In an exclusive interview with Business Daily, the legend behind the decks – with hits including Praise You; Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat; Right Here, Right Now and Weapon of Choice – Fatboy Slim, aka Norman Cook explains the importance of the DJ profession, taking time to appreciate memorable moments, touring and being choosy about which gigs to play
How essential is merchandising to continuing with the branding?
Merchandising? Nothing. When I started in this business I was in a band called the Housemartins and we sold a lot of merchandise. As my career has gone on, I’ve sold less and less merchandise. I mean people they go to nightclubs and they want to wear nice clothes, they don’t want to wear a tour t-shirt with the dates on the back. So the actual merchandising is quite unimportant to me.
I mean we do it, because you have to. Rock bands, that’s half their income sometimes, but with DJs we don’t really sell merchandise.
But it’s a great logo, it’s a shame because we do some sh*t-hot merchandise, but it just doesn’t sell a lot.
The music scene has evolved from those who curate music – and have to carry it around on vinyl records to play – to being able to download hundreds of songs and stick them on a USB. Has that changed how you play music at all?
From my point of view, it means I haven’t got one arm longer than the other [from carrying a bag of vinyl]. It’s quite nice when you’re about to go abroad to the other side of the world. Before you could only kind of carry one box, I’d take two boxes, and you’d really agonize about what tunes, because you can’t think what it’s going to be like.
Now you have everything on your laptop and then I can get here, I can change the whole set at the last minute. Also, because I play sound files, now I can do my own re-edits and that’s quite important to me because there’s so many records you really like, but you hate the middle or the breakdown. Or it’s really difficult to get in and out of because the intro’s too short. And so each DJ can do their own re-edits, so everyone plays in a slightly different way to everybody else, whereas before you’d always hear exactly the same version. Now you get to hear people either doing it live using the loop button – I like to do it first [beforehand]. But then also I can burn visuals, I make my own visuals and I burn them into the edit. It’s a lot less carrying around, makes for a lot more flexibility and you can just do a lot more with the music.
Some of the things we do now, if I was doing that 20 years ago, people would just sh*t their pants, just be like “How the f**k is he doing that?” – the visuals and everything.
In terms of the technology-side of things, are you still using a lot of hardware or have you transitioned more into digital?
I’m sort of making the transition into digital, but what I’ve been doing in the meantime is not making any records (laughs).
I’m sort of trying to make the transition. At the moment I’m getting my sample library off floppy disk into Ableton [a digital audio workstation – DAW – used for producing and remixing music as well as live performance]. But for that I’ll do about an hour a day. It’ll take me about two years I think.
I haven’t worked on it, actually fired up the Atari [sampling and music production hardware] in anger. But then again, I’ve only made about three records in the past three years.
I’m kind of gone to that [digital realm] now, you have to, begrudgingly. I’ve even got e-mail and WhatsApp now. I even got Instagram now!
Do you think you’ll ever get tired of touring?
Yes I will. But I’m determined to squeeze as much out of it, because I love doing it. I still love doing it more than ever. But I just have to be more careful about looking after myself.
I’m 53 now, there will come an age where I just can’t do the late nights and the travelling. That’s probably one of the reasons why I’m not making so many records, because before, six months of the year I’d be in the studio and six months I’d be out [on tour]. Now I spend most of the year out on the road.
Do you miss the studio side?
Nah, not really. It’s not so much fun with a laptop as it was playing with hardware. And also because I don’t drink anymore and I don’t live that life, so I’m not so inspired to make crazy music, but I really still enjoy playing other people’s crazy music and watching them get crazy.
The traditional role of the DJ has been to curate music, however given how much debatably good or bad music is getting produced on a daily basis, what does that mean for established artists and upcoming artists with actual talent?
It’s the only reason that I’ve still got a job. When I started DJing you were the one who bothered to buy all the records. If you didn’t physically have the records you couldn’t play. You couldn’t just download stuff. And people couldn’t hear the things – they used to phone radio stations to request a tune because that was the only way they could hear it. Or they’d go and watch a DJ just because they knew that he’d play certain tunes that they liked or that they haven’t got.
So there was a sort of rarity thing in it. And then the skills of mixing, that was a big thing. All of that has been completely replaced by machines now.
So the only thing left that DJs do is curate. We spend all week listening to all the sh*t stuff so you don’t have to. And we try and find the good tunes and we take out that [sifting through bad music] side of it. And hopefully put some of our personality into it as we play it to you.
But that’s the only reason that we still have DJs. Because so many other parts of the music industry have been completely replaced by technology or by the Internet. There’s certain professions, like hairdressing – hairdressing can never be replaced. You can’t download a hairdresser. And DJing I thought at one point “we are replaceable”, the machines can mix the music for you – there’ll be algorithms and it can intuitively mix. Some DJs rely on the machines to do the mixing anyway [nowadays].
So all we’ve got left: the curating and the performance – are the two things that the machines can’t do for us. They’re the bits that I enjoy the most and are the reason probably that I’m still here, that I haven’t been laid to rest.
You’ve played some huge shows, you continue to have a massive music career. Do you look back on it as high points, as phases, as sections of your life?
Just now it’s a series of high points, I don’t remember the low points. There have been low points over the years. I just remember the high points and think “Christ yeah!” I mean a lot of it, during my drinking years, a lot of it I’m like “Was that a dream?” And then someone goes “No, that really happened”. And there are certain things – some pretty fantastic things happened like when I went and played Woodstock.
There’s times when during gigs I actually stopped, near the end, and I’d think “right” and I’d try and take a mental snapshot, a mental photo, of how good it feels to see that amount of people having so much fun in a beautiful, moody, evening in Glastonbury, or on Brighton Beach. There’s certain gigs where, sometimes you’ll see me do it. Again, in my drinking days, I’d walk to the front of the stage, to the limit of the stage, and I’d just stand there and just go “I hope I remember all this”. It’s all in there somewhere [points at head].
That’s me just taking 30 seconds off work, 30 seconds off concentrating and just me enjoying it. Because most of the time it’s all about me trying to make them enjoy it. It looks like I’m having fun, but I’m not, all I’m doing is concentrating and thinking “how do I let them have fun”.
No performer ever wants to say that there is a performance aspect to it, but are there some nights where you feel like you have to perform, to give the audience the energy level that they’re expecting?
It depends. Less and less because I’m more choosy about the gigs I do. In certain countries I’ve just given up on it. Certain countries it’s really hard work, really hard work to try and get you [the audience] to understand what we’re trying to do here. And what I did for a while is, for a while I kind of ignored America, and I was in Brazil and Japan and places like that. And then America started getting good, so I went back to America.
There’s certain countries that I think will never get it. And so what I tend to do is, I’ve got to the point now where whereas my manager is like “we’ve got to go and break that market open, teach them”. And I’m like “you know, I’m done teaching.” People nowadays they can watch Youtubes of me performing, they know what to expect. And so I don’t have to drill it into them. And so you just got to find the places where people appreciate that.
And it’s weird, you go to some countries where you wouldn’t expect it and they’re just like “we SO get it” – we understand each other, we don’t speak the same language but we [enjoy it].
How does China fit into that whole spectrum?
Local, Mainland China I’ve done a few things. To be honest most of the stuff I’ve done there’ve been very few locals there, it’s mainly expats. From the very first time I played there, I played Shanghai about 15 years ago and I don’t think there was one Chinese person there. It was just like “what’s the point of just going to play to the expats.” So I haven’t played much in Mainland China.
China has not been open to certain bits of our culture, it’s not been encouraged outside maybe Shanghai. And it’s just not in people’s nature. You really have to teach them, you really have to drill it into them like “all you have to do is forget all the rules, forget the rules of your job, of your life, anything like that – just for four hours you can go mad and just be stupid, hedonistic, sexy, drunk, high”. And for Chinese people sometimes that’s quite hard.
Things like Instagram are obviously the necessary evils in the whole profession. What’re your views on social media? Do you have to use it? Do you want to use it?
I personally don’t really use it. It’s a necessary tool for communication within my job, but it is just a job thing, I don’t put anything personal on it. I don’t use any personal social media. I text my friends – WhatsApp. The Fatboy Slim side of it is purely a promotional way of just getting our communication across. But, to be honest, I can’t keep up. I live this really exciting life and there’s never time to be, you know, recording it like everybody else, because I’m too busy doing it.
It’s like when you look out and you see all these people grooving and dancing and one person in the middle is going like that [standing still and filming].
Just enjoy the moment, enjoy the moment. You don’t have to share it with everybody else, just enjoy it.
Have you ever been, do you continue to be, worried about things like ear problems and tinnitus (ringing in the ears that never goes away)?
I’ve got away with the tinnitus bit thus far, really knock on wood here. I had my ears tested – I’m a little worse than a man of my age should be, but the doctor said “I’ve been to your gigs”. But it’s not as bad as a rock band – they have to play loud because the drums make a certain amount of noise, so then the bass player has to be as loud as the drums and then the guitarist turns up – and it ends up really, really loud.
But a DJ, you don’t have to play that loud. Some DJs like to. But we don’t get what the crowd are getting out front. You turn your monitor off sometimes and the booth goes completely quiet. So I monitor as quietly [as I can], just enough for me to feel into it, but I don’t get off on extreme volume. And I’m aware that these ears are an asset to me and that I need them for my job.