Maxim is one of the most recognisable faces in electronic music. Known to millions as one third of The Prodigy, he has carved out an accomplished solo career in drum and bass, and is as impressive with a paintbrush as he is with production software. He's a man who obsessively creates and has always walked his own path. As 2016 was ending, we got a rare opportunity to sit down with him for an extended talk about his life and career.
Meeting on a mild December morning at a recording studio in Wembley, we settled into the booth and started, as you always should, at the beginning.
MoS: What sort of music were you listening to growing up, where do your influences come from, did you live in a musical household?
Maxim: I started MCing when I was 14 years old, and later MC’d on reggae sound systems. That was my foundation. People probably think I started in the party scene, reggae music is where I come from. What people probably don’t realise about me making drum & bass and using dancehall vocals, is that’s my foundation.
How did you get into MCing at such a young age?
That was through my older brother. He was an MC, so I just picked it up. When I was at school I used to write lyrics in my school exercise books and go down to the sound system on weekends. Back then it wasn’t decks. It was a reggae sound system: massive wardrobe speaker boxes, one deck, a rotary mixer and an echo chamber. That’s where I come from, that’s what I’ll always go back to.
What do you define as an MC?
What I call an MC is someone who writes lyrics every day. Not just someone who MCs for 10 minutes and then runs out of lyrics. When I went to my brother’s friend’s house to MC, you couldn’t just turn up without lyrics. If you didn’t have lyrics, they’d embarrass you, they’d ask “what are you doing here?” So the week before you’d constantly be writing lyrics, every week you’d go with fresh lyrics. You never repeated yourself.
It sounds very competitive
It was competitive, but that’s what MCing was about. Being an MC was about being fresh and being able to hold a mic and go somewhere and entertain a crowd and throw the lyrics down. You had to MC through the whole seven-inch record. And even half way through, they’d pull it up and go back to the beginning, and you’d have to keep going and keep the crowd hyped. And if you were the only MC there, you’d have to do it most of the night.
That seems like good prep for your later career, how did your performance change once you moved on from the sound systems?
Back in the day MCing was just about lyrics, it wasn’t so much about performing. Once I moved into the party scene, I tried to bring a bit more performance in. The lyric writing dwindled as it became more about the performance. Moving into the party scene, it’s more about dancing, people don’t want to listen to you all night, there’s only so much they can take in anyway.
Would you like to go back to the MCing?
Sometimes I think maybe I should do that. But there are better MCs than me out there now so it is their time to shine. Growing up I went through ska, punk, rare groove, went to soul weekenders, electro, funk, hip-hop, break-dancing. I was recently trying to find a video of me breakdancing on TV. Anglia news came to my home town, Peterborough, to do a ‘Break-dancing is taking off in Peterborough’ story, and there was me in the background, about 17 years old, body-popping with a perm! So, I’ve been through a lot of scenes.
“Revolution” is very firmly in drum & bass, which has always had a big following, but somehow manages to retain an underground authenticity. What is it about drum & bass you think gets people so excited?
To me drum & bass is the last form of underground music that is still untouched. Whereas other forms of dance music have sold out in some respects, you can still write hard drum and bass and find an audience. It has the beats and bass, which is what made me get into dance music in the first place. When acid house was around I wasn’t into it. I didn’t get it for a while. I remember the first time it clicked for me was at a soul weekender when I saw Adamski in Prestatyn. It was one of those ‘big weekends’ and it kind of hit me in a different way.
Since then you’ve had a huge career, you’re headlining stadiums, picking up awards. How do you stay grounded?
It’s just a progression really, it’s not something that happened over night. We’re all quite grounded people. I’ve never been an egomaniac. It’s something that I enjoy doing and that’s it really. It’s nothing more than that.
I was looking back at some of The Prodigy’s achievements and it’s insane, the level of success that you’ve had. Mixmag readers voted you best dance act of all time. How do you handle that legacy?
That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that! I don’t really take note of accolades and awards. You know, it can be the award for the best band on Mars, it doesn’t mean a thing really unless it was voted for by the fans. The only real thing that matters is ‘are you making good music? Are people still moving?’ When I’m making drum & bass, I don’t really give a shit what people think. I just do it because I like doing it and I can put it out, and that’s it. If people like it, that’s a bonus.
If it goes off in the club is that the payoff?
Yeah… When you’re an artist, it’s all about creativity. I like to create. I’m always thinking how I can create. It doesn’t stop. I am an artist as well. I’m always creating. If I’ve got two pairs of jeans I’m thinking; ‘I can stitch those two up the middle and have one blue leg and one grey leg.’ I’m constantly thinking how can I create? How can I evolve? Like anyone, I’ve got my limitations, but I’m always striving to be better. I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do. I just need to figure out how to get there. That’s what I live for. That’s not going to stop, just because I’ve finished a track. I’m always pushing and trying to create something a bit more dangerous, a bit more noisy, a bit more edgy. Something to stir up some emotions.
Speaking of emotions, for me “Revolution” sounds like an angry track. Is it angry?
It’s not angry. It’s just noise. It’s ‘how do you create something that just explodes?’ You put it on and you don’t want to leave it at that volume. You want it up louder. It’s always a challenge and there’s always tracks that don’t cut it, or need reworking. I’m not a perfectionist, but it has to have something that makes you want to keep playing it, and if it doesn’t then what’s the point?
It is a big track, no doubt about that. It hits and then it doesn’t let up. What sort of tech are you using in the studio?
We use Ableton and we record vocals in Logic. I can’t tell you everything I use [laughs], it’s kind of like asking a chef the recipe to his cake. You taste the cake and think ‘wow, that’s a good cake’. How it was created doesn’t matter. We put the music together and we don’t let it out until it sounds hard. And that’s it. I just want to keep putting tracks out, I don’t really care if people like them or not. I like them.
Do you have any ambition to do a solo album?
Nah I don’t think about albums. I don’t think like that, I just put out tracks. Do one or two tracks every month and just keep doing that. Maybe that’s an idea, to do an album, once there are enough tracks, but that’s not really on my agenda. I just like to put the tracks out, to create.
It seems like you’re always creating, what do you do to relax?
Create! [laughs] There’s no relaxing time for me. I’m married with kids. My creating time is my relaxing time. I’ve been on holidays with my family and after a few days I turn to my wife and say “I’m going to get an early flight home.” I want to get home and start writing music, doing art. I spend 90% of my life on the road, it’s hard to get on another plane when you are on ‘down time’. I understand her perspective, of course, but relaxing for me is being at home and creating.
Maxim - "Revolution" Ft. YT is out now, get it here