Having just about finished his new album, Palookaville, Norman Cook (a.k.a. Fatboy Slim) took a breather in April to perform at the Euro 2004 soccer tournament in Lisbon, Portugal. As the official DJ for the competition, he received choice seats for the matches and was looking forward to some quality time lying on the beach after the gig. Instead, he spent much of his time lying in a hospital bed.
"I was sleepwalking, and I think I was getting a drink of water when I slipped on the rug and went face down on the bedpost," he said a few weeks after the accident that ruined his vacation. "I smashed up my nose and moved my teeth around. There was lots of blood and I'm still trying to get my teeth back together so I can eat solids again."
Still, the pain he endured in Lisbon paled in comparison to the agony he experienced before and during the making of Palookaville. There were numerous setbacks: At a seafront rave he organized in his home town in Brighton, England, a 25-year-old Australian woman fell to her death, causing Cook to flee the country to avoid the deluge of reporters; club music took a steep decline in Europe, rendering his work somewhat obsolete; and most significantly, in 2002, Cook temporarily separated from his wife of three-and-a-half years, XFM radio-show host Zoe Ball, because she was allegedly having an affair with underground DJ Dan Peppe. During their time apart, Cook started writing an upbeat electronic dance record, which he scrapped when he realized it wasn't satisfying his creative muse.
"My breakup became very, very public, and I think I was deliberately making a jolly album to prove to everyone I was OK," Cook said. "But while I was doing it, I was watching dance music die on its feet in England, and clubs were closing down all over the place, so I just started thinking, 'Well, hold on, there's no point in making another club record.' So I thought I'd flex some different muscles and try something new."
The fruit of his labor, Palookaville, is Cook's most eclectic, musical and revealing offering. Instead of drawing primarily from house culture, he roots songs like "Don't Let the Man Get You Down," "Push and Shove" and Wonderful Night" in a heady blend of '70s funk, old R&B and even classic rock. And lyrically, he addresses the recent setbacks in his life on tracks like "El Bebe Masoquista" which includes the sample "My masochistic baby went and left me" from Shel Silverstein; and "Put it Back Together," a boozy plea for healing, which features vocals by Blur's Damon Albarn. While there are still plenty of whirring samples and galactic keyboards throughout the record, the musical tone is often as melancholy as the lyrics.
"I used to go to clubs every night and celebrate all the time, and I don't really do that anymore," explains Cook. "So this sounds like me sitting at home being reflective rather than me being out drinking."
Which doesn't mean the big-beat pioneer was bummed out while he worked on Palookaville. Not only did lots of friends swing by his home/studio, a number of guest musicians also dropped in, including Albarn, DJ Justin Robertson, Brighton band Johnny Quarterly, Bootsy Collins (see "Does My Bootsy Look Fatboy In This Jeans Song?"), and Blackalicious MC Lateef. "This one was more fun than my other albums because there was a lot more human involvement," Cook said. "Normally, I'm by myself and I find it hard to make myself laugh when I'm on my own."
Two of the collaborative highlights for Cook are the sultry "Wonderful Night" and the buoyant, reggae-tinged "The Journey." Both tracks were recorded with Lateef, whom Cook now considers "part of the family." The two had been trying to work together since 2000, but scheduling conflicts got in the way.
"I was always in America when he was in England, so I said, 'Rather than waiting for you to come to England, I'm going to fly you over here, otherwise we're never gonna do it,' " Cook said. "So he came and stayed here for four days, and we had a great time. We're kindred spirits, really, kind of like me and Bootsy. Even though we live on [opposite] sides of the world, we've got all the same reference points and the same sense of humor."
It wasn't just the guest vocalists that kept Cook entertained. He also amused himself by rocking out on bass, something he hadn't done since he played in the socialist-leaning indie-pop band the Housemartins in the '80s. He had such a good time refamiliarizing himself with his old instrument that he decided to play bass at the end of Johnny Quarterly's set when the two tour the U.K. next month. "It's such a physical thing to play," he said. "When my wife came downstairs and saw me jumping around, it scared the living daylights out of her. She shouted, 'What the hell are you doing?' And I answered as naturally as can be, 'I'm playing bass, dear.' "