Jarvis Cocker on his forward-thinking new album: “‘Cool Britannia’ made me throw up”
As is the way of all live music in 2020, earlier this week Jarvis Cocker announced plans to stream a concert by JARV IS… – his new, horny, heartfelt house band – for a dystopian, hellscape version of Studio 54 next week. As is less the way with all live music in 2020, the show won’t be beaming direct from a forlorn-looking empty venue, but rather the centre of the earth. Or at least as close as Cocker and company could get, which is a doomy looking cave in Derbyshire owned by a man called John.
“To get to it you have to go through this bit called Lumbago Walk – you have to bend over almost double,” explains Cocker, who is currently in the editing suite making sure the final cut of the show is perfect. “It was a slightly challenging environment,” he admits. “But it was worth it.”
The chilly, subterranean caves of Castleton, Derbyshire weren’t new to the six-piece collective. JARV IS… – a sort-of indie supergroup that includes multi-instrumentalist Serafina Steer of London post-punk band Bas Jan and James Taylor Quartet bassist Andrew McKinney – have partied in these caves before. In fact, parts of their new album ‘Beyond The Pale’ were recorded there as part of their ‘rave in cave’ during the early days of the project in April 2018.
“When you say you’ve played in a cave people imagine that the sound must be terrible, because you imagine them to be echo-y places, but actually it sounded really amazing,” says Cocker. “That’s why we used it on the record and that’s why we went back to do this show.”
Cocker himself announced the streamed show a couple of days ago on Instagram, writing: “Just spent the last 2 days in a cave trying to invent a new way to play a concert.” Having finally succumbed to social media, he has found himself to be an Instagram convert. However, you will never, ever see him on Twitter – well, not again. “I lasted 40 minutes before I deleted it,” he explains of his brief dalliance with the shoutier side of social media. “I thought it was horrible. People were just bothering you all the time. What I like about Instagram is it’s more like receiving a postcard from a friend. Frankly, it seems a bit more human.”
Encompassing everything from elegiac Casiotone balladry and industrial bass freakouts to barnstorming – or should that be cavestorming? – club anthems, ‘Beyond The Pale’ pleasingly refuses to stray from Cocker’s five-decade run of never releasing a duff album, which he’s stuck to steadfastly since ‘It’, Pulp’s 1983 debut. Eerily prescient, the seven songs on the first JARV IS… album might have been written way before phrases such as ‘social distancing’, ‘lockdown easing’ and ‘wear a fucking mask, mate’ had entered the common lexicon. It deals not only with being trapped at home but also conjures up visions of illegal raves in fields – two things which have come to define the strangest year in living memory.
“Lost in the land of the living room / Adrift in a world of interiors,” posits Cocker on the sprawling synth-pop singalong ‘House Music All Night Long’. It’s an addictive tale of dancing at home alone, in which Cocker casts himself as dad disco’s very own Nostradamus. “That’s the point of an artist; to have your channels open,” he explains of the song’s psychic take on a locked down nation, which was first released as a single in March. “It’s like CB radio – you have to be ready to receive the messages when they come. I thought, ‘Well, I’m doing my job right because somehow something that I wrote that was not meant to be about that chimed with it.’ And that’s what songs are supposed to be, they become a soundtrack to people’s lives.”
Doubling down on this idea, in the early days of lockdown Cocker began hosting a series of Saturday night Instagram Lives. They’re called Domestic Disco, Cocker and, with the assistance of his girlfriend and steady supply of vodka tonics, he would DJ for fans and friends over the app from the comfort of his living room. “It was nice because they could send messages to me, but they were also sending messages to each other,” he says of the peculiar chats that would spring up on the screen of his iPad as he played giddy sets full of B-52s, Freddie Mercury and Happy Mondays.
“In the very last one that I did this really bizarre discussion of sausage rolls started,” he recalls, which, when you come to think of it, is just the kind of nonsensical, chemically-altered conversation you might end up having with a stranger at 3am on the dancefloor. “I think that’s why I latched on to it,” he says.” It really did feel like something real, and the fact that it was happening live was a big thing. It did get a feeling of a collective experience.”
Elsewhere on the album, the shuddering ‘Must I Evolve’ traces the history of mankind, who, after slipping out of the primordial soup, find themselves scouring a massive woodland party for a baggie. “Someone has lost their drugs in the long grass / Cars pass by / And the occasional badger,” sings Cocker, looking back on the acid house happenings he attended after moving to London from Sheffield in the late 1980s. The one that inspired this song in particular took place under an escape tunnel off the M25.
Looking back on all yesterday’s parties, he states: “That really blew my mind. It was an experience of dancing and togetherness that was like a fantasy that maybe you would see in a film but you never thought you could have an experience like that yourself. The journey to finding it was as much of the excitement as anything else.”
“I lasted 40 minutes before I deleted Twitter. It was horrible”
As lockdown lifts, but with a summer stripped of festivals and still no news from the Government on when clubs and venues will be open again, the illegal party scene has once again fired up its soundsystems. But instead of paper flyers and dodgy dudes in phoneboxes, raves are popping up everywhere from Manchester to Hackney Marshes, arranged over WhatsApp. Does Cocker think such events are irresponsible or can he see where they’re coming from?
“I can totally get why it’s happening,” he reasons. “I mean, to tell a young person, ‘OK, you think your life is just about to start, but actually you’re gonna have to stay home for the next three years…’ It’s not gonna fly! I can also understand why people are disturbed by it, but they were disturbed by raves when there wasn’t a health issue. Somehow the authorities find people having unauthorised fun really disturbing. It’s like they can’t control it – so you’ve got to factor that in, that the authorities are probably exaggerating it because they just don’t like people having fun without permission.”
Cocker’s anti authoritarian stance is nothing new, and is part of what makes him as vital now as he was when he was waving his arse in Michael Jackson’s general direction at the 1996 Brit Awards. A supporter of the Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter movements, he’s also signed up to the Owls Against Racists initiative, to end racism within football; namely Cocker’s home team, Sheffield Wednesday. He’s also been bemoaning Brexit since it first loomed ominously over the country. But even when national pride was gussied up as ‘Cool Britannia’ during Pulp’s 1990s heyday, he wasn’t convinced: “That made me throw up at the time.”
During the Britpop boom Cocker featured on the cover of GQ magazine, the year before Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit sprawled themselves across a Union Jack bedspread for Vanity Fair. Cocker recently saw the piece for the first time in decades, in which he explains his hatred of mindless flag waving. “I’m really glad that at the time I didn’t get hoodwinked and go along with that [the ‘Cool Britannia’ movement] because I do hate that jingoism,” he says. “I think we’ve seen the ugly, horrible side of that in Brexit and it’s a real shame.”
Happily, Cocker doesn’t believe we’re all doomed. When we ask if the UK is stuffed, he is surprisingly cheery. “It’s not stuffed, because the people aren’t stuffed,” he explains. “We just need to work out why the people who end up running the country are such a bunch of drongos.” We ask if he sees current Labour leader Keir Starmer as a viable alternative to Boris Johnson. “I don’t know – I don’t know enough about him,” he says diplomatically. “I’ve seen pictures. He seems to use Brylcreem, which is, ‘OK, y’know, not bad’…”
“Authorities find people having unauthorised fun really disturbing”
Someone that Cocker has no qualms in praising is Leonard Cohen, whose influence can be felt deeply in ‘Beyond The Pale’’s opening track, ‘Save The Whale’, a darkly humorous four-minute philosophy lesson which could have been lifted from Cohen’s 1992 electronic folk album ‘The Future’. This is nothing new. Cocker explains that if you go back through his catalogue, you’ll hear whispers of Cohen at every turn.
“The first album that Pulp ever released was almost a carbon copy of the sound of Leonard Cohen’s first album, ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’. I guess I latched onto him just because of the lyrics, the fact that he would put stuff in songs and talk about relationships in a way that you didn’t get in the pop songs that I’ve been brought up with.”
In 2012 Cocker finally got the chance to meet his hero, interviewing him live onstage in the run up to the release of Cohen’s 12th album, ‘Old Ideas’. Was he nervous about meeting his idol or was he pretty chill about it? “I was not chill,” he admits. “But I don’t believe that you shouldn’t meet your heroes. I think you have to, if only to really realise that they’re just human beings and that you respect their ideas, but they’re not a deity or some other type of species.”
The most nerve-wracking part of the meeting for Cocker was having to sit next to Cohen while the entirety of his new album was played back for the invited audience. “I know what I’m like – I can’t bear to listen to my own music,” he groans. “I went in a chip shop the other day and as I’m waiting I can hear ‘Common People’ coming out of the kitchen quite loudly. The guy’s recognised me and either thinks it’s funny, a mark of respect or is taking the piss or whatever. I’m waiting for my chips so I can’t just leave, but it’s excruciating, you know? I don’t get pleasure hearing my own music in public places.”
Not even echoed back in caves? “I don’t really listen to it when we play concerts,” he deadpans, “because I’m performing, so it’s a different kind of thing.”
Not to worry – come July 21 at 8pm we’ll be dimming the lights, pouring ourselves a vodka and tonic and (virtually) going underground to see ‘Beyond The Pale’ played in full. See you by the big rock on the left?
– JARV IS…’s ‘Beyond The Pale is out now