As the frontman of Pulp, Jarvis Cocker made a virtue of being awkward - and paid the price. Now the spotlight has dimmed is he any happier?
When Jarvis Cocker is thinking about what heís going to say he has a habit of raising his head and looking to the sky. Behind his heavy, square glasses and the single fingerprint smudge visible on the left lens, his eyes flicker like a strobe light. "The sound of 2009?" he says contemplatively, in his flat Yorkshire tone. "Well, youíre talking to the wrong person because Iím not really up with modern musical trends." Itís a blue-collar Alan Bennett of a voice, less flutey, less flighty than the playwrightís, but comfortingly familiar and warm.
Maybe itís the sound of all these radio waves that surround us, he suggests, thinking aloud. "All these wireless networks going through your head all the time. I have tinnitus so I wouldnít hear them. But maybe we could say the sound is a high-pitched whistle from all the different wireless networks."
He raises his head skywards again. It is almost the end of our time together and I have asked him to paint a sense picture of his life in 2009. Heís flexing his long, slender fingers that match his long, slender frame. Itís early evening in a pub garden in the east end of London. Itís still bright but heís beginning to feel the chill. In a couple of minutes he will go back inside, grab the battered, shapeless luggage bag heís brought with him on the train from Paris today, and have a pint and a chat with his mate. For the moment, though, heís taking my question reasonably seriously.
Thatís okay. It gives me time to examine the grey, felty-looking jacket heís wearing, the way heís trimmed his dark, closely cropped beard, the dusting of silver hairs around his chin, the lines around his fluttering eyes, the slightest of markings of age on him.
"The smell? The smell of fear that the world is grinding to a halt," he continues mock-stentorially. "The credit crunch. Iím sick of hearing about the credit crunch."
He is 45 now but he looks good on it, I think, as he tries to pin down taste. ("Maybe those crisps I had the other day. Duck and hoisin sauce. They werenít bad, actually.") Heís secure and serene in his post-pop life. Not that he has divorced himself from music. Weíre both here ostensibly to talk about a new record he has made, although we spend more time talking about childhood, fame and fatherhood. The album, Further Complications, is a rock record really, full of loud guitars and Jarvis screaming. On the plane from Edinburgh I wrote down a list of words and phrases that it made me think of. "Free association?" he asks when I suggest reading it out to him. "Okay."
Perhaps Iím projecting, I say, but I hear flailing desperation, an ageing male libido, a sleazy Roxy saxophone, dirty sheets, romantic ambivalence, or maybe ambivalent romanticism...
"Thereís definitely stuff about the ageing male libido on there," he says. "I didnít mean it to be a theme of the record, but Iím a 45 year-old man, so if Iím going to write about myself I have to factor that in. I would hope there isnít so much desperation. I donít see it as a desperate album. I suppose it could strike you as desperate that a 45-year-old man was trying to rock out." But the fact is his band know how to rock, he says. "I saw an opportunity to do something. I thought, Ďwell, Iíd better do this while Iíve still got the physical ability to do it.í"
I canít imagine there will be any hits on it Ė although the last song on the album, the uncharacteristic Youíre in My Eyes (Discosong), could be a wild card - but I don't imagine Cocker will be particularly bothered. He's been there, done that and didn't like it much, the fame thing, even though he admits it was something he'd wanted since childhood.
The release of Common People, a famous performance at Glastonbury and a notorious appearance by Cocker at the Brits, waggling his bum in response to a ludicrously egotistic Michael Jackson performance made Cocker a public figure in the mid-nineties. It had been a long time coming. His band Pulp recorded their first John Peel session in 1981. It would be another 12 years before anyone paid any interest again, a further three before Pulp became an overnight success. Why had he clung so tenaciously to the dream of pop success through all those years of failure? Why had he never decided to do something else? Well, he did, he says. He went to study at Central St Martins College. "When I went down to London to go to college I really kind of thought that was the end of it. During the years I was studying we did four concerts. Life occurred."
Yet the dream of pop success persisted, I suggest. It prompts him to sing a bit of Rogers and Hammerstein: "You've got to have a dream. If you don't have a dream how you going to make a dream come true?"
"You have to believe in something, and in the absence of religion I believed in the dream and I think it performed that function. Sometimes I lived in fairly shitty circumstances, so it was a belief system and I think that's also why, when Pulp did become famous, why and this is a matter of public record - I didnít like fame. That was my belief system, so basically getting famous was like going to heaven. But you don't get to go to heaven while you're still alive. There was no way on earth it was ever going to match up to what I'd imagined it was going to be so inevitably it was a crushing disappointment."
He tried to make it match up for a while. He embraced fame, dated the odd Hollywood star (Chloe Sevigny), partied hard. Time for another sense picture. What did success smell like?
"Well the smell would be cocaine, I suppose. That was around a lot in the Britpop time. Initially an interesting thing cos that's a drug that's kind of good for insecure English people. It makes people feel, initially at least, kind of confident, but then after a while it just makes you feel horrible. That's an unfortunate smell I would associate with that time."
Why did he start with such a negative one, he asks himself. "There were nice things about it. I am glad that it happened. I am glad that I lived through Britpop even though I hate that term. I do think it was exciting, having lived a marginal life. It did seem like a revolution was possible when indie and underground things began to get mainstream attention. It was like what I'd experienced in the rave scene six years earlier. Again that was slightly drug induced, but the feeling that socialising could be something other than the aggressive thing it seems to be in the UK - going out and if you can't cop off you smack somebody and if you can't smack somebody you have a curry. It's quite hard work going out in Britain. I don't know how kids do it now. Whenever I get stuck in the city centre on a Saturday night it's scary. So when that summer of love happened I thought, ĎGod, this has got to have some knock on effect in societyí, but it didn't really seem to do that. So six years later I'd hoped that more interesting, more leftfield ideas would enter the mainstream. You have to remember that, if you think of it in musical terms, it was Phil Collins and stuff that. It was pretty staid and pretty dour and crap and in the end it didnít change that much. But maybe that is what always happens if you hope too much. Having said that if you hope too much maybe some thing a little might happen. So it was good. I wouldn't like to say Britpop was crap. It ended up a bit crap but I was excited to be part of it."
He tries to tick off the other senses from that time. He flunks out on touch. "I'm not a very tactile person."
"I'd never encountered vodka shots before. There was this place round the corner from the college I went to and they did flavoured shots. He did a Mars bar one that was very good. He would chop up a Mars bar and put it in a vodka bottle, then reseal it and put a lot of gaffer tape around the top, and then put it into the dishwasher. The action of being in the dishwasher for an hour shaking it up and heating it made the Mars bar dissolve into the vodka. It was delicious but a little bit lethal also."
"Untucked shirts. I suppose"
"In a way that was one of the weakest parts of that scene. As I say, socially it was interesting, but unfortunately a lot of the musical legacy left behind isn't that interesting because a lot of it was already looking to the past, to either Jingle Jangle Morning or The Smiths. If you listen to a Dodgy track or a Lightning Seeds track..." he pauses on that line of thought and reconsiders. "I wouldn't recommend it."
Jarvis Cocker was born in Sheffield in 1963. He remembers concrete, My Guy on the radio, the enticing smell of the city's three breweries ("I can remember being very disappointed when I first tasted beer because it didn't taste anything like that smell. I persevered, though") and the taste of Branston Pickle. The latter prompts a very Jarvis anecdote. "I took my son down to Sherwood Forest. They've got the saddest visitor site in the British Isles. Robin Hood is a worldwide figure so you'd think they'd exploit that, but it's very, very tawdry. And I went into this cafeteria there and it was like going back in time. And I like going back in time obviously, but this was like going back in time with a bang. They still kind of did the ploughman's lunch where it's a plate with clingfilm around it so the bread goes really leathery and then you've got a block of cheese and a bit of Branstons on. I have to admit when I ate it, it was one of those Proustian moments. It took me right back to being in my grandma and grandad's house. They used to buy cheese in these massive blocks you'd get at Makro and make these cheese and Branston Pickle sandwiches which were about that thick." He holds his fingers up indicating bread as thick as a Dickens novel. "Very, very orange cheddar. White bread and Branston Pickle."
Along with his younger sister Saskia, he was brought up by his mother Christine. His father Mack left them when Jarvis was seven. Two years earlier Cocker had contracted meningitis. He considers he had a happy childhood. "If I kind of state the facts of it Ė my father left and I was ill with a life-threatening illness - it sounds like there should be a brass band making some kind of tragic, horrible tune in the background. But it was quite good. I played out a lot." He was never in. His grandad had bought a plot of land but never got round to building anything on it, just dumped "all this crap" on it. "It was great, like a wilderness."
He thinks he wanted to be a pop star from the age of 11 or 12. From puberty really. "I had this fantasy it was the same order as thinking you could be an astronaut or a fireman. I actually wanted to be an astronaut and a pop star. I don't know how I was going to combine the two careers."
Part of the motivation, he says, was shyness. "I was very awkward. I couldn't get any girls." What did he think fame could do for him? "I just thought it would make things easier. Being shy would maybe mean that people would come and introduce themselves to me, rather than me having to do that. But you just kind of get nutters introducing themselves. Well not all the time, actually." He sighs, maybe a little bored with this topic of conversation. "I always feel mean. I feel weird talking about this stuff because I sound like I'm moaning and I've been very fortunate that most people who talk to me in the street are really nice. Itís just that what I get inspiration from and what I get a kick out of is normal things, everyday things, and I didn't like them being taken away."
He had made a pop career out of everyday things, writing about bri-nylon shirts and flock wallpaper and sexual jealousy, of course, and fame separated him from normality. "I ended up in a weird situation because it was the thing I wanted to do all my life, the culmination of my ambition and I didn't like it. I kind of allowed myself to go along with it thinking 'this is it, you've got a career now' So making the This Is Hardcore record was weird. Iím in this place that I'm not that happy with and it was making a record that did it so why make another one? But I did it."
"This is the sound of someone losing the plot" he sang on The Fear, the opening track of the album. It was an endpoint of sorts. Pulp continued for another album but Jarvis began a staged retreat. He got married to the stylist Camille Bidault-Waddington, became a dad to Albert and reinvented himself as a solo artist and a former pop star. He even did a turn on Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes as Rolf Harris (and won). "Really, what I had to do, and hopefully achieved eventually was separate two concepts that were kind of linked. There was the kind of X Factor part of being in a pop band which was ĎI want to be famousí, and I did want that and I think that's quite a common thing in our society; this idea that being famous is going to sort things out for you and it inevitably doesn't. There's been so many films made about that you would think we'd have got that message. I had to extricate that from the genuine desire to actually create things and the enjoyment in creating things. And I hope to have done that now. There's still some thrill to creating something and I guess that's what makes me do it. Itís like doing a magic trick. I'm sat here, nothing's happening, I pick a guitar up and, 20 minutes, oh there's a song. Where did that come from? Itís nice to have that almost supernatural occurrence in your life."
He spends half his time now in France and half in London, with Sheffield as the third point in his geographical triangle. Next week, if you're in Paris, you can go along and see him rehearsing with his band in an art gallery in Montmartre, just up the road from the sex shops in Pigalle, he points out, and near where he lives. Today and tomorrow he is in London.
Yesterday he took Albert to school, the first day after the Easter holidays. "I managed to be only five minutes late. They hadnít locked the door yet."
How much has he changed since moving to Paris? Is he a different person in each city? "Probably, yeah" he replies. "I don't know if I act differently."
This is the stupidest question I'll ask you today, I tell him. How did getting married and becoming a father change him? As soon as I ask it I suddenly canít remember if I have definitely read that he did get married or whether he and his partner just live together. "I did get married but we're separated now" he says matter-of-factly. "We live near each other."
He carries on without pause to talk about fatherhood. "I think it's a good thing to realise you're not the only character in the play, and also to realise that however much you might dislike the idea of being a role model or an example, thatís what you are, so deal with it, because even if you totally neglect your responsibility and sit on the sofa and smoke fags and drink all day that will be taken as a role model and kids will copy that."
He likes the fact you can't intellectualise your love for your children. It's just there. An instinct. He doesn't worry that he didn't have a father's example to follow. "You just make something up. You do pick things up. You don't really need an example. You don't need to panic. Itís good to improvise"
These days Jarvis Cocker has discovered the joys of poetry (Auden Larkin even Charles Bukowski), can finally see some merit in Pink Floyd and Led Zep ("I still think Deep Purple are pretty crap") has realised music is his default position but would still quite like to write a book. He never does come up with a sense of touch that says anything about the present or the past.
"I don't really remember many touches. Maybe that's something I've got to work on. You've made me realise in this interview that I'm going to have to go around touching a lot more things. If I get arrested because of that itíll be your fault."
Sometimes Jarvis Cocker sounds 45, sometimes he sounds 15. He says he doesn't want to grow up. But he thinks he's grown.