In Australia hinterlands, and in Braintree, Essex, The Prodigy reach a crossroads. How can Liam Howlett surpass the dance-rock nexus to the demonic 'Jildet Generation'? How does he solve the riddle of being in a band with three loveable Bez's? And how does he stop Keith and Maxim playing crazy golf with Billy Bragg?
Golf. It's a gentleman's game. A game of subtle and elusive skill. A game where a practised swing and a good handicap denote not only sporting ability but a certain standing, a social cachet. A game played by sophisticated men of leisure, men who have arrived. A game about which The Prodigy's Keith Flint knows practically nothing at all. "This," he waves grandly in the direction of Melbourne's Putter's Crazy Golf (Bring the whole family for $20!), "Is one of Australia's most challenging courses. " He swaggers inside and greets the attendant with the conspiratorial wink of the acknowledged international celebrity and sportsman. The man gazes blankly back at him. "Don't you recognise me, then," he asks expectantly. The attendant looks Keith up and down. He looks at the burgundy jumbo-cord Bermuda shorts; the lime green polo shirt; the Adidas sports sandals; the complex tattoo winding up the right calf. He looks at the baseball cap, from beneath which two strips of hair - one yellow, one electric orange - protrude at crazy angles. Nope. He's pretty damned certain he's never seen anything , like this before. "In Europe," Keith offers, "I'm very, very big in crazy golf. Very, very big. " His accomplice - the wiry black man in the sarong and baseball jacket - nods earnestly. "The biggest. " Standing behind Tricky, Billy Bragg sniggers quietly. In Melbourne, itinerant pop stars must find amusement where they can.
IT'S A COMMON MISCONCEPTION THAT Australia is a country with all the cultural depth Southern California would have if it was invaded by cockneys andgoverned by Michael Portillo and Roy 'Chubby' Brown. But although there is clearly more to the place than lager, men in shorts and a high incidence of melanoma,it's easy to get the wrong idea. It is, for instance, a place with a terrible abbreviation problem. Anyone who's seen Neighbours knows about 'arvo' and 'uni'. But you may not be aware that at Christmas you send cards to your friends, family and 'rellies'. And just take a look out of the window: a dustcart trundles slowly past, its garbage compactor howling. And just so you know what it is, it has one word written all the way down the side in vast blue letters: GARBO. And while it's longsince become a clichè that American TV has 62 channels and nothing on, Australian TV is worse than that. Australian TV has five channels, and nothing on that youhaven't already seen on a wet Wednesday night in Swindon. Saturday night's peak viewing on Channel 2, for instance, boasts Heartbeat followed by The Bill and Birds Of A Feather. Channel Ten follows Baywatch with TV Allsorts, a two-hour sitcom omnibus including The Good Life, To The Manor Born and Are You BeingServed? And if you get up on Sunday morning, you might well catch Superted, and then the football: Liverpool v Leeds United. In Australia, the position Democrats are going into the general election under the official banner 'Keep The Bastards Honest'. In Australia, the national drink-driving campaign's slogan is: 'IF YOU DRINK, THEN DRIVE, YOU'RE A BLOODY IDIOT.' Still, The Prodigy are making the best it. On a two-week jaunt around the country for the Big DayOut festival tour and a few club dates, this is their third visit to Australia. And they're getting to know their way around. Down at Melbourne's faintly alternative Triple R radio station, Liam Howlett, Maxim Reality - Keeti to his friends - and Leeroy Thornhill are clustered around a table in a backroom studio for a live interview. They've already spent an afternoon patiently explaining to a local TV crew that they've been working with Cleo Laine and plan to go into studio with Mr Acker Bilk and his Jazzmen as soon as a mutually convenient opportunity arises. This should be interesting. "So we've lost the mad one, have we?" asks the fortysomethingdisco-vicar DJ, "He's not off riding his motorbike, is he?" Liam, Maxim and Leeroy smile the kind of smiles deployed by men in their mid-twenties whosegrandparents observe that, my, how you've grown. Keith disappeared hours ago. Twittering nervously about Essex, raving and Nitzer Ebb - anything, really, as longas it sounds right - the DJ puts a record on. "With 'Voodoo People', you're the representatives of the jungle scene, aren't you?" "No," says Liam, "That's justbecause we filmed the video in the jungle," says Maxim. Keith chooses this moment to enter the studio, shouting at the top of his lungs. The DJ looks genuinelyperturbed, but then settles back into the interview with gusto. In fact, he gets quite carried away. There are no rules for music any more," he yelps, "And you guysare breaking them!"Liam asks him to play Smashing Pumpkins' 'Geek USA'. "Is there any particular reason why you've chosen that track?""It rocks," deadpans Liam.
"That's a good enough reason! Let's rock!"
SINCE THE RELEASE OF THE GENRE-SMASHING Mercury Prize-winning, breakbeat punk of 'Music For the Jilted Generation' two years ago, The Prodigyhave become something no one ever expected them to be: a rock 'n' roll band. While dance outfits like Orbital and Underworld have succeeded in taking techno tothe rock masses, The Prodigy have effectively gone about it more directly, and become a dance band that makes rock music. They absorb breakbeat techno, hiphop and guitars in equal measure and spit it out in a black wall of noise. Their records are dominated by machines, but infused with a raw power that makes RageAgainst The Machine look like leading lights of the Easy Listening revival. And the thing is, everybody thinks they're fantastic.
WHO'S THE MOST SUPRISING PERSON YOU'VE HEARD LIKES THE PRODIGY?
Maxim: "Bono. We played at the MTV awards in Berlin and he and the Edge came into the changing room. He said he'd been listening to the album driving aroundthe South of France. "Leeroy: "Just after the first album came out Des O'Connor was on Radio One. And they asked him what he did to psyche himself up before he went onstage. Andhe said, Listen to The Prodigy album. So on our next single we put, Respect to Des O'Connor. "Liam: "My dad. We've been doing the band for five years now, and my dad only saw us for the first time when we played Ilford Island about five months ago. Youexpect him to say, Oh, nice one son, well done. But he was like a raver. He was going, 'Oh yeah! The bass! The energy!"
IT'S BEEN FIVE YEARS SINCE LIAM HOWLETT DISCOVERED, to his surprise, that he could get records into the charts without really trying. To begin with,he didn't even like techno. Coming out of school in 1988, he payed no attention to the burgeoning rave scene, but got into hip hop. Using his musical training (theeight years of piano lessons his father made him take, until the teacher realised his musical memory was so good he'd never be bothered to sight-read music), hestarted DJing and writing the music in a Chelmsford rap outfit called Cut To Kill. But he gradually realised they weren't going anywhere and ended up spending moretime back in his hometown of Braintree. He went to the local club, The Barn, where a pre-Shamen Mr C was resident DJ. He got into the music, and then he gotinto ecstasy. Within six months, he had bought the rave miracle: going up to the Astoria and warehouse parties in London, going to The Barn and DJing at parties onthe beach afterwards. And he started using what he'd earned in hip hop to write music. Keith Flint was in and out of jobs all the time, but was a reliable drug-dealer - a man who would sort out everyone in Braintree with an E and some grass on a Friday night. Leeroy Thornhill was a self-employed electrician. The two of them were well-known on the party scene: they'd be focal points for the night, their energy and enthusiasm so infectious that everyone would dance around them. Even if they hadn't had any pills. When Keith asked Liam for a tape of tunes he'd been playing on the beach, Howlett filled one side with records, the other with stuff he'd been doing himself. Coming back from a rave one night, still off their heads, Keith and Leeroy put the tape on. "It was," says Leeroy, "the bollocks. " They were so excited by Liam's stuff they started working out all the moves they'd do between them if they were dancing to it onstage. The following week they asked Liam how he'd feel about doing the music onstage with a couple of dancers. They had no idea Liam had already taken the tape to record companies and the second one he'd seen said yes. It was October 1990. They hooked up with a reggae MC - Maxim Reality, from Peterborough - for their first gig in London's glitzy Dalston. The punters loved them. Their first EP, 'What Evil Lurks' got to number 31 in the dance chart. It was the first and last record Liam would make that would fail to go into the Top 20 of the national chart. It was just too easy. Other bands they'd seen - N Joi, Shades Of Rhythm - had costumes, so they got costumes, too. Everyone wore one, and they were all identical baggy white affairs with green circles. "We looked," says Liam, "like The Stylistics. " Liam could do no wrong. He knew the rave scene so well, he knew exactly the kind of record people like him wanted to hear. When the infamous 'Charly' came out, the band found themselves at Über-rave Perception in Cirencester - playing in a tent to 15,000 people, with 15,000 more trying to get in to see them. They refused to go on Top Of The Pops, but when 'Everybody In The Place' came out, they did Normski's completely sorted teatime show Dance Energy. But by the beginning of 1993, with 'Wind It Up' becoming his fifth consecutive Top 20 single in 18 months, Liam suddenly caught sight of what he was doing. He was making music on autopilot for an audience on drugs. It was rave-by-numbers - change the reggae sample, change the beat, have another hit. Rave fans were so nutted most of the time they'd buy anything with The Prodigy's name on it. It was embarrassing. One Saturday night in Scotland, playing to another tent filled with 15,000 white-gloved goons, Howlett looked out in horror at the gurning mass of cheesy quavers. Look at these people, he thought. They're just total clowns. What are we doing? We're supposed to be the fucking clowns... It was time for something else. Something more challenging. Something with guitars in it.
WHAT'S THE MOST EXTRAVAGANT THING YOU'VE EVER BOUGHT?
Maxim: "Probably this bracelet. It's made of silver and cost about £3600. Or this watch: £31,500. A Brietling. Things I'd always wanted, you know what I mean? Nothing really over the top. I'm not like Keith and Liam. Buying expensive rollerblades they'll use for two days and then be in the cupboard by the time they gethome. "Leeroy: "My bedroom. I've spent a couple of grand on it. It's all airbrushed comic book art: Johnny Alpha and Wulf from Strontium Dog, Judge Dredd and Batmanswinging in from the window. It's all on cut-out boards so it looks 3-D. It's the bollocks. "Liam: "When I was 14, I saved all my pocket money, went to Southend and bought myself a Ninja suit. With the face mask and the shoes and everything. And awooden sword. My friend bought one as well, and we went out at night, stalking around the playing fields, being Ninjas. Fifty pounds was a lot then - that was half a BMX. I only wore it twice. " Keith: "My bike really, cos I've spent so much to make it go as fast as possible. But I don't want to say my bike, really. I'm always talking about it. "
THE BIG DAY OUT IS, IN PRINCIPLE A BIT LIKE LOLLAPALOOZA. Both festivals take a multi-stage line-up from city to city. Both festivals have PerryFarrell on the bill. But there the similarity ends. Chiefly because the organisers of The Big Day Out hit upon the fantastic idea of using agricultural showgrounds -replete with sheds and pens - as festival sites. The result is an event with an unnervingly backwoods flavour, with more of the 'You're not frum round here, are yuh,boy?' ambience of Deliverance than the pastoral idyll of Glastonbury. Tricky can be seen playing at the Nicholas Pavilion For Jersey Cattle Number Four. A signoverhead points to a Display Of Pigeons And Caged Birds. It's just around the corner from Incubators And More. But for the most part, it's just a trifle odd. It is,for instance, a festival with a cloakroom. A huge hoarding near the main stage advertises the sale of Boltz Earplugs. 'STICK 'EM' advises a sign helpfully 'IN YOUREARS'. And then there're the bands. Aside from the headliners: Nick Cave, Rage Against The Machine, Porno For Pyros and, obviously, The Prodigy, much of the
talent is indigenous: Spiderbait, for instance. And The Testeagles; Kranktus or The Bearded Clams? Which is it to be? Especially when they clash with Superjesus.And - damn - we've missed Front End Loader. They were on at 5.30. But the highlight of the festival is elsewhere. Over in a neglected corner of the site, in theshadow of the do-it-yourself piercing centre and opposite the beer shed, a hand-painted sign announces The Lilypad Stage. Flanked by a giant inflatable duck onone side, and a huge pink rabbit wearing a waistcoat on the other, it's clearly signposted as a black hole of madness for the entire continent. For a start, the stagefeatures a man in a black dress trimmed with pink feathers swinging from a rope tied to the lighting gantry and a cock- tail waiter making banana daquairis for theentire audience. At the back, a fat bearded man in a fluo- rescent orange hockey shirt is playing lounge music and shouting into a microphone. At the front, a man in
a white suit, sunglasses and white stetson prowls up and down. His name is Slick and he has been drinking since ten this morning. It is now 6pm. He talks constantly into his mic. "If anybody out there," he says, in an amiable carnival-barker drawl, "wants a daquari, just come up here. " This is the most reasonable invitation he will make all night. As the lounge music plays on, things go rapidly downhill. "If anybody out there has got the faintest idea what we're doing, please come up here and explain it to us. " "That's all. " "If anybody out there doesn't like our jokes, they can just... fuck off. "
"That's all. "
"If anybody out there thinks we're ripped, they'd be right. We've smoked so much gear we can't stand up. "
"If anybody out there has been tampered with by their parents in the last hour or two, just step up here on stage. "
"If any little boys out there would like to be tampered with, then just come up here. "
It is at this point that Leeroy ambles - very prominently - into view. The man in the white suit doesn't miss a beat. "If anybody out there dances with The Prodigy and doesn't mind giving head, there's a man up here who'd really appreciate a blowjob. " Leeroy is a big fan of the Lilypad stage. It is, as he says, "the bollocks".
DO YOU EVER THINK YOU'RE IN A BAND WITH THREE BEZ'S?
Liam: "Yeah. I've thought that up until now. But this new album, hopefully, will take it away from that. But you love Bez, when you watch him don't you? Cos you know he's just a complete nutter. And he's real, you know? "People love Keith for being mad. He's the celebrity out of the band, just because of the way he is. And people love Leeroy for... whatever he does. Maxim's a bit more than that. Maxim, OK, he dances, but he's had his moment of glory with 'Poison'. And they'll both have their moments of glory on the new album, when I write a few more vocal tracks with them. "
DO YOU HAVE THE EASIEST JOB IN THE WORLD?
Maxim: "Sometimes I sit down and think about what I do and think, Yeah, it is easy. But the only reason it's easy is because I enjoy it so much. I look forward to every show, I get such a buzz, and that's all I strive for, really. "Leeroy: "No, not at all. It does get physically tiring, especially when you're touring. And some- times I'd love to come home and get that feeling that the end of the week's over, like I used to. I can't explain how badly it can fuck you up men- tally, waking up in hotel rooms not knowing where the fuck you are. " Later, as everyone clambers into the bus for the Melbourne show, Keith reveals he has lost his tour laminate. This is a disaster. In the otherwise recklessly libertine world of the band on the road, it's a cardinal sin. Numerous checks and proofs of identity will be necessary if he is to obtain another one. "You're in trouble," nudges Leeroy. "They'll want a blood sample, a urine sample, a stool sample and a semen sample. So," he grins, "you can just give them a pair of your pants. " He pauses for a moment. "Or your handkerchief. " Before the gig starts, as Liam plays his apocalyptic intro of stabbed keyboards and doom-cracking bassbin thuds, the other threego into their individual warm-up routines: Maxim, the hood of his puffa jacket up, shadowboxes and dances on the spot; Keith does some jumping up and down andstretching; Leeroy does the same, with a bit of his Gerry Anderson-via-Guru Josh callisthenics thrown in. The set is everything the frenetically keen audience expectsit to be. Keith goes through his increasingly complex costume changes, ranging from the white satin skirt and matching jacket to the tartan get-up for his vocalstar-turn, the new single 'Firestarter'. Leeroy dances like a marionette in a washing machine. Liam leans into his equipment and rocks back and forth frantically as iftrying to prevent it being torn away by a high wind. And Maxim? Maxim does that things where he strides up and down the crash barrier glaring into the eyes ofindividual members of the crowd like he wants to kill them with his bare hands. What on earth is going through his mind? Back in the dressing room, his personalityrestored to normal, serene warrior calm, he thinks about it don't know," he says pensively. "I just like intimidating people. "
WHAT'S THE SINGLE MOST IRRITATING HABIT ANYONE ELSE IN THE BAND?
Maxim: "Keith. Lateness, pondering around, Oh I'll just do this, I'll just do that. It just winds me up. And it's been going on for five years. "
Leeroy: "Keith. Without a doubt. He's loads of 'em. Never go shopping with Keith, worse than any bird you could imagine. "
Liam: "Keith. His arse goes off like an alarm clock at six o'clock every morning. "
Keith: "Erm. Nothing, really. No one really annoys me. "
BRAINTREE IS A LONG WAY FROM THE ESSEX MYTH AND STEREOTYPE - the place where every man under the age of 30 has a sheepskin car coat and a CV with separate columns for 'Ducking' 'Diving'. It's a respectable-looking commuter-belt town, with a small shopping centre and twisting little backroads.Down one of them, on the into the sticks, is Liam Howlett's house. It's a respectably-sized old coach-house. Not enormous, but comfortable. Outside the front dooris Liam's Ford Escort Cosworth. Inside the door, it's like a particularly nifty Doctor Who set. The whole hallway has been clad in special effects-grade fibreglass soit looks like rough-hewn stone interior of an Aztec temple. The doors appear to be made of huge tablets rock. There's the sculptured face of a sun god staring downfrom the end of the room. It's a disappointment when the rest of house doesn't match - although, inside the studio where Liam has made all the Prodigy records since1993's 'One Love', there are two beady-eyed green latex aliens. His newest acquisition is a three-foot mutant rat which squats by the TV in the living room - found in a special effects studio in Australia. His girlfriend hates it already. The studio is neat and tidy - "I've just had a bit of a Hoover" - and racks of equipment wink in the dim light. Beside the stacks of dance CDs - 'Ravemania: The First Generation', 'Hi Speed Techno Groove Vol 3' and the promising-sounding 'Rotterdam TechnoIs Hard Hard Hard!' there is much evidence of Liam's Catholic tastes. Oasis, Supergrass and Skunk Anansie can all be found here - as can, bewilderingly,Jamiroquai. Now we're here, what of the new album, due for release in a matter of weeks? "Ah," says Liam. "Today isn't a good day to check out the album. Butthen it wouldn't be for another couple of months. I've only done four tracks. " It seems the LP may well be a bit late. Working alone as he does, it takes Liam a month to do two tracks. But the four he's done so far are fantastic. As well as 'Firestarter', there's 'Breathe', with Keith and Maxim's duelling vocals and another hammering work in progress which sounds like the 'Great Lost James Bond Theme (Breakbeat Remix)'. Liam is disarmingly polite and concerned about what you think of his work. He cues up the DAT for the Beastie Boys-sampling 'Funky Shit', presses play and then pauses it. "Do you want to hear it?" he asks, as if he's keeping you from something much more interesting. But Liam is terrified about maintaining credibility of The Prodigy. 'Music For The Jilted Generation' achieved the remarkable credibility backflip of transforming The Prodigy from derided rave nutters into the band everyone want to see. But he's terrified he might blow it again. And he doesn't want to disappoint anyone. When he'd completed 'Jilted Generation', he thought he'd been too selfish, doing exactly what he wanted to do. "I felt responsible to the people who expected me to make fast techno records. I thought nobody would buy it - maybe a few old fans. " But in the end, he adopted asimple mindset: "I thought bollocks. " And put it out anyway. "And I've thought, Bollocks ever since. Now I'll continue to think, bollocks with 'Firestarter' and everything else I do. " So what does Liam want to do next? The 24-year-old musical genius considers point for a moment. "The only ambition I've got now," he says levelly, "Is to learn to play Bullseye theme on the piano. Then I could walk into a pub and rattle that off. That," he adds, "would be the bollocks. "