Jarvis Cocker has built one of rock’s weirdest, wittiest, most fascinating careers. But he’s still not finished experimenting. In the Nineties, he crashed the British charts as the frontman of Pulp, turning into an unlikely sex god purring hits like “Common People” and “Disco 2000” on classics like Different Class. His eagerly awaited new Beyond the Pale, out July 17th on Rough Trade, isn’t just his first album in a decade — it’s one of his most brilliant ever. With his new band Jarv Is…, he explores his favorite obsessions — lust, angst, neurosis, dancing, politics — over the louche grooves. It’s a masterful return for a true pop genius and the greatest U.K. songwriter of his generation.
The album was originally scheduled for May — but like everyone else, Jarvis got blindsided by a pandemic. The single, “House Music All Night Long,” became an all-too-timely ode to getting cooped up alone, listening to disco in your kitchen. (“Goddamn this claustrophobia!” Too real.) Always a prize live performer, he saw his summer tour get scuttled. So he’s spent the quarantine days searching out new creative avenues. He went to Instagram Live for his “Domestic Disco” series of DJ gigs, spinning vinyl faves direct from his living room. He’s written an upcoming guide to creativity, This Book Is a Song. He also began a “Bedtime Stories” series on Sunday evenings, reading selections from the works of Richard Brautigan, Tove Jansson, or J.D. Salinger in his distinctive Northern accent.
Jarvis spoke to Rolling Stone in NYC for a long chat in February, then again via phone in May, after the world had turned upside down. He opened up about life in lockdown, staying creative, obsessing over pop music, growing up in nightclubs, Billie Eilish, Ray Bradbury, Pulp’s legacy, and why dancing to disco is his favorite kind of meditation.
Congratulations on the new record. “House Music All Night Long” turned out to be a timely quarantine theme song.
Yeah — that is quite strange. We played a show to launch that single — I think it was March the 2nd, two weeks before the lockdown. We had received the first pressings of the single that night and I was really excited. Then within a couple of weeks, it had taken on a whole different meaning. Emma, our violinist, pointed it out, because one of her friends got the virus and had to self-isolate and said, “Well, that song seemed to be talking completely about my experience.” But given the choice between having a timely song and a global pandemic, I think I’d rather not have the global pandemic.
I was brought up at a time when pop was like a national pastime in the U.K. So I view the world through a pop prism. If something happens, I’ll think of a song associated with it. That’s just my default vision in my head. Around Christmas time, I was in the supermarket and there were these small tangerine-type oranges, and it said, “Easy peelers.” So as soon as I saw “easy peelers” written down, I started humming the Eagles. [Sings] “Peeeeaceful easy peeeeelers.”
I’m sure you’ve found that you can have a song that you’ve known for years, but then you suddenly hear it on the radio in this given context, and it’ll take on a different meaning. I was listening to the radio the other day and heard Martha and the Vandellas. [Sings] “Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide!” I just thought, “OK, right.” That was written back in the mid-Sixties, but it certainly seems like it’s about what we’re going through now in this.
The album has this live festival summer vibe — people are starved for that kind of experience these days.
That’s something that I’ve thought about since the lockdown started. That’s how the album was made — it was made out in the field, on a stage, in a place with people there, which is something that we don’t know when we’re going to be allowed to do again. So it’s great to have captured some of that energy — I’m glad we took advantage of that whilst it was available. It’s going to be a while before anybody can record in that way again.
How did your “Domestic Disco” DJ gigs happen?
I was gearing up to do a tour, but with the lockdown, I knew that was all going to have to wait for a while. The big thing about live performance is that direct contact with an audience — it was frustrating, not to be able to have that, and who knows when that’s going to be possible again. So these broadcasts were providing some kind of real-time feedback. On Instagram Live, you’ve got names scrolling up and people commenting. The song, “House Music All Night Long,” is all about a guy who can’t sit alone in his flat, wanting to be somewhere else, so there was that idea. My girlfriend helps me do it, so it’s a form of couples therapy as well.
I can play music that I enjoy and then lose myself in it. But when people listen to it, that creates this feedback loop, which makes it something different than just me sitting around in the living room, playing records to myself. Dancing is something that can give you a bit of an escape. When you’re dancing, once you get over that initial self-consciousness, you’re not thinking too much anymore.
In your music, the dance floor always seems to be this source of inspiration and anxiety.
A lot of my education came in nightclubs. I first started going to clubs just after I left school. My sister, who was two years younger, started to go when she was well underage. I thought, “It’s so lame that my sister is going out and I’m not.” At that time in Sheffield, there was only one alternative club, this place called the Limit — a basement with awful toilets. But it was the only place that would play indie music. Sheffield’s a big city —I think it’s the U.K.’s sixth-biggest city — but it’s provincial. So it was that thing where all the subcultures get 20 minutes on the dance floor. You would get 20 minutes of goth and then 20 minutes of psychobilly and then 20 minutes of indie. For five years, without fail, I would go to that club two nights a week. The playlist very seldom varied. You would get “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” at midnight — very imaginative. “Planet Claire” by the B-52s would be one of the first records to get the dance floor going. I’ve never owned “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” but I know every single note, because I’ve danced to it so many times.
My first exposure to music was listening to a transistor radio as a kid. But going out to a nightclub, a whole new dimension opened up. That’s a different relationship to music. Listening to the radio, it’s all happening within your head. But suddenly you’re reacting in a public place—you’re part of it, in a way. So I think that’s why I keep coming back to it. Because I was slightly brought up in discos.
The way you portray it, the disco’s a place where all the human emotions come into play.
They do, yeah. I remember that thing when you’re trying to have a conversation in a club — it’s probably why I’m slightly deaf now. People are shouting in your ear, then your eardrums start to buzz. We would have what seemed to be profound conversations, but in the other ear there would be “Human Fly” by the Cramps playing loud.
When I left Sheffield, when things weren’t working out with the band, I moved to London thinking, “That’s the end of my nightclub days. Now I’ll get down to some serious work.” And of course, I happened to arrive there just as the acid house scene was taking off. So I had to investigate that. I dreamt a club experience could be like that, but I didn’t believe it could really happen anymore — music could be a transformative thing that would take you off somewhere else. That kept me in the nightclubs up to my thirties. So that’s a decade. And I guess it stayed with me. It certainly surfaced on this record for sure.
There was that Pulp documentary a few years ago — at the U.S. premiere, you said music from Sheffield sounds different because people go deaf from the steelworks.
It’s true. All the cinemas in Sheffield had to turn up their sound a third higher than anywhere else because everybody was deaf. But because of the heavy industry, people were aware of frequencies that you wouldn’t normally hear. If you live in the countryside, you’re not going to hear big bass tones. At the same time I was going to this poor-quality nightclub, I was living in an old factory building. There were still active factories and foundries there. At night the building would shake from all this subsonic noise. So it’s natural to bring those environmental sounds into the music.
Even in your most experimental records, there’s that pop sensibility. What does pop mean to you?
I’ve always thought, in a weird way, that pop music was real music. Because it was the first influence on me. When I recorded the Further Complications album with Steve Albini in Chicago, he asked my favorite kind of music. I said pop music. He was like, “What the hell?” Obviously I realized it was the wrong thing to say, because to Steve Albini, pop music is the exploitative capitalist system which will suck all the truth out of artistic expression. And I get his point — it’s an industry, it’s a business — but it was the first music that had an effect on me. When I had a group of my own, we were always aspiring to have hits. Because to me, that was where music really happened.
“I’ve always thought, in a weird way, that pop music was real music.”
Pop is a very broad umbrella. I wrote a pamphlet about it called Good Pop, Bad Pop. The singles charts were like a democratic process — the public did really take notes and get personally invested. Weird left-field things would suddenly become a hit. Laurie Anderson would get to Number Two with “O Superman.” It gave you hope because people from different backgrounds would latch on to quite a strange song. Especially now, where everything seems to be about polarization, I like the idea of a unified thing where people can agree. Dance music’s a good example. It’s the wedding-reception effect: You’ve got kids and old people and they’re all dancing to “Night Fever” by the Bee Gees or “Dancing Queen” by Abba. People realize how much we have in common.
At the Pulp reunion show in NYC, this couple near me was kissing and singing along to “Something Changed.” It was surprising because in some ways that’s a really dark song.
That’s the one Pulp song that seems to crop up. I’ve been stopped by a lot of people who tell me that song was played at their wedding. They walked down the aisle to it!
Our big hit in the U.K. was “Common People,” and in the wake of that, there was pressure to re-create it. But it always becomes diminishing returns. I think everybody knows at heart that good ideas just come from nowhere. That’s what’s frustrating about pursuing a life in music. But also, if you’re honest about it, it’s what keeps you doing it. Because you never know what’s ‘round the corner — there’s always the chance that something magical is going to happen. Sometimes you might think, “Jesus Christ, come on — hurry up! Magic needs to happen soon!” But it’s slippery and unpredictable. So trying to re-create things by formula is never going to work. You’ve just got to set off in a direction, and if something exciting does start to happen, pay attention and make the most of it. That’s all you can do.
Do you keep up with younger pop stars?
The only modern pop star I’ve experienced at close quarters recently — we were playing the festival in Ireland called Electric Picnic, and Billie Eilish was there. As it was getting ready for her stage time, there was this high-pitched sound like [Screeeech]. I thought they had an intro tape going. Then she came out and this sound got louder. I thought, “Surely they should turn the intro tape off?” Then I suddenly realized it was prepubescent girls screaming. You know that sound on The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl? I’d never, ever heard that in real life. I’d heard it on documentaries, about the Beatles or whatever, but I’d never been in a crowd when that happened. I was quite impressed. Her songs didn’t sound like conventional structures — they sounded a bit more interesting.
I don’t like pop when it’s too slick and choreographed. You can almost hear them counting the steps under their breath. A real turn-off, that. I like to feel that someone is in some way transported by what they’re doing.
You developed the new songs by playing them live. How did that project happen?
I got asked to play a concert in Iceland, but I was going to turn it down because I didn’t have a band anymore. Then I just decided to get a band together really quickly. But I realized this is what I should’ve done from the start, because that’s how you finish songs off — you have an idea, you bring it to the band, then they add their thing to it. I don’t know why I’d forgotten that. It’s weird because I’ve done it most of my life. But the exciting thing for me with this record was playing songs live and finishing them in public, if you like.
You’ve always been an unabashed live showman.
It was a big leap for me to go onstage at first, because of being quite a shy kid. When I first performed, I didn’t move much. I discovered it one night when my guitar broke. I had a fit and squirmed around the floor, which was really embarrassing — a tantrum, basically. But people clapped. I realized, “Oh, right. So being onstage isn’t about playing the right notes in the right order. It’s also about performing.”
Onstage, when it’s going well, you can feel the music moving through you, and you can act it out. Just like all those years dancing in this dingy nightclub in Sheffield. It’s a chance to turn your mind off. People used to call disco music “mindless boogie.” But I never thought that was an insult, because it’s like a meditation thing. Everybody’s into mindfulness apps, but just go and dance for two hours and you’ll experience that same cleansing of thoughts, concentrating on a rhythm and keeping in tune with that. You’ll get those same benefits, plus some exercise as well. You don’t need a wellness app.
You’re doing that with things like “Domestic Disco” as well. It’s inspiring to see artists figure out creative ways to adapt to the new reality.
Yeah — that’s why I wanted to do it. I think music can be helpful when there’s so much information coming from different places. If you were to watch the news all the time, you would probably have a nervous breakdown. So the ability to just lose yourself in some music for a while is important. That’s tuning in to the roots of why people like music and what music was even invented for in the first place — to transport us somewhere, so we can come back to the world refreshed.
On the other end of the scale is the “Bedtime Stories” thing I’ve been doing, which is where I’ve been posting a bedtime story at 9:30 on Sunday evenings. When the lockdown started, I had a bit of trouble sleeping, and I’ve always found that listening to a story has helped with that. I’d always liked Ray Bradbury when I was a kid, and then I found a collection of his — I hadn’t read it for ages. I read this story called “Powerhouse.” It’s about a couple riding across the desert. The weather turns bad. They’re looking for shelter. They come across a power-generating place and they decide to stay there for the evening. I’ll stop there because I don’t want to spoil it, in case you want to read it yourself. But it’s a meditation on the nature of electricity and how it connects everyone, and that seemed appropriate for this current time where we’re so dependent on networks of communication. If Zoom didn’t exist, would we still be able to talk to each other, to keep family ties going?
But weirdly, by all being separated from each other, people have found creative ways to communicate and help each other out. We have a lot of frustrations with the way the governments have dealt with it — especially, I imagine, over there, where you’ve got a leader who just seems to be completely deluded. But when everybody went on pause globally, people had to re-evaluate what was necessary in their lives and what they could do without. And I guess the thing people realized they couldn’t do without, in the end, was other people.