A little over a year ago, the Prodigy was riding a wave of unexpected popularity in the band's native England after its techno hit "Charly" rose to No. 3 on the charts.
For Liam Howlett, the group's songwriter, the whole thing was a drag.
While most pop musicians dream of a Top 10 hit, widespread commercial success is something Howlett has tried to avoid. So the group turned down magazine interviews and a slot on the TV music showcase "Top of the Pops," preferring instead to cultivate its image as a member of England's underground dance scene.
But as techno--the computer-driven, hyperkinetic dance music that was once strictly the domain of hard-core club-goers--has caught the ear of a larger share of the mainstream music market, Howlett, 21, has found himself struggling to hang on to the genre's longtime faithful.
"If I knew 'Charly' would go up the charts, I wouldn't have written it," he said recently during a telephone interview from Australia, where the Prodigy was touring. "That's not the direction I wanted to take the group. I've always said we wanted to stay true to the scene and stay underground."
Founded in 1991 by Howlett, the Prodigy recently released its first full-length album, "Experience," on Elektra Records and will embark on a four-week U.S. tour with fellow techno groups Moby and Cybersonik, including shows tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano and Saturday at the Hollywood Palladium.
While that may not sound like a group trying to keep a low profile, Howlett said the Prodigy--which includes Keity (MC Maxim Reality) Palmer and dancers Keith Flint and Leeroy Thornhill--hasn't lost favor among techno's true believers.
"We can still go into the hardest clubs and kick off," he said. "That proves we haven't lost that underground image."
Even so, the group may be fighting a losing battle--especially in Southern California. Techno music has become the soundtrack for the once-controversial psychedelic dance parties, raves. Over the last year, these large-scale events have become increasingly conventional, moving from illegal, often unsafe venues to such bastions of family-oriented entertainment as Knott's Berry Farm (more than 17,000 people attended a New Year's Eve rave held at the park).
But it is not the number of people going to raves these days that really worries Howlett, it's their age.
"In England, you can't get into a big rave if you are under 18," he said. "This music isn't for little kids. But in American, anyone can get in. I feel a bit resentful of the younger generation. The last thing I want is for the Prodigy to become a teeny-bop rave band--that would be the end of it."
Barring any sudden surge in popularity among the junior-high crowd, Howlett figures the Prodigy will be around for at least the next three years. In the meantime, he is trying to attract a more mature audience with a version of techno called break beat house--a recent English phenomenon that features more complicated beats and a faster pace.
"I imagine the style of music we are doing is not going down with the traditional techno crowd at first," he said. "The songs are not the same all the way through. It's more danceable. And I've also tried to make it more musical, not just something you can listen to at the clubs, but . . . at home as well."