The Mojo Interview
Words: Ian Harrison, Photographer: Mattia Zoppellaro
Taken from Mojo Magazine, December 2006

Pulp's Britpop Larkin, he redefined pop stardom then fell to its clichés. Now back on track, he's dispensing glum wisdom. "Disillusionment has a bad press," he says. "Embrace it."

Can I have my photograph taken sitting down there?" wonders Jarvis Cocker, looking out of the window of his second-floor room in Dublin's Morrison Hotel. He points to an overgrown back yard; there, in front of an aged and peeling wooden door, a bright blue, seemingly brand new office chair nestles among the weeds. "I don't mind climbing over the wall," he suggests in Yorkshire tones that sound somehow slow but are anything but. "I'm still quite lithe for my age, y'know."

Other musicians may not find this such a cool spot to have their pictures taken, but Cocker, 43, was always one for ploughing his own furrow. Long-limbed, lanky and rocking Open University-casual tweeds with over-sized spectacles, he's still recognisable as the hero-nerd embraced by the nation in 1996 for Pulp's Mercury Prize-winning Different Class album and his bum-waggling invasion of Michael Jackson's performance at the Brit Awards. Beforehand were years of obscurity and thankless toil. Pulp line-ups came and went and records were released to indifference from the early-'80s onwards, before the group found success in the mid-'90s Britpop boom. To a scene sold on artifice and living in the moment, Pulp brought an understanding that things are never quite so simple as they seem, but after a brace of hits and media ubiquity, their commercial star would enter a slow decline. This month, five years after the last Pulp album, he marks a return from self-imposed retirement with the release of his debut solo album, Jarvis.

In Dublin to share a stage with Lou Reed, Nick Cave and others performing at the all-star Leonard Cohen tribute Came So Far For Beauty, he's dry, sharp company and now seems abashed at some of the more lurid episodes in his pop career. Sometimes he sits with legs apart, at others he throws both legs over the side of his armchair and nervily swings his caramel-coloured Kicker boots.

"I still think that you've got to make your own choices and not just go along with other people's opinions," he says, pulling on one of three Philip Morris cigarettes he'll smoke during MOJO's two-hour audience, "however inappropriate it may be for a man in his forties who's now older than the leader of the Conservative Party."

Initial copies of your album are credited simply to 'Jarvis'. Is that who you are now?
Well, the album's called that, because it's meant to be more personal and not a continuation of what's gone before. I flirted with just being called 'Jarvis', but when I saw it written down I weren't sure. I think I'm gonna have to be 'Jarvis Cocker'.

You didn't fancy just being 'Cocker'?
Actually the 'Cocker' bit has, historically, been more irritating. In Sheffield, in secondary school, if you were hard they'd call you 'Cock o' the year.' When 1 arrived at secondary school I got, "Are you cock o' the year then, d'you wanna fight?" "No thanks." "Are you cock o'th'crap fighters then? Cock o' the puffs?" It weren't good. I hated my name so much as a kid I used to pretend I was called John, 'cos I just wanted to blend into the background, but I had long hair and specs, and in some of the get-ups my mother sent me to school in - lederhosen, for example - that wasn't an option.

What was the Cocker household like?
Well, my mum was a bohemian, as much as you could be in Sheffield. She used to play the soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey - I remember hearing that coming up through the floorboards when she was having Tupperware parties. And I'd really play her Beatles records. My dad left when I was seven, but I don't remember making a fuss of it. Which seems monstrous, doesn't it? I'd be devastated if I fucked off and my son just went, "All right, fair do's." But I absorbed culture from him even though he wasn't there - he left some blues records, and books of plays he'd been in like Under Milk Wood and The Birthday Party. I pieced together things about him from that, probably in a fanciful way. I didn't see him for 20 years, and when I did I didn't get any insight at all.

What made Pulp come into existence in 1979?
I kind of decided I wanted to be in a group when the punk thing happened, 'cos the message that it's better not to fit in and to do your own individual thing hit just at the right time for me. So we did it as a social thing as much an artistic one, and in 1981 Pulp did a John Peel session. That gave me the balls to tell my mother that I was going to devote myself to music instead of going to university. Which at that point in time meant going on the dole, 'cos it was quite easy to sign on then. You found yourself on the margins, not really involved with society, but I didn't wanna be involved. In the '80s, everything was rubbish: music, clothes, everything. And it was very dispiriting, in your late teens, to have Margaret Thatcher telling you "you've had your fun". I started going to jumble sales and buying my own clothes then, buying old tat on purpose and wanting to look different.

Does this explain that side to you, evident in peak-era Pulp, that seems to hark back to the 70s?
I think the 70s were the last decade of modernism, where people'd rip out the original Victorian features from their houses and replace it with Formica, 'cos they were going for the future! In the '80s they thought, oh right Victorian fireplace.

Did a feeling of uniqueness sustain you?
Probably. In a big-headed way, I was always convinced I was doing something good. I s'pose I had a really disproportionate amount of self-belief, 'cos listening back to those early Pulp records, they didn't have a cat in hell's chance of getting popular.

Was there a lack of other options as well?
Maybe I was lacking in imagination, a bit. I think you've got to have something to hold onto, some little bit of wreckage to cling to, to keep you afloat. For a long time I suppose the group was that, 'cos there wasn't much happening in the rest of my life.

What was the Sheffield-based Pulp like in the late 1980s?
In the dole days, Pulp would have been this ridiculously uptight knobhead with specs on haranguing you and flying off the handle when anything went wrong. Which it did quite often, 'cos we'd do these stupidly complicated stage sets on no budget at all, hanging bags of coloured liquid from the ceiling-type stuff, and then forget to tune the guitars. I think I needed to lighten up, really.

How did the cumulative absence of lucky breaks feel?
Eventually it did make me feel that I was in a dangerous situation. It was a tortuous process, getting through the '80s. Before I left Sheffield we had a record we'd made not coming out, the bass player [Antony Genn, now of The Hours] had taken too much acid and ended up in a charismatic Christian cult, and you'd go round to people's houses and they'd be doing hot knives at 11 o'clock in the morning. In any city where there's a music scene, you get people who were in bands who were quite big locally but nothing's happened for years and you see them wandering around looking a bit haggard and lost. So I had to get out.

In 1988 you moved to London to study film at Saint Martin's. Didn't you feel like ending Pulp then?
When I moved down to London, the group was in a vegetative state, but I still believed in it. I think it was a lucky thing that rave kicked off at around the same time. Me and Steve [Mackey, Pulp bassist], who was playing in a Stoogestype group called Trolley Dog Shag, started going to raves and I was blown away by it.

What was the appeal?
It seemed ego-less. You were in a big place, you had no idea who the records were by and there was no performer. You just reacted to this music and focused on the people around you. Or not. Once I was out in Sheffield wearing these blue navy surplus shorts with a buttoned fly missing a few buttons. I'd been dancing for quite a long time when I happened to look down and my knob was flopping about - but no one seemed to have noticed. I was convinced rave was the future.

My Legendary Girlfriend [1990] seemed to mark the point where Pulp finally started to take off...
The first bit of the '90s was great, getting known, doing all the things you pipedream about when you're in a band. It's an empowering thing when that happens. We followed this fairly shallow but upwards gradient, getting signed and that, doing proper tours where we actually played on consecutive nights. When we played Common People in 1994 at the Reading Festival, we realised that there was something about it that seemed to connect to people in a way that we hadn't done before. I became convinced that it had to come out 'cos it did seem somehow in tune with the times, y'know. It was a race against time to get it out before somebody else picked up on it.

Playing the same song at Glastonbury in 1995 was one of the defining moments of the Britpop boom. So what was this thing it had picked up on?
It's so unfortunate you have to call it that [Britpop], 'cos it's such a wank name. It wasn't just music. It was a social attitude that was coming into being, of the middle class glorifying what had been until then exclusively working-class culture, or pop culture. It used to be an insult to call something pop culture 'cos it meant it wasn't real culture. The example I'll use, again, is David Baddiel getting into football. You think, What is that cock doing getting into football?

Some theorists have argued that the song is really an address to better-off Britpop groups who were slumming.
Probably most of them were weren't they? The real event that sparked the song really did happen when I was at college, five or six years before I actually wrote it. I hate social comment songs 'cos they're always vague, so the only way I could sell any of that was to base it on a real event. I surprised myself as well, because I used to pride myself on being apolitical, which I'm ashamed of now.

But you enjoyed the Britpop explosion?
Yeah, it was exciting, but brief. After all these years in the 'indie ghetto' and the mainstream being so anodyne. I guess that's the sad thing about it. It did feel like something was happening - Let's have a movement and change the world! - though there was no real kinship between the bands. It was sad. There was no unity to it.

What do you think went wrong?
When success came people just got into it for themselves. There was no revolution; everybody just got into personal ego problems or drink problems or drug problems. Then everyone got a hangover and made bad tempered, downer albums, us included. It went "pfffft". Then Robbie Williams took the chirpiness of it or whatever and did it in an entertainer's way. Y'know, "Fuck these miserable bastards, they're not proper pop stars, they've made one album and they're complaining, so have a listen to this! Let's get some proper pop stars." You got the Spice Girls then, too.

You refused to endorse New Labour at this point as well.
Before Tony Blair got elected they kept ringing me up and asking me if I could count on their support, which I didn't like. This song Cocaine Socialism came to me one night around that time, in the Groucho Club, when everyone was off their heads from snorting loads of coke. They were probably going to vote Labour, myself included. But it wasn't even champagne socialism any more, it was cocaine socialism and where do socialist principles fit into the most egotistical drug that makes you not give a shit about anyone else? You don't even want to listen to anyone else talk. But I bottled it in the end and rewrote it as Glory Days, which was about nothing really.

When you got on-stage at the Brits in 1996 when Michael Jackson was doing his messiah act, you received a huge amount of good-feeling and media attention.
But I couldn't go out in a normal way any more, because I'd become so recognisable, and that was sort of it for me. My songwriting's based on observations, so when you can't observe things you're a bit fucked. You get forced into introspection and looking at your mental landscape, but my mental landscape was a horrible scary place, 'cos I was a bit fucked up from drinking and drugging too much.

It's around this time that you start appearing in magazine photographs looking a touch hollowed.
The front of GQ, a bit later, was the worst one. Like looking at a waxwork, no life in the eyes at all. It got to where I couldn't fucking stand myself. I'd had a breakdown at Christmas 1996, but we had people saying we had to make another record immediately. I suppose my thoughts were, I don't like where the last one's taken me so why would I want to make another one to perpetuate that situation? That said, I can't remember much about 1997 other than I was living in Maida Vale and we spent an awful lot of money recording This Is Hardcore, in fits and starts.

Do you think such a downer, bad-tempered album was a mistake?
Not too much. The thing was, as people pointed out to me, it was actually in keeping with what we'd done before and that Different Class was the anomaly because it was poppy. Really, it was misery from the word go with this band. I wouldn't want to go back to the mental state that produced the song This Is Hardcore, but I'm proud of it, because it actually says it, y'know. The Fear, which is on the album as well, sets its stall out all right too: you're losing the plot and you're gonna like it, but not a lot. Imagine the horror of Paul Daniels appearing to you in your biggest moment of despair when everything is disintegrating. Horrible innit?

Did this mixture of horrorscape and showbiz meet in your social life as well? You became a ligger of some repute at this point.
I'd never been one for staying in the house on my own, where I tend to sink into sullen introspection. I couldn't got to normal pubs any more, so when I was given access to this other world where you were given free drink and you got to see people you've seen on the telly up close, you sort of think, This is what pop stars do. It was like I was suddenly living in telly-land, and I must admit that when I first saw Nicholas Parsons in the flesh I had a good chuckle about it.

Was this the era Damon Albarn summarised as a "blizzard of cocaine"?
Well, I'm sure I was a puff compared to most people. I've never really been able to take drugs very much because I haven't got the constitution for it. I was a sickly child, y'know. But you feel a knob, because we were quite old when we got popular. We shouldn't have been the ones still awake at five o'clock in the morning, looking through an ashtray. I dunno, you've come from a rag-arse situation where you don't need to exercise any kind of self-discipline 'cos you haven't got any money and you can't do yourself damage getting fucked up or having strange liaisons with inappropriate women... but at the same time, I don't think I'd understand people getting all hacked off and churlish after achieving this thing they'd dreamed about and wanted for years.

Looking back what was best - sex, drugs or rock 'n' roll?
Definitely not drugs. The sex and the rock 'n' roll would be level pegging for me. The best thing would be to go to a concert, and have a shag afterwards.

Another three years would go by before We Love Life, the last Pulp album to date, was released. Were you still drinking and drugging?
I'd calmed down by then, but it still dragged on, even though we'd started wanting to do something quite spontaneous. I think I had it in my mind that it was gonna be the last Pulp record. I think it was a footnote, to try and not leave it on a sour note. There was a sense of tidying things up, which isn't the greatest or most passionate creative impetus in the world, is it? Tidying!

Did it feel like the end when it didn't do hugely well?
We Love Life didn't set the world on fire, but the real whimper, the real silent fart, was when the greatest hits came out, in 2002. That got to the fantastic chart position of Number 71, and then disappeared. Fuck! OK. So for all this worrying and soul-searching, nobody was that arsed, evidently. So I thought, Take the dignified route. I went to live in Paris, thinking I am retired now.

There's been no official split though; might Pulp reunite at some point?
I'd be surprised, but Pulp's gone through periods of hibernation before. We're like a volcano, you've got to wait for the pressure to build up. Then we'll be playing The Greatest Britpop Tour In The World... Ever! with Echobelly and Menswear.

You did a pub-electro album with Relaxed Muscle in the mean time, singing as Darren Spooner. Why?
I guess that came from being scared of getting married and becoming a father, really. I thought, I'm going to have to start being a nice person and stop being a twat, so it was like a Jekyll and Hyde thing. I thought I could get rid of all these horrible thoughts and nastiness and be the nice guy. Didn't work at all. But it wasn't an altogether serious exercise, and there's a simple delight to be had from swearing a lot.

You also ended up being pals with Scott Walker. What's that like?
Because he's someone I admire so much, when he produced We Love Life, I felt I had to make a big effort. It was good to know you could work with someone you had a lot of respect for. It was also part of a whole process of disillusionment. Disillusionment has a bad press, but it's something I think you have to embrace in your life, to get used to this idea that there aren't these unreal mega-beings that you should worship, which is how I might've thought of him beforehand. And he really encouraged me to make my own record. The fact he could be arsed to say that made me think that I should.

Was a resignation from music ever a real possibility?
Well, as soon as I said, "Surely you can find something else to do?", bits of songs began to pop into my head, unbidden, at inappropriate moments, like when I was running the bath. And it was enjoyable, y'know. At first I thought I'd just write for other people. I wrote these two songs for Nancy Sinatra, and it wasn't her fault but I didn't like the way they sounded on her record. I suppose then I realised that the only way I was going to get them sounding the way I wanted was to do 'em myself. Which horrified me in a way. I thought, I'm not going to be able to change me mind again after this. I'm going to have to stick with it now.

It sounds like a vocation of some sort.
I've tried to write about that on the new record with that song Black Magic. The way music works is mysterious and intangible, because one song with guitar, bass and drums is "God, that's great!" and another song with guitar, bass and drums is just a pile of dog-wank, isn't it? It's a bit of a curse in a way, because it gives you this window into this other way of being. Music is a difficult thing to get over, if you've done it. It can fuck your life up. It's the unreasonable people who really believe in it that produce the best stuff. You get your sensible musicians like James Blunt - seems like a nice guy, bit posh or whatever - they keep it at arms' length and they'll never make anything as vital or interesting as the people who get too close to it. I may well make a knobhead of myself, but I can't do anything else, really.

Are the same impulses still driving you to sing?
I think because there's a contradiction in me that my wife's always telling me off about. I'll say, "Oh I'm right shy", and then do something attention-seeking, like talking in a stupid voice in a queue. To want to be a singer is very much a showing-off thing, but it's weird 'cos you're singing about very personal things on a stage. I find it a lot harder to tell friends intimate things. So it's just as unhealthy, yeah.

The Importance Of Being Jarvis by Richard Hawley
"I remember seeing him walking down Fargate in Sheffield with a vacuum cleaner in his hand and thinking, He's going home to turn that into a rocket. His genius is that he's never had that fear of being himself. It's easy when you've got money, but Jarv was always like that. It's not fake. He always was a fucking weird cunt."

A Life In Pictures
1. Cave, Cocker and Lou Reed assault the songs of Leonard Cohen, October 2006.

2. Pulp in 1990. From left: Russell Senior, Candida Doyle, Steve Mackey, Jarvis Cocker, Nick Banks.

3. Revenge of the nerd! Sabotaging Michael Jackson's Brits spectacle, 1996.

4. The Britpop Chumfest. Cocker and Blur's Damon Albarn toss up at a celebrity football match, 1995.

5. Pulp's zenith, at 1995's Glastonbury festival: "It was exciting, but brief."

6. Romping away with Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes with an uncanny Rolf Harris impression, 2002.

7. "The Wheelchair Months". On-stage at The Limit Sheffield 1986 after a fall from a window.

8. As the fictional Darren Spooner in the (sadly) non-fictional grotglam sideproject, Relaxed Muscle, 2003.

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