Possibly the oddest band ever to become media darlings and platinum-plated pop stars, Pulp are bigger and better than ever – and they’re not getting any less weird.
I'm on the phone to Pulp. All of them. Pulp are in Dijon, I'm in Ely and I'm dialling direct on the Pulpline. Sitting in the Rhythm office I can picture the scene: Steve Mackey, a raffish hybrid of Bryan Ferry and Phil Oakey, fiddling with his Fender jazz bass; Candida Doyle, wearing the forlorn air of a little girl that the band have kidnapped and forced to play keyboards; Russell Senior, intense and inscrutable in trademark safari suit; and Jarvis Cocker, a paragon of geek chic in dirty mac and gold lamé brothel creepers, picking out the melancholy riff from 'Babies'. New guitarist Mark Webber chats amiably to a bearded man with smiling eyes. This is the infamous Glastonbury Streaker, whose flailing genitalia so enlivened Elastica's set at the festival last summer. Only Nick Banks is absent, represented by a life-size cardboard cutout propped up behind his drum kit. Nick Banks is elsewhere; he's on the phone.
"I'm just going to put me bread down and go somewhere a bit quieter," he says rather tiredly. "I'll have me sandwich in a bit."
Nick sounds absolutely shattered, unsurprisingly. It's been a tremendous year for Pulp, with two number two singles, a chart-topping album, a headlining slot at Glastonbury, and a sold-out tour of the entire solar system. All of which adds up to a fair bit of hard work, one supposes.
"It is quite tiring, I'll not deny it," says Nick softly in his slightly eccentric South Yorkshire tones. "We've become nocturnal now, we get up at three o’ clock in the afternoon and go to bed at five in the morning."
Nick Banks is a man who possesses that characteristic Pulp quality of being simultaneously down to earth and exceedingly strange. His conversation is littered with odd, amusing tales. Two thirds of what he says sounds as though it should be in inverted commas. Lovely bloke, though. Nick had been a fan of the band before he joined, eight or so years ago. In their struggling early days he saw them play many times in their native Sheffield.
"When the Pulp setup that recorded the Freaks LP disintegrated, I knew Jarvis and Russell from just hanging around in pubs in Sheffield, so I said, 'I'll 'ave a go'. And they said, 'All right then'. I had a very strange experience the first time I turned up for a rehearsal. I arrived at Jarvis' house and there was a commotion because there was this white pitbull dog in the kitchen which had followed Jarvis home. 'E couldn't get rid of it and they had a dog in their house that was going apeshit 'cos this other dog was there. We 'ad to get rid of this dog, so basically the audition was walking round the neighbourhood throwing it sticks and then running off - but it always came back and found us. In the end we 'ad to pick it up, put it behind a wall and leg it. It was quite sad, but we 'ad to do it, we 'ad to do it. And after that I just joined the group."
This was back in late '86, early '87. I first caught on to Pulp three or four years ago when I saw them play at The Underworld in Camden. I clearly remember thinking, This band are so brilliant, it's such a shame they're never going to get anywhere... Presumably the music has changed a lot in the past decade?
"The band has changed, but it's been very gradual. It's not like we sat down one day and said, 'Right, what we're doing's not working, we've got to do something else'. It just gradually mutated over the years into what you've got now."
So how does a drummer serve his apprenticeship before passing through the glittering portal into full-time Pulpitude?
"Just arseing around in a garage with Sheffield groups, none of which had any success at all. At one stage I was in three groups, helping out with bits and bobs, nothing spectacular."
Sheffield was once such a musical Mecca, with the likes of The Human League, Heaven 17, Cabaret Voltaire, ABC...
"From '79 to the early '80s it was a centre of the happening music of the time. I suppose that's where Pulp have come from, trying to change from the dark days of the '80s when nothing happened for a long time. We got out of the '80s relatively unscathed and then everything changed as soon as we hit the '90s. Our star began its ascendancy. We changed and I think the world changed a bit and lots of strange coincidences all came together. The old cliché of being in the right place at the right time."
Glastonbury being a good example. A last minute replacement when the Stone Roses were forced to cancel, Pulp sashayed into musical history with a set that was funny, poignant, and really quite, quite wonderful.
"It was good but at the same time it was a trouser-filling moment. We only knew a week beforehand that we were going to do it. We thought, We're going to get bottled off 'cos people have paid 60 quid to see the Stone Roses, and they've got us. On the day we were biting our fingernails. We watched PJ Harvey and Orbital, everybody was getting really into it. By this time we were all completely shitting it, basically, but we got on there and it was fantastic. It really was an amazing feeling, especially having everyone singing 'Common People'...”
It was also pretty special to hear Jarvis introducing new songs like 'Sorted For E’s & Wizz' and 'Mis-Shapes' with rambling anecdotes muttered in conspiratorial tones.
"Especially 'Sorted For E’s & Wizz'; it just seemed to fit the moment so perfectly, it couldn't really have been anything else. I suppose it just crystallised the whole event in that three minutes. It was a very special moment."
The showbiz element that Pulp so proudly flaunt also worked splendidly. This wasn't just another rock band with long hair and loud guitars.
“We've always tried to do something a bit different, from the days five or six years ago when we used to have a very theatrical stage set. Bags of coloured water hanging from the ceiling; large silver balls on a mobile hanging down, which were a nightmare to put up; we'd cover the stage in tinfoil. We were always trying to not be five blokes stood stock still on the stage thrashing their guitars. You want to try and communicate (adopts evangelical mid-atlantic tone), reach out to those kids."
In more technical terms, is it hard playing with Pulp? All the songs seem to speed up and slow down...
"That's my fault of course."
No, I don't mean in that sense, but take 'Common People' for example.
“We tried playing it with a flat tempo all the way through, but it's sort of got that runaway train feel to it, it's going down the hill, getting faster and faster, it's coming to some big kind of crash at the end."
It does reach a quite orgasmic peak. Backstage at Glastonbury one journalist was heard to loudly proclaim, "'Common People'! When it sped up - I came!"
"It's dynamics," comments Nick sensibly. "There's always been a lot of tempo changes in the songs, going right back to the early days. I just like to inject a dynamic into things because these days people are so used to listening to dance music and electronically generated music where 99.9% is all one flat tempo. Whereas in the days before I think tempos were a bit more flexible. As a song reached a crescendo you would play harder, play faster. That's my excuse anyway."
Under the current regime of metronomic dictatorship in the world of pop, it is a bit weird to hear Pulp soaring out of the radio, quirks and all?
"I think 'Common People' went from like 138bpm at the start to knocking on 150-odd at the crescendo, which these days is a helluva big change. It works."
On the other hand, a tune like 'Disco 2000' seems very influenced by, well, disco.
"We are very much influenced by disco, yeah. And of course in the late '80s we got into raves a bit, and music did take on more of a disco thump in places. Yeah, I'm always going down the disco, I love it."
The grooviest track on the Different Class album is 'Sorted...', which uncharacteristically sounds like a drummer just laying down a groove, until the weird marching bit at any rate.
”Cos it's about raving and all that goes with it, I had the mental image that you were walking towards a rave and you could hear the music. It's quite a low level, and your mind can't interpret it right, so it's coming out at quite a different tempo, it appears a bit slower than normal. That's the idea I had in my mind, but whether it's come across, I dunno."
Personally, it reminds me of Sunday morning at Glastonbury the day after Pulp played. The day was bright and warm and sunny, and I had doughnuts for breakfast. What bliss...
"It covers quite a lot of different aspects, going to a rave and thinking you've been beamed down from an alien planet. That whole day-after thing of feeling perhaps a little hollow."
A thoughtful approach to songwriting and playing drums. But then, in the Rhythm office we've always been agreed that out of all the britpop drummers Nick Banks is the only one who doesn't sound remotely like Keith Moon. What's the story?
"I never really listened to a lot of Who, I was never particularly influenced that much by '60s players really. I first wanted to sound like Paul Cook when I was kind of teaching myself to play. I had ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ and my learning to play was listening to that, playing along with a little sparkly drum kit."
So you were a Sex Pistols man rather than a Clash man?
"I didn't like the Clash very much because I used to think that they never wrote their own records. But I discovered they did... so I got into them."
Topper Headon was a bit more jazzy than Paul Cook, wasn't he?
"Perhaps he had a few more arrows to his bow, yeah, he was a good lad. Apart from his drug problems. I heard he sold all his gold records to buy drugs. Sad."
That'll be you in ten years' time.
”I 'ope not. Then the next big thing was listening to disco records, but I used to like Clem Burke a lot. I think he had a fantastic style, had a bit of panache. I used to listen to Neil Conti a lot. I liked the way he never tried to be flash but he'd still be on top of the kit. You don't have to do anything flash to know that you can play amazingly well in a great band."
Do you feel you've got that sense of musical communication within Pulp? How do things work with you and Steve, for instance?
"I don't really play off the bass particularly, I play more off the vocals. I don't really have much bass in the monitors at all. Mainly vocals and keyboards is where we all lock in. With Jarvis on stage, I follow him quite closely and respond to what direction he's taking the focus of the song."
Nick started playing at the age of fourteen, nicking his brother's green spangly Olympic four-piece.
"I painted it black once, I thought the spangly finish was really bad. I think if I had it now I'd really like it, a proper old spangly kit."
And very Pulp, naturally.
"Sadly, it's no more, I don't know where it's gone. I've always felt that how it looks is just as important as how it sounds. I see these people with eight million toms and I think it's unnecessary. That's why I like Charlie Watts so much. If any drummer is doing a TV appearance or a video, study what Charlie Watts does 'cos he just looks so cool with that nonchalant look on his face, no sticking the tongue out at the camera, none of that."
Doing TV work and having to mime, how do you silence your kit?
"We did one the other day, a Top Of The Pops live broadcast satellite link from Marseilles Harbour. I put two cymbals on each stand instead of one so when you hit 'em you just get 'kink'; I don't play the bass drum, take the snare off, and appear as if I'm playing it properly while not actually hitting the drums, that kind of thing. If that fails, turn the monitors up. I just arse about basically, it's good fun."
The His 'n' Hers album credits you with 'drums, percussion, treated cymbals, timpani and fire extinguisher'. What in the name of all that's holy are treated cymbals?
"That was a trick I picked up from a guy called André Arpino, a French jazz geezer. He plays with Jacques Loussier, who's quite interesting himself because all he does is play Bach in a jazz style, that's all he's done for 30 years. I was watching him in some hotel somewhere and he did this thing where with one hand he pressed down on the cup area of the cymbal and he got the stick at 90 degrees to the edge of the cymbal and rubbed it along and got this eerie 'EEE-EEE' kind of sound. It sounded really interesting so I tried to do it in the studio and got this eerie noise. I think I did quite a bit of that on 'David's Last Summer'. I used a kettle drum on that album as well. Jarvis got given this old Boys' Brigade timpani by the landlord of this pub in Sheffield, massive great copper thing. I used to have it on the kit when we played concerts. Also the old fire extinguisher, that's on 'David's Last Summer', just 'itting it with sticks."
Any group can whack a fire extinguisher, but few would know which were the correct shoes for such a deed. Pulp have, of course, won widespread acclaim for their dress sense and visual flair. So, this New Romantic revival - is it all their fault?
"I hope not. We've got nothing to do with it whatsoever. I think it's just another one of those London-centric things. I hope we don't get blamed for it 'cos I never really liked it in the first place."
Even though Sheffield bands like The Human League and Heaven 17 were on the fringes of the movement?"I think they were more experimental musically, as opposed to wearing dustbin lids on their 'eads. Their big influence was Kraftwerk; I think the New Romantics were more into the actual wearing of strange outfits than trying to create interesting music.
Talking of musical movements, how do you get on with the other so-called Britpop bands? You're on the road with Menswe@r and Cast...
“We don't feel a particularly great affinity towards these groups musically. We've been doing what we're doing for so long that we've developed our own style. I don't think we sound like any of the other English groups of the moment. We've always tried to pursue our own direction, plough our own field, so to speak."
Perhaps the most peculiar Pulp story of recent months was the report that Nick was hoping to record a solo album using exclusively a drum kit made entirely from cymbals. Sure, it was a joke, but has it ever crossed his mind?
It’s something I was thinking about years ago. I could perhaps have some kind of gong as a bass drum, perhaps a small Chinatype cymbal as a snare drum, some bells for toms. I've never actually tried it out. Perhaps if I go down to Zildjian next time I'm in that area I'll see if I can rig something up. It'd be strange..."
Drums: Yamaha 9000, 13” tom, 16” floor tom, 22” bass, Turquoise Birch Custom Snare
Cymbals: Zildjian, 16” K Heavy crash, 20” Z Custom Heavy ride, Z Custom China
DW Pedal, Pearl Brass piccolo snare, Tambourine