Britpop’s wild days may be behind him, but Jarvis Cocker — in his first major interview since Pulp reformed — has plenty left to say, finds ShortList’s Jimi Famurewa
As promotional tactics go, claiming your new radio series might work as an effective cure for insomnia is somewhat unconventional. But it’s an idea Jarvis Cocker is going with. “If it helps people drop off I’ll take it as a compliment,” he says, rubbing his eye behind his distinctive square frames. “I honestly don’t mind.”
Cocker, as we re-establish over a cup of tea in a quiet corner of the BBC’s brightly coloured new Broadcasting House building in London, is well known for his disorientingly dry sense of humour. However, there’s an odd logic to this uncommon publicity approach. The new four-part Radio 4 show he’s discussing, Wireless Nights, is an intriguing jumble of nocturnal-themed tales and catatonic music, all delivered in Cocker’s soothing Sheffield drawl. An avant-garde sleeping aid, if you will.
It’s the latest highbrow stop-off on the 48-year-old’s journey from awards-show troublemaker to Renaissance man, Sony award-winning 6 Music host and tweed-clad national treasure. But is his life really all appearances on Question Time and occasional jaunts to his old adoptive home in Paris? With Pulp hitting the road for a second batch of reunion dates, we settled down to hear his opinion on everything from The X Factor to Alex James’s growing cheese mountain…
Where did the inspiration for a show about the night come from?
In the day, you have to be official and make yourself fit for human consumption because you’re off to work or whatever. Whereas the night time, that’s the ‘you’ time, isn’t it? That’s when you can express who you are. Somehow it’s easier when it’s dark. That’s why nightclubs aren’t brightly lit. People want to go out and meet other people or even find out who they are themselves. There’s something about the dark that lets you do that.
What’s the biggest difference between your nights now and the ones 15 years ago?
Oh God. My nights don’t last nearly as long. But that’s kind of been the nice thing about doing the programme. In [one episode of Wireless Nights] I go for a walk around Camden at about 10pm. When you get older you don’t just wander the streets, do you? You’ve always got to have a destination. But when I lived in Sheffield, I lived in this old factory building. If I’d been out at night I’d have to walk through the city and there were no other houses around so I’d often wander; I don’t want you to think that I’m a prowler [laughs]. It was just because I was going home. But I’d often find myself walking down completely deserted streets and there’s something magical about feeling like you’ve got the whole city to yourself.
Don’t people yell things at you in the street now, though?
That kind of stuff doesn’t happen any more. But I met this quite intense Brazilian guy about an hour ago. He wanted to have a photograph taken [with me] so he stopped someone as they were walking past, but his English wasn’t very good. The guy he stopped to take the picture was quite well dressed and stylish so he thought the Brazilian guy wanted to take a photo of him for some kind of style blog [laughs]. So he went, “Yeah, of course,” and struck this pose. The Brazilian guy went, “No, no, no, with him.” So the stylish guy looked a bit crestfallen that nobody wanted a picture of him and all the while I was stood there with a thick smile on my face in this strange situation.
It took Pulp a long time to properly dent the charts. Do you think late-blooming success would do today’s bands some good?
Yeah. [Adopts Yorkshire accent] They don’t know they’re born, these kids. They haven’t had to put the graft in. No, I don’t believe that. When we did these [reunion] concerts, we had to go back and listen to all the songs in order to learn how to play them again. I realised a lot of the early songs were painful. I think we did improve. We waited a long time for success, and when it came I hated it. So it didn’t help me deal with it. I didn’t handle it that well, but I don’t know if anybody does.
You were on the dole for a lot of those early years. Should the government financially support musicians and artists more now?
It’s a difficult area. There has to be a reason for you to be in a band. There has to be something you want to get across or some sort of grudge that you’ve got that you’ll only be able to settle by being in a band. Sheffield City Council had a go at funding musicians with a studio called Red Tape. It was awful. And this is one of the paradoxes of [the music business]. It was a noble idea and the people who set that studio up had good intentions, but the reality is that if you try to subsidise things, it doesn’t work. It has to come out of an inner compulsion.
Has your attitude to class softened since you wrote Common People?
Many people have been saying the band scene has become more middle class. I can understand that because they’ve got the impetus of saying, “Look, I’m not just a posho, I’ve got something to say.” The conditions that created rock music don’t exist any more so there has to be new ones. If something new happens it will come from somewhere unexpected. That’s our main problem: we’re so plugged in that we think we know about things because we get information. But information isn’t the same as knowledge. We’re jaded without the experience.
How are preparations for Pulp’s mini-tour of the US coming along?
Well, I’m trying to get healthy [for it]. We did two songs at the NME Awards recently and I was tired after that so I realised I needed to do some exercise.
So you’re hitting the gym?
I’ve opened a can of worms here. I decided that although I’m the more mature performer I still want to move about a bit so I’ve been to the gym a couple of times. I mean, I could lift this table and chuck it over there. And, of course, the walking around for the programme — that’s cardio.
You don’t Lycra-up, though?
No, no. I don’t think we’d want to put those images in people’s minds.
Pulp won an NME Outstanding Contribution To Music Award recently. Does it feel odd to be at that stage considering your rowdy Britpop beginnings?
A lot of these are just made up on the night. An award for longevity. But that’s how culture works. The main example we’ve had in my lifetime was punk. It seemed so iconoclastic, it was all about smashing things up and getting rid of stuff. Then 35 years later there are hardback books about it. You can’t help it, it just becomes part of history. And as soon as something is part of history, in some way it seems respectable. It’s weird. So it’s no different if you’re in a group. That’s the problem with music. It’s too aware of its own heritage now.
Are there any new Pulp songs on the horizon?
It took us long enough to relearn the old songs, so we’ll have to see about that. But I’ve got ideas. I keep my little notebook, I’ve always got that with me [fishes a small notepad titled ‘Stuff + Nonsense’ from his jacket]. Hopefully there’s more stuff than nonsense in there.
Were you worried about the reception to last year’s gigs after you decided to reunite?
Yeah, super-worried. You may have spent your life doing something, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone else is bothered. So it was nice that people were bothered when we decided to play some shows. And the fact that it wasn’t all bald heads when we looked out was nice as well. Some reasonably young people came to see us.
Your contemporaries have branched out. Liam Gallagher’s making clothes, Alex James has…
Made a lot of cheese. He’s probably got a mountain of cheese.
Possibly, but we were going to ask you about non-music pursuits. Have you turned down any particularly ridiculous endorsement offers?
No, so I’d like to put a call out now to say that I’m available. If anyone wants to offer sponsorship, there’s room on the back of the jacket for some writing or a logo, so let’s just go for it.
Do you have any surprisingly lowbrow habits? Ever kick back and watch The X Factor?
I gave up on The X Factor when they did that awful version of Heroes by David Bowie. It’s not music, is it? I don’t want to sound like a fuddy-duddy, but to me it’s everything I don’t agree with. The thing that makes good music is that idea that somebody stumbles upon something or just through their enthusiasm and energy they invent something by accident. That’s where all great music has come from. Probably all great art if we’re honest. And the idea on The X Factor that these experts come in and tell you how to do it, how to style yourself and everything else… Also, look at the level of the experts. In a world where Louis Walsh can be considered an expert, something’s wrong. I hate that because then it makes kids think that there’s a proper way to be a pop star, like there’s a formula. And it’s crap.
Do you have much spare time to go to the pub?
The trouble is most of my friends have stopped drinking so it’s a bit sad if you’re the only one there getting hammered while they’re all on orange juice. So I don’t go to the pub that much, but I don’t mind them. I’m quite into this thing in London at the moment where there seem to be a lot of cocktail bars. I had one the other day called The Gentle Man. I can’t remember exactly what was in it, but it had that mark of a good cocktail where it didn’t taste alcoholic or of any one of its individual ingredients. Somehow, by mixing all those things, a chemical reaction takes place and it turns into another thing. I like that.
Finally, you’ve appeared in Harry Potter, made radio shows and last year you were named editor-at-large at publisher Faber. Have you got any lasting ambitions left?
I’m quite happy with how things are going at the moment, I think. Just today I managed to finish this radio thing, and I’m not very good at planning ahead. So I’m kind of thinking, what should I do next? I’ve got into being outdoors. I was always brought up in a city so it’s novel, the countryside. I think I might be an outdoors type. I mean, I already own a wax jacket.
Bear Grylls has just lost his job on Man Vs Wild…
Has he? Well, there you go; I’ve got a similar physique.
Wireless Nights with Jarvis Cocker airs on BBC Radio 4 on Thursdays at 11pm from 5 April