Fatboy Slim on Woodstock, Rehab and David Byrne’s Dance Skills
During the peak of his fame as Fatboy Slim, Norman Cook never knew where the beat would lead him. Take that night in 2001 when he DJ’d an Oscar party in Hollywood. “It wasn’t the best crowd reaction I’d ever had,” he says bemusedly. “John Cleese came up to me and asked me to turn the music down. He was very polite: ‘I do understand what you’re trying to do here, boy, but nobody’s really dancing. If you turn the music down, at least we could talk.’”
Cook, 51, has taken a divergent road since techno’s heady late-Nineties crossover, a period when he and fellow U.K. beat masters like the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy laid the groundwork for today’s EDM movement. In the 10 years since the last full Fatboy Slim album, Palookaville, his largest-scale project involved collaborating on the music for Here Lies Love, David Byrne’s captivating Off-Broadway musical about the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. Marcos was something of a jet-setting world celebrity in her time, but her opulent spending, symbolized by her legendary 1,200 pairs of shoes, was in stark contrast with the growing poverty of her country. A bloodless coup eventually removed her family from power, but Marcos later returned to the Philippines and still lives today.
Here Lies Love – complete with singing actors, newsreel footage and a stage design that puts the crowd in a movable pit for most of the show – premiered at New York’s Public Theater last year and wraps up its run on January 4th. But the show will go on: It continues to play in London and will debut in Australia in May, and a U.S. tour will commence next year. We caught up with Cook to talk about the production, the state of dance music and the possibility of a new Fatboy Slim LP. “I’m just sitting back and letting U2 make all the mistakes and David Bowie make the triumphs,” he says. “No one’s rushing for me for the ‘difficult fifth album.’”
Given that you’re not a musical sort of guy, how did you get involved in Here Lies Love?
David pretty much cold-called me and said, “Would you like to work together?” I said yes before he got to the end of the sentence. I’d never worked on a musical before. I never did storytelling music. My music tends to be more repetitive and aimed at the dance floor. David’s idea was that the story of Imelda Marcos wasn’t going to be about her shoe collection and it wasn’t going to be Evita. It was going to be built around her hanging out with celebrities at Studio 54 rather than looking after her own people. He said he wanted to do a song cycle, and if she’d be doing that today, she’d be at Ibiza.
And what did you make of all that?
I was just going, “David Byrne – yes.” We worked for two years on and off. We were literally sending each other cassettes in the post. That shows you how long ago it was. There was no file sharing. Most of the time I was working, I was saying, “Do we need that third verse?” And he was like, “No, we have to tell the story.” My job was in the groove department. This was David’s dream. All I did was help with the songs.
Did you pick his brain for Talking Heads trivia?
I got him to sign my 12-inch of “Psycho Killer.” But apart from that, my fandom of the Heads had to end, because you have to be working. There was a moment when he went to the toilet and my engineer said, “I can’t believe you just showed David Byrne how to play the guitar.” I had taken the guitar right off David to show him a part.
Most of us first heard Here Lies Love as an album that featured people like St. Vincent, Florence Welch, Stevie Earle, Cyndi Lauper, Sia and many others singing those songs.
David’s mission was always a stage production, but we needed backers and money, so we said, “We haven’t got the money for a stage show and we don’t have an Imelda yet, so what do we do?” So we came up with the idea of having our friends sing on it and seeing if the CD would generate interest in the stage show. It still took about three years to get the financial backing. It’s been a very long and interesting journey. On the opening night in London, David was in the pit cheering everyone on, like “Come on!” David’s one of my favorite white dancers in the whole world. We’re both white boys who love funk, but we have to do it our way instead of pretending to be black. It’s a love of black music done with an idiosyncratic white touch.
What’s the status of a new Fatboy Slim album? It’s been a decade.
I’m still between albums, waiting for that fire in my belly. I physically haven’t set foot in a studio. There was a point when I was fed up with making Fatboy Slim records. David has been a great inspiration in that way. He gave up trying to make pop records and doesn’t feel he has to churn out hits. I’m feel like I’m on that journey as well. I did spend a year learning how to use a laptop rather than the Atari I’m used to. That’s as far as I got. When I get home from DJing, I don’t go into the studio. I go to bed.
How do you look back at the EDM invasion of the late Nineties?
We felt we were on the crest of this enormous wave, like the Beatles. We took R&B and sold it back to the Americans. It had that same feeling. It was quite fun. I was personally on a hedonistic mission, which means I don’t remember large chunks of it. I got to play Red Rocks and Woodstock ’99, all those fabled things you never thought would happen. Woodstock was pretty intense. I had to stop my set because someone had driven a van into the middle of the crowd. It was getting quite ugly and people were throwing things. At the end of my set, they said, “Run straight into that car,” and I flew back to England. The next morning I saw footage on the news of my dressing room on fire. I still don’t understand what went wrong.
You also got to work with Christopher Walken on the “Weapon of Choice” video.
I was supposed to be in it with him, but my wife [British TV personality Zoë Ball] decided to have our first child when it was being filmed. I didn’t meet him until the MTV Awards, so we had a fair amount of catching up to do. He loved English soccer and was a very gentle man. He’s not the lunatic you see in the films. The MTV awards was another one of those moments. I sat there with Spike [Jonze] on one side and Walken on the other. For three hours we watched the entire American music industry aghast at what we were doing. It was the same with the “Praise You” video and the MTV Awards: “Who are these people and why are they doing that?” Spike was in character [as fictitious dance troupe leader Richard Koufey] for three days straight.
You had a brief rehab stint later, in 2009, right?
Yeah, 28 days. This March I’ll be six years sober. No regrets. I was just beginning to hurt. It probably prolonged my career by five years and my life by 10.
Is it difficult to DJ knowing there would be drugs in your vicinity, and that someone could dose you?
No. I never understood why someone would dose you. It seems like a shameless waste of good drugs, giving them to someone who doesn’t want them. I occasionally sniff something before I drink it. But I would never preach to anybody about drug taking or drinking. After 30 years I felt I had to stop and needed some help.
During your recent DJ gigs, what differences have you noticed in the crowds compared to a decade or so back?
They’re bigger. And it’s not so driven by a cult feeling as it used to be. You used to have to search deep to find dance music. You had to go to dingy late-night clubs and stay up. Now it’s much more accessible on the Internet – there isn’t this secret handshake. I always felt that one thing that held American dance music back was the over-21 drinking law. Now it’s much more mainstream. Tons of kids in America who might have listened to country now want to rave. And that has to be a good thing. Young people are always looking for something that annoys their parents. It’s got to be louder and snottier than what their parents like.
Some people think it has become too huge and commercial, of course.
I’m not a purist about it. Dance music has always been the soundtrack for escaping mundane lives. On Friday night you’re sexy and free. You can’t be elitist about that. But I feel it could engulf itself at any moment. It’s like some kind of pyramid selling scheme – if one person takes the bottom card out, the whole thing will come tumbling down. It’s so based on money now. If they’re not making money off it, they’ll drop it like a hot potato.