Loaded

By Michael Holden

America, land of the free and the home of brave. So free, it seems, you need a passport to buy lager. So brave, that though you may resemble Private Godfrey, bar stuff dare not serve you without ID for fear of dismissal. Even association with the Prodigy, either „the biggest band in the world” (Sunday Times) or „a pudgy and pierced Adam And The Ants” (Seattle Times) will not unlock the optics of New York. „Sure you’re with the Pro-die-gee, but how I know you’re 21?” Cut me in half and count the rings, baby.

As ever, Britain and America are two nations separated by a common language. In the time it takes to get served, a less patient man could have purchased untold crack and weaponry and set about evening the score. Perhaps this is where the Prodigy fit in. The rigmarole of getting drunk in downtown Manhattan could bring out the Keith Flint in Keith Chegwin.

Two years after being dropped by their last American label, Elektra, The Prodigy, in the eyes of the US media at least, have returned to the States as conquering heroes of a wave of British electronic music, „electronica” as it’s been branded. With the band now signed to Madonna’s hip-as-you-like Maverick label, and Walter Stern’s outstanding ‘Breathe’ and ‘Firestarter’ videos perpetually on MTV, the American music business, indeed America in general, has rolled over for The Prodigy and now wants its belly tickled. The hysteria surrounding this tour, the band and their prospects has been immense, awkward even. For the four men at the heart of all this though, hysteria is 90 minutes of stagetime. Nothing else matters much.

„KEEF FLINT” drawls Keith Flint, alive with sneering disdain. „AHM THE FIRESTART-UH” The man called „too scary for Top Of The Pops” raises his pierced face and demon hair towards the ceiling of a New York Hotel bedroom. Regaining his composure he sighs, „D’you know what I mean? Fuck off!” The Dick Van Dyke-style bonhomie of certain representatives of their American record company is a source of unending mirth and exasperation to The Prodigy.

Leeroy, Keith’s languid, steeple-bodied colleague, takes up the story. „It was the first second we’d met the geezer! He
goes, ‘Keef Flint, muthafucka, ah ahm the firestar-uh!”

„Tryanna put that cockney ‘uh’ on the end. Bless’em all,” says Keith.
„They’re only excited,” reasons Liam Howlett, digital Mozart, band leader and temporary diplomat, „just a bit too excited.”
„They think we’re like that,” says Leeroy, „and it’s just not like that at all.”

Maxim, the fourth member of the band, nods wisely. So thrilled it seems at further discussing The Prodigy In America that he announces he is going to wash his hair. The remaining three sip water and look tired with all the nonchalance of young offenders on a council-founded safari. But in reality, no more a threat to your children than the Waltons.

For some, The Prodigy are The Elephant Band, a new Victorian sideshow of urban deformity and sonic chaos. The idea that the band may actually live like that (an idea painfully manifest at the next day’s gig at Atlanta when a girl asks me ifthey actually „live in that tunnel” in the ‘Firestarter’ video) is somewhat unlikely. It’s an extension of the same notion thatcauses some men to approach comedians in pubs and ask them to „say something funny”. And it’s an idea that has its spiritual home in America. But these boys are nothing if not hard-working. Prior to their arrival in New York they have sustained nine hours a day press, handshakes and „Motherfuckin’ Firestart-Uhs!” For Keith - a man who has done in an instant with one piece of sharpened metal what many in the industry spend years achieving with cocaine, i.e.: made a big hole in his septum - it can be a trying game.

„You can’t be good and not be a star in these people’s eyes. You can’t be good and not go to these clubs and meet these people and kiss each other’s arses. You meet someone,” (adopts Goodfellas accent) „’ Ahm Bob Seger from Seger Seger Vision and this is Tommy O and Vino And Dino and Tony Morello,’ you know what I mean? I don’t know all these people. And they’re really shocked and everyone goes, ‘Oh my God, you shouldn’t say you don’t know him, you should lie.’ But I don’t know him, I don’t wanna know him. But there you see, stop me know!” He grins. But the trials of the American tour are a well enough documented phenomenon among bands. What this lot have is a genuine gift for deflecting the outside world - that which does not thrill them makes them stronger - then unleashing their own dimension come showtime in such a way as to sustain themselves, and thus the audience, from the rigours of the working day. Watching The Prodigy live, you are unlikely to find yourself worrying whether you’ve left the gas on.

Beyond the live shows and the interviews the one item that will sustain or shatter the mania that surrounds, but somehow never infects the band both in Britain and America, is their latest album, The Fat Of The Land. It’s early in New York when the conversation turns to the record, a time when most other bands would begin to turf out strangers in preparation for that night’s show. The three remaining members of The Prodigy are reclining with such indecent calm that if we were embarking on a bank job, I would refuse to take part. As any seasoned psychopath will tell you, visible lack of nerves is a dangerous thing. But as even the briefest of listens reveals, this latest record is a masterpiece. They know they’ve nothing to worry about on that score. So why put „Fat” in the title?

„Everyone goes on about us being from Essex and all that type of shit?” says Liam, who has a habit of raising the intonation of each statement till it forms a question, as though constantly affirming your understanding. „Our vibe is a lot of noise coming out of the land. That’s just what I thought about after I’d got the title.”

„We’re all a little bit paranoid about being overweight,” adds Keith, „so we thought if we say it up front then people would sort of look at us and think we’re slim.” Reverse psychology almost?

„Yeah but I think it’s working,” he continues, grabbing at his tattooed stomach, „I’ve shed 10 pounds since I came in here.” And with that they start laughing, reasonably content that the wall of pure English knockabout sarcasm that sustainsthem through America is more or less intact.

„You on your own?” asks Liam. „We got the impression all these caners were coming across. You’ve got more of a rock’n’roll reputation than we have. When you come out tonight, you’re gonna get fucked up!” Yeah well, just as long as I’ve got some ID.

„We don’t lead a rock’n’roll life,” says Leeroy, fiddling with a joint that would have given Bob Marley cause for concern.
„We do go off the handle sometimes,” insists Liam, „we did last night... I slept on the left hand side of the bed!” They startlaughing again.
„I knew Liam was gonna do a bed thing!” counters Keith. „So I slept the opposite way round with feet at the head bit.”
„Fucking hell, really?” says Liam, shaking his head.
„I did the old classic,” confesses Leeroy, „replaced the Evian with tap water and put it back in the fridge.”
„That’s two dollars’ worth of water you nicked, man!” shouts Keith.

„I think a lot of people expect things to happen, before the show or after the show. On stage we’re not making that up, that’s us but when we’re in that environment,” adds Leeroy, shaking his head. Clearly The Prodigy are suffering some kind of Mike Yarwood style „this is me” identity trauma.

„If you’re the same person offstage as on, carrying off that whole persona, I don’t think it’s real,” adds Keith.
„I don’t actually have a persona,” says Liam, almost disappointed.
„Yes you do!” shouts Keith.
„This is me,” insists Liam. „I’m not like you, I don’t have another side. I always feel the same all the time.”
„So do I, though!” insists Keith. „I don’t know what persona means.”
„I thought it was a Japanese car,” deadpans Leeroy.
„Get me onstage, play the music loud and get me going,” concludes Liam.

The serious part of the interview, such as it was, is now over. Somehow the conversation turns to television. „I’m an EastEnders fan, and The Simpsons,” says Liam, „but that’s it.” The mention of EastEnders sends Keith and Leeroy into an extended impersonation of Lorraine, „JOOOE!” howls Keith „GHRANT!” bellows Leeroy. They sound more like Mavis Riley. „Joe’s the new leader of the German rave scene since he covered himself in silver foil,” reveals Keith. „He’s now thesoap star of the rave scene.”

Does he wish he’d thought of the silver foil trick?
„If I’d come up with that I’d have been chucked out the fucking band,” he cries, „booted from the balcony.” Keith now, is
„off on one”.
„Life,” he exclaims, „is a triangle, it’s an ARC. Reality, Communication and Attraction. We all communicate, we all relate, and we’re all really attracted to each other.”
„As Roy Castle used to say,” adds Leeroy, „dedication is what you need.”

Does TV play a big part in your lives?
„No, no!” shouts  Liam, suddenly animated. „You’re going back to ‘Charly’ days, aren’t you?” I wasn’t honestly. But it’stoo late. At the mention of the band’s first hit it is as though a large wasp has entered the room.„I look back on it now and laugh at the costumes, when we were wearing that shit. We’ve gained more credibility as we’ve gone on. Whereas most bands come out credible and sort of go downhill,” defends Liam.

Perception has always been an issue for The Prodigy. Rarely do they see themselves as others do. When I read them a quote from a grateful MTV executive about the band are „pro future and very optimistic”, the relaxed atmosphere dissolves and the room falls into silence.
„I hate the word ‘future’” says Liam, finally.
„’Future’ is like ‘electronica’,” says Keith, „a bit German, German rave.”
„It’s obvious we’re not future!” cries Liam, „I mean listen to the sound. There’s a certain amount of funk in the music, there’s a certain punk influence, it’s so un-future I think. It’s not retro but it’s not futuristic.”

„We’re not about circuit boards!” interrupts Keith, „silver foil, glittery faces and fuckin’ glo-shit. Or about the Internet. Fuck the Internet!” No one has mentioned the Internet, but it seems pointless to intervene. Besides, Flint is a joy to listento when he gets going. „Just cos Liam uses a computer to write on. That’s a musical instrument, not an access to the world, to [adopts nerd voice] friends you never had. That is fucking bollocks, it just winds me up!” Liam and Leeroy are now in hysterics. „I still use an abacus,” Keith continues, „just to fuck everyone off. I’m so angry. I’m tense, taut. The other night we had to get a doctor in. I was on my bed going ‘I’m a wigwam, I’m a big top, I’m a wigwam, I’m a big top.’ The doctor came in and said I was two tents.” The sooner these people get on stage, the better.

Somewhere along the line I must have convinced somebody I was 21. I know this because it’s almost the only thing I can remember. Backstage after the New York show, Keith and Leeroy are congratulating me on my stagediving. This is not something I recall doing, nor is it something I am in the habit of doing. Nevertheless, I appear to have done it. Mindful of the band’s accusations of  rock’n’roll reputations, I have perhaps overcompensated. At the aftershow party the band seem to have vanished altogether, only to rematerialise later in the hotel lobby and announce, „We’re off to bed.” ‘Come play our game’ indeed! By seven am I am confronted by a large pool of liquid at the end of my bed where, minutes previously, an unconscious person had been. It is almost certainly urine. Down in the lobby, Gizz, the band’s guitarist, is attempting to skin up using to hotel’s fake foliage. Keith is dancing around the band’s Scottish press officer in a mock Highland fashion. Everyone seems very happy. The gig was a success, many famous NY types in attendance. Clearly The Prodigy have this tour survival thing down to a fine art. They look like they’ve just came back from a holiday. But then I bet no one pissed on their beds.

That evening in Atlanta, the 2,500 strong audience are getting impatient. „If the ticket says nine, I wanna see’em at nine!”exclaims one dark-haired southern belle, obviously new to this kind of thing. But as soon as the band take the stage to the seductive intro of, um, ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, she’s off dancing like a young Nana Mouskouri on a hot tin roof. The rest of Atlanta is right behind her. Atlanta, you may recall, was comprehensively burned to the ground at the end of civil war,more or less over the issue of slavery. You might think that a century later the presence of a mixed race band asserting onthe same ground that they are firestarters, would be a moment for cultural reflection. Not so. The youth of Georgia arebusy dancing like there’s no tomorrow. Yesterday isn’t even an issue.

Since we know The Prodigy are not about the future, you can be sure it’s their unfailing skill at mastering the present that keeps them going strong. And by the time this audience’s ears have stopped ringing, they’ll be long gone, telling jokes and stealing Evian in another grateful town.

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