Grush and Burn! by Angus Batey
Just when you thought it was safe to turn on your TV set, those doyens of sonic terror the PRODIGY have turned with a new album, 'The Fat Of The Land'. So, what better time for the Braintree brigade to show North America what they're made of? VOX dons its flameproof fineries and pops off to Toronto
"GOD-DAAMMMNNNN!!!!! Did you see the size of that girl's breasts?!!??!" Keith Flint's arms are flailing desperately. He's trying to stop himself crashing off his stool on to the floor of the Toronto television studio. Either side of him, bandmates Leeroy Thornhill, Maxim Reality and Liam Howlett sport expressions that range from mock-resigned head-shaking to bouts of adolescent giggles. Somewhere out of the camera range a tall, bearded man called Bob, whose job is to sell as many Prodigy records as possible in Canada, is bent double, as if someone's just thumped him in the stomach. It's difficult to tell whether he's laughing or crying. The flustered presenter rustles her sheaf of notes and ploughs gamely on.
"Is this the sort of thing that happens backstage?" she asks the Prodigy boys. "You get to meet large-breasted girls?" Liam is first to recover: "I'm not really into large breasts," he offers, attempting to steer the interview off the rocks. But Keith, who will later claim that he didn't realise the show was going out live, is still gazing manically through the studio's plate glass window and off into the street.
"My God!" he blurts, a little calmer. "It was like an eclipse of the sun!" Regaining his posture and stifling an expletive under his breath, Keith Flint rolls his eyes and gets back to the job in hand. He doesn't wear the look of a man whose puerile yet strangely endearing behaviour has just been broadcast live to a quarter of a million Canadians. But then again, confounding expectations and getting up people's noses is exactly what the Prodigy, and Keith in particular, are all about.
The Prodigy have been in Canada less than 15 hours. They only have another 22 to go. Strap yourselves in: it's going to be a hell of a ride.
The story is pretty familiar by now. Dancefloor buddies Flint and Thornhill approach the young DJ at Braintree's The Barn night club in 1991, hoping to get a mix tape off him. The DJ, Liam, obliges, but sticks a selection of his own compositions on Side Two. Blown away by his tunes, Keith and Leeroy offer to dance onstage to Liam's music - happily, he's just signed a record deal with Beggars Banquet subsidiary XL. A mutual friend introduces the trio to Maxim, an MC weaned on reggae sound systems. They don't meet until the night of their first gig, in east London. It all goes swimmingly, and the Prodigy is born.
After a string of largely instrumental rave anthems make the band a regular feature in the upper reaches of the single chart, and with their manic appearances at the huge parties of the early '90s becoming an increasingly trumpeted attraction, Liam finds himself staring out from a stage in Scotland at 15,000 E'd up clubbers and decides it's all far too easy. Ditching the format that's brought him and the band fame and fortune, but not a great deal of respect, Howlett goes back to the drawing board and creates a brooding masterpiece of dark dance majesty. Trailed by the massive single 'No Good (Start The Dance)', 'Music For The Jilted Generation' is salivated over by fans and critics alike, goes straight into the album charts at Number One and is nominated for the 1994 Mercury Music Prize. Liam proves it's possible to be both credibleand successful at the same time, but he unwittingly gives himself a bit of a headache: how does he top that?
Then, at the start of last year, a new Prodigy record punches its way out of radio speakers and into the national consciousness like no other before. 'Firestarter' sounds pretty strange anyway, but the vocal, from Keith, is coruscating. Steadfastly refusing to appear on Top Of The Pops, the band end up forcing the Beeb to screen the stark black and white video for the track when it debuts at Number One. With Keith cavorting around a poorly lit underground tunnel, screeching about being "the twisted Firestarter", the clip arouses more complaints than TOTP have ever had before. And in the midst of the attendant tabloid fury, the Prodigy suddenly become Britain's most controversial pop stars.
One single later, the genuinely unsettling 'Breathe' (their best-selling release to date), and it's time for album number three. Only by now the buzz around the group, particularly in America, is huge. Hailed as the figureheads of a new British invasion of 'electronica' or 'digi-rock' by the US media, the Prodigy blow out a planned triple-bill Stateside tour with the Chemical Brothers and the Orb. The album is delayed. The group are reported to have turned down the chance to hitch a ride across the globe in the company of U2, and the rumours that Liam is having difficulty finishing the record gather momentum.
Then suddenly, the band's UK label announce a firm release date: journalists and industry people are flown in a fleet of helicopters to a farm in the Hertfordshire countryside to hear some of the new record, "The Fat Of The Land'. It's slower, more hip-hop-oriented than before, with more vocal tracks and guitars, and is more than enough to push them ever further up fame's greasy pole.
And, confirming that they're ready, the group finally schedule some North American gigs. Which brings us to Toronto. Toronto is a sprawling and surprisingly green city, home to four million people. Sat on the banks of Lake Ontario, an inland water mass bigger than many countries, the city can lay impressive claim to the world's tallest free-standing structure, the CN Tower. Beneath the revolving restaurant near its top, a section of floor has been removed and replaced with glass. Visitors are encouraged to walk across the three-inch thick panes while looking 1,500ft straight down - an unearthly experience lent extra weirdness by the gentle, but far from imperceptible swaying you can feel. If the CN Tower was rigid it would snap, so the designers had to make sure it had enough give in it to move a bit in the constant winds.
Keith hasn't got time on this visit to Toronto, but he'd love to walk across the glass floor in the CN Tower. It's the sort of 'buzz' that rules in his life. The same sort of feeling he gets when he's on stage with the Prodigy, dancing to Liam's breakbeat-fuelled headfuck tunes or, better still, bellowing his own twisted lyrics across the top of them. But when the band goes months without playing live, as has been the case for much of the past year, and Keith needs to hit these highs somehow, he'll turn to his beloved Fireblade motorbike. And do everything he can do to get to the point where he almost crashes.
"Every now and then you have something that's a near-death situation," Keith explains quite matter of factly. "I used to enjoy crashing as much as riding. The slow motion trip that you get as things are coming towards you, and the way your head works under those situations, when you are doing speeds of, like, 180mph... I imagine sometimes how fast my back wheel is spinning at that speed, and kind of look at bridges as they're coming up, and imagine hitting'em. You can almost imagine how far you would fly if you hit something stationary at that speed. At those speeds your eyes kind of flicker, and what you see is gone as you see it. And that's quite a good little buzz. "
"I used to do motocross," he continues. "I used to like to ride until I was so fatigued I felt like my forearms weren't gonna hold on to the bike. So that when you went into the jumps you were kind of unsure if you were gonna be able to hold on any longer. And I used to like that sort of tempting fate situation. "
Liam worries about Keith when he's out on his bike. He's had first-hand experience of his friend's predilection for pushing himself and his machine to the limits.
"I was on his bike doin' 160 down the A12, and I was thinking: 'Fuck, I'm not gonna go much faster than this,'" Howlett recalls. "I was in the fast lane, and I turned around and there was Keith, going past me at 180. This was in the middle of the day, there was loads of cars around, and he passed me about ten inches away from me. He's a nutter on a bike, but he's got good control. But yeah, I do worry about him a lot. "
Liam prefers cars to bikes, but he doesn't think four-wheeled transport is going to prolong Keith's lifespan. "He drives a fucking car like he drives a bike," says the production and keyboard genius. "It got to the stage where I didn't actually want to get in a car with him. He'd try and get through really small spaces. I've had a couple of crashes with him in cars. but he's not stupid. He used to be stupid, but he's not any more. He did have a crash, but he chilled out after that. It was good really, he needed that. And after that he calmed down, but he's got worse on the bike. But that's all part of his personality, it brings that out. "
And it's Keith's personality - specifically, the parts of it that enabled him to write, perform and record the vocal to 'Firestarter' - that has been the decisive factor in the Prodigy's rise to the top of the pile. Without overlooking the contributions of Maxim and Leeroy (of which more later), it's Keith's instantly recognisable image and eviscerating vocal display that set the band on their current path. Leeroy says that "all the lyrics [in 'Firestarter'] are just totally Keith. " He also reckons that Keith's a watery person, and that he gets affected by the full moon. Liam, for his part, reckons that "without his drive, and the fact that he's a brilliant performer - he's the best live performer in England - it wouldn't have worked. " But for Keith it wasn't simply a question of capturing something of his moods and emotions: in a manner that has absolutely nothing to do with the song's commercial success, 'Firestarter' changed Keith's life.
"When I was so very, very small - eight, nine, ten, when tunes stirred me up more than anything else - I wanted to smack my head on the wall. I really wanted to hit my head on the wall and stuff," he remembers. "I just couldn't... get it... out. And that's what's happening now. I know that kid is coming out now. That's why doing the vocals is so cool, because it's another way out. And that's why I think it's so honest in a way, because I can relate that to something no one used to see. People used to hear it, and someone used to have to clear up afterwards, but no one used to see that. I don't think people realise how honest it is. "
"Keith's dad's quite successful, and because Keith was a little mod and then he was a biker, there was such a clash there," Leeroy postulates the following day. "I imagine that his dad expected a bit more from him than he got. But now the band's come along, he's finally realised he can do so much. "
"When I first did 'Firestarter', I felt: 'Fucking hell, Liam has made me like myself for the first time,'" Keith confesses, animatedly. "For the first time I'd liked something I'd done. Not just musically, but personally. It's hard to explain in just one sentence, but from that moment on I loved Liam to bits even more. 'Fuckin' 'ell, you can't do that, you've cheated my own mind!' I got home and I put it on and I thought: 'I fuckin' like this,' and I felt this massive wave of emotion... "
Did you cry?
This child-scarer, this twisted firestarter, this motorbike-mayhem trouble-causer clearly isn't keen to break the unwritten golden rule of male behaviour and admit to a blubbing session, even when hit by an event so profound it caused him to re-evaluate the evidently low opinion he sometimes has of himself.
But there's a side to Keith that the cameras and the tabloid hacks won't see and can't comprehend: for all his speed-freak adrenalin rushes and his on-stage menace, Keith Flint has a softer side. For example, he's really into gardening. ("You won't be able to find Keith for a week because he's out in the garden," confides Leeroy. "Or he's out digging a pond in his garden that's four feet deep and 20-odd foot long. He loves his gardening. ") He listens to Pink Floyd on his walkman when he's in the bath. During the few hours VOX spends with him in Toronto, he wanders off into the garden of a derelict house to get a closer look at some squirrels and, later, attempts to make polite, if excitable, conversation with a skunk. And, even when the humour turns a deep shade of blue in the back of the tour bus, Keith remains easygoing and personable company. he is, in short, a lovely man. We'll try again.
You did, didn't you?
"There was a tear... " he pauses, half-smiling, staring into space. "...the throat went taut... it made me highly emotional. That was quite mental. An absolutely mental feeling. And that," he vows, turning to fix me squarely in the eye, "Is as honest as it gets. "
Arrow Hall is a massive, barrel-vaulted shed on the outskirts of Toronto. Close to the airport and located on what appears to be an industrial estate overflowing with bingo halls, it's far from ideal setting for the Prodigy's auspicious first gig on this 'break America' tour. With neither the intimacy of the originally planned club show - the 1,700 tickets sold out in a staggering seven minutes - nor the wide-open spaces a festival affords, the venue offers an uneasy compromise.
Clearly, it would've been easier and, in terms of reaching a new audience, much more productive, for the band to have bitten the corporate bullet and accepted the offer extended to them to take part in the year's biggest world tour. But Liam Howlett delights in making things difficult for himself.
"I like U2, I think they're fuckin' really good band, but it wasn't hard decision, we didn't sit there umm-ing and ahh-ing about it," he explains, mulling over the Prodigy's rejection of an offer to support the Irish rock behemoths. "I personally though we weren't ready to do that, and we wanted to crack America on our own level. If we don't crack America, I won't be sitting here thinking: 'Fuckin' 'ell, we should've done that U2 tour,' because that's compromising, and if we don't crack it, we don't crack it. I don't care. "
Howlett surveys the filling space of Arrow Hall with calm detachment. The in-house DJ is playing a selection of rave and techno tracks in ten minutes before the band's set, something Liam's not entirely comfortable with.
"We tried to have hip-hop before going on, but it just didn't work," he muses. It's not just the involvement of seminal American rapper Kool Keith (whose 'Dr Octagon' release on Mo' Wax last year is probably his best known work in Britain) on 'The Fat Of The Land' that pitches the new record closer to hip-hop than the Prodigy have been before. Liam, Maxim and Leeroy were all deeply involved in the first real wave of hip-hop that broke on British shores in the mid-to-late '80s. Liam's formative experiences as a DJ were all based in the idiom: indeed, when he sent off his taped entry to a hip-hop DJ mixing competition on London radio station GLR in 1987, his skills were developing so quickly it was only a matter of days before he'd surpassed himself again. A second entry under another name was promptly dispatched before the deadline. He won both third and first prizes.
"When people were talking about the Prodigy being techno, that was a loose term, but we didn't want to be labelled 'techno', because I wasn't as stupid as to think we were," Howlett postulates. "We weren't ever techno. I've never written a techno record in me life. "
"I love the humour in the music," continues the man who rates Skint as his favourite label. "There's definitely a bit of humour in what we do. I mean, 'Smack My Bitch Up' - you can't think I'm serious about writing as record about smacking women up. there's humour involved in the tunes, it's got to like that. "
'Smack My Bitch Up' is the first song of the live set, and the first song on 'The Fat Of The Land'. For a band that trade on aggressive live performance and have no female members, the Prodigy have a pretty healthy boy: girl ratio in their audience. But with the group's wholehearted embrace of metal theatrics and hip-hop braggadocio, there will, inevitably, be those who will worry that they've bought into their remit the often misogynist attitudes that are alarmingly rife in those musical genres.
"I think people that come to our show know what it's all about, somehow. I mean, you don't write a track thinking: 'Smack my bitch up, that fucking ho done my 'ead in so I'm gonna write a track about smackin' 'er up, fuck her'," Keith reasons. "If you don't write it with that in mind and you don't perform it with that in mind, I don't think it comes across like that. It's the aggression of the tune, what it's suggesting, not what it's telling you to do. No, I would hate to think that it got too male-y. "
"But I dunno - a lot of the females who are into the music seem to enjoy that. 'I'm not a girly-girly, I'm as aggressive as you, I'm gonna stage-dive, I'm gonna be down the front going fuckin'...' And I think that's cool. I think girls aren't girlies and more. "
But Maverick, their Madonna-owned US label, are already getting itchy about the track. There's a real danger of misinterpretation, of something as inconsequential as a song title getting in the way of the band's mass acceptance. Which is, of course, precisely why they called it that. It's just another means of scaring people off. See, the Prodigy don't want to get too big.
"Oasis are the biggest band in Britain, the Spice Girls are one of the biggest bands," Liam declaims tetchily. "The Prodigy are not, and we don't wanna be. We wanna be a band that's producing stuff that people don't like. Let me explain it this way: I said to my Dad: 'Do you like Oasis?', and he said he did. That's number one wrong point for the Prodigy: it just won't work with us. Everyone likes Oasis. I don't want everyone to like the Prodigy. The Prodigy is too hard for some people: good. I want it to be like that. GOOD. "
"All I care about is the people that's in my family," he continues. "I'm selfish on that level. I'm not one of these people who think the fans come first. If I felt like that I would probably have written a hundred more 'Start the Dance's. Well, I'll never write another record like that again, because I'm not into stuff like that any more. And if people aren't with this record, then they won't like the Prodigy any more. Because this is us now, this is what's happening with us, right now. I've constantly got to push it for me own good. "
"I swear to God man, just being round Liam's house the last few months, I couldn't live like that," Leeroy sighs with a shake of his head, recalling the pressure Liam was under during the months it took to complete the album. "It just don't stop. The fax machine's like someone's unrolled toilet paper over the floor. And it can be strange when you're just a normal bloke and someone comes knocking on your door at one o'clock in the morning, saying: 'Are you having trouble with Satan? You know, 'Fire', 'Firestarter', because if you're having trouble with Satan, I can help you.'"
"There's all this stuff on the Internet - "Let's take a trip to Braintree' - and there's like pictures of Liam's fucking house," he continues, as near to being angry as he seems to get. "You couldn't actually find his house just from this thing, they haven't given directions as such, but just having pictures of your house on the Internet... "
Leeroy tails off, unable to comprehend either the intrusiveness of the cyber-snoopers, or the tolerance Liam shows towards them. Suddenly, it isn't quite so difficult to see why the Prodigy don't want to be any bigger than they already are.
Backstage at Arrow Hall, a transformation is occurring. Behind firmly closed doors, in the company of the other members of the band, the man his mother calls Keith Palmer is going through the gradual process of becoming Maxim Reality. The demure, softly spoken 30-year old offstage is donning his green satin kilt, leather gauntlet, metal teeth and warpaint and, as each element of his disguise snaps into place, a different personality emerges.
"It's a real Jekyll and Hyde thing with him," Leeroy affirms. "The transformation takes place gradually as I get changed," Maxim explains a few hours before the gig. "But it's totally different personality. If you asked me now what the personality was on-stage, I couldn't really tell you. Because I switch off from myself being here. It's just practice over the years, just knowing when to switch it on. Once I'm ready, I've got my kilt on and the and the mic in my hand and my gauntlet on, I feel like a bigger person. I feel like a warrior, in a way. And once I'm transformed I feel like I'm there, I'm going out to conquer something. "
All four members of the band are pretty subdued on their own; it's only when they're together on stage that they actually become the Prodigy. Liam's shy, Keith can be prone to self-deprecating introspection, Leeroy disguises his thoughtful and perceptive nature with a veneer of laddish behaviour. But Maxim makes the lot of 'em look like hellraisers by appointment to the devil himself. With his voice a subdued Midlands mumble, his eyes darting around when not firmly encased behind some enormous shades, Maxim could be Snoop Doggy Dogg's reserved Peterborough cousin. The last to join the group, he maintains that he never had difficulties fitting in, but, then again, he's used to being the outsider.
"I've always seen myself as a bit different. When I went to see the Meteors [rockabilly punk band fairly popular in the late '80s - History Ed] or whoever, people were always wondering: 'What are you going there for?' I always moved in different circles and my inspirations and vibes came from so many different angles. " The gig, as is the norm for the Prodigy these days, is electrifying. The four disparate offstage characters are united in a focused, frenzied whole. For well over an hour, the pace, the energy, the excitement won't subside.
It's easy to understand how Liam can tell a Canadian radio reporter earlier in the day that he's "addicted" to performing live; easy to comprehend Leeroy's assertion that "no drug I've ever done, nothing has even scratched the surface of that buzz you get onstage. "
The Prodigy live for these moments: it's almost as if the records are a sideshow, an accidental spin-off from the main business of playing live.
From the photographer's pit at the foot of the stage, Maxim's transformation is pretty disturbing to behold. Even though he's ditched the contact lenses he's been using for years (he thinks American audiences new to the band will assume he nicked the idea off Marilyn Manson, that he's failing to be truly himself), his eyes look completely different. During 'Gabba', the full-on nutty metal/rave track that closes the set, he's gesticulating wildly, pointing to specific people in the crowd in the manner of the pup drunk on a Friday night who's asking you out for a fight. Only Maxim's moving at a phenomenal speed, his open skirt flailing behind him as he barks into the microphone. Eerily, he seems not to sweat.
"I want to get up people's noses and bug 'em," he explains, trying to get to the heart of what his performance means. "I want to know how they deal with a black guy with make up, nail varnish, silver teeth and a kilt. What category do you put him in? That does something to me, 'cos I'm just saying: 'I'm me, try and deal with me.' It's just about being yourself. "
It's the morning after the night before, and Leeroy is tucking into a full-scale room service breakfast. The band are pacing themselves - the tour's only just underway. There had been talk of meeting up with Supergrass, who also played in Toronto last night: the two groups got to know each other during the Australian Big Day Out touring festival in January, and there's a big mutual appreciation society developing. Liam rates 'Richard III' as the best thing he's heard. But the Arrow Hall show left everyone drained and, come lam, they were all tucked up in bed.
An arresting 6'5'', Leeroy doesn't transform himself with props and accoutrements, or feel the need to spike or dye his hair. Even Liam gets changed before going on stage - his white shirt and loosely knotted ties a parody of the 'boy genius' tag he had to live with through the early years of the group. But Leeroy is the only of the quartet to appear to be pretty much the same guy onstage as off.
"I can only put it down to being big. I always stood out and never had to look a c*** to do it," he reasons. "I was never the kid who went to fancy dress parties. There were a couple of photo shoots I'm not in, 'cos the photographer wanted me to wear body paint and a leaf and a pair of pants. Fuck off! You want me, you get me as I am. "
Both Maxim and Leeroy are working on their own music - and both of them have built 16-track studios in their homes to help make the process of writing and recording as easy as possible. Maxim's already got a deal with XL, and he's using spare time on tour to write lyrics to fit the complex instrumental tracks he's already completed. Sounding like a cross between the phat bass hip-hop production style of a Pete Rock or an Erick Sermon meshed with an unmistakable Howlett influence, Maxim's LP should keep more than just Prodigy fans happy when released next year. Leeroy, meanwhile, has just submitted his first finished demo to the label and is waiting with interest to see what they make of it.
"It's almost like a little Wu-Tang set-up," he grins. "It can only get better for all of us. " An accomplished DJ and burgeoning producer, he must feel more than a twinge of jealousy that he hasn't yet had the chances that Maxim and Keith have had within the band: chances to show that he's something more that 'that big bloke who dances with the Prodigy'.
"Not at all, not at all," he insists. "It's all four of us that make up the unit, and it's just a progression. There's no need for me to be another Keith or Maxim because people would see through it. It's not like: 'Call Leeroy, we've got a gig.' I'm involved in everything from day to day, from naming albums to choosing covers. So I don't feel I'm just a dancer. I don't even really consider myself a dancer as such - I just get up and let off, really. "
Leeroy sees himself as "the band's agony aunt", though he could just as well be their astrologer. He's solid and dependable, the one the rest bring their problems and frustrations to. He'll always see the good in someone, always try to see the reasons behind the most senseless action and understand the other person's point of view. And he believes that the group was destined to work from before they met.
"Keith was going to go to Thailand for six months, but a few weeks before he was going he had grief with his visa," Leeroy recalls. "He got that sorted out, then his nan died and he had to cancel the trip. And it was two or three months after that that we formed the band. If he'd gone there I don't think the band would've happened. It is definitely a destiny thing. I mean, four people who in six-and-half years have never had an argument...?"
It's time to pack up and move on. San Francisco beckons, a club environment, another sell-out crowd, another buzz. Soon it'll be back to Britain, and what Keith describes as the"honour" of playing Glastonbury. In the mayhem and confusion a hectic schedule can bring, it's hard to focus. But Leeroy, the calm eye at the centre of the Prodigy's storm, is the only one who really understands how important the group has become.
"It's hard to say this," he offers quietly, "but I feel like I've always known the potential of this band. There are a few times I've actually said to the others in some way: 'I don't think you quite realise what we've got here. "
"It's a big thing for us releasing this record in England and hoping it's gonna go down well in England, and showing it in America's face and seeing what happens," Liam concludes. "I'm proud of this album, I think it's a fucking good album, and it's the sound of us, it represents everything we're about - the hip-hop, the hardness, everything. "
Which is precisely why Oasis and their ilk are gonna have to start looking over their shoulders. The Prodigy are men who aren't afraid to say what they think, play what they like, drive like certifiable lunatics and risk incurring the wrath of Andrea Dworkin on live TV. Now that's what we call a rock'n'roll band.