Jarvis Cocker: ‘The better the concert the less I remember of it’

Jarvis Cocker: ‘I wish I could work quicker and be more prolific, but I’ve learnt to accept life in the slow lane.’ Photograph: Tom Jamieson/New York Times
The Pulp singer talks about his new band, Jarv Is, and how he learned to stop overthinking

Simon Reynolds memorably opened a Melody Maker review of Pulp’s career-defining masterpiece, Different Class, by declaring: “Forget about Blur vs Oasis. The real battle for the ‘soul’ of Britpop is Blur v Pulp. The difference between Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker is as profound as the gulf between Martin Amis and Irvine Welsh.”

Amidst a plethora of projects, Jarvis has been an editor-at-large at Faber & Faber. The historic publishing house of legends such as Beckett, Heaney and Pinter also brought out his book Mother, Brother, Lover: Selected Lyrics in 2011. Cocker chose its title after being shocked at just how often he had used this rhyming scheme. “That’s another thing I’ve learnt over the years: turn your defects into selling points,” he wrote in the foreword. “Don’t attempt to hide a fault – exaggerate it. Make it so big that no one can see it anymore.”

In addition to authoring timeless songs about class, British society, his native Sheffield, sexuality, and humanity in general, Cocker writes a lot about the natural world, which was wonderfully apparent on the sorely underrated 2001 Pulp album, We Love Life, produced by the late Scott Walker and titled as a life-affirming riposte to the chilling post-9/11 terrorist mantra, “We love death as you love life.”

I’ve probably been more creative, or certainly more prolific, in this period than I have been in years

Cocker has frequently cited Barry Hines’s classic novel, A Kestrel for a Knave, about a Northern teenager who befriends a bird of prey, as a formative influence. (It was made into a film, Kes, by Ken Loach in 1969.) In 2020, hawks still have a profound effect on him. Recently, Cocker heard the cries of a hen harrier while out walking near his current home in the Peak District between Sheffield and Manchester.

This encounter inspired a big idea, which he outlines in a new BBC podcast series called Rethink, alongside other illustrious contributors and household names including Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Tony Blair, Prince Charles and Brian Eno. In it, Cocker proposes that the world ceases economic activity every couple of years as a post-pandemic version of crop rotation.

Jarvis Cocker near Edale, England, in June. Photograph: Tom Jamieson/The New York Times
Jarvis Cocker near Edale, England, in June. Photograph: Tom Jamieson/The New York Times

The Britpop star appreciates the less-frantic pace of current times.

“I’m one of the lucky people who was able to take advantage of the situation,” Cocker says. “I’ve probably been more creative, or certainly more prolific, in this period than I have been in years. If I’d been stuck on the 14th floor of a tower block with four kids and no garden, I would’ve been in a completely different state of mind.”

To date, Cocker has lived in the metropolises of Sheffield, London and Paris and is relatively new to the bucolic charms of the countryside.

“I’ve learnt a lot about sheep recently,” he reveals. “At the beginning of the lockdown, all the news was about death, which happened to coincide with the start of the lambing season here. To see new life every day was a very welcome antidote to what was going on in the wider world. 

I was coming up with ideas for songs but I knew they weren’t ready to inflict on people

“I’ve friends who go off on these silent retreats, where they go off to a hotel or something, and sit and look at the wall for two weeks. They say how great it all is to help clear the mind, but the whole experience costs them thousands of pounds.

“Well, we can do that for free now. Just go and sit in a spare room and stare at the wall. I’m not taking the piss out of silent retreats, because I’m sure you can get something from them, but here was a situation where we were all forced into looking at things from a completely different perspective.”

This weekend, Cocker releases his first studio album in over a decade, Beyond the Pale by Jarv Is, the moniker for his latest band featuring Serafina Steer, Emma Smith, Andrew McKinney, Jason Buckle and Adam Betts. The single, House Music All Night Long, has already struck a chord, featuring timely lines such as “Saturday night, cabin fever in house nation” and “Goddamn this claustrophobia ’cause I should be disrobing you.”

It also references a documentary on British rave culture entitled Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992, by the Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller.

“A few inadvertent things happened on this record that I can’t really explain,” Cocker says. “When the lockdown first started people started saying that the words to the song House Music All Night Long appeared to be pertinent to the situation. Obviously, the song was written long before any of this happened.

“The last record I did was Further Complications in 2009. Towards the end of that one of the members of the band died tragically, a very close friend called Tim McCall, so it would’ve been far too upsetting to carry on. Pulp got back together and did some shows that I was very happy with. Then, I did radio shows on the BBC.”

Cocker presented Sunday Service on BBC 6 Music on Sunday afternoons for eight years. He kept on writing, but didn’t hatch any concrete plans for an album until 2017.

“I was coming up with ideas for songs but I knew they weren’t ready to inflict on people,” he says. “I wish I could work quicker and be more prolific, but I’ve learnt to accept life in the slow lane. I took the plunge to play live again in Iceland after Sigur Rós invited me to play at a festival called Nordur og Nidur. Songs that had been gathering dust for a while suddenly came to life.”

His new band took a radical approach. “All the songs were worked out live in front of an audience,” he reveals. “Not every song on the record has live recorded elements but three do. We used a technique that is essentially unavailable now, so I’m pleased that we took advantage of it when we could.”  

An earlier live performance famously changed Jarvis’s life and forged his former band onto the cultural landscape. In 1995, Pulp became the 11th-hour Saturday headliners at Glastonbury after John Squire of The Stone Roses broke his collarbone in a mountain bike accident. This gig is still heralded as an epochal highlight of the festival’s 50-year history.

Once beautifully likened to a cross between Abba and The Fall, Pulp are probably the best festival headlining act I’ve ever seen. A staggering show at Barcelona’s Primavera in 2011, where Cocker dedicated Common People to the “indignados” movement protesting against austerity, was quite simply jaw-dropping.

Live music has been taken for granted for many years. When we do it again, there will be a tremendous surge of energy

“The better the concert the less I remember of it,” Cocker reflects. “You only remember them if you mess up, an amp breaks, or somebody falls offstage. I was 14 when I first started a band. I’ve always been a kid who lived in his head a lot.

“From an early age I realised that being onstage could be a release from overthinking. When you’re onstage what appears to be a life-threatening situation where people are staring at you, can initially induce panic, but when you get into it you must be in the moment.”

Jarvis Cocker at Electric Picnic in 2019 and with Pulp in 2011. Photographs: Dave Meehan, Brenda Fitzsimons/THe Irish Times
Jarvis Cocker at Electric Picnic in 2019 and with Pulp in 2011. Photographs: Dave Meehan, Brenda Fitzsimons/THe Irish Times

Cocker played Ireland last summer when Jarv Is appeared at Electric Picnic. They were scheduled to play All Together Now next month.

“I first encountered the music of Billie Eilish at Electric Picnic,” he recalls. “We were parked up in our bus and we had a great view of the main stage. There was this really weird noise before she came on. I thought they were playing some kind of intro tape. She came onstage and it was still going on. I suddenly realised that it was the sound of lots of pre-teen girls and boys screaming. It was like something you’d hear on records like The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl.”

Electric Picnic left a lasting impression on Cocker. “Backstage was very fancy,” he remembers. “There was a pool table and they even had a spirit level to balance the table properly. It’s no mean feat trying to do that on grass. Sometimes, you get to a festival and all you’ve got backstage is some white plastic garden furniture, a Portacabin and a few packets of crisps.”

Sadly, we won’t find ourselves in the middle of a field singing along with Cocker anytime soon.

“Nobody knows for sure when things can start again,” he mourns. “Some people say small festivals might be the first to restart because of the general belief that there is a less of a risk of coronavirus spreading in open air. Live music has been taken for granted for many years. When we’re eventually allowed to do it again, I think there will be a tremendous surge of energy because people have missed it so much.”

Unsurprisingly, Cocker has plenty more irons in the fire besides Beyond the Pale. “I’m still finishing off a book, which may or may not be called This Book Is a Song, for Jonathan Cape,” he reveals. “It was originally supposed to be published in October, but obviously everything is getting changed at the moment. Apart from that, I’m very much looking forward to finally getting a haircut.”

Cocker enjoyed reconnecting with music on Beyond the Pale.

“It’s been 10 years since I did a record, so people probably thought I’d retired and written ‘done rocking’ on the gate post,” he laughs. “I’ve always been a bit of an over-thinker. The last couple of Pulp albums took much longer than they should have, especially This Is Hardcore and We Love Life, which I must take responsibility for. It got to a point where I felt embarrassed for the rest of the band, because I hadn’t finished the lyrics. I used to worry so much that by the time I’d get into a studio, I’d forgotten what the song was supposed to be in the first place.

“On this album we managed to capture the songs in their natural state, which was a very liberating thing. The more I relax and loosen my grip the better it gets.”

Beyond the Pale is out now