With Fatboy Slim albums, the clue is always in the title, and Norman Cook’ third outing is no exception. While “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby” was one long whoop of triumph, “Halfway Between The Gutter And The Stars” is the sound of a person taking stock of their life.
Norman was staying at LA’ Chateau Marmont hotel, when the title came to him. Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston had come along to see him DJ the night before, Bill Murray said hello in the lobby and the pop star life was his for the taking. But as for Norman himself?
“I was wandering around sweating and shaking, not having been to bed for about two days,” he remembers with a wry grin. “And I was thinking, ‘You can take the boy out of the gutter but you can’t take the gutter out of the boy’.”
When you remember that the whole Fatboy Slim alias started out as a fun side project to help launch the hip UK label, Skint, and have a laugh making party records to DJ with, no wonder Norman has found the last couple of years surreal. “You’ve Come A Long Way Baby” wasn’t just a great record – it was a pop phenomenon that made him the world’ biggest dance artist and redefined the concept of the superstar DJ. He was the biggest British artist in the US last year.
During those two rollercoaster years, everyone from Madonna to Robbie Williams was bidding for his remixing talents, his kitchen shelf groaned with trophies and virtually every weekend found him jetting off to major DJ gigs and award ceremonies. In the midst of all this, he fell in love with, and married British television and radio personality, Zoe Ball. A personal high, but one that made the couple reluctant tabloid material.
“I’m not moaning about it but I definitely had pop star fatigue,” he reflects. “The pressure of being in the limelight all the time was beginning to take its toll. For about three months my job was to go to awards ceremonies. When that was all I did, and I wasn’t making any music I was getting hacked off with what my life had become. I’m not very good at being a celebrity.”
In 1999 he played two defining events – the boxing-themed face-off with Armand Van Helden at London’ Brixton Academy, and a legendary show with The Chemical Brothers at Red Rocks, Colorado (the first time these superstar artists performed together in America) – which effectively closed a chapter in his career. Time to move on.
As the new year dawned Norman ventured back into his home studio in Brighton, England to make the most emotional, innovative album of his career. Norman explains the progression by pointing out that “The Rockafeller Skank” was the first track he recorded for his last album, and “Right Here Right Now” was the last.
“I thought, ‘Actually maybe I can do something with a bit more power and soul rather than just thrills and spills’. When I started this album I just sat there for about a month thinking what I didn’t want it to sound like. It took ages to work out what I did want it to sound like.”
Helpful advice came from longstanding friends The Chemical Brothers, who suggested he work with guest vocalists. Reluctant at first, Norman drew up a wish list of possible collaborators and the first name on it was charismatic soul diva Macy Gray.
They recorded two songs together in LA at the beginning of the year: the hormonal funk of ‘Love Life’ and the glorious breakbeat gospel of ‘Demons’, which Norman describes as the album’ pivotal track. Macy, meanwhile, calls it the best thing she’ ever done and she’ right, too.
“She was lovely,” Norman reports. “She’ very eccentric but really beautiful. And she smells great. That was the first thing I noticed when I met her!”
After that the album had found its heart and everything else fell into place. The first UK single, ‘Sunset (Bird Of Prey)’ is adapted from an ambient track that Norman wrote several years ago. It takes one of the less pretentious moments from Jim Morrison’ “American Prayer” poetry album and blazes into the stratosphere, borne aloft on whirling beats and soaring chords.
Another key track is “Song For Shelter,” a heady hymn to house music with preacher man vocals from Urban Soul’ Roland Clarke (the voice behind Armand Van Helden’ hit “Flowerz”). Norman debuted it to a rapturous response at Glastonbury 2000 and describes it as going back to his roots in club culture.
“Sometimes over the last two years I’ve found myself doing things I don’t really enjoy and forget why I’m doing this,” he explains. “And I’m normally in a nightclub when I remember why. Every foray I’ve had into the pop world has been based on support and respect from the dance community. I didn’t want to end up just pop.”
Thus, the thunderous “Star 69” has the kind of crunching dancefloor momentum you’ll recognize from Norman’ remixes of Underworld and Groove Armada’ “I See You Baby” (his only recent remixing jobs), while “Ya Mama” and “Mad Flava” are deliberately “old skool Fatboy” floor-fillers. “I was allowed to have a couple,” he jokes. “Because most people have dropped the big beat thing it’ long enough ago that people are nostalgic.”
There are four more tracks, including the sublime bluesy opener, “Talking ’bout My Baby”, as well as a collaboration with P-Funk legend Bootsy Collins on “Weapon Of Choice”. None of them sound quite like you’d expect, but all of them sound as good as you’d hope.
If “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby” jumped and shouted with manic glee, its successor sounds no less happy but a lot more content. When Norman first asked friends for feedback they used words like “loved up”, “soulful” and “uplifting”. It’ a work of widescreen emotion, psychedelic soul and the best dance music you’ve heard all year.
So Norman Cook’ back, but he doesn’t want to get any bigger, just better. He’ ignored any pressure to repeat himself and instead made the album he wanted to make, with fresh ideas and pinpoint production values that outclass anything he’ done before.
He’ halfway between the gutter and the stars and that’ just the way he likes it.