «You did all that on a Mackie?» — yes, I did it on a Mackie, but I did have a higher budget, so I had twenty-two DBX 160X’s (which is a compressor). I’ve just plugged them into every channel trying to pretend that this small mixing desk was a big mixing desk, you know, so it’s like putting fat tires on a small car, haha.

And the things we did there were to this day really amazing. Liam was on the W30, it’s really important to know… You see a lot of people recreating something, and they’ll go back and say: «Look how easy this is!». But it’s the same thing as the Apollo missions, right? They put a man on the moon with less than one megabyte (the computer was less than one megabyte).

Our entire RAM for that whole period was two megabytes — that’s two floppy disks. That was our data. Our sampling time was nine seconds on each machine. And we had two machines, but that was it.

You know, nowadays everybody goes online and says, like, hey, they did it like this, they put on their Ableton and stuff… I will go back and challenge anyone now: «You have one megabyte of your data, and nine seconds sampling, 14 seconds if you reduce the sampling quality». I would bet anybody today: go and do that with the amount of memory we had.

For example, if you’re doing a kick drum, you don’t need the high stuff, that’s why we would dial it back and, you know, just do the frequency for the kick. And that would save our memory, which gave us another time to do things.

So from a creative point of view, I think the Jilted Generation was amazing because we really had to think about how we wanted to make something great and still do it within the constraints of the technology of that time.

But I think one of the best lessons for anyone starting in music now is to limit yourself. If you go and buy stuff and have everything, you’re never testing yourself to the ability to understand what the idea is. If you’ve got all this room to do everything, stop it, bring yourself down, constrain yourself so that you have to think creatively. I would suggest that to anybody today. My message to all of the fans at home that are sitting at home with their home studios: guys, don’t think that you have to have the best equipment!

Just have the best ideas, right?

Have the best ideas, picture how you want it to go, and then figure out how you’re going to do that with what you have. I promise you, the ideas will be better and you’ll surprise yourself every day in that way. It’s not about having the big studios or this or that. Don’t get me wrong, the big studios are awesome, but even they come with a level of pressure. That has a different pressure, but it’s real pressure. It’s not like sitting at home, it’s like «come on, we’ll be doing that», and those things cost a lot of money. So both things have their way.

I think in the mid-nineties Jilted Generation was a political expression in a certain sense…

Remembering the Music For The Jilted Generation, where we were in technology, where we were in the music scene, and what was happening in society… everything was just aligned, you know. People nowadays are much less prepared to really shout about something. I don’t think that Facebook is a great place to shout at something, because nobody hears you. And we didn’t have any of that. And so literally, this dance movement, and the electronic movement (which is now obviously totally established) back then it was… You know, the government was trying to stop you from having repetitive beats!

The line «fuck’em and their law» sounded very relevant in 1994 in Britain

You couldn’t sit in a room in the UK and play a kick drum repeatedly — they would call it a riot! It was a huge point where society or the people running society did not want this to happen. They also couldn’t compare it to things like football violence, because there was no violence. So they were really confused because you would put 10000 people in a field and there would be no violence, no arrests, no nothing. So the government is going like: «What are we arresting them for? We’re arresting them for dancing!» — now, you look at it and think, how ridiculous that was… And the inner sleeve of the Music For The Jilted Generation sums up that whole five years in just one amazing painting.

Music For The Jilted Generation inner sleeve. Original one painted by Les Edwards

So from my personal point of view, we really cracked enough with Jilted Generation. Obviously, The Fat Of The Land was just amazing in its own right that had more punk, electronic punk rock edge to it. And also The Day is My Enemy, — we really went to town on that record.

Yeah, let’s talk about The Day Is My Enemy! How did it feel for you?

The Day Is My Enemy. Fucking brilliant. Just Liam, Keith, Maxim, everybody on that record, it’s just solid focus, just love to me. We sat there when we thought something was done, and we found another five percent in something and did it again. And in terms of just experimental stuff and being able to have the luxury of really pushing the boat out, I would say probably that one for me was just really awesome.

So I would say The Day Is My Enemy is great too just because we were at remarkable points in our lives and our careers, we didn’t have to prove anything to anybody, but we had to prove it to ourselves. That’s a really big one. We woke up, looked in the mirror every morning, and said: «I did a good job yesterday, and today I’m going to do an even better job».

The Prodigy & Neil McLellan during The Day Is My Enemy sessions (2014-2015)

Liam was so focused on that record, he was fucking really focused, and it was just a joy to work with. It was a great way. At first, he had his studio in London and I rented a small seat next door to it. And we were ping-ponging data all the way through, so it was just this amazing collaboration. And I really felt that was a good record.

You may also read some interesting details behind the work on The Day Is My Enemy on Universal Audio website

And what about Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned?

That’s the only record that doesn’t get a lot of praise from all of them. A very hard one to work with, just given the political status of everything. The fact that it was just a very, very, very intensive record because nothing happened for a long time and then everything happened really quickly.

Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned was probably one of the most difficult records to make. But I listen to that record now, and man… Actually, that’s fucking true record, right?

It might not have had all the expectations on it here in one way or another. Spitfire is an insane record. And the way those fucking things hit the bottom end on that… insane! We were very lucky to be able to mix that in the studio called Whitfield Street Studios, which is where Fleetwood Mac did his stuff, it was built in 1956. So it’s just an insane room and it’s just beautiful. And we were one of the last people to work in that room before it shut down, unfortunately. But that was a hard record.

Cool! Going to the next one. You’re mentioned as a co-producer of Medusa’s Path. And what exactly have you done on this track?

Oh, that is old school, great record, I did loads on it. I did later synths, I did lots of the arrangement and the editing. If I remember correctly, those beats that you hear after the intro had those very high-end frequency things, I think I came up with that. That was a really amazing collaboration across the board. The intro sample was from an Iranian guy, Gholamhossein Banan — I know that we had a real problem finding this and that and the other. He was popular in Iran before the revolution, and once the revolution happened, a lot of this music got put into the institute, they formed a kind of Institute of Iranian music. I think we got in touch with his son in America and bought the sample out. But I can’t remember who exactly brought the sample… I’m pretty sure it was on a cassette somewhere, but I can’t remember, to be honest with you. But yeah, I did a lot of the synths, and what have you on there.

Nice, thanks! One more question about that era: you are co-producer of Under My Wheels, right? On the Internet, you can find the version for BMW advertisement without Kool Keith’s vocals and with the melody that you can’t find in an album version of this tune. So what was it? Was it a remix of the original track or was it made especially for the advertisement?

Well, I was approached by BMW and then I asked Liam about it — I think that was one of the outtake versions that I had.

So this is a kinda early version, before you had the vox, right?

Yeah, this was before we went into the big studio. This was still at Liam’s country house, and we came up with those ideas. The melody line was on one of the earlier versions. We didn’t especially make it for that, but I needed to have a version. I did the edits for the BMW thing. A lot of the later versions didn’t have that melody on it because it had the lyrics, had a rap on it. So if you took out the rap, there wasn’t really anything there. So we went back to an earlier version.

And weirdly enough, that melody sound that we got was accidentally recorded out of phase! It was a mistake. When they put it on TV and played it, it disappeared. Like if you put it on a mono TV, the sound was out of phase and the fucking thing disappeared. I remember having that call, when «this thing is disappearing in mono!» — and I’m like «oh shit!». So I had to figure out another way of making it work, which we did and made it work and off it went. But that was an earlier version before we put the vocals on.

Emily Lazar, Liam Howlett & Neil McLellan
after Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned mastering was done (2004)

Yeah, got it. Cool! So the next question is about the track called Fuck the Matrix… Liam Howlett and Neil McLellan are mentioned co-writers and co-producers. So what is this track about?

Oh my god! Let me just… check something…

Okay, so we were asked by the people who made The Matrix. I’m confused because… How did they know about that?

I have no idea. But they are really die-hard fans!

You’re exactly right… Well, I’m very surprised that they digged it out!

Okay, we were asked to do the massive fight scene in one of the Matrix movies, I can’t remember it’s Matrix 2 or whichever one. We sat there, it came up… Fuck man, it was wicked! Both Liam and I were like «that’s really fucking good!»… We chopped it, and synced it to all the cuts and the edits and blah, blah, blah, and we just thought it was fucking banging. And when The Matrix people got it, they didn’t like it! They wanted something different. So when you hear that scene in the final cut it’s fucking shite, because we came up so really fucking banging. That was just synched up beautifully to all the fight moves and everything… And when they didn’t use it, I think we called it Fuck the Matrix. Just like, you know, fuck you.

One of The Prodigy’s unreleased & unheard tracks was going to be used in one of The Matrix movies in 2003

So it’s going to be a soundtrack for the movie, right?

It was going to be used in the movie. So I’m confused about how they even know about that. I’m really surprised, you know… someone’s done their digging!

I do have an amazing Quicktime movie of that Matrix scene, still with CGI not fully done, and the track. That’s one I shall give to the boys for their documentary.

And do you know why it wasn’t released as The Prodigy track? If it doesn’t work for the soundtrack, then why…

Well, I think we just couldn’t find a place to put it. When we looked at Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned, I didn’t think it fit anywhere. And it was specifically made for the movie, a specific piece for that thing. By the way, it was written in Liam’s house in the country before he moved to London.

Got it! So the next question is about The Prodigy track called No Souvenirs. Back in 2016 Liam said that «we couldn’t mix it, couldn’t make it sound right». Did you work with this track? And if yes, what was the hardest thing in mixing?

Oh yeah, this is the Massive Attack track! [listens to No Souvenirs (Unkle Remix) on his phone speakers]

And also, have you heard the version from Mark “Spike” Stent?

Yeah, I know Spike Stent, he’s a great guy, but I haven’t heard that Unkle remix... Yeah, we never put that one out. I don’t know whether it was because we couldn’t get the mix right…

As I know, the idea was to work with Robert “3D” Del Naja from Massive Attack?

Yeah, they did, the whole thing was there. Okay, so the way I understand that is it wasn’t necessary that the mix wasn’t right. You’ve got to have the right ingredients. And it was one of those tracks that… a leading to something, so we just could never find out what that «something» was. You know, just because you climb a hill doesn’t ever mean you get to the top. So this thing was really always going… I remember this, and it was going, going, going… But the x-factor, the thing that makes that thing special, other than just a feeling of beats — I think we never found something that went «boom».

We weren’t ending up going «Oh, that’s a really good loop!», and it was like 10 minutes, — «Where is it? Where is that thing?». And I do remember Liam really working arse off to try and find that thing. But sometimes you just never do, you know, it’s one of those things. So as a groove and as an idea and all of those things, I think it had real legs! But what’s the thing that makes it special? You know, really, what’s the thing that ultimately makes it go «wow»? And whilst it was an incredible bunch of ideas and it really was, the thing that carries it to the next stage — I don’t think it was ever discovered, you know, but not for one to try. I do remember that.

Another question is about the One Love single cover art. There is a rumor that the ring on the cover belonged to you, is that true?

Original shot for One Love cover. Photographed by James Fry (@jimfry77)

Yes, it was true. The ring was bought in some jewelry shop in Notting Hill Gate, and it was given to me by a lovely lady called Annabel. Bella was one of the most amazing people on the planet. She’s no longer with us, she passed away. My brother was going out with her sister, and we had a really good relationship. Annabel saw the ring and because there was a great family moment, she just bought the ring for me and gave it to me. And then by pure chance, literally six or seven months later, in 1993 I’m doing a song and it’s called One Love. And I was like, pointing on my fingers: «How about that? Look, how about that?» — when Liam saw the ring, he was like «That’s fucking dope, can I borrow it and make the album cover?», and I went «Fuck yeah, of course, you can!». And when I got the ring back about three months later it was fucked. I mean, they’ve done stuff to it for the cover, and when I got it back and it was just destroyed. And it sort of basically fell apart over the years, I couldn’t even wear it, it was just done, they really dirtied it up, it was very painful to wear, — I think they’d sandblasted it or something. But at the end of the day I thought: «Fuck it, look at that, it’s on every cover!», like that.

Amazing, cheers! Now let’s move to No Tourists. Why weren’t you involved in it? You did a great job on previous records for The Prodigy, people like it and they were surprised that you didn’t appear on the last piece.

Okay, so Liam wanted to do that record himself, I spoke to Liam about that and I totally understand him. He built his new studio, he got everything running, and he wanted to do that on his own. I completely get that. And I was not in the country, I was here in Bali and was just having a baby and doing that stuff…

Which is much more interesting, I guess!

Which is a lot more important! Not that I wouldn’t have left the baby to go in this record, but he wanted to put it out all himself. I respect that, you know. I would have loved to have been involved with it, but it just didn’t happen in that one, the things didn’t line up.

We will publish the second part of this interview soon: there Neil told about what he is doing now and shared his views on the modern music industry. He also told us about what Liam Howlett and The Prodigy are preparing for the future, and some nice details from the past. Stay tuned!

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