Upon entering Norman Cook's home in Brighton, England, you notice two things. The first is his stash of awards: a handful of Brits, a smattering of MTV men on the moon, a signed football that commemorates a hattrick of appearances on British pop culture television show Soccer AM. The other immediately notable fixture is a luminous cabinet stuffed to the brim with smiley-face memorabilia, a shrine to that ever-grinning icon of everything from hippy-dippy-ism to the raw rumbles of acid house.
The smiley face, and the smile, and the notion of smiling and smiley-ness in general, have become inextricable from Cook as a person. He is perpetually on the verge of flashing teeth, always ready to cut through any seriousness with a bit of self-administered pomposity-pricking. It's as if surrounding himself with this childishly simple symbol functions to keep undercut notions of grandiosity that come with being one of the most influential figures to ever grace a set of decks.
Waves plashed against the windows of Cook's lounge during a typically blustery Brighton morning. I'd been invited down, nominally, to discuss a triumvirate of subjects: his Smile High Club, the twentieth anniversary of his record label, Skint, and the reissue of his 2000 album, Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars.
I don't need to run you through Fatboy Slim's storied career as a producer, remixer and DJ. He's the Hawaiian-shirted DJ your mum nods her head to in the car. He's the main stage mainstay your just-out-of-puberty brother is pumped to see this summer. He's the wizened warhorse who has soundtracked a thousand regular-season halftime shows. Slim is an indelible part of contemporary dance culture, a remnant of a past that with one foot still very much planted in the future. He is, in his own words, "just a bloke playing records and waving his arms about."
As it tends to do, the past creeps into our conversation, but for the most part, Cook is focused on where he's at now, and where the 51-year-old father of two is going next. The current plan is to take things sideways. He'll begin this process at Creamfields and SW4 this summer. "I've played them both so many times, so we decided to branch out and I was asked to run an arena," he says. "We wanted to create a vibe within an enormous structure that made it feel like it wasn't just another tent at another festival. So we did some brainstorming and had a few blue sky-thinking sessions and came up with the Smile High Club."
For the uninitiated, Cook is not about to ask revelers to join him in an RyanAir bathroom for a bit of loving at 35,000 feet. Rather, four lucky fans will be flown from gig to gig in a private jet. "They'll be flying between gigs while I'll be driving, so they're even more VIP than me," Cook says. It's all part of his Random Acts of Smilyness campaign that Cook and his team are integrating into their festival experience over the summer. "I've always been about communicating with the crowd and making them smile as well as dance. Some people are all about the twisted underground and sometimes I wish I could do that." There's a millisecond of hesitation, the smile seems to vanish imperceptibly for the shortest of split seconds. "But it's not my forté. I'm not knocking people who are serious about the music because I am too. But I'm also serious about having a party."
We zoom back to those heady early days of the late 80s. While acid house never really left clubs, it hasn't felt this prevalent, this there for years. Cook witnessed its birth here in the UK. "That was the first second summer of love and the summer I moved back to Brighton from Hull because 1988 didn't happen till about 1991 in Hull. All my mates were wearing smiley bandanas and going 'acieeeeeed' and I thought, what are you on about? So they took me to Tonka and gave me a pill."
For the uninitiated, the Tonka parties were legendary blowouts that spilled onto Brighton Beach, led by the inimitable DJ Harvey and his mate Chocci, amongst others. "They had a fanatical following who knew they put on the best parties in terms of the music, the setting and the atmosphere they engendered," Cook says. "That was the first time you'd really seen the DJ elevated to god-like status. The fact that Harvey has this Jesus-y look about him helped. There's people my age who go gooey-eyed when they remember those parties."
Tonka's freewheeling mix of everything that came to be known as Balearic and then-nascent acid house was an eye-opener for the former rocker, but it was Terry Farley and Andrew Weatherall's Boy's Own crew and a weekend at the much maligned British resort chain Butlins in the even more maligned resort town of Bognor Regis that provided Cook with his euphoric moment of epiphany.
"My mates dragged me down and I'd never really got the acid thing. I saw [Underworld's] Darren Emerson, which I only found out years after. I was telling him this story about seeing someone play two copies of "I'll Be Your Friend" by Robert Owens and everyone was hugging each other, hands in the air, and my head just went 'woooosh, I get it!'" he says. "It was all those acidy noises that work with ecstasy. So I told Darren about it and he said, 'Yeah, that was me DJing!' That was the moment. Aside from doing hip-hop stuff, that was the moment I started making house."
Cook is convinced that the flashy, flashing, flash in the pan juggernaut of EDM is responsible for our culture's obsession with retrospect. "I think people want to reclaim house back from EDM. Either by being purists or acting in a more pure fashion. It's about trying to get house back to what house was and reclaiming it from the more commercial end of things."
"Nostalgia is based on wanting to return to old values by trying to experience the way things were done," Cook continues. "Whether it's people recreating medieval battles or building yurts, it's all about trying to engender lost values. Everything that's happening in dance music now is people wanting to go back to a genuine euphoria, rather than the ersatz euphoria that's generated by big synth pads."
While Cook is, and has always been, a populist choice and a commercial draw, he sees himself as a totally separate entity to the current stadium-ready acts that have seen Bud-chugging frat boys swap Kid Rock for Kaskade. "It's fine as entry-level stuff, but make no mistake: EDM will crash and burn. It's based on a pyramid scheme of making money and as soon it stops making money the whole house of cards will fall down. We want there to be something left when this bubble bursts."
And when that bubble bursts, Fatboy Slim will be there, on stage, all smiles. "I've got a little ritual," he begins. "I drink about three Red Bulls, take my shoes off, put the Hawaiian shirt on and that gets me into character. Just before I go on stage my tour manager slaps me really hard across both cheeks so I go on stage fighting. As soon as I've got more than ten people who are excited about it, as soon as I latch onto that, my mindset reverts back that to a very high 17 year old."
We leave him, grinning away.
In addition to the reissue of Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars (available now) and the very recently released 4CD set The Fatboy Slim Collection, mid-August sees the release of the 20 Years of Being Skint compilation. Why not get in the mood for a summer of Fatboy by streaming this exclusive remix below?
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