Hedonism rules; for this funk soul brother
A nervous breakdown and bankruptcy haven't stopped ex-Housemartin Norman Cook becoming the hottest DJ in the UK. Karen O'Brien meets the infamous 'Fatboy Slim'
Sunday 18 October 1998
His many incarnations and collaborations have sold millions of records and he's currently a permanent fixture on music awards lists. This is the person who planned to call his new album "Viva la Under-achiever"; he settled instead for the more apt You've Come a Long Way, Baby. The Verve may believe "The Drugs Don't Work" but then they didn't write the music-mag articles about Cook, which recycle old anecdotes about the hedonism that is - allegedly - DJ culture.
It's an angle that's been repeated thousands of times since Acid House started to gnaw at our consciousness and eardrums a decade ago. The magazines delight in photographing Cook in all of his (supposed) party animal, tired and emotional, just-done-double-shift-DJ-ing glory. His Fatboy Slim debut was called Better Living Through Chemistry, the title borrowed from the Fifties slogan promoting Valium. Cook himself has oft-stated his personal philosophy of life: "make stupid music, have fun and get twatted".
Hardly surprising, then, that I'm half-expecting to be introduced to a half-addled maniac when I get off the train at Brighton, Cook's long- time base. So who is this tanned, lean, clear-eyed vision of 35-year-old exuberance? It seems that the badly-lit, post-club photo spreads do Cook a great disservice. Is this really the king of the DJ dudes, who will later thank me so courteously for making the trip from London and taking him to lunch? Cook is an endearing mix of confidence and self-deprecation and, for one so feted, totally without pretension - "sorted" for sure, but in a positive emotional and intellectual sense.
The title of his new Fatboy Slim album encapsulates Cook's own history, from the bosom of an egalitarian, pacifist family in Reigate, through a degree course in Brighton, to Hull and the Eighties politico-pop of The Housemartins and back to Brighton where, in the early Nineties, his life imploded. Over two hellish years, his marriage ended as he grappled with bankruptcy, and a deep depression that led to a complete breakdown before he was even 30. The first of his multiple dance identities, Beats International, had foundered and writing music for computer games like The Smurfs hardly kept body and soul together. Cook sums up that period succinctly, saying "I just wanted to die".
That was then, this is now. Today, life is not perfect - he has recently separated from the woman he's been with for the past five years, but Norman Cook, master of reinvention, has at last found Better Living Through Music. " I don't get fed up or self-destructive anymore," he says. "After 14 years, I've worked out a way of doing this so it's fun: work on your own most of the time, don't do stupid things that the record company want you to do, and don't let them talk you into anything that you don't want to do.
"I've finally arrived where I wanted to be. I've paid my dues, I'm going to enjoy myself. The Housemartins had this anti-popstar thing. It took me about ten years to get that out of my system because I still had a guilt complex. When I was in the Housemartins, I got a video-recorder and everyone said, 'I thought you were a socialist?' I said, 'Socialism is about everyone having a video-recorder, not about nobody having a video recorder!'"
So is that the reason he's now embracing hedonism? "I used to wear a lot of hair-shirts in the old days", admits Cook, who is wearing Lacoste today. "I thought with The Housemartins that I'd got where I wanted to, and I really hadn't. Then with each band, when you get to number one, you think, 'that was all I ever wanted' but then it's, 'what do I do next?' I didn't want to be super-famous like George Michael or Michael Jackson or Madonna".
These days, it seems it's Madonna who wants to be like Norman Cook. Happy to jump on any style bandwagon that was big enough to hold her publicist, stylist and minder, Madonna was apparently hoping that Cook would work his remixing magic on her. "It's a freaky feeling when I get to a hotel and they say, 'We've got messages for you from Madonna. She's been phoning personally'. Or when I get home and there's a message from Tim Roth and one from Robbie Williams on my answer-phone," he says, barely concealing his awe.
The Pet Shop Boys, too, had wanted him to produce part of their next album and Cook, also under pressure to deliver his own, turned them down. "I really like them and what they do but their music is not really the kind of music I do," he says. "So I said 'no' but it got reported as if I was dissing them and I heard they were upset." So, Neil and Chris, be assured it was nothing personal.
While Cook believes that the Pet Shop Boys saw a collaboration as a "nice, ironic thing", he's less convinced by overtures on behalf of outfits like rock behemoths, Aerosmith. "I very much doubt Aerosmith have even heard of me. It would have been some English A & R man just trying to buy a bit of my credibility and I really don't like that."
The Cook touch has become the Midas touch. It thrust Cornershop into pop nirvana with his remix of "Brimful of Asha". That astonishing success only served to reinforce another part of Cook's work ethic: maximum results from minimum effort. "The irony was that it's been my most successful remix ever and it's one that I probably did the least work on," he says, still slightly startled by its simplicity. "All I did was speed it up, put a drum beat, a heavy break beat and a bassline on it and left the rest of the song completely as it was because it was brilliant."
Cook's teenage years were marked by punk, and his twenties by the Red Wedge generation, yet his interpretation of club culture is fairly apolitical, and he's adamant that the politics of dancing is to keeppolitics out of it. "It's a class thing. For the kind of intellectuals who really get into, let's say, Mercury Music Prize-winners, they see black music or dance music as some kind of interesting ethnic thing where you buy a little piece of the ghetto as you sit there and listen to it on your CD-player, driving your Audi.
"But for me, dance music is about people who do shit jobs all week and on Friday and Saturday nights, they get to be glamorous and exciting. They're dressed up, they're getting drunk, they're getting laid, they're having fun. They want to be Bianca Jagger at Studio 54, even though they might be cobblers from Cleethorpes.
"For me, that's what DJ-ing and dance music is all about; it's having a party, escaping the boring stuff you've been doing the rest of the week. All I want to put into music is fun and glamour and sex and love which is totally the opposite of Red Wedge. I've always said my music is for the hips not the head. If you make 'thoughtful' dance music, people start thinking about it and stop dancing. It's not supposed to be dissected by journalists, you're not supposed to sit at home with the lyric sheet wondering what they mean, reading the sleeve notes."
But isn't it a young man's game - the all-nighters, the summer in Ibiza and the North American club schedule which was so gruelling that Cook collapsed at his deck? Rockers like Mick Jagger and Tina Turner can still be strutting their stuff from their zimmer-frames but the career-span of a club DJ must surely be more limited?
" The Rolling Stones can keep touring, doing their greatest hits every year," he says. "With dance music, no one gives a toss about your greatest hits from 20 years ago. The shelf life of dance music is two years maximum, so you can't live off your past like you can in rock music. You're only as good as your last record."
It's a high pressure, high reward situation but, despite the "turned- on, tuned-out" DJ persona, Norman Cook seems to be at heart a gentle, pensive man. "I've been through a lot of shit to get here," he admits. "This was all I ever wanted to do and it was my destiny. But I have had to give up certain things. Like having kids. I'm 35 and the clock's on now! I've always wanted to have kids but I want to be there to bring them up, and I don't have time to do that right now. And if this still hasn't all ended by the time I'm 45, that might have been one of my sacrifices."
But when he does opt for home life rather than house music, don't expect to see Cook touring with ageing former DJs in a Nineties revival show. "I've always wanted to grow old gracefully, like John Peel; he's still in the middle of the music he loves but he's dignified. And on the radio, you can get as old and fat and bald as you want and no-one notices. I'll have a studio at home. I'll go fishing during the day and do a little radio show at night on the World Service."
It's a lovely vision, but I think it's still far in the future. A few days after our interview, I'm watching television and catch a glimpse of Norman Cook receiving his umpteenth music award. His acceptance speech begins, "There was a young lady from Devizes..." Something tells me that neither he nor the World Service are ready for each other just yet.
'You've Come a Long Way, Baby' by Fatboy Slim is released on Skint Records on October 19
IN HIS OWN WORDS
On The Housemartins
'I used to wear a lot of hair shirts in the old days. I thought with The Housemartins I'd got where I wanted to, and I really hadn't'
On dance culture
'It's a class thing. For me, dance music is about people who do shit jobs all week
and on Friday and Saturday nights they get to be glamourous and exciting'
On making dance music
'No one gives a toss about your greatest hits from 20 years ago. You're only as good as your last record'
On having children
'I've always wanted to have kids but I want to be there to bring them up. If this still hasn't ended by the time I'm 45 that might have been one of my sacrifices'
'I've been through a lot of shit to get here. This was all I ever wanted to do and it was my destiny'
On the future
'I'll have a studio at home, I'll go fishing during the day and do a little radio show at night on the World Service'
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