“Here’s one of the most exciting things that’s happened to me recently,” said Jarvis Cocker, British rock’s foremost chronicler of hedonistic urges among the educated classes. One leaned in, expecting a rollicking anecdote. “I was given a membership to the London Library,” he revealed. “It’s a private library, in London, surprisingly, that’s been there for about 300 years.” (He was only off by 122 years; it was founded in 1841.)
Cocker was in New York in late February to promote “Beyond the Pale,” a seven-song album by his new band Jarv Is, the more diffuse and electronic successor to Pulp, which he led for more than 30 years. (After the extent of the pandemic became clear, the release date moved from May to July.) He had chosen to meet in the cafe at McNally Jackson, the SoHo bookstore. Music and books meld in Cocker’s mind — a question about touring leads him to mention Richard Brautigan, and one about living part-time in France brings his thoughts about Michel Houellebecq and Emmanuel Carrère.
In 1996, when Pulp was in the midst of a run as one of Britain’s most popular and interesting bands, a Guardian writer described Cocker as “a young, gawky, bespectacled oddball” who was also the “finest wordsmith of his generation.” He’s now 56, and still has the physique of a pencil. On that February night, he was wearing burgundy corduroy pants on top of thick-heeled beige boots, below a fabulous Savile Row blazer. He spoke quietly, just above the store’s playlist of Lloyd Cole and the Blue Nile, and maintained the most assiduously unkempt hair in rock music.
While drinking green tea and pinching bits of a scone, Cocker discussed whether lyrics are important in music and how David Bowie saved him from prison, and opined on Steely Dan, Bryan Adams and broken crockery. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Is “Beyond the Pale” partly about the shrinking relevance of white people?
I hadn’t thought about that. Somebody told me the origins of “beyond the pale” is to do with when the English were occupying Dublin, and they had a section of town that was the Pale. That was where you were safe. If you went beyond the Pale, you were in the danger zone.
England is in a kind of complete nervous breakdown at the moment, with Brexit — which shouldn’t be called Brexit, because it’s really about an English myth of identity. That idea of paleness that’s represented by the things that have caused Brexit is something I would very much like to move beyond. So, yeah, I think there’s some of that.
Your mother is a councilor who supported Brexit. How did her conservative views influence you?
I’ve accepted from an early age that I’m very different from my mother. It makes me realize, there’s more to life than your political persuasions. I was loved in my household. Although I disagree with my mother, there was never really any animosity. I still love her. She embarrasses me a lot, but I’m not going to ban her from talking to me.
In a way, it might’ve been good preparation for being in a band, where you don’t agree with everyone’s opinion, no?
Yeah. I’m writing a book at the moment, and it’s sent me back to the roots of when I started writing songs. That thing of going to your room and trying to not make too much noise, but wanting to have something of your own, and inventing something that you can be the master of. When you’re living at home, you’re not a master of anything, really. You start to invent your fantasy world, which conforms to your rules. That’s like what a band is.
What kind of a book are you writing?
About 11 years ago, a festival in the U.K. invited me to do a talk. I did a PowerPoint presentation with slides, to illustrate my view of what makes good lyrics, and whether lyrics are important to songs. That talk has evolved over the past decade. The book is called “The Book Is a Song.” The conceit of it is that during the course of the book, we write a song together.
So what’s your answer? Are lyrics important to songs?
No. [laughs] I really do think that. One example is “Louie Louie” [by the Kingsmen]. In the ’60s, people thought it had obscene lyrics, but the reason why there was an F.B.I. investigation was that you couldn’t hear the lyrics. That didn’t matter, because the feel of the song was exciting.
The first point of contact with a song is the sound of it, or the melody. Everybody realizes that when you sing karaoke. The words come up on the screen, and you think, “Those are the words?” You know the chorus and two lines from the verse, but the rest is a fog. So I don’t think lyrics are that important.
So if “Louie Louie” is a dirty song that doesn’t have dirty lyrics, then lyrics aren’t paramount?
They are important. The written word is the nearest we can get to being inside someone else’s head. That’s kind of a magical thing, and it’s part of the magic of books. So yeah, I’ve contradicted myself. I’ve been reading lots of books that tell me that, for any statement, the opposite is also always true.
You’ve hosted a radio show for the BBC, directed videos, done a bit of acting, worked as an editor at Faber & Faber. Was there a point when you thought, “Maybe music isn’t the right job for me anymore”?
I wondered about that. But then the voice in my head wouldn’t give me any peace. I always felt, whilst doing these things, like I was cheating. I started work on this record maybe seven years ago. Then I was asked to play a concert in Reykjavik in 2017. I was going to turn it down, because I didn’t have a band, but the voice spoke to me again and said, Say yes. I had to learn to play the songs with a band and present them to an audience, and by doing that, finish them off.
The voice was telling you to get back to songwriting. But it sounds like there was another voice, telling you rock music is no place for a middle-aged man.
Oh, I’m always getting that voice. If an idea keeps coming back again and again, you have to go with it.
Thematically, “Beyond the Pale” sounds like the thoughts of a middle-aged man who was once at the center of cultural trends, no longer is and is trying to deal with that. Does that description resonate with you?
I have, in my previous musical incarnations, done pop music, which as a child was my fantasy. Like some kids dream about being a spaceman or a fireman, I thought about being a pop star. I achieved my childhood ambition and found that it didn’t give me what I hoped would come from that. To go back into making music again, I had to find a different focus.
The other thing that gets repeated through the record is an idea of going back to a basic, beginning state. The song “Must I Evolve?” came from reading a book, “The Mind in the Cave” [by David Lewis-Williams], which is about the dawn of human creativity — the first cave paintings — and an attempt to say what kind of mental change happened in Paleolithic man. Creativity is a fundamental part of being human. I guess I was trying to tap into that.
So if being a pop star is no longer appealing, what new motivation did you find?
I’ve not climbed a mountain. I haven’t discovered a new species of plant. But a song is an adventure you can have with yourself.
I should’ve known all this, really. When I went to college in London, to St. Martin’s [School of Art], I wrote a thesis about outsider artists. And then I made a TV series for Channel Four in the U.K., traveling around to speak with outsider artists. There’s a guy called Leonard Knight who built Salvation Mountain, a big, kind of psychedelic mound in the Salton Sea. There was also a guy in France who covered his house in broken crockery.
My question was always, “Why did you make this?” And they never had an answer, which was frustrating. But eventually it clicked. It had never crossed their minds to ask why. They got so much pleasure that they couldn’t stop.
Your new album is seven songs.
So many good albums are: “Fun House” by the Stooges. “Aja” by Steely Dan. There’s more than you’d think.
Is putting out only seven songs an acknowledgment that the album is dead?
No! Because I care about albums. I never made the flip to digital. I would never say, “We’re working on a new CD at the moment.” A vinyl album is the perfect form for listening to music. A side of a record, 18 to 20 minutes, is perfect. A CD, with 15 or 16 songs, is too much time. Half the day’s gone if you listen to it.
When you went to St. Martin’s, Pulp had already made two albums. Why did you put off the dream of being a pop star to attend college?
We were deeply unsuccessful. What happened was, Pulp were offered a John Peel session [for the BBC in 1981]. I’d listened religiously to John Peel from the age of 13. That was like heaven. OK! Pop stardom is just around the corner.
Right there, I decided I wasn’t going to college. I’d got a place at Liverpool University, to read English, and I deferred it. But the rest of the band, their parents were strict, so they had to go to college. The band disappeared. I was on my own in Sheffield. Pop stardom wasn’t around the corner.
Lots of people in Sheffield were joining a charismatic Christian cult. The city was falling apart, all the industries closed down, and I thought, if I don’t get out soon, I’ll end up in that cult like everybody else.
I’d been buying stuff from jumble sales, where people take unwanted clothes and household items to a church hall. I bought an old Super 8 camera and started making little films. I applied to St. Martin’s, and that was my escape.
So when you started at St. Martin’s, you thought Pulp was finished?
Yes, I thought, bands are over, filmmaking is in. But again, the voice was still there. Steve Mackey, who became the bass player in the band, moved down from Sheffield to London, and said, if you want to play concerts, I’ll do it. The first two years, maybe we played one concert. Then toward the end of college, we got asked to play, and suddenly, people clapped. [laughs] It was like, wow, what’s happened?
Will Jarv Is play any Pulp songs in concert, when concerts return?
We’ve done “His ’n’ Hers,” which is a pretty obscure song. We might do a couple more of the same level of obscurity. I wouldn’t want to play the ones that are really well known, because, um, I’m really mean.
No, the sound of those songs is a product of all five people in the band, attempting to stay in time with each other. It wouldn’t feel right to play “Common People,” or something like that.
In 1996, you infamously climbed onstage during Michael Jackson’s performance at the Brit Awards in order to, you said, protest the way Jackson “sees himself as some kind of Christ-like figure with the power of healing.” Did you watch “Leaving Neverland,” the recent documentary about two men who say they were sexually abused, as children, by Jackson?
I kind of purposely didn’t watch it. You know, that incident happened and changed my life forever, because of the fallout.
Do you mean negative fallout?
In the U.K., suddenly, I was crazily recognized and I couldn’t go out anymore. It tipped me into a level of celebrity I couldn’t ever have known existed, and wasn’t equipped for. It had a massive, generally detrimental effect on my mental health.
I was saved by David Bowie. There was an accusation that I’d knocked some kids off the stage. I’d been arrested. The only footage that’d been released was like a CCTV camera, and you couldn’t see what was happening. That year, David Bowie was getting a lifetime achievement award, and he had his own camera crew there. After two or three days, they released their footage, and then the charges were dropped straight away. Among many other things I’m grateful to David Bowie for, that was amazing.
There are a few lyrics on the new record that made me laugh out loud.
[Raises arms in triumph] Good. Humor is important to me, as a way of dealing with life and making it bearable.
One lyric, in “Swanky Modes,” was “Some still scoring cocaine/Some laid up with back pain.” That’s the one that made me think it’s an album about being middle-aged.
Especially when you come from a musical background, you hang out with people who don’t look after their health like they should. You have a group of friends, and as time goes on, some people keep drinking, some people stop drinking, some get into yoga. That’s what that song is trying to get at.
Some people make it through life and some don’t. That’s horrible. I know people laid up with back pain. Unfortunately, I know one or two people still scoring cocaine. [laughs] Those two things are both pretty tragic.
You appear to have the same waist size you did 25 years ago.
You say the nicest things.
Are you naturally thin, or do you have to work at it?
I’m not as thin as I was. I do exercise occasionally. Sometimes a bit of Pilates, a bit of yoga, a rowing machine. Don’t want to be laid up with back pain.
Given all your other media enterprises, how committed are you to music?
Without wanting to sound dramatic, I feel like it’s my calling. Even just the way I remember events, it always, like, What was in the charts at that time? I make connections to songs. If I’m running for a bus, I’ll probably be going [sings to the tune of Bryan Adams’s “Run to You”], “I’m gonna run for you.” I always have a song going through my head to the activity I’m doing. I accept the fact that that’s my thing.
Pulp hasn’t performed since 2012. Do you get information about how much money you’ve been offered for a reunion, or have you told your agents to not even mention it?
I might’ve said, “Don’t mention it to me unless it’s above a certain amount.” [laughs] There might be a reason why it would be a good idea, but I was very happy with our reunion shows. Why risk spoiling that? In five years, I might not say the same thing.