The Prodigy Interviewed: “No more snorting cheap speed and banging pills up my arse” — so said The Prodigy frontman Keith Flint on the release of their most recent studio album Invaders Must Die.
When The Prodigy announced the title of their fourth album would be Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned in 2001, it seemed like an apt motto for the ultimate us-and-them dance band. The sort of thing you could translate into Latin and put on a soldier’s headstone. Ideal for a group who’d always been very aware of their place on the margins – outsiders who’d somehow swum into the mainstream. The Prodigy made uncompromising, metal machine music die-cut for dancefloors and 1210s rather than Radio 1, yet each CD outsold the last. But, by the time the follow-up to 10m-selling Fat Of The Land crawled into the shops in 2004, that title was more fitting than anyone would ever have expected. Because, by then, the Prodigy was back to the beginning, back to being an army of one.
“Our relationships were at an all-time low,” confesses Liam Howlett, a surprisingly ageless, sharply-dressed 37-year-old with bleached hair and a patchwork of tattoos. Keith Flint is in front of a mirror, trying on some designer gear that makes him look like a psychopathic lampshade. Liam looks over fondly and smiles encouragingly. “Like it! It works, man, don’t fight it!”
“Me and Keith weren’t really talking,” Howlett recalls. “Keith was doing his solo career and I wasn’t happy about that. They were sitting around waiting for me to finish the record. I wasn’t ready. Then, when I was, they’d occupied their time with their solo stuff and were committed to doing that and I was like, ‘where are ya?’ I was really frustrated with that, so I said ‘fuck it, this album’ll be something else’. A DJ album.”
With Liam’s brother-in-law Liam Gallagher and Hollywood starlet Juliette Lewis on board, big things were expected of Always Outnumbered. But the Prodigy had lost momentum in the seven years since Fat, and without Maxim (aka Keety Palmer) and Flint, that uniquely strange, improvised spark which ignited the Prodigy’s initial 10-year run of success had been snuffed. Remember, their first big hit, Charly, wasn’t broken by DJs or pirate stations or radio. It went national by being played live by the band at endless raves during the summer of ‘91. Even if Howlett was the studio genius, he needed his fellow soldiers back.
“It’s kind of like any intense relationship,” agrees Keith, looking so intently at me I fear he’s either about to levitate or detonate. “Someone”, he says, clearly meaning Liam, “rings up, and you haven’t spoken for a while and you know they don’t wanna hear ‘oh yeah I’ve been in the studio, had a fucking wicked idea today’. It’s like your ex-girlfriend rings up, it’s all brilliant, you’re chatting away, then she says ‘what have you been up to?’ and you say ‘oh, I’ve been fucking this girl and she’s fucking great in the sack!’ That might actually kill the conversation dead. So you start edging around…”
Did it hurt, I ask Liam. “It just made me angry,” he replies, “You ain’t coming to the studio? Well, fuck you! And I’d be on a mission to write a tear-arse tune. Wasn’t any tears shed.”
“We’re brothers,” says Keith. “Now, I’ve got brothers, all older, and you fall out with your brother like you’ve never fallen out with anyone else. But you always know they’re your brother and you’ll be back. It’s not for life. It can be as bad as it’s ever been and that’s exactly what happened to us, especially when I was doing my solo stuff.”
The Prodigy is a family – and, like the Mafia, once you’re in you never really leave wherever you go or whatever you do. Ex-dancer Leeroy Thornhill often plays out as ‘Leeroy Prodigy’, and DJ’d on the band’s Their Law reunion tour, long-lost fifth member Sharky appeared in the video for that awesome, air-punchingly brilliant Pendulum mix of Voodoo People. The band have had the same management, booking agent and lawyer since breaking big in 1991 and the guy who discovered them nearly 20 years ago is back on the team as A&R on new album Invaders Must Die.
“It’s like stepbrothers and sisters, no blood but you’re practically related. There’s no sex, but you’re practically married. It’s that intense,” warns Keith. “I’m such an overpowering person. I can be a real cunt to be with and I put my heart on the table and if I’m down everyone has to be down. Liam said to me, ‘you’re an atmosphere hoover, you kinda come in and either suck the whole lot out or you can set the room on fire!”
“They argue over trivial stuff,” nods Maxim, who is surprisingly slightly built and quiet compared to the ten-foot firebreathing behemoth he seems when dominating the stage. “I’m the calm centre. I do snap. After 18 years! Keith stood on my foot backstage and I just lost it. Kicking chairs, whatever. And Keith is like ‘oh man, stay out of my way’. I said, ‘look man, I throw a tantrum once every 18 years, you throw one every other day!”
The band repaired their relationship by Liam and Keith sitting up late night after night trying to weld the band back together enough to take on the 2005 Their Law singles collection tour. “We didn’t really split up,” reckons Liam, “but sometimes we don’t like each other.”
They didn’t want to do any of it originally – what The Prodigy have always been good at doing is making it up as they go along, always charging forwards with no time to look at the clouds of dust behind their backs, but their label was going to put it out whatever. So they got 100% involved and it reminded them – and everyone else – what a great band they had been and still could be.
It reminds you how fragile as well as powerful the whole Prodigy project has been. There was no grand masterplan to create the world’s biggest dance band out of this car crash collision of rave-punk hip-hop – the first track Keith ever sang on was Firestarter. For six years he’d been just a dancer, then suddenly he metamorphosed into ‘Keef’, a kidult Sid Vicious, with piercings, rock-boy tats, and that instantly recognizable hair gel and guyliner look which has defined him ever since.
In person, he’s a sweet and generous soul who’s trying to stay drink and drug free. “No more snorting cheap speed and banging pills up my arse!” he cackles lustily. He did sever a tendon in one finger during the last tour. “It gives me an excuse not to play the guitar!” No bad thing, some would say. “I thought I could be Hendrix, I just needed practice! I wouldn’t have done my solo project if I weren’t going to do it 100% real. It weren’t a vanity project. The lack of being able to use my creativity felt self-destructive. I had to get it out. But it was shit! I wish I could say The Prodigy is the only thing I’ve done – it’s being able to look someone in the eye and say ‘I haven’t fucked you over, straight up’ and I wish I could say that. I feel I’ve lost that. Because this thing is my life. Always has been.”
However, Their Law threatened to turn The Prodigy into a dance music cabaret turn, polishing their war medals and living off long-gone glory. So after the tour wound up, Liam bought a studio near Keith’s flat in West London and they spent five months just settling in and trying, bizarrely, to create a relaxed enough atmosphere between the trio to generate the sort of siege mentality and aggressive, visceral music the band thrives on.
“It didn’t feel like work,” says Liam. “We spent the time experimenting, not even thinking of doing an album. There was a lot of partying, a lot of champagne bottles in the corner…The main thing was to try to push their vocals a bit more and make the band record something we could play live from beginning to end. It’s why we don’t do TV appearances, we want the band to be seen in its actual form. We want people to come to the gigs. People can download the music, they can nick it off their mates, pirate it or whatever, but you can’t download the live band. When I’m writing the tunes I’m visualising us on stage.”
Is the band a democracy now? “Nah. I don’t believe in it. You need someone steering the ship. When it comes down to the music it’s down to me. If one of the guys has got a musical idea or something, we come in, record it, if it’s fucking working it’s great, it’s used. But I steer the ship. That’s the way it works, everyone’s happy with that. There’s no politeness in the studio, [whining] ‘mmm, yeah, can I play my bass part or do this vocal’ just to keep people happy. It’s ‘no, man, that fucking ain’t working, that’s shit’, and that’s how the new band operate, and people’s feelings don’t get hurt. We ain’t got time to fuck around.”
They’ve left XL after 15 years and set up an imprint, Take Me To The Hospital, with the Cooking Vinyl label – Liam plans to sign a few acts after the new album’s done with. “The industry’s such a mess with digital, downloading for free. The majors were too arrogant and didn’t see this shit coming,” points out the group’s manager, Mike Champion. “Radiohead, Prince, Charlatans were all doing giveaways but you can spend 100k to half a million on a good album, so what’s the point? Yeah, live work and merchandise is where it’s at, but with the economy as it is now you can take nothing for granted. We saw every record label in the world, cold calling… but these guys aren’t guns for hire, the sort of band you can tell to deliver by September so it’s released by Christmas. A Prodigy album is an EVENT, not a release.”
“People need to create music on their own terms and put it out,” says Maxim. “The majors want a quick hits, three top 10 singles or we’ll drop you.”
Their loss. Invaders Must Die is, at its several peaks, a thrilling return. Yes, post-Prodigy acts (Justice, Pendulum, Digitalism, Soulwax) inspired by the way Liam dragged the dynamics of rock to the dancefloor with baseball bat breaks and rushing ravey riffs, have conspired to drag the trio back into the pack. But it will sound fantastic played out everywhere from Fabric to Global Gathering. At its best – the title track, Omen and the next single, the Jeff Mills-sampling Warrior’s Dance – it is a confident restatement of everything you ever loved about the band, full of barbed-wire hooks and armour-plated beats.
True, I miss the smoked-out, spacey sounds of Narcotic Suite and Weather Experience, or the pure hip-hop of Poison and Diesel Power, but it’s a satisfyingly chunky set with Maxim and Keith at its heart. Wiley and Martina Topley-Bird were tried out, but the band made the right decision to concentrate on themselves – although Dave Grohl does drum on Run With The Wolves.
“He’s the nicest American we’ve ever met,” chuckles Liam. “I’ve known him since Jilted. He emailed me, didn’t know we were doing an album, said he’d finished touring [Foo Fighters] and was home a lot now, and he said ‘I’m gonna send you over a hard drive with just drums, different tempos and styles, and you can do a track’. Dave’s not in it for the glory, that’s the type of bloke he is. He’s wicked. If we were playing in LA and he was around he’d just jump on stage and play drums. “
He’ll get the chance. The Invaders tour is going to play to over a million people and last at least two years, with three legs in America this year alone. They’ve played nearly everywhere since ‘91, except China, India and a few places in the Middle East. Expect to see them this summer on at least six festivals, plus possibly their first dates with Oasis since the ‘96 Knebworth mega-gigs. How much longer, though, have this 20-year-old band got?
Liam, instantly, firmly: “Who cares? All we’re concerned about is doing the best job we can.”
Maxim: “It’s the next gig, the next show, it has been for the last 18 years.”
Keith: “Yeah man, just enjoy it and you might get another year out of it, another Raindance! I’m still living that one year. It could all end tomorrow so live it now… The last year has been phenomenal. We came back to each other naturally. It’s not the token last round. There’s nothing sadder than a heavyweight fighter going out there for the last few rounds and getting beaten up.”