Interview: Jarvis Cocker

by ,

Jarvis Cocker connects with The Current's Jim McGuinn to talk about the new album from JARV IS..., entitled 'Beyond the Pale.' (MPR Video)

Jarvis Cocker didn't set out to be a Renaissance man. With a career spanning more than 40 years, the Britpop legend and former frontman of the band Pulp has done everything from radio hosting to acting to — of course — singing. In the rock group Cocker currently leads, JARV IS…, the possibilities of what he can be and what he can be up to are limitless. Even so, the process of creating the band's debut album Beyond the Pale, set to be released today, clarified to him that songwriting is what he holds nearest and dearest.

Formed in 2017, JARV IS... focus on working with their audience to make music. Cocker applies this collaborative mindset to the book he is working on, This Book is a Song. However, in 2020, an audience is hard to come by, to say the least. Like many artists, the Cocker and his band are experimenting with what live performance looks like in the era of social distancing — and most recently for JARV IS…, this involves a cave. All the way from London via video conference, Cocker spoke with The Current's Jim McGuinn about his process and musical influences, 1980s northern England, and what happens when royalty visits The Devil's Arse.

Watch and listen to the complete interview above, and read a transcript of the interview below.

Interview Transcript

JIM McGUINN: Are you in London? Is that where you're at today?

JARVIS COCKER: I am, actually. I haven't usually been there. During all the lockdown, I was up in the north of England, but I've come down. We did a concert in a cave last week, and I'm down to mix the audio on that.

Well you have… you mention music in a cave on the new record so it made sense, right, to play in a cave?

It's exactly the same cave, yeah, it's… we played a concert there in April 2018, and that's where we recorded the basic tracks for "Must I Evolve?" and "Sometimes I Am Pharaoh," that are on the record. So, obviously we would normally be touring now, but we can't, so we went back in there and did the whole record in order and that's gonna be on YouTube next Tuesday I think?

Well there's, you know it's, we're all dealing with such different times and, you know, what do you do now? How do you put out a record and how do you promote a record? It must be a total challenge for you.

Well yeah, that's it, I mean especially a record like this where it was worked up live. You know, the songs were, you know, semi-finished, and then we finished them off by playing them to people, and then parts of the record were recorded live as well. So it was all about an interaction with an audience, that's really what finished the songs off. So then it's kind of weird that we can't actually go out and play them to people anymore.

It's The Current, I'm Jim McGuinn. We have Jarvis Cocker joining us today from London, and I have this preamble of all things that I'm not prepared to ask you about, but it sort of sets up…who is Jarvis Cocker. So, let me see if I can get this straight. Lead singer on and off for thirty years for the band Pulp. Probably the only person I'll meet today that has bum-rushed Michael Jackson at an award show, played a Hogwarts school dance in a glam rock all-star band, collaborated with Nancy Sinatra and Charlotte Gainsbourg, booked Motorhead and Roky Erickson to play a festival, had a song covered by William Shatner, was animated by Wes Anderson, TV host, DJ, writer, editor, video director, father, raconteur. Jarvis. Great to meet you.

Thanks, that makes me feel like I should have a lie down and a rest.

Well, you know, I was actually explaining to my wife sort of what you've done besides being in Pulp, and she said, "Oh, he's a real Renaissance man. And, would you consider yourself a Renaissance man of the age?

Well, it's nice to think that. I don't know, I mean, that's partly what making this record has made clear to me. I think that fundamentally I am a song writer, and that, in so much as that's how I make sense of my life. I mean that's what I've got to — if I listen to a record from ten years ago, that will tell me where my head was at ten years ago, you know. And nothing else really does that. I do do a bit of writing and all the other things that you mentioned, and I enjoy them, but the thing that's nearest to my heart I guess is songwriting.

It's been, though, what ten or eleven years since you had a record under your name. You've done a lot of collaborating in that time. So, is there something about leaving and coming back that really helps you refresh your writing or changes you?

I don't know, I mean I'd like to think that. And I mean I'm always kind of jealous of people who are on like their thirtieth album, and I think, you know, I should be like that, you know, why can't I have made that many albums? But you have to kind of accept the way that you are, and I think that, for me, it takes a long time for an experience to kind of pass through my mind before it comes out with something else. There's a real strong example of that on this new record, because there's a song called "Swanky Modes", and the lyrics are all about something that happened when I was living in Camden, in London, right at the beginning of the 1990s, so that's nearly thirty years ago. And then for some reason, this oldest part of my life suddenly came into sharp focus and I wrote a song about it. But why it took thirty years, I have no idea, that's a mystery of the cosmos, yeah.

Yeah, so I have a clarification question to ask first. So, is it "Jarvis" or "Jarv Is…" for the new band?

"Jarv Is…" because —and it's very important that it's got three dots after, so it's "Jarv Is…" it could be anything! Jarv is floating, Jarv is fearful, I don't know. "Jarv Is… Beyond the Pale," it says on this record, so, that's the idea there. Yeah, I mean, the name came — at first I was gonna call the band "JARV" which is just a shortened part of my name, and my manager thought that was much too smug, like it was like you were trying to be too familiar with people. So, so I had to make a compromise and came up with "Jarv Is…". But in a way, even though I didn't think about it too much, the idea that it's got these three dots like an unfinished phrase kind of fits because, when we started playing, the music was unfinished, and we finished it by playing it to people. So, it's an ongoing thing, and I like that about it.

Jarv Is, Beyond the Pale album cover
Jarv Is…, Beyond the Pale, releases July 17, 2020. (Rough Trade Records)

I'm a big fan of the ellipsis, so I'm right there with you on that. So you call the record Beyond the Pale, and I was reading an interview with you the other day, and I always assumed that that phrase just had to do with, like, skin, like, losing the color of your skin. But there's a bigger story to what that phrase comes from.

Yeah, I mean I was speaking to an Irish journalist the other day, and he gave me a bit of background on it. Apparently the phrase comes from when the British went and kind of invade Ireland, and they controlled Dublin. They couldn't control the whole country, it was too big, but they had this part of Dublin, and then they built a fence 'round it, and that was called the Pale. And so the bit inside the fence, that was the safe part, and then "beyond the pale" was like "oooh, there's monsters out there," you know, they couldn't guarantee safety or whatever. But really, that was the real country, and this, this bit was just like a kind of colonial, you know they'd just taken over that bit. So, that's the idea of going beyond that kind of white colonial idea.

Yeah. Well you know, in Baghdad the U.S. had the Green Zone, which was the, kind of the same thing I guess, right? Um, this record. I love the call and response with the vocals on several of the songs. It's like you're sort of answering your own questions with the background vocals in a lot of the lyrics. Did that just sort of evolve because of this band? Or is that something that you sort of wrote into those songs intentionally?

Yeah, I mean that's been a big treat for me on this record, because, in Pulp, nobody else in the band sang. I mean it has since transpired that a couple of them could sing but they never put their hand up to volunteer so. So it was all just me me me me me, ranting ranting ranting, you know, and just about everybody in the band now sings. But the main thing is that I've got the two women in the band, Serafina and Emma, are really good vocalists, and…and that's really opened it up, because now it's, it's not like a monologue all the time, it's like a conversation, and like you say, sometimes, they'll echo what I say, but sometimes they disagree with what I say or they give another point of view. And I just like that, you know. I think it really started — one of the first songs that we kind of finished working on was this song, "Must I Evolve?" and at the start there it goes, "Must I evolve?" and they go, "Yes, yes, yes yes." Well, when I wrote the song, the "yes, yes, yes" bit didn't exist, and I think it was Serafina just started doing it in a rehearsal, and I thought, "that's a great idea." So then, that really sparked my imagination, the fact that we could build that into songs and give them another dimension, yeah.

Yeah it kind of makes the song, I think in particular that one, or it elevates the humor, and it kind of knocks it down a little bit at the same time, you know, it kind of humanizes the lyrics even more.

Yeah, I agree with you. I think, somebody the other day said it was like a Greek chorus, but I don't really know what that is. But I know that in old plays, they used to have that, you know, there would be, someone would come on and comment on the action, and I like that aspect to it, because sometimes, as you say, they may bring me down a peg or two, if I'm getting ideas above my station.

Jarv Is band photo
Jarv Is…, band publicity photo. (courtesy Rough Trade Records)

I wanted to ask, too, you're working on a book, "This Book is a Song", which — hearing that title reminds me of the.. is it Magritte's? With the "This is not a pipe" sort of expression. But, and I saw where you were saying that lyrics aren't always the important thing. But, you're such a great short story writer. I mean your lyrics are just so, so wonderful. So I was wondering if you could expound on that a little bit.

Yeah, I mean, I got asked if I wanted to write a book, and I think everybody would love to write a book, it's whether you are capable of it. And I often used to question that, because, because I've written songs all my life, and I've been a little bit spoiled there, because in a song, you can write two pages of words and that's it, and that's the end of the song. And that's great. Songwriting's all about trying to tell the story in the least number of words possible, but a book obviously has to be — otherwise it would just be a pamphlet if you applied the same thing, it would just be like a sheet of paper, nobody's going to buy that. So, so that's been a challenge for me. So the reason I called it, "This Book is a Song" is really, the idea is that I'll write the words and then the reader is kind of providing the music, and eventually the combination of the two of us makes a song. It's a work in progress.

Alright, well we'll be waiting for that down the road, I guess, right?

Yeah, yeah, I mean it's, it's getting close — I'll just say, I am a slow worker, but it's…it's getting there. I think we're up to the middle eight, so we've only gotta get through the middle eight and then do the big chorus and the instrumental outro and we're there!

Yeah, double chorus to the end, right? After that.

Yeah, how hard can it be?

So it's a repeat of chapter three, is sort of the last chapter, right?

I don't think the publisher's gonna let me get away with it.

So you said the North. I'd always wondered if Sheffield was — I don't know my English geography enough to know where the Midlands ends and the North begins, but it's… is Sheffield the sort of interior, in-between like Newcastle and Manchester, right?

Yeah, I mean, I heard it said once that if you cut round a map of the U.K., and balanced it on a pin, you would put the pin underneath Sheffield. So really it should be called the Midlands, but it's to the north of England because you've got Scotland that's on the top which obviously is quite a big bit but yeah.

But um, the sense is that when you would've been coming of age in the 70s into the 80s, it was a tough time for the north of England in particular. What was it like growing up there for you, and how do you think that has sort of continued to impact who you've become?

Yeah, it was pretty rough, you know. I came of age, you know, in… when 1980 happened, which I count as like year zero of when things went wrong, I was like 16 or 17. So I was just starting and getting ready to leave school, stuff like that, and everybody's excited when you think, "I wanna get out into the world and it's time for me to do my thing now," you know. You've read books, you've listened to songs, you've got these ideas about what life is, but you want to go out and actually live it and do it yourself. So I was really excited and then the 80s happened, Margaret Thatcher was in power in the U.K., and everything just went *ffwhee* [sound effect], you know. Sheffield especially was, being an industrial city, was really hard hit. All the factories closed down, the mining industry disappeared, everybody was out of work. So it was like suddenly you were thrust out into a dystopian kind of, you know, decayed post-industrial landscape. Was a shock! I'm sure it has informed me.

I had to learn how to entertain myself, I had to survive on very little money, and I was in a band and that was really the only thing that kept me going, I think, was having something that I thought, "well nobody can take this away from me." It was like Gollum with his Precious, you know, "Heh, this is mine, heh," you know, the band was this thing that nobody could steal. Nobody wanted to steal it cause we were, nobody liked us, but it was something for us to hold on to.

Well you, I imagine, given your age, you're, you're maybe two to three years older than me, that you would have been coming up just in that era between sort of glam and punk having some early… Was that your early musical experience? Was that sort of, right as, right before punk hit, was that as you were discovering rock n' roll and stuff?

But punk was a really important thing for me, because that came when I was around 13, and I'd always wanted to be in a band, you know, from being like eight years old. But it was coming to the time where I felt, "right, okay, now I should start a band." And I just didn't know how to do it, you know. I'd been to someone's house, and I'd seen the Beatles songbook, and I'd looked at it, and I wanted to cry because it just had like, each song seemed to have like 25 chords, and I was thinking, "how the hell am I gonna do that, I can't do that," I hadn't studied music at school. And then suddenly punk came along, and there was that very famous thing on the sniffing glue fancy that said, "here's one chord, here's another chord, here's another chord, now go and form a band," and certainly that burden of musical ability or anything like that just disappeared. It was more about you've got to have the right attitude. And that was, just came at exactly the right time for me because I just thought, "Okay, it's fine! We don't need to play, in fact it's an advantage not to be able to play, let's just have attitude and do it," and [inaudible]

Yeah I have a friend who's Scottish who tells me about some of the bands that didn't happen here, you know, after Bowie and T. Rex and Sweet, then you had like Mud and Smokey and Wizard and stuff like that and how he was in that age, and then suddenly he found the Stranglers and the Clash and the Pistols, and it just opened up whole new vistas.

Yeah yeah, I mean the Stranglers was the first single that I bought, like was a single by the Stranglers, and I went to see them. I had to go on my own, nobody else at school would go, so I turned up and… it was the first time that I had experienced moshing, so I was really naive, I was maybe 14 years old, and I got there, and the support band were on, and I thought, "oh great, nobody's watching them," so I just went right to the front of the stage, thought, "I've got the best view, this is amazing!" And then of course when the Stranglers came on, all the rest of the crowd came, and suddenly I had that very frightening feeling where everybody's jumping up and down and suddenly your feet leave the ground and the only thing that's holding you up is other people and I kind of freaked out and got out and watched the rest of it from the back of the room.

Yeah. I've been thinking about your song "Running the World" a lot. Every time I see a world leader it comes into my mind nowadays. It's a challenging, but not one we can play on the radio at least in the States, but it seems to be like maybe you were pretty prescient in terms of what you were writing about 14 or 15 years ago.

Well you know, that song keeps rearing its head, like you say…

Like the last time it kind of bubbled up was just before Christmas here in the U.K. We had an election, and the Conservatives won, and a lot of people were really really disgruntled about that. And there was actually a campaign to get that song to number one in the singles chart, which, as you've said, given its lyrical content, it's not gonna get a lot of airplay. So that was a, it was a noble attempt. And they did did pretty well, you know, so. But it's been used, I've heard it sung at like extinction rebellion marches. I think back in Spain, with this Indignados Movement that happened like maybe 10 years ago. So, I don't know, I'm flattered that people take it as an anthem of protest. It's also kind of sad that people still feel that they need to sing it because it seems appropriate for the people who are ruling over most of us.

Jarvis Cocker, "Running The World" Note: language advisory. (Rough Trade Records via YouTube)

Strangely it seems more appropriate in some ways than… than maybe it was even when you first wrote it 14 years ago given where we're at today.

Yeah. When it came out, it was Bush and Blair.

Yeah, yeah, and now it's Johnson and Trump.

Yeah.

Here we go.

[chuckling]

So, I just saw there's been some updates with Brexit. How are people feeling today in the U.K. in terms of… you've got COVID and Brexit, the double whammy coming down, don't you?

Well, I suppose it must be similar over there, you know, it's… It's like stuff happens and then something else piles on top of that, and then something else piles on top of that.

It's a weird time for that. It feels like an assault. It feels like everybody's gotta tough it out, and I do think that, you know, I do try and look for the positive things in that, and I do think there have been things that people are kind of…

they are kind of taking sides and they're standing up, they're not just passively taking things like that maybe has been more the case where people have been distracted a lot in the past. So, yeah, it's… it's like you don't get a chance to recover from one blow before somebody lands another one on you. But I guess we just gotta get tough.

Well that sort of, yeah, that's sort of how it's been here, absolutely, at the same time, and it really made me think about how, also how prescient "House Music All Night Long" is cause when I first heard the song, I thought, "oh it's about a guy, maybe he's coming down after he's sort of done with that culture but he's still got that music," and then I was like "wait a minute. It's about being trapped in your house."

How did you know that that's what we were going to be doing all through 2020, Jarvis?!

Well of course I didn't know that, did I? But it was just a weird coincidence. You know, it was written about the thing that you said first, which was me imagining this guy kind of going frantic and stuck in the house while the object of his desire's out dancing to house. It's a very kind of simple idea, I suppose. But then, it was weird, right at the start of the lockdown, our violin player, Emma, one of her friends caught the virus and had to stay home for a long time, and said, you know, "that song, I listened to that song a couple of times and it seemed to be really talking about what I was going through." So, yeah, and then a lot of people pointed it out, but, I don't know, it's a strange thing. When you write a song, you want it to chime with the times, but chiming with a global pandemic may not be something to punch the air about, you know.

Yeah. I also realized that, like I said, you're two to three years ahead of me, and I've one son who's 14, you have a son who's 17? 16, 17?

17, yeah.

So, I feel like I should come to you for advice on what the next three years are gonna be like, so how has, how has teen parenting been for someone in your, your line of work?

Okay, I don't know, does yours, is your son like into music and stuff?

He's into whatever music I'm into, he's probably into something else. So it's a lot of video games and maybe like trap hip hop right now.

Yeah. And does he play music as well?

A little bit. He can play a pretty good drum kit, so yeah. How about yours?

Yeah, same as my son. My son took up the drums. And that, I think that was smart of him in a way. I mean he started playing drums when he was six, and I just thought this is like one of those things, like once he's made himself slightly deaf and annoyed me, he'll stop. But he stayed with it, and now he's a pretty good drummer, and I think, you know, that's something that I can't play. I mean, I think I did once attempt, in a very early line of the Pulp, there was song where I play the drums which was a disaster. But…yeah, so he has kind of found his way into a bit of music that isn't my thing, and I think that's good. You know, he has to do that, like, he's not interested in singing at all, and I guess that's because that's my main thing, he wants to have his own area. So I think that's the thing. Just give him space, I think that's the thing you have to do, give them a bit of space.

It's Jarvis Cocker, thank you for having some time with us today, and, you know, good luck with the new record, JARV IS… Now we know

the title.

Yeah. Spread the word.

And I mean, do you have any, is there any way at this point to even try to plan, like, you know, gigs and tours, or, you know, how are you reconfiguring your sort of world for that?

Well that's, that's what I'm doing, as soon as I finish this conversation actually, I'll be back — we're actually mixing some sound at the moment because a week ago today we did a concert in a cave.

Yeah.

And we played the album in order, and we had lights and stuff. So we presented it like we were playing a concert, and what we're gonna do with that is put that out on YouTube and people will see it. Because there's no way for us to go and actually play it to people, so this is the best we can do. So that will be a free-to-view thing that people can go and see, and hopefully get — it won't be the same as a live concert, but it's the best that we can do, and it's, it's something that we've been aching to do like…

Like a lot of bands, I suppose, when lockdown hit. We're trying to find ways to play live, and, you know, like we had a Zoom conversation with the whole band, and we're going, "oh this is great, yeah, let's start playing now!" And then you suddenly realize that everybody's got different latency things going on and it sounds like…it sounds like when you first were in a band and nobody could play in time together and all that stuff, you know. So we gave up on that. We tried a few other things, but this is the best…the best substitute that we've been able to find, yeah, but we want to go and play concerts as soon as is humanly possible.

Was it weird to do what probably felt like a concert, like, felt like a set, with no one there to applaud?

Yeah. I suppose it helped, because we were in an unusual setting, we were in this cavern, and it's a really beautiful place actually. So that, that was an extra level of something. Then also it was the first time that we'd been able to play together for four months, so just the kind of joy of playing together kept up going. But I have to admit, when we got to the end of the song, and it was just like, you know, the sound just died away in the furthest corners of the cave, there wasn't even one [clapping sound], it was quite a weird thing.

Well you seem like someone, when I've seen you as a live performance, someone who really feeds off that energy, so it's gotta feel more like a rehearsal than, than a gig, probably.

Yeah, but it did fee like something, I suppose because there were cameras there, and I knew that this was our chance to try and get the songs across to an audience. So I was trying to keep that idea in my mind, that I was addressing — so I do, you know, like for instance, I do talk between the songs, that's something that I've always done on stage. So I did that, you know. I can't see what the audience is doing, you know. Some people might just be laid in bed watching it. Hopefully some people might jump around. Some people might even construct their own cave to watch it, you know, I don't know. But I tried to talk to the audience in a similar way to the way that I do on stage.

Well as you describe it it kind of reminds me of the, um, Sigur Rós did a film, it was about 10 years ago, I think, when they came back to Iceland and they played a series of unconventional venues. And I think one was a cave, actually, they had small audiences at them, but maybe that's the modern touring for 2020, is strange performance spaces and different acoustics or something.

Well it could be, I mean the acoustics of this cave are amazing. I mean that was the thing, when I told our sound man we were gonna play a concert in a cave, he kind of looked like he was gonna have some kind of a heart attack or something.

Oh yeah, front of house guys love, love hearing that. "We're gonna go to a cave!"

But it actually sounds pretty amazing. It's…

They have had shows there before. Queen Victoria famously went to this cavern and an orchestra played for her. They had to change the name of the cavern for her because it's traditional name is "The Devil's Arse," which, is like "The Devil's Ass," which wouldn't go over with a royal, obviously. So they had to change the name of it to "Peak Cavern," which is much more gentile.

Yeah, it sounds lovely. Jarvis Cocker, thank you for being with us today, and I love the new record. It's sort of a new sound for you, you know, sonically I hear elements of krautrock, I hear bits of your sort of Leonard Cohen sing-speak going on, and some great songs that, who knew they would be so prophetic for 2020. And Iook forward to seeing the video, too.

Alright well thanks a lot, it's been good to talk, yeah.

Yeah. Awesome, thank you Jarvis, nice to meet you, too.

Cheers, thank you.

Thanks, buh-bye.

Buh-bye!

External Links

Jarvis Cocker - official website

JARV IS… - Rough Trade Records site

1 Photos

  • Singer-songwriter Jarvis Cocker
    Jarvis Cocker of Pulp performing on the Main Stage during day two of Reading Festival 2011 on August 27, 2011, in Reading, England. (Simone Joyner/Getty Images)