Interview: Fatboy Slim on going digital as a DJ and as a producer
The last time Future Music Magazine was invited down to Norman Cook's Brighton home was back in 2000. He'd just finished recording Halfway Between The Gutter And The Stars, the eagerly-awaited follow-up to the multi-multi-multi-millionselling album, You've Come A Long Way, Baby.
"Bloody hell! That seems like a long, long time ago," he says with a heavy sigh. "And I was a very different person back then. Life was... different. I'd just sold tons of albums and made more money than I ever thought possible. That kind of messes with your head a bit, but I was having the time of my life. I loved making music, I loved playing gigs and I just wanted those good times to last forever. I partied... and I partied fucking hard!"
"I think I was scared of changing things, just in case it didn't work as well as what I was used to."
"Then, about three years ago, I realised that things needed to change. It was all getting a bit out of hand, so I finally quit drinking. In fact, I quit everything. All the naughty stuff. Well, everything except fags. I'd got to that age where I just wasn't enjoying it anymore. I went into rehab, got myself some help and, all of a sudden, there was a new me.
"I'll be honest with you, I don't think I'd ever played a gig without the help of some drug – be it alcohol or something stronger – and I didn't think I could enjoy music unless I was as high as a kite. But I haven't touched a thing for three years and... I still love music and I still love DJing. Doing it straight has given me a whole new lease of life. And I can actually remember the gigs!"
In the studio, things are changing, too. Fatboy aficionados will know that he's a fan of old-school gear like the Atari, the Akai S-950 and the mighty 303, but all that vintage kit has been packed away. "We've got builders in at the moment," he explains, "and I just wanted to make sure my musical treasures weren't going to get damaged!"
The Atari still gets plugged in for the occasional project – more of that later – but his current daily studio is all housed in a couple of MacBook Pros. "Yeah, I've been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century," he grins. "But the problem is that I'm still struggling to get my head around it. Welcome to the future, eh!"
So, what prompted the move to a laptop-based setup?
Fatboy Slim: "It wasn't my idea at all. I was completely happy working with the Atari and the Akais, but everybody around me kept saying, 'Norm, you can't carry on like this'. I suppose I was bullied into it by my management. They just kept pointing out all the positives of Ableton. The way you can lash bits of songs together.
"Logically and technically, I knew it made sense to upgrade my working practices. Even if you just look at something like my DJ sets... the crew were getting fed up with working with vinyl. Locking up visuals was a massive problem. Mixing from track to track was a hit and miss affair. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it sounded awful! Eventually, Darren Emerson and Jon Carter took me to one side and showed me what was on offer. I think I was scared of changing things, just in case it didn't work as well as what I was used to."
"After rehab, I was genuinely worried that I wouldn't be able to DJ – I thought I'd be crap!"
What was your first new bit of kit?
"Serato. Darren and Jon persuaded me it was time to move on. And, of course, as soon as I took theblinkers off and realised what all the DJ technology was capable of, I fell deeply in love with it. Serato opens a whole new visual door... you can get far more creative in terms of images for the live set. In the past, my crew had to more or less guess what tune I was going to play and what speed I was going to play it at. Serato removes those random elements.
"Then again, that's one of the things that I really enjoyed about DJing. I liked the mistakes. I liked the fuck-ups. With Serato, you have to plan things a bit more... you have to be a bit more organised. Luckily, that changeover period coincided with me quitting drinking. I think the old me would have found it difficult to be 'organised', but things like that are a lot easier with a clear head."
"DJing was what first got me into Dance music. The only reason I actually started making my own tunes was because I couldn't find stuff that I actually wanted to play. If those tunes had been available at the time, I might not have even bothered getting myself an Atari.
"DJing has always been a huge part of what I do. Once the whole Fatboy Slim-artist-thing took off, I suppose quite a lot of people stopped seeing me as a DJ,but that's what I've always been. That's my first love. That's what I do best.
"Unfortunately, I've been doing it for 30 years and, even with the best will in the world, you eventually start going through the motions. And alcohol became a huge part of that. I thought the only way I could give people value for money was if I was out of it as well. I wanted to be part of the crowd.
"After rehab, I was genuinely worried that I wouldn't be able to DJ – I thought I'd be crap! Knocking the booze on the head coincided with discovering Serato. So, you've got a new version of me using new technology. It was amazing! It felt like I was coming to DJing for the first time. All those things I'd dreamed about doing for years – those mad mixes, the bonkers edits – could all be done in Serato and you could match it all to some amazing visuals.
"God knows how many years I've been carting vinyl around with me, but all that's changed. These days, all I need on stage are the CDJs, the dummy CDs, Serato and a Rane 57 mixer. There's a laptop telling me where I am in the set, but I tend to keepthat out of the way. I don't want to spend my time looking at the screen when I should be looking at the crowd.
"The only scary thing about it all is that technology could actually do the job without me being there. That would be awful. I never want to get to that stage. I still want to be in charge of what happens up there. I still want to get halfway through a set and think, 'Such and such a track would really work here'. You can do that with Serato. You just need to work out, tempo-wise, where you can fit it in the set. If it doesn't quite come off... who cares. That's all part of the fun, innit!"
"The Atari, the S950 and the [TB-]303 are just as ground breaking and important as the Telecaster and the Vox amp."
And that convinced you it was time for a change in the studio?
"Changing things in the studio was a lot more difficult. And it continues to be difficult. Obviously, there are artistic and creative elements to DJing, but it's very different to sitting there in the studio and writing a song from scratch.
"I've been making music on the Atari for over 20 years. Most electronic musicians of a certain age probably started in exactly the same way – the Atari and the S950. With just those two bits of kit and a mixing desk, you could make a tune. I made You've Come A Long Way, Baby that way. The Atari and the Akais bought this house. They changed my life.
"And deep down in my heart of hearts, I'm still not sure about changing that way of working. If you're a guitarist and you've been using a '60sFender Telecaster with a '60s Vox amp for years, there's really no need to change your setup, is there? People don't come up to you and say, 'Ugh, you're still using a Vox amp? You should change to this Line 6 plug-in'. To me, bits of gear like the Atari, the S950 and the [TB-]303 are just as ground breaking and important as the Telecaster and the Vox amp. We shouldn't dismiss them just because there's a new software model in the shops."
How do you feel when you look at two laptops running Ableton? That's your studio!
"I know. It's weird. It still doesn't feel right."
Have you made a tune on Ableton?
"I've got lots of little snippets, but I always get bogged down by how I'm supposed to get from the laptop to the outside world. The temptation is to just stay inside the laptop and that only really allows you to create a certain type of music. You can hear it when you listen to the radio... There are tons of songs out there that have been written without amusical keyboard. They've been written in hotel rooms and on planes. Somebody hunched over a laptop, tapping on their QWERTY keys.
"I'm not moaning. I'm not saying that music's rubbish. I'm just saying that it's different and... I don't really want to make that kind of music."
What's the last musical project that you worked on?
"The Rizzle Kicks single, Mama Do The Hump. I switched on the laptop, looked at the screen for several hours and then thought, 'Nah, let's go upstairs'. I hadn't switched on the Atari for months, but it felt great. I dug out my floppy discs, dusted everything down and just started playing loads of samples to Jordan and Harley. At times, I couldn't help but smile, because I worked out that the Atari and Akais were probably older than the lads. They looked at my set-up and kind of said, 'What the hell's all this?' They were so used to everything being in the box.
"But as soon as I started firing off a few samples and they heard that crunched-up, lo-fi Akai sound, they loved it. In the end, we had a Number 2 single. No laptops involved at all."
Any chance of some new Fatboy material?
"It's just not at the top of my list. I've got a baby daughter... I want to see her grow up. But there's also the problem of writer's block. With the Atari, I could pull out some vinyl, sample a few bits and pieces and get a groove going..."
But you can do that in Ableton. It's probably even easier in Ableton...
"I know! Look, you don't have to convince me. I know what Ableton's capable of. [He switches on the laptop and plays a squelching, heavily-filtered tune.] I made this yesterday. I get sent about 50 or 60 tunes every day and I go through them, looking for stuff to play in my set. Sometimes, there might just be a bassline that I like or a drum-break. If I find four or five different elements from different tunes, I put them all together and create a new piece of music that I can play out live. It's a mash-up, really.
"But, as I said, before, I sort of come to a standstill when I try to get the laptop to talk to the outside world. I get frustrated and then... themoment's gone. I switch everything off and go into the kitchen to make a cup of tea.
"I'm going to have to bite the bullet at some point. I know I'm going to have to sit here and make a tune in Ableton. It'll be good therapy for me."
"Anyone who's used an old Akai sampler will never forget the first time they managed to get the filters to work."
What about software synths and the like...
"They're on there and I have a play with them, but they all sound a bit samey – metallic and twangy. Sure, you can get the most incredibly complex noises coming out of them, but they don't really inspire me. I know I'm not the first person to say this, but we're getting to a point where everyone is going to have an unlimited musical palette. If you want a certain bass sound, you can just pull it from the internet. If you want a sound that goes wow-woooh-widdly-widdly, you can find it onMassive. I don't need all that. I don't need all the fireworks of digital music. All the clever-clever glitchy-ness. I get a bit bored by it. I was cutting up samples 20 years ago. I want to go somewhere else.
"Look... please don't make me out to be a moaning old Luddite who doesn't want to change. Yes, I am a bit of a moaning old Luddite, but I'm not against 'change' per se. I don't think that the Atari and the Akai are the only legitimate tools to make music. Ableton is a fantastic piece of kit. I just haven't found a way to link my creative urges to working with a laptop. It'll come. I'm almost there."
If you were a young kid coming to Electronic music for the first time, would you still go for the old gear?
"Ooh... that's a tough question because I've spent most of my adult life living with that sound and that way of working. And it's given me huge amounts of pleasure. Anyone who's used an old Akai sampler will never forget the first time they managed to get the filters to work. Controlled by MIDI and twisting the sound of some crusty old drum loop from a bit of vinyl that cost you 50p. Those memories never leave you.
"But if I was 18, I don't think I'd be interested in the Akai. I'd be looking at Ableton. I mean... c'mon! I can get two bits of music, two different tempos and different feels. I can chuck 'em into Ableton and it will find a way to join them together.
"Can you imagine if I'd had something like that to play with back in the Big Beat days? Christ, it would have been madness! For me, the whole thing about Big Beat was that anything goes. Pull something from here and here and let's see what happens. Getting that to work on the Akais was bloody hard work. A lot of the time, it was all about feel. You chopped and changed the time-stretches until it sort of felt right. Sometimes, the whole thing ended up rather rickety, but that was half the fun.
"Look... don't even start! I know you can do all of that on Ableton. I almost managed to make the switch a couple of years back. My management hooked me up with Hervé for the Machines Can Do The Work single. There were some real old-school sounds on there, but all the main work was done in Ableton. I came out of the session filled with enthusiasm and immediately stuck Ableton on the computer. The compressors, the filters, the EQ... yeah, it was all very familiar. I guess I just need that last piece of the jigsaw puzzle.
"I suppose the strange thing is that, if I can finally get on to Ableton, I will have come full circle. I started out with the Atari, the Akai and a bunch of samples. Ableton is just a modern version of that set-up. It's a great manipulator and sequencer of sampled blocks of audio. When I look at it like that... well, I really ought to get my act together and start making some fucking tunes!"