In 2002, Norman Cook looked out on a jubilant throng of 250,000 dancers on a Brighton beach and feared the worst. The second of his Big Beach Boutique dance parties on the sand in the English resort town, under his Fatboy Slim moniker, had been expected to draw about 60,000. They got close to five times that many, in a setting nowhere near built to accommodate that many people.
"I was really scared, we were poised on the edge of disaster at that one," Cook said. They averted abject mayhem, but there was one death and traffic snarled the town until the next morning. Cook left thrilled by the show, but shaken by the fallout of it.
So it comes as a bit of redemption that, nine years later, he successfully exported the concept for well-received American Big Beach shows in Miami and Governor’s Island in New York City (previewed by an installment in Brazil that drew 360,000). Fifteen years after his commercial big-beat breakthrough "Better Living Through Chemistry," the pioneer of the first wave of techno embraced by the American mainstream has stayed at the forefront of the second, underscored by his headlining set at HARD Haunted Mansion on Friday night.
He’s stayed exceedingly popular as a DJ (headlining Coachella's dance tent in 2008) even as it’s been seven years since he’s released a proper pop album in the spirit of his '90s records that made singles like "The Rockafeller Skank" and "Praise You" utterly inescapable. Intriguing diversions, such as his band-oriented Brighton Port Authority project and his 2010 rock-opera song cycle with David Byrne, "Here Lies Love," (about Imelda Marcos, the former Philippine first lady with a famous shoe indulgence) let him stretch his legs a bit in an unexpected setting.
"When one of your all-time musical heroes turns up and asks to work together, you say 'Yes,' " Cook said. "But a 22-song cycle about Imelda Marcos wasn’t something I expected."
But with more than 70 shows in 2011, it’s been the most frantic year behind the decks in his career, with major Ibiza and Detroit Electronic Music Conference shows as highlights. But while he made his reputation in the '90s for soul-steeped big beat (and idiosyncratic videos such as Spike Jonze’s’ "Weapon of Choice," in which Christopher Walken famously climbed the walls), he’s begun tweaking sets to the expectations and possibilities in this late-aughts genre resurgence in the American mainstream.
Just last year, he made the switch from his longtime weapon of choice, good old vinyl, to the digital-mixing program Serato to better incorporate his mixes with the visuals expected at festivals such as HARD. These days, it’s a live performance that has to induce the ecstasy.
"Before I could never sync the visuals to the music. Now we’ve written a whole story out on screen," Cook said. "There’s so much more of a visual impact, and I’m still physically mixing. Now the production technology is cheaper and techno makes for a better live show. Have you seen Amon Tobin’s sets? It’s like being inside a 3-D movie."
Far from any Old-Guard curmudgeonliness, Cook has embraced the populism and trappings of techno’s second honeymoon in the States. He even made a pass through a Vegas residency at Marquee, a week he described as "…Interesting. It’s billed as the Ibiza of the Midwest and I’m not so it’s quite as loved-up [as] that. But a Vegas pool party was a box I hadn’t checked, we spun inside the pool and I got to flex some new muscles."
But as he sees it, the big difference in this wave is in nationality -– a continental shift in sound that might make him even a bit of an underdog behind the decks.
"From my point of view, the first wave was very English-driven," he said. "Now it’s a Frenchman [David Guetta], now it’s a Dutchman [Tiesto] and a very Euro sound. But I’ve always loved the underground, and today you have to be savvy and maintain a relationship with fans. It’s just a different set of skills today."
-- August Brown
Photo: Norman Cook, a.k.a. Fatboy Slim. Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times