Perhaps not surprisingly, Pulp's Jarvis Cocker is feeling somewhat guilty about his overnight success. "We set a precedent," the lanky British singer reasons. "Now maybe we're to blame for Chumbawamba."
"I mean, they'd been going even longer than us before they got famous. Maybe without that encouraging sign from us they wouldn't have bothered, and the world could have been spared 'Tubthumping'." Guitarist Mark Webber looks over at the singer, obviously aghast at the suggestion. "We're to blame for them?" Cocker nods. "Sometimes I wake up at night in a cold sweat thinking that."
Like most overnight successes, Pulp's took fifteen years. Started in 1983 by the impossibly tall and thin Cocker in his hometown of Sheffield (think The Full Monty and Human League), Pulp tried - and failed - to make a name for itself in the tumultuous English music scene. Lengthy periods of inactivity followed, with Cocker moving to London in 1988 to study film at St. Martin's College. "Our activity was very slight," Cocker admits. "It's like a crocodile if it wants; it can slow its heartbeat down to three times a minute."
1994's His 'n' Hers, Pulp's first album for Island Records after eleven years on dodgy indies, won them a smidgen of attention in North America, largely due to the single 'Do You Remember The First Time', Cocker's arch remembrance of lost virginity. But it was the next album, Different Class, which won them an audience beyond the shores of Old Blighty. The single 'Common People' - a not so-fond remembrance of a slumming rich girl Cocker dated while at St. Martin's - made the band stars in Britain, and got them on North American radio, especially in Canada, where Cocker's self-deprecating humour and keen pop sensibilities won over the same anglophilic following who sold out Blur and Suede concerts when the Americans had eyes only for Seattle.
So it's fitting that we should be having our little chat here in Toronto's most authentic British pub, The Duke Of Gloucester; the Duke has played host to numerous bands from over 'ome, including Suede and Blur. Tucked safely within The Snug, a private alcove off the main room, Cocker and Webber pull at their ales and talk about This Is Hardcore, the new album that's going to make 'Jarvis Cocker' as famous a name as 'Michael Jackson'. (Well, probably not. But it should.) Of course, Cocker's national fame turned into international infamy when he upstaged Jackson at the 1996 Brit Awards, the English equivalent to the Grammys. As Jacko indulged his well known Messiah complex during his performance of 'Heal The World' (in which dozens of luminously-dressed children came unto Jackson to receive his blessing), a drunken Jarvo ran onto the stage, wiggled his bum at the crowd and soon found himself escorted away by two burly bouncers.
Embarrassed officials from Jackson's camp accused Cocker of knocking some of the children to the ground during the escapade. But videotape of the event showed Jackson's own goons to be responsible for the injuries, and Jarvis Cocker suddenly found himself a folk hero of sorts. All of which helped create enough of a buzz to bring Pulp to North America for the first time, although sold-out concerts didn't translate into Britannia-sized chart attention here. (With one-tenth the population of the States, Canada snapped up 35,000 copies of Different Class; 80,000 have been sold in America. Total worldwide sales topped out at 1.8 million, most of them in England.) So it's not like Pulp is Chumbawamba-big just yet, is it, Mark? "People became aware of the name," Webber says, adding sheepishly, "but they weren't that interested!"
This Is Hardcore, the new album, isn't likely to change that situation very Much. It's one of those records that has the phrase "critical acclaim" practically stamped on it like a Parental Advisory sticker. Cocker admits as much on the epic opening track 'The Fear': 'This is the sound of someone losing the plot / Making out that they're okay when they're not / You're gonna like it / But not a lot'. It's darker than Different Class, although still swathed in the immaculate pop stylings of Cocker, Webber, keyboardist Candida Doyle, drummer Nick Banks and bassist Steve Mackey. Whether cynical anthems like 'Party Hard', 'Glory Days' and 'I'm A Man' will take their place alongside favourites like 'Disco 2000' or 'Sorted For E's & Wizz' is anyone's guess. But, hey, Radiohead won the world over with OK Computer's unrelenting nihilism, so the possibility of Pulp ascending into the pop stratosphere on This Is Hardcore is a very clear and present danger.
"We were in a different situation," Cocker says of making This Is Hardcore, "in that the last album had been successful. And also we'd been through quite a few changes personally. I'm not really a fan of self-analysis, but there are times in your life when you have to look at yourself and have a check on what it is that's driving you, what's motivating you to make a record. You've got to pay your mortgage off on your house - that's not a good reason to make music." So why does Pulp make music?..."Compulsion," Mark offers shyly. "But you'd get yourself into a mess if you worried too much about why you did it." "In a way it was almost spiteful, really," Cocker adds. "In that usually what happens when a group gets a certain amount of success, then they bland down, and just kind of repeat the formula. And it was just kind of a spiteful thing to say, 'That doesn't have to happen'."
Much of Hardcore's subject matter is taken from Cocker's life but he warns against reading too much into his lyrics, especially the title song, which likens a degrading love affair to a porno film. "I haven't made porn films, I should admit. I hate to disappoint you," Cocker says with equal parts apology and disdain. "That song was a mixture of revulsion and attraction at the same time. Doing something that you know is wrong but kind of getting a kick out of it, and maybe doing something that means that you burn your bridges and there's no way back. But that can be quite a thrill as well." Love and sex do constant battle in Cocker's work. Neither ever triumph because there is no triumph to be had. In Pulp's music, sex is undeniable, vulgar, messy and necessary.
Love doesn't fare much better; its subtleties and complexities are mostly lost on a culture whose concept of the most important emotion comes from Celine Dion's oeuvre. Instead, Cocker dives headfirst into the fetid bog of human feeling and tries to make sense of it, not just for himself, but for all of us. A hero, indeed. "Songs and films and stuff tend to present love and sex in a kind of an idealised way," the ex-film student explains, "and I thought that was bad. For me it led to a great disappointment. Because you hear about these things and see them portrayed on the screen long before you actually experience it yourself, and so you actually picture it completely wrong. So I tried to express what it's really like. I still like it. [Sex, that is.] I mean, sex has the potential to be great. It's just that it's not great automatically. And there always are awful bits to it - which can be a good laugh actually!" One supposes it can.
But writing from one's own life, while completely understandable, can be tricky. Has anyone ever taken offence at being the subject of one of your songs, Jarvis? "Oh yeah," Cocker confirm. "They have done. I've been hit by girls I've been going out with. Not so much nowadays, but definitely in the past. Because they said that was the only time they ever knew what was going on in me mind, when they heard a song. Which isn't really right, is it? But it's all down to your conscience, isn't it? If you are writing stuff," he explains, "you are kind of exploiting your relationships in a way, and I do think quite carefully about that. I mean, you don't want to end up censoring yourself. But if you lived your life just to gather material to write about, you wouldn't be a human being. And I think it's important to be a human being. It's more important to be a human being than be an artist."
Finding inspiration in the everyday has never been a problem for Cocker. "I don't think there's any such thing as a mundane moment," he says. "Because it's all time out of your life that you'll never get back. So it kind of got on my nerves that there were bits of life that somehow didn't seem to be appropriate subject matter for songs. Especially the way America can write about itself. Lots of American songs are named after towns: 'Galveston', you know. 'Doonesbury' doesn't sound the same, does it? But people in Canada or provincial towns in England are still living life at the same kind of emotional pitch as people in Detroit."
This Is Hardcore has been some two years in the making. 'Help The Aged', the first single, hit Number Eight in the British charts last fall before disappearing altogether too quickly. Perhaps bridling at the thought of having another album like U2's Pop on its hands - a long-delayed, high profile release which fails to meet unrealistic financial expectations - Island Records scuttled the original November release date, delaying it until March 31. So was this a difficult album to make?
Cocker thinks about this - a long time: "It was more difficult than the last one." (Pregnant pause) Okay, how was it more difficult? "It's just that everybody's circumstances had changed. It was more a time of questioning your motives and stuff like that. Even though you know that there's no point in thinking, 'Oh, the last one sold a lot', it's always there at the back of your mind. And I think eventually you realise that there's no point in worrying about that because you can't second-guess what people want from you anyway. And distractions also don't help. Like newspapers..." As if on cue, Paul Alexander, the photographer doing today's shoot, enters the room to adjust his set-up and quips, "...Photographers." Cocker nods, completing Paul's sentence: "...taking pictures of you buying a loaf of bread."
"Success is alright," the leisure suit-clad singer continues. "Being appreciated for what you do is okay, but I don't particularly like attention. I like it on stage obviously; I don't like people to be looking the other way when we're on stage performing. But in normal life, such as environments like this, I'd rather just be able to talk to me friends, rather than people coming over all the time or staring." The other reason for the album's delay was the departure, after 13 years, of long-time guitarist-violinist (and Cocker's former roommate) Russell Senior. Cocker is reluctant to discuss Senior, saying only that he was the oldest in the group and has two young children now. "It had an impact," Cocker admits. "So there was that really: that we were a different band. And, you know, you can go through periods of self-doubt and think that you've taken a wrong turn. If you add that on to everything else that was going on..." - Cocker gropes for words - "...but it wasn't 100% pure pain."
Are you ambitious people? Cocker's sense of humour kicks in: "Vicious?" Uh, no. Ambitious. "Vicious. Ambitious. I'd like to think we've got artistic ambitions. We're not ambitious as in 'I want a limited series Lamborghini LZX with gold hubcaps'."
How about you, Mark? "Uh, no."
"You already own that car, don't you?" Cocker admonishes. Webber scrunches up on the couch. "Ambitious to make good work, not ambitious necessarily to be successful."
"Well, exactly. Because a lot of the music that Mark's into is very..." Webber blushes. "Unsuccessful."
Whether or not This Is Hardcore becomes this year's OK Computer, it's obvious that it is work close to Cocker's heart. Is this, then, Pulp's best record? "Well, I don't know," Jarvis muses. "Because you have to allow time to elapse for you to find out whether it acquires resonance. That's the weird thing about music: that you can go in and play something one day and think, 'Yeah, that's brilliant. That's great'. And then you listen back to a tape of it the next day and think, 'God, that's shit!' It's a very, very subjective thing, and your opinion of it can change radically over the course of the week. So what tends to happen is maybe six months to a year later... for a start I think you understand what you were trying to get at more. It kind of becomes more obvious why you actually wrote the stuff that you did. So you find out whether what you said sticks or whether it just strikes a glancing blow."
Has he found resonance in his past work? "Well, I would do if I ever listened to it. I mean, we will probably have to listen to some of our old songs quite soon because we're getting ready to play live. It's always interesting. I don't tend to listen to our old music because you have to listen to it so much when you do it, and then you have to play, so you just get sick of it, Really."
Will Jarvis Cocker make peace with his past? Will This Is Hardcore survive critical acclaim and actually move units? And, most importantly, will one of England's best-loved pop stars enjoy a quiet pint in the pub ever again? "I can't go in them anymore," Cocker sighs, recalling his long-lost English pub days. "It's dangerous. The last pub I went in I was actually doing an interview. And halfway through the interview this kid who looked about fourteen started taking the piss. And then this older bloke about forty says, 'Leave the gay people alone'."