Taking time out to help bring up his son gave former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker "loads of anonymity" in which to reassess his pop career.
Although he's always prided himself on being an eccentric, 43-year-old English pop star Jarvis Cocker is in one way a typical Yorkshireman. He's supposed to be plugging his solo record, Jarvis, the first thing he's released in five years, a witty rocker that covers subjects as disparate as Disney videos and bad weather. But no. Talking it up might sound like he had tickets on himself.
"I really hated the idea of doing a solo record," he complains, in a Sheffield burr that has, if anything, grown stronger with age. "It sounded so wanky and self-indulgent. When someone says 'solo project' to me, the first thing I think about is somebody masturbating. The second thing I think is the musical equivalent of that, which is some kind of self-indulgent tripe they couldn't get away with doing unless they were in a successful band."
So, I venture: "Why couldn't you record the new songs with Pulp?" The band he led to fame in 1995 with the classic Britpop album Different Class never officially broke up, after all. But it's obvious from Cocker's uncomfortable - and uncharacteristic - silence that the band's hiatus is probably permanent.
Still, this is a comeback of sorts for somebody who once compared his aversion to fame to "a nut allergy", but is now confident enough to release a record on first name basis alone. "Hopefully, it will sound a bit more like we're friends," says Cocker. "That's why the record is just called Jarvis: we're on first name terms." Cocker has been reaching out to the public lately. Inspired by fellow Sheffield sensations the Arctic Monkeys, he established his own MySpace page four months ago, and now has 22,566 friends. The pop star sounds well impressed. "I never had so many friends in my life," he exclaims.
When Pulp's greatest hits compilation came out in 2002, Cocker treated his interviews as an opportunity to say goodbye to his pop star life. He was always an improbable celebrity. Ironically, he is most famous for his protest against Michael Jackson's messianic tendencies at the 1996 Brit Awards (upstaging a Jacko-as-Christ number by waving his bony bottom at the cameras). During Britpop's cocaine and champagne 1990s, Cocker went from the bard of the common people to the wag of the party people, and the tabloids recorded every fling, binge and shopping excursion. But, even then, there was something grounded about Cocker. Instead of emerging from rehab parroting recovery jargon, he mocked himself mercilessly in the 2003 documentary Live Forever: "You don't often hear people say, 'Oh, since he's been taking them drugs, he's such a nice person! He's really come out of his shell, he's really nice, he's blossomed'."
But when Cocker sobered up and settled down, he felt he had nothing left to write about. "The things that you think about in later life are generally unpalatable and are really not worth writing songs about," he told The Independent in late 2002. "I did sincerely believe that," he protests now. "I was approaching 40 years old. I'd just got married. I'd either just become a father or I was about to become a father and I thought, 'Enough of this childish rock star stuff: it's time to face facts and settle down and be sensible'."
For a couple of years, Cocker took the John Lennon option and mostly stayed home, in Paris, with baby Albert while his wife, utterly groovy French fashion stylist Camille Bidault-Waddington, stamped her influential vintage-chic look on the world's catwalks and magazines. "It wasn't really time off because I was lookin' after me son," he says. "I'd seen a lot of people in bands have kids and then go off on tours and they'd come back and the kid could already walk. They'd missed it all, and I didn't want that to happen." He also enjoyed his fame downgrade on the streets of Paris, where his attenuated frame and vintage suits blended right in, although he still struggles with the language. "I've loads of anonymity now," he says. "Sometimes, I even have to make a fool of myself on the tube just to get some attention."
But it was never a convincing retirement. For three years Cocker made cameo appearances across the pop culture landscape. He appeared, briefly, in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. He formed novelty techno band Relaxed Muscle under the pseudonym Darren Spooner. He sang pirate shanties and Serge Gainsbourg covers on compilation CDs, and joined the league of indie superstars (Nick Cave, Beth Orton) performing in Hal Wilner's Leonard Cohen tribute Came So Far For Beauty, in Brooklyn, Brighton, Sydney and Dublin. "It's a very pleasurable thing to do," Cocker says. "You meet other musicians, but there's always this slightly competitive edge going on. As friendly as everybody is, they always want their show to be better than yours. I suppose there was a bit of ego going on, too, but it was more people sharing a love of his music."
Fatherhood has informed Cocker's work in surprising ways. The scathing track Disney Time equates the House of Mouse with pornography. "Disney presents you with this pornographic view of the family, this unrealistic unattainable idea of what a family should be and, I guess, in becoming a father late in life, like everybody else, you're always wondering if you're doing it right, if your parenting skills are up to scratch," he says. "There's always someone there to make you feel inadequate, just as there's always some guy in a porn film whose cock is about two foot long to make you feel like there's something wrong with you."
But Disney videos aside, Cocker is a happy man these days. Why, then, is Jarvis such a cantankerous CD? "Well, I'm getting old, aren't I?" he says. "People generally get grumpier as they get older." So is it his grumpy old man record? He laughs. "I hope not. Maybe grumpy middle-aged."