Fatboy Slim: “I was a drugged-up lunatic in the 1990s"
As he releases his lockdown mixtape Back To Mine, the legend that is Norman Cook - aka Fatboy Slim like you don't know that already - invites us into his Brighton home to talk Covid, patriotism and, well, everything you can think of...
The first time I danced — like, danced — to one of Fatboy Slim’s songs happened to be the first time I used a fake ID to go clubbing.
I was 16, visiting my sister at university, and for one night and one night only I was to assume the identity of a Greek guy whose surname I could neither remember nor pronounce. It worked — and when “Praise You” began blaring through a sweaty sea of students, all drinking £1 sambuca shots, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Such a tale is no doubt similar to many people’s when they recount their “relationship” with Fatboy Slim, real name Norman Cook, or at least his music. “My relationship with music is, it's the soundtrack to your life,” Cook said to me when we met.
Meeting someone famous who you are a genuine fan of, though, is daunting. Exciting, yes, but daunting all the same. How can they possibly live up to the god-like status you have given them? Will they be who they say they are — or at least, who they present themself as to the world? “I hope he’s nice,” a friend, who is also a fan, texted me to say when I was on the train to Brighton to sit down with Cook (or Slim, whatever you prefer) at his home - before Lockdown 2 was announced. The DJ has lived in the seaside city since he first moved there, from Bromley, to attend university. “I’m freaking out a bit,” I texted back.
Cook has won a Grammy and two Brit awards, after all, and is the mastermind behind anthems such as Right Here, Right Now, Weapon of Choice and The Rockafeller Skank. He is known for many things, such as forming the electronic band Beats International, and is often credited with pioneering the big beats genre of music in the 1990s. Mostly he’s known for being an inaugural figure on the DJ scene which, before him, was nowhere near as cool as it is now.
As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. “I was a drugged-up lunatic in the 1990s,” Cook told me, laughing and shrugging matter-of-factly, about 10 minutes into our hour-long chat. Immediately, my nerves were calmed. We spoke about everything from the shitshow that is 2020, why he can’t stand being British, and what coronavirus might have looked like in the 1990s. Enjoy...
What did you do to keep busy during lockdown?
I've been in a state of reflection, relaxation and family time, which although wasn't overdue definitely wasn't underdue either. It was good for the soul for me to take a summer off cause normally that's my busiest time and I never have any time with my kids. Weirdly, all this gave me the summer off I've always promised myself. That's what I had to believe to get through the angst of not playing a gig every other weekend, which I've obviously been doing for the last 30 years.
It was strange, don't get me wrong, but I mean I'm kind of lucky that I'm down in Brighton and I have my kids around me so I had plenty to do - and I'm lucky enough that I don't live hand to mouth so I can afford to take a bit of time off. But really I had to just take it on the chin and accept that, under no illusions do I work in a business that's going to put back in place quickly or with any kind of priority.
Was missing that buzz of playing live what inspired you to do your weekly lockdown mix tapes for a time?
Yeah. To be honest, a lot of people were just scrabbling round going: 'Ah I'm gonna do this now, I'm gonna take up painting.' I kind of went the other way - I was a bit like a rabbit caught in headlights.
Well, I didn't get back to writing the difficult 7th album, I didn't take up painting... I just sat here and played with my kids. I mean I did the lockdown mixes every Friday for the first 20 weeks, and that kind of kept me sane, but apart from that I just took the time to be the dad I'm not always present enough to be.
Is that what the mixes were then — a way to stay sane?
Yeah, yeah, it was half for everybody else's entertainment and half for my own sanity I think, yeah. It just kept me connected and it was at a time when you could feel disconnected very easily, whereas now it's this kind of insipid feeling. Half my friends are busier than ever and back at work, while the other half are starving and I'm kind of stuck in a limbo in the middle of not being able to work and finding other things to keep me busy. So it hasn't been that productive but I've kind of tried to keep myself... just, in the moment.
How else did you stop yourself from going stir crazy?
Two things: jigsaw puzzles and kids. Two 10 year-olds and an 18-year-old never let you feel too bored. But in terms of going stir crazy, jigsaw puzzles have always got me through times of stress and crisis, I guess because you can just... just switch off and get into the world of something else. Not like Netflix, where you're still concentrating but on something less important than life. I've had a puzzle on the go pretty much permanently for the last 3 months.
I'm wondering how people will feel when they know Fatboy Slim loves puzzles. How do you think he'd cope during a pandemic?
He'd be a nightmare. Fatboy Slim's an irresponsible fucking lunatic - you can't be him during the week, and definitely not as a father.
It's easy to forget that you and he are different people - I guess that's the same for any famous person who has a real and a stage identity. How do you navigate where Norman Cook ends and Fatboy Slim begin?
It's quite easy. Nowadays I don't really let Fatboy Slim out of the box apart from when I'm on stage. As soon as I come off stage, he goes back in the box. He comes out every now and then if I have to get into character for a Q&A or if I'm making an online video or something. But that's the only time he ever really comes out - he's useless for pretty much anything else apart from showing off and playing records.
So is it Norman Cook who makes the music and Fatboy Slim who plays it?
To be honest, neither of them can really get it together. Norman's far too frail of ego to put something out under his own name - he would worry about what people thought of him, whether he's too old. Norm would worry about that. Fatboy Slim just can't be arsed cause it's not very fun making music on computers - it was much more fun when you were just staying up all night and abusing vintage drum machines.
I've never thought this much about him being a literal separate person to you - but it is like a whole other identity.
It helps keep you sane to have it that way. In my drinking days it was a question of survival - you have to be able to switch off that persona... you know to function as a human being you have to be able to switch it on and off. Then when I got sober it was like I can't be Norman on stage, like Norman is way too dull to be a performer.
So, originally, it was self preservation - I didn't wanna take the irresponsible hedonist home with me. And now it's more I have to make an effort to get into character, to be that person. It doesn't take much though.
Was it intimidating, when you came out of rehab, to live up to Fatboy Slim's reputation - while being sober?
No, actually, it was really easy. I basically learnt it's okay to just go to bed at 4 o'clock in the morning. What's harder is thinking your night starts when work ends at 4am - and then being faced with an early flight the next day. So, no, I don't miss it, it's quite manageable. But I mean tons of performers do it, tons of people. When you meet them they're not that person and simply couldn't be that person for 7 days a week.
Speaking of - which gig, cancelled because of Covid, are you most gutted about?
I had a headlining slot at Glastonbury. First time for about 15 years that I've got a headline slot, and I'm hoping it might roll over to the next one. But yeah, that hurt.
Honestly that was the only time my morale really went, that weekend of what would've been Glasto. It was just everywhere, all over the TV, everyone banging on about it. A couple of friends actually came down to ours with their kids and they all tried to do Glaston(Bayley?) - there was a moment where my son had got this disco light out and we were tuned into Underworld doing Born Slippy from a few years back, and they were all just going for it, dancing around, and I was like: 'This just doesn't do it'.
I got really homesick for Glastonbury and that was the only time when I really really missed what I would have been doing at that time.
You got to go and play Ibiza in summer, though - how was that? Was it weird playing a socially distanced pool party?
Well that was the joy - that was the unexpected joy to the pain and misery of being reminded so much about Glastonbury. We had our annual family holiday booked in Ibiza, but we weren't sure if we were gonna get there, then we thought we were, then we weren't, then we were. Then last minute, we got in just before the quarantine, and decided two weeks of hell - of quarantine - was worth two weeks on our family holiday.
So we went, and then I just texted a few of my mates on the island to say: 'I'm here, I've got my headphones' but didn't expect much - I didn't really know what was allowed. I just lucked out and managed to do two full pool parties at Ibiza Rocks but socially distanced, so everyone was in the pool, or in little Cabanas. And you know it doesn't have the same vibe as a normal party - but it had a vibe that live streams and online gigs could only ever dream of having.
It was funny, all these people walking past and seeing me, they'd try to stop and have a dance or wave at me - every time, though, they had exactly two and a half seconds before a bouncer told them to move on and get to their allocated space.
Was it not weird seeing everyone off their faces, but adhering to coronavirus measures?
Kind of. But it was also just a joy for me to have that connection, to share all these records I'd been amassing over the past 6 months. It topped me up, to be honest that moment probably bought me another 6 months before I get grumpy or depressed again. Yeah it was just a little, you know, top up.
You have spoken out a lot about the government's failure to support the arts during the coronavirus crisis - what do you think needs to change for the industry to feel supported?
Well they've started, they've given that £250 million to the theatres. Every time I hear about places getting money, I think: 'Oh yeah, fabulous, you were thinking about us.' So it's not like they've completely forgotten us, but we're so low on their list of priorities. And you know I can appreciate they've got a lot on - they've got other shit to cock up, sorry - other shit to do. But for a while, it just felt like they were gonna wipe us out completely - cancel us.
I think we all thought they were eventually gonna say: 'Look, in the current climate our priorities are giving jobs to our mates, making lots of money out of this, keeping the economy afloat, saving lives and then right down the bottom of the list, you. You and all your creative types, all your artistic types - you are the most expendable in this crisis so we haven't really got the time to think about you.'
But we just had to remind them that we are actually part of the economy - it's not just the cultural significance, it's the fact we're a £6 billion economy - and you can't just write us off. All we're asking for - and we're not asking to be mollycoddled - is some kind of bail out because most of the people that work within live events are all self-employed, so no one got furloughed. It's just keeping that pressure on, that's all we can do really.As far as we know there's another wave of bail outs coming, so, yeah, it's just reminding the world that we matter.
I also think, if you think about the state of the country at the moment, I think morale and respect for the government are probably two of the things that could really make this pandemic a disaster. It's like, yes, the economy is going to take an enormous hit, yes we're going to go into recession - that's a given. But it could be worse than that. There's a feeling of unrest and belligerency because of the way there seems to be one rule for [the government] and one rule for us. It's like, why are we following your rules?
So I think they kind of have to listen to the youth, because you can't just sweep it under the carpet - the culture industry deserves more respect.
Do you appreciate what you do now more than ever because it's been in such jeopardy this year?
I appreciate it more in terms of just realising how lucky I am to be in this business, to be in this cultural arena where what we do lifts people and helps people. That's the thing the government doesn't understand - they just think it's a load of drunks, you know, but what we do is actually a positive thing and is good for the mental wellbeing of young people if nothing else. And I've never taken that for granted.
The business side of it - that's the thing, business is replaceable - you can have a recession and then claw your way back, but if we lose swathes of our culture - if there are no venues to come back to and then people lose faith, you know new bands don't come up through live venues, and new DJs don't come up - it's something that can die out.
Money is replaceable, but culture and people's lives aren't.
How crucial to life AC (after coronavirus) do you think the survival of the music and live events industry is?
Well, before we can even get to that point - you have to think about what's happening as a result of there being no music industry right now. And, ironically the damage it's having on the pandemic. You've got all these illegal raves going on and there are multiple public displays of people just saying to the government: 'We don't give a fuck about you anymore, we don't give a fuck about this pandemic.'
Like the scenes in Liverpool the last few months. The government really has to think about that. They can't just decide it's a bunch of hooligans - these are your people who a year ago gave you a landslide majority and respected you and now they don't respect you anymore - because they feel you don't respect them.
And it goes without saying, bad things could happen. If you knew about the amount of illegal raves that are happening it's not just people want to break the law for the fun of it, it's because there is a need for some kind of life out there, and it'd be much better to have that controlled.
Someone asked me recently: 'Oh isn't it great that illegal raves are happening again?' and I said: 'I'm gonna have to play a dad here and say no, actually, that is irresponsible right now - it's dangerous. I never thought I would hear that coming out of my mouth and if it is, you know it must really be bad.
How do you think the world would have coped with a pandemic like this back in the 1990s?
I don't think we would have survived lockdown without the internet, as it is. Without Zoom, I think a lot of us would have suffered a lot more. I'm trying to think about what state we were in 20 years ago.
I mean in the midst of all of it there was a kind of excitement in the early phase - it was kind of like being in a film - it felt like this would be a moment in our lives that would define us forever. So I just hope it's not remembered for a government that completely ballsed up everything and subsequently a country that ends up divided at the end of it.
These kinds of things are supposed to bring a country together - a shared conflict propagates a great sense of community, like the Blitz, and we started this all in it together and it seems to be falling apart. I really would like the way that history remembers the pandemic to be that it made us a little more thoughtful and brought us together - at the moment, though, it seems to be dividing us apart.
What's your relationship with being British like - how much does it play into who you, and Fatboy Slim, are?
I've never been proud to be British. I grew up during the power cuts, the miner's strikes. No, I've never been proud of this country. What's to be proud of? Our triumphs were colonialism which meant raping most of the world, and all we've done since is cock things up, upset people, be arrogant, xenophobic, racist.
The only time I've ever felt patriotic was the Olympic closing ceremony - we managed to put on a good Olympics, we didn't cock that one up. We won a couple of medals and to play that ceremony, it was honestly the first time I felt proud - I had this feeling in my chest and it took me a while to realise what it was. Patriotism.
So you definitely weren't a part of the Cool Britannia movement that became quite iconic in the 90s then? Google seems to think you were...
Oh, fuck off. No I wasn't. I think you'll find that during the time of Cool Britannia, I was a drug taking lunatic hanging out in nightclubs. I wasn't even up during the day.
Here's to you Google. On to stuff you are proud of - when did you first think you'd made it?
When I heard one of my tunes on the jukebox in the Queen Vic [on Eastenders].
What was your first big break?
Billy Bragg... yeah, meeting [singer-songwriter] Billy Bragg and becoming friends with him because when he got famous, he gave us a leg up.
What was your first pinch-me moment? Have you ever had someone in the industry who you were a fan of, come up to you and say they're a fan of yours?
I still don't to this day think that has happened!
I find that hard to believe...
Hmmm, I think being asked to produce Blur. That was totally insane, to be fished out and asked to do that. Also just people saying I'm the reason they're where they are today.
I won't embarrass anyone by naming them but a lot of DJs have come up to me and said: 'You're the reason I began DJing'. Every time I hear that I get a little notch on my post - like another soul is mine.
But I take great pride in that, especially if it is someone who is now a really successful DJ - I give myself double points for that. There have been a few - I won't embarrass them - but there have been a few of them.
What's your favourite song that you have made?
I'm probably most proud of “Right Here, Right Now”, just because it can still conjure up emotions, all those years later. It still gives me goosebumps.
I can safely say that if you're a festival anywhere in the world and you hear that song, you're running to the tent it's playing in.
Yeah! Or a sporting event. It still gives me goosebumps and I'm not supposed to get goosebumps from my own tunes in the first place, let alone 12 years later. So that's the one I'm most proud of.
Now seems like an ample time to mention your new record, Back to Mine. It sits in the Back to Mine series in which artists are asked to compile a mix of records they’d most like to listen to at ‘afters’ - right? How did you go about compiling your addition to the series?
It's been my sort of secondary joy and sanity in lockdown. And it's coincidental cause we'd been planning to do it but being able to do it at a more leisurely pace - and doing it off the road - made it possible. What I love about it is, most of the time you're just thinking about tunes for that weekend - what's new, or what's coming out - but to just have time to wonder around your record collection soaking up all the memories. The most incredible thing was just the memories - each track.
My relationship with music is, it's sort of the soundtrack to your life, like in a film soundtrack. I realised that so many of the songs just reminded me of a particular person or a particular night or a particular place. It was a trigger - I think smells and music are the most evocative things to install memories of emotions - remembering one night where I was so in love or one night where I was just so excited - or so high, you know.
So it was a really fun experience just wandering through the archives of my memories, lots of very funny ones, and just experiencing that feeling of love. So, yeah, it was just a labour of love and it easily could have been a quintuple album - the hardest thing was tracking some of the tunes down and getting permission to use them and really just narrowing it down from a long list of like 100 to 18 was hard work.
Do you think it would've been harder to do that if you weren't at home as much as you have been?
I think I might have seen it more as a chore, you know, like while the kids are at school and just wanting to get it done, so it's over. I loved being able to enjoy the process and throw myself fully into it.
There's already been loads of excitement for the mix on social media - do you think Twitter and Instagram have helped your career?
I'm probably one of the last generations which existed completely before computers, let alone social media. Either because of that or despite it I'm quite a luddite. Everyone thinks because I make sort of electronic sounding music I know how technology works, but I'm terrible and I try to keep it out of my life as much as possible. And so I'm not up with the technology of it all.
Because of that I like to call myself a late adopter - I give everything like five years. Each new phone that comes out I give five years, see how everyone else gets on. Which is great - saves you a lot of money in buying the wrong stuff. But at the same time I was quite late on the social media thing, so I'm always playing catch up.
There's other people who are all over it and they use it as a tool. With me and with my social media audience, we all use it but we don't live by it. So it's a good means of communication but I don't think I'm right in there using it to the full extent of its capability.
It's a bit like me having a laptop - I know how to send emails and I know how to do music but I only learn the bits that I really need. I'm like that with social media and it's enough for me to communicate with people but I don't think I'm really using its full capabilities.
Sometimes it feels like I'm 'down with the kids; you know, but it’s recognising the limitations of my age. Just the fact that I can still communicate with 18-year-olds in a nightclub or on a dance floor - I've still got that communication - that's the most important one for me. So yeah there's a certain dignity in my age of not throwing myself completely into social media.
Do you ever miss a time where there was no social media?
Not really, I mean it's like most gadgets. I remember when I first got a TV remote (that's how old I am) and thinking: 'How lazy are you you can't be bothered to walk over to the telly to change the channel, and then roll on a year later it's like watch something for like 20 minutes cause you couldn't be bothered to find the remote to change it. O
nce you got into that thing - someone was talking about The Geese on Brighton Beach, and they're going 'how the hell did you get that many people to know about it without social media?'. Like how did you get a quarter of a million people to know it was on without social media, and it's like I don't know how we ever lived without mobile phones. You arranged to meet someone and if they didn't show up it was like what do you do? So no I can't imagine what we would have done.
Do you ever get nostalgic about anything - is there a certain point in your life you wish you could go back to?
Oh Christ, yeah. Dropping [my son] Woody off at university in September, I would have given my left bollock to swap places with him, to be 18 and starting college again. I had tons of fun and I'd love to do it all again. But no I'm quite happy - I've lived through the golden age of the music business cause I managed to hit punk rock when I was 14, when it was the most exciting thing that ever happened in the world.
And to have done that and then been part of the CD generation where you sold millions of records and got paid for it. I was like the first generation where you got paid - everyone in the Seventies got ripped off. In the Eighties we got paid, so I made a lovely living out of it. Paid to live through all that excitement of CDs and and Smash Hits Magazine. Whole genres have been and gone during my career like the CD has come and gone, the cassette has come and gone.
So it's great to see these things happen in the flesh and I just think it was the golden age of pop music when people got records, and people got excited.
You also saw the rise of DJ culture - how does it feel being a seminal figure in what is now such a saturated industry?
I've been really lucky. When I first started DJing we were just above the glass collector in the food chain of nights out. Watching the whole culture of DJing change and become more important, and dance music in general not being just something that drunk people listen to at parties, you know to hear it on the radio... I've seen so much happening and I wouldn't change any of that.
That feels like a fitting note to end on. One last thing: your fans come to your show to get that sense of escapism you've spoken about, that joy. In the absence of live music events, how can they get that bit of love and sentiment at the moment?
Buy Back to Mine, sit down with five of your closest and oldest friends, get really high, and cuddle each other and talk bobbins. That's the thing we'll never be able to recreate on Zoom: listening to a CD with your best mates, getting on it, and chatting shit about life and love. Just think about 10 different ways you can tell them how much you love them. That's what really matters.