Sheffield popsters Pulp are creating a haunting music which is virtually without peer in the Britain of 1987. We meet them on the eve of the release of their new LP 'Freaks'.
The album's called 'Freaks', for as the opening line proclaims, "Nature sometimes makes mistakes". There they are over there, and if you must avert your eyes, don't cover your ears because Pulp have a qualification for you. "These freaks we're talking about, they're just normal people gone a bit wrong. It's sad but don't bother crying: they still eat and drink and watch TV just like anyone else. And they smoke."
The freaks who populate this record's "ten stories about power, claustrophobia, suffocation and holding hands" are resolutely ordinary, characters you're far more likely to see through the front room windows than down at the fairground. In fact, far from being Pulp fictions, these blighted souls are very real: a lot of them play in the band, and if that sounds funny then that's alright, because Pulp are comic band. I know this because their singer and lyricist Jarvis Cocker told me: "A lot of our songs deal with fairly mundane things which are a bit over dramatised - it's a bit like a comic."
As well as being a bit like a comic, Pulp are a bit like a mixture of slapstick comedy and some understated macabre novels. I know this because I read it in a magazine. Then again, you should never believe what you read and in the light of Jarvis' claim that his namesake Joe once installed a gas fire at his house, it's difficult to know whether to believe him. The one thing you can safely say about Pulp is that they are out on a limb, one that may or may not be reconnected to a body with seven more and two heads.
Pulp are a Sheffield band and 'Freaks' is their second album, following 1983's long forgotten 'It' and a handful of singles, and houses their current 45, 'Master Of The Universe'. Pulp's core of Cocker and violinist/guitarist Russell Senior are creating a haunting music which is virtually without peer in the Britain of 1987, their nearest relatives being The Band Of Holy Joy. The similarities come with the way both have fostered a host of neglected styles (waltzes to crooning balladry), transmuted mundanity into a grotesque, projected an overriding mood of melancholy and drawn on a wealth of literary references.
Pulp have been compared to anything from Brecht to author Ian McEwan to Mills & Boon. Along with books they've been juxtaposed with buffoons, a pre-AIDS epidemic of jesters that includes Leslie Crowther, Peter Glaze and Charles Hawtrey. It's a curse the band have mixed feelings about. Jarvis: "All those references make us seem a bit contrived when hopefully it's quite raw, getting at emotional nerve endings. It's not as if we go, 'let's do a song about the latest novel we've read'. I don't mind people comparing us to Ian McEwan because I like his stuff (psycho sex dramas) but when someone says Charles Hawtrey (Carry On's bespectacled, ineffectual butt), you don't think 'cheers pal!'." Russell: "In Sheffield we get more 16-year-old kids at our concerts than we do post graduates in Cabaret Voltaire studies."
Pulp songs are direct, stripping emotions down to a naked unsightliness and then coating them with a pervading sense of gloom. "I've never been a very carefree adolescent," says Jarvis. "I wouldn't go out with me if I were you. All those types of songs are basically about one girl who I went out with and unfortunately it went from being quite an innocent thing to being a very traumatic thing without either of us knowing why. The freaks thing is like getting divorced from the rest of the world through something like that relationship. The other reason we called it 'Freaks' was because we always get called freaks, the escape party from One Flew Over A Cuckoo's Nest, stuff like that. When we play live, everybody dwells on the fact that I'm thin with specs, he (Russell) looks like Count Dracula, Candida (keyboards) although she's 23 looks 14, while Pete (Bass) looks like a football hooligan. We were always getting called freaks so we thought let's call the LP 'Freaks' just to... put two fingers up."
As far as Jarvis is concerned he's not an eccentric. Throughout our conversation he maintained a slightly resigned blank faced jocularity but keeps his speech prosaically direct, miles away from the contrivance that Pulp's press might lead you to expect of this 23-year-old with his long limbs and disgusting brown crimplene 'slacks' which terminate six inches short of his ankles: as does Russell, a slight man of 26 with a ghastly pallor and a down at heel clerkish air.
Nonetheless this pair's conversation does dispel a lot of Pulpish preconceptions. It does, that is, until you ask them what they do in their spare time. It seems that this pair have a sideline which is Dickensian enough to fit in with their public image. Get down on that Davenport for these two Arthur Negus' of rock are heavily into... antiques. "Antiques Roadshow is our favourite programme," says Russell. "Our ambition is to see one of our records on there. If you want any 50's art deco then Jarvis is your man. I like Italian 17th century paintings but I haven't been able to get hold of anything yet. That's what I'd eventually like to deal in because I like beautiful things. At the moment I can only afford ugly things."
Frustrated sensualists priced outside paradise, that's Pulp for you.