Jarvis Cocker, formerly of Pulp, talks about ageing, his second solo album and his role in Fantastic Mr Fox.
Old school: Jarvis Cocker
After the release of Pulp's final album, We Love Life, in 2001, it was easy to think we'd seen the last of Jarvis Cocker. The band's charismatic singer and bookish, unlikely pin-up had moved to Paris with his French wife and young son, Albert, for a semi-retired life of continental respectability. There was his concept electro duo Relaxed Muscle and the occasional radio appearance, but the man who once invaded the stage during the Brit Awards to protest at Michael Jackson's messianic performance seemed to have gone quiet.
Yet by the end of the last decade, Cocker was once more a familiar figure in British cultural life. This year he released his second solo album, Further Complications, which was recorded in Chicago with the legendary producer Steve Albini. He held two art events (one in Paris and one in London) in which members of the public were invited to play beside him and his band as yoga and circus skills classes took place, and he "appeared" in Wes Anderson's adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox as Petey, the rough-and-ready assistant to Michael Gambon's farmer Bean.
Cocker is quite the Renaissance man - perhaps because the 15 years he spent struggling before Pulp achieved chart-topping success in 1995 helped cement his irrepressible work ethic. Cocker, who recently revealed that he and his wife are to divorce on amicable terms, has long used his lyrics to explore the seedier sides of the male character. On his solo debut and throughout Further Complications, he has increasingly written with an ageing male voice, frustrated with the kids in hoodies, having improper thoughts for the checkout girl at the local supermarket and raging at life's petty frustrations. Does he still feel prey to the baser instincts that so shaped Pulp's lyrics?
"I couldn't keep them down," he says. "I really wish it was otherwise. Life would be much simpler." The creative process, he says, distracts him from acting on his impulses. "If you're me, you just write about them - and I do tend to write about things more than I actually do them. Which is probably good news for womankind." Cocker says that the lyrics for Further Complications are "more personal" than those on his self-titled debut, which was loaded with a kind of political commentary. "I'd moved to a new country and it threw into sharper relief some of the things about the country I'd just left. I had something to compare it to, so that record addressed wider issues. This one's more about emotional things, really."
Part of that is accepting the onset of middle age and the things that, at his age, will never be changed. This, says Cocker, has led to a surprising reaction to his most recent work. "Some people see this record as very hard going, which kind of disturbs me because I consider it quite a light-hearted album, even down to the title,Further Complications," he says. "It's kind of about accepting those things and saying: 'So what? S*** happens. Get on with it.' It's the same for everybody, basically, so don't get too hung up on it."
Cocker still holds the belief that his songwriting is at its best when he is singing a narrative (Pulp's songs were well-constructed vignettes of the darker side of modern life: the menace of joyriding youths, suburban affairs or standing tough in the face of bullies). "In some other bands, the vocals are more like a noise that fits in with what the rest of the people are doing," he says. "Because a lot of my songs have a story, you need to be able to hear the words to be able to follow the story. That last song on the record, the disco one, it's pretty important that you can follow what's happening to this guy who's having a hallucination in a discotheque."
Perhaps the best song of all is Caucasian Blues, in which Cocker looks at how the ageing process affects musicians. "There's always that worry that you'll end up playing a blues rock cover as you get older," he says. "It's funny, isn't it, because blues music was invented by oppressed black people as a way of dealing with that situation. How has it gone from that to being the middle-aged, middle-class white man's music of choice? Cream and Clapton - that's a strange transformation.
"I was scared of going down that route myself, so that made me want to write a blues song, and I thought it was funny to write a song called Caucasian Blues," he says. "I was trying to think what would the Caucasian blues be? Maybe your remote control car port door doesn't work." It becomes increasingly clear that Cocker is a man who has plenty of gripes about modern life. He says that part of the reason for his gallery projects was that they took place in real time: "It's a non-repeatable thing. It's an improvisation. You just do it and then it's gone."
It was a deliberate counter to the sense of repetition that he feels pervades contemporary culture. "People feel the need to film events on their phones so they can relive it later," he says. "It drives me insane at concerts. It's just happening, isn't it? Why not just look at it? It seems stupid to have something happening in front of you and look at it on a screen that's smaller than the size of a cigarette packet."
And, Cocker reckons, it's not just the bane of his life as a musician: "I think it applies to everything, not just music. There's something nice. If you have it all on DVD or mpeg files, if anything, it undermines the original experience because it seemed like a really good moment, and now you can see it was crap. It's like wedding videos. A wedding should be a magical day because of the personal emotions of the people involved. When you see it with that taken away, just the bare facts of it, it's just some people standing around in a room getting p****ed. So why do that to yourself? Why not just continue living the dream?"
Cocker's views come not from the jaded or cynical mind of a bitter, fading rock star, but from what has always been a rather romantic nature. It's partly why he got involved with Fantastic Mr Fox: he liked Anderson's use of stop-motion animation rather than the omnipresent CGI. "I get really turned off by CGI films because I feel like I'm watching somebody play a computer game," Cocker says. "I went to see Moon recently, the one directed by David Bowie's son, and that's all done using shots of models. You're aware of the fact that they're models, but cinema is about suspending disbelief. It's nice to know they're physical objects and not just a rendering that's done on a computer. It just feels better in some way."
It's probably for similar reasons that Anderson, known for whimsical, lovingly shot films such as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, approached Cocker to be involved in his adaptation of Dahl's story. Originally, Cocker provided narration throughout the film, but - although "I tried to use my best speaking voice" - the Sheffield accent was too much for American test screenings, and the narration was cut.
Nevertheless, Cocker is pleased with his role as Petey the farm labourer and the moment when the character lets his human loyalty slip and sings a song (penned by Cocker) in sympathy to Mr Fox and his plucky, furry comrades. Cocker ascribes the success of the film to its appeal to both young and old audiences: "They're not sentimental, those stories. That's something that's nice about Wes's adaptation. Usually kids wouldn't see a fox kill a chicken in a film. It'd be implied or glossed over."
Cocker says he's been reading Dahl stories to his son, who seemed to enjoy seeing his father represented on screen. "That was quite sweet, actually," Cocker says. "He really liked the film. But when Bean comes and tells me off for playing the song, he abuses me and then throws a cigarette at me. After the film, my son asked: 'Why does that man flick a cigarette at you?'" After a busy year, Cocker plans to have a break from making music in 2010. However, he hints that his involvement with Fantastic Mr Fox has inspired a return to filmmaking, the subject he studied at Central St Martins College of Art in the days before Pulp became a household name.
Then there's his new radio programme on the BBC's digital station, 6 Music, and a collection of songs that he's written for the libidinous actor Russell Brand in the forthcoming comedy Get Me to the Gig. "Basically he's an English rock star who's been in AA, and then he falls off the wagon and hilarity ensues, as they say. He's a fairly sex-obsessed, egotistical person," Cocker says. So no autobiographical details went into writing the songs for Brand? "Oh, no," Cocker grins. "I'm a completely non-sex-obsessed, completely ego-free person, obviously.
"But I've been involved in the rock business for years, so I brought a bit of that expertise into the songs."