Lisa Verrico Interview with Jarvis Cocker
Words: Lisa Verrico, Photographer: Angela Lubrano
Taken from The Times, 1 June 2001
Rumour had it that Bob Dylan was asked to open this year's Hay Festival but was too busy with his birthday. Whatever, the bookish crowd at Hay-on-Wye last week were more than happy to have Pulp launch the event with their first live performance of 2001.
With his herringbone overcoats, Larkin specs and I'm-a-poet-and-I-know-it lyrics, Jarvis Cocker has always been welcomed by the literary world.
For years there have been rumours that he has a novel on the way. And he's currently pitching to direct a film version of the debut novel by his friend Harland Miller, Slow Down Arthur, Stick To Thirty, about a David Bowie impersonator in York. "Right up my Strasse!" reads Cocker's typically pithy testimony on the front jacket. The rights have been sold to DNA, who made Trainspotting, and Cocker - who studied film and has made pop videos with Pulp's Steve Mackey - is said to by dying to make it.
If Cocker had heard he was second choice to His Bobness, he didn't seem bothered at Hay. Backstage - or, rather, in a school classroom across the road - he seemed bemused that Pulp had been asked to play a literary festival at all. "Do they usually have bands here?" he asked, sipping a drink. "It is a bit odd. Good, though. Much better here than, say, Derby Roadmenders. We've been around a long time so it's always interesting for us to play somewhere a bit different. I'm honoured to be asked. I just hope we didn't put them off having a band next year."
For Pulp, the gig was a warm-up for their headline set at last weekend's Homelands. From well-behaved literary fans to a raucous club crowd in just two days. Not even Bob Dylan does that. "I like variety," says Cocker. "And I like to think anybody can get into our music, if they put their mind to it. Playing in a marquee was weird, but nice. I walked into the venue today and I could smell grass. Not dope. Not the roadies smoking loads of ganja. I could smell actual green grass. That's much more pleasant than walking into a venue and smelling stale tobacco smoke and spilt beer."
Pulp's 90-minute set was a mix of old hits and new material taken from their forthcoming album, as yet untitled, but due out in the autumn. Some of the new songs were premiered at last August's Reading and Leads festivals, but have since been overhauled. Frustrated by their first nine months of recording sessions, in October the band replaced Chris Thomas who produced Different Class and This Is Hardcore, with the musical maverick Scott Walker, of whom Cocker is a huge fan. Until then, however, Pulp were so unhappy with the new songs that, apparently, if Reading had gone badly, they might have scrapped them altogether.
"From the start, we wanted to record in a certain way and we thought we had made it very clear to Chris what that was," says Cocker, clearly annoyed. "The songs were to sound more natural than they have in the past. Like it was just us in a room playing, not getting all anal about a cymbal that comes in 20 microseconds too late."
Cocker is obviously pleased with Walker's work. The album was completed in February - although more tracks may be added later - and, both on stage and off, Cocker seems supremely confident. "I'm confident it's an accurate reflection of where we're at and it says what I want it to say," he explains. "It's a very true album, by which I mean the sentiments in the songs are real, so I don't feel embarrassed about them. I've never kept a diary. Writing songs is the closest thing I've ever had to that. Whether anyone will be interested in my life or not I don't know. But the point wasn't to write hits or sell lots of records."
Nevertheless, compared with the dark, claustrophobic feel of Pulp's last album, This Is Hardcore, the new songs are much more accessible, if still not as poppy as Common People. Musically, there is an adventurous use of electronics. Lyrically, Cocker has rediscovered his sense of humour and seems obsessed with nature. The new album includes the likely first single Trees and the rocky, slightly psychedelic Weeds and Sunrise, a melancholy track about getting home from a night out. In the Hay set, there was also the electro-tinged F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E ("I've got this slightly sick feeling in my stomach / Like I'm standing on top of a very tall building") and Bad Cover Version, which Cocker said was about "trying to be something, but not quite getting it right". Finally, there was Wickerman, in which Cocker returns to one of his childhood haunts in Sheffield - the cafe with its "scuffed, Formica tabletops".
A new move for Pulp will be dance mixes. Already, Sheffield DJs All Seeing I and Fat Trucker have been commissioned to make Sunrise dancefloor friendly. Over the summer, the remixes will be released to club DJs. Cocker himself has been DJing in London clubs of late and the band took their so-called Desperate Sound System to Homelands. Along with the likes of All Seeing I, Fat Tracker and National Bandit (all from Sheffield), Cocker is rumoured to be starting his own monthly club night.
Finally, Cocker may be a bit of a bookworm, but he had no idea which authors were at Hay. "I only know Tom Robinson is here," he said. "And I'm not bothered about seeing him. To my shame, I've never been to a literary festival before, but I may come again. I was worried it would be full of men with beards wearing sandals, but it's not like that at all."
Click here for Hay-on-Wye Festival Review and Photos