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Enter Room 29: Jarvis Cocker And Chilly Gonzales Interviewed
Jeremy Allen , March 29th, 2017 11:13

With the release of their new collaboration, Room 29, Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales talk to Jeremy Allen about outsiderism, their work together, and the redemptive qualities of an erect Mickey Mouse

“Moviegoing does not quite exist anymore as a consuming public preoccupation, no matter that the media and the Academy cling to the old notion. The technologies are carrying us forward so rapidly we become giddy with change - the motion smothers emotion.”
David Thomson, The Big Screen (2012)

Room 29, the new collaborative album from Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales, takes its inspiration from the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. The hotel is the thematic link that runs throughout the record, with pithy perspectives of events that took place there, possibly inflated by Hollywood tittletattle, and conflated with more personal experiences (although it’s not easy to see the joins). Stories about Howard Hughes, Jean Harlow and Clara Clemens are interwoven with Jarvis’ rich lyrics, and Gonzales’ prepossessing, piano-led song-cycles. Just don’t call it an opera, or musical theatre, and definitely don’t call it a concept album.

In a bid to extend the hospitality theme, it makes sense to meet Cocker at the Hotel Amour in Paris, a building with its own niche history and cult cache. As it transpires, he lives in the same arrondissement, and is very familiar with the place. And before he moved into his apartment, the previous locataire was one Jason Beck, who handed the apartment over before relocating to Cologne. There’s no swimming pool to watch girls by at the Hotel Amour, like flamboyant millionaire and voyeur Howard Hughes did when he lived at the Chateau Marmont in the 1950s, but there’s certainly a lurid history and plenty to catch the eye.

“There’s a famous picture where there’s loads of prostitutes stood in the window,” says Cocker, sipping at a cafe allonge. “I think it’s this place anyway. I came in here when Andre [Saraiva, graffiti artist and hotelier] was first looking around it, and looking to turn it into the Hotel Amour. I’ve been in some of the rooms but not all of them. I know they’re all done in different ways.”

I allude to its seedier past, its vicinity within the red light district, guests hiring rooms for an hour at a time... Whereas now it’s all gone rather up market.

“Yeah, I mean it still has a naked Mickey Mouse with a massive stiffy on the front desk. It still pays some kind of lip service to its past I guess.”

Gonzales, who I speak to on Skype a few days later, also has memories of the place: “It’s not your straightforward, typical hotel experience where the priority is to make you feel comfortable. When you travel a lot you want a very straightforward hotel experience. If you don’t travel a lot then maybe you’ll be into the idea your room is all black with mirrors on the ceilings, and disco balls in the bathroom, and cheesy soft pornography featuring the waitresses of Hotel Amour on the walls.”

The pair met in a metro station one night after Cocker had been to see Borat. They struck up a friendship, and Gonzales asked his new pal to write the music for a piece he’d written the words for.

“I think that amused him because I’m known more as a lyricist than a musician really,” says Jarvis. They were asked to do a segment for a Stephen Sondheim film - Six By Sondheim - with that particular vignette directed by Todd Haynes. Jarvis says he hates all forms of musical theatre, but Sondheim “does the music and words, and when you get one like A Little Night Music or something like that, they’re quite grown up and interesting.”

A collaboration was mooted between the pair, but without putting any timeframe on it. They worked on a few ideas, but the inspiration for Room 29 didn’t come until 2012, when Cocker stayed at the Marmont. He’d been there once before when Pulp were on tour during the 90s. He got sick and a show had to be cancelled, meaning he was left in his room for three days while everyone else went off and had fun.

“So when I went back to the Chateau Marmont and was upgraded to a room with a piano in it, it was like, ‘Ah ha!’ You don’t get many moments like that in your life where an idea just seems to come at you like ‘this is it.’”

It soon became apparent during the process of writing the record that the pair would take care of their respective roles for Room 29 with little interference from the other. Jarvis was in charge of the concept the vocals and the lyrics, while Chilly wrote the music on his piano in Cologne, mailing the instrumental tracks over when they were ready. A couple of characteristically punny working titles - ‘Tearjerker’ and ‘Belle Boy’ - would prove to be Jarvis’ inspiration, and would stay the course.

“The song-cycle was the general frame we chose,” says the Canadian musician regarding his contribution, “partly because I’m a big fan of 19th century music forms. We weren’t going to do it as a song-cycle in any serious sense that would pass muster with any classical people, but it at least gets us away from musical theatre, it gets us away from the concept album, which as a phrase is not terribly exciting. To hear the words come out of my mouth - con-cept al-bum - I’m sneering even as I say it.”

Surely it is a concept album though? You can’t escape from the fact it’s conceptual.

“It is very much conceptual, but concept album with a capital C and A have kind of become dirty words. Song-cycle was a way for us to escape from that. It’s also why when I sent him ‘Belle Boy’ - bellboy spelt normally is very on the nose. We don’t ever want to be on the nose with this project.”

For a time the pair didn’t quite know what exactly it was they were making. There was talk of radio documentaries, as well as the very real possibility nothing would come of the project at all. Seemingly by stealth they’ve arrived at a place where they have an album, a tour booked, featuring a full length film, a dancer and the truncated voice of David Thomson, the author of the remarkable The Big Screen, as unofficial narrator. “It’s a multimedia extravaganza,” deadpans Jarvis.

Though not strictly conceived in Paris, the album was recorded at Studio Ferber, where Gonzales has recorded much of his work over the last 14 years, including albums he produced for Feist and Jane Birkin. His connection with the city is still strong, and following the November 2015 attacks, he was one of the very first artists to play Paris again, some three days after concert goers were murdered at the Bataclan.

“We’d been talking on the phone and he’d said he was thinking of cancelling it,” recalls Jarvis. “And then he decided to go ahead, and I thought it was a really great thing. It was quite incredible because at the end, the lights came on, and everyone applauded each other.”

“It was very intense, needless to say”, says Gonzales. “I was really questioning for days and days, and there was a big exchange of tickets going on. We started to see that people were saying ‘we can’t go, it’s too heavy for us’ and other were like, ‘we really want to go’. And once we saw that, we thought, ‘Okay, we don’t have to do a special concert and change everything’ and we should essentially do the concert I would have done. And I just went out without my bathrobe and without my glasses, and I said, ‘Hey, we’re going to find out what this is together tonight, and one thing we’re going to do is leave the lights on a little bit for the audience’. And so we left the lights on at like three quarters so we could all look each other in the eye more. And there were moments where they were clapping, but it kind of took on this effect where they were clapping for themselves. And people were hugging. It was extremely intense.”

So Jarvis. The Hotel Amour then. If you went into a B&B in England and you saw a picture of Mickey Mouse with an erection, you might think, ‘this isn’t the kind of place I should be staying’. Or maybe you’d think, ‘This is the kind of place I should be staying.’ But in France you just think “oh, it’s just the French.”

Jarvis Cocker: I guess so, yeah. It’s more accepted as part of life, whereas we like to keep it hidden in locked rooms. That’s the English mentality.

There’s a greater general acceptance of art that pushes the outer limits here.

JC: It’s funny because there is that aspect to French society, but what surprised me - I dunno if you’ve had the same experience - is that it can also be quite formal as well. When I first came here I found it quite difficult to get my head round how to socialise. Getting invited to dinner parties at people’s houses - it’s a lot more formal and that really surprised me. I kind of knew about the supposedly salacious aspect, but society works in a different way.

They’re culinary conformists I feel. Vegetarianism is still considered deviant in a lot of restaurants.

JC: Perhaps it’s because it’s a republic, and the rules in theory have been made by everyone rather than imposed by a dictatorship or king or whatever. So it’s like, we’ve got to stick to these rules because we made them.

Do you ever get the sense that you’ll never entirely fit in?

JC: I’ve grown to appreciate Paris much more in the last two or three years than the years before that. At first I did find it - it’s a bit of a cliche - ‘Paris is like a beautiful woman, but she’s very haughty, she’s not interested in you. She’s very nice to look at but you can’t quite get it together with her.’ I think there is an aspect of that, but I think there’s also an aspect of the past being so well preserved that it gives very little space for new things. But I do think that is starting to loosen a bit.

I like the fact that Paris is a bit hands off, so for you it must be heavenly. There was a time wasn’t there when you couldn’t walk down a street in Britain without someone coming up to remind you that you’re Jarvis Cocker?

JC: It’s true. I do appreciate it being here. I’ve kind of had it both ways because I probably spend more time in London than I do here, but I do like that thing that it’s quieter and smaller so you can walk around it, and yeah, nobody gives a shit about me. If I feel really lonely I can go and stand outside an indie record shop and hopefully somebody will recognise me if I stand there for long enough.

So the inspiration for the new album came from a stay at the Chateau Marmont.

JS: I walked into the room and it was when I saw the piano really that it went Da da! But then to actually work out what it was going to be has taken all this time. Not that we’ve been working on it all the time. Gonzales has been doing other records, and I’ve been doing the radio show and stuff like that.

And there’s some exploration of Howard Hughes. I’m perhaps not as au fait with him as I should be, because he’s clearly a fascinating character.

JC: I’ve read a lot of books about him, so you can ask me anything you want! Actually that’s a good point - cos usually when you start to mention the Chateau Marmont, people say ‘Room 29, is that where John Belushi died then? Is that where he overdosed? Is that where Led Zeppelin were driving motorbikes around?’

It’s like when people are only interested in Jim Morrison being buried in Pere Lachaise, when it’s brimming with people like Proust, Chopin, Piaf, Wilde, Géricault...

JC: I went to see Jim Morrison’s grave and I was amazed by how short it is. It must be very cramped in there.

So you got the idea, then what?

JC: So to try and work out what we were going to do, I didn’t want it to be a dry [puts on Groucho Marx voice] “Dat’s Haaaallywood!” historical kind of thing. We had to look for stories and it had to have some personal things in it too. Trying to get the personal stuff in it but not going too far down the catharsis route. The hotel opened in 1929 and that’s kind of when sound came in. So I was interested in that part of it, but also you had to keep the idea of the hotel going on in the background and maintain a balance.

The title track is dense with good lyrics. I like the one about the place being built on a lie. You mean Hollywood?

JC: That was one of those facts I got from this Hollywood handbook. Somebody tried to plant a holly tree but it died after two months. I liked that, because it’s called Hollywood, but holly doesn’t grow there. Right from the start it’s based on a lie. But it’s a very seductive lie, and we’re still entranced by it. You try and imagine what it must have been like to first see something moving on a screen. It must have blown your mind, because up to then life went by and there was no way to capture it. You could only get one instant and you didn’t get the movement. So it’s like having a bit of control over time really, because it’s happening in real time or what seems to be real time, and then you can play it backwards and you can watch things again and again. So I think that’s what interested me.

You stayed there before didn’t you?

JC: Yeah, and I was just in the hotel on my own for three days going a bit crazy. At some point I was thinking maybe it’s like radioactivity. I’m so near to the source of images that I’ve absorbed in South Yorkshire - which is a long way away - that it’s like getting too close to the Big Bang. I’m getting radiation sickness or something. It’s a weird feeling. I think when you absorb all those things as a kid you don’t have a filter on them. And in some cases people say seeing is believing. Maybe somewhere in your mind you think that’s real. Maybe one day you’ll be able to inhabit that world with cowboys and spacemen all together. It would be great wouldn’t it?

I’ve thought for a while that Paris syndrome probably happens as a result of the Paris people think they’re going to see being the Hollywood simulacrum of Paris; the 1920s Paris, rather than the one that is here now. The Paris that most people think they know was made in Hollywood.

JC: I remember the first time I went to New York I was disappointed because I walked down to Wall Street where I knew all the skyscrapers were, and I thought, ‘they’re not that tall’. And I think I traced it back to the opening credits of Kojak. On that there was a helicopter shot looking down onto the skyscrapers - and he probably had a wide angle lens or something - so they looked like they were gigantic. Of course it wasn’t like that. In that way films almost improved on reality in a way. You get in a weird situation where the illusion seems to be better than reality.

Who is ‘Clara’?

JC: Clara Clemens was the daughter of Mark Twain. She was his only child. I think he had other children who died or something, so she was the last of the bloodline and she married a concert pianist and spent time in the Chateau Marmont. And although I have no historical evidence, I imagine that that might be how the piano ended up in the room. Because there’s another book called Life At The Marmont which is a more gossipy kind of book, and I got that story from there. Because the husband died quite soon after they moved in, and apparently she could be heard weeping and playing bits of his favourite tunes on the piano or listening to recordings of him on 78s. It’s a very sad story. They had a daughter and the daughter died at 45 or something because she was an alcoholic, or she had drug problems, so that was the end of the Twain bloodline. Someone from Deutsche Grammophon who are releasing the record said this is a very sad story, but I think the song is quite funny. A song can’t be completely serious if you rhyme melodic with alcoholic.

‘Tearjerker’ has a beautiful sad melody. It’s the saddest song I’ve ever heard with the word jerk-off in it. And maybe the only one I’ve heard with the word jerk-off in it.

JC: Well actually, it’s based on a Ryuchi Sakamoto song, I can’t remember which one. I think even Gonzales didn’t realise until someone pointed it out to him, and then we listened back and realised it was true, so we had to give him credit where credit’s due. What happened was, quite soon after coming back from LA after we’d decided we were going to have a go at this, he just sent me six bits of music, and that was in the first batch. And they all were kind of given working titles, and that one was called ‘Tearjerker’, and I thought that was great for me. That’s a great title for a song concerning movies, because that’s kind of a movie term innit?

Have you ever lived in a hotel? Because there’s a sadness to living in hotels isn’t there? I’m thinking Lou Reed injecting liquid speed during the recording of Metal Machine Music; Alan Partridge obviously...

JC: I remembered an ambition I had when I was eight or nine. You know when you’re thinking about what you want to be when you grow up, or how you want your life to pan out. I couldn’t imagine anything better than living in a hotel so you’d never have to worry about washing up, making the bed, anything like that, and having a servant to come in and play all your favourite TV programmes. At the time I was thinking we’d have a projector and he’d set that going so we’d be able to watch Batman and The Monkees whenever I wanted to - they were my two favourite TV programmes. And of course I got to a stage in life where I could make that dream come true if I wanted. And I remember once when we went to Japan, there was a VHS box set of all The Monkees’ TV series, and I fucking carted it all around Japan. It was really heavy because there were 20 VHS cassettes or something, and I brought it back home and sat in my house and watched it. And about half way through the second episode I realised it wasn’t going to be quite as great as I’d expected.

Was Batman the Adam West one?

JC: Yeah. For ages I was waiting for it to come out, because there was a dispute over who owned the rights of the TV series, so it only came out about two years ago. So I’d been waiting for that one, and sadly enough I would often do the Google search to see if it had been released yet. It’s very sad to admit that. I suppose an aspect to this is that I do think it’s something to do with the fact that nobody teaches you how to read them or anything like that, these images just come at you. You just open your eyes and you read them, so kids will be looking at telly before they know how to talk, and before they’ve got any idea that it’s not real. So it all goes in and it’s in there somewhere. And it can form your view of life. And because it goes in when you’re young, it’s deep.

It’s funny seeing things again. The Goodies doesn’t stand up. The Professionals does, but it’s more right wing than I realised at the time.

JC: Batman does! Not every episode. The Monkees also is not bad. I’ve inflicted all of this on my son. I dunno whether he’ll thank me for it in later life.

I must admit that I do worry from time to time about what I might expose my future son to.

JC: I do think it’s important. You have to create a bespoke cultural environment. I know this may be a kind of thing that an old person says, but I feel to quite a large extent I was reared by the TV I watched. And in a way I feel that I was lucky because at the time I was a kid, watching the BBC... and it was really just the BBC in our house, because my mum wouldn’t really watch ITV because she said, ‘I’m paying the licence fee so watch what I’m paying it for. I’m not paying for ITV’.

I refuse to watch ITV now except for World Cups.

JC: You get to that point where you think ‘I’ve watched that enough in my life’. So, I’ve done my time, I don’t need to do any more time with that.

Coronation Street used to be alright with all the old characters, but then they tried to make it too racy.

JC: Even my mother’s stopped watching it. She says it’s getting too stupid, and that’s saying something. So I think as I said, I was kind of reared by television, but the BBC, it still had that thing - and people are always invoking that kind of Reithian idea - where you could learn stuff from it. If you put a kid in front of a telly now to be reared by that you’d just have a jibbering idiot, you know what I mean? Just adverts for a start. It’s almost like the programmes are an afterthought, the real business of this channel is to sell you things and we’re just going to space out those announcements with some crap to watch. The BBC is still under attack and I think it’s an important thing. I think they just want to turn it into a news channel and get all the programmes made by outside production companies and then what is it? It’s just a label basically.

You didn’t seem to make music for a while. Do you feel like you’re back now?

JC: Well I’m always messing about. I’m not really a musician.

Well you are.

JC: The thing I’m impressed about with Gonzales is that he obviously is a musician, he can read music and he’s technically accomplished, but what usually comes with that is either a tackiness or lots of showing off. I find it a real turn off, especially in the rock arena. It’s like Genesis.

I like Genesis, but I know what you mean...

JC: Alright, well I’m sorry. Something really bad. So I’m impressed by the fact he does that, but he does it in a tasteful way, and also in an accessible way. He’s into melody as well, and we were talking about that. Often people poopoo melody as if it’s a cheap trick to make people like things, but in my experience it’s the hardest part of the tune, to find something that doesn’t immediately remind you of something that’s happened before.

Key changes are a cheap trick.

JC: Even key changes can work.

How does David Thomson fit into all this?

JC: You might have heard a voice that isn’t mine on the record. He’s got a really great voice. He’s a film historian originally from England but he’s been living in America for quite a long time. He teaches at a college in San Francisco. So in looking for ideas, I’ve been reading some of his books, and there’s one called The Big Screen: The Movies And What They Did To Us, and that subtitle what they did to us was what caught my eye. He’s very good at writing about how it’s changed society. I went and interviewed him at the Chateau Marmont in 2014, and it’s an hour and a half long interview which I’m hoping we’ll put online at some point. We filmed it in one take, very conceptual. I was asking him about that thing we talked about earlier about watching a moving image for the first time, and the story of people running away when they saw the pictures of a train moving. And now people don’t bat an eyelid. Especially if you go into a sports bar and there are fifteen TVs and no one looking.

There are even adverts in the urinals sometimes.

JC: People have almost become blase about this magical thing. And David Thomson said what he does sometimes on his film course is he’ll run a piece of film backwards, so where someone has fallen over, they magically spring back to a standing position. And he said that he showed his students that to say ‘that looks magical and everything, but you’ve got to remember that when people first saw moving images it would have looked just as amazing as that, but we’ve somehow become immune to it in the interim period’. So yeah, that was good to talk to him. He’s kind of interspersed... he kind of fulfils the role of the oracle. That’s his function really.

Have you had any dry runs?

JC: We’ve done some work at this theatre Kampnagel in Hamburg. We rehearsed for a week and then we performed it in the theatre for four days. And that’s where it came together. And the songs are in the same order as we worked out there, and that’s where we realised what it was supposed to be, a stage show. Definitely not a musical though. I don’t like musical theatre. And definitely not an opera. I hate opera.