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Fatboy Slim

Rolling Stone Australia (August 2004)

Not for the first time in the last few years, Norman Cook looks nervous. He fiddles with a roll of black gaffer tape, keeping his hands busy with whatever’s nearest now that he’s given up smoking, and glances restlessly around the balcony of his luxury seafront home in Brighton, on the English south coast.

When he first moved in in 1998, this was his sanctuary: a spacious house on what the local cab driver calls “millionaire’s row” with a private stretch of beach (neighbours: Paul McCartney and British soap star Nick Berry), miles away from claustrophobia of London. About eighteen months ago, however, it became a prison. Tabloid reporters lurked at the end of the private approach road, waiting to snatch anything they could on Cook and wife Zoe Ball, while photographers dug themselves into the beach and hired boats in a bid to get a fresh snap.

“I can’t really moan. Because it’s our fault,” declares Cook, trying to be breezy about what was clearly a hugely traumatic period in his life. “We got ourselves into it. You live by the sword, you die by the sword. We set ourselves up as celebrities. We were the ones that wanted to be famous. We fucked up in public, so you have to take the flak. But it got quite out of hand.”

When ROLLING STONE last caught up with Cook, for a good-natured afternoon of beer and chat in a secluded Ibiza bar in 2001, life was looking rosy for the DJ. He and Ball, the daughter of much-loved kids TV presenter Johnny Ball and a popular TV presenter and radio DJ in her own right, had married in 1999 and had their first child Woody, at the end of 2000. By the middle of 2002, however, rumours had started circulating that the difference in the couple’s lifestyles had caused problems (Ball had abandoned her career to raise Woody, while Cook kept on DJing - in his own words, “Monday to Thursday, I’m Dad and weekend I’m a drunken party animal”), and in January 2003 the news broke that the pair had split.

A savage period of tabloid scrutiny followed, the feeding frenzy heightening when it emerged that Ball had become involved with another DJ, Dan Peppe. “It got pretty bad,” nods Cook, grimly. “Well I say pretty bad, really fucking bad. I had my phone tapped. They were camped at the end of the road for three months. Every time I went out I had to lose the photographers. Or have my photo taken going to [supermarket] Sainsburys. They made me quite paranoid. You feel like a hunted animal. I know how a fox feels when the hounds are bearing down on it. It was quite scary.”

Despite the pressure of constant attention, Cook and Ball managed a reconciliation. At which point the gutter press went into overdrive.

“When we got back together it was worse because they followed us everywhere we went, trying to get a shot of us having a row in public. We both agreed not to talk about it and then things I was saying were ending up in the papers and Zoe was going ‘you’ve done an interview. I know when they make up quotes but that sounds like you talking’. I said ‘yeah, it was a conversation I had last night on the phone, word for word’. She said ‘you’re just being paranoid’. It was only until she realised that her phoned was tapped too…”

Were Cook still smoking you suspect he’d be on his third pack by now.

“Things like that don’t help when you’re trying to work on your relationship. One of you accusing the other of talking to the press when all they’re doing is having a conversation with your best mate.”

How did they get past all that?

“We got the police involved and sorted out the phone business. And then we just buckled down, got our heads down. Stopped going out, because every time we went out it was a stress. So we just sat here, played with Woody, and put it back together.”

Were they ever tempted to leave the country?

“We did that a couple of times, but they followed us. Every single holiday we’ve had, we’ve been followed and snapped. That’s when you feel really hunted when leaving the country isn’t even an option.”

During this time, Cook was also working on his third album, ‘Palookaville’. A far more upbeat and accessible record than ‘Between The Gutter And The Stars’, it unsurprisingly contains several references to his relationship with Ball – from the idyllic pre-storm calm of ‘North West Three’ to the straightforward ‘Masochistic Baby’ (sole lyric: “My masochistic baby went and left me”) to the tender, Damon Albarn-sung, ‘Putting It Back Together’.

Cook admits now that ‘Between The Gutter And The Stars’ was him “deliberately trying to exorcise the demons of pop stardom. Wilfully trying to dismantle and go back underground.” The problem with that, he discovered, was that “you can never really go back”. Especially when you’re one half of a high profile celebrity relationship. ‘Palookaville’, therefore, is Cook “recognising that this is what I do”, pumping out the party anthems like the good old days. All of which presents a potential problem. If the album’s a hit, then the tabloids will return. Was he ever tempted to give up releasing records?

“I decided to not release records for the time being. I never thought I won’t ever do it again because I don’t know how to do anything else. It what I do, what I live for. But I wanted to wait until it’s all died down. And wait until I’m strong enough. I used to have panic attacks. I had to work on my confidence to be able to sit there and hold my head high and smile. Smile at the fuckers when I really wanted to kill them.”

When did Cook give up smoking?

“October last year.”

How was it?

“Fine. I got hypnotised. No problem. Sixty quid, two hours. Bang. I don’t smoke. When people offer me a cigarette, I don’t even say I’ve given up, I say I don’t smoke. Like I never did. One of the things in the last few years I’ve thought about is my responsibilities. I want to be around long enough to watch my son grow up. Turning 40, you realise you can’t cane it like you did forever. So I cut that all out a lot. I go to the gym now. Rather than before I was ‘I’ll live forever or die trying’. Now I’ve got to the point where I prefer to live longer.”

The death of Joe Strummer was a wake-up call for a lot of confirmed hedonists entering their forties. Was Strummer a friend?

“We were acquaintances. I went to his funeral. I wouldn’t say we were best mates.”

Did his death have an affect on Cook?

“No. That didn’t figure in me giving up smoking, because that was right in the middle of the me and Zo thing. That was probably the worst day of my life. I was on my way to Joe Strummer’s funeral and I got the news that my friend Chesh had died. That knocked me for six. And because Chesh was a really good friend of me and Zo’s, we both got together to look after his partner and grieve together. So it was quite a difficult day for me. That was the night I wrote ‘Song For Chesh’ [a beautiful instrumental on the album]. When I got home, I didn’t really know what to do with myself.”

As for the future, Cook has his eye set on the beach. Having played to a staggering 360,000 people on Flamingo Beach in Rio in February, he’s looking to repeat the experience all over the world.

“It was fantastic,” Cook beams. “The only thing that stopped it being the best gig of my life was that it wasn’t in my home town. There was about 400 boats moored offshore. And the crowd were beautiful. Lots of sexy dancing going on. I started with ‘Girl From Ipanema’ and then mixed a hip-hop beat in, so absolutely everybody was singing the whole thing and then when the drums kicked in they went mental. It went without a hitch. We had eight medical centres with fully equipped beds and only one person was treated for a sprained ankle or something like that.”

Next stop? Well, seeing as he can’t play his own beloved Brighton Beach again after overcrowding problems, Cook has another Brighton Beach in mind.

“Next summer we want to do beach parties,” Cook enthuses. “We’ve been invited to do Columbia, Argentina, Venezuela, and Rio again. We’ve been invited to do Brighton Beach in Melbourne and I’m hoping we’ll be allowed to do Bondi. We’re thinking of just touring the beaches of the world. You do less gigs, less travelling, have more fun and get to play on the most beautiful beaches around the world.”

And for the first time during our time together, those nerves are nowhere to be seen.



Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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