The Penetration Game
Words: Gary Mulholland, Photographer: Valerie Phillips
Taken from Time Out, 15-22 July 1998

Pulp will surely pull it off again at Finsbury Park next week, but off-stage the pressure is mounting. On their latest album, 'This Is Hardcore', Jarvis Cocker compares himself to a porn star, and in the comic strip we asked him to cook up with Jamie 'Tank Girl' Hewlett, tabloid hounding became the key theme. Has he lost touch with the common people? "You'll hate this interview," he warns...

"I remember first coming down here and getting a bus to college. It had been raining and the windows were steamed up, yet nobody bothered to wipe down the windows and look at what was happening outside. They were so keyed into themselves and their work or whatever. In Sheffield, people would definitely wipe the windows."

As plates crash behind the counter of this Clerkenwell caff, Jarvis Cocker attempts to hammer the last dregs of ketchup on to his tinned tomatoes and mushrooms on toast. 'PULP, PULP, PULP,' the bottle says. We are talking about being a northerner in London because the last lot of Jarvis press concentrated on the dark, angst-ridden surprise of the 'This Is Hardcore' album, and attempted to paint him as - in Jarvis's words - 'a porn-fixated heroin addict'. So, as we prepare for Pulp's big knees-up party in Finsbury Park, why not make this one upbeat! Positive! Light! Take it away, Jarvis!!!

"This record was about me trying to find a reason to carry on."


To be fair, there are mitigating circumstances here. The last few months have been a non-stop whirl of international touring and endless promo, while also trying to complete a Pulp BBC TV special and a Jarvis side-project arts documentary for Channel 4. Cocker's schedule for the next few days sounds like a perfect example of how modern pop stars, no matter how respected, are put through ridiculous, health-threatening hoops in order to justify their existence. So it's not entirely surprising that, despite being the perfectly amenable and cooperative interviewee, he doesn't seem able to do TheJarvisCockerComedyHour. And anyway, he does come from Yorkshire.

"You can't get rid of it. You find yourself in some really exotic location where it's completely inappropriate to feel like a Yorkshireman - but you do. There's a certain kind of dourness. Life isn't really for enjoying, but enduring, and doin' some graft."

When you go back, do you get called 'a soft southern shite'?

"Yeah," he sighs. "Especially by our drummer."

Jarvis has been living in our fair capital for almost ten years now. I ask him what the differences are between living here as obscurity and celebrity. "I'm glad I'm here rather than Sheffield. At least people here are used to seeing celebrities. It's weird having to think: Should I go out? Because I hate being in the house. I get really claustrophobic. But I've been lucky because, up to now, touch wood, people react to me in a reasonably positive way. Some famous people get a lot of abuse."

When you turn up at gigs, Liam Gallagher-esque minders are conspicuous by their absence. "I couldn't bear to live my life like that," he muses, head-shakingly. "It gets people's backs up more anyway. You turn up somewhere with a load of bouncers, people will want to have a go because you think you are something. And I don't think I'm anything."

The apparent commercial failure of Pulp's last album and the recent singles has been used as an example of supposed music-business decline in Britain. And even if the truth - that the current Pulp pop is an altogether more subtle and complex beast than the likes of 'Disco 2000', and therefore unlikely to repeat the massive success of 1995's 'Different Class'- is obvious, Jarvis admits to being a trifle stung, particularly by the public apathy towards the extraordinary 'This Is Hardcore' single.

"That really broke my heart. Because I'm really proud of that song. It was a shame it didn't do better. I suppose times are different, but... "

Don't you think the audience won through student anthems like 'Common People' are simply too young for songs about objectification, paranoia and mortality?

"Well, that was bizarre really, that teenybop thing. I mean, you, can't really choose your audience. I always thought I was writing for people my own age. Your mind can play tricks on you, make you nostalgic about the golden age of your youth an' all that. But you forget about the awkwardness of everything. I wouldn't want to go back to that. I was miserable then. I'm inclined to write about stuff when I think there's a danger of forgetting it, so there often is a time lag in my writing. I suppose my stuff about adolescent fumblings connected, and I'm very glad about that. But to keep writing about it would be slightly pervy." Then, as if suddenly remembering who he is: "Not that I'm averse to a bit of perviness."

Porn, I venture, is a great metaphor for celebrity.

"Soft porn is just good-looking people being used to sell things," Jarvis chews seriously. "Hardcore porn takes that wrapping away, and reduces something that is actually quite emotional to a mechanical process. It's too much information. They pick angles that you wouldn't be able to see if you were making love to somebody. Things you shouldn't really see. So it seemed a reasonable metaphor for success. You dream about what being a pop star will be like and, like most things, when you get it it isn't how you imagined."

So you were thinking of quitting?

"Yeah, because I wanted to carry on for the right reasons. If you carry on because it pays the mortgage, or because you wanna be in magazines, then it's wrong. It did cross me mind that we'd done all we were capable of. I don't like being self-analytical, but I had to examine my motives. In the end, it was a simple answer: I like doing it."

When I interviewed former Cocker collaborator Barry Adamson, he said that hanging around with you had given him some ambitions to be a pop star, because he admired the way you had fun with it.

"Well, that's quite funny. Because the last time I saw him was in New York at the end of 1996, when I was in a bit of a tangle and felt I had to go and sort me head out. I was not enjoying it at all, and wasn't sure what I was going to do. So it's quite weird that he thought I was having a good time. If I hadn't had making a record to hold on to at that time... I don't know what kind of state I would've ended up in."

A familiar story of 'stardom as poisoned chalice'?

"Yeah, an' I always hated that, and I'm sure people will hate this interview as well. I'm sure it'll come over as whining, and I'm not whining about it. It's just... coming to terms with a change. It's not just pop music where you aspire to something, and you think if you get it everything will be all right. And it never is."

You mentioned that porn gives 'too much information'. Don't you think you've been seriously over-exposed?

"Yeah. Maybe I was too acquiescent. I just did everything that I was asked to do."

Was that down to the fear of going back to indie obscurity?

"Well, more a fascination with... you see, this has been a fundamental change in my views. I used to be very hung up that I was from a sector of people who had been marginalised." What, indie singers? "No, no. Dole-y scumbags. The victims of Maggie Thatcher's "There is no such thing as society" thing. So I felt that if there was an opportunity to infiltrate the mainstream, I should take it and go and do all this press. What I've realised is that the mainstream has an emasculating or castrating effect. You invent this thing, this shield with which you protect yourself against the world, and you lose control of it. Suddenly the tabloids, whose moral values I don't subscribe to, have an opinion on what you do. This is why people bland out - they suddenly decide they've got to please this massive wodge of people."

There was one particular moment when I thought you'd...

"Lost it?"

Yes. When you were pictured shaking hands and grinning at some tabloid schmuck, who was happily patronising you over The Brits 'Shaking your arse at WackoJacko' affair.

"Oh yeah. That was a weird... I didn't like getting involved with those kind of people at all. But the reality of that situation was - and it was kinda crass - that they had that "Justice For Jarvis" campaign or whatever, and it did help. The first reports said I'd cobbed some kids off the stage. And, rightly so, people don't like you if you do stuff like that. So it was useful to me that they got behind me."

Aren't you worried that you owe them one now?

'Well I hope that that was paying 'em back. They're not interested in me any more anyway. And I'm glad about that," he mumbles, not entirely convincingly. Did you feel there was a certain resentment from the music press about returning with something like 'Help The Aged'? That you'd not crashed back with a big dayglo bang?

"Yeah, but... People said 'Help The Aged" slunk out like a wet fart but things like the ridiculous hype over the last Oasis album, people having to sign affidavits promising not to play it. It was too much. And I thought, maybe naively, that the best thing to do was release something and let people make their own minds up about it."

One of the current music biz complaints is that Britain lacks real pop stars - that is, genuinely unusual, charismatic people who pose some kind of sexual or social cultural threat to society, the establishment, parents, anybody at all. Do you think you're an exception?

"I dunno. Why, do you think I am?"


'Well, it's difficult for me because what I always liked about pop music is that you didn't have to take it too seriously. I mean, it can be really profound, like Phil Spector, who just churned this stuff out that people are still listening to 30 years later, but it wasn't meant to be profound when it came out. But then again, the charts at the moment... I was in Belgium and they showed last week's "Top Of The Pops". And I was just... appalled. Aaron Carter came on murdering this Beach Boys song, this round ball with blond hair playing an inflatable guitar and, I just thought: You can't call this music. And then there was 911 and all this piss-poor, castrated soul. If that's what pop music is now, I can't see myself surviving in that."

He agrees that Britpop was just a blip. "An anomaly. And well and truly over." Any attempts on my part to ask about his private life or relationships are politely but professionally deflected. Too much information, you see. "The truth, sometimes, is boring. It's like a magician with his tricks: I know where the trick ends and reality begins, but I'm not going to tell other people." And, despite the recent departure from Pulp of Russell Senior, and implications in recent features that there is a growing split between Jarvis and the rest of the band, he dismisses any possibility of solo Cocker.

The singer studied film in his now immortal time at Central Saint Martins, and thinks he'll end up as a film-maker eventually. "It's just a question of when. You always wish that people you like knew when to give up, but they never do. We'll probably be having this same conversation when I'm 50."

Throughout our conversation, and despite his attempts at typical northern bluffness, I get the impression of someone having a bit of a row with himself. One side - the 'dole-y scumbag', alternative, indie, art-student side - wants art for art's sake, and to be unimpressed by mainstream celebrity. The other - the wrist-flicking, Jacko-taunting, pop-showman side - is a little shocked that the 'Different Class' hordes haven't bought into 'This Is Hardcore's' tenser, wordier world. Presumably, at some point during this constant round of tours and interviews, the real Jarvis will stand up. Mind you, as the conversation draws to a close, the best pop star we've got reckons he knows where to find it.

"The waxwork in Rock Circus made things a lot easier for me. There are now two Jarvis Cockers, and the other one is always there and always gives a good performance. Leaving me to get on with being a real person."

Rocker Cocker In Feline Fellatio Shocker!
Click here to see the superb Jamie Hewlett cartoon strip, 'Cocker's Luck'.

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