In one year, the prodigy have taken their live show to more than a million people around the world. As their mammoth tour nears its end, the big question is - where next? THE walls in the Prodigy's dressing room are vibrating. The sonic boom of the funk drenched breaks, rolling b-lines and super sharp lyrics of The Beastie Boys' 'The Move' rumble through the floor, sending shock waves through those present. In one corner wild eyed MC Maxim leans forward, head nodding to the beats. Programme rocker Liam Howlett stands next to him clutching a bottle of water and smiling with full appreciation of the ear-splitting grooves. Standing hunched over the CD mixer, gargantuan dancer Leeroy Thornhill inserts another disc. With a flick of the wrist he cuts from The Beasties into the dope 'Bring Hip Hop Back' by Cypher Complete from the 'Lyricist Lounge' compilation. As the smoke from the spliff hanging between his lips smarts his eyes, Leeroy cuts between two CDs in an attempt at virtual-scratching... and loses it completely. "Ah fuck it!" he laughs as he quickly pushes the volume control and sends the subsonics dangerously close to ear bleed level. Liam laughs, guitarist Gizz Butt pops his head through the door to check out what the commotion is about and Maxim moves forward to take control of the decks. All the while Keith Flint lies stretched out on a sofa, semi-comatose beneath a sleeping bag, seemingly oblivious to the Prodigy's own private mixing championships raising the roof off the proverbial sucker. Only a few months ago he declared "I just love the energy - no, I love the fatigue of it all. " Today however the fatigue - or boredom - of constant gigging seems to have worn him out. Add to this the obvious malaise that's hit both band and crew and the odds don't look too good for that infamous Prodigy buzz.
"Actually we've just to decided to stop gigging," Liam reveals, "We're going to finish the dates left and then knock it on the head. " For someone who has lived his life for the adrenalised rush of performing live the look of relief on Liam's face is surprising. But there's a very real reason why the band need to stop. For starters Liam is itching to get back in the studio to record some new tracks. Whether or not Liam is planning a new Prodigy album is however still a mystery. At this point he's simply aiming to get recording again.
"I reckon the only reason I put the last album out was because the press were constantly on my back about it," he says, "There were tracks which I never got round to finishing which I might go back to. At the time though the press just kept going on about an album, and until that point I hadn't even thought about one. I was just making tracks and... well, snowboarding really. " Not that any of the band have had much time to indulge in snowboarding recently with their punishing schedule. Which brings us back to the Belgian port of Zebrugge where the backstage area - constructed with the flimsiest pre-fab behind the main stage - is bustling with the other bands on the bill. Artists inspired by the Prodigy's live approach, like Headrillaz and The Freestylers hang out with Aphrodite, Natural Born Chillaz and Dust Junkies. No doubt one of the attractions is Nicky 'MC Tunes' Dust's supply of killer grass. More likely is the presence of Natalie Imbruglia who sits with the breakbeat massive. Tongues everywhere are drooling. And the Prodge and entourage are no exception. Rewind the clock a few hours and Keith could be found hanging out by Natalie Imbruglia's production room.
"Just give me a moment with her," he laughs. Sadly, when his chance came in the bar he was nowhere to be seen. This band really need a rest.
It's a tame pre-gig affair for the Prodigy. There's none of the practical joking from Leeroy that usually surrounds proceedings. Indeed there's little of the band's usual good humour full stop. The normally jocular gang appear distant from each other; the beers, chocolate, fruit and cereal on the rider are barely touched. But then again, after you've played in Beirut and with dates in Chile, Argentina and Brazil to come, what buzz can Belgium possibly offer?
"I couldn't believe the reviews of T in the Park," complains Gizz. "I reckon we did a really good gig but the press slated us. Just because we didn't do any new stuff. But the thing is, we want to play in Britain because no matter where we play, the home audience is always the best. British crowds are fucking brilliant. Not like LA or wherever, where they're all too cool. " Playing for the "too cool" audiences in Hollywood is one of the downfalls for a band who have made a point of playing anywhere there's an interest. However it's a policy which has had its rewards. "A lot of bands, especially from where we were coming from, wouldn't play in places that were out of the way," says Liam. "Like some of the really smaller places and countries that we've been to. But we did and people were like 'Shit, we don't get many bands here', which really stumped us. But we went there, it rocked, we got the right reaction and we owe it to those people to go back there again. " Which is how the band whose last album outsold Radiohead's 'OK Computer' by a gigantic eight to one, whose total UK sales for the first week of the album's release was more than the sales of the rest of the chart put together and who topped the charts in 22 countries, come to be playing in a town best known for a ferry disaster.
It's a stripped down Prodigy that take to the stage without the theatrical over-indulgence. Things had gone too far in that direction, they reckon, and Keith even got stuck in that hamster ball once. Maxim had problems too: "I had this metal gauntlet but it made me sweat loads, so I wore surgical gloves underneath," he explains. "The only problem is my hand had shrivelled like it had been in a sauna for like two months. The girl who made me the gauntlet had this idea of making me a breastplate and turning me into a warrior but I thought that would be too much. It'd be like 'Look what Maxim's got on now - he's got a shield and a spear in his hand and he's come on in a fucking chariot'. All four of us have realised that although there's a theatrical element there, we don't need props. It's just raw energy that we need. " And raw energy is what they give. Against all odds the Prodigy crank up the breaks machine and give a performance which is is fuelled with the same kind of of brash, synapse-snapping beat manoeuvring which has marked out their finest shows. Opening with a downtempo break lifted from a Run DMC track, Liam instantly aligns the Prodigy with his hip hop roots. The intro gives way to long time live fave 'Rock N' Roll' which finds Maxim stalking the stage, psyching up the crowd, knee length fake fur boxing-gown fluttering in the breeze, while Keith Flint jumps on the spot, arms outstretched before gobbing at the front row.
"We could never record that track," explained Liam earlier in the day "We'd be paying Kool Keith forever!" Indeed it's another track which pays homage to Liam's love of the old skool, it's breaks and hooks lifted straight from the Ultramagnetic MCs, the madcap, intergalatic rap crew that Kool Keith once starred in.
With the introduction of Gizz on guitar for 'Their Law' the crowd are finally lifted from their polite dance moves into a sea of frantic moshers. Suddenly the Prodigy are the personification of all that was once great in rock n'roll. The slow and fat beats melting into the night air as Keith skips and gurns along a gangway which stretches into the crowd. There's still an anger within the band. A fierce fuck you energy which is tempered by the addition of real drums and a sense of disharmony between Keith and Leeroy. Once the duo used to play off each other, like two sides of a coin. Tonight they simply appear to be in a play off. Each deploying microphone action and crowd antagonism as if it were their last show ever. Neither wanting their partner to take the limelight. Perhaps it's the tiredness, or the boredom, or maybe it's over-familiarity blurring that all important buzz, but the sparks that fly between MCs aren't the usual firing variety. They're more like the sparks created by metal crashing on to concrete. By the time of the closing 'Smack My Bitch Up', Belgium have witnessed the Prodigy as the ultimate rock band and the funkiest breakbeat crew playing host to the world championship MC play-offs. A one-off, but a show not to be forgotten.
Back in the dressing room Maxim shares out wine as Leeroy chats with his brother and sister. The atmosphere is once again charged. The afternoon boredom is now replaced by the post-gig adrenaline rush and advice from Robert Smith, he of pudgy face and smudged lipstick from old goths The Cure. "What you should do," he suggests to Liam, "is play a love song straight after 'Smack My Bitch Up'. That'd completely grab the crowd. " Quite how audiences would react to Prodigy switching from the controversial rabble rouser into 'Everything I Do (I Do It For You)' is anybody's guess. But full marks to Smith - at least the remark prompts grins and winks throughout the entourage, momentarily bonding everybody. So long as they can get through the final South American leg of their world tour without incident, the Prodge are now in line for some serious down time. They can swap manic gigging schedules for side projects and a re-charging of batteries. Mention time off to Liam, and his eyes light up. Looking forward to putting your feet up Liam? Apparently not. "The new studio's all set up now," he grins, "and I really want to get going with some new tracks. " It's true what they say - there's no rest for the wicked. your firestarter for ten.
Test your Prodigy knowledge...
1 For the video of 'Breathe' Liam had originally insisted on including a hippo. Thankfully director Walter Stern convinced him that an alligator would look better.
2 Keith nearly left the Prodigy to go travelling after only their fifth gig, had fate not played its hand. He was arrested in London's Soho Square for possession of cannabis, and the resulting fine used up all the money he'd saved to go away with.
3 During the last Lollapalooza tour a couple in the audience tried to sue Keith for gobbing at them. The rabble rousers' saliva allegedly landed in their can of Coke which contained a drug to help asthma. Poor loves.
4 Prodigy used to have a girl dancer called Sharkey who left when the band's gigging started to interfere with valuable rave time.
5 In the 80s, Liam entered a mixing competition on Mike Allen's Capital Radio hip hop show twice. He came first and third.
6 During the filming for 'Firestarter' Leeroy had to wait around for so long that he over- indulged in lager. Watch the video closely, and you'll see the normally nimble-footed dancer staggering all over the place, pissed as a fart.
7 'The Fat Of The Land' was delayed through the bands "hectic touring schedule. " Unofficially it was due to Liam's being addicted to snowboarding and PlayStation game, Tomb Raider.
8 'The Fat Of The Land' was originally to have included a cover version of 'Ghost Town' by The Specials, and a track featuring ex-Jane's Addiction frontman, LA weirdo and all-round legend, Perry Farrel on vocals.
re-start the dance - what next for our firestarting foursome?
secret electro producer
Leeroy released his own white label of electro-fused grooves under the name of The Longman some 18 months ago. He also provided a track for Kris Needs' 'Needs Must' compilation last year and laid down a remix for fellow Essex ravers Shades of Rhythm.
Backstage in Belgium, Leeroy plays a few new tracks that he's been working on. A fusion of breakbeat, electro and deep house, The Longman material follows a direct line through Leeroy's rave roots and back to the funk. "People tend to think of me as the dancer," he says. "They forget that I'm the only other member of the Prodigy that's played keyboards on stage. I used to do 'Rock n' Roll' mid set so Liam could take a break. At one point he used to play percussion while I played keyboards. " In his spare time, Leeroy is currently trying to buy a windmill.
cool rap and go-go
Maxim has been working on his solo project for over a year now. Insiders have suggested that it'll surprise everybody, with Maxim foregoing his usual rock-ragga vocal style for a softer rap delivery. "The new projects coming along fine. " he says "I've just been working with Guru [of Gangstarr fame] for it and it's cool. There's a few others that I've been talking with as well. It's basically a hip hop project but there's loads of other influences in there as well. People sometimes forget that I was involved in making music before I got involved with the Prodigy. " In fact, he recorded some go-go style tracks with Nottingham musician Ian Sherwood for a project called Sheik Yan Groove. "It was jack music, which wasn't my thing, but it opened me up to a lot of new music. "
goodbye to guitars
Speculation always surrounds the future of Liam's music, simply because that's the future of the Prodigy. Among the tracks left over from 'The Fat...' is a loose limbed dub with Keith on vocals, while Liam makes no secret of his love of drum n' bass. The safest bet however is that his love of hip hop will through. It's what 'The Fat Of The Land' hinted at throughout, despite it's rocky overtures. "I'll tell you one thing, there won't be any guitars and shit on the next stuff," he confirms. "Everyone else has done it to death now so I can't see the point. I'm getting more into the beats again, more on a hip hop tip and maybe I'll work with different rappers. "
the psycho TV presenter
Keith has just moved next door to Liam. They both own renovated farmhouses in the Essex countryside. He has also signed a publishing deal and is apparently furiously writing lyrics - in between riding his motorbikes and playing with his new suit of armour, that is. Perhaps the most interesting non-Prodigy venture he's been involved in was an acting part ipushcan the film 'Mutant Dog (A Life on the Run)'. Keith plays the part of a psychotic TV presenter. However Prodigy have just filed a lawsuit against the film's director Mark Reynolds because he's used unapproved band footage in the movie.