"Look, if you ask for the angry, shouty, gurney man, you’re probably not going to get him.” It’s mid-April 2015, and round the back of the Zenith concert hall in Paris, Keith Flint is having his picture taken. He’s been asked to look, well, Keith Flint-y. “I’m sorry, I’m not a performing monkey,” he says. The rest of The Prodigy – Liam Howlett and Maxim, both in shades – giggle a bit. There’s something quite exposed about seeing Keith in full warpaint in broad daylight – like seeing an armadillo without its shell.
Earlier, a bloke from Spiral Tribe – a collective responsible for free raves in the ’90s – passed through the park just beyond the venue. He heard two guys talking English, asked them what they were doing there, and found out they were roadies for The Prodigy. “The Prodigy!” he said. “I haven’t seen them since 1992!” Somehow, this led to this guy, Kevin, being given a triple-A backstage pass, which has in turn led to him claiming that he was on the cover of NME in the early ’90s – holding up a sign bearing the initials ‘DMT’, shorthand for the psychedelic drug N,N-Dimethyltryptamine. He then tells us about the time he took DMT “in the minus-40 Berlin winter. I took off all my clothes and ran around in the snow…”
Hard to know what Kevin is going to make of it tonight when, two hours later, Keith and Maxim arrive onstage to cosh 5,000 Parisian fans over the head with 1996 UK Number One ‘Breathe’ and recent single ‘Nasty’. The breakbeats don’t skitter, they tumble like anvils. The synths don’t fizz; they acid-bath. You can rave to it, sure. Up in the cheap seats, a couple are moving in sync. He has his shirt off, she’s down to her bra, and they both have the animal hips, inhuman biceps and automaton expressions of professional podium dancers as they piston through ‘Rebel Radio’ off their new record ‘The Day Is My Enemy’. But the overall atmosphere here isn’t the palms-in-the-air church of the rave. It’s the angry fist-pump of something between a Miami Dolphins game and a riot.
They’ve been on the road to becoming this thing for a long time. The new album feels like a transformation being completed, like the first Prodigy LP actively designed to complement the live show that has become the centre of gravity for who they are. It’s angry, it’s nasty and it’s defiantly ugly – a blunderbuss full of rusty hypodermics shot into the arse of the charts when it hit Number One last month. As they clatter towards the maw of a closing ‘Take Me To The Hospital’ (from 2009), Kev The Raver’s bald pate isn’t immediately visible. But if he’d blacked out after one too many DMT hits in 1992, it wouldn’t be immediately obvious in 2015 he was watching the same band.
It’s unsurprising that The Prodigy have made their live show the heart of what they do. They’re brutal onstage, and unlike most long-in-the-tooth acts, they still love doing it. It’s the albums thing – the perfectionism thing – that has become the bottleneck in their process. 2009’s ‘Invaders Must Die’ was famous for its elephantine gestation: five years. 2004’s ‘Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned’ took even longer – a shoot-the-A&R-now seven years – while ‘The Day Is My Enemy’ clocked in at a decently decadent six years.
A pattern of ordeal has been established that habitually includes a group of scrapped tracks, tensions between Liam and Keith, and a moment where it looks like they might just junk what they’ve got and split up. Pinned between Liam’s intolerance of things that don’t have ‘the right vibe’ and Keith’s impatience with Liam’s glacial work rate, it’s Maxim who, historically, ends up playing the conciliator.
“There was a stage in August last year when it totally fell apart,” Liam says, sat on a stool in his studio one week before the Zenith show. “We were wondering if it would ever happen. It felt like a low point – I didn’t think I was really getting it together quick enough…”
This time out, there are two albums buried in the rubble under the ‘The Day Is My Enemy’. One was meant to called ‘Rebel Radio’. The other was supposed to be ‘How To Steal A Jetfighter’, and involved five songs that the band had hawked around live in 2012, on the final leg of the ‘Invaders Tour’, including ‘AWOL’, the one track that Liam says he’s still working to finish, pitched somewhere between the psycho-techno of Kevin Shields-era Primal Scream and a fat child full of Monster energy drink jumping on you in a playground.
“It’s like…” Keith explains, “we lead separate lives. I’m in Essex, he’s in London. You want to phone up your buddy and have a chat, but you also want to ask about the album. So… communication gets lost somewhere. You stop talking.”
It was only when Keith brought in the lyrics for ‘Nasty’ that the new direction dropped into place. “I’d been ranting to a friend in a pub about someone and he said to me, ‘Oooh, we are Mr Nasty Nasty, aren’t we?’ I thought, ‘I’ll have that,’” he says.
Not long after, Liam stopped working nine to five in the studio, instead finding his famous ‘vibes’ by working right through the night. “From then it was easy. It’s just… I was waiting to drop into that mode…”
He reckons the resulting 14 tracks are “the best thing we’ve ever done” – something artists often say when they’re punting the latest thing they’ve done after a six-year absence, yes, but then most aren’t nearly as compulsively bullshit-phobic as Howlett.
“It’s so consistent all the way through and every track complements the other. It feels like the sound of the band. ‘The Fat Of The Land’ [1997’s breakthrough smash] had hits, but if you take four tracks off of ‘The Fat Of The Land’, it’s not as strong as this.”
The Prodigy’s new studio is in the rapidly disappearing patchwork of industrial truck-hire places and paint warehouses beyond King’s Cross, just around the corner from north London’s semi-superclub EGG. It’s pretty small, about the size of a nice bathroom, and loaded with noisemakers and kitsch toys: a skull-and-crossbones flag, a Union Jack, a stuffed crow and fox head, plus loads of keyboards and chroma-coloured vintage studio gear.
Keith Flint had arrived first, bouncing into the coffee shop opposite the studio in his trademark long-brimmed flat cap. Liam arrived not long after, but Liam doesn’t bounce. He rolls. He prowls. He’s 43 now, Keith’s 46, Maxim 48, but there’s still something very teenage about his posture, something moody and too cool for school that you can only really maintain for that long if you’re the brains in a squillion-selling electro-rock rebel band. Liam’s a man who reaches reflexively for the term ‘real’, and that’s how he seems to be setting himself up, as though the banal white lies of social pleasantries are fakery and shallow sham.
He’s in his black bomber jacket, big sleazy rings on his fingers, the same Liam regulation dyed-out barnet he’s been wearing since John Major was in power. Next to him, Keith wears a white wife-beater and massive skull-adorned rings. He sits back in his chair, like a minor medieval monarch, half Tyrion Lannister, half Richard III.
Maxim’s not in today – a family emergency has meant he’ll only be back in time for the ‘Ibiza’ video shoot later in the afternoon, in which the trio, plus collaborator Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods, go postal in a travel agent offering package tours to the Balearic fun factory.
“Me and Liam are similar perfectionists, to be honest,” Keith recounts, digging into an analysis of the troubles. “That’s the way we are – you either do it right or not at all. It just has to be absolutely right. Liam will hate me for saying it, but it’s the perfectionism of the true artist. It comes back to the delicate point… I know Liam can smash it, so I’m waiting for it. When that track comes through, the buzz, the refresh you can get from it… it’s kind of like waiting for a drug. It’s like waiting for your man. So in the meantime, I got stuck into doing my racing. But I need decent interests…”
Somewhere in the past five years, while waiting for Liam to get it together, Keith won a motorcycling championship. He does a lot of mountain biking, too. And he’s recently started tearing around the countryside on a horse called Captain Black (“That’s his stable name, I didn’t choose that”). And, oh yeah, he’s just bought a pub in the Essex village of Pleshey. “I need a buzz,” he explains. “I’m not the kind of guy who can be sitting around listening to Joni Mitchell, chilling. I’d rather bash my head against a wall.”
If there’s another reason The Prodigy have decided to pull the rock half of their sound into sharpest focus – apart from it helping a lot when touring a blistering live act – it’s that these seminal pioneers have 100 per cent lost faith in the power of dance music to inspire. Liam’s been vocal lately in pouring cold piss on the likes of Guetta. ‘Ibiza’, of course, disses the newest generation of USB-stick superstar DJs. “I definitely don’t listen to electronic music, ’cos it’s not good enough any more,” says Liam. “It ain’t got anything it could give me.”
Ironically, this comes when his band, so long flatlining in America that they no longer bother touring there, are finally being held up as godfathers of EDM, stepfathers of dubstep, ’90s grandaddies to everyone who ever set their synths to singe, from Skrillex to Aoki, Chase & Status to Rustie. All the while, Liam is out there shouting about how flaming shit it all is.
“I just listen for production techniques,” he says. “Honestly. Dance music will kill itself, because there’s not enough creativity going on. It’s become so attached to the pop sound now.”
And so, at a moment where rock music’s stock is as low in the cultural conversation as it’s been in 15 years, the Prodge have swung against the pendulum again. “There’s got to be two ends to it,” Liam carps on, getting the tin of baccy back from Keith in their ongoing smoke-off. “Why should DJs represent electronic music all the time? I think everything’s been rinsed. Now it’s time for bands to come back. When you’ve got skits coming up on Saturday Night Live. I dunno if you’ve seen that ‘When does the bass drop…’ thing. It just becomes a joke. It is a fucking joke.”
Keith: “That’s just the way the world’s going – everything has to be so instantly commercial that it kills anything that’s a little bit underground instantly.”
Hence the return of The Prodigy in an uglier and angrier form. It’s a reaction against that sort of sanitisation: a turd in the aisles of Cath Kidston, a horsefucker loose in the Royal Paddock. “We need to stop it before it becomes like America,” Liam says, bowing his head.
“I went past – what’s that place in Islington?” Keith says, getting on one, referring to something that evades his memory. “And you know, it’s a Coffee Nero’s [sic] now. Again, this is so... I’m far too undereducated to talk on this, but... everything is going to get shut down on that level. Everything will be so sanitised that any form of creativity is going to be in the hands of the corporate.”
That’s part of the weight behind tracks like the Maxim-led ‘Medicine’ – “A spoonful of sugar just to sweeten the taste, just to keep you in your place” – or album closer ‘Wall Of Death’ – “fuck you and your heart attack”. “It’s like the ultimate way of saying ‘we don’t care about your mundane bullshit’,” says Keith.
In their own crabby way, the trio have returned to oppose the great blanding out, the seemingly infinite powers of Cafe Nero-conversion, the sense that the UK, and London especially, is turning into one big airport lounge.
“I kinda fight for that a bit,” says Keith. “Even if it’s in my head. When we’re on the stage and we’re a British band, there’s something like... you feel like you’re one of the last surviving untouched entities. And that’s a little bit of the revolution inside me, knowing that I don’t work for anyone.”
“We don’t even work for a record company,” says Liam (they haven’t since 2004, releasing the last two records on their own Take Me To The Hospital imprint via Cooking Vinyl’s distribution network). “There’s no one else that can do that any more.”
Keith: “It’s so hard not to sound like an old cunt, but in ancient culture you’d learn from your elders, wouldn’t you? You’d have something to pass on.”
What have you got to pass on then, Keith?
This anger is still an energy that stands outside the politics of the day. Ask The Prodigy about the general election and, like so many other folk, their attitude is supreme disaffection. “In summary,” says Keith, “they’re all crooks and they’re all liars, and they’re all just people trying to keep their jobs. And, no, I wouldn’t vote for any of them.”
“We need some more interesting characters,” Liam concurs. “If we had Arnie [Schwarzenegger], I might vote. Someone with a good haircut. The parties are so close to each other now, there’s not even much distance between them. Whatever. This is boring…”
Two decades after the 1994 Criminal Justice Act effectively banned the free party scene, directly inspiring ‘Their Law’ (from 1994’s ‘Music For The Jilted Generation’), politically, the Prodigy’s philosophy is a sort of DIY libertarianism and passionate individualism that in hindsight seems like just the sort of thing the rave generation would grow into. They distrust everyone. They keep talking about being ‘real’, about ‘authenticity’, about ‘the underground’ in a way that a lot of the youth o’ today, with their far more flexible attitude towards their own part in the construction of their identity, would barely recognise. They’re all about ‘being passionate’. And they passionately hate lightbulbs.
“You see,” Keith spits, “they tell you to buy a low-energy lightbulb.” He curdles his face into shouty, gurney, angry man. “You have to turn your lights on on Tuesday to see what you want to see on Wednesday. They cost 28 quid a fucking pop, to save the planet. Then you look on the news, there’s a country burning this or that, China pumping out that. Well, what’s the bloody point?”
Politics, in other words, is futile. What can you do to change the world you live in? Be one voter in 30 million, earnestly studying nation-bankrupting manifestos in the delusion that you will pick the next Oxford PPE graduate to reign over us? Or get off your ass, get out there, and plug directly into the stuff that fires you up?
“I’m not here to change the world,” he continues, “but I do think while you’re here you should have a bit of passion about life. No-one gives a fuck about anything any more, do they? Everyone just wants to do my job, but I’m lucky – I’m the man who has that job.”
Keith seems like the perfect antidote to all the rock star clichés about retreating to the countryside to live in a big white neo-Georgian pile munching cheese and playing croquet. His life of pub ownership and horse riding is not a sort of bucolic respite for a troubled mind – it’s exactly the sort of fodder that makes him who he is. “I don’t need to be ‘cool’,” he rants. “I get all my ‘coolness’ from going onstage. I’ve got the best of both worlds in that way. But I think, too, that the band’s gonna come to an end at some point. And it’s got to be soon. It will end before we want it to because of the realities of age…”
It’s hard to see that day coming. In a modern music market that values nostalgia and heritage branding more than ever, they’d own that. After all, “the realities of age” have never caught up with The Rolling Stones. “But we don’t have any ballads,” Liam chips in. “There comes a point where you don’t want to be Uncle Alan at the wedding reception.”
“The people decide when we fuck off,” Keith continues. “But it can’t go on forever.”
Liam: “We’ll figure it out. We haven’t set dates. I think this might be the first time we’ve talked about it.”
Is ‘The Day Is My Enemy’ the final mutation? If so, then it’s the way we’d all like our 25-year careers to go out: slightly too long, a couple of duffers, but still glowing with menace. The ravers were the most rebellious generation – a cynical, mousse-haired sect of disaffected Gen X. So the first ‘heritage act’ rave band might just take some of that fierce sense of personal independence with them and step on a grenade rather than go on and on. For all their Milton Keynes Bowl appearances, for all the consecutive UK Number One albums (six!), or the Iron Maiden-style unkillable fanbase, these are still three boys from Braintree who are as deeply suspicious of everyone else as they are wedded to each other.
“That’s the thing,” Keith says. “Even though I know it will end, right now I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m more settled in the band and everything else than I’ve ever been.” He pauses. “Well, I’m still quite unhinged mentally.” Liam grins at his pal. “But I’ve probably got more support than ever."