Tom Hodgkinson meets Jarvis Cocker for a nice cup of herbal tea, in an interview commissioned by Youth for his new magazine, MÜ. Pictures by Maryann Morris
It’s a sunny day in old London town, and I’ve arranged to meet Jarvis Cocker at the offices of Rough Trade, his record company, which are on Golborne Road in west London, in the shadow of Ernö Goldfinger’s 1972 block of flats, Trellick Tower, near the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal. It’s a lovely street with a decidedly Moroccan vibe as well as plenty of junk shops and Portuguese cafés. Jarvis appears from the basement and suggests we take a walk to a canalside sculpture garden he knows of.
“It’s called Gerry’s Pompeii,” Jarvis says in his deep, laconic, Sheffield voice. “Gerry, who made it, died a year ago, and there’s a campaign to save it.”
We stroll across the iron bridge which crosses the railway coming into Paddington, past Trellick Tower and on to the canal path. This section of the canal is a bit scruffy and filled with boats whose occupants have found some sort of freedom in a harsh world.
We see the sculpture garden on the other side of the canal. It’s a very strange creation; a narrow garden of around 50 feet. There’s a line of statues, which look like something you might see by a roadside in Mexico, each commemorating someone who Gerry admired.
“It’s outsider art – Gerry made the sculptures and put them there.”
We cross the canal bridge and get into the garden by way of a neighbouring house whose occupants are involved in the campaign. It all seems characteristically Cockeresque: Jarvis clearly has a deep interest in the outsider but also in the ordinary and everyday. He has also thought through the interview carefully – where to go for the pics, and what tea to drink.
On our stroll back from this wonderful patch of eccentricity, Jarvis tells me how much he has enjoyed being in a band again, after many years as a solo operator. His band, Jarv Is, have just released a new LP.
Back at the office, Jarvis makes the tea. It seems he has lately become a tea entrepreneur. This is his own brand. It’s a mint tea developed with a company called Dragonfly. It’s called Beyond the Pale after his new album. The box says, “Welcome to the peppermint jungle” and describes the contents as a “blend of organically grown peppermint, ginger, lemon balm, fennel seed, spearmint and hemp seed.”
We sit in the basement and drink it and chat about Jarvis’s new book, new band, being a slow worker and the difficulties of being an artist.
Tom Hodgkinson: I heard you fell out of a window when you were young. What was the story?
Jarvis Cocker: I was still living in Sheffield. It was 1985. I’d left school. The band started when I was at school. I’d always wanted to be in a band from the age of seven, from seeing The Monkees TV show on telly. They all lived in a house together and I thought it looked like fun. They solved mysteries and wrote songs. I pretended I was in a band even before I had one. You’d be walking around with a gang of friends and think yeah, I’m the singer, and he’s the drummer. Then a weird thing happened. The first demo that we recorded was done in a studio this guy had rigged up in his semi-detached house. You had to record in the bedroom and then mix it in the kitchen. John Peel came to Sheffield – he used to do these roadshow things. And I followed him out into the car park after he’d DJed to give him a cassette of our first demo.
TH: The classic indie band behaviour at the time!
JC: Yeah, but then he did actually listen to it on the way home. And then, like about a week later, we got a phone call which our grandma answered. When I came back from school, my mum told me somebody had rung up about a John Peel session or something.
TH: Oh my God.
JC: I’d been listening to John Peel ever since just after the punk thing. That’d been my real musical education. So to be offered a session on the show was like… I was convinced I was going to be a proper indie superstar. Before even leaving school! That emboldened me to decide to stay in Sheffield and try and make a career out of music. But it didn’t embolden the other members of the band who all went off to college, so I was kind of just left on my own. The falling-out-of-the-window incident was after I’d been in Sheffield and on the dole for maybe two or three years. Disillusionment was starting to set in. We were properly in the Thatcher years. It was obvious things weren’t going to get better very quickly. The falling-out-of-the-window thing was a bit like a mini lockdown, if you like. My life had been going on in a certain way. And then I found this window, and then I was in a hospital…
TH: How did you fall out the window in the first place? At a party?
JC: I was trying to show off in front of a girl. I was trying to do a stunt to impress her and it went wrong.
TH: And how many floors up?
JC: About three floors up. You get that kind of weird foreshortening effect, when you look down. “It’s not that far.” I was in hospital for two months. I had a lot of time to think about what I was doing with my life. I got moved to a convalescent hospital. I wasn’t in any danger anymore, but I wasn’t allowed out, I couldn’t put any weight on. I’d fractured my pelvis. And then there were all these guys in there who’d had industrial accidents, because there still was some industry in Sheffield at that time. So I’m talking to these guys, and hearing their stories, and I found it really interesting. I’ve always credited that period with a real shift in my outlook. This is something that I’ve been trying to grapple with in this book that I’m trying to finish. It’s the idea that – I’m sure you’ve come across this a lot in your travels – a lot of people want to be artists, don’t they? They think it’s a great thing to go for. They want to express themselves, but then it’s like, how do you go about it? I’ve done talks at colleges and schools and people tend to ask you that question with a really pained look on their face. They think that maybe it involves moving to France and wearing a beret. And that fall, my literal fall from grace, brought me down to earth. It made me realise that the stuff that you should write about or use or paint about, is right under your nose. It’s the things that you’ve been brought up with. Because you’ve been brought up with them you discount them because… it’s like the furniture in your house. After a month, you don’t see it anymore. It’s just there. You sit on it. It’s funny that you asked me that question first. Because I do consider the falling-out-of-the-window thing to be a major turning point in my life.
TH: Would you encourage someone, your own offspring, for example, to be an artist, full-time?
JC: I would say, “You can do it,” because I do believe that everybody’s got that creative seed within them. But you also have to feel driven to do it. I came down to London to study filmmaking at St Martin’s, and I thought that would be the end of the band. But we kept going, and it just kept nagging me, you know, and I kept writing ideas for songs and my work rate slowed down. I mean, it’s slow at any time, but it really slowed down… it got really, really slow. I wrote three songs in three years.
TH: That is slow!
JC: Yeah. But they were good ones! And then it just kept nagging me. I couldn’t quite let it go. And that’s what’s happened to me more recently as well. As we were walking back from the canal, I was telling you that a member of the band died. And then I started doing the radio show [on BBC Radio 6 Music]. And I thought, “Oh, I really love doing that radio show.” So I thought, “Well, maybe this is it now, this is what I’ll do.” But in the wee hours of the night, this little voice would say, “Get on with what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re supposed to be a songwriter, get on with it.” You have to feel compelled to do it. There’s no guarantee you’re ever going to make any money or make a decent life out of it. I think it would be irresponsible to say, yeah, go on, everybody, you’re all gonna be successful artists. But if you feel compelled to do it, you can do it.
TH: But it takes time.
JC: On this latest record there’s a song called “Swanky Modes”. That is where this tea we’re drinking comes from. There’s a line that says, “Welcome to the peppermint jungle.” So that’s why I thought we should have peppermint tea. That song was written with my son’s Rock School teacher. We were messing about with some ideas. And then this piece of music came out that really wasn’t kiddie at all, you know, this lovely piano thing. I recorded it but had no idea what the song was going to be about. When it came to writing the words for it, for some reason, this story came to mind. It was towards the end of me being at college – 1991. I was living in a street called Georgiana Street in Camden Town. That was living the dream for me, because when I first came down to London I thought Camden was the best place in the entire universe. Just up the road was a shop called Swanky Modes. This is a six month period of my life that happened nearly 30 years ago. But as soon as I started trying to write this song, it all came back in real and minute detail.
Now, I can’t really say why that happened. But the fact is that for 29 years all this stuff had been in there and then suddenly it just formed into a lump that suddenly came out. I’m grateful for that. It’s kind of exciting because it’s like you’re giving your life a narrative. And I think that one of the privileges of being creative is that you get that chance to make it all make sense in retrospect.
TH: That’s therapeutic as well.
JC: Yeah. You process stuff that was painful at the time, or embarrassing. And by getting a song out of it, or a painting, or a book, that neutralises it. It’s no longer a toxic thing in your life.
TH: You remind me a bit of David Hockney. You have a similar sort of background, and that’s what he says – he likes to paint things that are right there in front of him.
JC: I’d really like to meet David Hockney. I like his pro-smoking stance, even though I’ve kind of stopped smoking. He’s like the antithesis of me – I’m always astounded by just how much work he makes and continues to make. He seems like he just gets up in the morning and just works.
TH: I think he does, he works 24/7. But what’s a typical day like for you, if you’re at home and working on your book?
JC: I tried a few things out. When it came to it, the thing that I found mind blowing about writing a book was just how much you had to write. In songs you’re always trying to express something in the least number of words.
TH: And now you’ve got to write 70,000 words…
JC: So from that thing of trying to make every line count, you suddenly realise you can’t write like that because it’s so irritating to read something that’s trying to make a point all the time. It’s just like somebody who writes texts in capital letters, you know – it’s like, “Fucking back off. Give me some space!” So I thought, “How am I going to write all these words?” A friend who was writing books said, “I’ve been working with a secretary. I talk and she types it, and I’ve been getting 10,000 words a day.” So I went and tried that and that did work well. But then about three months ago, I just thought, “Fuck this”. It was in lockdown. I thought, “Well, come on. If you don’t write it now, you should just be put in jail.”
TH: And your writing process?
JC: So – 11 o’clock. Sit at the table. And you’ve just got to grind it out. There’s no way to make it pleasurable. And I’ll do it for at least two hours. Maybe have a break after two hours and then try and carry on. I wouldn’t probably go for more than four hours. Because you just get a bit brain-dead then. The book was called This Book Is A Song but now I think it might be called Good Pop, Bad Pop. I did a leaflet for Rough Trade Books that was called that. Pop was what formed me.
TH: You’ve been talking about pop and The Monkees. But there’s also your other side – your avant-garde, Stuart Sutcliffe, Paris, Gauloises, Left Bank, black polo necks, existentialist philosopher side…
JC: I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive. That’s why The Beatles were a big deal. For people from that background, to have the temerity to get into esoteric, Eastern religion and experimental music and to put that into pop music was an amazing thing. And not just that they did it, but the fact that they did it and they were the biggest band of the time – that meant everybody else wanted to have a go at it.
TH: It does seem to be much more difficult to be bohemian these days.
JC: Yeah. I agree it is. When I first came to London a friend said, “Well, we’re squatting in this tower block in Camberwell, come and take the flat underneath us.” That was an option. And it was a bit scary sometimes, because the council used to come around with a big metal door and pretend they were going to like, seal you inside. It’s pretty obvious they weren’t going to do that but they would try anything to try and scare you out of there. I remember going to a squatters’ help centre, somewhere behind King’s Cross. You could go along and get advice on what to do and how to get the electricity put back on and stuff like that.
TH: So lockdown has actually been quite good for your book?
JC: Yeah, I’m aware of being in very privileged position in lockdown because I had somewhere up North quite near where my mum and sister still live in Sheffield. I moved up there and I kind of had a good time. The record came out. So for me, it was OK.
TH: Is it quite rural? I mean, are you going for like long walks in the Peak District and things like that?
JC: It went very quiet and rare animals came back, because they weren’t being disturbed by traffic. There are all these hopes that we could learn from that. And I do think that it’s got to have a profound effect – just the fact that everybody’s had to pause their normal life. It’s like me lying in the bed in hospital. After falling out of the window, I got to thinking about what is important in life and what isn’t. People really have realised is that life is boring if you can’t hang out with other people. And we’re talking about creativity, we’re talking about people making things. Over the past few years, with streaming and so on, people have tended not to go out so much. They’ll stay at home and consume culture in their living room. And then when lockdown happened, as soon as you were forced to stay in your living room, everybody thought, “Oh fuck, I’ve got to go out!” When you’re cut off from the source of life… Without that wellspring, then it kind of seems a bit pointless.
TH: As far as I know, there haven’t been any great songs about Zoom meetings yet.
JC: And there never will be… maybe I’ll take that on as a commission.
TH: Your song “Must I Evolve”. Is it about the pressure of having to do things?
JC: I felt that I had to not change but evolve. I prefer the word evolve because you’re the same person or entity but you’ve mutated into a different shape. It sounds much better than ageing. That song’s also about trying to tell the story of a relationship. I came up with this idea that, when you meet someone, that’s like two single cells. Then these two cells fuse, and you get multicellular organisms. Some friends get married, and it works, and they grow, and it turns into this great thing, and you always want to go around to their house, and it’s great. Other friends get married, and it’s like, it doesn’t really work. You know, it doesn’t evolve. And you don’t want to go round because it’s always a bit awkward. So, once that chain reaction starts, you don’t really know where it’s going to evolve to. And as I was telling you, on the way back from the canal, one of the big things about this band has been to let other people into the process. Because that’s what gets evolution going. If you’re trying to control it all the time, it’s a bit of a mean way of doing things.
TH: That sort of suggests that you’ve been more egotistical and controlling at certain points in the past?
JC: Oh, yeah.
TH: You haven’t been immune to the seductions of pop star ego?
JC: I think it’s pretty impossible. I mean, just to go on stage and say, “Look, I’m the focal point of this whole room,” is an ego statement. And then when everybody agrees and goes, “Yes, you are!” And claps, then it’s pretty hard to avoid the ego pitfalls. Yeah.
TH: Some performers say, “I’m only ever happy when I’m on stage”, that Morrissey thing. Is that partly true with you?
JC: I’m happy then – and sometimes even in real life as well – but I do think there is something in that idea that being on stage is to be like being in the zone. All those Eastern religions are about getting to that place where you’re inhabiting the present. And the thing is that sometimes on stage, you really do reach that moment.
TH: Well, you’re sort of godlike. And you probably say and do things that you didn’t know you were capable of.
JC: I can never remember much about concerts afterwards. You only really remember ones when something went wrong. Good concerts just seem to pass by in five or ten minutes, and you’re not really aware of it.
TH: Have you stopped drinking? What about that side of things? Some of my friends in their fifties are rediscovering magic mushrooms.
JC: Magic mushrooms were the first drug I ever took because they’re quite plentiful up in Sheffield. Towards the end of school, we used to go and pick them in these fields on the edge of town. I probably had them too much when I was younger, so I’ve kind of avoided them. I know they’ve had a bit of renaissance recently. I’ve got friends who’ve gone through 12-step programmes. I’ve not done that. I do still drink. Like a lot of people, probably my drinking increased in lockdown because it was a way of providing some punctuation to the day. We tried to wait until six at least… I don’t really smoke anymore. Maybe if I’m having a drink, I might share a cigarette.
TH: You might have the odd rollie or something?
JC: Yeah. So not very exciting. I’m sorry.
This interview is published with permission of MÜ magazine in whose first issue it appeared. MÜ is a new project from producer Youth. The theme for the spring issue (out in the beginning of May), is modern myths. Like the first issue, this issue will include interviews with well known and less known artists from different disciplines, musicians, personnel columns, music, art, literature, tv and cinema reviews, interesting features on different subjects – anything from music to sustainability and food, tributes, a cartoon and much more. Click here for more details.
Beyond The Pale by Jarv Is is out now on Rough Trade.
Buy Jarvis’s peppermint tea here.
Find our more about Gerry’s Pompeii here.
See photographer Maryann Morris’s website here.