Where've You Been, Jarvis?
Words: Lindsey Baker, Photographer: Grant Scott
Taken from The Guardian Weekend: 29 September 2001
Jarvis Cocker's success was built on brilliantly funny, angry songs about lack of success - when life's a struggle to make ends meet. Could it still work when the champion of the common people became a star? It's hard, he tells Lindsay Baker, but his new songs speak of hopes and heartaches that are universal.
Jarvis Cocker doesn't like change. He doesn't know why, and he's trying hard to get out of that way of thinking. But he still can't get over the fact that they've redesigned the label on Cussons Imperial Leather soap. "If it was up to me, things like that would never change," he says, poker-faced, adjusting his Larkin specs with long fingers. "I went into a very profound depression when I saw that."
For years, not much changed in Cocker's life. His band, Pulp, was consistently unsuccessful for more than a decade and he lived in quiet, impecunious obscurity. Pulp began to get noticed in the early 1990s, but it wasn't until the anthemic Common People became a hit in the summer of 1995, swiftly followed by the album Different Class, that big success came their way. And it wasn't until the following year, when Cocker stormed the stage at the Brit Awards, sabotaging a nauseatingly messianic performance by Michael Jackson, that the nation fell for this wry, idiosyncratic beanpole of a man. Jarvis - The Jarv - became a national institution. And then absolutely everything changed.
Five years on, and it's all change again. Cocker has become something of a Renaissance man, what with his Channel 4 series on "outsider art" and his DJing with the Desperate sound system. And now there's the new Pulp album, which (in contrast to its bleak, sombre predecessor, This Is Hardcore) verges on the pastoral, albeit in a more canal towpath than rural idyll kind of way.
We're in a quiet north London pub, around the corner, Cocker says, from one of his many previous London residences, a squat above a bookie's on Caledonian Road. Twig-thin, in brown mohair jumper and beige cords, he cuts a slightly wan figure as he sits smoking Silk Cuts and sipping water. He hopes the new album doesn't sound "like the work of somebody who's on Prozac". Happy songs, he says, "make you want to spew in a corner, don't you think? Like eating too much cake. My main ambition is to not make people throw up."
The album, titled simply Pulp ("It's the less-frills approach"), was produced by 1960s icon and latter-day reclusive Scott Walker - a huge influence on the nascent Pulp - and was made in a back-to-basics style, recorded live in the studio. Cocker has succeeded in his aim: for all the album's references to birds, trees and sunrises, and for all its uplifting, hopeful moments, it is never cloying. Pulp songs tend to tell a story, and this collection is no exception. The swirling, psychedelic track Weeds, for instance, was inspired when, "in a poetic turn of mind", Cocker was walking along a London towpath and noticed the weeds growing between the stones. It got him thinking. "Why do they call a puny person a weed, when weeds are tenacious plants that grow in adverse circumstances?" It's an adapt-and-survive message, with the class-conscious undertow that has always run through Pulp's music.
Cocker's own story is of the "weed" who used his brain to become cooler than the big lads who'd always rejected him; the downtrodden, shy kid who came in from the outside to conquer the pop world. Growing up in Intake, Sheffield - "Not the worst area, but not a great area" - he was painfully self-conscious about looking "strange": he had "really bad teeth", he says, "bushy blond hair, glasses, thin and tall - I always kind of hated that". He was born in 1963, when his mother, Christine, was an art student and his father, Mack, was a local jazz musician and sometime actor. His parents married and had a daughter, Saskia, two years later. Not the most conventional of names, Jarvis and Saskia - his parents were "as bohemian as you could be in Sheffield". But before long his mother was forced to give up her ambitions and work emptying fruit machines to help keep the family afloat.
At the age of five, Jarvis fell ill with meningitis and was expected to die. When paralysis began to set in, fluid had to be drained from his spine. "The doctors told me I had to be brave and that if I didn't make a big noise, then I could see my mum afterwards." So he curled up in a ball while they stuck the huge needle into his spine - it really hurt, he remembers, and when it was done and he asked to see his mum, "They said, no, she's gone home. That probably had quite an effect on me, knowing that adults lie quite badly. You shouldn't lie about things like that, should you?"
Two years later, his father left home suddenly and emigrated to Australia. He says his sister was very upset and wouldn't go to school for ages, but he doesn't remember that much about it. "Maybe I'm in denial." He didn't see his father again until a few years ago. He was a "shrinking violet", Cocker says, and when he was old enough his mother sent him to work part-time at a fishmonger's, scrubbing crabs, hoping that mixing with "some rough lads" would be character-building. He had always been into music: he used to listen to his mother's Beatles records - Abbey Road, Sgt Pepper - and never missed Top Of The Pops. Even as a child, he wanted to be in a group, not for very valid reasons, he says, but because he was shy and if you were a pop star, everyone would want to know you - and girls would want to get off with you. "Yeah, I'm just managing to get over that one," he says drily.
The arrival of punk was a godsend for Cocker because it proved you didn't have to be able to play well to be in a band and, with punk, "it was good to be different". While still at school, he formed a band, Arabicus Pulp. Their first gig was performed with the aid of lighted magnesium ribbon from the chemistry department. They even got a session on the John Peel show, which encouraged him to think he was "about to become a pop star". As a result, he deferred a place at Liverpool University to read English and instead signed on the dole. He ended up signing on for much of the 1980s, and he found that the more time he had, the more time he wasted. The band, with new members now, released a few records, which were more or less ignored, and played gigs locally, usually at The Limit nightclub. He spent most of his time and dole money there. "Everyone used to stand around saying how boring it was, but you still had to go in case you missed something."
It was these memories that recently attracted him to the idea of directing a film of the debut novel by his friend Harland Miller, Slow Down Arthur, Stick To Thirty - a story about "hanging around in crap clubs". He is now in negotiation with the production company. They were formative years. His memories of Sheffield boat trips when he was on the dole inspired Wickerman, a track on the new album, a journey through the "brickwork conduits" of the rivers Porter and Don, as they flow through the Victorian sewers under the city. Sheffield was "fucked over" in the 1980s, he says. "In many ways it's a city without a purpose because the industry doesn't really exist any more, so it's like, why is it here? It seems to have decided it's there for shopping."
In 1986, Cocker fell off a window ledge while trying to impress a girlfriend with his Spiderman impression, and shattered his leg. He was in hospital for two months and had time to think about where his life was leading, if anywhere. It was "desperation, really" that led him to move to London in the late 1980s to attend a film course at St Martins art school. Rave culture was emerging, and he loved the "cloak and dagger", underground excitement of it all. St Martins "had its moments", too. There were all kinds of different types on his course - he'd never really met anyone rich of his own age before, and a lot of them were "knobheads". But things sped up for him in London, and by 1994 Pulp were riding the Britpop wave. His 'N' Hers went platinum and was shortlisted for the Mercury Music prize, and songs such as Babies and Do You Remember The First Time? remain classics now, rousing, wry, libidinous anthems to adolescent angst.
A wealthy Greek girl at St Martins inspired the song Common People - she told Cocker she wanted to go and live in Hackney, with the common people. "She couldn't see how it was a non-starter because she could never be like that. It was a form of cultural tourism, which I think is shit." There has always been humour in Cocker's lyrics, but there is also anger, and Common People is a biting, scornful masterpiece. "You'll never fail like common people, you'll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw, because there's nothing else to do." It went straight to number two in the charts; the album Different Class was released soon after, with Disco 2000 another instant hit from it, and Pulp, at long last, had truly arrived.
Cocker isn't sure when it all started going wrong for him. He has never been comfortable with change - of soap packaging or anything else. He regrets his stage-storming at the Brits, even though he was seemingly championed by the entire nation, because, he says, he became known not for anything creative but just "for being some kind of show-off". Surely it must have been exciting when fame and fortune eventually came his way? "Oh aye, yeah, it was exciting," he says. And he was a bit older and wiser than the average pop star, which, you might have thought, would make it all easier to handle. No, he says. "It sounds like moaning, but nothing can prepare you for how it alters your life."
He spent the first year of fame partying like a thing possessed. "I believe it's quite well documented," he says wearily. It just didn't suit him. "Like having a nut allergy - some people can have loads, and some people have one and their throat swells up." He has always been self-conscious and he ended up "in a state of paralysis, living inside your own head, which I think is very unhealthy". Then there was a kiss-and-tell story in a tabloid newspaper, following a fling with a make-up artist. "Oh aye, that was class, that was. That was a horrendous thing to happen, the embarrassment of it."
It wasn't the drink and drugs that were the problem, he says, though plenty of both were taken. "That's part of your job description as a pop performer, isn't it." With an earlier song about rave culture, Sorted For E's & Wizz, Cocker had already explored the highs and lows of drug use. He is still loth to dismiss drugs as a menace to society, and equally reluctant to champion them. "I'd never trust anyone who'd never taken drugs, but if I'd trust anyone who's still taking them, I don't know. I don't particularly think they do anyone any good, but you'd be pretty unnatural if you'd never tried them."
Still, the hedonistic life and the pressures of celebrity weren't good for his mental health, he says, and, what with one thing and another, 1996 and 1997 were missing years for Cocker. Since he can only write about what is going on in his life, he says, when things aren't going the way you want them to, "it's gonna come out". The 1998 album This Is Hardcore, with its brooding anxiety and unease, was about his disillusionment. It was a "necessary purging. It's not a pleasant record, but in what it set out to achieve, it works, which sounds a bit stupid, as if you wanted to repulse people."
The cover depicted a naked woman, an ostensibly glamorous and erotic image, but actually she looks pale and tortured, maybe even dead - both attractive and repulsive at the same time, which was pretty much the way Cocker was feeling about his situation. "Like you've passed some invisible line into another world, a world you'd dreamt about for a long time. And then you've found that world doesn't measure up to the fantasies, and you become aware that all you've fallen in love with is this illusion you've created. Obviously a decadent sense of decay and disillusionment is never going to be a big seller. People don't want to hear, 'Look at this, this thing looks good, but really it's shit', and I don't blame them." Why does he think success didn't measure up for him? "Maybe because I'd wanted it for the wrong reasons." He'd always thought that if he were successful, then everything in his life would fall into place and he wouldn't ever have to make any effort again, that he'd inhabit a different world. "But you don't. You still have the same personality defects as before - you can't just put a penny in a slot and make them disappear."
It was a hard realisation, he says, even though now it seems "blindingly obvious". He wanted the next record to feel "right and pleasant and life-affirming", and to rediscover why he wanted to do it in the first place: "Because you like it and it gives you pleasure."
On the bitingly angry track I Spy, from Different Class, Cocker had railed against the complacency of middle-class country life: "My favourite parks are car parks, grass is something you smoke, birds are something you shag. Take your Year In Provence and shove it up your ass." Now, with the new album, it's a very different story: birds, grass, trees, animals, sunrises. He says establishing some connection with nature seemed like "the only way to go" after living in the artificial world that fame and success had brought. It's certainly a shift in mood, but if you listen closely to the songs, it's not such a u-turn after all - the album inhabits an urban dweller's vision of the natural world and, between all the tranquillity and hopefulness, there is plenty of ambivalence.
Among the stories told on the album are the deaths of two animals, one person and four love affairs. Even a song with the happy title I Love Life has a bleak, Larkinesque edge, starting: "Here comes your bedtime story, Mum and Dad have sentenced you to Life." Cocker once said that, as a songwriter, it is tempting to invite disaster into your life, so you'll have something to write about. When I remind him of this, he says that one thing he's learnt over the past few years is not to do that, "because disaster will happen anyway, so it's stupid to invite it in".
Cocker may have recovered from his "nut allergy" to fame, but it's clear that his life over the past few years has not been free of the kind of everyday heartache familiar to us all. A lot of the songs on the new album, he says, are about specific romances - it seems likely that his relationship with the actor Chloë Sevigny was one of these. Given Cocker's detached demeanour and famously dry wit, the tenderness and passion of these songs comes as a surprise. "There's nothing else worth writing about," he says, matter-of-factly. "You have to write about things that have emotional resonance. Music affects the emotions before the intellect; that's what attracted me to music." The sad thing, he says, is that he can't write about a love affair when he's in it, only after, when it's gone. "Writing a song is like giving the kiss of life to a corpse; you resuscitate it by writing about it and try to rekindle the emotions you felt then."
He is single at the moment, he says. Happily so? "It's all right, y'know," he replies, sounding almost surprised. He thinks it's good to be self-sufficient and wrong to be in a relationship to shore yourself up, or to find an antidote for something in your own personality. "It sounds like I've been reading crap American self-help books, but I think if you're strong enough in yourself and know you can get by, then if you do get involved with someone, it'll be for the right reasons, that you really like them and not that you're trying to cover something up in yourself."
Having grown up surrounded by women - mother, sister, aunties, grandma - he gets on with them, he says, "which isn't always useful when you're trying to have relationships with them. It's a very different thing, being friends and being in a relationship." As for settling down - he's 38 - and having kids, he wouldn't rule it out. "But I think you have to wait for it to happen to you, until it's so blindingly obvious that you do it. Either that, or buy some on the internet, I suppose."
We enter the Jarvis Cocker fame force-field as soon as we step out of the car at the TV studios where Pulp are meeting to rehearse for a live pop programme. A cycle courier has spotted him. "Awright, Jarvis!" he shouts. "Loved This Is Hardcore, mate. Can't wait to hear the new album." Cocker mumbles his thanks but doesn't smile. Cocker never really smiles, even when he's being funny - especially when he's being funny.
Upstairs in the cafe, we join the rest of the band: Mark Webber, Nick Banks, Steve Mackey, Candida Doyle. They chat about the artwork for the album, the video for the single, then it's into the studio for a quick run-through, with Cocker switching on that slick stage presence once aptly described by Select magazine as "peak-period Alvin Stardust". Doyle has a bottle of champagne, a gift to the band, and afterwards they crack it open. They seem a harmonious bunch, not in a nicey-nicey way but in the way of people who know each other very well. Doyle has been in the band for 15 years and says Cocker used to be awful. "He'd lose his temper, stop a song when we were playing live if there was a mistake, but if you pointed out a mistake to him, he didn't take it very well. He was quite precious - he's better now, but he still doesn't like criticism much." Cocker returns from the gents. "You slagging me off?" he says. "Yeah," she replies. "Thought so," he says, and takes another sip of champagne.
When Russell Senior left Pulp - in the missing years when their front man was off the rails - it took some getting used to, Cocker says. It was another change he could have done without. But the band all get on fine now, and he's conscious of his prima donna tendencies, it seems. "The singer's always the biggest arsehole in the band. People do lose their humanity sometimes." Has he been in danger of doing that? "Yeah, I'm sure I have, but I hope I've managed to hold on to it." It depends what's important to you, he says: "I enjoy getting inspiration from everyday things, and other people probably enjoy hanging out in jacuzzis, shagging models with silicone tits." He ponders this. "Though I could probably enjoy that a couple of times, y'know."
Cocker has a finely tuned sense of bathos, and bursts his own bubble with deadpan precision. He finds humour, and poignancy, in the minutiae of everyday life, making for some darkly funny and sometimes gut-wrenching lyrics. It's no wonder he's been compared to that other master of withering northern wit, Alan Bennett. This wry humour, along with his flamboyant dress sense - he's been through a fake fur coat phase and today he looks punky - compound the widely held view that he is a comedy figure and Pulp an "ironic" band. "Well, we're not," he says, sharply. He hates to be seen as "wacky". "You have to take the music seriously."
The video for Help The Aged showed the band ascending to heaven on Stannah stairlifts, but the song's message - respect the elderly - was serious. Cocker's unerring ability to grasp the pathos in everyday existence is a big factor in his huge popularity, his one-of-us status. After success and fame came along, commentators questioned how he would maintain this position as the people's pop star, champion of the "common people". And how would Pulp's music fare without the everyday raw material that had fuelled his lyrics? That's why it took so long to make this album, he says, because he needed time to do some "normal things" - DJing, playing pool in the pub, just having a life, an emotional life - and to get his head around the "disruption" fame had brought. He is pleased that there is "more light and more life" on the new album, even though, of course, "life isn't always happy, is it?"
What's really important to him, he says, is to spend time with his friends - he now lives with four housemates, old pals from way back, in a house he's bought in "London's fashionable Hoxton". Communal living may be an unconventional arrangement for a man in his late 30s, but it's what he's used to and it suits him. He sometimes thinks he's been in London too long, though. "Time moves too quickly - there's London time and Sheffield time. People come to London so focused on achieving something that the incidental details of life lose importance, which is sad because it's usually those things that give you pleasure or stick in your mind. So 10 years can go by and you think, I didn't mean to be here this long." Where would he go? "Ain't got a clue." The countryside? "In some ways I think I should try it. I could always move back, I suppose."
Sometimes, after he's been away on tour or whatever, he'll come home and a friend will have a new haircut, or "new bits pierced", and he'll realise he's missed a little stage in their life. He hates that. It helped having them around when he was going through his bad patch, though ultimately, he says, you have to get through it yourself. How did he do it? "The main thing is to take time. People expect a quick fix - if your washing machine breaks, you expect someone to fix it the next day. If people break, you have the same mentality, but you can't get fixed just like that. The only way you're gonna solve it is to be patient. And continuity is important, or you lose touch with yourself."
Maybe, paradoxically, a bit of continuity in your life makes change easier to embrace. It seems to be working for Cocker, anyway. He and Doyle are heading back to his place to rehearse, and they offer me a lift. "It's right good, this car," he says of the capacious, chauffeur-driven Merc, complete with mini TVs. His ancient Toyota people carrier is in the garage in Sheffield and he fears it may be destined for the scrapyard, which he's not happy about. En route, Doyle recalls a dream she had about the comedian Steve Coogan. She doesn't even fancy him, she says. "Paul Calf, though, that's a different matter." And we discuss karaoke. A friend has told me Cocker does a very good Britney number. His Whigfield is better, he says, but he had a terrible experience in Belgium recently when he ill-advisedly attempted the Toto song Africa. "Very difficult song to sing. It was my night of shame."
Cocker suggests to Doyle that, before they start work, they have a cup of tea and watch Top Of The Pops. He's been watching it for 30-odd years, and that's not about to change