Jarvis Cocker interview: ‘I'm an absolute traitor to my class and my background’
Beloved songwriter, everyday philosopher and tweedy sex symbol, the Pulp frontman turned 50 last year. But he hasn’t lost any of his mojo…
Wed Jun 4 2014
I must, before I go any further, declare an interest. I’m a huge Pulp fan. I’m one of those obsessive Cockerites who can recite every lyric penned by pop’s most erudite commentator. I’ve stopped short of sewing Jarvis’s name into my underpants (a common fan practice, apparently), but I am enough in awe of the musician, radio show host and author that I can’t chat to him over the phone without giggling at every wry social observation he throws out – of which there are many. Equally, I can’t help feeling mortified when he gets irked by my questions.
There are plenty of fans like me featured in Florian Habicht’s documentary, ‘Pulp’. The film follows the band’s last ever gig, at the Motorpoint Arena in Sheffield in 2012, and shows Jarvis thrusting and pouting onstage as if it were still the ’90s. Except, to quote the man himself, something’s changed. For a start, Cocker’s lived in Paris since 2003. And in the 20 years since he wrote ‘Different Class’ – still the quintessential outsiders’ album – he’s become a kind of elder statesmen of the British music scene. Now that he’s a dad, a national treasure and an expat, I wanted to know how much of that flamboyant, firebrand Britpop star is left in him.
Let’s talk about that last gig. Why did Pulp get back together?
‘Part of the reason was us thinking: Let’s do it while we still can. There was the issue of whether Candida [Doyle, Pulp’s keyboard player, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis] would be able to play, which was more serious than my concerns, which were, “How high can these heels be before I fall off them?” and, “Will I get too out of breath?”
‘We wanted to do it properly. Pulp were always a pop band: it was important for us to do pop in an interesting and committed and real way, not a corny, phoney way. We truly believed in it.’
The film’s about Sheffield as much as it is about Pulp. But now you’re more associated with Paris and London. Have you deserted the North?
‘Yeah, I’m a traitor. I’m an absolute traitor to my class and my background.’
Are you being sarcastic?
‘The thing is that I don’t think you can get away from it. Where you’re brought up, it’s the soil you’ve grown from and even if you’re transplanted – I’m following this plant metaphor as far as it’ll go – even if you’re transplanted to the hothouses of London, your worldview is formed by that place. Maybe that’s not great if you’re in Buenos Aires, say, and you’re looking for a chip shop.’
You’ve always written great lyrics that reflect on the little things closest to you. Does that get harder as your horizons become broader?
‘Well for me it’s not so hard. Just physically: my eyesight’s very bad. Every morning when I wake up I can see fuck-all that’s more than a foot away. If I haven’t paid attention the night before there’ll be a little comedy hour of me trying to find my glasses.
‘You’ve got to find your own creativity and you’ve got to find it in your immediate surroundings. If you’re going to become an artist it’s there in you already; you’ve just got to awaken it from its dormancy. So I still believe that and I still preach that gospel to other people.’
But do you find it more difficult to mine those same observations out of your life as it is now?
‘It’s a difficult time to ask that, because I’m in the middle of trying to write some songs. I think in the end you just have to do it and see how it turns out. So I don’t know. I’ll get back to you on that one.’
The last set of songs you wrote were largely about wanting to get your rocks off before it was too late. Have you found your libido growing stronger as you’ve got older?
‘That’s a very personal question. The last [solo] record, “Further Complications”, was kind of about that, I suppose. I never listen to records after I’ve done them, but yeah, you’re probably right. I’ve got a girlfriend now so that’s made a difference.’
Of what sort?
What about the film? Have you watched it back?
‘Yes, but it’s never pleasurable. I never like looking at myself, for sure. I noticed that I should have my teeth whitened.’
But you’re very well presented.
‘Am I? Well, they did a lot of work in post. I don’t think much about what I put on in the morning. Just don’t buy crap clothes. Don’t go to Matalan.’
Does Matalan still exist?
‘I don’t know. I’m out of touch. I mentioned Netto to somebody the other day and they looked at me like, “What’s Netto?” So obviously I don’t go to the supermarket enough, do I?’
Let’s test you. How much is a pint of milk?
‘55p green top in Nisa.’
Very impressive. I wanted to talk politics a bit. Did you vote in the recent elections?
‘I’m ashamed to say I don’t think I could have voted. I didn’t get a voting thing. I’ve never voted anything but Labour, though. Having said that, I’m not happy with what we’ve got at the moment. I do think Russell Brand’s got a point in saying that what political parties are offering doesn’t really chime with what a lot of people want. I don’t think there’s much to choose between with them. I also don’t know if they’re actually in charge. That’s probably the people with multinational companies, because they’ve got money and that’s what it’s coming down to now that capitalism is the only game in town.’
You said you were a ‘traitor to your class’. Do you feel any pressure to represent the common people?
‘No, I don’t. I don’t agree with that. I think life’s about trying to find out who you are and what you’re about. It all comes from the personal.The fact that I’ve written songs with a political dimension horrifies me to a certain extent. I never set out to be a political writer, because when I was growing up and people supposedly made political statements in songs it would make my flesh crawl. You can’t find a much worse song than “Another Day in Paradise” by Phil Collins. Ignoring politics is a political statement.’
It’s not a very good one, though, is it?
‘I think it’s all right. It’s like, “Fuck off. I don’t give a fuck. I don’t believe in you.” I think that’s a valid statement.’
But it’s a very fine line between that and apathetic hand-washing, is it not?
‘I don’t know, because I’m not a young person. I’d prefer to believe that people younger than myself are living in a different way, have a different way of looking at things and will work something out. And you’ve got seeds of that. Things like Occupy, or whatever. Soon it might be like, “Fuck off granddad, we’re doing something.” And that’s good. I’m all for it. As long as they’re nice to me.’
You don’t think that you’ll be against the wall when the revolution comes, then?
‘Why would that happen?’
Well, because you probably have more money than other people.
‘Really? You have some kind of insight into my bank balance, have you?’
No, I’m making an assumption.
‘Then what the fuck are you talking about? And, although we’ve talked about the fact that capitalism is the only game in town, we all have to live, don’t we?’
Let me ask you something else.
‘I just don’t understand where you’re getting the idea that I’m a multimillionaire from.’
I didn’t say you were a multimillionaire.
‘All right, go on, move on.’
Being a dad, have you found yourself becoming more embarrassing?
‘No, I’m an edgy parent.’
What does an ‘edgy parent’ do?
‘Stares at their child. I don’t know. It’s interesting: you get to relive periods in your own life. Now my son is 11, so I can see puberty on the horizon, and nobody wants to go through that again. Some things in childhood, like tying your shoelaces, you can teach a child, and that’s it: you’ve given them a useful skill. You’re the world’s greatest dad. But dealing with relationships and love and all that kind of stuff, none of us get to the bottom of that. That’s your life’s work.’
Do you think that you’ll be playing some more gigs again soon?
‘I have to feel that it’s worthwhile in some way. There’s a fuck of a lot going on in London, so I’m only going to do something if I think it’s good. Otherwise, just let people do something else more interesting instead.’
That’s quite a generous attitude.
‘I know, I’m so nice, aren’t I? You don’t have to answer that.’
Listen to Pulp on Spotify
The shy guy producer on the language of birds and the benefits of recording at 30,000 feet
Everything you need to know about the furious foursome from Detroit
The disco hero and studio wizard on being robbed by the Stones and how his bladder influenced his career
After four years in the wilderness, the Wimbledon bard is making a comeback
The club-conquering duo are back with a new album, but where’s Felix Buxton’s head at? Ballet, advocating unity and spotting UFOs