His unpredictability has always been part of his appeal, now Jarvis Cocker is hoping to charm the world with his most unpredictable album yet. The former Pulp frontman tells BRIAN BOYDabout turning his back on fame, his band and Michael Jackson
JARVIS COCKER has missed his Eurostar train connection from Paris (where he now lives) to London, so he rings to rearrange the interview location. “I’ll be sitting outside a cafe in St Pancras International Train Station,” he says on the phone in his lugubrious flat-vowelled Yorkshire accent. He then goes on to describe what he looks like, until I butt in and reassure him that, like most of the Western World of a certain age, I won’t have any difficulty picking him out in a crowd.
Along with the Gallaghers and Damon Albarn, Cocker was a poster boy of Britpop – the musical movement that reigned supreme in the UK in the second half of the 1990s. The singer of one of that decade's landmark songs, Common People, he achieved notoriety (and martyrdom in certain quarters) for invading the stage at the 1996 Brit Awards while Michael Jackson and a cast of shiny, happy children were doing their "heal the world" thing.
What always distinguished him from the pack was his thrift-shop geek persona, coupled with an Alan Bennett-like ability to write about the banal minutiae of ordinary lives. He was the awkward outsider who gate-crashed the citadel of celebrity and wallowed in that champagne/cocaine lotus-eating world for a while before, as he so delicately puts it, “spunking it all away”.
As Pulp were fizzling out, he met a French stylist, Camille Bidault-Waddington, married her and went to live in Paris. He doesn’t speak that much French and he suggests his days there are punctuated by endless strolls down elegant boulevards searching for somewhere to buy a bottle of HP sauce.
He returned to the musical fray with an acclaimed solo album, Jarvis, three years ago and he's now releasing the follow-up. A few weeks ago he separated from his wife, but will stay in Paris to be near his six-year-old son, Albert. He hit the headlines last week for reportedly calling for a Conservative government in Britain.
Dressed like a geography teacher, he now has a grey-flecked beard, and his Joe 90-style glasses seem to take up more of his face than before. He's initially wary and cautious but soon warms up, and more than two hours later (with the tape unable to take anymore), he's still returning to and further elaborating on subjects as various as Susan Boyle, cocaine, The Wire and whatever happened to that girl he wrote about in Common People.
ON FAME: “YOU THINK IF YOU BECOME FAMOUS, EVERYONE WILL LOVE YOU, AND IT WILL VALIDATE YOU AS A PERSON”
“I started Pulp when I was 14. There’s this dreadful cliché that people from working-class backgrounds either become a pop star or become a boxer to escape their surroundings, but in my case it was never about escapism; it was about wanting to fit it. I’ve always felt awkward. I still feel awkward.
“If you feel like you are an inadequate person – which I did growing up in Sheffield – you buy into that myth of fame. You think if you become famous, everyone will love you and it will validate you as a person.
“I distinctly remember deciding on forming a band. I was listening to a local Sheffield radio station and punk had just broken. This DJ was dismissing punk rock saying he wouldn’t be playing that type of music so I changed the dial and came across John Peel. That show was my musical education.
"The first song I ever wrote was called Shakespeare Rock– and you can guess from the title just how great that was [laughs]. And remember Pulp were going all during the 1980s and releasing albums, but it wasn't until His 'n' Hersin 1994 that we got any response. People often said to me: 'At least, you had a long time to prepare for fame', but I was probably the least prepared person ever for any sort of fame."
ON BRITPOP: “YOU’D SLEEP WITH SOMEONE AND THEN IT WOULD BE IN THE SUN THE NEXT DAY”
"It was Britpop and there was us and Oasis and Blur. I remember presenting Top Of The Popsthe week that Oasis and Blur had that big battle for number one (between Country Houseand Roll With It) and there was this feeling that Britpop could actually change the culture.
“Then there was the whole New Labour thing. I had to go to live in New York for a while in 1997 – I was a bit ‘addled’ shall we say — and got this phonecall from one of the New Labour People going ‘I hope we can count on your support’. I remember thinking: ‘You can’t be any good if you think you need the support of an addled pop star like me.’
“In those days celebrity meant a bit more than it does now. I know I sound very moany and a bit rubbish when I start to give out about the other side of fame, but really this was all just before people began starting to see through the myth of celebrity. It’s different now. Jade Goody was a sort of morality tale in that respect. It’s as if the fame was a radioactive substance that gave her cancer. This is the thing about reality TV. It’s not real. It’s a choreographed version of real life. Susan Boyle – ‘the ugly duckling with the voice of an angel’. That’s all fine, but you can sense the moving of cogs in the background.
"What I found really difficult about the exposure was that I had moved from being the observer to the observed. Things like – you'd sleep with someone and then it would be in The Sunthe next day. And I think I was a bit patronised. When I first started doing interviews in the NME, they used to write it up in this northern English patois. If you interviewed a reggae artist and wrote it up in Jamaican patois you'd be accused of racism. It would be like me writing this up with silly Irish phrases.
ON THE BAND: “PULP HAD BECOME A PRODUCT. I TOOK A PERVERSE ENJOYMENT IN FUCKING IT UP”
“We were never millionaires. We did very well with Pulp, but the money was (and very rarely so) split between all six members of the band. We were all friends – that was always how we were going to split it”.
“At the height of Pulp, we were about to go out on a big tour and Island Records sent me along to a doctor because they wanted to get me insured in case I died of a drugs overdose or something. I asked if I was also insured as me and they said no, this insurance was them protecting their investment.
“I had become a commodity, a cash cow for the label. When it got to that stage, I just thought ‘fuck it’. Pulp had been completely tied up with who I was as a person. I hated the idea that something I had invented and nurtured along with my friends – this little thing I had which was precious to me – that it had become a product.
"I took a perverse enjoyment in fucking it up, in spending close to a million pounds on a record ( This Is Hardcore) which was very unpopular and a further quarter of a million pounds on a video for a song which was seven minutes long and never got played on the radio.
“When I found myself attending the 10th anniversary party of Starlight Express I knew there was something very wrong in my life”.
ON THE COMMON PEOPLE GIRL: “IN SHEFFIELD USING THE WORD ‘COMMON’ ABOUT SOMEONE IS A REALLY BAD INSULT”
The BBC once sent a documentary crew to Greece to track down the girl Jarvis wrote about in the song Common People, but they didn’t find her. “I met her while I was at art school in London. I don’t know where she is now. I think the documentary people found a friend of hers. I suppose the song is a claim to fame of sorts for her. If she’s embarrassed about it, she could always say it was 15 years ago and she’s matured a lot as a person since then.
“Maybe she’s a really nice person and I totally misheard what she said. But no, she definitely said ‘I want to sleep with common people like you’ and that was the thing that got me. In Sheffield using the word ‘common’ about someone is a really bad insult.”
ON THE NEW ALBUM: “MORE AND MORE NOW, THE SWIPES ARE AIMED AT MYSELF”
It was a surprise when he enlisted the noted American noise-rock practitioner Steve Albini, most famous for his work with Nirvana, to produce it. By Cocker’s standards, it’s a very butch-sounding record.
"I know people are going to think that Steve Albini has put all these loud guitars all over it, but the thing about him is that he doesn't call himself a producer – he only says he records an album. Which means that he doesn't interfere, he just captures the sounds. It's not like he was putting fuzz pedals over everything. The only thing he raised an eyebrow at was the disco song You're In My Eyes, but he didn't change anything on it.
“If people have a problem with the loud guitars, then it should be with me and the band. I think the playing on this is authentic. Not to denigrate Pulp, but we were never musical virtuosos. The drummer in this band is a big Black Sabbath fan and the guitarist is really into 1960s garage rock. It would have been so achingly dull to do the Pulp sound again. I’m still taking swipes at people lyrically on this record – but I find more and more now, the swipes are aimed at myself.”
ON THE NEW SONGS: “IF THERE’S ONE PLACE YOU DON’T WANT TO LOSE A CHILD IT’S IN A RAILWAY STATION”
The album's standout track is Hold Still. "That happened just 30 metres from where we're sitting now. I live in Paris, but I'm back here all the time. Last year – and because I'm so disorganised – I was running down with my son to catch the last Eurostar train back to Paris. I had all these bags with me and was rushing to get on the train. I turned around and Albert was gone – he had disappeared. My blood turned cold.
“If there’s one place you don’t want to lose a child it’s in a railway station. Thankfully, Albert had the presence of mind to go to the ticket office and they called my name over the tannoy.”
Another track on the new album is titled Slush. "There's this group called 'Cape Farewell', and last year they assembled a bunch of artists, writers and scientists to go on a cruise to the North Pole to see first-hand the effects of climate change. The idea is to get some form of cultural response from them in their subsequent work. They asked me to go, and although I'm not very sociable at all, I thought I'd never get to the North Pole under my own steam.
" Slushis about that. Yes, I suppose it's a climate change song. Already people have said to me: 'You shouldn't be writing about that, you're supposed to write about domestic situations.' But it is what it is."
ON WRITING: “REALLY, LYRICS AREN’T THAT IMPORTANT IN MUSIC”
As a side project, Cocker now travels around musical festivals presenting a lecture called “Saying The Unsayable: An Investigation Into The Role Of Lyrics In Popular Song”.
“When I think about lyrics that I like, I find that they all deal with what would be called inappropriate subject matter.
“It was fascinating for me to look deep into the role of a song’s lyrics. I know this may sound a bit strange, but really, lyrics aren’t that important in music. You could have bad lyrics but a good song, but you can’t have it the other way around. A great set of lyrics can never redeem a really bad song. That’s part of the joy of music – it really is a bit dumb.”
Jarvis on ...
Es, WIZZ ETC
“The thing about cocaine was that when it first became commonplace among musicians, everyone used to say “it’s great, you can’t overdose on it”. What they don’t tell you is that you can undergo a spiritual death from it which is worse than a physical death. Your body is still ambulant, but there’s no one home. It’s very, very bad for the human spirit.”
BEING TORY BOY
In an interview with GQmagazine last month, Jarvis said: "A Conservative government is necessary. There is no credible alternative." The Tories scrambled to recruit him, but he later "clarified" his remarks saying that "in the absence of a viable alternative, a Conservative government now, unfortunately, seems inevitable."
“That GQ interview was the first interview had done in about five years. I was out of practice. I didn’t have my media manipulator hat on. What I was trying to say was that in Britain we live in a two-party system. I think after 12 years, New Labour have had their time. Personally I’m all for a full-scale revolution.”
“It’s not regretting what I did; it’s regretting that it will probably be the only thing I’ll be remembered for.”
“I’m a middle-aged man now. You can sense changes taking place. I’ve changed; of course I have. But when I look back, all I think is: I’ve come out the other side. And not everyone does.”
Further Complicationsis released today