Space disco bunnies Pulp have been going for a decade now with absolutely no success. But have they finally hit the winning formula that will see them grabbing the stars? John Mulvey rode his Grifter to Sheffield only to find out that it's not as good as a Chopper.
"Pulp is... being an anachronism of any kind... living in a dream world... being totally unrealistic... making contact with beings from other planets and snogging them... it's not being different for the sake of it - that's immature... it's all of these things and more - but most of all it's about you and us, and what we can get up to together - OK? - alright, here we go..."
Today, Pulp is... trying to be superstars in your hometown... organising party games for drunks... loving Des O'Connor and not having to say you're sorry... being fantastic... being mundane... being fantastic and mundane at the same time... dreaming of space-age Sheffield...
"Sheffield's full of half-assed visions of cities of the future that turn into a pile of rubbish," Russell Senior reflects, standing on the biggest traffic roundabout in Europe. "We grew up reading the local paper and seeing 'Sheffield, city of the future,' with a map of how it's going to be and pictures of everyone walking around in spacesuits, smiling. But we're the only ones who took it seriously..."
"When I was younger I definitely thought I'd live in space," says Jarvis Cocker ruefully. "But when you realise you're not going to, it colours your life; you can't think, 'It's alright if I'm signing on because I'll be on Mars soon', you have to try and get it down here." So what are you getting into at the moment? "Cooking. It's very good. Cooking for your friends is very therapeutic, and they always say it's nice, 'cos they're just pleased they didn't have to get out of their seats to help."
Pulp - singer Jarvis, guitarist/violinist Russell, Nick Banks (drums), Steve Mackey (bass) and Candida Doyle (Farfisa, Korg and Stylophone) - are sitting in a dressing room at the Sheffield Leadmill with a pointless prop - a large, silver, faintly sinister head - for company. It is a special day. In the afternoon, hundreds of balloons have been released to mark the debut of their new label, Gift, a perverse indie spin-off from local Techno-vendors Warp. Later, they will play a dizzily great set of twisted disco melodrama. For now, though, they have a long ten years - and extraordinarily unsuccessful career to explain.
"Music's the only thing that can keep you going," says Jarvis, reassuringly clichéd. "If you're not getting paid loads of money and not getting loads of girls sayin ' You're smashing', that's the only thing to fall back on. When I was at school I had specs and bad teeth and was a bit lanky, and so no girls were really interested, but I thought that if I was in a group they'd think I was good... So on that level I've failed miserably. But that's why all sad kids do it, innit? Standing on the stage is like wanking off in front of a mirror. People in bands are social misfits aren't they?"
Looking at Jarvis - still wearing specs, still lanky (I didn't check his teeth) - and the rest of Pulp clad in a hundred shades of brown, a bit of lamé and countless other '70s synthetic atrocities, it's hard not to conclude that they're proud to be social misfits. Russell, meanwhile, is musing on how a band who haven't released an album since 1985 have kept going. "A band that's been together for a decade and has never sold any records is either very, very crap indeed OR they've got something strong keeping them together. I can't make up my mind which of those two it is yet."
"It's about not being able to make it in the real world," reckons Jarvis, back on his misfit tack. "I haven't got a City & Guilds certificate or anything, I haven't got a skill." What about film work (he and Steve are fully trained and occasionally practising video-makers)? "Oh yeah, I have got that," he admits bashfully. "But that's why I went to college, 'cos you do see sad characters walking around who used to be in a band about five years ago, and they always look like a dog that's got lost."
A former member of Pulp staggers into the dressing room, sits on an ironing board, breaks it and leaves the venue before the band play because he has to get up early to do his post round. Somewhere in the Leadmill, Simon Hinkler, ex-Mission member and old Pulpster mingles with his insalubrious past, "He did a lot of work for Pulp but doesn't like to talk about it," Russell reveals. About enough people to make up two football teams passed through the ranks in the '80s - "The wilderness decade" - it transpires. "The very first bass player we had was called Fungus," remembers Jarvis, "and he used to play the songs five times faster so he could finish and go and have an ice-cream. Then we had another one who looked about 11 years old. At our first concert his bass started feeding back, and he didn't know what to do, so he just ran away from the speaker and fell into the audience. We have had some funny people..."
Pulp are currently busier, in bigger demand, than ever before. There's a frantically groovy new single, 'OU', about someone woken up by the sound of his girlfriend leaving him and wondering whether to chase after her or stay in bed; plus there's an album recorded in 1989, 'Separations', finally set for release on their old label, Fire. Both are tense, funny, fizzily danceable and flamboyantly out of step with most of the world, let alone the music scene.
"I like the light entertainment, Des O' Connor feel more than the greasy 'I'm on Highway 66, man' feel," says arch-crooner Cocker. "It's something that's going to die out. You listen to radio 2 - well, I do anyway - and they play Matt Munro, Engelbert Humperdinck and stuff that doesn't really get made anymore. It's a bit clichéd, and that's why people think it's cheesy. But the reason why people performed in that way is 'cos it's quite effective; if you can break through the cheese barrier, you can make contact..."
And so they go on. About people who find their balloons will be treated to a night in with Pulp, to listen to sports themes and BBC Radiophonic Workshop records, and play Stereo Ker-Plunk. About how Choppers are better than Grifters, and how Russell once smashed up the Leadmill dressing room in a fit of pique, only to be caught the next morning sneaking in to replace the bulbs he'd broken.
The last I see of Jarvis, he's standing on the bar at the after-show party, trying to organise the drunken liggers to play musical statues for a can of beer, while 'Nevermind' stops and starts incongruously in the background. It is, like a knackered redcoat struggling to bring culture to barbarians, not a pretty sight. The last I see of Candida, she's leafing through the Leadmill's visitors' book. Amidst pages of revealing scrawls - Spiritualized's inscrutable squiggles, Sultans Of Ping FC's unfunny cartoons - Pulp are there again and again and again; strange, sardonic, not all there but always bloody there. Whoever said all good things must come to an end was a useless liar.