Jarvis Cocker: Further complications
Former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker talks to Michael Odell about being single, staying solo and making music out of a mid-life crisis. Jarvis Cocker is sitting in a Paris cafe looking every inch the eccentric Parisian intellectual: a beard, an ensemble of 1970s browns, thick bookish glasses. It's only when he speaks that the Yorkshire burr taints the image. Pulp's 45-year-old former frontman has been a Paris resident for six years now, and the local accent has made nul impact. Everyone else in the cafe chatters with sing-song joie de vivre. Even when he asks how your journey was, Cocker sounds like his house has just burnt down. Still, the Sheffield-born star is reflecting on the greatest cultural innovation he enjoys in his adopted home.
"Oh, that's easy. Classical music piped direct into underground car parks is a definite gift to the world. How didn't someone come up with that before? You're hassled because finding a space and parking is always a pain. And then you get out [of your car], and there's a symphony playing. I like that a lot. But you have to wonder what Beethoven would have made of it: 'Listen, Ludwig, in 200 years' time your music will not be played in the duke's court but a concrete bunker full of cars.' But in stark contrast is actual French pop music, which is almost all utter ****."
It's a classic Cocker utterance: quirky, well-observed and ending with a dour miserabilist coda. Local heads turn, but I think this is because of the English swearing. He goes mostly unrecognised. This is his local cafe in the Rue Navarine in northern Paris, a 10-minute walk from the Gare du Nord railway station, which links Paris with London. Cocker is a regular commuter (he also owns property in London) and talks with affection of the bakery on the corner which does the best baguettes in Paris. His six-year-old son Albert goes to school locally. And Cocker's daily routine is a mix of the out-and-out Parisian and the expat clinging to home comforts. Each morning he stops off after the school run and has coffee and a tartine (a French bread and butter snack). But he sometimes adds the British touch: Marmite, and he reads The Times or The Independent.
"Maybe I should throw myself into it a bit more," he shrugs. "But I think I'd feel like a bit of an idiot if I started giving it the full Parisian treatment. I'm not a Little Englander. I hope I am slightly porous and let in new influences. It's just that I don't see myself cycling around wearing a string of onions." What he is doing is immersing himself in the edgy bohemian Parisian netherworld where art and music meet. Recently he played "open" gigs where people passing by the Chappe Gallery in Montmartre were able to watch Cocker and his band perform with, by turns, a bellydancer, a bunch of school children and a yoga class.
It's his highly individualistic way of promoting his new solo album Further Complications. Meanwhile, Britpop, the loosely connected "scene" of British rock bands which previously included Pulp and dominated the UK charts in the mid-1990s, is back. Oasis are playing Wembley Stadium. Blur re-formed to play Glastonbury and two shows in London's Hyde Park. Why no Pulp? Cocker, who was the thinking person's candidate in the unseemly Britpop beauty contest, is missing the party. Instead he has recorded his angriest work to date. Further Complications, released last month, was produced by Steve Albini, the no-frills, boiler-suited punk producer who recorded Nirvana's In Utero.
"I waited a long time to enjoy anything that you might call success, and of course I was pleased when it came," he says. "No one wants to be playing to pubs full of 30 people for ever. But it's hard to go through something like that [celebrity] and not become a total idiot. It's sort of nauseating and destabilising that you get invited to all these parties and become a cause célèbre for doing what you've always done. There is no reason to change who you are just because someone is offering you a flute of champagne and telling you are the best thing since sliced bread."
The tone of Further Complications is adequately set by its song titles alone: Homewrecker! I Never Said I Was Deep, Leftovers. There are lots of lyrics about wanting to sleep with women. There are lots of reminiscences about old loves. There is a lot of midlife angst. It sounds grim and unappetising, but of course this takes no account of the Cocker Filter: once life experience has been channelled through his laconic pen, it becomes amusing and irresistibly human. "I met her in the museum of palaeontology/and I make no bones about it," he begins on Leftovers, before a tale of midlife lust unfolds.
"I think a lot of people my age think they are going to grow up and have this epiphany where they think: 'OK, now I am a mature adult, just like how I imagined adults to be when I was a young boy.' Well, it never happens. Hopefully I have matured and learnt things in life, but I still feel inside like the young lad who first started to observe and write things down. It's a curse in a way." He certainly hasn't been short of material so far this year. He has split from his wife, the stylist Camille Bidault Waddington, after six years. It was her French roots that proved the catalyst for the move to France in the first place. Is he feeling pangs of midlife regret?
"I don't know about regret. It's just that? you always think that you are going to be sorted by the time you are in your mid-forties, and yet the same old urges and confusions overtake as they did when you were a teenager. "The problem I seem to have is that I can be very clear about how I am feeling on record. But my wife always used to go on at me about my inability to express myself in the relationship. I come across as very clear and emotionally intelligent, maybe, when I'm on stage. But at the sink I can be very uncommunicative. I don't think I'm very easy to be married to as a normal human being. You're far better off with the Jarvis Cocker on record: the songwriter. He's funny. He's all right. The real-life one is a bit of miserable git sometimes."
On the album, one of the standout tracks is an affecting song called Angela, in which Cocker lays bare his feelings for a fictional woman of that name. It's just that a member of his band has a girlfriend of the same name. "I don't want her to think that I fancy her," he says. "I don't want him to think that I have designs on his woman. The names should always be changed to protect the innocent. Honesty in art is always a good thing, but it can get you into all sorts of trouble. I've learnt the hard way. The decent thing to do is tell someone how you are feeling before you write a song about them."
The marriage split must have been very difficult. He was seven when his own father left the family and moved to Australia to pursue a career as a radio DJ, and he didn't seem him again for more than 20 years. Cocker was brought up by his mother, and he readily admits that the paternal bond with his son is all the more strong. "I want to be in his life, yes. I think that probably is a little bit of an exaggerated sense of need because my dad wasn't around."
Music was Cocker's solace and his outlet. Pulp formed in 1978 and waited 18 years to find success with their album Different Class, which contained evergreen classics such as Common People and Disco 2000. Until then Cocker was only ordinarily famous, but he became a national hero for puncturing the bombast of Michael Jackson at the 1996 BRIT Awards when he climbed on stage and "wiggled his backside" in the direction of the superstar who was in the middle of a routine purporting to present himself as some kind of messiah.
"It was half alcohol and half instinct, that," he says. "I was drunk and he was acting like an idiot. But I find it hard to believe what a big deal is still made of that. It's the biggest thing on my CV, which is a depressing reflection, I think." Since Pulp's split in 2002 and Cocker's departure to Paris, he has established himself as much as a media commentator as a singer, appearing on TV arts shows, guest-editing the BBC radio news programme Today and curating the Meltdown music festival.
Having taken his band to the very top, he seems to have courted a return to small-time beginnings and a marginal role in affairs. Now he is trying to forge music from a not particularly rock 'n' roll phase of his life. It must be so tempting simply to ring the members of his old band and hit the road for one last payday. Surely he must get offers? "Well, yes. We live in an age where repetition and nostalgia are lifestyle choices. I am prone to it, too. I go on YouTube and find things that I haven't seen since I was a kid. That used to be a function of memory: you held on to these things for yourself. Now you never have to say goodbye. But I'm a contrary sod, so if someone wants me to re-form a band I tend not to."
What about other band members? Don't they say, 'But we have mortgages to pay'? "The mortgage-to-pay reason has not been cited as yet? I'm still romantic enough to feel that turning up at Glastonbury a stone heavier with a mortgage to pay would not be good for any of us." Cocker even has the humility to suggest that the other major Britpop contenders who are on the road this summer are more worthy of a second look. "I will see Blur at Hyde Park, I think. I'm genuinely interested to see what they sound like. As for Oasis, there's less mystery because they have never gone away. But I will say Liam Gallagher remains a lesson in the power of charisma. I saw them get their Lifetime Achievement Award at the BRITS and I felt old. But you see why. He'll stand there at Wembley with his hands behind his back, wearing a cagoule and people will watch. When I get on stage I feel I have to work 10 times as hard. I'll squawk and screech and kick out my legs in a 'Did you see what I just did there?' way. He's a natural. I don't think I am."
And so the self-doubting and self-questioning goes on. Cocker knows he is more of a writer than a sonic innovator. The domain in which he remains peerless is documenting the foibles of human relationships, and there is plenty of that on the new album. In fact, you might argue that he was a little too taciturn in the Nineties. Now in his forties with his marriage over, he has got something to be dour about.
"If I ever thought I was bringing anything new to the table, as they say? then it was trying to fit into songs the bit of life and relationships which are usually left out. I mean, if you left the documenting of human relationships solely to people like Beyoncé or Eminem, then you'd be left with a very narrow and quite depressing perspective. There are always odd little things going on in people's minds, and it's up to me to get them into songs."
He came to Paris because his wife was French. Is it possible Cocker will remain and live the life of the hoary expat artist drinking absinthe? "No. I'm well aware that people still do come to Paris for that. You can read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast [the American writer's account of living in Paris in the 1920s] and come and sit in a cafe and drink coffee and then try and write your novel, but it doesn't work. You cannot back your subconscious, or wherever all the creative stuff happens, into a corner. I find you have to trick it. I wrote Don't Let Him Waste Your Time for Nancy Sinatra while running a bath. It's only Americans who come to Paris and think they can locate their inner artist."
Further Complications is out now.
Updated: June 27, 2009 04:00 AM