Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, talks tunes, marriage and his famous Hawaiian shirts, as he hits Dubai…
Anyone who’s seen Norman Cook – aka Brit big-beat boss Fatboy Slim – at the decks during his 20-year DJ career will know him as a bundle of mad, finger-pointing energy. He’ll also typically be wearing a Hawaiian shirt that’s louder than his speakers. But when we get through to him at the tail-end of an interview marathon, his enthusiasm is tempered by a weary air. ‘Sorry,’ he sighs, ‘I’ve been doing this for two hours so I’m quite happy to talk about anything other than the gig…’
But he’s not getting off the hook that easily. Ever since his January 2006 gig was cancelled in the wake of the death of His Highness Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai’s been waiting on tenterhooks for his return. So, come on, Fatboy – what’s in store? ‘I play the same set in most places I go,’ he says with honesty. ‘You can’t deviate too far from the scene, which is bouncy electronic party music with a hard edge. The only thing that changes is whether it’s more moody or more party. But you can’t get moody on a beach, can you?’
And it seems Cook can’t get moody when he’s thinking about music. The more he talks about his set, the more that familiar Fatboy Slim energy radiates. Especially when we move on to one of his many side-projects, a musical about Imedla Marcos that he co-wrote with Talking Heads founder David Byrne. Seriously. ‘Imelda spent most of her time in [infamous New York disco] Studio 54. David said that he wanted to update it to the modern equivalent, which is [massive Ibiza night] Manumission, so he asked me to collaborate.’
The result is a 22-song stage show that’s currently being put together in New York – much to the chagrin of Marcos herself. ‘When David was in the Philippines doing research, some of her people got in touch and said he should leave the country. She’s not happy.’ But Cook’s whimsical about the threat. ‘Well, David’s already a legend – being bumped off by Imelda Marcos would just seal the deal,’ he chuckles. ‘It would be great for the closing number, as David floats off with the angels, singing, “Once in a life, you may find yourself in a ditch in Manila…”’ And is Cook on the hit list? He doesn’t sound scared. ‘I love it [in the Philippines], but we’re just having to avoid going there.’
Byrne wasn’t the first music legend to get hold of Cook’s number. ‘I’ve been cold-called by some fairly famous people to the point where I say, “Yeah, f*** off – who is this really?” Zoë [Ball, BBC radio presenter and Cook’s wife] picked up the phone once and this voice said, “Is Norm there?” She asked him who it was and the guy said, “Mick Jagger.” She said, “F*** off! Norm, is that you doing that really bad impersonation?” It still freaks me out.’
He says that, but his work as The Brighton Port Authority, a collaboration with some of the world’s best and best-known musicians – the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Jack Peñate and Jamie T – seems to have left him a little more blasé. ‘Over the years that we were working on the BPA album [I Think We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat, released this week] I’d have all these weird people around. I’d be in bed and Zoë would come upstairs and say, “Why is Iggy Pop having breakfast in our kitchen?” And I’d say, “Oh, we were doing a tune together and it ran on a bit late so he’s staying for a couple of days.” He’s very, very polite. He’s one of my favourite houseguests.’ Ah, see – being able to off-handedly say that the godfather of punk is one of your favourite houseguests is definitely a sign that you’ve acclimatised to the weird world of celebrity. As is this: ‘He’s really cute. After a couple of glasses of wine he tells all these great stories of him and David Bowie in the ’70s.’
We wish Cook wasn’t so affable and chummy on the phone, frankly, so that we could hate his guts. In an effort to feel better about our own lives, we ask him what’s bad about his. But we immediately regret it as his chipper, lively tone gives way to a thoughtful, sadder one. ‘I drink too much,’ he sighs. ‘And sometimes – well, things like when me and Zoë had martial problems [in 2003, when they underwent a one-month split] and the papers were all over us, which is the one thing you don’t want when you’re trying to sort your marriage out. They’re all bad, but the good things far outweigh them so I don’t complain.’
His tone turns more jovial as he continues. ‘My main [problem] is my choice of wife. I was doing all right as a musician until I married Zoë and then all of a sudden we became serious celebs. That’s the bad thing – if I hadn’t married Zoë everything would be fine,’ he chuckles. But it’s hard not to wonder if these jokes are a way for him to distance himself from the interview – using his friendly Fatboy Slim persona as a defence mechanism against bloodsucking journos.
Some of them don’t get that though: after sarcastically confirming to a journalist that he would ditch Fatboy Slim to become The Brighton Port Authority, the tabloids announced that this was the end of Cook’s most successful persona to date. Not likely, he says. ‘I couldn’t drop it even if I wanted to, because all the photo sessions are of me. Even if I take off the Hawaiian shirt it’s still me, Fatboy Slim. People will still go, “Oi, Fatboy!” in the street.’
And he’s still not moaning. ‘I’m doing bigger and bigger gigs, so as long as I’m having fun, putting food on the table and shoes on my son’s feet, I’m happy. If I stop enjoying it and they stop coming, that’s when I’ll stop. But I can’t – I’ve not got anything else to do in my life. I’m not qualified to do anything else. Like get up, put on a suit and do what I’m told? Can’t do that.’ Nice one, Norman. Nice one.
Norman Cook’s guide to life Best new tune That’s a hard one – my mind goes blank. There’s a remix of The Mystery Jets that I absolutely love, but I can’t remember what it’s called… it’s mental though. To be honest, I actually have a production meeting tomorrow for the new set – I haven’t played it since Brighton beach in September, so I need to get some new tunes together.
Best TV show The Wire. I’m absolutely addicted to it. It reminds me of Hill Street Blues and The Sopranos. It’s got everything: soap opera, gangsters, drugs… We’re halfway through series four now and me and the wife are having anxiety attacks because we’ve only got one and a half more to go.
Best book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – it really impacted my politics. It’s about socialism and the beginning of the fledgling trade union movement, but set before they were invented. It’s very un-Dubai, but me not playing there wouldn’t change the world. Instead, playing there lets me channel the money I make into charity. What else do you do? Ignore the place and hope it goes away?
Best film The Big Lebowski. It just makes me laugh. I identify with The Dude at times, but every single character just tickles me. I love everything the Coens do, but that one particularly. I like to watch it after Apocalypse Now – me and Zoë know it line for line.
Best quote ‘Never go swimming with bow-legged women’. It might be a quote from a mate of mine’s dad. It might not have any literary or film reference whatsoever. [After being told it was used in a ’30s Popeye cartoon] Oh really? That’s fantastic!