The Return of the Funk Soul Brutha

Big beat superstar Fatboy Slim comes to terms with success on new disc

By |

Still reeling from the runaway success of 1998's You've Come A Long Way Baby, British big beat maestro Norman Cook (a.k.a. Fatboy Slim<) attempts to regain a bit of sanity with his latest album, Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars. The happy-go-lucky grooves that fueled past hits like "The Rockafeller Skank" and "Praise You," are still present, only now they share space with more experimental flights.

A key signifier of Cook's new direction is "Sunset (Bird of Prey)," an atmospheric Chemical Brothers-inspired slice of psychedelia that prominently features a spoken-word sample by late Doors' frontman Jim Morrison. The rest of the album puts similarly unusual spins on the familiar club formula, as rising R&B star Macy Gray lends her concrete mixer vocals to the Studio 54 flashback "Love Life" and ex-Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins steps in with the old school party funk flavor on "Weapon Of Choice."

After nearly a decade of operating on the fringes of Britain's club scene using shoddy aliases like Pizzaman, Mighty Dub Katz and Freakpower, Cook (a former member of the Housemartins) finally broke through three years ago with Fatboy Slim's platinum-selling debut, Better Living Through Chemistry. His songs have since been all over MTV and used ad nauseam in countless movie trailers and television commercials. Completing his turn of fortune, last year Cook married BBC Radio One DJ Zoe Ball. They are expecting their first child in December.

How's everything going?
Everything's going cool, yeah. Everyone seems to be saying nice things about the album, which is good after eight months of agonizing about whether people like it. So that's a great relief. I'm almost halfway through promoting it now, which is nice. After that, I get four months off to witness the birth of my first child.

Does that make you nervous?
It's going to be stressful because I'm trying to cram six-months of promotion into three, so that it's all out of the way by the time the baby comes. I'm working a little bit harder than I'm used to, hence, at the end of the day, I don't want to talk about the album any more. Can we talk about cricket, or football?

'Fraid not. You've now kept the same name for a third album, which is a something of a miracle.
It is a triumph for me.

That's a big commitment.
It is, yeah. After four divorces, I think I may have married the right woman this time. I think this one might last. It's going to be quite difficult for me to split up. I had kind of forgotten about it until maybe a week ago, and then I remembered this is the first difficult third album I could never do with any of the other acts. After two years, I was getting bored or no one liked us any more. Something always went wrong and we split up.

This time I thought you would change it for the opposite reason -- because the success became too much to handle.
Five or six years ago, I might have done. But I'm thirty-seven now and I don't think I have the strength to start from scratch again. Before, the momentum would have scared me. I would have consciously or unconsciously dismantled it, which is what I did with a couple of the other acts. But now I'm thinking it's kind of an easy life. I've done the hard work. I'm not so flighty. I'm quite comfortable to live out my latter years as Fatboy Slim.

Does this level of success feel how you imagined?
Yes. The good thing is, after flirting with this type of success for ten or fifteen years, I was quite prepared for it. I think, if the first album I ever did when I was twenty-one was as successful as [the last] one, I think I would have been on crack by now. I'd be driving around in a big limousine, pissed off at all my friends, doing crack and wondering what happened to my career. Instead, I've got a child on the way. My biggest joy when I get back from touring is washing up.

Do you really crave that type of normality?
I just know how to slip back into normality. I've never moaned about the pressures of fame, but the people who do, I can see that thing. When you do that thing where you go somewhere interesting and you're getting drunk every night, you come home and there's just nothing. So you start drinking or going out every night to get that excitement back. It's quite hard sometimes when you've had all the adrenaline and ego boosting. It's quite difficult to go back to normal life. That's what I've been learning about over the last couple of years, how to calm down again.

Tell me how Jim Morrison wound up on "Sunset (Bird of Prey)."
The idea behind the Morrison track was, I found this sample on a bootleg and it just reminded me of every sunset I've ever watched. It reminded me of that warm glow you get. I could hear the whole track when I heard the vocal.

What was it like working with Macy Gray?
I had the rhythm track lying around for ages. The piano sample is actually from a Bill Withers album that I love. The song's over that riff, but luckily Macy hadn't heard that song, so she just wrote her own over it. That was a great thing. It was a pivotal moment on the album. I had just been working on a few sketches for a few tracks, and then I went to do the stuff with Macy. When she walked in, I suddenly thought to myself, "Oh my God, what if I hate what she's written? Do I just sit here for three days and pretend to like it, and then go home and quietly throw it away? Or do I just say, "Macy this isn't going to work," and fly back to England? I got into a real sweat about it. And she walked in and sung the first line and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I said, "Thank God, this is going to work." I did two tracks with her and I put them on a tape with four other tracks that I had been working on and it really started to sound like an album. That was a great relief. All of a sudden I knew I was on the way.

This sounds like a more contemplative album than the last.
Yeah, I'm a more thoughtful bloke nowadays. The person who made the last album was a bit lost and just wandering around the world and partying for the sake of it. I was halfway through moving house, and I physically didn't have anything to go home to. The studio was still at the old house, so I was working at an empty house and living at an unpacked one. Normally, when you've been away on tour for three weeks, you just want to get back. But at the end of the tour, I just wanted to stay in Australia. I didn't want to go home because I had nothing to go back to. But now I have a lovely house, a lovely wife, a kid on the way, a lot more stable home life. That kind of helps.

Did you ever imagine you could be happy?
No. I didn't think I could be this successful. You never do. You know the chances of succeeding in the music business are slim. The chances of you peaking fifteen years into your career are slim. And then the chances of finding a nice, stable relationship amongst all that . . . Before I met my wife I had definitely given up on the idea of ever being able to hold down a steady relationship while still doing this job. So to be this content in my career and home life as well is like a dream come true.