Whether you are an internationally loved superstar DJ or a globally successful rock star, writing, recording and producing records can be a draining experience. So once the album sessions are over and the computer hard drives have cooled, the tradition known as the afterparty is a cherished way to blow off steam and celebrate. Such festivities were planned for Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, and the members of premier British pop band Blur upon completion of Blur's recent Brit Award — nominated album, Think Tank (Virgin, 2003), of which Cook produced a few stellar tracks.
Of course, one of the perks of hanging out with spotlight-loving rock stars is that you can easily nudge them into performing, even when they are unaware of the outcome. “We did the last mix of Think Tank and then got very, very drunk,” Cook reports, sitting poolside at a Manhattan meat-market hotel. “We did most of Think Tank on a 60-channel desk in a big house in Marrakech. I had great fun doing that. So we're at the drunken afterparty at [Blur singer Damon Albarn's] house in Devon [England], and he asks, ‘So how is your album coming?’ I played him the songs in his home studio, and he started singing over the rhythm tracks. Then, he says, ‘Norman, can I guest on your album?’ Since we were in the studio, I asked my executive producer, Simon Thornton, if he could get an SM58 up, and Damon did a load of drunken ranting, which I took home and tinkered around with and structured for ‘Put It Back Together.’ Then, Damon came down to my house for a very drunken, vodka-and-orange-juice-laced weekend, and we went over the tracks.”
The liquified afterparty was the impetus for an entire album? Well, in some ways, the debauchery provided Cook with a moment of clarity, which inspired the recording sessions for his fourth proper album, Palookaville (Astralwerks, 2004).
With his various roles as producer, syndicated radio personality, clubbing DJ, record-label owner and recording artist (not to mention husband and father) keeping him intensely busy, it is surprising that Cook found time to produce Blur at all, but the experience influenced him in myriad ways. In addition to inspiring him to use a revolving door of guest vocalists — including Albarn, Justin Robertson, Johnny Quality, Lateef, Bootsy Collins and Sharon Wolff — Cook followed Blur's lead and adopted Digidesign Pro Tools, finally joining the modern world of mega-gigabyte computers and flashy editing software to complement his usual songwriting and recording tools of an Atari ST and C-Labs Creator software.
This in turn reflects (and perhaps even enabled) Palookaville's broadened stylistic palette. Whereas previous Fatboy Slim albums, such as Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars (Astralwerks, 2000), were created in an insular zone of Cook, the Atari and a huge bank of floppy-stored samples, Palookaville is practically a rebirth on every front. The first Fatboy album to include live instruments (played by Cook, Thornton and Robertson) and guest vocalists, it is also the first to wrap Cook's love of '70s kitsch (remember those smiley faces?) around cover songs as diverse as Steve Miller's “The Joker” and a near full-song sample of Babatunde Olatunji's 1959 African percussion classic “Jin Go Lo Ba,” from the chart-topping Drums of Passion (Mjjkael). Pro Tools helped make Cook's new songs more dynamic and detailed than ever whereas hyperfreak songs such as “Don't Let the Man,” “Slash Dot Dash” and the dolefully surreal “North West Three” (which includes a sample of folkies John and Beverly Martyn's “Primrose Hill”) are unmistakably Fatboy Slim.
The question, of course, is why Pro Tools — and why now? For Cook, the technological readjustment was more about giving in than joining up. “I never got involved with Pro Tools because I didn't want to commit and because I still write on the Atari,” he admits. “When we get to the point where we have to put it from the Atari and the Akai S950 sampler into Pro Tools, we are committed to the arrangement. But you can cut and paste much better on Pro Tools than the Atari. So I have finally been dragged kicking and screaming into the '90s. But I still don't know anything about Pro Tools, and I am not prepared to learn. If I am working on something like vocals that doesn't require Simon being there, we get a basic rhythm track going, put the vocals down and do a rough arrangement. Simon leaves, and with Pro Tools running the Atari, I will rearrange the song around the vocals. I do that for hours. Then, I have a big piece of paper on the side explaining how to shut down the Mac.”
Thornton, who also engineered The Gutter and the Stars, was a big help in aligning the Atari and Creator with the Mac G4 and Pro Tools. “The process starts the same as ever with Norman running the Atari ST with C-Labs Creator running everything via MIDI,” Thornton says. “Once the basic demo is finished, Pro Tools is switched on and gains control of the whole setup. Pro Tools sends the Atari a basic MIDI Clock that the Atari picks up via one of the MIDI Ins of its C-Labs expansion box and then happily chases it along. From there, we run all the samples from the Akais and the sound modules into individual tracks on Pro Tools, normally four or eight at a time. Doing it this way requires the basic arrangement on the Atari/MIDI side to be almost finished before we start tracking it all in.”
But make no mistake: Although Cook has relented to upgrading his setup, he has no plans to become a modern techno-geek. “I still don't have e-mail,” he says. “I haven't got a computer. I can't see the point of taking three months of my life to learn it. I know the Atari, Creator and the Akai S950 inside out. They do all the things I need them to do.”
SLEEPY TIME WITH ALBARN
With Thornton handling major knob duties, allowing Cook to work comfortably, Palookaville took an organic, old-school direction guided by up-to-date software compliance. Returning to the African-influenced “Put It Back Together,” the process indeed worked like a charm.
“After that drunken night in Devon, we progressed to a drunken night at my home in Brighton [England],” Cook says. “Damon was actually so tired and drunk that he was falling asleep with his head on the desk between vocal takes. He would sing a bunch of stuff, and me and Simon would paste it together in Pro Tools. Damon would wake up, learn the next verse, sing it, then go back to sleep. Then, we would work on the next bit. The way we had the rhythm track, it was a drunken, mumbled vocal struggling to make itself heard. So I stripped it right down, and that gave room for Damon's vocal to breathe. Damon's vocal is really understated, but he liked the soulful quality of it. There is a chopped-up sample of an acoustic guitar, live bass, two drum tracks and just a pad on the chorus. There are two backing vocals, Damon doing the African one and the ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ bit. The backing vocals fulfill what normally you would have a guitar or keyboard doing rhythmically.”
Speaking of vocals, Cook and Thornton relied on the workhorse Shure SM58 and Audio-Technica AT4033 mics for the bulk of the sessions. A veteran of the recording business, Thornton uses the two for very different purposes. “All of the vocals bar one were done through the AT4033,” he explains. “That mic may be cheap relative to a Neumann U 87, but it can take almost anything you throw at it, and the fact that it doesn't have the most transparent sound actually works in its favor. Damon's vocals on ‘Put It Back Together’ were done through a Shure SM58. It's a bit gritty and lo-fi, but when we thought about redoing the vocal, not only did we love the performance but also the sound had a very personal quality to it. You have to use them up very close — almost eating them at times — to pick out expression with them.”
Likewise, certain outboard pieces were used to achieve specific goals. Cook and Thornton employed Cook's favorite guitar pedals, including the Boss SE-70 and the Lovetone Meatball. (“If you hear something that goes wah wah wah, that is the Meatball,” Cook says.) The two also played guitar, bass, Rhodes electric piano and Hammond organ live in the studio. So in addition to Cook's five essential survival pieces — an Atari ST, two Akai S950s, a TL Audio VP-5051 preamp and dbx 163 and 165 compressors — live instrumentation was the order of the day, giving the songs added bite and thump.
“I am playing the bass with real fingers!” Cook exclaims. “Who would have thought? My wife never comes into the studio unless it is time to come to bed. But she came around when I was playing the bass and said, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ I said, ‘I am playing the bass.’ ‘Well, I have never seen you playing the bass in the six years I have known you. It just looks all wrong.’ ‘I used to do it for a living, you know,’ I said. And she said, ‘But that was years ago!’”
Recording live instruments was also something that Cook hadn't done since his days with The Housemartins, and he certainly wasn't prepared to work out the MIDI details. In stepped Thornton. “It literally was as simple as this: For the bass on ‘Push and Shove,’ played by Justin Robertson, Norman's Fender Precision bass was plugged directly into a TL Audio VP-5051 preamp and then into Pro Tools,” Thornton says. “Justin's acoustic guitar on the same track went through my Audio-Technica 4033 mic with a little compression straight into Pro Tools. The bass on ‘Put It Back Together’ was my Fender Jazz bass put through a Line 6 Bass Pod straight into Pro Tools again. The same setup was used when Norman played the bass on ‘Slash Dot Dash’ and ‘Song for Chesh.’ The guitar on ‘Slash Dot Dash’ was played on Norman's old semiacoustic that was injected via my other Line 6 box, the original series-1 Pod. The Line 6 boxes are extremely good at what they do, and there is a reason they are so popular! The acoustic guitars on ‘Long Way From Home’ were recorded via my Audio-Technica AT4033 mic going into the Joemeek VC-1 preamp channel with the mic very close to the neck and overloading slightly. It gives it real power doing it that way when you have two tracks of it panned in stereo.”
Although live instruments were used to create different sonic flavors for Palookaville than for past records, Thornton also got his way, using plug-ins as often as Cook did his Meatball and SE-70. “My main plug-in weapon is Waves' Audio Track,” Thornton explains. “You get so much out of it — EQ, compression, gating — for very little DSP usage. It doesn't have a character in the way that some of the more expensive plug-ins do, but that's fine because we use so many samples that already have a lot of character; after all, they've already been EQ'd and compressed and put onto vinyl! We also use Cycling '74's Pluggo 3 package. Some of its noises, it can turn a basic part into something very different, and although some of its cheaper-sounding plug-ins have trouble standing up to any real usage within a track, some of the special-effect-type ones like Transformer are very useful. And because some of them take awhile to get used to, you don't hear them on too many other people's records.”
Proceeding with the organic live-in-studio approach in combination with modern editing software, Babatunde Olatunji's stomping African track “Jin Go Lo Ba” begins with a few woozy space sounds but soon succumbs to outrageous call-and-response vocals, a buzzing bass line and a fiery heathen percussion line. The track walks a thin line between techno splice-and-dice treatment and unadorned sample thievery.
“The original track that was sampled for ‘Jin Go Lo Ba’ does all that vocal morphing all by itself,” Thornton says. “We did very little to it, just chopped it up in the Akai S950 and laid the rest of the track underneath it. It's perhaps the simplest and most standard Fatboy track on the whole album. Apart from the wobbly vocals at the beginning and end, not much was done to the vocal, processingwise, partly because there's a lot more than just vocal on the sample we used; it's full of drums and percussion, as well, so our hands were tied with regards to how much processing could be done to it without it all sounding very messy.”
At the end of the day, it could be said that Palookaville is the most un — Fatboy Slim album ever. It veered far off his usual recording route, relied on an outside engineer to arrange and mix the songs and surrendered vocal control to a handful of hotshot collaborators. But just as nothing stays the same, it is the wise musician who knows when to stop punching the clock and move on to a different path.
“I think my music is progressing,” Cook says, dangling his toes in the pool's cool water. “It is getting more substance. The first Fatboy album was just, ‘C'mon, let's have it.’ — just bludgeoning you into dancing. But Palookaville is less of a dance album. It is more of a listening record, which is good. I don't want to go over the same ground. I am growing out of my repetition gag. I want to use more classical and pop structures rather than just using repetition as the basis of the songs.”
Cook puts on his deck shoes and squints at the sun. “Everything I do ends up with a certain pop sensibility and a joie de vivre about it anyway,” he says. “I can't escape it. It is always recognizable as me.”
FAT LOOPS AND COOKED BEATS
“What I like is re-creating a kit that sounds like all of its original elements were played in the same room,” Norman Cook says. “They all go down on the same track; I just add a little compression. I won't have a kick track and a snare track, just a kit track. Because they are picked for their sound, normally, we don't do that much to them, because they have already been mixed. The reason I like using loops is because they sound authentic already. A lot of times, I use two drum loops. One will have the crispness and the bite; the other will have the ambience. Then, I program them so they both play exactly the same thing. It is like having two drummers — like Gary Glitter! It gives you a really big drum sound.
“Anything from 1969 to 1975 is a good era for drum sounds and loops. I just got some loops going, played a bass line on the keyboard, some Moog bass line. The drum track is a chopped-up drum loop — kick, snare, hat — played manually on a MIDI keyboard. I put the kick on one, the snare on one, the hi-hat on another. If you've got the hits cleanly, you can leave the air after the hits, and you can basically use that drum kit to play whatever pattern you want. Normally, I cut the kick and the snare and play it like it is on the loop; then, I can retrigger the snare to do little fills and tickles.”