“The head is a little ungainly, and you can’t actually see anything,” Norman Cook tells me, cheerfully describing, of all things, his new Pink Panther costume. “But the rest of it works really well as a onesie. It also works well if you’re doing late night deliveries, it keeps the wind off.” He’s just released a new album, and, with the aim of lifting 2020 fatigue amongst his fans, personally handling local deliveries – while dressed as an iconic 60s cartoon character.
By Cook’s own admission, he’s always looking for new ways to reach out to his audience. An impending second Covid lockdown meant there were limited promotional opportunities for his new compilation, Back To Mine. No celebrity-packed launch parties, no Olympic Games closing ceremonies and certainly no sweaty club-rocking tour.
This new Fatboy Slim album, a choice selection from the deepest depths of the star’s sprawling record collection, even features The Alan Tew Orchestra’s version of The Pink Panther Theme, as well as originally featuring the cartoon cat in its cover art. Although the latter threw up so many licensing difficulties that it was eventually dropped. “We’d already bought the suit by then, so we thought: ‘Oh, what the hell!’”
The album conjures images of a late-night listening session round at Cook’s Hove house. Across 21 tracks, it ranges from compelling rare groove to the latest sounds. “A lot of it was dictated by what we could get the permission to use. Before, you just licensed a tune and that would be the end of it. But now, with streaming rights, it gets very complicated.” There are plenty of lost gems, anything which brings greater attention to Donal Leace’s Today Won’t Come Again or Googie Rene Combo’s Smokey Joe’s La La is a worthwhile endeavour. Many of these tracks still impact music culture, like Betty Chung’s classic Bang Bang or 1975’s Take Yo’ Praise by Camille Yarborough – which contains a familiar refrain for even the most casual Fatboy fan.
It’s not like Cook ever needed to reaffirm his music-obsessive credentials, but his inclusion oi Eunice Collins’ consistently overlooked At The Hotel shows how much consideration he’s put into Back To Mine. This lo-fi rarity was previously the preserve of ardent collectors and ambitiously-priced record shops. You can try and fail to find out anything about this enigmatic singer or her career. “We had a lot of trouble tracking down Eunice’s family. That’s never been on any kind of streaming before. Things like that feel really good. But that’s part of the fun, trying to get their permission.” With decidedly lo-fi production, claggy guitars and a dreamlike quality, Collins offers an unswervingly intimate story of a woman taking charge in a late-night seduction. It’s not a common track for compilations, or reissues of any kind, but it’s an inarguably compelling inclusion.
Cook had agreed to do this album before the pandemic and its lockdown, which inadvertently gave him the time and space to trawl through his collection. “The lovely thing about compilations like this is you can be really eclectic. Things don’t have to be tied by a genre or time, so long as there’s some strange narrative in my head.” He’s also squeezed in a couple of exclusive new tracks. Fatboy Slim & Roland Clark’s Sunset 303 (If You Believe) and Yum Yum Head Food’s The Voice Of Experience bring the album into the present day.
Across the collection are nods to every stage of Cook’s career, including the sensational 80s funk sounds of Jam Hot by Johnny Dynell, which was appropriated for Beats International’s chart-topping smash, Dub Be Good To Me. One of the most influential figures on the New York club scene, the production of Back To Mine has enabled the two DJs to connect. “During the clearing process, there were faxes being sent, but I didn’t really have any connection with him… to find out how he felt about it. He got in touch with me on Instagram, and now we’re pen-pals.” The whole process has enabled Cook to wear his heart on his sleeve and show the world his musical roots. “That’s one of the things you do when people come back to yours… you tell the stories behind songs and get more into it, rather than just playing music to make people dance.”
His approach to dance music has always been a little different, applying more of a hip-hop aesthetic to his productions instead of being strictly influenced by American house culture like many of his contemporaries. Sampling old records and placing them in new contexts formed the basis of the Fatboy Slim sound, nodding a head to rap’s eruption of creative energy in the early 80s. “Double D & Steinski and Grandmaster Flash were huge influences on me, in terms of cutting up and sampling, which was the first time that I could make the music I’d always loved.” Those urban music pioneers would often use samples because they couldn’t afford to record with session musicians. There were no rules and a seemingly endless catalogue of music to plunder, and the technology was getting cheaper. Come the early 90s, and copyright owners began to catch up. Samples now had to be cleared, but it didn’t stop the ingenuity. They were being used to reinforce messages, thematically connect to the past or just pay homage to long-faded artists.
He’s always felt passionate about funk and soul, then later hip-hop. Although, as a suburban white kid, it wasn’t entirely his place to be making that music. So he ended up joining The Housemartins. By the mid-90s, Cook had already notched up several chart-smashing singles, and had evolved into an in-demand remixer, before Fatboy Slim was even conceived. “When the sampler came out, you can put those influences on your sleeve. I realised I had a lot more fun putting records together in the way hip-hop producers would, rather than traditional pop producers, by using break beats, samples and loops. And that’s still the thing which really turns me on.” As we speak, he’s just come into possession of the multi-track parts for Incredible Bongo Band’s Apache. Although he’s just spent the couple of days contemplating how he’s going to improve a tune widely acknowledged as ‘hip-hop’s national anthem’.
Lockdown had given him hope for ‘some kind of zeitgeist’. But he hasn’t knocked out the ‘difficult seventh album’ or taken up painting just yet. “I’m just reading the news every day and going: ‘Errrrr?’” Like many of us, he feels much like a rabbit in headlights, at a loss as to how to turn the protracted experience into something positive. Obviously, Cook isn’t just sitting around the house. “I got to spend a summer on the beach with my kids, which I’d always promised myself.” He’s also been getting back into remixing with a vengeance. There’s a reworking of an old Pele track, a Higher State Of Consciousness reimagining with Eats Everything and work with Public Enemy and Perry Farrell coming out of his studio.
He’s still been prone to playing a few records in succession in the name of entertainment. There’s been a season of Fatboy Slim Friday night mixtapes for the first 20 weeks during lockdown. “A lot of people have written to me saying I’d really helped their mental health, but it did it as much for me. To keep me in touch with the outside world.” Added to this have been a few live streams, including an epic Fatboy Slim At Home With… session featuring Idris Elba. To break down the obstacle of not performing in front a live crowd, the pair created a Zoom room where they could interact with fans. “DJing is about communication with the crowd. It’s a two-way conversation. Without a crowd there, it feels like you’re just someone playing records.” He’s also been getting more involved on social media, which is often a tricky territory for any artist, but he’s keen to keep in touch with people who enjoy his music. There are also a few oblique hints about something really special for New Year’s Eve, which should go a long way to overcome the obstacles presented by DJing over the internet.
Aside from being an international man of mixing, Cook is also a proud local business owner. He has been delighted by the response his Big Beach Café has received from its customers, during what could have been a tricky time. “We were just blown away by the sense of community. Which is what we wanted to engender down there. The support was just fabulous.” He’s playing a part in the change of fortunes for the surrounding Hove Lagoon area. There’s talk of rebuilding the skate park, raising more money for a planting scheme and tentative plans for the return of the enormously popular Lagoon Fest next summer.
As we head into the winter, this still seems quite far away. It’s unlikely he’ll be performing in front of a real crowd for a few more months. There’s a set of club shows and a tour of New Zealand in limbo – bookings being repeatedly postponed until he can get back on the road. “In a way I’m unlucky, because our job is going to be one of the last to return when all the measures are finished.” There’s sympathy for the next generation of artists who have seen bookings at clubs and festivals simply evaporate in 2020. He is optimistic about clubbing surviving in some form, though. “There’s a very primeval desire to go out, escape reality and lose themselves in music and with like-minded people. Even if lockdown goes on for years, I don’t think that will ever go away.” While technology and the internet have evolved in recent years, the basic premise of DJing has stayed the same, because it has an age-old reason to exist. Its purpose it is to entertain people during a brief escape from reality, and Cook doesn’t think the need for it will ever go away.
There are still plans for his huge party in April to give something back to NHS and frontline workers. Even if it has to be rolled back again, Cook is determined to make the Brighton Centre show happen. “I’m committed to give something back to the NHS workers who worked so hard and got us through those difficult times, and still do.” Wanting to offer more than a perfunctory clap every Thursday, he accepted his applicable skill-set is limited – but wanted to help raise moral. Making a video message for a nurse friend, he glibly said everyone should have a party when everything was over. “People started writing to me asking: ‘When is this party then?’ It just seemed like a good thing to do. We were all feeling frustrated, as the only good thing we could do to help was stay at home. One day this is going to end, and we’re going to be there.”
Fatboy Slim’s Back to Mine album is available now, from all good stockists or Pink Panthers.