Music

Fatboy Slim on why we need dance music more than ever

David Roy quizzes Fatboy Slim, AKA Norman Cook, about the Brighton-based superstar DJ and producer's ongoing tour – his first big arena shows since the start of the pandemic – which arrives in Ireland in March...


:: YOU headlined the Telegraph Building in Belfast last month as part of your We've Come A Long, Long Way tour – how did that go?

All the gigs that I've done since lockdown have been joyous, in that people just need to reconnect: nothing can really replace the experience of being in a room with a whole load of like-minded people really getting into loud music. The levels of abandon and joy and escapism have hit new highs with all these shows.

I think the one at the Telegraph Building was all the more so, because it had been postponed twice because of Covid. So, the fact that we were all there and all together was really something to celebrate.

It was just when Omicron was kicking in too, so it felt like 'this might be the last chance we have to do this'. We had this one little window to really have a good night out.

:: What was it like getting back to live appearances in the wake of such a long lay-off?

The first one back was really weird because I've never not played for 18 months before in my life. At my age [58], you get this sort of fear of 'what if it doesn't work?' and you kind of just have to tell yourself 'look, it does work'.

So yeah, there was a lot of nerves involved. The first show I did was that government 'test night' [for post-lockdown live music events] at Circus in Liverpool in May 2021 and my approach was just to treat it like it was New Year's Eve – because that's how people were feeling.

Once I got going all the nerves quickly dissipated. It was like, 'oh yeah, I remember how this works', and Christ, it actually worked better than ever. Our job is to help people escape from the tribulations of their lives for a couple of hours and let off steam. Bringing people together to do that is needed now more than ever. We all need to collectively escape what we've been going through.

:: What was the first tune you played?

My opening tune was Don't Stop The Music [Kideko & Saffron Stone's recent hit] and then my finishing tune was Free by Ultra Naté – and then I ended up playing the a capella just to really finish people off.

I mean, "everybody's free to feel good, everybody's free to do what they want to do" – that song took on a whole new meaning after being cooped up for 18 months. I think it achieved a new level of anthemic status that night.

Fatboy Slim at work. Picture By Arthur Allison.

:: How hard is it to judge what a crowd want to hear?

I'm always looking at the crowd and trying to communicate with them, and it's a two-way communication: I'm trying to encourage them to lose themselves in music and dance and they're telling me where to go next – and in this day in age they often hold up signs or hold up their phones spelling things out to me, so you don't have to be quite so intuitive.

That's the difference between a band playing and a DJ: the band have an agenda, they've had to rehearse a set and then they're also trying to sell their new album or whatever it is, but as a DJ you've got no agenda whatsoever other than doing whatever it takes in that moment to have the utmost fun and escape.

That allows you to meander and go where the evening takes you.

:: How productive were you during lockdown?

I only made one proper tune during that whole period, which was All The Ladies with Dan from Eats Everything [released March 2020]. When we were writing it, we were writing with the dancefloor in mind, in terms of how long the builds should be and how things work in the mix-out section for the DJs.

About halfway through, we sort of realised that we were trying to make a club record that would probably never be played in a club. So then we started wondering if we should be tailoring it for Friday night kitchen ravers or live streaming.

So that was quite weird and one of the many reasons why I didn't make a lot of music during lockdown.

The main thing I did, for the first 20 weeks, was Friday Night Lockdown Mixtapes where I just did an hour long mix that would come out on tea-time every Friday for people who just wanted to dance round their kitchens on a Friday night.

Those kind of kept me feeling like I had some sort of contact with people who follow what I do. A lot of them have since told me things like 'oh, that kept me sane during that first lockdown' and I'm always like 'not as much as it kept me sane'. I needed it as much as they did, really.

I did that until August [2020] when it seemed like things were opening up again, but by Autumn everything was going t**s again. That's when I ended up working full time in my cafe [Brighton's Big Beach Cafe] for six months, just to give me something to do.

I own it but I'd never got involved before. We were lucky enough that it's beside a park and we had a little perspex hatch we could serve people through, so we were allowed to stay open as a takeaway during the second and third lockdown.

That was my way of keeping in touch with the world and also I can't deny that it was quite funny watching people's faces when they realised it was me serving them. I'm not qualified as a barista and I'm not allowed in the kitchen because of the hygiene rules, so I was literally out front serving people.

I just tried to make them laugh, although admittedly some of them must have looked at me and thought 'has it really come to this?'.

Fatboy Slim AKA Norman Cook

:: Were you ever worried about the long-term impact of restrictions on club and pub culture?

Yeah – at one point I remember thinking, 'how long will this go on before there's a generation of kids who've grown up who don't expect to go clubbing?'. If you think about it, every year, there's a new influx of people [to club culture] and we need those new young people who want to go out on a regular basis.

:: Is it still important for you to play to younger crowds as well as those who have followed you for years?

Definitely. I'm still playing in the clubs every week and they are full of really young people who know me as a DJ rather than 'that guy who had hits 20 years ago'. So I haven't become a 'heritage act'.

My greatest joy of the arena shows we did in November was seeing the two generations going out together. I'd have to ask people 'have you brought your mum or has she brought you?'.

:: Fatboy Slim, Dublin 3Arena (March 16) and SSE Arena Belfast (March 18), tickets via ticketmaster.ie.

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