Filed under: Interview
If you thought wearing loud shirts and listening to Big Beat went out with the nineties then you better have a quiet word with Mr. Fatboy Slim and his legions of fans. He has performed in front of 300,000 fans on a beach in the sun, written the music for a musical, won a grammy and churned out an impressive four albums.
So just how has this DJ and producer, also known as Norman Cook, managed to capture the hearts of millions of people worldwide? Maybe it is the exotic locations he chooses for his gigs like Rio, Loch Ness or Bondi Beach. Maybe it is the fact that he has worked with some very influential people including Macy Gray, Spike Jonze, Bootsy Collins, Damon Albarn and Christopher Walken. But if you ask the man himself he’ll sum it up very simply, “Coz I like to party, and I have more fun than the audience”.
After over ten years in the business Fatboy Slim is taking stock of what’s come so far and releasing a greatest hits album. With his past four albums reaching total sales of around 8 million you can not blame this Brighton boy one bit. He is once again on the tour trail, not that he ever stopped, so we jumped at the chance to find out a little bit more about this past decade.
Interview by Sony Music Japan International Inc. _ Introducion by Nick Lawrence (HigherFrequency)
Q : Why a greatest hits album now?
A : I think after ten years, four albums, and that amount of hits, I think it was about time. I think I earned it.
Q : Did you want to come out with one or did “they” think it was time?
A : When the record company first suggested it, I did think well it may be a bit too early, but once we started working on the tracklisting I forgot in 10 years how much we’ve done. And also because I’ve been doing other projects recently it was good not to do a difficult album.
Q : How did you go about selecting the tracks?
A : It was more like which ones don’t go on it rather than which ones do, more like which was the more successful and worked out. If it was me, (the order of tracks) I would have done it in chronological order, like start with ‘Santa Cruz’, which was the first single of Fatboy Slim. But again we ended up picking the most popular ones first and then sort of working down, but then finishing with two new tracks.
Q : Did that make it easier?
A : No, it’s all in the flow and it stops you worrying too much about “oh we haven’t got this in order”- you figure if it was the greatest hits you’d want to hear the big hits first…The question is how long through the CD before people say shit off. That’s why we put the two new ones at the end, so they’d go through with it.
Q : If you had to pick one, what is the quintessential Fatboy Slim track, and why?
A : I dunno, the obvious one would be track 1 ‘The Rockafeller Skank’, because it was the track that kind of brought me into a different market, and it’s got all the lunacy and the devil-may-care to it, the tracks like ‘Demons’, which wasn’t one of my bigger hits, but one I thought it should have been a bigger hit. It was one of those we released at the wrong time, didn’t quite strike a chord and Macy Gray sung it and it’s one of those that when you’re hearing a greatest hits you think “ah, yes that was good!”
Q : What is a Fatboy Slim desert island disc?
A : Well if it was mine I’d prefer to starve and die. It’s bad enough to be stranded on a desert island but having to listen to my records…If I did bring one my own CDs it would be easy to slit my own throat.
Q :So which one then?
A : Any of them, the sharpest one. Anybody else I’d say “Abby Road” by the Beatles because I think it’s one of the greatest pop records of all time and by the greatest songwriters who at that point were obviously then splitting up, and at the same time they had so many songs still left in them. And side two each track lasted about two minutes, and its medley chosen for another track. I think there was four albums meddled into one, I think simply because they were fed up with each other. So they just wanted to get the stuff out. But in terms of production and songwriting, apart from that “Octopus”.
Q : What are you listening to on your iPod now?
A : I don’t have an iPod. I don’t have an iPod because I haven’t got a computer. Well I’ve got an Atari and an Atari ST which I use in the studio. But I really don’t like the ideas of emails. My wife actually bought me an iPod a couple of years ago, so it was a great idea until we realized you need a computer to put anything into it. So I’ve got an iPod but I’ve got no music on it.
Q : I’ve seen the video for your gig a few years back at Brighton Beach. What goes through your mind standing in front of so many ravers?
A : Half elation to playing in my home town and seeing how many people had come, and half fear because too many people came. And it was really serious worries about safety and there were just too many people – we couldn’t tell them to go home. So half excitement that so many people had come to see me and half fear that it’ll get them hurt, and luckily no one did. But I was working very closely with the police, just watching all the time to see if…you know a lot of drunk people in a very confined state. It was probably the hardest work, in terms of trying to entertain a crowd that big, but also really hoping that we can control a crowd that big.
Q : Was there a point where you forgot about the crowd and lost yourself in the music or was there always that tension?
A : There was always a little bit of tension but a little bit of tension is good sometimes. If you watch the DVD sometimes you can see me spying on the crowd, and when I turn around to get the next record you see my face – I’m working very hard and worrying. If you watch the DVD closely, the last half hour you can see me shouting at people and me being shouted instruction by the police and things like that.
Q : What were some of the seminal experiences that turned you away from bands and onto DJing and dance music?
A : I dunno…There was a point when I was touring with Freak Power, it was a live band and we worked very hard, and there was a point where I realized that I can entertain people more with me just playing records, than having a seven piece band and the crew and everybody on the road. And I was just realizing that I was more a DJ than I was a guitarist.
Q : So no traumatic experiences and more of a realization?
A : There was a bit of trauma involved with touring with bands and I was never the world’s best guitarist or bass player…But when I DJ’d people really seemed to like it so I just gradually got sort of fatigued, touring with bands. Actually there was one gig we played in Switzerland, where I was playing with Bush, B.B.King, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and we were headlining because we were big that year. And having played after Dave Navarro from Red Hot Chili Peppers, and B.B.King, the two big guitarists – I felt very inadequate. I’m very not a very good guitarist, and you know the next time I DJ’d everyone loved it and I was like hold on, maybe I’m doing the wrong job.
Q : How did you maintain your sanity amid all the drugs and madness of the rave boom?
A : I don’t think I did. I think a little bit of insanity is quite healthy in my job. You don’t get noticed or excite people by being normal. Obviously I’m not saying I’ve always been sane but I’ve never been normal, That’s my job, it’s not my job to be normal. We sort of joke about sanity now – no I was never insane but I think “eccentric” is a better way of putting it. In my job you can indulge your eccentricity.
Q : But there were people around you that lost it completely weren’t there?
A : I can’t think of anyone, no…There was a lot of people around me who never had it to lose. But I don’t think the music business has seen any actual casualties of the lifestyle that we live.
Q : How did Fatboy Slim get to be the biggest DJ on the planet?
A : Coz I like to party, and I have more fun than the audience and that kind of worked. A lot of DJs, when performing they’re only looking at the records, and I’m always dancing at the crowd and jumping about. No matter how great the gig I’m always enjoying it more than crowd and I think they notice that.
Q : What makes for an ideal Fatboy Slim DJ set?
A : Playing at an interesting location, to a very happy turned on crowd, especially a crowd as soon as you walk on you’ve already won their hearts, increasingly, when I walk on I kind of feel that I don’t have to win them over, you know in the old days some gig would be like we’d take maybe half an hour to warm them up – but to play outdoors, or on a beach or something where there’s a beautiful beach to look at, rather than just another hole, and to feel when you walk on, the crowd they’re on your side.
Q : What are the best and worst gigs you’ve played?
A : I think the first Brighton Beach party, when we had no idea whether it would work or not, how many people would come, and 65,000 people came. My own hometown, and the weather was good and just the love that I felt from the crowd, because I live in Brighton and not in London. A lot of people in Brighton are very proud of me, because I didn’t move to London. And they all came out to show their appreciation. And they brought their kids, and everybody smiled and danced. Just the pride and triumph of returning home. Yeah, like “you’re one of us and we’re proud of you.” (The worst one) In Shanghai, playing and battling with the police and soldiers, with guns and them just not understanding dance music, and being told to play ballads and slow music.
Q : When was this?
A : This was about 3 years ago, 4 years ago…Yeah getting messages like “can you please play slow music, you’re getting them too excited”. So I sent a message back saying “It’s my job to get people excited, that’s what I do” and then I got a message back – this is when I’m trying to work- a message comes back saying “Could you stop for 10 min so people can calm down?” .So I sent a message back saying “I’m here to do my job, if someone puts a gun to my head then I’ll stop playing music but until then I’ll do my job” and then a message came back going that they’re quite happy to put a gun to my head if you want. So I switched off the turntables and walked away. They would tell the promoter who would get the interpreter to come shout at me while I was playing. I went and hid for a few minutes and then they allowed me back on and by then it was half the crowd, they had gone home
Q : A lot has been written about the ill health of dance music of late. What is wrong and what is right with dance music today?
A : What is wrong is we became complacent about what we were doing, it got too easy to have hits and people stopped breaking new ground. And at the same time people like the White Stripes and The Strokes, they were doing more clever things than us. That’s the downside. The upside is that young people would always want to go out and get drunk and meet members of the opposite sex, or the same sex, and have fun and party. And dance music is the soundtrack to that. So there would always be a job for us to make people dance and smile. But crossing over to the charts, is the icing on the cake, that’s the good bit, and we’re not really being clever enough right now to cross over to the charts. But the good thing is that there’s always a job for us. We might not be selling millions of records but there’ll always be a job for us.
Q : Will dance music scene come back full circle again?
A : Yes definitely. It’s been in and gone since I’ve been in the music business – dance music became fashionable and then unfashionable then fashionable again. We just need someone like Daft Punk to come along and give everybody the boot up their ass. I think we got a bit complacent.
Q : Thinking of “Bird of Prey” and other Fatboy Slim classics, you use a lot of high profile samples. Tell me about what’s involved in getting clearance.
A : Lawyers. Two lots of lawyers, our lawyers and the person’s you sampled lawyers, and nowadays there’re lawyers who simply deal with samples. So you just have to come with an arrangement with the person you’re going to sample – sometimes it’s expensive, sometimes it’s not. It’s a necessary thing for what I do. Sometimes the record company would say to me “Why don’t you just pay it yourself? It would be so much cheaper” So I would say “Yeah, but it wouldn’t be so much fun”
Q : What’s the most you’ve had to pay for a sample?
A : 100%. Royalty for the entire song. If there was more than a 100%, I probably would have paid that.
Q : Can we ask which song?
A : Well it’s normally when there’s more than one sample. When you have to split it between say ‘The Rockafeller Skank’ there was four different samples on it we had to clear, and they all wanted 40%, or 50%, and we were like “Hold On, there’s only like 100% that’s available”. So we were like, “you can all have 25%”, and there was none left for me.
Q : How did you get Christopher Walken to dance in the video for ‘Weapon of Choice’?
A : He volunteered. Spike Jonez (the director) had become a friend of years, and he met Spike before he became an actor and he trained as a dancer. He said to Spike, “I would love to get my dancing on film while I’m still young enough to do it”. So Spike went outside and phoned me and said “Mr. Walken tap-dancing in the video” and I was like “Yes”. I think it’s full of irony, and to see an actor that I really admire but who’s famous for playing psychopaths, to see him do that silly un-psychopathic dancing made me smile and made everyone else smile.
Q : Were you there for the shoot?
A : Unfortunately not, I was supposed to be doing the hovering, I normally make cameo appearances in my videos, but my son was born that weekend, and I figured my priorities – that I should be with my wife.
Q : You’ve collaborated with greats like Bootsy Collins. What are some other dream collaborations?
A : I’ve always said Al Green, just because he’s my favorite singer, I think he’s got the greatest soul voice – he’s a man of god, he’s Reverend Al Green now and I think people must have told him what a godly sinner I am so he’s sort of resistant. We dropped a lot of hints and talked to his management and they’ve always said “Hmm maybe”.
Q : Recently DJs like Andrew Weatherall have been forming bands. Will you ever form a band again?
A : No, I don’t think so. Like I said I’m much better at DJing…It’s been nice working with live musicians but to actually form a band again I don’t think I’ve got the energy left in me. I’ve done it for 20 years and I figure I’m kind of too old to do sound checks and rehearsals, deal with drunk drummers who’ve lost it and all that.
Q : Do you and your wife go clubbing together? If so, what events have been good of late?
A : No. For two reasons; that’s what I do for a job and on my night off I’d much rather prefer to stay home with my son, and secondly in England we’re quite famous so when we do go out everybody stares at us, and you can’t relax. You can’t get drunk when you know everybody’s staring at you.
Q : Tell us about the upcoming Loch Ness gig and your role in planning it…
A : It’s such a beautiful location, just trying to make it the most fun, talking friends of mine like Carl Cox into playing…I guess my role predominantly is to entertain people and to attract people and to have a big party.
Q : Was it your idea?
A : No we were invited – and we thought we’ve done Brighton Beach, we’ve done Copa Cabana beach in Rio in Brazil, we’ve done Bondi Beach in Australia, and we figured it was the last famous beach that we haven’t played yet.
Q : What’s next for Skint?
A : Well at the moment it’s headed for the Greatest Hits…I dunno really, you’ll have to ask them. Everyone thinks that I sort of run Skint Records, but no I’m just an artist on the label. The people who run the label are very good friends of mine, but I’ve got my own record label Southern Fried. But at the moment the one who’s working Skint is gearing up for the Greatest Hits.
Q : What will musicologists be saying in 100 years about Big Beat?
A : Interesting but short-lived, hybrid of house, hip hop, and rap. That was fun while it lasted. Circa 1995-1998. Led by Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim.
Q : Where do you get inspirations for finding sampling material?
A : The first bit of writing an album is we go to a thrift store in LA or NY and just buy up tons of albums of 49 cents each. And just going through and finding little bits and snippets of vocals or music that make me laugh.
Q : Who is the “fat kid” on the coverart, where is he from, where is he now, and how did you find him?
A : We don’t now. I just saw the photo in the newspaper, and it made me smile. So we bought the rights to the photo, but the photographer doesn’t know the name of the person, who he was. We would love it if the person would identify himself, give him some money and give him a job. But we never found him.
Q : Who came up with the idea of him becoming an angel?
A : Me. The whole idea of Greatest Hits is that you’re recycling/re-visiting your greatest numbers and that album was my biggest album and that was sort of the biggest icon. And I just thought to make him into a saint, even though he’s got a cigarette in his hand. Again, the irony comes in.
Q : I wonder how old he is?
A : Well, the photo was taken in 1985, and looking at his weight and his lifestyle, he may not be around anymore. Well unless he started going to the gym and lost weight a bit.
Q : Please tell us about the new track ‘That Old Pair Of Jeans’ and ‘Champion Sound’, where did the inspiration come from?
A : ‘That Old Pair Of Jeans’ is sort of revisiting sort of classic Fatboy Slim territory and ‘Champion Sound’ is a bit of a hint of what’s to come.
End of the interview
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