Musician, DJ, and record producer Norman Cook, aka the legendary Fatboy Slim, helped to not only define an entire genre in the 90s, but an era. In this interview he talks about the early days, how he met Spike Jonze, the Roland TB-303 and more.
Without further ado...
Synth History: Yourself, along with the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy, and more were pioneers of the big beat genre that emerged in the mid to late 90s. Can you recall the story of how you met Damien Harris, founder of Skint Records, and what the music scene was like?
Norman Cook: Damien came to one of my shows when he was a kid, like 16. I don't remember it, but he does, because I gave him an autograph. Then he moved to Brighton. I used to work in a record shop called Rounder Records and when I ran off to join the circus, he took my job, and so, he was kind of following in my footsteps. Then there was a Brighton label called Loaded Records, which released house records. I made a few records for them as Pizzaman and they were really good friends of mine. Then he started working there. So he's just been following me around my whole career.
Synth History: [laughs]
Norman Cook: But interestingly enough, at one point, the two owners of Loaded Records said, "You know how much we love Damien. I think we're going to have to fire him. He turns up to work at two in the afternoon, stoned, definitely plays golf on the computer. What do you think, should we fire him? I mean, yeah, he's lovely, we love him, but he's useless." And I said, "Yeah, I think, I mean it hurts. I'm glad I don't have to do it."
So then a couple of days later I saw them and I said, "How did it go, firing Damien?" and they went, "We kind of gave him his own label... We called him into the meeting to fire him and he started telling us about this label he wanted to start, that there's this sort of atmosphere in music and he said it all revolves around you and this DJ set that you play. It's like hip hop records speeded up, or acid house records slowed down, sort of this meeting." There were very few records around like that. There were these weird records that didn't quite fit the genres of house or hip hop, but halfway in-between, and they said, "You know, he wants you to make records like that." At that point I was Pizzaman, I was the Mighty Dub Katz and I was in a band called Freak Power. So the last thing I needed was another alter ego. They said, "Well, we gave him his own label called Skint Records. Would you mind making some records under another name?"
So basically the whole Fatboy Slim idea was Damien's idea and it was his reaction to almost getting fired. He turned that thing around beautifully. Around the same time there was a friend of mine, Lindy Layton, who I had been in Beats International with. I kept in touch with her, she lived in London. She said, "You know that kind of music you play that's like speeded up breakbeats or slowed down acid house? There are these guys, these guys run this club, you should really come meet them. They're called The Chemical Brothers." So she took me to the Heavenly Social and when I went in there, they were playing one of my records. I think the first ever Fatboy Slim record. I just went up to introduce myself. I said "Alright!" and we just became sort of brothers, friends and brothers and cohorts. It was based very much around this club in London called the Heavenly Social. It was this sort of afters, Sunday evening club for people who hadn't gone to bed yet. The idea was to break the rules musically and mash up genres. Tom and Ed [The Chemical Brothers] were doing a very similar thing to what I was doing, so we started comparing notes. Then there was Richie Fearless, Death in Vegas and Jon Carter, we all just became a big gang. We just started playing a lot together and that was what evolved into... for ages, we didn't know what to call it [big beat]. There was brit-hop, there was animal house and trip-no, which is like trip-hop mixed with techno, but the club I started in Brighton was called the Big Beat Boutique. So when the press started trying to coin a name for it, they took the name from there. I suppose that was the only thing that united it, different genres but it always had a big beat.
But yeah, Damien Harris was a linchpin of that whole thing. He could see. He had a vision of how it was going. He designed the Fatboy Slim logo and I think he was there that night when I came up with a name, kind of very chemically induced.
Synth History: How did that go, coming up with the name?
Norman Cook: We just got really, really drunk and wrote down a whole lot of names and then looked at them the next day and went, "that's the one." I really love old blues records. Really old, like pre-war blues. I love blues singers and a lot of them have really stupid names. There was like... Peetie Wheatstraw and Snooks Eaglin, Arthur Big Boy Crudup. And if you were a fat blues singer, you were called slim. So there was Pinetop Slim, there was Bumble Bee Slim, there was Memphis Slim. I just thought... Fatboy Slim is the oxymoronic blues singer who can't exist.
Synth History: It's pretty perfect.
Norman Cook: It also just had a good ring to it. It just sounded like this sort of dude.
Synth History: What records were you listening to growing up?
Norman Cook: I grew up pretty much on the Beatles. I was born in 1963, which is the year the Beatles hit big. In my very formative years, they must have been everywhere. They were the only cool music my parents liked. They liked a lot of really, really, really bad music. One good thing was the Beatles. I grew up with that kind of very classic English pop. Then, I came of age during punk rock. I was 14 when punk rock hit England. That really sort of inspired me to break rules when making music. You know, there was a kind of independent spirit, a challenging spirit, a provocative spirit that I got from punk rock. So those were the most formative things, the attitude of punk rock and the sort of classic pop.
Synth History: You've remixed artists like the Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, Groove Armada, etc. What is your approach like for remixing things specifically?
Norman Cook: I listen to a tune and if I think, "Oh, that's a good hook. That's a good hook, but the drums should be beefier" or "it should be faster" or "it's a great hook but it's a pop record and now we need a dance version." That's my criteria. If I listen to it and I can't hear a good hook in it then I just say, "Look, I don't want to take your money and just give you another version." I famously turned down a lot of remixes, just because I didn't want to do it just for the sake of it. It'd have to be something where I would keep the original vibe of the song intact, but just change the arrangement or the tempo or the feel of it, rather than a lot of remixes, they kind of deconstruct the tune and just take one word out of it and turn it into another thing. I like it to be a good song in the first place, but you just needed a different version of it.
Synth History: I have to ask - I read that you first met Spike Jonze when he sent you an audition tape - do you remember what your first thoughts were when you saw it and did you realize how successful your collaborations together would end up being?
Norman Cook: When I first saw it, I had no idea that it was Spike.
Synth History: No way.
Norman Cook: Basically, I got to a hotel room in LA and there was a VHS cassette on the table with a little note saying: "I saw this guy dancing on Hollywood Boulevard to your tune. I thought you'd like to see it. Love, Spike." So I watched it, and it's this crazy crackhead dancing [Spike Jonze], like, bumping into people dancing in the streets doing this interpretive hip-hop street dance. This was the night before I was going to film the Rockafeller Skank video. I'm sitting there and it wasn't going how I wanted it to go. It was becoming too clichéd and too expensive and I thought, what am I doing? Then I looked at this and thought, this is what I should be doing [laughs]. So I went to the record company and I said, "This is the video we should be making tomorrow, not that one. Scrap all that, save our money and just go with this video." And they went, "Yeah, very funny. But you can't do a video like that, the production values are too rubbish, but it is funny, and that is Spike Jonze." And I said, "Who is Spike Jonze?" and they named a couple of videos that he'd done. The Daft Punk Da Funk one and the Björk one, It's Oh So Quiet. They were like my two favorite videos of that year. So I said, "Oh, I've got to meet this guy!" He came to the show the next day. I told him, "I love what you've done, but could we just save that idea for the next single because the record company wouldn't let me scrap the Rockafeller Skank video. Will you do it for the next single?" And he said, "Yeah."
At that point, I had no idea how that was gonna change my career. All I thought was, here's somebody who thinks the same as I do, in terms of a punk approach and challenging things and not just doing things for the sake of them. Just thinking, do we really need to do it like that? Wouldn't it be more interesting to go off in this direction?
I loved his ideas and his energy and his irreverence about everything. And then he introduced me to Roman Coppola, because he was going out with Sofia Coppola at that time. He introduced me to her brother and he [Roman] did the video for Gangster Trippin'. Then Spike did the video for Praise You and then Weapon of Choice. So I sort of got in with their crew and they're all crazy geniuses. That kind of broke me in America. Those were the days when MTV was so powerful about breaking a record, but they kind of got stuck in a rut, and then came this new kind of video that's actually a little bit more interesting and breaks rules. That just launched me around the world, those three videos really. And from then on, I approached making videos completely different. I didn't let the record company decide anything. I didn't appear in any of them ever again in my life. Well, to make the video more interesting, first thing don't have me in it [laughs] because then you have to write some kind of extraneous thing for me to do. So that launched my whole career worldwide, exponentially. Then, every other video director wanted to do a Fatboy Slim video. It became a sort of thing. They were all coming to me with really crazy ideas. I never got a boring treatment.
Synth History: What's inspiring you the most right now?
Norman Cook: I'm really into art at the moment. I've always really been into street art and public art. I collect Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf I really like. Just recently, from collaborating with friends of mine who are artists, I've realized that there's such a sort of link between that part of the art world and what I do. I've been collaborating more with artists. A couple of years ago, just before lockdown, I got invited to curate my own show, a gallery in Lisbon in Portugal, there was a whole show around the art of the smiley. I realized that I can just email my favorite artists and go "Hi, my name is Norman and I'm a DJ. You might have heard of me, Fatboy Slim, and I really like your stuff, can you do something for us?" and they pretty much, all of them, just go, "Yeah, I love you!"
Again, it's meeting minds that are as creative your's and bouncing off [each other]. Now everybody in the art world kind of knows that I'm into it, so I get lots more interesting offers. Beyond just them doing your next record sleeve or something, you know, actually collaborate. I'm doing something with Ron English for Elrow in Ibiza. I really love art because I'm crap at art. I'm colorblind and I can't draw. So they're like, "Oh, dude, would you collaborate?" I'm like, "yeah, I can't actually collaborate on any 'art' bit, but we'll make something together." I do a lot of stuff with artists and that recharges me.
Synth History: Do you remember when you first got the Atari ST?
Norman Cook: I do, yeah. A keyboard player that I was working with had one and he was showing me how it works, but he was using it more musically. But as soon as I worked out you can use samples... Before then I was making records with drum loops, but we were having to use a digital delay where you'd have to loop it within itself. You'd have to sit there for hours trying to get it in time. It's like tape loops, but within a sample, you had to get it minutely so that at each time, it would trigger. So I was just playing things, I had a sampler with four seconds of samples, so you can maybe get four hits, kick, snare, and I'd been experimenting with that. When the idea that that could all be done, run live and everything, that just really turned me on. For years and years and years, I learned on that [Atari ST] and I learned all its foibles. I even knew when it was going to crash [laughs]. It didn't save as it went along, you had to save every 10 minutes. You could tell when it would happen. There's a little sort of flicker thing that it used to do. It's like, "okay, in the next five minutes, I'm going to crash." Then I would save. I got so used to working like that. I carried on working like that. Then people invented laptops and PCs and I just carried on with the Atari.
Synth History: That's awesome.
Norman Cook: I knew the software inside out and I carried on using [Akai] S950 samplers. They invented the S1000 and then the S3000, and I'm like, "No, no, no, I know the filters in the S950 so well." My approach to all sorts of technology and music is late adopter. Learn one thing, but learn it really thoroughly, so I'm not pulling over manuals, and know it inside out. Then, hang on to it for as long as you can still access it and get it to work. Because there's no point, you know, you can spend your whole life just trying to learn a new shiny thing that comes out. Then you spend a couple of months learning how to use it and then another shiny thing comes out. You spend the whole time learning how to use gear and not actually getting in there and using it. I've just got to a point with my laptop where I've got to upgrade my OS because so many things don't run with it. Then the programs that I am using don't work with the new OS. It's like... "I've got to get version 12 of Ableton." They're like "What are you on?" and I'm like "Eight!"
Hence, I always love the old gear more than the new gear. I find it more inspiring. When you're making electronic music, I think the most inspiring times are when people had very limited equipment and it was what you could squeeze out of that. Things like the 808 and the 909 and 303. The 303 was born out of, you've got this really cheap thing that didn't work for what it was meant to do. So there was secondhand ones in every single junk shop. Then somebody worked out that if you abuse the filters on it, this beautiful acid sound comes out. I would go in to make a record with one drum machine, a couple of synths that I knew really well, and some loops and samples that I had. Those were my parameters. What can you get out of this and how inventive you can be with what you've got. That is one of the reasons I don't make so much music anymore. Give me a laptop, but it's got every single drum machine, every single synth sound, every single - potentially - sound known to man, every record that's ever been released. And they're all there. And I just sit and go, "pfft, where do you start?". I need to start with, you know, I've just borrowed a drum machine off a mate, I've got it for the weekend, just get what I can out of it.
Synth History: Your debut single as Fatboy Slim, Everybody needs a 303, references the legendary bass synth. Do you still think everybody needs a 303?
Norman Cook: Everybody needs a 303. Most importantly, though people might not know it, what they need is a real 303, not a clone. You can tell the difference between them and they don't quite get... the clones are good, but they're not a 303. I think everyone should have a 303 in their house that you could just run internally with its own little secret setup. You've got a few patterns in it that you wrote one night and then in the morning while you're having your coffee, you just have a little tweak with it, and that would set your day up perfectly.
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