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The SPIN Interview: Jarvis Cocker

Jarvis Cocker / Photo by Philip Gay

Jarvis Cocker found fame as Britpop’s gawkiest sex symbol, first by releasing fantastic songs like “Common People” with Pulp, then by bum-rushing Jacko at an awards show. “People still come shake my hand because of that,” the singer says. “So I can’t really regret it.”

Jarvis Cocker walks into Chicago’s Star Lounge Coffee Bar, and though physically striking — tall and glamorous in natty thrift-shop chic and substantial spectacles — no one seems to recognize him. (They probably register that he’s somebody, they’re just not sure whom.) Maybe it’s the beard, flecked with some distinguished gray; he grew it while on a chilly artists’ retreat to the Arctic late last year. Or maybe it’s because Cocker never had as huge a presence in America as he did in the U.K., where as leader of the swaggering Pulp, his mug was ubiquitous in the late ’90s as part of the Britpop explosion (see: Blur, Oasis), before the band’s dissolution in 2001. He’s in town to finish mastering his raucous second solo album, Further Complications (Rough Trade), which he and his band recorded with famously bell-and-whistle-free producer Steve Albini — a potential shock considering how grand Cocker’s music has tended to be in the past.

Domestic life is equally simple now for Cocker, 45, who moved to France in 2003, splitting time evenly between there and London, enjoying happy anonymity with his wife and six-year-old son, Albert. “Eventually he’ll realize Daddy writes songs with rude words,” says Cocker. “But at home I’m just me. He’s not allowed to call me Jarvis. He has to call me Daddy.”

Americans probably don’t realize quite how famous you were in the U.K. Pulp had a platinum record with Different Class, and you were all over the TV.

Oh dahhling, I was massive. For your younger readers who won’t know, it was after the Brit Awards of 1996, where I staged some kind of protest of Michael Jackson’s performance. That one action transported me to a kind of tabloid fame, which I couldn’t have imagined. So basically I was known by just about the whole population of the U.K. As a shy kid growing up in Sheffield, I fantasized about how it would be great to be famous so I wouldn’t actually have to talk to people and feel awkward. And of course, as we all know from fairy stories, when you achieve that ambition, you find out you don’t want it. My whole set of values had nothing to do with that kind of tabloidy thing. It took me a long time to work through.

There were surely some aspects you were able to enjoy.

Some days it was really exciting. I didn’t mind it when Pulp were getting popular. I just pushed it too far with that thing, ’cause it wasn’t “Jarvis Cocker played an amazing song at the Brit Awards last night.” It was “Jarvis Cocker titted about at the Brit Awards last night.” I had been in a band 15 years, and in 15 seconds, I became more well known. All that bloody work! Thrown away!

Was part of the pressure of fame fan-based? Did you get a lot of people saying, “You saved my life”?

Yeah, and it’s hard to respond. I get very flattered when people say things like that. It goes back to the self-consciousness — if you sat there and thought, “This song is gonna save some people’s lives,” I can guarantee you’d write a real pile of shit. For me, the great thing about music is that anybody can do it. That Michael Jackson thing, if I think about the reasons for protesting, that’s one of the big factors: When somebody sets himself up as a kind of messiah, it fundamentally goes against the spirit of what art is about. It isn’t that you’re a fucking superbeing with a hotwire to God and message for the world. You’ve just tapped into something that’s inside of everybody. That’s why the fan thing makes me uncomfortable, because I’m no better than the people who come up and talk to me.

When your first solo record, Jarvis, came out in 2006, you spoke a bit about quitting music altogether.

Luckily for the world, I’ve decided not to.

When was the last time you seriously considered retiring?

In those years before I made that last record. But I’m in it for the long haul now. I got my appetite back. There were certain problematic things at the end of Pulp, so I had to take a bit of time and think, “Maybe I’ve done as much as I’m gonna do.” And for whatever reason, luckily or unluckily, I got back into it.

What were the problematic things with Pulp?

The fallout from the Michael Jackson thing, stuff like that. I started the group as a kid, and it got a certain amount of fame — which I wanted — but then it flipped over into something I didn’t want. There are a lot of mixed desires when you’re in a band. Hopefully, a big part is that you like playing music and you enjoy creating and expressing things. But also, you want to get your cock sucked, or you want people to say you’re great or whatever. But once you’ve had your cock sucked a few times, that’s the end of that one. I just had to weed that stuff out.

Naively, I thought that we were going to have a revolution and create a new utopia. But Britpop didn’t work out that way. And the music was pretty dull, generally speaking.

How have your priorities shifted?

It’s the major myth of our age, that if you can get famous, everything will be good. That’s what American Idol — in England it’s called Pop Idol — is based on. It’s not based on people thinking, “I’ve got a gift of music, and I’m gonna enrich people’s lives.” It’s just, “I’m gonna be famous, and I’m gonna be in magazines, and I’m gonna go to parties, and everybody’s gonna think I’m great.” It’s basically taken over for dying and going to heaven. So everyone’s curious about that, and I was no different, being a bit of a shy kid. You think becoming famous will solve that. It just took me time to realize that that’s a complete fallacy. But to quote Lou Reed, usually you are “set free to find a new illusion.” Human beings just delude themselves all the time.

But you’ve hosted shows on British TV, so you’re not totally opposed to the limelight.

When I was in Pulp, I actively did more TV stuff because that was during the Great Britpop Wars, and it seemed important to prove that indie people could speak. That war doesn’t exist anymore. Underground culture was ignored then, and Robert Smith would just go on TV and mumble. You’d say, “Come on, Rob, give a little power to the indie people. Help them storm the barricades.” So I did feel an obligation. I don’t have that desire anymore, because it’s a different landscape now. I’m talking mainly about the U.K., but probably here as well. The idea of trying to rehabilitate the mainstream has disappeared.

So who won the Britpop Wars?

Nobody. It was exciting at the time because it did seem like what traditionally would be underground or independent culture was suddenly being taken seriously. Naively, I thought that we were going to have a revolution and create a new utopia. But it didn’t work out that way. And the music was pretty dull, generally speaking.

The underwear you recently donated to a charity eBay auction was going for an even higher price than Fergie’s.

Yeah, I’m very pleased with that. They have been washed, but I had worn them. It’s probably got traces of my DNA.

In the past you’ve said, “I couldn’t really do this at 40.” And now you’re 45 and making what might be your most aggressive album yet.

The idea with this record was to do it the traditional way — write some songs, go play them to people, and then record them, which is what all bands start out doing. I really am stupid to worry about the age stuff — I suppose I haven’t got many good examples of people who grow old gracefully within the music business, but why worry about what other people do? Sometimes I think I’m too diffident in normal life, and I should try and siphon off a bit because it’s not really healthy to do all your living onstage. It’s weird: The leader of the Conservative Party in England is two years younger than me, and I still don’t really feel like a responsible adult.

And the straightforward Steve Albini production method fit into that idea? He seems like an odd choice for you.

It was perfect, because he’s set up to record people live, and there’s no faffing about. We did have discussions about whether that was possible, the same way that if you set up a camera, is it really capturing reality? With recording, there are many decisions and esoteric things. But I do think it’s an admirable thing to aspire to, even if you know you can never achieve it — to act as a conduit with no obstructions, to get the ideas of the musicians with the least amount of tampering.

Some of the songs are quite raw, considering Pulp’s lusher sound.

The last record I wrote in isolation, then got people to come and play with me. I consciously wrote these songs with the band involved, because it’s quicker and more fun, and it can hurt your ears at times. I hope it’s not a midlife crisis, but in ten years’ time, maybe I won’t be able to rock — I’d headbang and dislocate something — so there may be a little of that to it.

Given what you’ve said about this being more of a group effort, how much control did you exert over how the songs came out?

It depends. On some songs I’ll have written the chords and everyone jumps in. Other times it’ll just be an idea. I tried to relax a bit more and trust people. I was talking to somebody the other day about the myth of the genius — the one person who knows how it should all be — and I think it is a myth. The original concept was that if you created something, it wasn’t really you who owned it. You were the vessel through which it was communicated, a great radio receiver. You didn’t take complete credit for it. I think that’s a healthier attitude than “I am the fuckin’ man; I’ve got the vision.” I’ve done it in the past, when I get caught up and think, “I’m going to write a classic right now.” That never works. So I’ve tried to back off. Just learning to sit back helped me a lot on this record.

You gave a lecture at this year’s South by Southwest festival about the function of lyrics in pop songs. What’s the impetus behind doing something like that instead of simply performing?

As much as anything, I did it to prove to myself that I could keep an argument together over the course of an hour. I am a lyricist, so I have ideas about words and songs. Songs that you think you know really well, when you start covering them, you realize you know half the verse and the chorus, and there’ll be bits where you thought you knew what the words were, and it’s a revelation when you actually see them. Songs can operate without you really knowing the words. So my position is that they’re not essential, but if you take the chore to write good lyrics, then the song can turn into something else. I’ve always put lyrics in the lyric book just as a big block of text rather than laid out like a poem, because it isn’t a poem. For me, the words only exist to be part of the song.

You’re proud of your lyrics, though.

I care about them, yeah. I like when the words seem to bounce off the music a bit and not really fit. And it’s nice to take risks. The riskiest line on this record is “I could be your teddy bear.” That’s a tough one to get away with. Before, actually, it was a teddy bear with an erection, and I didn’t think I could get away with that.

Was that in the section of your lecture called “Phrases to Be Avoided at All Cost”?

I didn’t really expand upon that idea much. “Higher ground” is the one that gets me — is it to avoid floods? Is it something from the Bible? I’m sure Jamiroquai used that a few times. It’s just one of those vague uplifting things, and I hate that. I tried to get that with the last record, with “I Will Kill Again,” where it goes, “And wouldn’t it be nice for all the world to live in peace?” Some people thought I actually meant that. Human life is a bit more complex than that.

Are the lyrics to the new album’s “Fuckingsong” supposed to be a marital aid for a fan who doesn’t get to sleep with you?

Singing a song is a way of almost having a sexual relationship with people — it goes in their ears, so you’re kind of getting inside that person. It makes me feel good to be getting inside all those people. And then I think it’s also good for them, because if I really was getting inside them, that would be gross. Or I would be a disappointment. Whereas with this song, it’s always good. As it says in the lyrics, every time you play it, it’s gonna be as good as you remember it, and it will always perform perfectly. The song will not go out and get drunk and be unable to get an erection.

Is it fair to read the title track, “Further Complications,” as directly personal?

It tells the story of my life from before I was born, which I remember very clearly. I was three weeks late. I think I was just comfortable in there.

And you overcomplicated your life at some point?

Everyone does. People go on about life being complicated, but I’ve always thought life’s very simple. The complications come with what you choose to do with your life. I talk about life being like a carrier bag, because it’s empty and then you start filling it up. And you’ve just gotta be careful, because if you fill it up with loads of crap, then the handles break. But if you don’t put anything in it, it’ll just blow away when a gust comes. So choose the things you put in wisely.

Is it fair to say you’re a happy person now? You’ve described yourself as miserable in the past.

[In falsetto] Yes, I’m very happy! I was playing solitaire while we were mixing the album — I was gonna turn the cards over and start again, and Albini was looking over my shoulder and said, “Oh, no, you can put that one there.” I hadn’t seen it. That summed up the whole record, in a way, because I had all the things needed to win, but I was just about to overlook it. Often people fixate or obsess on something, like, “If I could get this job or meet this girl, then everything would be all right.” Sometimes people can help you see what you’ve already got, but I don’t think people give you something you haven’t already got.

Discography: Jarvis cocker
A selective guide to both common and uncommon works. Contains Pulp.

Pulp’s debut, released a decade before they hit big, featured zero indication of what was to come. Mopey and humorless, it clearly desired acceptance from England’s burgeoning New Romantic scene, but the songs just aren’t there. More ugly duckling than nascent swan.

His ‘n’ Hers
Cocker found hints of his true voice on 1991’s Separations, but it was here that he struck the right balance of funny, sexy, smart, and brash, spawning two of Pulp’s best songs, both, not coincidentally, about awakening libidos: “Babies” and “Do You Remember the First Time?”

Different Class
Primed for a smash, Cocker delivered glamour, humor, and hooks with Pulp’s fifth album. The British class-conscious sex anthem “Common People” found fans worldwide, and “Disco 2000” nicked the guitar from Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.” Pulp never matched this peak.

We Love Life
Pulp went down with ambition, at least. Produced by Cocker’s idol, Scott Walker, the band’s swan song left the glammy hooks at home — perhaps they seemed undignified. There’s occasional greatness (“Bad Cover Version”), but little in the way of immediate gratification.

Jarvis Cocker
Cocker’s first solo disc synthesizes the mix he was shooting for on We Love Life with a brighter mood, some gloriously jaded lyrics (see: “Fat Children”), and the soaring croon that he never quite reached before. It’s no exaggeration to call it an epic rebirth.