Jarvis Cocker: “We live in a world of apparent colour and texture and nuance on our screens, but increasingly we think like a binary code”

Words: Aaron Jackson

If you’ve been raised on a diet of professional Yorkshire-people flattening the accent of Britain’s largest and most diverse county into one representative whole, you may be surprised to learn that there are three main types of Sheffield accent. There is blunt Sheffield – which is like a punch in the face to the uninitiated. There is laconic Sheffield – which is dryer than the Sahara and leaves you unaware that your legs have just been removed at the knee until you try and walk away. Finally, there is Jarvis Cocker’s.

Mr. Cocker’s accent lies towards the more laconic end of the spectrum, but when you ring him on a Monday morning to talk about Beyond The Pale and its genesis you become aware of two things. The first is how like Jarvis Cocker Jarvis Cocker sounds. This might sound odd, but you’d be surprised how few famous people sound like themselves in real life. The camera doesn’t just add ten pounds, it appears to do funny things with the sound too. The second is that you suddenly become aware that you are interviewing a national treasure whose output over the last three decades makes you realise how little others who are routinely awarded that title do to earn it. Frontman of Pulp – Britpop’s best band (even though it wasn’t a movement they identified with); radio presenter par excellence; cultural commentator and curator; and now the driving force behind the excellent Jarv Is… project. If you’ve lived and worked in Sheffield, as I have, it’s a little like suddenly finding that you’re interviewing God.

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How are you this fine Monday morning?
I am very well, thank you. It isn’t particularly fine, weather-wise. It is raining – which is fine enough, of course, if you’re the weather and that’s what you want to do, I suppose. I’m currently waging war on a squirrel. Before you ask, it was the squirrel who started it. It was stealing the food I was putting out for the birds. The situation has escalated. My war will be conducted in a humane fashion – with traps and peanut butter – but the squirrel must go. It must go five miles or it will come back, apparently.

Oh. I didn’t know that there was a minimum limit for squirrel relocation?
I know. Isn’t it wonderful? Always something new to learn – these natural cycles.

Speaking of which, we’re talking on a Monday morning. Do you find that you respond to those cycles in our lives? The Friday lift and the Monday fall, joy in Spring, gloom in Winter…?
Yes. I think that those cycles are always there: the Friday lift and that Monday lull repeat on wider levels of the seasons and then our lives, also. I suppose the other thing is that I come from Sheffield, where there are other rhythms, like the rhythm of work, which is ingrained in the city. It changed so much while I was away. I really noticed those changes when I came back. Bear in mind that when I left Sheffield, it was fucked – and now it has more going for it and a better-looking future. But historically it’s self-defined itself as a working place. The steel, the coal, the heavy industries, the services that supported them… and that rhythm hasn’t left. It’s pushed into the fabric of the city in the layout of the streets and buildings; it’s in its circadian rhythms – and that doesn’t change whether you’re doing twelve-while-twelve and split shifts on changeover, nine to five with an hour for lunch, or Zoom meetings.

Those rhythms of life are part of larger rhythms and cycles in nature and history. We feel the Friday lift and the Monday slump when we feel Spring arrive or Winter knocking on the door. The smaller cycles fit into and reflect the larger ones. We’re in a cycle now; we’re at a moment of historical cyclical change, change in so many ways. We don’t know which way it will go either. We tend to think of change as always being for the better. That’s the dream that we’re sold: that the one thing we can expect in life is change and that it’s always good. The self-help industry is founded on it. But when it’s as big as this, we don’t know if we truly are changing for the better. The good guys don’t always win. If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that.

We’re in a cycle now; we’re at a moment of historical cyclical change, change in so many ways

Has it been odd? Watching what’s happening, but also having to watch it happen on a screen as a result of Covid?
I think even if we weren’t locked down because of Covid, we’d still be watching it on our screens! After all, we live on screens now. Our lives are on screens. We pay our bills on screen, we work on screen. We relax on screen. We exercise with other people – on screen. We put ourselves and our lives on screen without even thinking about how odd that is: that we share everything with everyone all ‘round the world; our innermost thoughts, our new car, our dream holiday, our likes and dislikes – and we think that putting things that we might not even share with our own family up for strangers to look at is normal?! It’s no wonder their inventors don’t let their kids play with their inventions, because screens and the platforms and the algorithms behind them are designed to be more addictive than any substance yet discovered! What you can see on them and access with them is truly magical in both an older sense of magic and a transformative sense.

What’s interesting is that this massive seismic change in our world, in the way we interact, in the way we think and learn and connect and communicate is based on a simple 1 and 0 binary code. There’s no ambiguity there. It’s black or it’s white. It’s on or it’s off. Have you noticed that ever since screens infiltrated our daily lives our elections now are all 49% 51% either way? The landslides and popular surges and groundswells of the past are gone. Huge swings to the right or left are over. We’re very directly polarised now. We live in a world of apparent colour and texture and nuance on our screens, but increasingly we think like a binary code. Right/Wrong. Off/On. Friend/Enemy. There’s no middle ground where we can come together.

“The landslides and popular surges and groundswells of the past are gone. Huge swings to the right or left are over. We’re very directly polarised now”

The people divided can never be united? It’s odd that devices that are supposed to bring us closer together end up polarising us more and more …
Well, yes. Irony would be the word here, I think. What’s also interesting is when you look at the music we make in this context. Nowadays we all work on laptops and pads on programmes where the impulse is to smooth things out and make them uniform. Everything is on a grid. Every noise, every sound, every emotional moment is reduced to a little coloured bar on a screen. Regardless of what the music is telling us it wants, regardless of what our emotions are telling us that we need, we can’t resist the urge to make it into a nice neat pattern. So, we follow the grid: we cut on even numbers rather than odd because it looks tidier; we loop an eight-bar pattern rather than a nine or eleven-bar pattern because it’s neater. There’s nothing wrong with the tools – but it’s how we use them. There is more music in the world than ever before. We’re more creative than we’ve ever been in a lot of ways, but the pathways to creativity are pre-ordained by the way we’re wired and the way that we’re making it is wired. Unless we deliberately push beyond the neatness, it’s easier to create than ever before. But if we don’t, how much of it sounds the same…?

Regardless of what the music is telling us it wants, regardless of what our emotions are telling us that we need, we can’t resist the urge to make it into a nice neat pattern

Yes. I wanted to ask about that. Beyond the Pale has very inventive arrangements. Were they a reaction to that urge to neaten?
They were a reaction to the reaction, if you see what I mean? We workshopped a lot of this music by playing it live in places where music was never supposed to be played live, places like Peak Cavern. That was a very deliberate choice – to play what we had in front of an audience and see where it led. Serafina (Steer: harp, keyboards, vocals), Emma (Smith: violin, guitar vocals), Andrew (McKinney: bass, vocals), Jason (Buckle: synthesiser & electronic treatments) and Adam (Betts: drums, percussion, vocals) are all excellent musicians. We had ideas, little pieces of music that we thought might go somewhere. It was in playing them to an audience that they developed; and they did so as a direct consequence to the reaction the audience gave: their response and energy. Although I was also concentrating on remembering lyrics and what might come next, I was also sort of conducting, you know? If my left hand comes up, we go to the chorus; if I dance to the left we go ‘round again, sort of thing. I think of it as editing in real time. Our soundman taped all ofthe shows and I sifted through them to find points where the music and the energy came together and we worked on from that.

That’s a really interesting approach, because nowadays a lot of albums are written by email exchange – and then the band has to get together and work out how to play the finished product, but you actually did what older bands used to – you road-tested your material…
Well, cavern-tested, I suppose. But yes. And it’s an interesting thing. If you think about it, music since the dawn of time has been listened and responded to by communal audiences. Want to know if your latest symphony is working? Play it for people? Want to sing your latest song about The Enclosures Act? Sing it at the pub. The performance, the content and the audience response were the parts that made the whole. The album is a recent invention. It’s what? 80 years old at the outside. The idea of music an individual thing that’s for you and you alone is recent. Sitting down in your music room and putting on your gramophone record and listening to it alone is a recent thing. Listening to it alone in your headphones is even more recent than that – and that’s the point where the album that was the snapshot of the communal experience became atomised into the download culture we have now.

Now, I still think in terms of albums, rightly or wrongly. It’s part of the form – in the same way a writer still thinks about the book, even though there’s the Kindle, and the audiobook, and the Twitter stream and all the rest of it. Before this … blip in history where the album attained the pre-eminence that it did, we made music together and we listened to and experienced music together. What we did when we were making Beyond the Pale was go back to that. By recording everything in front of an audience, we caught the moments when something interesting happened between the music and the audience and that became our starting point – these songs didn’t ask to be verse/chorus/outro songs. They wanted to be more – and we were fine with that. Why get into this life unless you want to see where it takes you? The other thing to remember, of course, is that even in Pulp we had lots of very long songs, or songs with very long sections. We’d hang on to make a musical point far longer than most other bands ever would because it led somewhere interesting in terms of the music or the emotion or the story that was being told.

“We’d hang on to make a musical point far longer than most other bands ever would because it led somewhere interesting in terms of the music or the emotion or the story that was being told” Image: Pete Hill

It sounds like the workshopping process was very productive?
It was. It’s a great way to work. I’m actually really sorry that Covid has buggered it up for the foreseeable for two reasons. The first is that we’d built such momentum that I really wanted to keep going and crack on with the next album in the same way. We are actually already doing the email exchange and it’s proving very fruitful, but there was something in that communal approach that was very liberating, especially for me personally – which is the second thing. Towards the end in Pulp, it took us longer and longer to make albums because we wanted to make sure we’d explored every possibility to make sure we had the best one. Here, though, I couldn’t give in to that slightly obsessive tendency. I had to let it go. The music was happening now; the crowd was reacting to it now. My job was to get out of my own way and just surrender to that experience. Just let it happen, ride it and see where it took us.

The results speak for themselves. Are there any songs you can point to in particular that really shows that process happening?
Must I Evolve? definitely benefitted, yes. The performance the album song is built on was recorded up at Peak Cavern. You know elite athletes who meticulously prepare to make sure nothing goes wrong when the gun goes? Well, everything went wrong at that gig. Everyone was telling us that it was going to sound horrible, because apparently geographic events don’t build acoustically perfect venues for gigs – which is nonsense, by the way. The sound was fantastic. Then an amplifier blew up. Then I had pages and pages of lyrics and I wanted to fit them all in but I couldn’t remember them all; and I was conducting at the same time as I was trying to remember them, so the band were getting signals to go ‘round again, or to go to the next bit, and I’m listening and watching and responding … and just realising it was all happening no matter what I did anyway!

But it’s an outstanding track!
Well, it’s very kind of you to say that. I suppose that’s the point. Out of chaos – order, but maybe not the order we were expecting. At the time, we were so busy dealing with everything that it didn’t really stick in the memory. But listening back it was clear that this was the performance. Maybe so much was happening and there were so many distractions and were so busy with everything that we got out of our own way and that allowed that performance to happen the way it did. Maybe that’s it: we got out of our own way. Of course, once I was listening back to it and I realised that this was the one the need to shape and cut and paste and tinker came back. I wanted to fit all of the lyrics in that I’d missed out, all of these precious gems I felt I needed to share… and the more I tried, the more I realised that what had come out on the night was what had needed to come out. So, I left it alone!

Speaking of lyrics, I said in the review that you seemed to be working from similarly strong literary and cultural traditions to someone like Dylan, but where he tends to float into abstraction, yours always seem to come back to a point or to root themselves in something: to a place, to a time, to an idea, to a process. Is that fair, or am I barking up the wrong tree?
Well, I think it’s a bit of both. I’m not going to claim it for the creative industries but everyone knows when they’ve done a good job; when they hit the deadline and just have to hand it in as is; and when, actually, you get out of your own way and let the process do the heavy lifting you keep micro-managing back to yourself. Must I Evolve? is an excellent example of the latter. I had pages of lyrics that I thought were all important, but the ones that were, were the ones that came out when they needed to. By contrast, Swanky Modes was more tied to a narrative and the lyrics came out more methodically. I had the music for a long time and I sort of knew what I wanted to do with it; and it was a process of working through what I thought I wanted to do to get to a place of where I actually did what I wanted to do – and then there’s the moment just after you summit the mountain when you think ‘Hold on. Did I get it right?’ and the urge to tinker comes back. You have to stamp down hard on that urge to tinker, but only after tinkering has taken you somewhere interesting! Am I Missing Something? was me listening to the music and linking phrases together to see where both took me. Not quite cut-and-paste, but gesturing towards it. What also changed was that I was also writing for female voices …

“There’s the moment just after you summit the mountain when you think ‘Hold on. Did I get it right?’ and the urge to tinker comes back. You have to stamp down hard on that urge to tinker, but only after tinkering has taken you somewhere interesting!”

Yes. I noticed that you don’t use them like most artists do, to beef up the hook. They really add to the arrangements and the depth of the sound.
Well, there’s a little hook-beefing going on, but of course what it also does is open up the perspectives and the avenues you have. Those voices can answer back; they can respond; they can add something that I can’t melodically or in terms of the narrative – they can change the dramatic impetus of the song. They also add the quality of human connection and conversation. There’s more than one person talking. It’s been fantastically liberating. In Pulp, nobody else admitted to being able to sing, so I ended up doing it! It’s one of the reasons why we used a lot of interesting instruments for texture and tone – for the contrast. But now, we have that human element. Of course, another reason we used odd instruments in Pulp was because we were reclaiming them, in a way. Cheap-shop xylophones and what-have-you. Stuff that had been thrown on the scrapheap. I felt like that when I came out of school in Sheffield. I was full of ideas and ready to go – and there was nowhere to go because avenues for working-class kids like me had been very deliberately and cynically shut down. Pulp – something made to be thrown away; something disposable; something cheap and nasty. Well, let’s make virtues out of them. Let’s make something with them.

This is what Children of the Echo is talking about, isn’t it? Being after one Big Bang and before the next?
Exactly. I was born at the height of Beatlemania – but as I was in nappies, it largely passed me by. There was the sense of being after something; of having missed a big, big moment – and it was big. It was four members of the working classes creating the most significant cultural moment of the twentieth century. They weren’t supposed to; the Establishment didn’t endorse it; it didn’t come through the official channels as it were, but it still happened. The Beatles weren’t meant to happen – the working-classes had been factory fodder for years. That was what awaited that generation – and they damn near changed the world. That’s our last big cultural bang and the ripples are still spreading from it. My theory is that the Eighties were a backlash against that. The top-down narrative became: we can’t let that happen again, close up the loopholes, tie everything down; don’t give them a chance. Which is why Britpop happened in a way: there was nothing, no outlets, no chance, but the preordained pathway and that generation needed a moment, so it tried to recreate one using the template of their parent’s generation. But you can’t reverse-engineer it just by wearing the same clothes and taking the same drugs and playing the same chords on the same guitars. It has to come organically or what you’re doing is just diluting what made the original so powerful. The more copies you make, the less powerful the archetype becomes. I think we’re reaching that if we haven’t already. David Bowie is a wonderful artist, but how many times does he need to be on the cover of Mojo magazine? How many times do we need to replay the past in the shape of the 25th anniversary of; the 40th anniversary of; the 50th anniversary of before we get to a moment that’s genuinely now and transformative?

Always rounded up numbers, never the 13th anniversary of…
Exactly. If you were being cynical you might say it’s a way of repackaging what you’ve already bought and reselling it to you – so I won’t be cynical, but say that after all that’s been happening the last ten years or so, we’re at a moment of change. It could go one way or the other, but something new will come out of this. That’s my optimistic take on it and I’m sticking to it!

David Bowie is a wonderful artist, but how many times does he need to be on the cover of Mojo magazine? How many times do we need to replay the past in the shape of the 25th anniversary of; the 40th anniversary of; the 50th anniversary of before we get to a moment that’s genuinely now and transformative?

I read your review of The John Lennon Letters in The Guardian, where you developed those ideas.
Yes. It is the dilution of the archetype through repetition. Was John Lennon a wonderful artist? Yes. Was he a complex man? Yes. Were he and the rest of the Beatles responsible for the most significant cultural moment of the twentieth-century? Yes. Do his letters show that? No. Of course, they don’t. They should be called The John Lennon Post-It Notes, not The John Lennon Letters. There aren’t any insights. We shouldn’t expect them, though. The Beatles didn’t have some masterplan. They were just acting and reacting – like all of us do. It’s the act of publishing the letters that’s the most interesting thing about them. They’re the equivalent of a Saint’s toenail in medieval times. Worship at the altar. Touch the hem of the garment. Read them, understand the secret. By elevating them and make fetishes of their everyday objects, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility to try. Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that. These people are special. They are chosen. No, they weren’t. They got caught up in a moment and in the end, then ended up being and defining that moment. The message The Beatles gave us is ‘We can do that – they did’ – and that’s as important as the music, which is wonderful. That’s not what it’s become, though. It’s become, we can’t do that because they were special. Well, that’s rubbish, isn’t it?

“The message The Beatles gave us is ‘We can do that – they did’ – and that’s as important as the music, which is wonderful.” Image: Pete Hill

Yes, it is. Is that one of the reasons reflecting and responding to the audience was so important to you as a working method? Because they seemed to be their audience and their audience were them at that one poised moment. Also, even though the music on Beyond the Pale is electronic, it’s very human. Some groups who use electronic music deliberately go as sterile and mechanical as possible. I’m thinking of early Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode. But the human emotion is present throughout the album. It seems to be a characteristic that Sheffield-based bands working with electronic sounds that they still end up sounding organic. I’m thinking of The Human League, but there are others …
Yes, I think that’s fair. I mean, The Human League were superb. I mean Phil Oakley’s voice is a thing of absolute beauty. And just think of the name: The Human League. It’s foregrounding the concerns of the group right there, up, front and centre. And the other thing to remember, is that although it didn’t always get it right, Sheffield tried to be the city of the future where people and machines and technology lived side-by-side. That’s why we stuck the Parkway right up on the top of the hill and remodelled the city centre in concrete. They were bold if misguided attempts to remake the city in the way we thought the future was meant to be; to integrate new technologies into everyday lives …

Do you think all of this symptomatic of a very particular type of Northern creativity? It might not be mainstream or seen as part of Britain’s representative culture, but it speaks of a profoundly human need to communicate, connect and express. A North-eastern writer called Harry Pearson wrote a wonderful book about football called The Far Corner. It’s an exploration of why football is so important to the North-east of England. In it, he points out that the North-east has produced more professional footballers per capita than anywhere else in the UK – and of those a huge proportion have been the best creative players of their generation: Len Shackleton, Bobby Charlton, Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley, Paul Gascoigne. His thesis was that if you’d worked 12 hours down a pit for six days a week, you didn’t need to prove your manhood by clogging someone. When you went out on the pitch, you did so to express yourself. Living hard lives, they tried to create things of beauty with what they had. Is there a parallel there to why Sheffield musicians approach music the way they do?
I think there’s something in that. You used to be able to hear the sound of the hammers from Attercliffe. If you were close enough, you could feel them. Those industries are romanticised somewhat now – and it’s true that they gave identities and communities belonging and roots – but working in a steel-works was hard, dirty, dangerous physical work. It wore men out, physically and emotionally. Imagine if you and your family lived in that environment day in, day out. Would you want to make the music of the machines, or would you use the machines to make the music that reflected the humanity within them; that showed the people? You can hear all of that in the music of those musicians – all of those things we’ve talked about that are Sheffield and the North: historic past, imagined future; machines and industries that haven’t changed since the Victorian era and new technology; how it was, how it could be.

Which brings us back to the idea of cycles…
It does.

I’ve gone way over my allotted twenty minutes, Mr. Cocker, but thank you so much for talking to Exposed. I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to talk to us today. Hopefully, when the next album comes out, we can do it all again.
It’s a date. When we do, I will update you on the squirrel situation too. It may be a long conflict. Thanks for ringing. It’s been a pleasure.

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 I said at the start of this piece, that going to interview Jarvis Cocker, Sheffield icon, for a Sheffield-based magazine, was a little like going to interview God. It turns out I was wrong. As Moses will tell you, God can be a notoriously tricky interview subject. By contrast, Mr. Cocker was engaging, open and thoughtful. It could, of course, be argued that God has some good lines. While it is true that his early work in Genesis is not to sniffed at, Mr. Cocker is infinitely more quotable – resulting in the best Monday morning I’ve spent since lockdown started. Roaming far beyond the script and showing that you can be famous, an icon and a viable creative force and still be thoughtful and engaging it was indeed an absolute pleasure. Check out Beyond the Pale. It’s one of the albums of 2020 and we’re barely halfway through the year.

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