Everyone’s favourite firestarters are back from oblivion and set to take on pretenders to their dance throne. The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett tells Wonderland: “The Klaxons look older than us anyway.”
Keith Flint is shivering. It’s a cold afternoon in West London and his Prodigy bandmates Liam Howlett and Keith “Maxim” Palmer are wearing substantial overcoats – Palmer’s even has a fur lining. Flint, foolishly, has opted for a neon pink blouson that barely reaches the waistband of his jeans. “It’s the price of fashion,” he grimaces, as we retreat to the relative warmth of a gastropub. With his facial piercings, abstractly cropped hair and tattoos – the index finger of his right hand forms the barrel of a futuristic weapon – Flint still cuts a striking figure. Even if the vivid red horns of his //Firestarter// days are long gone. It turns out Flint bought the jacket on a whim in Bristol a few years back and has been looking for opportunities to wear it ever since. “It’s by that well-known Irish designer,” he says with a mischievous cackle, “George O’Marney.”
In some ways it’s a surprise that Flint, Howlett and Palmer are here at all – let alone in such good spirits. For much of the 90s The Prodigy were the biggest, loudest, most exhilarating live act on the planet. To the post-acid house generation, they were a raved-up, revved-up Sex Pistols, a sonic middle-finger to rock and pop convention. They charged up the UK charts, notching successive Number One singles with Firestarter and Breathe; and galvanised crowds from Glastonbury to Moscow, where they played a now-legendary set in Red Square in 1997. The same year, rock-rave landmark album //Fat Of The Land// sold over eight million copies and turned them into a global phenomenon.
But the punishing tour schedule that followed; the pressure to produce an equally all-conquering follow-up; and, of course, a penchant for very hard partying eventually took their toll. “Well,” confesses Howlett, the 37 year-old producer and Prodigy mastermind, “it was more of some things than others…” Either which way, by 2000 the band had begun to disintegrate in earnest. Dancer and original fourth member Leeroy Thornhill quit after suffering a knee injury. Howlett scrapped an entire album’s worth of new material. The derisive critical response to 2002 single, Baby’s Got A Temper – its controversy-seeking lyrics included a reference to date-rape drug Rohypnol – helped convince him that the band were headed in the wrong direction, fast. “That was a particular low point,” Howlett admits between mouthfuls of French onion soup. “I probably didn’t speak to the guys for nearly a year. Though we never actually split up.” Flint concurs: “I don’t think any of us thought we had or even were going to,” he insists, dunking hunks of bread in Howlett’s soup. “But we knew it was pretty down.”
What seemed the band’s death-knell came in 2004 when Howlett went off and recorded a new album on his own. //Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned// used a rotating cast of guest vocalists including Juliette Lewis (who unleashed blood-curdling screeches over explosive opener Spitfire) and, virtually unrecognisable on the abrasive Shoot Down, Howlett’s future brother-in-law Liam Gallagher (Howlett is married to All Saints’s Natalie Appleton; Gallagher is married to her sister, Nicole.) But despite a collection of inspired moments, the album seemed half-formed, receiving a tepid response from critics and hard-core fans alike. Where, after all, were Palmer’s prowling rhymes and Flint’s Sid Vicious-on-E snarl? It seemed an ignominious end for the brash lads from the Essex hinterland who had gatecrashed the pop charts in 1992 with cheeky rave anthem Charly. In fact, another incarnation of The Prodigy was just around the corner.
The 2005 tour which followed the band’s greatest hits collection Their Law, a swansong to original label XL, unexpectedly connected them with a new, younger audience. Howlett, Flint and Palmer began to patch up their differences, talking through their issues into the early hours in hotel rooms and tour buses. “There were a few late nights,” says Howlett. “Just setting it straight. And from then onwards it’s all been fine.” That’s about as close as they come to self-analysis. Individually and as a group they’re not much interested in going over the past (“People only need nostalgia when they’re not going anywhere else,” says Palmer). Besides, they freely admit that their memories of their 90s heyday are hazy at best. “When you’re in it,” says Howlett, “you don’t remember any of it.”
They do, though, still cherish the outsider ethos of the early-90s rave scene. After all, it was during that helter-skelter period that The Prodigy came into being. Howlett, a hip hop fanatic turned sometime DJ, would spend hours splicing together breaks in his bedroom studio in Braintree, Essex. At weekends, he’d play at local nightclub The Barn, then a magnet for young ravers thanks to the Ecstasy pills flooding in from nearby Harwich. And he’d always be bumping into Keith Flint, an affable if somewhat over-excited local rave fanatic who pestered him for tapes.
Like Howlett, Flint grew up in Braintree (for a time they even attended the same secondary school) and lived for the buzz of the weekend. A notable failure at school, he found his feet at The Barn, where he and his mate Leeroy would practise their dance moves and dream of new careers performing on the emergent rave circuit – Leeroy actually had a job as an electrician, but Keith was merely scraping by on what he made dealing pills and grass at parties. Technically, Leeroy was the better dancer, more sinuous and funky. But Flint had a manic energy no one else could match. When Howlett finally gave him a tape containing a selection of his tracks, written with a view to doing some live PAs, Flint suggested he take him and his mate on as dancers. Howlett agreed, boosting the line-up with an aspiring MC from Peterborough who called himself Maxim Reality.
Where Flint was manic, Palmer exuded quiet authority. He had stage presence, too, and knew how to work a crowd. And while none had ambitions far beyond the scene which had united them, once Charly hit in 92 there was no looking back. A string of equally brilliant rave cut-ups (including the Max Romeo-sampling Out Of Space) followed, their music and attitude a triumphant celebration of the here-and-now. Even so, two decades on, don’t they wince just a little at the idea of being the “elder statesmen” of rave? “Not at all,” says Howlett. “We’re surrounded by people that are older than us and in bands so it never bothers me. It would if we were bald and looked old and felt old.”
Today, Flint has lost none of his eccentric charm. He remains the band’s ambassador, joking, chatting and shaking hands with anyone who steps within arms’ reach. (Palmer, by contrast, lurks on the fringes; even when the tape-recorder gets switched on, he talks almost entirely in one-liners – though nearly all get a nod of assent from Howlett.) And while Flint has quite clearly put a lot of effort into making sure he looks every inch the popstar, he’s perversely keen to display his man-of-the-people credentials. “I want to show you something,” he says when the conversation touches on the subject of fame. Opening his wallet and removing an Oyster card he brandishes it at the Underground line which passes outside the window. “I know where that tube line goes because I sit on it. That’s all part of being in touch. We live it large because we live it.”
Musically, The Prodigy has always been Howlett’s baby. “We represent Liam’s music,” admits Flint, chewing a mouthful of artfully prepared chicken (Palmer has opted, sensibly, for a hearty-looking pie). “Whatever it is, however it comes, we’re there.” But Howlett himself has always insisted that however it might look to outsiders, they are a band. Indeed, Howlett now refers to his two bandmates as being “like brothers”. He also recognises that post-Firestarter, it was Flint and Palmer who took the limelight. Flint remains a talismanic figure, the one who takes the crowd’s energy and enacts their fantasises of anarchic release – not just the public face of the band but a kind of cyberpunk Pied Piper to the post-Ecstasy generation.
Yet following the success of Fat Of The Land it seemed both Flint and Palmer were about to abandon The Prodigy and launch their own solo careers: Palmer as a rapper, Flint as frontman to thrash punk outfit Flint. Both now state such ambitions have been forgotten – not a huge surprise given that Flint’s debut album was scrapped and Palmer’s is now a footnote in UK hip hop history. So there was surely a sense of relief when, following the success of the Their Law compilation and subsequent tour, Howlett felt they should seize the moment and start work on a new album. The only trouble was, Howlett was having difficulty getting down to work. Having built a studio at his house in the Essex countryside, at a cost of some £70,000, he found he couldn’t bring himself to use it. “It felt too much like, ‘You have to write great music in this room,’” he says. In the end he removed all the equipment and sold it. “I’d never have a studio in my house again. It’s a bad vibe. I like to drive to work.”
To break his writer’s block, he ended up hiring a large studio near his London base in Ladbroke Grove. Having parted company with former label XL, at the outset Howlett funded the sessions himself, keeping the studio open 24 hours so that he or Flint or Palmer could stop by any time the mood took them. Perhaps inevitably, it ended up becoming a “party space”. They even installed their own sound system. “It was ridiculous,” grins Howlett. “When we moved in the people who run the place were like, ‘What have we done renting the studio to these nutters?’”
Palmer chuckles, shaking his braids in disbelief: “The only thing missing was a couple of mirrorballs.” After four or five months of “messing around” they’d only sketched out a few tracks, but crucially the “buzz” was back. At this point, Howlett decided to call a halt and move into a smaller studio upstairs, leaving the partying behind. “I used to put my empty champagne bottles behind the settee in the studio,” he says. “When we finally moved out there were 60 empty bottles of Veuve Cliquot back there. Everyone in the building laughed about it.”
Yet when the serious work started in the upstairs studio, the old adrenalin quickly started to flow. New album Invaders Must Die – their first as a trio since Fat Of The Land – is a head-on collision of rave energy and rock’n’roll bravado. Delivered with fearsome intensity, any suspicion that they might have mellowed in the past decade evaporates instantly on hearing the vamping synth riffs of Warrior’s Dance or Omen’s eruption of distorted bass. It’s also instantly clear that The Prodigy still sound like The Prodigy. “Well, it fucks me off when people talk about Oasis saying why don’t they do something different,” says Howlett, actually in reference to his own, fundamentally unchanged, production style. “But why should they? They’re great at what they do, people love it. As long as the songs are good, they don’t need to change.”
You’re not just saying that because Liam Gallagher’s family? “No, I never talk to Liam about music at all.” Because you’d disagree? “No, not at all. It’s just boring, isn’t it? It’s like work. So we just talk about other shit, like babies.” With his bleached crop and shy grin, even at 37 Liam Howlett still has a boyish air about him. Articulate and opinionated, he can also turn defensive in an instant, and is always looking to assert his independence. Whichever way everyone else is headed, Howlett wants to be going in the opposite direction. His bizarre grey-checked ankle boots were originally a bright tartan, but he ended up spraying them black because they looked “too Burberry”.
Like Howlett, The Prodigy have remained impervious to changing trends. Even at the height of 90s rave mania they were never considered cool – to the point of being accused by dance magazine MixMag of being the band who “killed” rave. And their infamous 1997 hit Smack My Bitch Up deliberately offended the sensibilities of the liberal establishment. (Flint claims that the front rows at their shows are packed with “badass girls” who scream out the song’s refrain.) Yet their abrasive, kill-your-idols attitude has recently proved infectious. There are traces of The Prodigy’s aural aggro in both Justice and Crystal Castles, as well as new-rave acts like The Klaxons and Does It Offend You, Yeah? (the latter’s James Rushent has become a friend of Howlett’s, even lending production assistance on Invaders Must Die).
Howlett, true to form, steadfastly refuses to be impressed by the competition. “I’m not into any bands,” he says. “At the point when our record comes out, I’m not a friendly guy. They’re the enemies out there. We want to roll over everybody. But I think everyone should be like that. You’ve got to be like, ‘Here we come, get out of the way.’”
In the late-90s, The Prodigy earned a reputation for playing hard and partying harder. Howlett admits that those days are not entirely behind him, but reveals he has recently taken up running in an effort to offset the excesses. Flint, on the other hand, has decided enough is enough. Towards the end of our conversation he describes his decision to clean-up his act (bar “a bit of caffeine”), and while his eyes still show glimmers of the old fire, his voice sounds almost apologetic. When Howlett orders a glass of red wine, he eyes it carefully, before commenting with mock-surprise, “What’s that, Ribena?”
“I’m actually really ashamed to say I’ve given up drugs,” says Flint. “But I was greedy and I pushed it as far as I possibly could – to the edge of insanity and lost reality. But I couldn’t fuck up this album. There’s always another line, another pub open, another 24-hour off licence. But I wasn’t going to fuck it up this time, and I was heading that way.”
Warming to his theme, he expresses a horror of ending up a “a fat has-been” and reveals that he’s now more likely to spend his evenings in the gym than propping up a bar, attempting to ready himself for the fevered release required by a Prodigy performance. “People don’t come to see me for my beautiful tones. We can’t just dress me up with a few dancers and a nice outfit and say there’s Keith Flint the lovely singer from Essex. They’re there to see a fucking lunatic shouting his lungs out.”
Howlett grins at him. “You’d still do it even if you weren’t in shape,” he says. “But you’d be a fat lunatic.”
Photographer: Jon Bergman
Words: Rupert Howe
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #17, Feb/Mar 2009