A Prodigy returns
Leeroy Thornhill was the one in The Prodigy who didn't play or sing, but even dancers can make albums, says Sheryl Garratt
There was A tendency for bands coming out of the acid house club explosion to have dancers - Cressa in the Stone Roses, Bez with the Happy Mondays. For bands that had formed out on the dancefloor, it seemed logical to bring your mates onstage with you, even if they couldn't actually play.
But as these bands matured or split up, the dancers tended to fade away. No one seriously expected Bez to make a solo album. So, when the Prodigy's dancer, Leeroy Thornhill, left at the start of 1999, the group's linchpin, Liam Howlett, sneered: 'It obviously won't make any difference to the music.'
Shortly afterwards, Thornhill also separated from his high-profile fiancée, Radio One breakfast DJ Sara Cox, apparently because of the strain her job put on the relationship. A tabloid newspaper reported that his hair had fallen out due to the stress of it all. And Thornhill seemed set to fade into obscurity.
Except he didn't. Under the name Flightcrank, a type of BMX bike he revered as a child, he began turning out some fine dance remixes. Then a dark, inventive Flightcrank EP, 'Twisted', was released to critical acclaim.
And next month there's an album on which Thornhill sings, plays many of the instruments and writes some surprisingly strong songs. Mixing up dub reggae, breakbeats and scratching, gentle ballads and a nod to the spirit of 1977 in the shape of a cover of punk troubadour Patrick Fitzgerald's 'Famous', it's not at all what you'd expect. For one thing, it's rather good.
In person, Thornhill is all pointy angles, impossibly tall and skinny. But his wide, warm smile and relaxed demeanour seem to indicate that the depression he suffered before leaving the Prodigy is long over. His hair really did fall out: 'I had a bald patch at the front.' But it had nothing to do with leaving the band or his girlfriend. He blames his windmill.
He bought the windmill, in the Essex countryside, in 1998, a year or so after the Prodigy had become global stars with their Fat of the Land album. He wanted an old property and it was the only place he found with ceilings high enough to accommodate his seven-foot frame. Buying it stretched him to the limit financially.
'I've got more in my life than I ever would have had, but I wasn't the money-earner of the band. I made my money doing the live shows.' So when Liam Howlett decided to take a year off to start the new album, Thornhill got edgy. When the year turned into two, he was in trouble. 'Every penny I was spending was borrowed money and I don't live like that.'
Eventually, he decided to leave. 'It was just the right time. Everyone had grown up and changed. The band didn't need a dancer any more, and I didn't want to carry on dancing.' Thornhill had no formal dance training and throwing himself around the stage was getting painful. 'I wanted to stop travelling, living out of a bag. It had been 10 years, the best years I could ever have, but it wasn't challenging any more.'
Then there was the relationship with Cox. 'We'd turned into friends again and although we still loved each other as mates, it was time to move on.' There had been talk of a double wedding with Norman Cook and Zoë Ball, and when I ask if living out a relationship so publicly added to the pressure, Thornhill just laughs.
'Sara was very public, not me,' he says, pointing out that most of the time, the paparazzi who photographed them outside parties had to ask him who he was. Which is how he likes it. 'It's Sara's little world, TV people, Chris Evans and all that stuff. It's about being a big, famous star in England. Everyone has to know your business. I may be English, but it's a very small world to me. The next country is just two minutes away. I've got a slightly bigger view on life than a little island.'
Travelling with the Prodigy, he's seen more than he ever dreamed possible, from war-torn Bosnia and the poverty in post-apartheid South Africa to playing in Moscow's Red Square and at the Knebworth gigs that were the peak of Oasis's career. He laughs at the memory of getting stoned on flights in the early days and says he was lucky to do it all again first class towards the end.
'We were the best live band in the world for a while. No one could rock a crowd like us. I've tasted it, done it; 250,000 people all jumping up and down at the same time is a pretty intense buzz.'
The split was more amica ble than Howlett's statement may have made it seem. It was simply the truth, shrugs Thornhill. 'I had nothing to do with the music.'
He still sees the rest of the band. 'We're brothers. They know things about me that no one will ever know, and me likewise. If anything, for me, it's probably a better relationship now because I'm not waiting around for Liam to let me start earning my living. I'm in control of my life.'
So Thornhill went back to his windmill and started recording there, choosing to release his music quietly on the small, independent Copasetik label, in much the same way the Prodigy started on XL.
There's the Patrick Fitzgerald track that his older sisters introduced him to when going through their punk phase. A mellow dub improvisation with Finley Quaye. A collaboration with a sweet-voiced 18-year-old Essex girl called Charli Tucker and a remix of 'Twisted' by Jamaican dub genius Lee 'Scratch' Perry.
But none of it is too polished. 'It's very honest and DIY,' he says. 'I can't play instruments, I just blag it, really. Musos could pick faults all over it, but it reflects my life over the last year. If people like it, they like it. It's just a start.'
Thornhill says he called his album Beyond All Reasonable Doubt because: 'I know the last few decisions I've made in my life have been right. The minute I split up with Coxy and left the band, my hair grew back. I had to take my life into my own hands and make myself happy again.'
Beyond All Reasonable Doubt is released
on Copasetik on 12 March