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More than 40 years after starting the iconic band Pulp, Jarvis Cocker continues to evolve as an artist. He speaks about the raves of the late ’80s, his concerns about the growing costs of humanities degrees, and his latest album, Beyond the Pale. By Isabella Trimboli.

Jarvis Cocker pops the questions

Musician Jarvis Cocker.
Credit: Daniel Cohen

Jarvis Cocker is in a countryside living room, grunting into a microphone. He stands behind a makeshift DJ booth, cloaked in strobe lights, one attenuated arm gesticulating, while the other fiddles with the speed on a house remix of “Stone Fox Chase”, the theme song of the BBC TV music show The Old Grey Whistle Test.

“Welcome on this voyage on a Saturday night,” Cocker announces, “to escape your cabin fever, leave your troubled mind behind.” He shouts out the names and cities of viewers who pop up on screen. “In a field in Suffolk? Well, as long as there’s only you and a few sheep there, I guess that’s okay.” “Derbyshire not a city, that’s a county.” “Uranus? You’re very naughty, Gwendolyn.”

Of course, many musicians have turned to live streams since their tours were cancelled en masse, but unlike the glut of acoustic set-ups, or depressing concerts held in empty theatres, Cocker’s DJ sets have an amusing, slapdash quality – the sort of thing you might find on community TV while flicking aimlessly between stations late at night.

Over seven Saturdays in April and May, fans tuned in on Instagram for what the British musician christened the “Domestic Disco”, a description that characterises much of Cocker’s four-decade music career, which has so often transformed suburban mundanity into moments of dramatic and sharp-witted pop.

The living-room DJ sets, as well as his short-story podcast for the insomnia-prone, have temporarily filled the void left by his own tour, which was slated for May. Cocker’s new band, JARV IS…, was formed three years ago as a live experiment with songs developed through audience interaction. The recordings of these live shows form the basis of the band’s debut album, Beyond the Pale, which is out next week. While its songs may stretch to almost the seven-minute mark, this isn’t jam-band territory – the album is full pop theatre, buoyed by synths and strings as Cocker riffs on raves, caves, graceless tourists and a clothing store on Camden Road.

Cocker says writing and recording Beyond the Pale reminds him of when he started Pulp as a schoolkid – how he would persuade his friends to come over on a Friday night when his mother wasn’t home, so they could rehearse and record in the living room. The family’s dog would be “going mental”, he says. “On all our early recordings … at the beginning and the end, all you can hear is this kind of,” Cocker lets out a dog’s whimper, “whingeing, trying to get back into the house.” This early iteration of Pulp performed concerts at school, where the band would work out what parts of a song “were shit” based on the audience’s reaction.

In the 40 years since, he hasn’t strayed far from the living room. His body of lyrical work reads like an especially miserable furniture catalogue: broken dressing-table handles, towel sets, stagnant waterbeds, floral sheets, net curtains and beds that smell of “damp towels and asthma inhalers”. Cocker admits he’s a bit baffled by this fixation of his, especially because being alone at home as a child made him uneasy. “I would just freak out if I was on my own for too long,” he says. “I would go out just [to] escape from myself.”

The song “House Music All Night Long”, written two years ago on a hot summer night in London when Cocker found himself stuck at home, confronts this discomfort. To stave off a “burgeoning depression”, he began fiddling with his keyboard. With lines such as “one nation under a roof” and “lost in the land of the living room”, the song is already being hailed by listeners as an unintentional isolation anthem.

But it took a while for Cocker’s work to be met with this kind of recognition. Formed in the late ’70s, Pulp spent more than a decade languishing in obscurity in the post-industrial decay of working-class Sheffield. Then, in the ’90s, the band were suddenly at the centre of pop culture in Britain. Cocker in particular was a tabloid fixture, fodder for endless parody with his iconic horn-rimmed glasses, pronounced hip thrusts and predilection for a nice tweed coat.

The band’s rise was due, in no small part, to their being lumped in with Britpop – a term Cocker detests: it’s a “sharp, bitty, horrible sound”, he told Stephen Merchant in 2010 – despite the fact Pulp were at odds with much of the laddish guitar rock now synonymous with the movement. There was also the lusty, proletariat pop of Pulp’s major-label debut, His ’n’ Hers, and the British chart-topping 1995 album Different Class, which contained the generation-defining anthem “Common People” – a big, strange pop song that eviscerated a rich college student wanting to cosplay as a commoner. Cocker’s stage-crashing of what he called Michael Jackson’s “Jesus act” at the Brit Awards a year later, during which Cocker wiggled his bum at the camera in protest, certainly magnified his celebrity.

But media and pop domination were fleeting. This Is Hardcore, Pulp’s dark and seedy 1998 follow-up to Different Class, was more cruel, more debauched, containing none of the shiny, class-antagonistic anthems that defined their breakthrough. They released their Scott Walker-produced final album, We Love Life, in 2001, and disbanded a year later.

Pulp’s 2011 reunion – for an extensive two-year tour – proved a one-off. Unlike some of his peers who seem trapped on a seemingly never-ending anniversary tour, Cocker has busied himself with several entertaining and peculiar projects: soundtracking a documentary about steel, hosting the beloved BBC radio show Sunday Service, releasing two solo albums, putting out a lyric book, making an appearance in a Harry Potter film, becoming an editor-at-large at Faber & Faber and collaborating with pianist Chilly Gonzales on an album about the Chateau Marmont – among other pursuits.

Cocker isn’t sentimental, despite this storied career. He’s reluctant to give definitive answers when it seems he’s being asked as an elder statesman of music to comment on the state of the industry. For instance, with regard to music becoming more of a passive experience, something he’d worried about in the past, is that worse now with streaming services? “I think you have to guard against that kneejerk reaction that instantly if something’s new, it’s bad.” Does he think that indie music has lost its class consciousness, and that it’s harder for working-class bands to get a leg-up in the industry? “In the music industry, obviously, for years and years now, there’s been this thing like ‘the music business, in crisis!’” He points to bands that have risen despite contractions in the industry. “I think that there are some good bands who are talking about real things in the UK, at least at the moment,” he says.

If there is any nostalgia on Beyond the Pale, it is for the illegal acid house raves that sprang up in the outskirts of English cities in the late ’80s. Going to his first rave altered him, Cocker says. People were friendly, focused on the music, out of their minds on ecstasy and chugging Lucozade. It was his first real interaction with electronic music.

“It blew my mind, really, because it was like what I’d always wanted a nightclub experience to be,” he says. “In Sheffield, it had never been like that. It was just, like, guys trying to pick up girls. If they couldn’t pick up a girl, they would have a fight with somebody. And then maybe a kebab on the way home.

“[At raves] people were trying to enter a new dimension by losing themselves by dancing for hours on end. I just thought it was amazing. And the fact that it was also under the radar, it wasn’t sanctioned by the powers that be … the energy from that has never left me.”

It would be remiss not to mention what is key to the Cocker canon: the collusion of carnality and civil discontent. His songs about sex are heavy with projection, anticipation, bravado, sometimes stinking of desperation, a little bit cruel and, in moments, truthful to an uncomfortable effect. They are also self-deprecating and deeply funny, such as the “House Music” lyrics “Goddamn this claustrophobia / ’Cause I should be disrobing ya”. On stage, he embodies these libidinous characters with wild gesturing and gyrating; an elbow-patched, eloquent Lothario.

In Owen Hatherley’s book-length essay on Pulp, Uncommon, he writes that the group were the last in a lineage of British artists – including The Smiths, Roxy Music and Pet Shop Boys – who straddled sexuality, class resentment and literacy; these musicians were all “from working or lower-middle class backgrounds, educated at art schools, claiming state benefits and living in bedsits or council flats months before they found themselves staying at five-star hotels”.

Cocker feels strongly about the rising costs of tuition fees for creative degrees in Britain, as postwar education reforms and artists’ grants have been hollowed out. Last month, the Australian government announced plans to double the cost of humanities degrees to corral students into “job-relevant” courses. But education isn’t all about earning money, or getting qualified to get a job, says Cocker, “it’s more about learning a particular way to think”. He was lucky to scrape by in his first year at Central Saint Martins, studying film, fee free.

“Basically, kids from a poorer family just aren’t going to do those creative subjects because it’s too much of a gamble,” he says. “One of the main things that I got from going to college was that it was such a mixture of people … that’s what made it exciting because you got all this cross-fertilisation of ideas. The trouble is now you’re not going to get people from that sector of society. I think that’s a shame; it makes it less rich.”

In the past few years, Cocker has rallied around the Extinction Rebellion movement and campaigned for a second Brexit referendum, an issue that hits close to home with his 17-year-old son living in Paris. In a speech titled “Good Pop/Bad Pop”, which he gave at The Convention’s Another Vote Is Possible conference, he likened the 52 per cent majority for the “leave” vote as equivalent to landing at number 19 on the charts – not quite a resounding win.

The press announcement for Cocker’s upcoming book, This Book Is a Song, carried vague sentiments about the subject of creativity, but he is adamant it is not a how-to guide – it is more akin to a memoir, with the songwriter plummeting into the disordered depths of a London loft to explain how he approaches songwriting. The loft is where Cocker has been stuffing all manner of things for decades. Carry-on bags from travels or tours. Garbage. Anything he hasn’t wanted to grapple with.

“A couple of years ago, I just decided that it was a psychological problem that there was all this stuff just hidden away in the dark I was not dealing with, so I opened up this loft,” he says, “and it was like opening Tutankhamun’s tomb or something.”

Among lolly wrappers, bits of coloured fabric and clothes, Cocker stumbled across a few talismans from his own career, including a ticket to the 1981 John Peel Roadshow in Sheffield. It was here that an adolescent Cocker, armed with a demo tape, approached the influential broadcaster in a car park after his DJ set. A week later, Pulp got a call to perform what would be the first of many recorded Peel Sessions, with the band coming to define the kind of provincial punk and pop artists that Peel championed throughout his long career. “That was really the beginning of my musical career,” says Cocker. “So this ticket, for me, that’s like a holy relic that should be in a frame or something … but it was just in a pile of shit.”

On Beyond the Pale, Cocker is doing a different kind of reflecting. It’s sharp and self-aware, about getting on and going out of style. Extinction and existentialism are the order of the day. On “Must I Evolve?”, questions of “Must I change? Must I develop?” are met with calls of: “Yes, yes, yes.” “Your children are here to tell you: Do something new / Or do something else,” he prods on cinematic disco number “Am I Missing Something”. How do you keep yourself in check and change? “I think keeping a kind of inquisitiveness and wanting to learn about stuff is really key,” he says. “Once you start thinking that you know something, then you’re in trouble.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2020 as "Popping the questions".

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Isabella Trimboli
is a Melbourne-based culture writer.