The Prodigy have accomplished the inconceivable. Eyebrows were raised when the English combo blew off requests to lip-sync their runaway smash Firestarter on Top Of The Pops. Even more people were stunned when they turned down obscenely lucrative tours with U2 and the Chemical Brothers.
Yet nothing else the Prodigy have done compares to the awe-inspiring feat of transforming themselves from a cheesy studio-based rave project into credible chart contenders with a live show that has both Dave Grohl and Beck cowering at the thought of ever having to follow one of their supercharged performances.
And to think it was just a few years back that the Prodigy seemed completely content to placate fluorescently decorated whistle-tooters with coyly bumping dancefloor fodder like Charly and Everybody In The Place.
Aside from a few head-turning outdoor summer festival appearances, it really wasn't until manic dancer Keith Flint shaved himself a Bozo cut and started shouting about being a "twisted firestarter" over a caustic breakbeat grind that the group's previously unknown dark side took over.
"Firestarter was definitely the turning point for the Prodigy," concurs rapper Maxim Reality between laundry cycles in his London flat. "I think the reason why it caught on in America was because of Keith's vocals. People in America need lyrics they can latch on to -- if the words are recognizable, then it's a song and people can relate to it.
"It's funny. Even though we've been going for seven years, since this Firestarter hit there are all these people who figure we're some new group who formed last year or something. And because Keith sings on Firestarter, they assume that he's the leader of the Prodigy when, in fact, it's his first real vocal performance. "
A concerted U.S. promo push led by Madonna's Maverick label undoubtedly improved Firestarter's chances of breaking out. Once the kind rotational cooperation of MTV kicked in, the Prodigy were suddenly the unwitting standard-bearers of a fabricated "electronica" movement -- a clever music-biz marketing ruse designed to kick-start sagging sales. Electronica scam
"It's as if someone in America said, 'Hey, there's this storm of electronic dance music happening in England -- let's get all the different acts together and call it electronica or rave music.' That's the reason we decided against the Chemical Brothers tour. After all the work we've put into raising our profile in America, we don't want to now be defined by some rave music fad.
"We were in the rave scene six years ago, but we're definitely not a rave band anymore. I'd say we have more in common with Rage Against the Machine than most British dance acts. The Prodigy is a live band, and for us, performance is about transforming our music into pure energy. Without the live aspect, the Prodigy would just be Liam Howlett writing tunes in his studio. "
Obviously, the Prodigy is much more than Howlett, the quiet 25-year-old technophile who creates the bangin' backing tracks. There's the outfit's well-pierced point man, Flint, the high-spirited Bez character, Leeroy, and the menacing Maxim, who feels comfortable enough with his sexuality to wear lipstick with his stainless steel dentures. Although he fears the days of his pale blue contact lenses are behind him.
"I've been wearing contacts in the show for three years now and have been using the light blues for the last two. The problem is, when we go to North America, people are more familiar with Marilyn Manson, so they'll think that I nicked his look. I don't want to give anyone that impression, because everything I do is dreamt up by me. " Dental statement
While the shiny chompers have become Maxim's trademark, some might argue that drum 'n' bass boss Goldie had popularized the metallic smile first. The fashion-conscious rhymer disagrees.
"Mine aren't gold, are they? They're silver. Anyway, it's a completely different situation than the contacts, because American hiphop artists have had gold teeth for years. Goldie didn't have the idea first. "
A more pressing issue is whether or not the Prodigy's forthcoming album, The Fat Of The Land (XL/KOCH) -- featuring contributions from Kula Shaker's Crispian Mills and the demented Kool Keith -- will follow through on the sales promise of their Firestarter breakthrough when it arrives in June.
Considering that their Mercury Prize-nominated previous album, Music For The Jilted Generation (XL/KOCH), was originally issued back in 94, they've had ample time to create the expected blockbuster.
"It's got a great diversity of tracks that will hopefully appeal to a wide audience," says Maxim with a worrying vagueness. "We want to create music for anyone who can relate to hard dance music. If you're moved by the hard guitar sound of Rage Against the Machine or the hard beats of the Wu-Tang Clan, then you'll be able to relate to the Prodigy as well.
"I'm not sure how the Prodigy is perceived in Canada. That's why we want to come over and play our new songs for people, so everyone can see and hear what we're all about.
"Rather than performing for a bunch of people off their heads on pills shouting, 'The Prodigy are wicked!,' I'd prefer playing for a skeptical crowd who stand around looking pissed off, as if to say, 'C'mon then, show us what you've got.' Believe me, if you come to our gig, I'll show you what I can do -- just watch me!"