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We Need To Talk About Leeroy Thornhill

Whatever the era, whatever the genre; no matter how or when you came into this weird old world we call bass music, there’s a strong chance you’ve been exposed to the work of Leeroy Thornhill.

That could have been during his role as a dancer and performer with The Prodigy during the band’s first decade of existence. It could have been the years when he was the front man with break veteran Hyper’s band or his indie-style songwriting as Flightcrank. Perhaps it was his work over the last six years with Marten Horger as festival faves Smash Hifi? Or maybe just the fact he’s been on repeat bookings for most breaks and multi-genre events across the globe for the last 18 years because he can annihilate any crowd he’s faced with.

You can add his latest release – Wait For Me / Breaking Out on The Prototypes’ Get Hype – to that list. Flexing around the 127 region, both tracks are the label’s first non-D&B release since launching two years ago. They convey the raw screw face balls-out energy Get Hype has made its own, but do so in their own roomy, moody, 808 busting way, joining the dots and developing the signature as a vibe, rather than a tempo. Throw in remixes from The Protos themselves, Smooth and stone cold acid house OG Adamski and they’re joining the dots between the years, too.

For Thornhill personally they also join the dots of the last few decades and represent him at his most confident and accomplished as a solo producer. Describing this release as the biggest thing that’s happened to him since leaving The Prodigy, Wait For Me / Breaking Out, isn’t just another release for the rave titan. It’s a whole new level and we were keen to find out how it came about…

Whatever the era, whatever the genre, no matter how or when you came into this weird old world we call bass music, there’s a strong chance you’ll enjoy this conversation we had with Leeroy Thornhill…

For most fans you were first known as a dancer. Let’s start by getting a scope of your development as an artist…

Well I was DJing before I did anything else, aged about 15. Beat mixing had hardly been invented back then, it was all hip-hop, rare groove and funk with me and a mate playing bars in town. Then I got into the band. It sounds funny hearing me described as a ‘dancer’ even now. I’d just get up on stage and bust a few moves! It’s a bit embarrassing. But I was playing on stage, even from the first gig we had with the band. Liam only had one (Roland) W30 and we needed two to play it live. I’d take that spare one home and practice on it. I can tell you a few things about that let me tell you…

Tell me!

Well Liam was an absolute genius on that synth, and any synth, but one day we were talking and I said ‘you know you can quantize and copy and paste?’ He was like ‘what? Really?’ On the Experience album he played every single drum hit that came from that synth personally. Every hi-hat, every kick, every snare. He played it all by hand! His focus was on the music and not the technical aspects. But his brain is on another level mate.

So yeah, anyway, I bought my own W30 and slowly built up a studio from there. Not that much got done on it. We were always so busy, I didn’t have time between tours and didn’t have much of a record collection to sample. I didn’t learn music scales or chords so I was going in blind. I didn’t have direction or mates. Working with other people filled that space for me. Guys like Jim Davis, the guitarist from The Prodigy. I couldn’t write dance music but I loved writing songs so I after I left the band I went down the indie route for a little while.

As Flightcrank, right? Then you both joined Hyper’s band if I recall?

Yeah Jim was in that too. We had some good live shows with that but the problem with the first album we did tried to cover too many bases. It didn’t build an identity. I’m proud of what I did with them but that was me writing vocals and not producing. And then I was so busy DJing I still didn’t put the time in with production.

So when did you feel like the penny dropped for you as a producer?

Last week!

Ha!

I guess it started when I came over to Stuttgart and do the Smash Hifi stuff with Marten Horger. I realised I hadn’t made a tune in two years on my own. I was DJing loads and when I did a track I’d get the usual rubbish of like ‘what you using a snare for? Everyone’s using claps’ Then I’d come back with a clap and they’d be like ‘you still using claps? We’re using snares now!’ Plus it didn’t help that the breaks sound was getting a bit too housey. Mafia Kiss came out of nowhere and he changed the whole breaks scene in such an awesome way but so many people took credit for that and copied him. As a result it’s all gone very head-noddy for me. It’s good but it doesn’t peak. No standout moments. There’s good musicality but no hooks. It’s very easy to say that, but it’s taken me 30 years to put it into practice in my sound. Look at Basement Jaxx Where’s Your Head At. Fatboy, Funk Soul Brother. I got the poison, I got the remedy… You know?

Yeah it doesn’t even need a massive cheesy top line. Just a hook, like you say.

Context is a bit different in the case of the old school. Back in the day when everyone was doing Es the DJs wanted to drop a love song in there. Your Love or I Need Your Loving; It makes people feel amazing. It loves them up. So the hooks were there for a different reason. They weren’t written for radio hits, they made people feel good and amplified the E. Now in terms of production, the next generation have been brought up on electronic music, not bands like the first generation were. So they don’t value a chorus and verse structure and prioritise amazing production values. But when you do this, you’re in danger of losing the soul. Bottom line, I don’t think people are writing for the people in front of them as much any more. They’re writing for themselves.

Yeah a lot tunes were made for people to feel good off their faces to begin with…

They really were! And it was very punk and DIY and rough and ready. It had that energy and that rawness which I feel is lacking in some modern productions. Especially in the breaks scene. But maybe that’s just me? I don’t follow. Without choosing too, I’m always going against the grain. Like I  fit in, but I don’t fit in at the same time. But one thing I do know is that I can play to any crowd you put me in front of. Last year I supported Rammstein and a load of other death metal acts in front of 45,000 people knowing they didn’t want a DJ there!

Wow. How did you get a gig like that?

I was booked for the dance tent but a band cancelled and the promoter, who’s a mate of mine, knew I could fill their place. I went in with a lot of rocky stuff, hard energy stuff.

Wow. How did it go?

It went off! The same happened at Tresor in Berlin. One of the most legendary techno clubs on earth. Again, I was shitting it! But I went in, sussed what the crowd wanted and played my take on the things they were enjoying. It’s handy having the ex Prodigy tag, because it does give me opportunities to play those shows, but the trendy people didn’t want me around because I was playing last year’s tunes. I wasn’t playing the cool headnoddy stuff. I want to smash it for the crowd. I don’t play for myself, I play for them. I’m playing all sorts; Lil Louis French Kiss, Killer Adamski, Welcome To Jamrock before I go into drum & bass. I make my own bootlegs of The Police, Bjork, Chilli Peppers and all that.

So how did you link with Get Hype?

That was this January. We were at Epizode Festival, in Vietnam, which was formerly Kazantip in Russia. I’m a resident there, there’s a strong interest in The Prodigy in Russia and they’ve always booked me for years. So I was playing and dropped Wait For Me and it goes off. People are singing it half way through, Nick runs up and asks what it is and I said it’s mine. Then my last tune was drum & bass and he comes up and says ‘thanks man’. I’m like ‘why?’ and he said ‘for playing our tune!’ I’d never met them, I just had a lot of their tunes but I didn’t realise they’d made them. Turns out I’ve been closing my shows with The Prototypes tunes for a very long time. A few days later we’re playing during the daytime and SS, Nick and Chris me all had a b2b playing old school. It was beautiful. The next day they came to a show of mine in Saigon and Nick said they wanted to sign Wait For Me.

So the people were singing along to Wait For Me on the first listen? That’s a producer’s holy grail isn’t it?

It’s definitely an amazing feeling and not something I’ve achieved before with a tune. So anyway they signed it and they liked another tune Breaking Out so signed that too. I’m well happy. I think I’ve got it right now, I’ve learnt enough now to translate the ideas in my head and be happy with what I’ve done. That’s not to say I wasn’t happy before but these are much better.

It’s the best thing you can do at that time

Yeah I have to be honest about myself and my past. I listen to some of the Flightcrank stuff and cringe. But that’s who I was at the time.

Plus Nick and Chris don’t sign any old guff. Get Hype has been a big mission for them. The fact it’s their first non dnb release means it’s pivotal for them and you.

It’s such an honour. I can’t tell you. I was making tunes for myself to DJ and not even sending to labels. Tunes were becoming so disposable. Especially in breaks. The fact they asked me for it, I didn’t send it to a label, they asked me off the back of seeing it played in the place it was intended is incredible and an honour because these guys are smashing it. The stuff they’re putting out is well up there and different to what anyone else is doing in drum & bass. That’s so important. They’re open minded towards breaks, garage, even the old school… They were more than happy for me to have a word with Adamski about a remix.

Proper old school

He’s a genius mate. That Live & Direct album was my life! I used to follow him around off me nut. He’s never stopped doing it. He did a remix for me a few years ago. I was rushing when I gave it to me. The way he builds layers and everything. So yeah he turned in this blinder for this release. Nick and Chris agreed to it and they came back saying it was cool. For young guys to have that scope of the history and look forward to into the future with their production. That’s an important balance!

What comes next?

I’ve packed my studio away while I move house so it’s on hiatus for a few weeks but if that takes too long I’ll work on headphones. There’s longevity with Get Hype releases, though. They’re investing in the release properly. It’s not throw away and they’re taking a risk. You might remember me from old school but a lot of young fans don’t know who the fuck I am! Just this random old geezer!

I was gonna ask if that’s a refreshing thing? It’s been a long time since you were in The Prodigy, does the ‘ex Prodigy’ tag annoy you?

I’m so proud of everything we did. That was the time of my life and they’re the best band in the world. Top boys who are still my mates. But there was a time when I didn’t want to have promoters use The Prodigy history because I wanted to stand on my own. Nick and Chris are doing that for me and I asked for them not to include The Prodigy reference in promos because this is my biggest release to date and if we can’t avoid it on this one I will forever be known as Leeroy ex Prodigy. They got it totally and respected that. There’s always association there, but we don’t need to make it explicit. It’s not the main angle, the music is. So yeah I would rather people see Leeroy Thornhill on a flyer on its own but if the ex Prodigy credentials get more people in the club and the party livelier

Then that’s a good thing for all concerned….

It is. Unless you take the piss and start using the logo and put The Prodigy bigger than my name. I have to approve the artwork because of this or there are legal issues with false advertising and all sorts of shit. I basically have an agreement with the band about what can be used and what not. You get some promoters putting ‘The Prodigy DJ set’ and shit like that. It’s like ‘come on mate! For fuck sake!’ On the flip side, true fans are like ‘why do you still put Prodigy on flyers? We know who you are!’ But it’s out of my hands to a degree. How do you move yourself away from such a big band that you were part of for 10 years?

By releasing massive EPs on Get Hype!

Ha! It’s all happened by complete accident as well. I make music to DJ. I play gigs. I never thought I’d get an EP signed in this way.

And this has all happened this year?  

Yeah since January and I can’t tell you how much I’m buzzing. This is the biggest thing that’s happened to me since leaving the band. I’m writing on my own, I’m not collaborating. I’m writing at a level I’ve always wanted to. Having Nick and Chris sign the record has given me confidence I’ve needed.

This is nice moral about slow and steady winning the race. These cool things happen at any point in life, not just in that first hype bubble breaking through…

Yes they do. And meeting people who understand it! I know I’m going to sound like an old man, but age gives experience. You’ve got time to develop a style and that’s what I’m working on. The mission is to know my style and my sound so people know it’s me without seeing the track info.

That takes time to learn the craft. Years. Decades!

Totally. Then on the flip you get your mavericks like Liam Howlett and Pendulum. I’ll include The Prototypes in that list, too. There’s a bit of musical genius in there. They’ve had a sound since day one. And a timelessness. Like they’re a generation younger than me but we’re all on the same level. There’s a respect for the past and the classic craft of simply rocking the people who are in front of you. But they’re also paying attention and leading from the front. They listen

Listening is the one!!

Listening is the most important thing! We’re all inspired by the past even if we don’t realise that we are. Everything comes from something. I try and make my younger producer mates listen to old things. Like the Police, I say listen to the drummer. Listen to how he plays those drums. Then the Ramones. Most my younger mates hate them but I’m like ‘it doesn’t matter whether you like this or not, just appreciate the dynamics and energy of it’.

I have this conversation with a lot of other artists; The future is exciting… But there’s a lot of things we can take from the past and my main thing that I’ve always kept through all these years is having confidence about my own path, doing what I want to do and not worrying about what the next man is doing. That’s what I feel like Nick and Chris are doing, too. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to work with people like that.

Leeroy Thornhill – Wait For Me / Breaking Out is out now on Get Hype: Beatport / iTunes /Spotify

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