In the second of this two-parter with PRODIGY'S LIAM HOWLETT, NME has a word, Hello!-stylee, about his new country home, his pal Keith and his future. Squirestarters: STEPHEN DALTON (words) STEVE GULLICK (photos)
A crisp winter stillness hangs over Prodigy-world. Liam Howlett emerges from his palatial new barn conversion amid the rolling fields outside Chelmsford, surveying the fat of the land in all its frosted glory. Nothing can spoil the idyllic tranquillity of his pastoral fortress of solitude.
Nothing, that is, except his new neighbour. For Keith Flint has just moved in next door, and he is hacking down a hedge with his turbo-nutter chainsaw, shattering the primeval hush, blasting Mother Nature's handiwork into shrapnel. Even when he does the gardening, it seems Keith is still punk rock personified. He's the cereal killer, shrub destroyer, twisted privet butcher.
But later, over drinks with NME in an East End pub, Liam seems keen to dispel Keith's self-confessed image as a horticultural homebody.
"Naaah, he takes the piss with things like that," Liam shrugs. "Basically, he bought a new house and of course he didn't want to have a block of mud in his garden, so he put a few flowers in to make it look nice. Then all of a sudden, he's a gardener. "
Surely you can be totally hardcore and still love gardening?
"I know, and Keith does. I pay for people to do my garden. I'm getting a Japanese garden built at the moment, but Keith is out there cutting a fucking hedge down with a chainsaw! He's out there today, without a doubt. If I ring him now he'll be up a ladder with a chainsaw in his hand. "
And it's Keith, of course, who has been crucial to the Prodigy's globe-stomping success as their chief focal point, teen-tyrant icon and kiddy-scaring future-punk folk devil. Liam says, "Keith's chilled out a lot these days, but catch him on an off day and he's still aggressive as fuck. " And apparently the loose-cannon singer wasn't too happy with that Lucozade advert's resemblance to his 'Firestarter' persona.
"I can see Keith frustation at being taken as a caricature," nods Liam, "but there's no other pop stars out there where you can draw a circle and two little triangles on their head and you've got Keith. If you went on a rampage you could fucking sue everyone, because I've seen Keith's image used in loads of places. But I didn't think of slapping a lawsuit on them, I just phoned them up and said, 'What the fuck are you doing?' They tried to say they couldn't actually see any comparison, obviously from a legal point of view. I just said, 'You'd better send ten fucking crates of Lucozade out here straight away!' And they did!"
Was Keith taking the piss with his slaphead gargoyle image at Reading?
"We're definitely not taking the piss, we're fucking serious," Liam scowls. "I think what Keith said at Reading was, 'I'm just gonna shave this off and throw it away', and I was like, 'Do it!' But people shouldn't view that as an image change, that was just a one-off. I'm sure he was happy with it, but to me that didn't feel as natural as what he did before. "
Would you have to pull rank if Keith decided to wear a Ronald McDonald costume, say, or a dress?
"I respect anything Keith says, I trust his judgement. Keith would never do anything as comical as Ronald McDonald, and if he did, he'd do it with style. I still think Keith is, without a doubt, one of the best performers in the world. You can't compare Keith to anyone, the Pistols or no-one. He always delivers what's rocking. "
Even oft-voiced parallells between Keith and John Lydon do not impress Liam.
"Absolute bollocks! The hair doesn't even look the same. I can't draw any comparison apart from the attitude, he doesn't look like him or sound like him. Lydon could sing, he could follow melodies and Keith can't! Haha! But we're hoping he can develop that for the next album, hahahahahaha!"
Liam's mix album, 'Dirt Chamber Sessions Volume One', is out next month, then March will see the Prodigy play the final mop-up shows of their never-ending mega-tour, in South Africa. But already the Prodge mainman is working on tracks in his new home studio, catching up on time lost becoming global superstars, redefining the formula.
So does this mean the electronic punks have a future after all? Hasn't Liam claimed that 'The Fat Of The Land' was the final Prodigy album? "It still is," he nods. "Until I get back into the studio and create something which I feel is worthy of taking to another stage, that has to be it. I still feel like, at any point, we could turn around and say, 'That's it'. We have to be like that, we can't go on for the sake of it. But it's not like the other three sit at home and wait for me to deliver songs. I live right next door to Keith, he's round every time in the studio giving me vibes and writing lyrics. It's all what comes out of those sessions, whether that is gonna be solid and worthy of taking to another level. "
So the Prodge's future is still up in the air?
"It's always been in the air from day one. When I did 'Charly' I thought I wouldn't even do an album. But once we'd reached that stage it was, 'Am I going to record another album?' Then once I'd done '...Jilted Generation' I thought that was the last album, until I recorded 'Firestarter'. It's just a matter of getting back in the studio and seeing what happens. I really don't think that long ahead. Like this mix album, it popped out of nowhere from a Radio 1 session. It's coming out because of the buzz I got out of doing it. That's the way an album will evolve. "
And the true test of any future releases, claims Liam, is whether they annoy as many people as they excite. Prodigy are putting the generation gap back into the post-tribal stadium punk.
"The majority of any Prodigy album, and certainly all the singles, will draw a line between the generations," Liam says. "I don't need to tell people we're not making pop music like fucking Boyzone. "
Welcome, once again, to the bizarre inverted logic of Prodge-world. So if their next album sells a fraction of the ten-million-busting 'The Fat Of The Land', would that make them really 'hardcore' and credible'?
"To be honest, when I write the next album, the success for me is the minute I shut the studio door," Liam insistes. "It really didn't matter if 'The Fat Of The Land' didn't sell, it was the fact that I'd finished the fucking record and it represented a year of my life. But the thing with any Prodigy record is it's got to blow up, it's got to have an impact, it's no good if it's not heard. So yeah, I'd be a liar to say I don't want to sell records. I just don't want my records bought by everyone, like Oasis and The Verve. I like the whole unapproachable-ness of this band. "
You can argue with Liam's logic, but not with burning conviction. Because, by his standards, selling out stadiums is not the same as selling out principles.
"Not in my mind, because we're so careful in what we do. My definition of selling out is letting people use your music for adverts, normalising your music. If you saw the shit that was turned down EVERY WEEK from our management office: remixing, production, adverts, films. Every major film that comes out in America wants Prodigy in it, they all want that 'Breathe' sound for their fucking crap $200million special effects film...
"Selling out is something personal, you know when you've done something for the wrong reason. We've done a few gigs for the money, and they've been fucking shit. That's a lesson that springs up in my head. We've always kept it real to ourselves. "
Ultimately, the direction the Prodigy follow now falls between two stark choices: No Sell Out or No Future. Take your pick.
In the meantime, Liam and Keith have just bought a warehouse flat in London clubland's nerve centre of Hoxton Square. By dividing his week between his country retreat and the urban jungle, Liam hopes to "soak up the street" for inspiration, reminds himself why he made music in the first place. The fat of the land meets the buzz of the city. "It's got a roof garden too," grins Liam. "So Keith will be happy. "
The Prodigy are dusting off their boots, going back to their roots. The resident of Hoxton Square are advisted to buy earplugs immediately. "