A little knackered by the spoils of success, Jarvis Cocker's back as an alternative art TV pundit. It's not hard, he tells Andrew Harrison. "Just stand there like an idiot"
It's the end of an era. Jarvis Cocker has given up smoking. This afternoon, as he parks his spidery self in an extremely minimalist east London cafe-bar, he's got one of those white plastic nicotine tubes sticking out of the corner of his mouth. It makes him look like he's having his temperature taken.
What role now for Jarvis' right hand, previously always cocked with a rakish fag? Where now for the Cocker voicebox, weathered by tobacco into the perfect instrument for telling lonely housewives how he was going to give them what their husbands wouldn't? Since Common People became the anthem of Britpop, Jarvis has been the nation's favourite playboy, geek, dirty young man and, above all, smoker. Surely he hasn't gone straight on us? "After I woke up with a savage hangover on New Year's Day," he explains, "I though, 'That was your last rehearsal before the real one, the millenium.' I can't be doing with going into a whole new thousand years feeling like that..."
The Jarvis that Britain fell in love with was the one on TV: the one who answered all the questions in the quickfire round of Pop Quiz on his own, or who opened his jacket on a live Top Of The Pops to reveal a sign that said "I Hate Wet Wet Wet". Everyone agreed that he should probably be on telly more often, and this month he is, presenting not a pop show but a documentary series on obscure art. Journeys To The Outside investigates the work of so called outsider artists, ordinary people who are driven obsessively to turn their homes into ornate grottos and sculpture parks. It sounds dry but it's as entertaining and as strangely moving as, well, a Pulp record.
Pop star makes art documentary - it's the kind of thing that rings alarm bells, isn't it?
I was a bit worried about that. The last thing I wanted it to look like was some kind of crappy Nick Rhodes' photographs type of thing. (The Duran Duran keyboard player's book of Polaroids of untuned TV screens was once called "the most pretentious book ever".) I hate it when some star decides to say, "You know me for this but actually I'm really deep. I'm an artist." That worried me. I didn't want my personality getting in the way of places we visited. I hope they're what comes across to the viewer, and you don't think, "What's that tit doing walking around in a concrete castle?"
You've been interested in these obsessive, reclusive artists since you were on a film course at St Martin's. Why?
At art college you had to have an explanation for everything you did and these people seemed to be making stuff naturally, without a big agenda or a theory about what it might mean. I thought that was good. I'd discovered them in this book Outsider Art, which was full of things like a postman who spent 30 years building this enormous environment in his back garden, and he didn't even think of himself as an artist. I made the rest of Pulp come to one of the places, the Palais Ideal, when we were on tour in France and I marched them around it on this horrible rainy day saying "Look at it! Appreciate it! It's art, this."
Did you edit out any parts of the show on the grounds that you looked stupid in them?
There wouldn't be much left if I did that. I didn't really want to present the programme at all, you can probably tell, because I don't say much on camera, I just stand there like an idiot. But part of the reason Channel 4 wanted it was because I was going to front it. It was a trade-off, really. I got asked if I wanted to do a talk show once, but I can't imagine anything worse.
Were you disappointed This Is Hardcore didn't do as well as Different Class?
You're always disappointed when something doesn't do as well as the one before, because you have to face the fact that not as many people liked it. It'd be a lie to say that it doesn't affect you. You always know the records that are good don't necessarily sell the most - not many of the ones in my collection went platinum or whatever - but still, it can't help but hurt you. But it's easier to go to the shops now and I don't miss being followed around. It's an interesting thing to have happen to you, but some of the things that went on I can scarcely believe. I think I must have dreamt them, but pictures exist so I can't have.
Have you been invited to the Brits this year?
No, they've not sent me an invite. Maybe it's got lost in the post. But the, er, incident at the Brit awards was one of those things that I look back on and go, "Did that happen?" In fact I thought that the next morning. It seemed unreal immediately; it was nearly an out-of-body experience.
Do you think there's a difference between you jumping onstage at the Brits and waving your arse at Michael Jackson, and Chumbawamba chucking a bucket of water over John Prescott?
I wouldn't want to say. I think if you're trying too hard to make a big statement then you wind up not saying anything. It's like them coming on stage with "Corporate Whores" on their T-shirts. I just thought, Well if you don't like it, do something else then. Get another job.
What happened with your mum standing as Mrs Cocker, Conservative candidate?
Oh God. It's a mother's place to embarrass her kids, and my mother does it well. I've never seen eye to eye with her over politics. I've got nothing against her thinking that way, it's her business. But please, you don't have to try and be a bloody councillor. Anyway she didn't get in. We never talked about it.
British music has gone into decline since Britpop. Now Mick Hucknall and his Government Music Task Force want to save it by getting us all into our local village halls. Isn't it a bit like the vicar trying to get the kids to put on a show?
People create things as a reaction to official, straight society, and you can't do that from within. Imagine having someone from the local scheme coming down and asking [adopts wheedly posho voice], "Oh, how's the demo coming along? How's the guitar sound? Oh yes, make it really dirty, you're so rebellious..." It makes my flesh crawl. When we started off, we had the shittest equipment ever, and we'd play with these bands that had shiny amps that their parents bought them and they were always shit - all of them. The bands where everything was held together with Sellotape were better, because what they were doing was more important than the technique of it. But I think we're seeing the revenge for the Britpop hangover. So many bands, ourselves included, experienced this rush of euphoria when we got a foot in the door. And then you start having these shitty petty newspaper morals being applied to you, that you've never had to deal with before. It makes you think, "Fuck off, I don't want to do this anymore." Then everybody makes these bad-tempered, fuck-off-and-leave-me-alone records that make the general public think, "Bloody hell, this is a bit of a downer. I'm going to buy Steps. Let's get back on safe ground."
Do Michael Jackson fans still have a go at you in the street?
Does such a thing as a Michael Jackson fan still exist?
Is it true that Pulp have put a ban on Disco 2000 being used for commercial purposes in 1999? You once said you wrote it so Prince wouldn't get all the millennium money.
It was for a while, but not any more. We just wanted to make sure that if it gets used, it's for something half decent. We didn't want to be on every advert and sports round-up going. Anyway, it didn't do Prince any good, did it? Number ten and that was it.
You were in the papers at a village fete in Sussex with Chloe Sevigny. How did you wind up there?
We'd been in a place called Seaford and we were just driving through, when we saw a sign advertising a Donkey Derby, and I though I'd take her in. We had a bet on the donkeys. I just met Chloe about a year ago. We're just friends really.
You've toned down Jarvis the sex-machine, both in songs and life.
Well it got me into a lot of trouble, didn't it? There comes a time when you have to put your money where your mouth is after all that writing about it, and I did overdo it. If you've got the chance to turn fantasy into reality and you pass it up, you'll regret it. It'll prey on your mind. Or you run the risk of being disappointed. So I don't know.
At one stage you were never out of the papers, swanning around at swanky launch parties. When was the moment you thought, "Hang on, this has all got out of control?"
Probably when I found myself shaking hands with Action Man [looks shame-faced]. It was at a party for Action Man's 30th birthday. I'd only gone to this do because Russell had said he'd meet us there; I wasn't such a sad get that I actually wanted to meet Action Man. Or a bloke dressed up as Action Man. I never got to see Russell because there were all these knobheads saying, "Oh just come over here for a quick picture with this character off the telly." That was the moment I really though, "You should consider staying at home for a bit." Action Man had gripping hands though. And eagle eyes.
Does Jarvis Cocker have a hero?
[long pause for thought] David Attenborough's quite good. But I thought there was too much computer stuff on The Life Of Birds. That is what the BBC does now: they jazz things up that don't need it. There's even a soap on the World Service now, and you don't want that. I used to listen to it last thing at night on tour, and you want to hear that everything is alright and England is as she ever was, not somebody talking in a Gary Crowley voice. It's make you think the country'd gone to the dogs and everybody's wearing horrible baseball caps... which of course they are. It seems to be a national costume now. I watched the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony - don't ask me why - where they all come in wearing national costume, and our lot turned up looking like swimming pool attendants in red polo shirts and nasty black shorts and baseball caps. I was so embarrassed. I thought, "You're representing your country, get a tie on. Nobody plays baseball over here. Dress up like a fucking beefeater or something."
I want to get this series finished and then I don't know. It's not like deciding to, say, get a record out this summer. I'd prefer to potter about and when I've found something worth saying, then say it. Loudly.
Any message for Heat readers?
Yeah, stop watching telly and get out of the house a bit.