As a round-faced, self-obsessed, writer of Pulitzer Prize-worthy stories in which I smuggle myself onto a train in a suitcase or turn myself into a fidget spinner, I receive some pretty abstract emails. Wading through the swamp of press releases, invitations to night outs in Corby and incisive insults from German teenagers, I recently came across something that stood out among the rest: "Do you want to come to Norman Cook's house in Brighton and eat confetti?"
A quick look confirmed that, yes, this was an invitation to visit Fatboy Slim's house to eat paper. Despite the questions this raised, there was one I kept coming back to: Why? Why would Norman Cook want me in his home? Obviously, the conclusion I arrived at was: he doesn't. But his PR does. It's all tied into a show and limited 7" release he's doing for his first ever Reading and Leeds festival performance called Eat My Show. But it did get me thinking: Why would Fatboy Slim want to do that? He hasn't made a full length album in 11 years, and doesn't seem interested in doing one; he abandoned his throne and the E generation in 2009, checking himself into rehab, subsequently becoming a kind of poster boy for mindfulness at sober festivals. All in all, Cook seems over his former life. Today, I picture him drifting through that universe, deadpan, like a protagonist in a Noah Baumbach film, either completely bored or operating on a higher plain of meaning. What could this meaning be? What has he learned? Two decades have passed since his DJing career began. What does he care about?
In 1989, his reasoning was much clearer. Sat on the train from Brighton, trawling through YouTube, I see Norman in a post-Housemartins, Beats International-era interview—pale with full, red cheeks, incensed eyes, and quaffed hair—pretty definitively vowing to "never do anything or make music that ignored politics." Everything—in his words—was about "peace, equality, and socialism." I pause the video: look at my $15 train ticket, think about edible paper—unpause. "If the meaning to my stuff were known," he says, "it'd probably be banned." Stood at the door of a terraced row of white stone mansions on the Brighton seafront, I wonder. What is his pursuit today: Happiness? Success? Art? …Socialism? Still, the big one remains: why the fuck am I here?
The door opens and Norman—Hawaiian shirt, tan trousers, looking exactly how one would expect him to—calls me through. I follow him down the hallway, his bare feet slapping tiled floors, reverberating like we're shivering our way through a swimming baths. We leisurely pass one cabinet filled with MTV and BRIT Awards; another with smiley memorabilia. He moves a rubble of Lego aside with his left foot. Eventually, we come to a kitchen, I sit down and Norman, apologizing for how tired he is, preps us two cups of Nescafe Instant. Gold Blend. It wasn't the set in Malta yesterday that's exhausted him. Upon returning last night, his children and close friends greeted him with a surprise 54th birthday party. Looking around at bottles of flat Coke, paper plates, hats, and cards filled with in-jokes so cryptic they may as well be hieroglyphics, it looks like it was off the fucking charts.
I take a deep sip, and gaze beyond a gigantic kind of glass wall at the sea. With each wave collapsing closer to you, it almost feels threatening. "Yeah, it can get a bit wiry. The funniest thing was when Adele lived on the block. I used to have security coming up to me asking who I was, and I was like: 'I live here'." He points at the waves. "But anyway, we had one really bad storm where it came right up to the houses." He laughs. "Adele moved out pretty soon after that."
The weather didn't frighten Norman; he's been here for 20 years. He is the exception who managed to securely build his house on sand. Or houses, to be exact. We're sat in the living house and next door is his studio. One over used to be owned by Paul McCartney. Can you imagine having Paul McCartney as your neighbor, popping over to borrow eggs? Passive-aggressively pointing at your parking over a fence? "It was really weird. You never quite got over it. When he walks into your kitchen, you really try to just say, 'That's alright, it's just my neighbour Paul.' Try and forget he's in the Beatles." He laughs to himself. "In the summer, we'd have the doors open so you could wander in and out of each other's houses. He'd go past on the decking in a Speedo. People would say, 'Is that Paul McCartney that just walked past?!' And I'd just say, 'Yep.' Even when you weren't expecting it, an uninvited Paul McCartney could turn up." He stops. "An uninvited Paul McCartney? That doesn't exist, does it? He's always welcome."
Fifty-four years is a long time. Norman has spent well over half of them away, DJing, coming up as part of the generation including Carl Cox and Pete Tong. It's something he loves talking about—the great story of DJ culture—and that's no surprise. From Trainspotting nerds in the corner to DJs being able to storm through a set after a rock band at the world's biggest festivals, he sculpted that world. This accelerated evolution hasn't slowed either, with DJs now icons of the industry. But Norman isn't excited by them: "A lot of the old school DJs are properly weird characters, whereas the new school are young, good-looking, but not hugely interesting. A lot of them are interchangeable."
It's quite a funny thing to hear, the older generation complaining that the younger one is dull. Just sounds backwards. We broach the topic of drugs—and the fact the amount of teenagers taking them has halved since 2001. "It's strange, especially when you travel around: I always have a look at the crowd before I go on to see roughly how I'm going to approach it." Norman strokes his face with index finger and thumb. "There was a five-year golden era of Es—Es really bring people together in a way that other drugs don't—where the collective euphoria went to a whole other level. With the current generation, it's definitely less cuddly on the dancefloor; different drugs. The whole minimal K crowd are a strange bunch. They're interacting in their own heads; not really doing much." I ask about the high levels of ecstasy that have appeared on the streets over the past few years. "Well, is it speedy or do you get more empathetic, loved-up?" His shifts in his seat and, for a moment, resembles that iconic arms-in-the-air party boy image in my head. The next, he sits back into himself, part-disinterested, part-exhausted by my answer. "Cool—well I don't touch the stuff anymore."
It's no surprise he seems bored by the conversation. The move from "downing half a bottle of vodka before every show" and taking odd half-pills to sobriety has been one of the biggest changes in Norman's life over the past near-decade. This, surely, has paved way for higher meaning; a life he feels more present within? He shakes his head. Is he happier, at least? "No. It's just prolonged my DJing life. And my actual life. It's nice to be 54 and able to jump around at 5 AM. A lot of that is through being fit. But seriously, the whole thing is just vanity; self-preservation."
"I grew up during power cuts in the 70s, miners' strikes; dark days for our country. When we invented ecstasy, everybody just thought 'fuck it.' That was the last true musical revolution"
Considering what you usually hear from recovering addicts, Norman has an impossibly nihilistic take on sobriety. Onto the next one: society. I bring up the vow he made in 1989 to never be anything but political and Norman scrunches his face; scratches his head. He clearly hasn't thought about it since he said it. Well, is there any truth left in the statement? "No." It's quite abrupt. "That was a lovely youthful ideal to have. When I started, with the Housemartins, we really thought we could change the world. We wanted to change the world. Gradually over the years, it gets beaten out of you. I remember being on tour and—when we left England—Kinnock was going to get in. We finished the gig and somebody came up to me, and said, 'Thatcher got in again.' Then I thought: that's it. I'm not going to try and tell these people what's good for them if they're not going to listen to me."
Norman finishes his coffee, stands and takes it over to the draining board. "I grew up during power cuts in the 70s, miners' strikes; dark days for our country. Punk rock and politics was a direct result, but things got so bad when Thatcher just stayed, and stayed. When we invented ecstasy, everybody just thought 'fuck it.' That was the last true musical revolution." He looks out the window. "So yeah, I've kind of lost my faith in politics over the years."
He's right. Ecstasy provided the youth of yesteryear with an escape. But the things he held true in the 90s—peace, love, socialism—have, in 2017, floated to the surface in youth culture again. They're the cornerstones for which the Labour Party fought the last election. Was that something he tuned into? "Yeah, I think Corbyn's genius is making politics sound like you can change something. Words like peace and equality actually mean something with him. Whereas Blair just washed those words from meaning anything. Coming back to more radical politics is more likely to turn young people on and get motivated. Maybe change something. But I'll leave that to the young-uns. I tried: I put in ten years banging my head against the wall. We got Blair in, I suppose." He laughs again. "Just looking after your own world becomes harder as you get older."
Hovering above the same shores where he held his unprecedented Big Beach Boutique festival over a decade ago, I get to thinking about the heights that escapism took him—from millions of records sold to Glastonbury-sized DIY festivals in his home city. Forget the ecstasy; that level of success is truly addictive. Is that something he's still got a taste for? A high he's still chasing?
Norman recoils. "Listen: when we put [2016 track] 'Eat. Sleep. Rave. Repeat' out—I hadn't done a record in five years—it just threw me right back into it. I was like, 'Fucking hell, I've gotta make a video? Do we have to? Can we not do something interesting or different like we did in the old days? Why throw 30 grand away to make something really dull?'" He stares into space, despondently shaking his head. "All the interviews, all that, it brought it all back. I'm much happier making records and putting them out covertly, rather than having huge hits. When I was younger, I tolerated it, but I don't want to do that shit anymore. Like David Bowie didn't do an interview for the last 20 years of his life, you know? Or a photo session. He can't be dealing with that shit anymore." Now he stands up. "There's a limit to my megalomania. Also, I haven't got the energy to keep up with the young new lot. There's a lot of pleasure to be had in the little things."
"I love looking at people's faces when they lose it. I've spent the past 35 years seeing how collective euphoria works. They become part of this bigger thing. This sexy mess"
At this point, Norman asks to be excused for a few minutes, leaving the room. If he's not chasing success, isn't fuelled by a new wave of health and happiness, doesn't harbor a deep-seated political meaning to what he does, and is not even enamored with the way his industry is headed, what—still—makes him do it? Surely there's something. Feeling the sweat on the back of my neck, clasping my chin, I hear a toilet flush. Norman follows it, giggling. "Christ, you should've been here earlier. My son Woody left just before you arrived with a hangover from hell! He was moaning, 'How do I make it go away? How long will it go on?' I said, 'There's an algorithm of how long you were drinking, what you were drinking, what order you were drinking it in. There's no known cure for it, you've just got to sit it out, I'm afraid.'"
We make our way outside, onto the decking. Norman leans on the railing. "It's quite interesting watching him now because, for years, he said: 'Dad, your job: you just play loud music for drunk people and they shout at you.' True. But now, when we go on holiday in Ibiza and I do Mambo, he's in the booth and, recently, he's said, 'I can see why you do this. It's quite intoxicating.'" He smiles. "But he's good enough to know not to follow in my footsteps. Or his mum's. But yeah: he's going to Reading this year—his first solo outing. Taking a tent with his mates."
It's not only a first for son, but for father too, who has never played Reading and Leeds. Why now? "My life has become very tied up in ticking the bucket list. I've never played Reading and Leeds, because I associate it with a load of guys in denim jackets with Nazareth on the back, throwing bottles of piss at the bands they don't like. But I'm reliably informed it has moved on a lot since then." He begins unwrapping the details of firing an edible confetti cannon, edible record sleeves, scented balloons and—for the first time in our conversation—he's speaking at an accelerated race, visibly excited. "They're gonna all be saying, 'You're just a DJ, you're just playing records!' I'll say, 'I know that! But you can eat my record!'" He rubs his hands together. "If they throw bottles of piss at me, at least I tried, to do something different. The piss will be scented."
Norman no longer looks exhausted; his eyes are widened. There are flashes of color in them. I ask him simply: is this why you do it? He snaps out of his stasis, looking at me indignantly. "I just love it. I genuinely love the music I play. I love looking at people's faces when they lose it." He stops. "I've spent the past 35 years seeing how collective euphoria works. It's people coming to escape; to lose themselves and lose the stresses. For two hours, four days—they become part of this bigger thing. This sexy mess. There's a level where you can totally freak somebody out. It's the equivalent of making them cum. It's half-voyeurism, half-vampire; my secret of eternal youth. Not drinking the blood of the young—absorbing their sweat! I genuinely love it."
I stand alongside Norman, both looking out to sea, locked in a moment.
"So half of my day, every day, is spent trawling the internet or going through tunes I'm sent. Out of every 500 tunes, one is good. And that moment after three or four days, listening to the same rubbish—when you hear it, it kills you. I get that same instant pleasure. Then I can't wait to see the looks in their faces when I play this." He takes out the edible inner sleeve of the paper. "People watch me DJ, and go, 'he's definitely high.' But no, I just kind of go into this trance; I get into this headspace where I escape. That's what it is. I'm now escaping. Especially after the last year I've had and obviously everything that has happened, I'm letting off steam. Forgetting my cares and worries, which—come to think of it—is what I was always doing for people over the years." He looks down, takes a bite of the paper, and hands it to me. "But now they're doing it for me."
"And that leaves me as just this sort of wandering minstrel; travelling the world, spreading nonsense." And with that, there's no question on the tip of my tongue. My mouth, in fact, is empty. So I bite the paper, smile, and look out to the sea. I'd come to Brighton searching for a meaning; looking for depth. Instead, I learned of Fatboy Slim's great escape; the thing we all search for.
This, it seems, is his:
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