The mythic UK DJ/producer Fatboy Slim (aka Norman Cook) is no longer absorbed in making hit records. But, despite throwing himself into art and film projects, he still has the DJ bug. Earlier this year he pulled off a British arena rave tour.
Cook modestly launched his entertainment career in the ’80s as the bassist in the indie band The Housemartins. However, as a nascent DJ in Brighton, dance music was his passion. In the mid-’90s, the self-deprecating Cook assumed the ironic party persona of Fatboy Slim. He accidentally pioneered the big beat movement, combatting purism in the club underground. Cook joined other British proto-EDM acts – chiefly The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers – impacting on the US.
Cook introduced his ethos with 1996’s credible debut, Better Living Through Chemistry. He cracked the global charts with You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby – home to the beloved bangers ‘The Rockafeller Skank’, ‘Praise You’ and ‘Right Here, Right Now’. Next, he released Halfway Between The Gutter And The Stars – its Jim Morrison-sampling ‘Sunset (Bird Of Prey)’ his most stirring song, #fact. Cook dropped a fourth – and possibly now final – Fatboy Slim album, Palookaville, 15 years ago. Indeed, in interviews, he’s been consistently unenthusiastic on the topic of a follow-up.
Yet Cook demonstrated an arty bent – winning a Grammy for the video accompanying ‘Weapon Of Choice’ (with Spike Jonze directing ‘dancer’ Christopher Walken). He and buddy David Byrne recorded Here Lies Love, an eccentric concept album about The Philippines’ Imelda Marcos (subsequently a musical). In 2015, Cook DJed at Banksy’s Dismaland – a transgressive theme park. He himself has lately curated an exhibition, Smile High Club, prompted by his collection of smiley ephemera, in Lisbon, Portugal. Cook was also the music supervisor for the cult filmmaker Julien Temple’s Ibiza: The Silent Movie.
Cook has proffered occasional club tracks. In 2013 he relished a surprise crossover hit alongside Riva Starr and Beardyman with ‘Eat Sleep Rave Repeat’ – which Calvin Harris remixed. And he collaborated with part-time DJ/producer/musician Idris Elba on a housey reworking of Mark Ronson’s ‘Uptown Funk’. Last year Cook issued an EP, Fatboy Slim vs Australia, with remixes of his classics by The Kite String Tangle, Set Mo and… Sydney metallers Northlane. He’s just aired ‘The Return To The Valley Of The Right Now’, a dubby flip of ‘Right Here, Right Now’ to mark its 20th anniversary.
The Brit veteran is a cross-generational fave with Australian punters, stretching back to the Big Day Out era (he headed 2018’s Electric Gardens Festival), and he’s returning over summer for more mega-parties. We caught up with the legend ahead of the tour to talk what he has in store for a country full of diehard fans.
MUSIC FEEDS: You’re coming back to Australia this summer. What can we look forward to, given that you have such a huge fanbase down here?
FATBOY SLIM: Yeah, it’s always a real pleasure to go down to Australia. I feel like there’s always been an affinitybase musically, but also just in our tastes in abandon and sense of humour and stupidity and things like that. So I always feel very, very at home. It’s really nice. It’s always exciting. I think it’s always an occasion going to Australia because geography means that I can’t get down there every now and then, so we always come with a really big show and it always feels like an event – whereas a lot of places I play it’s just dipping in and dipping out. But, Australia, I come down lock, stock and bring the whole crew and set up things and play big shows. So, yes, it’s very exciting for me – and a privilege as well. I don’t take it lightly that you keep having me back.
MF: You had an EP, Fatboy Slim vs Australia, last year. I enjoyed the curation of that. You were really on the money – particularly with Set Mo. How do you feel about that project?
FS: Well, it’s great. I mean, again, it makes it more of an occasion; coming to a country where you think, Well, let’s do something to tie in with the visit. It’s something that sort of brings me more into what’s going on in Australia – ’cause obviously a lot of Australian music and acts don’t really translate here or just get up here. So, for the record company to give me a shortlist of people and [for] me to check out that music and find out what’s going on in Australia, it makes for the whole cultural exchange – I don’t know, it just feels more like I’ve come over and actually visited your country and talked to some people… I met most of the artists who’d done the remixes on it; met them throughout the tour and got to hang out with them. It cements the relationship and the bond and the feeling of an event – an actual tour.
MF: You’ve always been very astute at discerning what’s happening in the dance underground or what needs to change – identifying those cycles. What do you see happening right now? And what is picking up your ears?
FS: Ooh, I don’t know! You flatter me with the idea that I’m on top of what’s going on (laughs). I think a lot of it is just luck and instinct, rather than any real knowledge. I just bumble on. I suppose, as a journalist, you have to be more of an observer of what’s going on. Basically, I just follow my heart and my ears and my head without much thought about what really is going on ’til afterwards. [Then] you go, All right, OK, that’s what we were doing. But, no, people I meet along the way turn me on… My son [Woody, with Zoe Ball] is really into grime and drum ‘n’ bass and I’m going, “OK, that’s NOT what I do (laughs).” In fact, he goes, “Dad, why don’t you play more drum ‘n’ bass?” I’m like, “‘Cause I’m not really into it and I wouldn’t do a very good job.” So, yeah, it sounds more like you’re talking about David Bowie, ’cause he would always be able to see what was coming next and be all over it. I’m not that guy.
MF: What is distinct about dance music is you don’t have this generational divide you have in other genres, where you have a high turnover. It’s amazing that you and Carl Cox are still DJing. No one really cares what age people are. There’s no stigma attached to that. Would you agree?
FS: Yeah! And, when us oldies hang out together, we always talk about this. It’s like, We’re so lucky that being a DJ doesn’t seem to have the same ageing in it that other styles of music or… You know, if we were sportsmen, your career’s over in your mid-30s. If you’re in a boy band, your career’s over in your mid-20s. But, DJs, I think because we were never really pin-ups or teen idols in the first place, and because we can physically do what we do even though we might be getting a little bit slower, our experience compensates for our advancing years. But, yeah, no, you’re right – I’ve definitely noticed it and I’m very thankful.
Also, the best thing about it is you can kind of connect with people who are young enough to be your children, but without having to ‘act young’ or be patronising to them or whatever. I know what it’s like to be an 18-year-old and be horny and drunk and wanna escape the whole world and live this fantasy. And I can still tap into that part of my head and translate that into the show I play or the records that I play – and it sort of comes without effort. If I had to try and dress like a teenager and talk like a teenager or whatever, it might feel undignified at my age. But it feels really natural. And, once you get out there in the dark, no one can really see anyway, so you can get as grey and fat and bald as you want – no one seems to care.
MF: There are great DJs who have disappeared. Maybe they’ve retired. Is there a DJ who you really loved who did that? Just disappeared?
FS: Ooh, interesting question. Sometimes you hear someone’s name and you think, What happened to them? No, ’cause a lot of the ones from the big era of the late ’90s, we knew each other – because in those days we’d be doing shows together every weekend. There was only a limited gene pool and limited amount of shows that we’d do. We all knew each other. So, even the ones that don’t play any more, I kind of know what they’re up to – and I can tell you they’ve all just had children and grown up. On the whole, the DJs you don’t hear anymore, they’ve grown up or they’ve died or had health problems or something like that. Probably in about five minutes’ time I’ll suddenly blurt out a name… Here we go – Deejay Punk Roc! For about six months, he was everywhere and he was killing it. I used to HATE playing with him, ’cause he would just kill it. It was like, OK, I’ll have to raise my game. He was great, though – and then he just disappeared. He probably went back to America or something. But, yeah, OK, Punk Roc, that’d be my choice.
MF: I tell you who’s interesting: Rusty Egan. He’s even from before your time – he was part of the New Romantic scene.
FS: He was our hero, when I was a kid – I was 16, 17. He was one of the first ‘name’ DJs who was just known for being a DJ and being a DJ/producer. Actually, I bumped into him last summer. Funnily enough, I had to stand in for Spandau Ballet at Ibiza Rocks [Hotel in 2015], because the drummer [John Keeble] had had a [health issue], so they had to pull out. And, ’cause I was on the island, I sat in for them. But Rusty was supposed to be the warm-up DJ, and he still plays, so I got the chance to catch up with him.
MF: What music are you working on? I know you apparently don’t want to do another album, but you always have things cooking. Have you ever got back in the studio with Idris Elba?
FS: Yeah, every time I see him, we make a pact that we’ve got to make another record. Then we see each other six months later and go, “We’ve got to make that record.” But it’s one of those things that probably will happen one day. I’m waiting for his acting career to die down a bit because he’s a little busy at the moment. It’s funny – there’s a few things just floating about that sometimes have to be done. I’ve been flirting with Dan [Pearce, aka] Eats Everything quite a lot. We’ve been hanging out quite a lot. We’ve been messing about a little bit in the studio and something might come out of that. But, to be honest, no, it’s not like there’s tonnes of stuff coming out of my brain that I’m not releasing. It’s more that my head is so full with DJing and art projects and film soundtracks. I’m just flexing different muscles. I’ve got to that age in life where I don’t just wanna be on the treadmill making records for the rest of my life. I don’t mind being on the DJing treadmill, because I thoroughly enjoy the experience. But I think I’ve fallen out of love with making records a bit.
MF: One fun project you did this year was the Smile High Club exhibition in Portugal.
FS: You see – that was the most fun I had this year. That’s what’s really turning me on at the moment.
MF: How did you pull that off logistically, because you had your whole collection of smileys presumably flying to Lisbon?
FS: It was quite a task. I had to take photos and put it all into different boxes and pack it all up and then re-erect it in Lisbon. But, apart from that, the rest of the show was stuff we commissioned that was for the show. So it wasn’t just my smiley art collection. But, yeah, that was a fun bit; to have my bit. But what I more enjoyed was working with all the artists and getting to meet and hang out with the artists and just putting the whole thing together and doing something that didn’t involve making people dance or selling them records; turning people onto art. It was great because it was done at a friend of mine’s gallery [Underdogs Gallery] – Vhils, who’s a really famous artist in Portugal. Tonnes of Vhils fans came and then got turned on by the smileys or by my personality; and tonnes of my fans came along and didn’t know much about art, but they came along ’cause they liked me and then they got into the art. So it was a really nice little mixture of different cultures, all united by the love of smileys and art.
I wondered if you stay in touch with the infamous Banksy? I read how he somehow persuaded you to play ‘Let It Go’ from Frozen at Dismaland.
I didn’t take much persuading – I’ve got a daughter [Nelly] too. Yeah, I still keep in touch.
I thought it might be a case of where you know you’re in touch with him when he contacts you. That sounds more regular than I would have expected.
Ah, yeah, no, we keep in touch every now and then. I almost played at the Walled Off Hotel [in Bethlehem] when it opened and then politics got in the way. But once every couple of years we pick up some kind of a joke – some of which come off and some of which don’t. But that’s all I can really say.
If you’d actually told me he sent messages by crow, I would have totally believed it!
Of course I can do that, if that would excite you! The interesting thing about Banksy is that he always sends all these messages by crow and, if the weather is inclement, then the crows don’t get through and then you don’t get the message.
You have this interest in film and you’ve been pursuing that with various things over the years. What’s happening on that front?
Well, I was the musical director for a feature film, a documentary, called Ibiza: The Silent Movie – which was directed by Julien Temple [and] which has just come out this summer in England and hopefully will get to you at some point. The silent bit is there’s no talking. So it’s the story of Ibiza, but it’s not just like an hour-and-a-half of people getting debauched in nightclubs. It’s a lighthearted history lesson about how Ibiza got to where it is today.
It starts with the dawning of creation and then you get into the Phoenicians and then the Romans and then the Moors and then everyone – the Nazis, Dadaists, and then beatniks and hippies and then ravers. So it’s kind of the story of all the different people who came to the island and what they brought with them. There’s a lot of very interesting stories. The first one, for starters, is Ibiza is named after the Phoenician god of dance. And what do you think his name was? Bes – but it sounds like someone you know. So who do we get to play Bes in the film? Bez [from Happy Mondays]. It’s that tongue-in-cheek. We got Bez playing a Phoenician god – and you can see where we’re going with it. It did the festivals in England and then it’s on BBC Four at the moment… It’ll probably end up on Netflix, to be honest.
I meant to ask how you are challenging yourself so you don’t get bored. But it sounds like the artistic projects cover that.
No, you’ve got it right. I mean, playing different shows; not doing too many actual tours – like obviously when I come to Australia, we will come and we’ll have a show half worked out and we’ll do pretty much the same show every night ’cause we know it works. But I much prefer to dip around. One weekend I’ll play a big festival and the next weekend I’ll go and play dirty techno clubs in Austria. This weekend, I just played outdoors in my local park where we’ve got a cafe. I played it for 500 people at the village fete. That really turns me on, doing a variety of shows. And then just trying this flirtation with the art world is very rewarding fun. I really enjoyed working on the film with Julien. I learnt so much about that. So I’d love to do other stuff in film. They’re the sort of things that turn me on that I haven’t done before and that don’t involve just knocking out another record, frankly…
I think probably my biggest inspiration is David Byrne… He wanders around doing different things within the realms of being ‘David Byrne’, but experimenting with dance and film and art and other cultural arts, rather than just doing music. That way, he’s never bored. Obviously, he’s a genius, so he’s better at more than I would be. But he’s my current inspiration of how to grow old gracefully in the music business – indulging yourself and doing interesting things, rather than just try and have hits.
So I don’t imagine you writing your autobiography any time soon. Have you been approached?
Yeah, I have been approached. I would never do it because I can’t tell most of the stories while my children and my parents are alive to read them. I can’t remember huge parts of my career (laughs). Also, I’m having far too much fun enjoying life. When I’ve finished, maybe I’ll write about it. It’s a bit like when you see just serial phone-filmers in the middle of a crowd. Everybody’s having tonnes of fun and they’re trying to film it. It’s like, Why don’t you just put your phone down; enjoy the moment?
I hope you have fun when you come back here. The Australian Open is on in Melbourne around that time. The promoters who are bringing you out have some involvement, so that’s how to blag a ticket, if you want one.
That’s a lovely idea, but it’s not really one of my hobbies. You’ll find me playing dirty nightclubs on my nights off, rather than going to watch tennis [in 2018 Cook played a sneaky Tuesday night set at Melbourne’s Revolver Upstairs.
They’ve got Billy Idol playing it – that’ll be fun.
Actually, that’ll be good. I’d be more interested in seeing Billy Idol than I would watching tennis. But, no, in my downtime I will be eating lovely Australian food and finding dirty nightclubs to play in.
Fatboy Slim just announced his 2020 ‘World Tour Of Australia’. Check out all that important info here.