Interview with The Prodigy
The Prodigy are making their way to the Tourhout Festival. Their cumbersome rented tourbus weaves its way through the labyrinthine backroads of the concrete grey housing estate, which, it turns out, forms the only means of entrance into Belgium's foremost two day rock extravaganza. From the rear of the bus, backed by the booming bass and diseased vocals of the Dr Octagon album, come the muffled cries of the bands spiky haired guitarist Giz Butt, who is slowly being crushed under the weight of renowned Prodigy 'dancers' Keith Flint and Leeroy Thornhill, plus various members of the bands management. Lounging on the black leather upholstered seats just across the way, Maxim Reality surveys this sorry scene impassively - even though half a dozen or so half emptied cans which have been sitting on the narrow wooden conference table between him and the writhing, many limbed scrum are getting knocked over by the second.
"Woah!" cries Leeroy, smiling broadly while attempting to extricate himself from the melee. "I've just had me nose right up Gizz's big old butt!"
Up in the coach's more sedate front lounge, Liam Howlett peers out of the window as the bleak, modernist suburbia gives way to the familiar festival components of grey-green portakabins, a moonscape of trampled mud and the buzzing, electric hum of a 60,000 strong crowd.
The Prodigy tour incessantly. On average, they see a sight like this every four days. They don't get bored, they don't suffer from nervous exhaustion and they don't fly home halfway through their American tour. For six years this has been their life, their therapy, the thing that keeps them going.
"We'll only ever stop going if it stops progressing," explains Liam. "It's still dangerous at the moment. If the dangers there, it keeps it exciting. "
He pauses for a moment. "But I'm not doing another album. That's the end of it. There isn't another Prodigy album. I went through so much pressure... I don't want to go through that again. Unless we're progressing the Prodigy can't exist. They're over. That's the only way I can make sense of it. "
Just a week after its release, The Fat Of The Land is the number one album in a staggering 22 countries, having sold more than 3 million copies worldwide. The Prodigy are one of only eight British acts to go straight into the American charts at number one, and give or take a few thousand records, it is the fastest selling record of all time in the UK.
In terms of sales and demographics alone, the Prodigy are currently the biggest band in the world. At least until 'Be Here Now' comes out on 18th August, they're bigger than Oasis. If Noel Gallagher is to be believed, that means they're bigger than the band who are bigger than God. Big. Liam Howlett does not want this. It's almost certain he will not go through it again.
In a blandly luxurious hotel room on the 11th floor of the Brussels Sheraton, Liam is staring through the window at possibly the most anonymously uninteresting town square in the whole of Europe. Its blandness is mirrored by the pastel pictures on the wall which appear to depict famous Belgian office blocks. More compellingly Liam has just come off the phone from his manager, who has informed him of the band's UK chart position.
"We've outsold Radiohead eight to one!" he announces, a look of bewilderment threatening to erase his Essex perma-scowl. An interview is rarely a happy pursuit for Liam - he often fixes you with a stare that expresses utter disbelief at the last question - but these aren't ordinary times for the Prodigy.
"It's outrageous!" he blurts, then composes himself, as if trying to comprehend the ridiculessnous of it all. "We're now the second biggest band to Oasis. We have totally taken the piss out of the music industry and we've never played by any of the rules. We've done it. "
When Select last interviewed the Prodigy in March 1996, it caught them at a key moment of transition. Perhaps the key moment. They had been touring 1994's Mercury Prize nominated Music For The Jilted Generation for over a year and a half, and were in the process of completing their metamorphosis from the hyperactive DIY rave gadflies of Charly and Everybody In The Place into a finely honed, fully automated deaths head rock machine. The deranged explosion of screaming noise and carnival excess that was their 1995 Glastonbury performance had both sounded the retreat from Oasis' lumpen, main stage flop and announced the Prodigy as the best live band in the country. Howlett already had a handful of tracks ready for the bands third album, and they were about to release one of them as the bands 11th single - the first taster of Prodigy Mk3, Firestarter.
"Yeah, I knew Firestarter was something that hadn't been done before," reflects Liam earnestly, still perched by the window and fiddling with the huge bolt which lances his right earlobe. "A lot of what I do is just repackaging the same thing over and over, repackaging the Prodigy idea, but that was original, on its own. As soon as I did Firestarter it was a massive spring board.
In the words of Liam Howlett, Firestarter took the piss on the grandest of scales. It is impossible to underestimate its importance in the career of the Prodigy. Whether it was the satanic, asthmatic punk whine of Keith's vocals, the insurrectionist ire of those 'filth infatuated' lyrics, or the retro futurist brain hammering onslaught of Liam's breakbeat and guitar discord, Firestarters hardcore release messed with peoples heads and sparked a national controversy.
It was accused of encouraging the nations youth to torch public buildings, to incinerate figures of respectability, and to burn down the whole fabric of society. Newspapers devoted front pages to it, questions were asked about it in parliament and Chris Evans, of all people, refused to play it on Radio 1. It did more during its three weeks at number one than an average band could hope to do in its whole career.
Some 16 months later and as is the way of anything with a decent beat, Firestarter is now top of the playlist at the work out in your local gym. A statement of hedonistic intent, an incitement to pure carthatic abandon, its now the tune that porky mums and dads do their bums'n'tums tune up to. It's been parodied by Hale and Pace. It's a pop tune now. It's acceptable.
It shouldn't really bother the band. All pop music is ultimately parodied by those it seeks to exclude. But the Prodigy are not your typical band, and really don't want to be liked by everyone.
"Beats will always be appropriated," reasons Liam. "People are always attracted to beats, but it does freak me out.We don't want to be as big as Oasis. Noel wants to be the biggest band in the world. He wants to be a pop star. They're the total opposite of everything we are about. We can't pretend we're part of the underground anymore, but I personally will not accept the Prodigy becoming a standard rock band. I just couldn't bear that. "
Which places the band in one hell of a position. How to resolve the discrepancy between having the fastest selling UK album of all time and not wishing to be as big as Oasis? Liam has already come up with some kind of answer: he's just announced that their next single will be the first track off The Fat Of The Land. The one called Smack My Bitch Up.
The Tourhout festival smells. Out of the fields it comes, the strange sickly sweet funk of sugarbeet filling your nose, inhabiting all the dark recesses of your clothing, and lending an air of the sulphurous, the not quite right, to an evening that is about to become very surreal. We've been permitted to watch the Prodigy play from the side of the stage, and have been joined on this occasion by one Jay Kay, aka Jamiroquai, who is in a state of merriment that can only be described as ebullient.
At the back of the stage the tour backdrop - a giant reproduction of the fiddler crab from the cover of The Fat Of The Land - bears down on the audience. The slogan on the backdrop, a bastardisation of the Herman Goerring quote from the LP sleeve, reads "10 tons of steel / lard".
As Liam takes to his techno-lectern in the centre of the stage, clouds of dry ice billow out from under him, causing Mr Kay to elbow Select in the ribs and shout "These guys, eh?! Puffing already! Huh? Huh!
Tracker beams dart across the stage and into the night sky reflecting off what appears to be miniature barrage balloons floating in the night sky, one of which is attached to a plastic 1977 Jubilee flag. The tracker beam turns back on the stage to face a pummelling loop of evil, front loaded bass and virulent buzzing guitar riff as Keith and MC Maxim strut out onto stage.
Keith is kitted out in what appears to be a bleached denim romper suit emblazoned with Union Jacks, and is walking the stage in the manner of an inebriated city gentleman attempting a circuit of a cross channel ferry in a force ten gale.
Maxim on the other hand,sports a two tone boxers robe, velvet skirt and metal teeth, walks purposefully towards the front of the stage as if there is someone in the first few rows about to receive a severe larruping.
As the rubberised breakbeats of the first song kick in around the lower stomach region the two main players prowl the front of the stage, sizing each other up and asking various members of the buckling writhing audience whether they "want some". The effect is somewhere between WWF, Mortal Kombat, and the Notting Hill race riots. It is all contradiction.
Then in comes the steroid injected Kool Keith sample from Ultramagnet MCs 'Give The Drummer Some' - Change My Pitch Up/Smack My Bitch Up. Maxim is shouting along to the sample, sucking in the music and sucking it out as Keith Flint reels around the stage, alternating between various grandiose 'want some?' and 'one love' gestures to the crowd who are glee fully jumping up in the air, crowd surfing across the heads of their friends, and happily shouting along.
"Change my picture/scratch my picture" they bellow as Jay Kay goes into his ridiculous space cowboy dance routine at the side of the stage and begins shouting out to one and all, "I love these guys, you know, I just love them!" Groovy.
It's two o'clock in the afternoon and Keith Flint is still languishing in bed - as would anyone who regularly exorcises his seemingly plentiful internal demons at 9pm every night.
"I might be getting a bit of gut paranoia," he warns. "Can I put a telephone directory over it? Or a delicate pillow?"
Today, posing for pictures in a semi slumber, he's slightly embarrassed about the size of his midriff. He insists that being in the Prodigy hasn't changed him, but one of the things he still finds strange is having to think about his fitness, and do something about it. "That," he observes with an unrepentant smirk, "Is a dramatic change. "
There are contradictions everywhere among the make up of the Prodigy, but nowhere more so than with Keith. With most pop stars there's always a certain surprise when you meet them offstage, simply because they talk at a sensible level, drink pints and are always that little bit smaller than you imagined. Keith Flint is the epitome of this. Onstage: a turbo charged id of twitching madness. Offstage: "Does anyone want coffee and biscuits? Oh look they've only sent cream! Well, we could have cappuccinos... "
You'd expect his hotel room to look as though he'd been at it with a blow torch for two hours,but it's a picture of tidiness. Most of his stuff is packed away tidily in a couple of black holdalls, and last nights Union Jack romper suit is folded up with almost comical neatness on a chair by the telly.
Sprawled on the bed in just a big pair of shorts, 27 year old Keith is softly spoken, friendly, and yes, a lot smaller than you'd think. This is in no way to suggest that onstage Keith is some kind of act or performance. No, Keith Flint really is both of these people. It's just thanks to the Prodigy, the spitting, blasphemous imp Keith now only gets to escape on concert nights. Mostly.
"You need balls to walk around like that. " he says in such a way to suggest that Keith Flint is 'that other guy' as well as the one stretched out on the bed, scratching the 'inflicted' tattoo across his chest and nibbling on a Ameretti biscuit.
"Winding up people," he continues, "I love that. I was getting on a plane recently and these five German geezers started goose stepping and giving me this nazi salute and I just went into the middle of them and said, 'you cunts! You fucking cunts!' and they were saying [official German accent] 'You wait till Hamburg, my friend. We will fuck you up.' I like that. " he concludes with a cheeky grin. "I like pushing it right to that point. "
The Prodigy are therapy to Keith Flint. He's suggested that in the past, as a child, he was in therapy for real as teachers and guardians endeavoured to find out why the young Keith wanted to hang around with glue sniffing punks or walk out of a lesson when he thought he'd learnt enough. It didn't work but the band does. To listen to him talk about it is to hear a man who knows he has been saved. For Keith, the Prodigy are an almost religious experience. "60,000 people," he says, "for an hour and a half saying 'yes! we're into you.' That is all I need. That's why I'm here. That's all part of the therapy.
As a further part of the therapy, Keith has stopped reading his own press. The media exposure for the Prodigy in the 15 months between Firestarter and Fat Of The Land were insane times for Keith Flint. He wished that Firestarter had never been released, that they'd only ever played it live. For 15 months, Keith Flint watched fascinated as the Urban Myth Keith stormed around the country, creating havoc in his make believe wake.
"There was the Prodigy," he explains, "and then the myth of the Prodigy. You know, 'Keith's dead' in every playground on Monday morning. "
Whether it's a story about all of Madness dying in a coach crash, or Marc Almond being hospitalised for 'something he drank', the urban myth is a classic means of judging a bands significance. During most of 1996, Keith Flint overdosed, died and was reborn in the playgrounds of British schools. True fame.
"I was thinking about it last night," he offers, "when I was watching the porn, thinking about that soft cell geezer... How do those stories get around every school? Do they have A&R men at the tuck shop going, 'didja 'ere abaht Keef?' It's so much better to judge the size of your band on things like that rather than record sales. "
Now as well as Urban Myth Keith, there is marketing tool Keith - Lucozade trying to sell their product by employing the Keith image. People selling stuff using his haircut.
"Yeah, I know. " he grimaces. "Isn't that mad? It pisses me off, because if Lucozade came to me and offered me half a million pounds to come down and do the same ad, I wouldn't do it. It's a principle thing. Effectively, I do feel they've ripped me off.
There they are at the top of the charts in 22 countries, but the Prodigy refuse to sell out. They could well have one of the greatest images in pop history, a means by which they could easily turn themselves into a range of skate shorts, lunch boxes and action figures, and yet they are vehemently opposed to anything that could remotely be seen as giving into The Man. Would the Prodigy package a box set of their singles in a shiny silver Benson & Hedges fag packet? No, they would not. It's the ultimate irony, the ultimate contradiction - the authentic, soulful, proper music of Oasis as far more packaged than the manufactured, synthesised, Prodigy. Brilliant. The Prodigy, the sample led 'studio' band who live to play live.
"I love it!" effuses Keith. "When we turned up places and you've got six and a half years of confidence, and it's 'I fucking rock. This fucking rocks. This music is fucking good. Fucking check this shit out! D'you know what I mean? And people are, 'hang on, I can't keep up with that... I don't want him staring at me like that' and suddenly getting swept along with it. I describe it as like the North sea, midwinter, crashing down. Heh heh, it's my payback. "
Does it worry you when Liam says there won't be another Prodigy album?
"No," states Keith emphatically, "but if he turned around and said 'There's no more Prodigy, there's no more touring', well... that would be scary, because what the fuck am I going to do then? It's not like I'll go and get another job then. I guess I could do Lucozade ads. You can't have something that is your life then take it away. But worrying about it just ends up giving you nervous exhaustion.
"It's almost like falling in love with someone and thinking, 'they could leave me, I'll never find another girlfriend like this.' I don't think it matters whether we make another album. The pressure that was on Liam after Firestarter and Breathe, I could just sense the pressure building up and surpressing him. I wanted to turn up at his door and hand him these songs and lyrics completely written and ready to go, but that's not how Liam works. The pressure is on him alone to write the Prodigy's music. If you think about it, it's mad pressure. "
The release of Smack My Bitch Up is a perfect example of how the Prodigy see themselves at the moment. At a basic level, it's the next step on from the Kultur War on pop started by Firestarter. "Fucking with the mainstream," as Liam puts it. There are only really two other bands who have succeeded in reinventing the music industry on this sort of scale before - the Sex Pistols and Nirvana. Neither of which tales had a happy ending. On a deeper level, Smack My Bitch Up is also the end result of 13 months spent recording a follow up the Jilted Generation, that brought Liam Howlett as close to coming off the rails as he would ever admit.
Liam began work on The Fat Of The Land in late 1995. It all went a little too smoothly. In a very short space of time he had recorded Breathe, a cover of Ghost Town by the Specials (which they decided not to release after Tricky did his version), Funky Shit and Firestarter. The latter kind of changed things. After Firestarter, the Prodigy were not the same band. OK, Leeroy was still Leeroy, a huge skanking giant whom you'd be pretty scared to meet in the afternoon, let alone on a dark night. But Maxim became a folk devil, Liam became an instigator of evil and Keith, with his spiky hair 'horns' became Public Enemy Number One. Suddenly it was no longer that easy to get on with the simple business of making a third album.
During the 13 months it took Liam to complete The Fat Of The Land, he'd get so stressed out about the media probing, the touring and the weight of expectations hanging over him that he effectively had a change of character. Normally a fastidious worker, he started to go through whole months where he couldn't bear to go into the studio. He felt that he couldn't write any more.
"I didn't have any ideas," he explains seriously, as the bus rumbles on towards another Belgian festival. "Every day was just: Album - no ideas. Album - no ideas. " And because he is such a control freak, he couldn't turn to Keith or Maxim or Leeroy for help.
"Trying to be all four people," he laughs nervously. "schizophrenic. "
By his own admission, Liam was something of a pain to be around. He has the perfect analogy. "You know the guy from the Verve looks in that video?" he says pointing to the TV as though Bitter Sweet Symphony were playing now, "that's the way I felt. I had arguments with everyone. It was a strange time. I knew I would always come up with the goods, it was just when. "
What kept him on the rails was the institutionalised tour existence. Hotels, airports, long distance phone calls. He couldn't sit down and relax. If he allowed himself the indulgence of an occasional joint, he'd have to smoke, "until I was completely gone" before he felt in any way relaxed. Prodigy concerts, normally imbued with an air of backstage bonhomie, became increasingly tense affairs, the band refusing to allow even close friends backstage lest they enquire to the whereabouts of that album. Even Liam's girlfriend has to sit outside the dressing room for 20 minutes before going in.
The group were now playing at least seven of the Fat Of The Land's ten tracks every other night in concert, They now regard the album as the soundtrack to their lives. It's what the Prodigy is now. They don't care what you think. Nothing else matters but this album. Not even the wayward politics of Crispian Mills who was drafted in at the height of Tattva.
"Look," stresses Liam, wholly bored by the mention of the mans name, "the guy could of shot someone and I wouldn't have cared. To me, it's the record that matters. "
Talk to Liam about The Fat... and it becomes clear that its a record that appears primed to self destruct on a number of levels. Ask about the perverse inclusion of throwaway set closer and regrettable L7 cover Fuel My Fire, and Howlett will explain that, "It's there to destroy the whole thing. To break the whole thing down. "
A more obvious act of self destruction is contained in the albums CD booklet which bears a quote from portly W.W.II Luftwaffe commander Herman Goerring - we have no butter, but I ask you, would you rather have butter or guns? Shall we import lard or steel? Let me tell you, preparedness makes us powerful, butter merely makes us fat. " What makes a band like the Prodigy want to quote obviously fascist propaganda on their record sleeve?
"Any sensible person," says Liam, carefully, "could look and see those two guys who look a bit darker than white and it's so obvious it's not a Nazi thing. That quote is like a sample. I take that, put it into what I'm doing and it becomes a different thing. When I read that quote, I just thought, 'That's the first B-Boy quote! It's funny'. "
Anyway, reasons Liam, whatever happens, nothing could be quite as bad as that last month in the studio. The attitude of the band now is that nothing matters.
"We're gonna go out with full, full-on balls," he avers with a steely gaze. "If you can't do that, it's not worth the bother. When you've got the power we've got, you shouldn't be playing the game, you should be fucking the game, twisting it up. "
And twisting it up they are. The obvious, safe record company choice for the next single would be the lo-cal controversy of that Crispian Mills collaboration 'Narayan', or the 'Keith is mad' cacophony of' Serial Thrilla'. But no, they'll release 'Smack My Bitch Up.' Why? Because they can.
"It's like, what can you get away with?" reasons Liam. "We have the front to put together something so fucking simple and effective - this is us. It's got that dumb B-Boy vibe running through it. It's an answer back to the people who said 'Firestarter' was about starting fires. I hope that no one really, really thinks we're talking about actually smacking women up. "
OK, but have you thought what it'll be like to have a whole arena of people gleefully singing, "Smack my bitch up"?
"It'd be scary, pretty fucking horrific to have anyone... But that's going to happen, is it? It's not like Oasis, you won't get a whole arena of people singing all the songs. I really don't believe that people will sing along to it. If they did it would be pretty horrific. God. They've got to get the irony in the songs.
"Critics?" muses Maxim, relaxing in the band's dressing room afterwards. "Fuck 'em! When I'm standing on that stage I can get 10,000 people to jump when I jump. Critics? Know what I mean?"
The oldest, mellowest member of the Prodigy, Maxim Reality is decidedly unphased by the global volcanic revue the Prodigy have become.
"The whole concept is confusion," he stresses. "It's cool that everybody doesn't get it. I don't want to be the Spice Girls. "
Unlike Liam, Maxim is in no way concerned by the concept of 40,000 people jumping up and down and hollering, "Smack my bitch up".
"It's not about smacking a woman up. " he points out, "and anyway, it will weed out the more lightweight fans. I wasn't put on this planet to appeal to everybody. I was put on this planet to fuck them off and do what I want to do. We're not a [sneers] sing-along group.
With regards to Liam's use of the Herman Goering quote, Maxim is possibly even less phased than Howlett himself. He sees the quote as a way of describing the band, using it their way.
"It just means we're hard. No compromise. Hit 'em back hard. It's like hip hop artists using the word nigger to defeat it, use it until it loses its effect. It's just a word. It's like punks wearing swastikas... " he pauses, his smile showing off the shining metal gumshield on his upper palate 'Ah, my personality is so fucked up I don't know who I am, so how can I explain it?"
Backstage relaxation at a Prodigy gig is usual taken in three forms: smoking, drinking or attempting to wrestle Giz Butt to the floor. Unlike everyone else, Maxim abstains from all three. His main buzz these days comes from being onstage.
"It's a drug," he reckons. "I need it. I need that fix. If I don't get it I'm fucked up. "
Does that make Liam your dealer? "Yeah, but we never pressurise him for the next fix. "
Ask him about the Prodigy's future and he'll tell you that he doesn't know when it's going to end.
"Everything's now," he says. "There is no future to the Prodigy. We don't think of it. "
Indeed, across the room, the rest of the Prodigy are partying like there's no tomorrow. The dressing-room, which has the flowers-and-curtains vibe of a hotel conference room, is transformed by the presence of a huge Panasonic ghetto blaster. It looks like the front of an old Pontiac and is giving the insidious slo-mo beats of 'Wu-Tang Forever' a more than adequate airing.
The band have just played what they feel to be one of their best recent gigs, they are Number One in Britain, things are looking good. The band's rider is rapidly diminishing. Beer and wine has already been consumed, leaving only as Liam puts it, "fruit and all that shit". A member of the roadcrew has been sent out for champagne. He is easily identified. Maxim has been giving free clipper haircuts in the band's Portakabin to all the crew and every-where there can be seen disgruntled, burly men walking around with comically irregular barnets. Once again, Giz Butt has become a figure of fun, this time for his legendary 15-year-old leather jacket, which still bears the unintentionally misspelt legend, 'Exercise the demons'.
When the champagne arrives it appears to have an adverse effect on the group. Liam and Maxim begin discussing obscure Northern Soul tracks while Keith starts giving a monologue on the significance of Hal Karate aftershave presentation packs. In the middle of all this is Leeroy; who begins reciting an American shopping-channel presentation for something called 'the buckwheat husk pillowcase'.
Leeroy is a natural comedian. To the casual Prodigy spectator Leeroy is the least essential member of the band, the one who's always left till last. They have little time for his loping jazz dancing and wonder why, in Liam's words, he has "yet to find his vocal ability". He may be the only member of the group without his own record contract, but if you spend any time with the band it soon becomes clear that Leeroy is the crucial member of the team.
Liam calls him "another pair of ears", meaning that he has both a perfect understanding of the Prodigy sound and he is also the best person to have a good moan to. Despite his towering physique, he's been less bothered by the attention than the rest. They see him as their way of keeping it real, like it was in the old days. "He just connects with the crowd," reckons Liam. "Keith and Leeroy used to be the same thing early on, and now Leeroy is kind of there as a foundation. "
Talk to Leeroy about the band and it transpires that he is the only one scared of their size. He is also the only member of the band who will more readily talk about the others than himself. He says that he"feels sorry for the way Keith has been treated by the press". Talking to him is like talking to the band's mum, albeit one with a propensity for lewd jokes. He is the only reason why the Prodigy ever travel first class: his legs are too long for economy.
As the band stumble onto the tour bus for another drunken round of Giz Butt-baiting. Liam tells Select that this is the last interview they'll ever do. Keith has a more pressing matter to divulge: the similarity between the Prodigy and l970's auto-destructo kids toy Stock Car Smash Ups.
"The Prodigy, when it comes down to it, is an act of destruction," offers Keith, finally. "That's what the party scene was like: 'Is this going to be the last warehouse I break into? I've got to go next week, otherwise it may not be there.' Brilliant. If that's what we're like, then brilliant. As long as its not uncool or cheesy destruction. In the way that we might not be there next week, then that's brilliant. That's perfectly cool. "