Norman Cook: Fat's life

Norman Cook - aka Fatboy Slim, the world's most successful DJ - has come a long way since he first found fame in the 1980s. Here, he discusses music, marriage and the 'mid-life crossroads' with Nick Duerden
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Meet Norman Cook at home (his, not mine), a rather ample residence in perhaps the quietest corner of Brighton, where the noise and overcrowding of The Lanes is nothing but a distant rumour. The very moment you walk through the front door to find that it is not one but actually two houses, side-by-side, you realise that he lives in a luxury befitting the world's most successful DJ. He bought both properties a few years ago for some much-needed space and serenity, for the private beach that he shares only with neighbours Paul McCartney and TV's Nick Berry, and for the marvellous sea view. It's a nice place, and full of palpable positivity: framed posters of smiley faces adorn the walls of the hallway because Cook feels a pronounced affiliation with them (he also has one embedded in a ring that he wears on the third finger of his right hand). This isn't simply due to its drug connotations - Cook was once a vocal advocate of ecstasy, which he claimed rescued him from a deep depression in the 1990s - but because he was brought up to be a great believer in inner happiness.

Today, however, he is far from smiley himself. His three-year-old son Woody recently caught a bug at school, and duly passed it on to his father. "If you really want to know," he says, grimacing, "I've been vomiting most of the night."

The suntan he has recently brought back from two weeks in Ibiza, then, is compounded by an uncomfortably tomato-red glow that clings to both cheeks and prompts sweat to dot his receding hairline. He looks about to explode again at any moment but, nice man and charming host that he is, he does his best to override the nausea and leads me upstairs, through a couple of chill-out rooms and on to the balcony that looks out across the Channel.

Occasionally, it also looks out on to dead people. "I was swimming right there," he says, pointing maybe 50 feet from his back door, "with Woody in my arms, and a corpse floated gently by. The third this year." Something the estate agents failed to mention when he bought here was the sea's arcing current. Cook explains that the white cliffs beyond Brighton's pier in the far distance are a particularly popular place for suicides. "They jump in, drown, and then very gently float in this big semi-circle before ending up right f about here," he explains. "Not the kind of thing you want to see when you're swimming with your son, is it? I mean, how do you explain that kind of thing to him? For that matter, how do you explain it to me?"

Under the guise of Fatboy Slim, the pseudonym he has lived with for the past eight years, Norman Cook is about to release his fourth album, Palookaville. While 2000's Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars had its moments - not least "Weapon of Choice," whose Spike Jonze-directed video featured a dancing Christopher Walken and was voted by MTV as the best music video of all time - it is this record that feels like the natural successor to 1998's You've Come a Long Way, Baby, the album that made him a global superstar.

But where that record's wonderfully daft cartoon dance tunes were designed for clubs and beach parties, Palookaville, which features collaborations from funk legend Bootsy Collins, US rapper Lateef and Blur's Damon Albarn, is the sound of a 40-year-old man taking his foot off the accelerator and getting uncharacteristically reflective. Certainly, it has its hyperactive highlights ("Wonderful Night", "Jingo", and the manic "Slash Dot Dash"), but it also goes where most dance music fears to tread: into soul-searching introspection. But then Cook has had a lot to get introspective about recently. Where, in the past, his songs have been made up exclusively of samples, Palookaville's proper song structures make this his most affecting work yet. In its more sedate moments, it's as mournful as anything by Damien Rice.

"Well, it is a personal record, I suppose," he says, hesitantly, "inspired, you know, by - well, by personal events." Halfway through its four-year recording, Cook's marriage to Zoe Ball broke down. The idyllic life he had so meticulously carved out for himself had suddenly gone so very wrong.

Norman Cook is not Norman Cook's real name. He was born Quentin, the youngest of three children, and brought up in Reigate in Surrey. His parents were avowed pacifists, his mother a follower of the little-known Kosman faith, a religion that preaches unity and karma. By the time he turned 13, Cook had replaced his own devotion to unity with an obsession for music, first with Donny Osmond, then heavy metal, then punk. By 1986, he was a cardigan-wearing bassist with Hull's The Housemartins (whose singer, Paul Heaton, went on to form The Beautiful South). The Housemartins had many hit singles over the next couple of years, including the jangly "Happy Hour" and an a capella version of The Isley Brothers' "Caravan of Love", which became a Christmas number one. But Cook felt ill-suited to the genre, desperate to scratch an increasingly rhythmic itch. Two years after the band's dissolution, his exploratory remix of Eric B & Rakim's "I Know You Got Soul" went top five. Finally, he'd found his niche.

By 1990, he was fronting Beats International, whose single "Dub Be Good to Me" was one of the year's biggest hits. Cook, always a heavy drinker, went on what he now terms "an ego rampage", with ruinous effect. His wife lost all respect for him and filed for divorce, the band split up, and Cook had a nervous breakdown.

Spells in psychiatry failed to work, so when a friend placed a tab of ecstasy on his tongue with a promise of almost spiritual revelation, Cook's previously anti-drugs stance flew out of the window and he swallowed. That night he smiled more than he had in a year, and felt overwhelmed, adrenalised, supercharged. Of course, the only way to maintain these sensations was to take more and more drugs, which he did, rapaciously.

By the mid-nineties, Cook was part of the funk collective Freakpower whose "Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out" single featured on a Levi's jeans advert, and gave him another number one. His narcotic intake by this stage was formidable, and his flippant boast to having once snorted cocaine off some railway tracks would haunt him forever more. He embarked upon a new relationship, and his girlfriend elected to accompany the band on tour. The result was pure Spinal Tap: end of band, end of relationship. f

"That was it for me," he says. "No more. I wanted absolutely nothing to do with bands after that." Instead, freshly depressed again, he wrote jingles for computer games before eventually relaunching himself as an anonymous remixer and producer, hiding behind various ridiculous monikers, including Mighty Dub Katz & Pizzaman. By the time he'd become Fatboy Slim, his struggle to maintain anonymity was proving nigh on impossible. Fatboy Slim's second album, You've Come A Long Way, Baby, was stuffed with hit singles - "Right Here, Right Now", "The Rockafeller Skank", "Praise You" - that also featured on TV adverts and film soundtracks across the world. By the time he married Zoe Ball, he was more famous than he'd ever dreamt possible. As a couple, they were bona fide A-list celebrities and, fittingly, Ball had a stalker. When they attended the 1999 Champions' League final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich, Ball's then employer, Radio 1, insisted on accompanying bodyguards.

"It was a big learning curve, all that," Cook says. "I'd just got happy being faceless and pretty much unknown again, and then my sudden success and the woman I married thrust me right back into the limelight. It was fun - how couldn't it be? - but it was strange. To see yourself on the news just because you happened to get married was very freaky."

Their union appeared to be an unusually happy one for celebrities, and the gossip pages regularly predicted their marriage, unlike those of their crash-and-burn peers, would endure. But then, last year, amid rumours that Cook's heavy drinking was perhaps more of a problem than first thought, it was announced that the couple's relationship had hit the rocks. They underwent a trial separation that would have remained fairly private had Ball not then embarked upon an affair with another DJ, this one called Dan Peppe.

"That," Cook says, eyes downcast, "was a low point."

Track six of Palookaville is a shuffling, mordant song called "El Bebe Masoquista" that features the following lyrical refrain: "My masochistic baby went and left me," repeated over and over again.

Cook confesses that, rather prophetically, he wrote this song before, "she actually did go and leave me". He tries to smile. "Which was weird."

When he finished the track, a full 18 months after starting it (by which time the couple had successfully reconciled), he sought his wife's permission to include it on the album. She insisted he did, not just because it was a good tune, but because of its veracity. "Your masochistic baby did go and leave you," she told him. "Luckily," Cook says, "she came back."

Another of the album's more tender moments is the Damon Albarn collaboration, "Put It Back Together", also a reference to the couple's marital problems, and the blissfully sad "North West Three", a cover of a John Martyn song, in which Cook recollects watching the sun set over Primrose Hill with Ball before what happened happened. While he felt it necessary to address events in his personal life on record, he finds it difficult to talk about in person. He remains, essentially, very private, which is why it's all the more difficult to understand his recent decision to open his heart to the Sun, in what was billed as an exclusive confessional interview in which he spoke candidly about his wife and her affair. The very mention of this now causes that tomato-red glow about his face to deepen significantly.

The couple are now back together, and in an attempt to focus more on their marriage, both have scaled down their workloads significantly. Cook will no longer DJ with as much, shall we say, ardour as he did before, and where once Ball was a staple of television and radio, as well as a firm fixture at London's celebrity hang-outs, she has practically disappeared from public view.

"Zoe is in the process of changing careers at the moment," he says. "She's been going to film school recently, because she really wants to get into film production. You can't be a children's TV presenter all your life, can you? And you can only do radio for so long before you run out of things to say."

Cook recently played a residency in Ibiza, but for the first time he refused to go out partying afterwards, preferring instead to follow his set with a nice meal at a nice restaurant, and then bed. To his surprise, he found it suited him.

"It's not quite a mid-life crisis," he insists, smiling, "more a mid-life crossroads. I took a little pause in life, I took stock, had an MOT, and reassessed lots of things. I still enjoy myself, I still, you know, have fun, but I no longer fancy playing some club at four o'clock in the morning. It doesn't mean I've given up," he adds, perhaps mindful of being an older man in a younger man's game, "it just means I've altered my parameters. It's funny, I used to say I'd retire when I was 40. Now that I am 40, I've changed my mind. I'm not going to be retiring at all. You'll have to sack me first."

'Palookaville' is released on Monday

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