Saturday Night Cabin Fever: Lockdown With Jarvis Cocker
Jarvis Cocker has always had impeccable timing.
Pulp famously went the longest period between their first and second Peel session, but when success finally came it allowed the Sheffield group to re-define culture on their own terms.
Later dismissing Britpop's cocaine socialism with 'This Is Hardcore', the group's demise has been followed by an enriching, occasionally challenging, but always rewarding solo period.
Recently, though, fans have inured themselves of the notion that Jarvis Cocker's voice was heralded for broadcasting, rather than live performances.
All that changed with the emergence of JARV IS..., however, a group ostensibly gathered so the titular frontman could perform at a special festival in Iceland as 2017 drew its last.
The collective stuck together, using the energy of those sporadic live shows to drive their songwriting, pushing Jarvis Cocker's pen in exciting new directions.
Out now, new album 'Beyond The Pale' is a phenomenal return - reviews across the board have been little short of ecstatic, with Cocker's outsider eye once again proving to be one of the most perceptive in pop.
But then came lockdown. All of a sudden the record took on a different hue, with some aspects of the lyric sheet bordering on the uncanny.
Tonight - July 21st - JARV IS... will broadcast a special concert film, shot deep within paleolithic caves in remote Derbyshire.
Clash picked up the phone to talk about this highly unusual show, his new album, and what lies ahead for Jarvis Cocker.
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How does it feel to have ‘Beyond The Pale’ out there in the listening world?
A bit bizarre, actually. Because it got delayed… so I was already doing promo – interviews and stuff – for it, so basically I’ve spent this whole year talking about it!
It became as though it wasn’t even real, it was like some idea that I’d got, and kept talking to people about. And then suddenly it became real, and it’s out in the world. It’s exciting. And I’m glad. I’m quite a slow worker. It takes time for things to come to fruition with me. And once they have, you want them to be harvested… you don’t want them to die on the vine, that would be really depressing. So I’m glad it’s out.
Does that release day tingle change over the years?
It’s bounce to affect you a bit differently when you’ve done it before. It’s funny… I got quite a few messages saying ‘Happy Release Day!’ and maybe that can be a new thing for card manufacturers! After inventing Father’s Day they can invent Release Day, so you can have a card sent to you for it.
The tingle thing is really more the thing you’ve got to look out for, a thing you had at the beginning of the song, I think. That kind of tingle that makes you think: oh I think this song could be really good! That’s what makes you go through the trouble of teaching it to other people, and then play it, and alter it.
The whole process that we went through to make this record… it wasn’t done in a strictly normal or conventional way, we did it more than old fashioned way of writing songs, playing ‘em to people, factoring that into the equation, and then recording it. The songs had quite long gestation periods, and all through that period you’re working on this thing while trying to remember what it was that you found so exciting about the song in the first place. You have to make sure of that, otherwise there’s no point in writing songs, if they don’t turn you on in any way.
It was remarkable seeing the warmth of social media around the record’s release – is that reciprocal conversation a key part of ‘Beyond The Pale’?
I do. The songs were played to an audience before they were formally finished off. Also, there’s more of a conversation going on within the band, because both Serafina and Emma sing quite a lot and it’s like I’m having a conversation with them. Which is something that I never had in Pulp. Nobody in Pulp would ever admit to being able to sing! So there were no backing vocals or anything in Pulp, so it was like one long monologue. It’s great to discover that you can actually have a conversation after all these years.
The show goes live in a few hours – does it feel quite strange to already know what awaits fans?
Yeah! I think loads of bands would have gone through the same process as us. First of all, we thought we could do it on a Zoom call. We thought, let’s have a rehearsal on Zoom call! And then you find out really quickly that you can’t because of all the latency issues, so that’s really dispiriting. Then we tried to do it more formally, we tried to sync up all our computers and play remotely… but that didn’t really happen. And that was very frustrating.
So you’re left thinking: what can we do? So this performance that we did in a cave was really just the best we could think of. We recorded some of the record in this cave, and we thought it would be like a special occasion.
So we took our equipment in there, and got our friends Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard to film it. And when it’s broadcast obviously it won’t be the same as a concert – because we’re not in the same room together – but it’s filmed like a concert, with one long performance with me occasionally talking between songs. If you’ve ever been to see me play live you’ll recognise the format.
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Why a cave?
Very safe. Very, very safe place. You don’t get neighbours complaining about the noise. As I say, the same cave – Peak Cavern – we played a concert there, because they do occasionally have concerts, and we played there in April 2018 and part of the recording from the concert ended up on the record with ‘Must I Evolve?’ and ‘Sometimes I Am Pharoah’. The basic tracks came from that performance.
The first thing that people say when you start talking about playing a show in a cave is ‘well, what if it sounds rubbish? It’ll echo all over the place!’ But this cave’s got a great sound to it.
This time, we just thought: OK, let’s go deeper! It’s a cave system, so we went into a chamber called the Orchestra Chamber, and it’s called that because an orchestra played for Queen Victoria back in the late 1800s. So we went in there. And that brought extra issues. First of all, it was hard to get the equipment in, because the roof comes down to about three foot at some points, so it’s hard to push all the kit in. And also it’s very cold, because once you get into a cave the outside temperature doesn’t make any difference, it’s a constant cold, about four degrees above freezing. So that’s the environment we played in.
It’s amazing we did it, really, because we hadn’t played together for four months. The first time we played together was in this quite strange environment, and yet we played really well together. It’s like we tuned into some kind of magic from the cave.
Do you think lockdown has enabled some people to take further control over the limits of their interactions?
It depends on your personality, I guess. I think a lot of people would have had trouble with the isolation. I was lucky because I’m in a place where I can go out for a walk and sit in the garden, but I can imagine if you’re in a tower block it would be pretty grim. I don’t know. I think the thing is… we were left alone with ourselves. So therefore the type of time you have depends on how comfortable you are with yourself.
A lot of our modern world is based around distracting us from ever looking at ourselves. You never really have to pause or have a bored moment because there’s always an entertainment option. But in lockdown, even though you might try to watch Netflix all day at some point you’ll get fatigued and think, oh I have to do something else.
There will be those moments – maybe it’s four o’clock in the morning – and there’s nothing, it’s just you and yourself laying in a dark room. And then, whether you’re having a good time or a bad time depends on how friendly with yourself that you are.
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Have you been creative during lockdown?
Yeah, yeah. With the band, we discovered that we couldn’t play live music together, but what we did was… individual members of the band would come up with music ideas, and then pass it on to the next member, and they would add something to it. It was a bit like those drawings where somebody draws a head and then you fold the sheet of paper, and then you pass it on to someone else, and you see what you get at the end.
We’ve done a few pieces of music that way. I think I was lucky because this record was coming out, thinking about things like the performance in the cave, and writing new stuff. And I’ve been around for a while. I think for lyrics, I rely on real life and human interactions for my inspiration, so I wouldn’t want it to go on forever because that’s where my subject matter is – other people – so, if I’m not allowed to see them or talk to them I will start to run out of ideas.
In the press note you say: this is not a live album, it’s an alive album… it’s about life, isn’t it?
Yeah. And while it was an accident, the fact that we approached making the record by using that method – of going out and playing small shows with no crowd barrier, eyeball to eyeball with the audience – I’m really kind of proud that we did that. That can’t happen now. And I don’t know it’ll come back that you will be allowed to play shows like that. As I say, it was an accident, but I’m really glad that we took advantage of that possibility while it was available.
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Did playing those shows change the way you approached singing?
Yeah. The thing is, I wasn’t making the words up on the spot because I’ve never been very good at that. But I had the words… but I didn’t know exactly where I was going to fit them. For most of the songs I had too many words. So it was quite a good test, because I would tend to use the words that stuck in my mind, which maybe were the strongest parts of the lyrics. And so, in a way, performing it to an audience was an editing process that happened spontaneously… as I would pick the bits I could remember, that got the point across to the people who were stood directly in front of me.
When you’re alone in a room trying to work out things like that, you might get distracted by God knows what. But when you’re in the heat of the moment, and the song’s started, and you’re gonna have to open your mouth in 10 seconds time… it gives you a lot of clarity. There’s no beating around the bush. You just open your mouth and sing what you think is the strongest thing at that moment.
I’ve been keeping a dream journal. If I can remember my dreams I’ll write them down on my phone. I’ve got this big long thing now, as I’ve been doing it for a few years. I had a look through there, found something that looked interesting, and tried it out. That seemed to fit quite nicely. Who knows? The next album could be based around scary dreams that happened during lockdown.
The project does deal with personal frustrations a lot, which has felt somewhat apt - ‘House Music All Night Long’ is virtually a home disco anthem…
People have pointed out that it resonates with the lockdown experience, which was obviously not what it was written for. But I couldn’t deny it! I don’t really know why I wrote lines like “Saturday night cabin fever in House Nation / This is one nation under a roof” because that does seem tailored for lockdown. With words, I never really know exactly where they come from.
I was thinking about this. Sometimes I’ll get the notebooks out, and I’ll go through them, and I’ll see if there’s some lines that grab me. But with this record, I didn’t do that so much… I’d written some stuff, but I didn’t refer to the notebooks. It was more what was in my head at the time. That’s the job of an artist – you tune in to the frequency of what’s going on in society at the time you’re alive. That’s the point of an artist, really. To try and give voice or to give shape or to paint something that keys in, somehow, to what’s going on.
I’m not saying it’s telepathic, but I do think there is that zeitgeist, that feeling of what is going on. But you definitely see it, if you look back over art produced in past periods. It seems to tell the story of those periods. In a way the art sums up those periods better than news reports or photographs, almost.
How soon until we get new music from JARV… IS?
Well, the tour has been postponed to November, but the idea was to keep this method going. We wanted to put a couple of new songs into the set, and work on them in the same way. Because for me, it’s a breakthrough. It’s like making a record without getting self-conscious about it.
I’m sure you’ve probably found that from talking to people – it’s the dream of every artist or musician, to do something without getting in the way of it yourself. To just have it happen. When it seems like that’s happening, that’s when you produce your best work. And I’m hoping I can continue with that.
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'Beyond The Pale' is out now.
Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Daniel Cohen
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