A striped marquee on the edge of Thetford Forest in rural Suffolk isn't the kind of place you'd normally expect to find Pulp. But here they are: Jarvis Cocker, Candida Doyle and Steve Mackey lined up beside a picnic table in the erratic lunchtime sunshine. Surely they'd be more at home in the kind of low-rent discos and suburban bedrooms of songs like Disco 2000 and I Spy? Well, maybe.
After the dark night of the soul charted on 1997's This Is Hardcore, last year's Scott Walker-produced We Love Life unexpectedly lived up to its title with a reflective, almost pastoral spin on the band's trademark sound and a batch of songs like Trees, Sunrise and The Birds in the Garden brimming with open air vibes.
"The sense of space on the new record is definitely a reaction to the one before, which reflected the way that our lives had become closed in, because of what happened to Pulp," points out Mackey. "We - or Jarvis, more to the point - never tried to repeat Common People because that came out of the frustration of the 10 years before it. The records reflect where we are as people. "It seems bogus to pretend nothing's changed," adds Cocker, "but you don't want to just go off and live with the nobs either. You've got to find a way of making what you write about ring true, so I just find different things to frustrate me these days."
"The thing with the new songs," he continues, "was that I wanted to write about nature but not in that 'oh look at the beautiful trees' kind of way. So on Sunrise, the sun coming up is a sign that you've stayed up too long and while for all the other creatures it marks the start of their day, if you're a clubber or whatever, it's the end. A lot of the stuff on We Love Life was about trying to act in a more natural, less artificial way and when you go out into the countryside you've got a bit of space in your head to think about things."
"That's been one of the nice things about this record," says Doyle, "we've been outside quite a lot doing interviews and photo-sessions just because of what the songs are about. So we did one in Kew Gardens and we've got this forest tour coming up."
"We should be quite healthy by the end of it," interrupts Cocker, "all this fresh air."
The forest tour is definitely an unusual take on the traditional festival. A series of five dates on Forestry Commission sites, the tour has been organised by Mike Taylor as a means of raising awareness of the Commission's work while also helping to rid the Civil Service agency of its staid image. While Pulp are renowned for their showstopping festival performances, the forest tour is a different kind of outdoor event.
"Maybe they heard we had a song called The Trees on our record or something," says Cocker, "but I'm glad they asked us to do it. We did a very conventional tour last year, so conventional it beggared belief Every venue had a roof on it..." "It nearly broke the mould by its very conventional-ness," adds Mackey. "So straight it was almost weird," notes Cocker. "But the songs were already about more natural things and we'd wanted to do them - not a in more casual way, like 'let's record a song while we're lying on the floor' or whatever - but in a less structured, less uptight way."
For this reason, the unusually evocative settings and the new, more spacious Pulp sound, ought to go together to create a real magic. After all, didn't Shakespeare say forest's are where people go to throw off the shackles of convention, and more generally aren't they the kinds of places where you find outlaws? "Yeah, Robin Hood was from Sheffield," says Cocker. "Nottingham's exploited it but they were the baddies, weren't they? Actually, we'd best not say that or they'll all come to Sherwood to twat us."
"The Republic of South Yorkshire goes back a long way," laughs Mackey. "The thing about cities is you know which shops are open at 6am if you want an early bottle of milk but you don't know how to build a fire or anything like that. So it can be quite scary being out of cities... a new experience".
"You know what the fears are in a town, don't you?" adds Doyle. "In the countryside it can be really quiet..."
"You can walk out and there's no noise and you think 'wow'. But weird things happen in forests as well," says Cocker. "Doggin' and Pikin'..." "In England, you get people meeting up in country parks for wife-swapping and stuff. It was in the papers," explains Mackey. "I don't want to dwell on it, but..." So the distance between Pulp's traditional concerns and the forest isn't as great as it might seem.
"We're coming out into the countryside but always looking at it from a town-dweller's point of view," says Cocker, half distracted by the parties of school kids playing football one sporting a green mohican - a hundred yards away. "Besides, Sheffield's got lots of countryside around it, you can drive out and 10 minutes later you're in the Peak District. It wasn't like we were out hiking every weekend but the countryside was always there. We were always aware of it and missed it when we didn't have it nearby. Maybe the new songs just reflect the fact I've bought a car, so I've been able to go out into the countryside. The next record is going to be about interplanetary space travel..."
"We'll be doing interviews on rockets," says Doyle. Given that This Is Hardcore was built on a sample from Peter Thomas's Sixties soundtrack for a German TV show called Space Patrol, even that doesn't seem too far removed from Pulp's existing interests. "Are they still building that International Space station?" asks Cocker. "We could go and work out in zero gravity..." For today, though, Cocker and Mackey are tied to mundane old Earth gravity, set to work out in the treetops of Thetford Forest, climbing the rope bridges and swings of the 'Go Ape' course.
"It's extreme sports meets Tarzan, meets a forest, really," explains Mackey. "Meets some inexperienced city types, who'll be meeting an emergency room in about an hour's time..." But there are no disasters. Starting off decidedly shaky on a rope ladder, by the end Cocker and Mackey are talking about lladrenalin rush" and heading off into the undergrowth to find more trees to climb. "It's great," says Mackey, dismounting a rope slide. "I'm definitely doing this again. It's like when we get in the van and just drive off into the middle of nowhere at 60 miles per hour..." Posing in the undergrowth for a photo, someone tells him that, in his green jumper, he looks like that other Sheffield lad, Robin Hood. "What does that make me?" asks Cocker, resplendent in rainbow stripes. "A parrot?"