- 31 Jul 19
To celebrate the legendary DJ's 56th birthday, we're revisiting one of classic interviews with Hot Press. In this 1999 interview, Stuart Clark talks to Fatboy Slim about tabloid intrusion, drugs, Zoe Ball and The Housemartins.
There was no sign of the Guinness Book people on the way in, but I'm sure The Clarence is trying to set a record for 'Most Celebrities Crammed Into A Hotel'. Since my arrival five minutes ago, I've spotted Paul Scholes and David Seaman in the lounge, three-quarters of Belle & Sebastian in the bar and a newly hair-extensioned Zoe Ball disappearing into the lift. While the winsome Scottish popsters are here under their own recognisance, the others are waiting on the bloke who later tonight will become the first DJ to headline The Point.
Somebody put £6,000 on Nostradamus being right about the world ending on July 4th 1999 at 66,000/1. You'd probably have got similar odds ten years ago if you'd backed the balding one in the Housemartins to become a multi-millionaire dance superstar.
There's no other description for a man whose spent 39 consecutive weeks in the UK top 30, has Hollywood directors queuing up to use his songs in their movies, and declines £15,000 a go offers to remix such industry giants as U2, Madonna and, er, Laurel & Hardy.
"I don't normally say who I've turned down, because it sounds like I feel I'm better than them, but I actually got asked to remix 'On The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine'," Norman Cook reveals in between mouthfuls of nouvelle nosh. If he's nervous about having to entertain 8,000 people with nowt more than a box of records, it's not reflected in his appetite which extends to three courses. You've Come A Long Way, Baby may have earned him a place in the Premiership, but filling the Point is Fatboy Slim hoisting the F.A. Carling Trophy aloft and going ner-ner-ner-ner-ner to the opposition.
"Yeah, it's a pinnacle," he agrees. "Glastonbury was amazing, but this is the biggest gig I've played where everybody's paid to see me. I'm getting married in seven weeks, and after that I'm not going to do any more shows, apart from the Boutique. I'm going to start working on the next album, and then come back next year with all guns blazing."
It's been said that Cook's reluctance to give interviews is an indication of an ego running wild. I'm no Anthony Clare, but my take on him rationing the chat is that he doesn't want to come across as a showbiz-type who'll do anything for a couple of column inches. Not an easy one to pull off when you're engaged to an |berbabe and taking care of the pre-nups for Posh and Becks' wedding.
"Yeah, it's hard, but if you're in the midst of all this and even half-modest about it, people think that you're a really good bloke. I find myself doing things that I'd never dreamed I'd do. Sometimes, with me and Zok flying somewhere, we have to get whisked through the airport. The VIP treatment. And I'm like, 'bloody hell, what's going on here?', but at the same time, I know that me and Zok hanging around in an airport, we'd just get pestered. So I have to live this new life that's kinda glamorous."
This being a music interview, I'd planned to limit my use of the Z-word. Very noble of me I'm sure you'd agree, but with Cook unable to go for more than 60 seconds without mentioning his beloved's name, I think I'm entitled to ask how much Hello have offered them for the wedding pics?
"It was a quarter of a million and we said no," he laughs.
Isn't telling them where to stick their cheque-book a red rag to a telephoto lens?
"Oh, we know. We had a meeting about the wedding, and the security men were telling us about what the press will probably do. Do you think they'll have helicopters? 'Depend on it'. And I'm like, 'really'? The bloke in charge is checking all the catering people. It's like a military operation."
There must be a temptation to go "Fuck the lot of you!", and boot it up to Gretna Green.
"Yeah, an hour ago we said, 'Can we swap and do it tomorrow? We can do Posh and Beck's one, they've got much more of a do on than us.' I know it's going to be a real, real stress. The last three days are hell because they're paranoid you're going to run off and do a registry office job. There are times when Zok needs to have a minder, and stuff like that. I'm thinking 'weird', but kind of cool at the same time."
While others bitch about media intrusion, Norman Cook realises that hand-in-hand with number one records comes a certain erosion of privacy. He mightn't want Hello in the front pew when he kisses the bride, but neither is he going to give them a good kicking if they try and grab a few long-distance snaps. Chilled as he is in that department, there have been occasions when this pop star lark has severely challenged his sanity.
"I've had a few bad days recently, and I think it's stress," he admits. "It's the pressure of having to live up to the things that are going on, plus wedding stress, buying a house stress. Over the last couple of months I've had a few really bad days, where I just couldn't answer the phone. 'I can't cope anymore'. I had one about three weeks ago, and for a couple of days, I couldn't get off the sofa. Just watching telly all day long. In the end, I took the dog out for a walk, and stepped out the back door onto the beach, and three dolphins came swimming past. That was the sign I needed to lift me up."
Was he better off in his Pizzaman/Mighty Dub Katz days when people knew the name but not the face?
"No, because it's quite easy to be anonymous. I'm not that recognisable. It's really nice going on holidays with Zok because she's not known anywhere outside of England. It's only when I'm with her at home that the attention piles on. I don't really get much hassle."
Indeed, prior to him dating Ms. Ball, the King of the Tabloids, Kelvin MacKenzie, was heard to remark at the Brits, "Who the fuck is Slimboy Fat?"
"That's the thing. I've managed to create some kind of name for myself in the dance world, or the pop world or whatever, and then suddenly I'm turned into the tabloid world, where previously I didn't exist. And all these papers are going, 'We solve the mystery of Zoe Ball's fiancee.' They didn't give a toss about me before, and probably won't in five years time. But yeah, I'm playing in a different league now."
Our friends at Wapping had a field day last summer when Zoe's bloke collapsed mid-DJ set in Montreal. They didn't come right out and say it, but the nudge nudge wink wink implication was that he was off his tits on pharmaceuticals.
"It wasn't drugs, it was exhaustion," Norm insists. "I'd just played four nights in a row, getting three hours sleep, flying to Boston, Chicago, Toronto and Montreal. And on the fourth night, it was a really hot gig, my body said, 'right, I'm off.' But since then, we've changed the pace a bit. That was kinda like the writing on the wall - you can't do this. But it was great as well, because every time the record company try and make me do something I don't want to do, all I have to say is, 'Remember Montreal'."
What's he like in the slobbing around department?
"Oh, I'm the best. Especially at the moment, as I've got something very nice to go home to. But I can be as lazy as you like, as long as you like."
Asked what his favourite method of relaxation is, Cook sighs contentedly and says, "watching films curled up on Zok's sofa." A marriage of showbiz convenience? Fuck off, the Fatboy's in love!
Talking of popcorn-related matters, have they seen Human Traffic yet?
"Yeah, because one of my tracks is on it. I saw a rough cut on video, and I loved it, it's one of my favourite films. It was half celebrating my lifestyle and half taking the piss out of it. The trouble is, it's only people like us who'll get it. You read a review in The Guardian, and it's like, 'Well, it's an interesting examination of the rave culture'! It's really only a small audience who'll understand it."
Poor suggestible wretch that I am, the main thing I got from watching Lorraine Pilkington & Co. larging it up was the urge to go out and score huge amounts of drugs. As a journalist with a family publication and all that, I didn't, but it certainly presents E culture in a very positive light.
"Yeah, I was off to America the next day, and Zok had to get up at about quarter to six, and it was like, 'fuck having something really important to do in six hours, let's go clubbing!' We had to talk each other out of it."
Human Traffic fair enough, but what the bejaysus persuaded him to let 'Rockafeller Skank' accompany the high school prom scene in She's All That? A film, in case you haven't seen it, which makes Porkys look like Citizen Kane.
"Someone advised me not to watch She's All That, because I wouldn't like it," he says drawing sharply on a Benson & Hedges. "I turned down Austin Powers 2, but mainly I go, 'oh, it's just some film in America, okay'."
Talking as we were about Class A's, does he think it's shallow of people not to want to come to his gigs unless they're buzzing?
"Are you saying that you can't appreciate my music unless you're off your nut? That's quite an astute criticism, yeah."
He's admitted he's popped, but has he stopped?
"Em, Em. Can I take the fifth on that one? Is that alright? Don't make me lie."
Before we hand Fatboy Slim the 'Geezer Of The Millennium Award', there was a period in between the making of Better Living Through Chemistry and You've Come A Long Way, Baby when, by his own admission, he turned into a right wanker.
"My head expanded a little too quickly and I thought I was Prince for a while," he confesses. "I believed everything I did would be really interesting and I quickly found out that it wasn't. At the same time I was going through a messy divorce, which didn't help my mental state, and I lost a lot of friends. That's when I lost it musically as well, and I had a bit of a crash. Basically, I wanted to die."
While all is sweetness and light on the relationship front - "Zok's a fucking amazing woman" - he still has a few reservations about his chosen profession.
"It does tend to engulf your life. You don't have time for your friends or yourself. You turn into a workaholic. It is a worry that it could all be part of a familiar pattern."
When You've Come A Long Way, Baby came out I enthusiastically gave it '10' on the Hot Press dice. Hearing it blanket-played everywhere since has done nothing to alter my opinion that, along with Screamadelica, it's the finest dance album ever made by a British passport-holder. Most people would be happy to accept the compliment as is but, nope, Norman Cook has to qualify it.
"I know I can make singles that get played in clubs, but I can't always make decent albums," he reflects. "In the past I've tried to make 'em with tons of musicians and chords and lyrics and songs. I've realised that I'm not very good at that, just as I'm not good at angst records. I know I can make dumb-ass dance music that makes people smile, so that's what I'm doing. As far as being dumb ass goes, I'm a genius. I have a motto that the less time I spend on a record the better. With You've Come A Long Way, Baby my attitude was to adapt that idea - keep it dumb, but give it depth. Other people make deep house, I'm making deep dumb."
That's another new category for the Digital Beat boys. But whatever about writing and recording a tune, it must be a nightmare getting the samples sorted.
"It kinda is, but once we get it all cleared up before the record comes out, we're okay. I've got a good team of bargainers. Occasionally we'll say, 'Okay, either take 50% of that or 100% of nothing, because we can take it off the album.' We've had a few rows with people and had to take 'em off, but most are great.
"Lord Finesse who did the rap on 'The Rockafeller Skank' - we gave him five grand or something for the publishing and he went, 'wow, thanks very much, excellent.' When the song did really well, we gave him some more money and he was like, 'what!?' But with a lot of the tracks, I only end up with about 20%."
Is it a case of having to root around for samples, or does he have a library of beats and pieces stored away in his head?
"I've been looking for 'em ever since I got a sampler, and even before, when I was just DJ-ing. I'm a hopeless record collector. I'll keep buying these big bunches of cheap soul records, and then sit there and go through them. One of my ways of relaxing is sample spotting. Logging is what I call it. My flatmate will come home from work and ask, 'Did you do a tune today?' 'No, I'm just logging'."
A fellow journalist suggested recently that if you listen closely to Cook's bass playing in The Housemartins, you can hear the seeds of what he's doing now as Fatboy Slim. To you sir, I say bollocks! I've been mulling over this for the past week, and I can't think of any musical shift that's been as seismic. It is true, though, that his interest in all things techno blossomed whilst plying his trade with Hull's finest,
"Yeah, I'd been doing tunes at home, with a little four-track, when I was with The Housemartins, and one of them came out and got in the dance charts. It was supposed to be a secret, but the guy who did the reviews for Record Mirror found out and credited it to Norman Housemartin. The rest of the band were up in arms - 'We're going to be lynched by Smiths fans!' And that was one of the reasons we split up. They were really unhappy about this, and I was saying, 'Look, this is the kind of music I want to make.' Never mind the eighties, I was trying to drag The Housemartins kicking and screaming into the seventies.
"Then, a week after we split, a friend of mine who worked for Chrysalis said, 'we've got this track, 'I Know You Got Soul', and we want to do a remix, but we haven't got the permission', and I said, 'well, there's an acapella version on the other side, so you can do what you want.' So I took the vocals, and put it together with 'I Want You Back' by The Jacksons and that Funkadelic drum loop, and told them they should get someone to do that. In the end, that person was me."
I have to say that I think Fatboy Slim has some fucking cheek sitting in U2's gaff when he so cruelly and callously refused to do a remix for them.
"It was their version of 'Pop Muzik'," he rues. "It just wasn't the right tune."
What would've been?
"Em, interesting question. If I could turn back time I'd do 'Even Better Than The Real Thing'. But I'd just do what Paul Oakenfold did to it."
"That was 'Ray Of Light'. I just couldn't think of anything clever to do. There's a few people I've turned down because I don't like them and wouldn't bother listening to the track, but others I'd love to do. I really wanted to do the Madonna release, but I just couldn't. There are tons of artists that I really like, that are really huge, and I get the DAT and I'm going, 'please let this be one that I can get my teeth into', and then, nine times out of ten, it isn't. The one I can really get my teeth into is some unknown band from Holland."
It hasn't always gone down too well with the hair-clip and backpack brigade, but Norman Cook has repeatedly refused to denounce his rock 'n' roll past. Moreover, Hot Press has it on unimpeachable authority that he's been approached by a member of the Grunge Aristocracy vis a vis producing her group's new album.
"It's bizarre but I've been getting on really well with Courtney Love and Hole," he divulges. "I did a tour with them in Australia, the Big Day Out, which is like their Lollapalooza. They were on just before me on the main stage, so every night after they'd finished they'd hang around for my stuff. So we started to become good friends, hanging out together and being pen pals. I saw them at Glastonbury and they were hinting that it'd be fun to do something together. I'd go bonkers, though, working for three months in a studio with a band. Being the diplomat. Half of the work of a producer is to stop the different band members from killing each other."
As soon as he's done here, it's off to New York State for an appearance at the 30th anniversary Woodstock. His inclusion on a bill that also includes Black Sabbath and Megadeth may seem a tad incongruous but, then again, most Americans are blissfully unaware that Fatboy Slim isn't a band.
"I think it's hilarious," he grins. "Whenever I go there, I get people coming up to me and saying, 'Hey, are you in Fatboy Slim?' I think they're fooled by the fact that there's a lot of guitar mixed in, and when they come to a show, they're like, 'Where's the drum-kit? Where's the band?' But before they know it, they're dancing and they're into it. It's a nice way of luring them in. If you said, 'look, I do dance music', they'd go, 'well, fuck off, then.' They just wouldn't listen. They think you're going to be like Moby or something."
There are no such misconceptions about Cook on this side of the Atlantic, with everyone who's bought a ticket for tonight's Point gig aware that they're in for the mother of all big beatings. That said, it must be weird playing to an arena-full of people who were still bereft of body hair when The Housemartins were doing their anoraky thing.
"No, I'm so old and short-sighted now, I can't actually see them. It worries me, though, when people ask for autographs for their seven-year-old kids. It's great that they love me, and the one thing that's good about it is that if they weren't listening to me, they'd be listening to Steps or 911. At the same time, I really hope what I'm doing on the next album isn't aimed at the under-sevens!"
I'm sure those sentiments are echoed by the Vengaboys who don't want anyone else muscling in on the toddler techno racket. I do trust that having scaled the heights as Fatboy Slim, he's not going to pull another name-change on us.
"Hopefully not. It's going to be difficult to split up. 'I'm having lots of musical differences with myself'. I think I'll just stick with this one, because it has the most freedom, because it's just me and I can do what I want. My relationship with Skint is brilliant. There's no pressure to do anything. If I told them I wasn't going to do another album for three years, they'd go 'fine'. I can't see anything going wrong, apart from Fatboy Slim's name becoming mud. That's the only thing that would stop it. But then I'd just come up with another name.
"Didn't I just say I wasn't going to do that ever again?"
He did but, hey, since when was blatant self-contradiction a crime? Seamo, Scolesy and Bally may be getting impatient downstairs, but we can't let Cookie leave without telling us all about Leo Sayer.
"Leo, yeah," he says looking decidedly uncomfortable. "I was asked to produce his album but, um, I wasn't the right person. You need special qualities to work with someone of his calibre."
"Sorry mate, I've got to go."