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We visit Norman Cook to get an insight on just why he's so popular in Brazil

Norman Cook welcomes the DJ Mag crew into his house in Brighton on the south coast of England, then nips upstairs to change into his Brazil kit for the cover shoot. We take a painting off the wall near his front door, and Norm stands in the requisite spot while we shoot enough pics to composite a Team of Norms for the DJ Mag cover. “Do ‘angry’,” says photographer Larry, encouraging Norm to do different faces for the shots. “I’m not sure I can do ‘angry’,” says Norm.

We’re here because Norman is again DJing out at the World Cup this month, but as the tournament is being staged in his favourite country too — a country that loves him as much as he loves it — he’s gone the extra mile this time around and curated a double album of Brazil-flavoured dance tunes. More about that in a while, but while he’s posing for the pics — squeezing into his son Woody’s football boots that are somewhat too small for him — we ask Norm what he thought in 2007 when he first heard that the World Cup was going to be in Brazil in 2014. “Just elation,” he says, “and I was straight on the phone to my agent to start booking the gigs to get in there first!”

Norm describes himself as “the semi-official DJ at the World Cup”. Moving to his office at the back of the house, he tells DJ Mag about the time he booked a tour — with fellow footie-loving DJ pals Jon Carter and Damian Harris, aka Midfield General, from Skint — around the England matches at the World Cup in Japan in 2002.

“When we got out there, we got caught up in the whole World Cup fever, and the FA started giving us free tickets and inviting all the England fans to our gigs so that they had something to do on their nights off,” he recounts.

“I was getting asked to do punditry at matches and stuff like that, and the FA kept giving us tickets.

“One day I was like, ‘Thank you so much for getting us these tickets to all the matches’, and they said ‘Well, you are our official DJ?’” he continues. “I was like, ‘I’m not actually that official’, and they said ‘Well, you’re our unofficial mascot’.

So it’s a bit like when I play at Glastonbury, when people say ‘But where’s your secret after-gig?’ At the World Cup I’ll always be skulking around doing little gigs, or big gigs — depending on where it is.”

He did the Euros in Portugal in 2004 as well, and describes how he went more guerrilla style to South Africa in 2010, “because there aren’t enough big gigs outside Johannesburg and Cape Town, so we were playing the fan zones, and again felt really involved there”.

So with the World Cup being in Brazil this time, Fatboy Slim is fucking in heaven. “For someone who loves football, going to a World Cup is the perfect excuse to get out there,” he surmises. “For someone who likes football and music, DJing at the World Cup is like your dream job. For someone who likes football and music and Brazil, it’s a no-brainer.”

Norm’s first memory of anything to do with Brazil came via his mum and dad. “My parents really loved bossa nova and samba, so I grew up with Sergio Mendes, and I think something in the rhythm instilled itself in my brain,” he says.

“It was the '60s and bossa nova was very hip — and my parents were semi-hip. “It was groovy: it was the bossa nova, with the emphasis on new and ‘nova’ — almost drum & bass rhythm,” he freestyles. “In suburban southern England it was kind of exotic, I suppose, it had great tunes and rhythm that we, this side of the Atlantic, could deal with.

“So it was music before I had any knowledge of anything else about Brazil, and probably my next memory was about football,” he continues. “The era of Pele, and I remember thinking that the Brazilian World Cup team had the coolest shirts — and they were better than us. Consistently. Better-looking all round. I still maintain to this day that Brazilians are better-looking all round.”

As has been well-documented, Norm started making music himself after moving to Brighton, getting involved in a succession of acts that made it to the top of the charts in the UK — indie band The Housemartins with his friend from Reigate College, Paul Heaton; the Beats International collective (‘Dub Be Good To Me’); and then Freak Power (‘Turn On, Tune In, Cop Out’). His acid house epiphany led him to start making house tunes as Pizzaman (‘Trippin’ On Sunshine’, ‘Sex on the Streets’) and the Mighty Dub Katz ('Magic Carpet Ride' etc), and DJ Mag suggests to Norm that the Dub Katz was his proto-Brazilian music pseudonym for good-time carnivalesque tunes.

“Yeah, it kind of was,” he concurs. “It was a Latin offshoot for what I was doing, and if we weren’t quite sure if it was a Pizzaman tune or a Mighty Dub Katz tune, the more Latin stuff tended to be the Dub Katz. But in those days I really probably wouldn’t have known the difference between a Cuban rhythm or a Brazilian sample, it was all just filed under ‘Latin’. It wasn’t until I went to Brazil and started spending time there that I realised the difference between Brazilian music and the rest of Latin music.”

In 1996 he became Fatboy Slim in order to record tunes for the new offshoot of Loaded Records kicked off by his friend Damian Harris, and — surfing the big beat wave — Fatboy Slim soon became massive in the UK.

‘Praise You’ in 1999 helped him conquer many other territories too, and in 2001 — as well as staging the first Big Beach Boutique rave on Brighton beach — he scored his first gig in Brazil. “It was the Free Jazz Festival,” he says, showing DJ Mag the poster on his wall, “although it wasn’t free, and there was no jazz at it. I went there not really knowing what to expect, or not expecting Brazilians to react to my music in the way that they did.

I probably wasn’t playing Dub Katz-y stuff, I was playing proper Fatboy Slim breakbeaty acidy stuff, but there was something that translated — and I’ve never been able to quite work out what it is Brazilians like about me.

“There’s a sense of humour as well as rhythm, and music being a kind of collective celebration — rather than protest music or whatever,” he ponders. “Music in Brazil is a soundtrack to them celebrating things.

I’ve never tried to make overtly political music; if I try to make angry music it always comes out slightly light-hearted, so it’s about the party and the rhythm — and I found out that Brazilians took to what I did and immediately went ‘Yes’. And I took to Brazil too. We both went ‘Yesss’, and the love affair grew from there.”

He says talking with Jon Carter and Mark Jones from Wall of Sound about their Carnival escapades made him realise that there was more to Brazil than the clichés fed to us by the telly, and that after the second Big Beach Boutique in Brighton in 2002 it seemed like everyone in Brazil bought the DVD of the event. “It sold more in Brazil than it did the whole of the rest of the world put together,” Norm says.

“It just caught their imagination, so then they got in touch and said ‘How do you fancy doing that in Brazil?’

Sure enough, the power of the DVD meant that in early 2004 he pulled 360,000 people to the Flamengo Beach in Rio during Carnival time. “The logistics were something to behold,” he recalls. “With the second one in Brighton, we were way over-subscribed and safety had become a real issue. That poor girl died later that night, and I was like ‘If we’re going to do something as big as this again, I really need to know that it’s controlled’.

“So aside from worrying about playing to the biggest audience of your life — and in those days there was no technology to fall back on, it was a table, record players and 360,000 people watching — I was nervous about what it was capable of and I spent a day with the police, with them showing me everything that was involved,” he adds. It transpired that Brazilians were used to putting on big events on their beaches.

“In fact, we kinda learned far more about what maybe we should’ve done on Brighton beach,” Norm admits. “They had a 50-man SWAT team and mobile hospitals and things like that. Safety was paramount because of the near calamity we had with the second one in Brighton.”

The beach gig went out live on Brazilian TV and was a huge success. Suddenly Fatboy Slim was massive in Brazil too. The following year, bizarrely, he DJed in the Big Brother house in Brazil.

“They just phoned me up, and I happened to be there during it,” he says. “That was when 60 million people watched it.” Of the 12 people in the BB house, seven had already been to one of his shows, so most were thrilled when Norm came into the house for a private DJ session.

Norm’s been back to Brazil every year since then, three times a year in recent years. 2007’s tour was immortalised on the Adventures In Brazil DVD, a long-haul where Fatboy played places like Manaus in Northern Brazil — “a two-hour flight from anywhere, where the Rio Negro [river] meets the Amazon [jungle]” — and the Salvador Carnival off the beaten track.

“The first time I did Salvador Carnival was the first time they’d ever had electronic acts on those floats,” he says. “The rest of it is all very traditional Brazilian music, and for a foreigner to go and play foreign music was quite a big deal.

But they seemed to love the fact that they were listening to their own music, and then all of a sudden I come down with something a bit more pounding — and now every year there’s always electronic DJs on. It’s the norm.”

DJ Marky joined him on 'the trio', the float, for the first one, and at the second Salvador Carnival his promoter Luis Enrique arranged for popular Brazilian singer Daniela Mercury to sing with Norm on the float — cementing the cultural stamp of approval.

“Now we go there for Carnival, go there for new year, and also the beginning of summer in November,” Norm explains. “It’s usually fairly full-on. We tend to play five shows in a row.”

Your hack starts talking about how amazingly warm the people have been every time he’s been lucky enough to go to Brazil, and Norm emphatically agrees. “The first question in every Brazilian interview is, ‘What is this love affair with you and Brazil?

What do you like most about Brazil?’” he says. “And I always say ‘Brazilians’, because the country’s beautiful and the beaches are beautiful but you can get that anywhere in the world. There’s just something about the Brazilian passion, sense of humour, and general outlook on life that just seems to be the same as me. The smiley… whatever Portuguese is for joie de vivre.

My other stock thing I say to Brazilians is, ‘We dance to the same rhythms, we laugh at the same jokes, and fall in love with the same women’. That’s the similarity.”

Norm’s ongoing love affair with Brazil took on a new chapter when Brazil were awarded the 2014 World Cup. When he heard the official FIFA 2014 theme song by German dance-pop act Bellini (featuring Ramon Zenker from Fragma), 'Samba de Janeiro' — a cheesy, poppy 15-year-old Euro-trance version of the familiar, percussive 'Celebration Suite' by Airto Moreira — he was disappointed and thought Brazil deserved better.

“It’s possibly Brazil’s best tune to represent its country, but done with no finesse or understanding of the Brazilian rhythm,” Norm says. “That figured somewhere in my football psyche, too. And I thought, ‘Everyone will be singing that at the end of the games, when your emotions are at their high — either up or down.

And like ‘Nessun Dorma’, tunes like that stick around — and I don’t want it to be a really cheesy oompah version of a Brazilian tune that is in everyone’s minds. If you hear real Brazilian music, you can make so much better than that.”

Brazilian friends started telling him that he should do the theme tune, and in interviews in the Brazilian press he tried to start a campaign for the original version to be used — or at least a Brazilian version of it.

Someone suggested doing an alternative soundtrack, and after going to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and hearing pop African cut 'Waving Flag' — the official World Cup song — being rinsed and “Shakira doing a cod-African song that doesn’t even really nod its head to real African music”, Norm thought — “Please don't let it be someone like J-Lo and Pitbull this time”.

The official FIFA 2014 song, 'We Are One', is — of course — by J-Lo and Pitbull, who will perform it at the opening ceremony on 12th June, with Ricky Martin and will.i.am also reportedly on the bill. “Obviously I couldn’t stop those things happening,” says Norm. “But what I can do is present a more sympathetic alternative soundtrack to the World Cup.”

Which is what he has done. “The initial concept was where I just did a straight compilation of Brazilian music, but I thought that wasn’t accessible enough and has been done a million times,” he outlines. “Or that I did a Salvador Social Club and travelled around recording Brazilian musicians. I tried that in Cuba, and I’m not Paul Simon — I’m not the world’s best musical ambassador, it wasn’t my forte.”

“But thinking what my forte might be,” he continues, “I’m not setting myself up as an aficionado of Brazilian music, but I do have a greater understanding of Brazilian music than most — and also I have a great understanding of remixing and remixers. I’ve got all these mates, and so to be a conduit of that and to A&R it as well as compile it — that’s where I thought, ‘This could be good’.”

He started to draw up a wishlist of people to contribute to the comp. “It was on different levels, there were people who I knew have a love of Brazilian music — the same as me — or people that I know who play in Brazil a lot who would understand it,” he says.

“There was people who were just old mates or the kings of re-edit, like having Psychemagik, Greg Wilson and Ashley Beedle — the whole album could’ve been a bit like that, but I didn’t want it just to be those old skool re-edit guys. Dave Lee [Joey Negro] as well.

“So there was that side of it, but then it had to have its toe in the commercial end of it if we were ever going to get our stuff played on ITV during the coverage,” he continues, smirking. “Our goal is that our music is used for the montage.

So we also wanted to have the hottest current artists, which is where Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, Nervo, Fresh and Gregor Salto came in — they were kind of representing the now. Then in the middle it was people who I knew play in Brazil a lot, or people who I trusted to do a good job, or just old mates like Carl Cox who I knew we could have a laugh together while doing it.”

About a year ago he hooked up with major label Universal, who said that he could have access to their whole Brazilian back catalogue — about 15,000 tunes. “So the first thing was trying to wade through them, picking out the good stuff,” Norm explains.

Every DJ he asked immediately said yes to the project, “but then mixing an infinite amount of tunes with all these different DJs, and then trying to find the one that we could get legal clearance for or could find the multi-tracks of… it became the most complicated jigsaw puzzle,” Norm says.

He created a 'mood board' at home on which to chart the progress of the comp, and with the help of Katy from his management company, the label people and a Brazilian music aficionado called John Armstrong he began matching DJs to tracks and A&Ring the project.

It sounds like it was easy to sort out, DJ Mag quips. “It was a piece of piss,” Norm replies. “The logistics were the easiest. Second easiest was trying to chase DJs around the world during the Winter Music Conference, trying to get them to finish tracks. It threw up some very interesting problems. What with DJs being a flakey bunch who don’t adhere to deadlines, and Brazilian record companies not exactly being the most findable or dependable — there was a lot of digging around, a lot of legalities.” 

They'd originally talked about a Christmas deadline for the comp's completion, but then thought that nobody would really stick to that. “We quickly learned that the deadline was gonna be a bit Brazilian, a bit like the stadiums,” the Fatboy says. “We pushed it as far as we could. Unlike most albums, we couldn’t say ‘Oh, let’s put the whole project back three months’.

“We did have to cut a few corners, and there’s a few tracks I would’ve loved to have included if we had the time, and there’s a couple of producers that if we had the time I could’ve bullied them into getting a tune done, but we did really have to cut our losses,” he continues.

“Our deadline literally went down to the last 15 minutes. I was still trying to get in touch with people who’d gone missing at Coachella, and then having to finish things for them cos they didn’t get back to me. Yeah, literally with 15 minutes to go before going into the cutting room, I was like ‘OK, go with my edit rather than hang on’.

"Who was a pain in the arse, then, DJ Mag asks? “A gentleman never names — they know who they are,” Norm replies.

“Some people turned the whole project round in 36 hours. They picked a tune that was on the list of ones that we could license, and turned it around in 36 hours. But I’m not gonna say who was bad — they know who they are.”

'Bem Brasil', which translates as 'very Brazil', splits neatly into 'Night' and 'Day' — 10 tracks on each. The contributors have really excelled themselves with their Brazil-tinged productions. The most EDM of the producers for instance, Nervo and Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike, have turned in unexpected treats.

Nervo's take on Rio Shock's 'Sensualizer' is all linear and techy, while DV&LM's ADHD EDM squawks are minimised on 'Eparrei' by assorted elements of Brazilian music, and the original vocals of the singer from Brazilian funk carioca group Bonde Do Role — a hook-up that Norm initiated. Felguk, meanwhile, simply add extra spice to Jorge Ben Jor's 'Taj Mahal' standard.

DJ Fresh's 'Magalenha', again achieved via Norm hook-ups, is kinda Major Lazer goes to Bahia, while Joey Negro's restrained disco-carnival version of 'Celebration Suite' pisses all over Bellini's Euro take.

Yousef's melodious re-do of 'O Cavalerio E Os Moinhos' is another magnificent highlight, and the 'Night' side winds up with Norm's own 'Everybody Loves A Carnival' and his re-edit of Fedde Le Grand (see box out).

'Day', meanwhile, boasts lovely contributions from John Digweed, DJ Marky, Ashley Beedle, Greg Wilson, Claude VonStroke, Riva Starr, Doorly, Psychemagik and Carl Cox. So how did Norm decide which Fatboy things to put on there?

“‘Everybody Loves A Carnival’ and ‘Put Your Hands Up For Brazil’ were sort of no-brainers, and we agreed that there would be more than one track of mine, but it would not be overly-populated, with my stamp all over it,” Norm says. “Also, I’m not really a studio animal at the moment, so I didn’t want to embark on a new project — it took me three years to finish ‘Eat Sleep Rave Repeat’.

As his nod to the Salvador Social Club idea, he went and recorded in Salvador with Bahia samba reggae cultural group Olodum. The resultant re-do of Fatboy's 'Weapon of Choice' is another highlight of 'Bem Brasil'.

“I’ve always wanted to work with Olodum, and they always ask to work with me, so that was an itch that needed scratching,” says Norm. “And it just so happened that because I was there so much, it was easy just to nip up and record. The whole album could’ve turned out like that, but it’s probably better that it didn’t.”

Sure to be rinsed at barbecues, bars and football parties this summer, 'Bem Brasil' is now in the can. So where's Norm playing during this World Cup? He opens his laptop to look at his tour schedule. “We’ve had real problems getting around to the England games this time, we’re only getting to one,” he says.

“We’re playing a shopping centre in Salvador, somewhere right up in the Amazon…” He starts listing places in Rio, the Morumbi stadium in São Paulo, Belo Horizonte in south-east Brazil, and taking in games such as Spain vs Chile, Uruguay vs England and Brazil vs Cameroon.

“Have England got a chance? Absolutely not,” he reckons. “If we put out a younger team that don’t have anything expected of them, then they might just have the balls to go out and play and surprise everyone. If our expectations are kept really firmly low, we can only be surprised.

Some heroics from the younger kids are the  only chance we’ve got of progressing past the group stage. I think we’ll come second in the group, and then meet someone like Germany or Argentina because we didn’t win our group — and then go out.”

So who's going to win, DJ Mag asks him? “For me, looking at my mood board, it’s not an option that Brazil don’t win,” he replies. “If there’s ever a country that’s as passionate about their football, a country as on a knife-edge about how they feel having the World Cup in their country…”

He talks about how grouchy the UK was about the Olympics before they started, and how you need to multiply that by a hundred for how Brazil is anticipating the World Cup. “With the unrest that there is in the country anyway and the problems they’ve got economically and politically with the police, that could all dissipate if Brazil win it,” he says.

“Everyone could forget the gripes and get very patriotic, which I know the Brazilians can do. If they’re losing, it could get quite ugly on a number of levels — from protest marches to the kids in the favelas worrying about police corruption. The only thing that would be worse than Brazil not winning the World Cup would be Argentina winning it. Then there will be riots in the streets.”

“Will everything be finished on time? I played the opening ceremony of a stadium that wasn’t finished — such is the Brazilian way,” he continues. “Yeah, it’ll be finished the night before — such is the Brazilian way. Everything we’ve done, all the big things, they always seem to get it ready — the night before.”

Dance music is established internationally now, and Tiësto played the Olympics a few years ago — why don’t the FA or FIFA have an official DJ? “I’m assuming it’s to do with politics and money and official sponsors,” Norm says.

“Our joke was ‘If you can have an official chewing gum of the World Cup, you can have an official DJ’, but to become the official chewing gum you have to pay huge amounts of money to FIFA — and I can’t do that.”

DJ Mag asks Norm why he isn't playing the opening ceremony, or the final. “I think cos I didn’t have the connections,” he says. “It’s probably decided more by the sponsors and FIFA than it is by Brazilians.

We played a private party for the Mayor of Rio three or four years ago, on the promise of ingratiating myself to playing at the Maracanã, and there were officials from the Brazilian FA there. We did a lot of hand-shaking, but I think the hints weren’t dropped heavily enough.

We obviously didn’t grease the right palms, or the Mayor of Rio was replaced in-between.

DJ Mag talks about starting a campaign to get Norm to play the opening ceremony, perhaps along with DJ Marky and Felguk, and instead of will.i.am and Ricky Martin. He clearly has more Brazilian sensibility.

“Yeah, but it’s not down to that, is it? Come on,” he says. “I’d suggest that Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull wouldn’t be doing it if it was down to Brazilian sensibility. Like I said, I dropped all the hints, you can lead a horse to water… I’m doing the Morumbi, the second biggest stadium in Brazil, and I would suggest that I’m not quite as big a name worldwide as the two you mentioned.”

He talks more about state planning in Brazil being somewhat haphazard and that he's been working on his tour for four years now, “but no-one really started taking it seriously until after Carnival had ended. Also the official events are very big and involve a huge amount of money, and at the end of the day for someone like FIFA it’s more about money and sponsors than it is about the nitty-gritty of the culture of the country.

FIFA aren’t very good at listening to other people, and they’re not very good at doing things for the love of the game or the country involved, if money is of a greater significance.”

No western DJ has taken to Brazil quite like Norman Cook, and in turn Norm’s still one of the biggest DJs in Brazil right now — right up there with Armin, Tiësto and Hardwell. His reach stretches beyond the clubbing cognoscenti and into the general populace, and DJ Mag is keen to drill down further on why Brazilians love him so much. “Being one of the first in there, it could be that Brazilians have taken me to their hearts more,” he wonders.

“In terms of love affairs, the first shag you had wasn’t necessarily the best, but it will be in your mind for the rest of your life. I think I popped a lot of people’s cherries in terms of bringing electronic music, and they’ve got an affection for me for that.

“They treat me very well and I enjoy spending time there,” Norm continues.

“It’s a no-brainer, really. If you’ve got to be big in a country — like that whole ‘big in Japan’ principle — best to be big in a country that, a) is vast so you never get bored of travelling around it, b) has some of the warmest, friendliest, receptive people, and c) is an emerging country in terms of its growing development, it’s going through a very fertile period in its existence.

It just feels right. Or I could try to badger the Germans into trying to get my sense of humour when it comes to music [laughs].”

So he loves the music, the culture, the people... but what does Brazil love about Fatboy Slim?

“You’d have to ask them.”

I’m asking you…
“I’ve got this theory that Brazilian people find a lanky gringo with a sense of humour vaguely cool,” Norm says, “in the same way that the idea of a tanned beautiful Brazilian playing football barefoot on the beach is the coolest thing in the world for us.

They think that a gawky gringo who can make them dance is cool. They’ve got all that, what they want is this. I don’t know, I think it’s about rhythm, outlook on life and a sense of humour.”

Norm starts talking about how it's great to be able to jump up and down on stage now that he plays with Serato instead of vinyl decks, and how he burns his visuals into the audio of his tunes so that his set can still be different every night.

“I try and let technology augment stuff, rather than become the focus of what you’re doing,” he says. “You can get bogged down with just pressing so many buttons and forgetting there’s a crowd there to communicate with — and you have to make them dance and entertain them.”

Norm isn’t your typical ‘take them on a journey’ DJ — he’s all about the party. Big brash party tunes for big communal occasions. He’s a showman, an entertainer, and the Fatboy persona has allowed him to get away with pretty much anything over the years. DJ Mag is keen to hear why he is so animated and interactive behind the decks. “I just found it worked,” he says.

“I wouldn’t know any other way of doing it. I wouldn’t know how to be moody, for me it’s all about that communication. The more the crowd give me back, the more I wanna give them and it becomes a cycle of nonsense — sometimes to ludicrous extremes. Sometimes I have to rein myself in — ‘This isn’t pantomime’.”

Norm thinks every DJ should look up at the crowd and communicate with them. “They tell you things,” he says. “They tell you whether you wanna go harder or softer or how they’re feeling — just with their eyes, they don’t have to be waving or holding up ‘Tuune’ signs. So you have to be looking up.

“It’s not for everyone to showboat,” he continues. “But in my case, I would credit Jon Carter and Carl Cox.

When I started playing bigger stages rather than the club, where you’re fairly anonymous in the corner, once you started being onstage, I thought the two coolest people were Carl Cox — the way he dances to music — and Jon Carter’s bravado. So I merged the two. At the time I was playing with both of them quite a lot, so I took their two gags and combined them.

“Jon [Carter] would swagger onstage like, ‘I own this place, you’re gonna love these tunes, this is the first tune, what about that, come on you bastards, I’m ‘avin’ it!’ A lot of front and swagger. And then Carl [Cox] would be looking at people and smiling and saying, ‘Are you loving this as much as I’m loving this?’ So it was combining those two.”

Has it been helped by the fact that he created this larger-than-life character, Fatboy Slim, then? “Yeah, because there is a certain amount of cabaret in it, and if you’re not in the mood to do it, it’s easier to switch on,” he says.

“Wave your arms around, and if you wave them back then that puts me in a good mood. As opposed to going on all dour and trying to work your way through musically, if you go on going ‘Come on, let’s ‘ave it!’ and they go ‘Yes!’ — it gets you over any stage fright you have, or any worries or troubles or tiredness from the day of travelling that’s preceded it. I switch from whatever mode I was in before to irresponsible 17-year-old who’s vaguely high!”