THE PRODIGY VS AMERICA
Blown out by their first American label, the Braintree firestarters are now lighting the blue touch paper Stateside.
Quietly curled up in a hotel room in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, dancer Leeroy Thornhill reflects on the Prodigy's New York after-show party. It seems that, despite the industry hullabaloo, the quartet have been sticking to their guns about doing things their way, at a comfortable pace. "Maxim was talking to Bono about that last night," he mentions casually. U2 are among their favourite bands. The Prodigy were offered a crucial opening slot on the first US leg of the Pop Mart tour. They declined.
"We couldn't come and play in stadiums. If we'd done that tour, the audience would've been U2 fans. We want to build at our own pace. We don't want to be in anyone's face." But the American music industry isn't making that an easy stand to take...
Admittedly, the States are discovering the Prodigy late in the game. When Charly rocketed out of the underground in 1991, Americans were being bludgeoned with the initial squeals of Mariah Carey. But since the popularity of alternative music began dropping off, they've done an excellent job of catching up. Heavy MTV rotation of Firestarter eventually pushed the single into the Top 30. And the ubiquitious presence of the Chemical Brothers' remix of the three year-old Voodoo People on virtually any dance compilation has revitalized interest in the Music For The Jilted Generation album. The Prodigy had basically cracked America with one song. "Most people hear Firestarter and think we're some new band," sighs Leeroy.
Not that the Prodigy's American progress has been an unimpeded, graceful ascent. Musical wunderkind Liam Howlett squirms as he recalls the band's decision to appear on MTV's Fashionably Loud debacle. "I didn't want to do that. That's probably the most sell-out thing we've done in a long time" It seems that the presence of Tricky, plus seeing Tool play on it the year before, swayed his decision. "And we thought we could take so much focus away from the fashion show, away from the supermodels, that it would just be humourous. The idea was Keith would just cause a lot of trouble, and he did. I don't think he caused as much as he wanted to, but he got on the catwalk and started annoying the models."
Keith's antics and demented visage have aided the Prodigy's cause with audiences Stateside immensely. When he dashes through the lobby sporting four shades of hair (black, white, red and purple), the matronly hotel maids insist on fussing over him, even though they aren't exactly sure which "rock star I've seen on MTV" he might be. When the entourage returns to the hotel in the wee small hours, he scurries around the night janitor like a mischievous crab, trying to unplug the poor sod's vacuum cleaner. But those episodes aside, he keeps a decidedly low profiles, devoting the bulk of his energies to dodging a Spin magazine writer who - insisting he needs a minimum of two hours of interview time with Keith to fully comprehend the inner workings of the band - has hounded him all week. When I corner him backstage, he smiles and points out that I've shaved and coloured my hair since last we met. Quips about the pot calling the kettle black are exchanged, and that's that. Quality time with Keith is precious these days. "A lot of people are scared of Keith," observes Leeroy. "'Oooh, he's the Firestarter.'" It seems the essential humour present in the Prodigy's image and conduct has been mistaken by the Yanks for menace. "We do photo shoots and they go, 'C'mon, be mean, give me aggression!' That's like someone saying 'show me the faces you make when you're fucking!' Please, I don't do that, unless I'm doing it!"
The unexpected success of Firestarter sent the US A&R weasels into a tizzy. For weeks the phones rang ceaselessly with offers. After being unceremoniously dumped by their previous US label, Elektra, when techno failed to take-off at its previously scheduled departure time in the early '90s, the fellas weren't about to tie the knot with another giant like Sony or EMI. In the end it came down to Interscope and Maverick. They respected the way Maverick nurtured their artists, big (Alanis Morissette) or small (Me'shell N'Degocello). One assumes the purported $5 million deal Maverick offered didn't cause them undue distress, either. The union seems to proceeding smoothly. "We've had meetings with them, and we feel they understand us," says Leeroy. Regardless, it's still a big label, and they've had to put their foot down more than once, refusing excessive radio or press obligations. Fortunately, vanity labels traditionally have a deeper understanding of the needs of their artists, and with Madonna at the helm the boys seem to be well looked after (although she did express concern over the song title Smack My Bitch Up)."It's good that Maverick's set up and run the way it is, because obviously they understand that part," concurs Maxim. "A normal record company - EMI, Sony, whatever - is just people that know they've got to push this group to make money. That's their job. They don't understand the goings-on of being on the road."
But refusing to play the game rarely wins a new band big points. Maxim shrugs. "We've had the same problems everywhere else. For the first three or four years we weren't accepted in England. We didn't follow any of the rules: Top Of The Pops, Radio 1 and all the national stuff." But that didn't prevent them from racking up a string of hits, and they're hoping their luck holds in the States. "We've just done it off our own backs, doing the live shows. And that's not going to change here. We're not suddenly going to be this newfangled thing and get taken out of context."
Hype or no hype, the final show of this short, sharp American tour - a prelude to July's Lollapalooza shindig with Snoop Doggy Dogg, Tool, Tricky, Orbital and Korn - almost didn't happen. "We played this venue four years ago," explains Liam over his morning orange juice. "We got down to the venue last night, and it was the same sound system we used four years ago." he smirks. "We thought we might have gotten a bit of an upgrade." Somehow they managed to patch a passable system together. "All I've got to say is, the atmosphere took over, and it was cool. I was expecting it to be the worst show of the tour. But as it happened, it was rather wicked and we had a good time and it was alright."
"That's what it's been like the whole tour, really" Liam swears (although reports of the shows in record industry towns like New York and Los Angeles complained the audiences were somewhat sluggish, top heavy with guest list fodder). What makes Liam's pronouncement all the more remarkable is that the set was composed virtually of all-new, unheard material. The single Breathe has only recently been leaked out to radio. Tapes of the new album, Fat Of The Land, have barely been in circulation a few days, and certainly haven't trickled down to the fans in the American south. But the kids greet Smack My Bitch Up and Serial Thrilla with the same enthusiasm they exude for Poison, Voodoo People and Firestarter. "But they're pretty direct songs," he adds. "Once the beats come in, they're easy to take in.".
Postponed tour and release dates have already made some American critics sceptical, but Liam isn't worried, especially after this brief foray. "All I've seen is people's response to the show, and that's been brilliant." Not that he's getting fitted for rose-colored glasses just yet. "I do think American critics are much more cruel than they are in England." And they love to pigeonhole artists as much as our European counterparts. Hence the invention of "electronica", the handy buzzword under which the US media and marketing goons have stuck not only the Prodigy, but also Orbital, Underworld, Daft Punk, and anyone else they can't quite get their antiquated heads (and ossified butts) around, right down to Real McCoy. It seems labeling these artists "dance music" still makes some folks uneasy, giving them flashbacks to the Disco Sucks backlash and Village People's disaster film, Can't Stop The Music. So it's "Do they have a sequencer? Use samples?" Then regardless of origin, style or quality, they're an electronica act.
"Why add an a on the end? Why is that there?" laughs Liam "The first sentence people open most interviews here is 'Electronica? What the fuck is that all about?' Basically, with the whole electronica thing - and i think the Chemical Brothers feel the same way I do - it's just some dude in an office trying to think of something new." he leans forward, snarling. "And if we find out who that dude is, we'll slap him."
Written by Seattle writer Kurt B Reighley, editor at large for the CMJ Music Monthly. He was blonde when he wrote this...