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POP MUSIC

After the Onslaught

After a year as point men in the great techno scare, Prodigy takes stock and looks to the future.

June 14, 1998|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

STANSTED, England — Except for the occasional roar of jets from the nearby airport, it's so quiet in this Essex countryside that you'd have trouble picking up a reading on a noise meter.

Unless, that is, you happen to be near the house of Prodigy frontman Keith Flint, who likes the rural setting because it enables him to crank up his stereo.

"I go to London regularly, but I couldn't handle living there," says the vocalist and dancer, whose lunatic-chic hairstyle makes him the dance-rock quartet's most recognizable member.

"I wouldn't ever be able to relax. There's too much hubbub. I like a bit of land with nothing around you so that you can sit with the back door open, the sun beating down on you and the sound turned all the way up."

Liam Howlett, the band's musical designer, also finds the countryside appealing.

"I've always lived out here," he says, sitting across from his bandmate in a resort hotel lounge near their homes. "There was a time when I was younger that I couldn't wait to get to London and get a job. But that's a long time ago."

It's odd to see Howlett and Flint in such a low-key situation.

This is the band that hit pop-rock sensibilities like a punch in the face, mixing rock aggression and dance rhythms so explosively in its 1996 single "Firestarter" that the song almost single-handedly convinced the U.S. record industry that techno was the next big thing in pop.

If that industry judgment proved wrong, Prodigy itself has enjoyed tremendous success. "Firestarter"--widely hailed as one of the most influential works since Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit"--ignited a bidding war among U.S. labels, with Madonna's Maverick Records emerging victorious.

The band's subsequent "The Fat of the Land" album built on the momentum, selling an estimated 7 million copies around the world. Q magazine, Britain's leading pop journal, praised the collection as "a dizzy rush of pure adrenaline derived from the relentless energy of hard-core techno, white-knuckle hip-hop beats and the shock tactics of punk."

The group--which also includes vocalist-dancer Keith "Maxim Reality" Palmer and dancer Leeroy Thornhill--added to its buzz with a series of wonderfully energetic performances on the Lollapalooza tour last summer.

But the quartet made the most headlines last summer when the title of one of its songs, "Smack My Bitch Up," was considered so offensive that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the nation's largest retailer, yanked the group's album from its 2,200 stores. It's an issue that continues to hang over the group's head. The group members deny the song title was meant to be derogatory to women, but detractors insist that the language was inappropriate.

Amid all this attention, Prodigy has been strangely quiet in 1998--at least in the U.S. No new recordings. No tour dates. No videos.

But its low profile changes with a brief, 11-city U.S. tour that includes a stop Saturday at the KROQ-FM Weenie Roast & Fiesta at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.

"I think it's good to take a step back for a while," says Howlett. "I don't mind [the controversy]. I always want the band to have a dangerous edge, but I don't want people to think that we are always trying to think of some new way to be outrageous . . . that we have to shock people to be successful.

"When I talk about being dangerous, I mean about taking chances in the music. . . . Experimenting, trying new things. . . . We don't want to fall into formulas, which seems to be the curse of bands. It's that kind of danger that makes a band interesting, not in creating [artificial] controversies."

One of the biggest misconceptions about Prodigy in the U.S., where the group was largely unknown until "Firestarter" became a club and MTV video favorite, is that Flint, 28, is the leader of the group. He's the Mad Max-meets-Johnny Rotten character in the center of the "Firestarter" video, and the one usually front and center in band photos.

Only Prodigy loyalists probably realize that Howlett is the musical heart--and one of the half-dozen most noteworthy musical forces in contemporary rock.

Though blessed with the unassuming air and good looks of an alt-rock star, Howlett, 26, tends to withdraw from the spotlight. He's usually lurking anonymously in the back of photos and at the rear of the stage, surrounded by mounds of synthesizers and other electronic equipment, as Flint, Palmer and Thornhill dance about energetically in front of him.

Even in interviews, Howlett tends to be soft-spoken. He doesn't dominate the conversation the way most band leaders do.

If this low-key approach has caused Howlett to be overlooked by the public, it has, inadvertently, led Prodigy fans and British journalists to view him as a slightly mythical figure. He is frequently painted in the British pop press as so intense and demanding about his studio work that he has been dubbed "The Mad Professor." When the "Fat" album was delayed for months, there were even reports of a nervous breakdown.

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