Jarvis Cocker Interview: Talking Further Complications
, May 21st, 2009 12:03
Luke Turner talks to Jarvis Cocker about Albini, the male psyche, Sunn O))), living in the moment, and how it feels to be accused of being a Tory
The return of Jarvis Cocker from his self-imposed Parisian exile back in 2006 was a welcome one. The Pulp frontman came back at a time when British music was woefully devoid of personality, still in thrall to the vapid anticts of Mr Peter Doherty and the soggy capers of their legion of landfill indie imitators. His debut solo album Jarvis perhaps doesn't have the impact now that it did when it first arrived, but Cocker makes up for this with the follow-up Further Complications, a fiesty record that utilises Steve Albini's production to deliver lyrics as seedy, witty and cynical about the male psyche as anything Jarvis has written since This Is Hardcore. When you're a Radio 4 staple, it must be nice to explore the more sordid parts of the brain now and then. The Quietus catches Jarvis Cocker getting ready to go out to see Sisters Of Transistor just after his experiment in a Parisian gallery that attempted to answer the thorny question, "what is music?" Which seems a good a place to start as any...
So Jarvis, last week in Paris, did you discover what music is, or are there still unanswered questions?
"It's a tall order that one, isn't it? It was a successful experiment though. It was quite loose, the way it was set up. We didn't over-publicise it because i wasn't sure how it would turn out. We were just rehearsing, basically. I thought it'd be better to allow it to grow at it's own pace over the course of the week. It would have been crap if we'd turned up to start rehearsing on the Tuesday and there'd been 200 people expecting something. The point of it wasn't that it was a performance, it was that you could witness something in the same way as you wouldn't go into an art gallery and expect the paintings to perform for you, you have to sit there and wait to see if they do anything for you. Sometimes they don't. You might have to sit there for half an hour and suddenly you get something from it. So it was an experiment, and I was very pleased with the way it went. It don't want it to sound slightly dry, 'cos it was a good laugh as well."
Were you trying to explore something in opposition to the contemporary devaluation of music through filesharing and whatnot?
"Well also that it takes place in real time. You have to be there, and also the fact that you can be involved in it, you can come down with your banjo and start playing with us and we see what happens. Also it's a non-repeatable thing. It's an improvisation, you just do it and then it's gone. Our society now revolves a lot around repetition. People feel the need to film events on their phones so they can relive it later. It drives me insane at concerts. It's just happening, innit? Why not just look at it? It seems stupid to have something happening in front of you and look at it on a screen that's smaller than the size of a cigarette packet."
I suppose if you were short and could have the camera on a stick...
"You've thought of the one justification. But not everybody can be excused due to that."
Of course not. Do you think that people no longer treat music as a one off experience that can be treasured in memory?
"I think it applies to everything, not just music. There's something nice about having an experience and how it changes as it goes into your memory. It always gets altered by being filtered through your brain. If you have it all on DVD or mpeg files, you're cutting out that imaginative factor because you can see it again and again. If anything it undermines the experience, because it seemed like a really good moment, and now I can see it were crap. It's like wedding videos. A wedding should be a magical day because of the personal emotions of the people involved. When you see it with that taken away, just the bare facts of it, it's just some people standing around in a room getting pissed. So why do that to yourself? Why not just continue living the dream?"
Does that represent in you a romantic nature?
"Maybe. Yes, well I think the bare facts of life are established, you can make life more magical, but it's you who does it. Maybe that's a romantic thing, that you have to believe in it. I sound like a born again Christian, don't I?"
Perhaps a little. But don't you think there's a link between religious experience and how music can affect you, though?
"Oh yes, I was talking to the artist Jim Shaw about that. He was over giving a talk at the Royal Academy. He's got a pretend cult, a pretend religion, they wear white robes and play long, improvised jam sessions, and he showed a bit of film and they have a light show and stuff like that. I said to him, 'have you ever found yourself having a mystical experience?' Because if you put all those things in place, and have a lot of people all concentrating on the same goal, that's when I believe you can get a mystical experience, or a spiritual experience, shall we say. I used to live opposite a charismatic church, and they were always trying to get me over there. I have no problem believing that if you get 200 people in a room all chanting together and speaking in tongues and all focussing their energies in one direction then something will happen. Where I had the problem with it is them saying they were tuning into God. They were saying it was something from outside themselves, well I thought they were finding something that's inside them, and inside every person, as a potential. It's more realising human potential, the other way seems to be a cop out for me, saying 'oh well it's not me, it's God'. People have to accept responsibility for it, so there's a dimension... at it's a crassest we had Faithless with their 'God Is A DJ' track, didn't we? But there is a thing to that, music takes you out of yourself. When you listen to it you can forget your immediate surroundings. So in a way there is a spiritual dimension to how it works, because there's something intangible about why you like one song and another's crap."
How about Sunn O))) and what they do? You curated them at Meltdown...
"I was trying to get Stephen O'Malley to come and join in with the thing in the gallery, but unfortunately he turned up half an hour after we'd finished on the Sunday. It was a shame."
Sunn O))) tap into that idea don't they, the ritualistic element?
"That's what I really liked when I saw them, it's thinking about music in a completely different way. Steve Mackay told me about them, and said they sometimes play the same chord for an hour. And I thought 'that's going to be fucking torture'. It's funny, I agree with you that it's a spiritual experience, but that comes about because it's such a physical experience, that you can actually feel it vibrating you and your surroundings, it takes you somewhere else. We're doing a record swap, I'm sending him mine and he's sending theirs, but it's not arrived yet."
How does your music sit on the cosmic continuum of tune with what they do?
"I think you have to see what your aptitude is. The music that I make, for better or for worse, the words are quite a big part of it. I talked to Steve Albini about this quite a lot. He's famed for not having the voice very loud on his records, and I understand why, because he's thinking that the vocalist is just another member of the band so why should you let him hog the limelight? So we talked about that. Well, obviously I'm a singer so I'm going to disagree with him there. And a lot of my songs, they rely on the fact that you have to follow a story to get that much out of it. For instance, maybe one of the strongest cases in point on the new record is that song 'Leftovers'. Musically speaking it's just two chords, and to give is a shape... and also people are playing along to what I'm singing, so obviously words are more important to me. In some other bands, the vocals are more like a noise that fits in with what the rest of the people are doing. Because a lot of my songs have a story, you need to be able to hear the words to be able to follow the story. That last song on the record, the disco one, it's pretty important that you can follow what's happening to this guy who's having a hallucination in a discotheque."
Speaking about the lyrics, last time I interviewed you, you were talking about suppressing the more disagreeable of the male instincts. But on Further Complications, they seem to be rearing their ugly heads...
"I couldn't keep them down. I really wish it was otherwise. Life would be much simpler. If you're me, you just write about them though."
Does that deal with it?
"A bit. But that's just who I am, I tend to write about things more than I actually do them. Which is probably good news for womankind."
Are you feeling the frailties of the male condition more deeply as you get older?
"Some people see this record as very hard going, which kind of disturbs me, because I consider it quite a light-hearted album. Even down the title, Further Complications. It's kind of the thing of accepting those things and saying so what, shit happens, get on with it. It's the same for everybody basically, so don't get too hung up on it."
Is it a less political record than Jarvis?
"They're more personal songs. The last record addressed wider issues because I'd moved to a new country and it through into sharper relief some of the things about the country I'd just left, I had something to compare it to. This one's more about emotional things, really. The nearest it gets to social comment is 'Caucasian Blues'."
Have you felt the 'Caucasian Blues'?
"There's always that worry that you'll end up playing a blues rock cover as you get older. It's funny innit, because blues music was invented by oppressed black people as a way of dealing with that situation. How has it gone from that to being the middle aged, middle class white man's music of choice? Cream and Clapton, etc. That's a strange transformation. So like we're saying, it's a way of neutralising things... I was scared of going down that route myself, so that made me want to write a blues song, and I thought it was funny to write a song called 'Caucasian Blues'. I was trying to think what would the Caucasian Blues be? Maybe your remote control car port door doesn't work."
Talking about the political side of things, did it piss you off being accused of being a Tory the other week?
"I wanna live like Cameron people. It's going to be the next single, an updated version. I'm giving you the exclusive on that one..."
Jarvis' phone cuts out. He calls back
"How much of that outrageous lie did you hear?"
I heard you say it wasn't true. Have you seen the footage of him raving?
"Someone told me about it. Do you think it really is him?"
It certainly looks like him. Do you think things have got worse since you wrote 'Cunts...?' Are you more or less optimistic?
"That song was written more about the system that's allowing the free market to be the dominant moral force in the world, rather than specific leaders. Because that has been discredited in the past couple of years with what's happened. So I feel vindicated there – just call me Nostradamus. In terms of leaders... I get the feeling that there's a lot of people who don't feel represented by any of the major political parties. In fact you've got a spectrum of different shades of, let's say brown, given that Gordon Brown is in charge. David Cameron is beige, and whoever it is who runs the Liberal Democrats..."
"...Clegg, he's chocolate brown. Well there's a whole spectrum of other things that aren't even being addressed. I'd like to see some kind of... it throws up a lot of very difficult things, because I've always felt that the right to vote is a very important right to have, but then when there's this next election, I find it very difficult to know who to vote for. I think it'd be better if everybody decided not to vote as a protest. Because there's a minimum turn out that you can have for an election to be considered valid. And if nobody voted, that would be a very strong message that this is a load of crap and you're going to have to try a little bit harder."
And finally, on a different tack, when I told various female friends that I was interviewing you they got very excited...
Yeah and made very lusty comments. How does it feel still being a sex symbol?
"Give 'em my number..."
Is it still strange for you being a sex symbol? I imagine it was different before Pulp. Did the ladies fancy you then? "No! Look at me! It's very nice of you to say so, but that's a triumph of positive thinking. Of course, I'm very flattered but it's funny. Hopefully that gives hope to anybody."