All words: Jeb Gavin
All photos: Stephanie Breijo
British DJ and producer Fatboy Slim is one of the best DJs in the world. This isn’t an opinion, simply a matter of fact. The man known to his mother and various federal agencies as Norman Cook spent thirty years spinning records, including producing a few of his own. Perhaps you’ve heard of them, little known releases like Better Living Through Chemistry or You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby? More than any other artist, producer or DJ, Fatboy Slim brought electronic music to the forefront of popular music in the mid and late ‘90s, and is the reason kids look to buy samplers and turntables today as often as they want guitars and amps. He does still produce a few albums, most notably 2010’s Here Lies Love with David Byrne and a collaborative record in 2009 under the name Brighton Port Authority (BPA), but most of his time is occupied globetrotting, dropping in on Australia or Brazil to spin a set for 100,000 people only to jet off and do it all again next week. Through luck or guile or the good graces of his sainted tour manager, I sat down with Fatboy Slim for a few minutes Friday night, right before he blew the collective minds of the comparatively small audience at a sold out 9:30 Club. This is what we talked about.
So, why DC? If memory serves, this is the third show you’ve played in DC in a dozen years, and the second time at the 9:30 Club–a much smaller venue than you usually command.
It’s probably something to do with routine. I’m kind of on my way to Miami. I don’t know, to be honest with you there’s no real kind of agenda where I go. I go where I’m invited and the places I get invited the most seem to be the places that I come back to. But there’s no real, sort of strategy where we go, asking “do we go to Brazil next?” We just go where the party is whenever we’re invited.
Changing direction slightly, why Brazil? Seems like you’re a big fan of the music down there…
Yeah, I just–there’s an affinity, they seem to get what I do. And I really like their country, some really lovely people. Also, with Big Beach Bootique in Brighton, the DVD of that sold more in Brazil than it did in the whole rest of the world. And the Brazilians said, “Will you come over and do one in Rio for us?” So we did one in Rio that was even bigger than the one in Brighton. And that went out on [Brazilian] national TV, and that kind of made me a household name in Brazil. So yeah, no, they just seem to really get what I do. They seem to really get what I do; we dance to the same rhythms, we laugh at the same jokes, and we fall in love with the same women. [NOTE: Big Beach Bootique is a Fatboy Slim-curated open air concert usually played beachside in Brighton, UK. The Fifth Big Beach Bootique is scheduled for June 1st and 2nd of this year.]
That’s as succinct an answer as I could hope for. Was there much support from the Brazilian government? I know they have a relatively large and active ministry of culture.
No, not especially. I’m kind of in talks with them about the World Cup. I’m working with them through their FA [football association]. Like you said, it started with beach parties, and then I went on Big Brother, and I DJed for the Big Brother house, and they’ve just taken me to their hearts there.
Are you looking forward to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil?
Oh yeah, yeah.
A personal question: any chance you’re going to do another album with David Byrne, or a new BPA album?
BPA album, well, the last one took 15 years, so I wouldn’t hold your breath for volume two. I’d love to work with David again. I think next time we do it on my terms, I was thinking something like a straight up pop-dance album, which wasn’t 22 songs long, and didn’t have to tell the story of anything in particular. It’s an excellent diversion, but it was definitely me guesting in David Byrne’s world, so if we did another one, he’d have to come and explore Norman’s world.
Speaking of Norman’s world: do you soundtrack your life? Do you ever find yourself picking particular songs for particular activities, and that’s the song you do a certain thing to?
No, it’s the other way ‘round. Songs are the soundtrack to your life. I remember the song that was playing when I met my wife and songs always remind me of certain people or certain situations on one particular night. So rather than being triggers for things I do, they trigger memories of things I’ve already done. I mean, I spend my working nights trying to trigger things by playing records. It’s like, if you ever come back to my house after a gig and someone says, “put a record on.” I’ll go, “no, you choose the records now. I’m done with thinking. I’m done with thinking about what people want to hear next.”
[It was at this point all professionalism broke down, and we just began making requests, particularly the Fatboy Slim track “Waterman”. My friend Hal also requested hearing “Michael Jackson”, though from how I phrased it, Mr. Cook took it to mean play a Michael Jackson song, not his own song entitled “Michael Jackson.” Brilliant photographer Stephanie Breijo requested he play some Clash. Luckily, she was still a professional, and asked the following….]
How many records do you own, would you say?
Where do you get ’em from?
I don’t really buy vinyl anymore, just, everywhere I go in the world–I buy tons of secondhand things to sample off of. I get sent things by record companies to DJ with. Yeah, I’ve probably had another 10,000 pass through my hands.
Mostly 12” records or 7” singles?
Mostly 12” records.
And how do you categorize them all? Do you still have the collection?
Do you really want to know?
Yeah! We really want to know.
I’ve got soul and house albums, A to Zed. Soul and house 12”, A to Zed. Then rap albums, A to Zed, rap 12”, then reggae, then gospel and blues, and then a little section of white rock. It’s only about that wide [gesturing the width of a milk crate or the length of a healthy bass fish.] And then tunes to sample, soundtracks, all of which are A to Zed. Oh, and there’s one of records I have sampled, that I need to keep note of in case we ever need to clear the sample.
How do you keep track of all the samples?
I don’t always. A few slip through the net. It’s like, “we need to clear that,” and I say, “oh, I can’t remember where it came from.”
Do you ever recognize other people using samples you’ve used before?
Sometimes. Sometimes we’ll use the same song or something. I was just listening to a DJ the other night, and there was a tune and I was thinking, “Oh, I really like that. It’s so familiar.” And then I realized it was actually one of my tunes they kind of re-edited. Recognizing my own tunes isn’t my talent.
Any favorite remixes you’ve done, or songs you’re desperate to work on or mix?
Not especially. If there’s tunes I really like I tend not to remix them. I was offered to remix “Born Slippy” [by Underworld] and I went, “No, I can’t touch it, I can’t do anything with it more than what they did.” It’s certain things I think should be left alone. No real desire. My favorite remixes are like “Brimful of Asha” [by Cornershop]. Brilliant tune, it just needed to be sped up, and put a bass line and a drum beat on it.
Do you ever hear something on the radio and think, “Wow, that song could be so much better”?
Yeah, well, with Cornershop, I actually phoned them up and said, “Look, I want to play this when I’m DJing, but it’s too slow. Will you let me remix it?”
Anything you never get asked in interviews, that you’re just desperate for the world to know?
Ehhh, not really. I mean, there’s no real sort of agenda: the nice thing about doing this is I’m not here to promote a new album. I’m not on tour. It’s just a series of engagements, where I go around the world and have a laugh and have a pint. So there’s no agenda, I’m not, “Have you mentioned my new book I have coming out?” or this film I’m in. No, I’m not here for promotional purposes; I’m here purely for pleasure.
Anything you’re looking forward to in Miami? [Fatboy Slim DJed the main stage at the Ultra Music Festival the next night.]
Oh yeah. We’ve given out 3-D specs. We have 25,000 pairs of Fatboy specs that make you see smileys in front of your face. I’m really looking forward to seeing the crowd–you remember that famous picture someone took at the 3-D cinema of the 1950s crowd… I’m really looking forward to looking out at Ultra and seeing 25,000 people with specs on, going [at this point he mimed being blown back while wearing spectacles. Guess you had to be there. Or just look at the photo.]
Well thank you so much for sitting down with us tonight, and have a killer set.
Yeah, it’s going to be all right.
Fatboy Slim is fucking in heaven. Actually everyone in the 9:30 Club was fucking in heaven. The set began promptly at midnight when the man himself–Norman Cook slid into the DJ booth constructed at floor level in front of the stage. The opening chords of “Praise You” stretched out over the audience and into the Black and White Brothers’ track “Put Your Hands Up”. During the next two hours nothing mattered except the joy of hearing what Mr. Cook was going to spin next. This was the third concert the British DJ has played in DC in just over the past decade. An oddity, considering he normally plays large festivals and almost never spins at clubs in the United States.
Even though the next evening he would play to a crowd over 25 times as big as could fit into the 9:30 Club, there he was in his dressing room, digitally crate digging right up until the show began. It’s the kind of focus and care you expect from a master DJ at the top of his game. The attention to detail shows in every moment of his set. Jumping between his own tracks and whatever might keep the party moving along, the audience exploded when he cut the 2manydjs edit of The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” in and out of the mix (clearly at the request of a certain photographer.) The set wasn’t just dance music: it was all kinds of danceable music, seamlessly strung together and layered, as if these songs were always meant to fit together. If it didn’t jibe, it didn’t get played. Few if any of the Fatboy Slim-produced pop tracks made the set list. Songs from his 2010 release Here Lies Love with David Byrne were absent, though not entirely missed as they might’ve slowed things down too much.
In Norman’s world, the stage was open for dancing so the audience could effectively surround the DJ booth; from that vantage it appeared Fatboy Slim was playing the audience and not just records. The music acted as a catalyst and guide, and the man making the music directed the collective will of everyone present. No one batted an eye when samples from the city-specific LMFAO track “I’m in DC Trick” popped up, or a tranced-out cut of Cee Lo’s “Fuck You” bubbled forth from the Brazilian inspired theme from the Austin Powers films.
Considering how the crowd in DC responded as an Underworld track metamorphosed into “Bohemian Rhapsody”, he could have easily been referring to DC. Somewhere in the middle of “Billy Jean”, I found myself on stage bouncing around like an idiot, with this massive grin plastered on my face. I can remember trying to make notes of certain tracks, the lights, of Fatboy Slim jumping around barefoot in the booth guzzling Red Bulls. But try as I might, I could not stop to analyze the evening as it happened.
Packed in a room where everyone, EVERYONE is dancing, where everyone loses it hearing the signature guitar riff from “Satisfaction” cut into “Rockafeller Skank,” you stop thinking and just enjoy the moment.