Keith Flint is choking on peanuts. "Facking hell!" sputters The Prodigy frontman. "I guess it must be the surprise of outselling U2." We're discussing the blockbuster performance of The Prodigy's latest album, Invaders Must Die, which is flying off shelves three times as fast as No Line On The Horizon.
"Do you know, that's something I wouldn't normally notice," says Flint, having loudly and laboriously cleared his throat. "One of the guys at the label told me the other day [about the healthy sales]. People involved in the whole 'admin' side of the thing -- they see those stats and they love it. For me, really and truly, that stuff doesn't matter."
I'd been warned about Flint. Apparently, he's a thorny interviewee -- infamous for turning the tables on journalists and assailing them with questions about whatever album The Prodigy are promoting at that moment ("just make sure you've heard the record!" pleaded more than one PR person). Moreover, his management has made it clear that, on no account, are we to touch upon his 'personal life' -- a reference to Flint's well-publicised drug binge late last year, which, according to newspaper reports, culminated in the singer jogging around his home town of Braintree, Essex, without any clothes on.
As it turns out, Flint is ... if not exactly cuddly (his speaking voice is disconcertingly similar to the football-hooligan growl he employs on Firestarter) then certainly not the journalist-devouring ogre he's been painted as. And yes, he is happy to talk about the 'personal' stuff, drugs and all.
"It's well documented that during the first five months [of the recording of Invaders Must Die] things got a bit out of control," he says. "It was lads in a studio being quite excited about writing again. I think we were buzzing to be in there. I was enjoying quite a bit of freedom."
Still, there's such a thing as too much freedom. Romping in the nip around suburban Essex was the final straw -- Flint has been sober ever since. "Me, personally -- I'm clean at the moment. Out of necessity rather than want. As far as actual drugs -- and I can only talk about myself -- I'm not down with that right now. I'm 'aving a bit of a break to make sure I'm firing for the tour. That's more important than the thousands of nights I've wasted."
With its bludgeoning beats and air of Wagnerian menace, Invaders Must Die is a quintessential Prodigy album in every aspect but one: it is thoroughly lacking in controversy. How far the group has come from the days when Smack My Bitch Up had the moral majority foaming at the chops, or when the Baby's Got A Temper, with its 'ironic' references to date-rate drug Rohypnol, put Flint and company in the firing line of women's rights groups.
"The sad thing that came out of all that is that we've a 'controversialiser' always switched on now," says the vocalist. "We're constantly going, 'No, maybe we should take that bit out'. We're actually very wary of it. Let's be honest -- any kid can press a button on a lap-top today and see, listen or read anything. And I do mean anything. So saying 'smack my bitch up' in a track -- that will never be controversial again."
All in all, it's been a tempestuous few years for The Prodigy. At the turn of the decade, it seemed the group was destined for a messy split. Following the global success of 1996's Fat Of the Land, the block-rocking behemoth that not only spawned a new genre (call it techno-metal) but managed, via Smack My Bitch Up and Firestarter, to turn the band into the international super-villains of dance music, they hit a creative dry patch. With Liam Howlett, The Prodigy's musical fulcrum, apparently in the grip of writer's block and the rest of the group agitating to get back to the studio, relationships began to break down.
"It's a massive subject. It kind of needs its own interview," says Flint. "Me and [singer/dancer] Maxim were banging on to Liam to get into the studio. And he wasn't ready for that. So I started writing some Prodigy stuff, which then became solo stuff. And then, in the middle of that, Liam was like, 'OK, I'm ready'. And what with the lack of communication and some people who really didn't do anything to pull the situation together, well, it was a bad time."
On the other hand, at least The Prodigy functioned as a touring unit -- plus, they were on the receiving end of a charm offensive from Madonna (she would ultimately sign The Prodigy to her Maverick label in the US). "I'll say this for Madonna -- when she wanted the band, she didn't send her workforce over, waving her magic wand," says Flint. "She arrived at the office and said, 'I want The Prodigy'. I respect her for that. She came to loads of shows in the States -- and she didn't turn up with big entourages and security and be like, 'Make way for Madonna, the queen of pop'. She was real. I gotta give her that."
Meanwhile, tensions were still ratcheting up. Matters reached a low point when Howlett scrapped what was to have been the follow up to Fat of the Land and told the rest of the band that, in the studio at least, they were excess to requirements. Locking himself away for six months, he recorded the group's fourth album, Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned essentially as a solo project -- inviting Flint and the rest back only when he was finished.
"If people want to think of it as a solo LP for Liam, well, I don't mind," says Flint. "I look at it as a Prodigy album. I facking love that album. When I put [hit single] Spitfire on, it blew my mind. This guy had written a baseball bat -- it's like his arm had come out of the speaker and smacked me around the 'ead."
So is all sweetness and light in Prodigy land today? "Nah, man," he says with a laugh. "At the end of the... we're basically grumpy c***s."
Prodigy will make their Slane Castle debut tomorrow; though, truth be told, Flint seems vaguely underwhelmed by the prospect. "We've been in this game for a while now, so I'm quite aware of the venues. It's always buzzing in Ireland. As much as doing Slane is a massive event, I'm as happy to come and play to a thousand people in Ireland, 'cos it's always banging."
There's a shared history between The Prodigy and headliners Oasis. Howlett is brother-in-law to Liam Gallagher (each is married to one of the Appleton sisters from All Saints). And the two bands have been friends since breaking through to international stardom in the mid 90s.
"I've got a lot of respect for Noel and Liam," says Flint. "I've hung out with Liam a lot of times. He's a geezer, he really is. With Liam, what you see is what you get. I love him for it. That's what it's about -- you've got to have the Liam Gallaghers out there, you know what I mean?"
Flint also speaks highly of Dublin comedy-popsters Fight Like Apes, whom The Prodigy hand-picked as support on their 2008 British tour. "They're an awesome band," says Flint. "It's always hard to find groups who can tour with The Prodigy."
Not, he says, that he's the kind to get pally with the opening act. "You know, it's very easy to have a few beers with people in the music industry and suddenly be friends for life -- 'Let's work together!' All of a sudden, you're trying to form a super group with a few people you've met in a club. I'm not into that, myself. Those aren't your mates. Your mates are the people who have been around 10 years or more."
Invaders Must Die is out now. Prodigy play Slane Castle tomorrow