Jarvis Cocker Is a Meghan Markle Fan (Boris Johnson, Not So Much)
The Britpop legend talks his new album ‘Beyond the Pale,’ Megxit, how the U.K. prime minister is “karaoke Trump,” and why he secretly loves “The Crown.”
February didn't seem like halcyon days at the time, but you often don’t realize this sort of thing until later.
As soon as he was finished talking for the day, Jarvis Cocker had plans to check out a cool, kinda underground venue in Brooklyn he’d been hearing about. The former Pulp frontman, Britpop legend and hero to literate overthinkers everywhere was planning on releasing his first album in over a decade in May, and he wanted to find just the right place for his first U.S. show in nearly as many years.
Since this was an early February afternoon, it was long before many of us were giving COVID-19 proper attention. Since then, the album Beyond the Pale, credited to his new backing group Jarv Is, would be pushed back a few months, and that American show would be pushed back to some blessed post-vaccine era. Hopefully, by then, at least a few cool, kinda underground venues will still exist. But it’s OK. Cocker fans have gotten used to waiting.
“I was kind of flabbergasted to realize it was that long ago,” he says of the long pause after his last album, 2009’s Further Complications. “There were these ideas, I’d kind of been working on some of them for a long time, but I was never getting to finish them, and I had various distractions. I kept working on them occasionally, but I never felt convinced by them, and so it wasn’t like I just stopped, even though people could be forgiven for thinking that is what happened.”
He’s wearing a brown corduroy jacket with a green hourglass pin with the insignia of the Greta Thunberg-associated environmentalist group Extinction Rebellion on it. Sitting on a couch at the New York office of his label Rough Trade, he’s discretely munching on a brownie and covering his mouth as he chews, apologizing in his inimitable Northern English lilt, which has the ability to make anything he utters sound like the smartest thing your smartest professor ever said.
Cocker was born in South Yorkshire—the city of Sheffield, to be exact—and his father, a DJ and actor, left his family when he was 7. Cocker formed an inchoate version of Pulp as a teenager, and after graduating from art school in the early ‘90s, he became much more focused, turning Pulp into a sharp, tuneful delivery vehicle for his world-weary tales of sexual neuroses, class resentment and romantic self-recrimination.
While critics and fans spent the ‘90s and onward debating whether Blur or Oasis was the best band to come from the Britpop explosion, Pulp has always been the contrarian's pick for the real champion. Released back to back in ‘94 and ‘95, His ‘n’ Hers and Different Class turned Cocker into a household name and tabloid fixture in England and a cult figure in America.
He became the rare chart-topper that is taken seriously as a public intellectual, and he continues to be an omnipresent talking head on English television. He has enough celebrity clout to write songs for and have a cameo in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and enough national goodwill that when he rushed the stage to, allegedly, moon Michael Jackson during a 1996 performance at the Brit Awards in which the King of Pop was striking a messianic pose, some members of the press declared Cocker should be knighted for his valor.
One of the legends of Pulp is that at the 1995 Glastonbury Festival, one of England’s oldest and most prestigious fests, the Stone Roses dropped out at the last second, and Pulp were promoted to headliner status. As the NME would later describe it, it was a star-making performance that made Cocker an icon, and if you have to narrow it down to one moment, it would be the mass singalong that greeted “Common People,” a tale of a slumming socialite dating below her station as a means of social tourism. The scabrous takedown of class barriers and the elite would go on to become a national anthem in England, and Pitchfork would later name it the second greatest song of the ‘90s.
England has long been roiled by class resentments and a jaundiced eye toward the upper class. As ever, the country was well ahead of the curve, as widespread distrust of upper classes has started becoming fairly common in America. “I just think what’s happening now is everything is becoming polarized. And the thing about the 1 percent, I totally get that,” he says. “But then you’ve got to remember that all through the history of man, all fairy stories are about people becoming princes and princesses. So I think even though people might say that they disagree with the 1 percent, something in the back of the mind thinks, ‘Well, I wish I was in the 1 percent and not in the 99 percent.’ Because humans have a greed to them and a selfishness.”
Pulp disbanded after the 2001 album We Love Life, and Cocker embarked on a solo career with Jarvis in 2006. But after Further Complications, he soon became busy doing seemingly everything but writing brilliant pop songs. During the long gap between recording, Cocker stayed busy, raising his son, appearing and singing in Wes Anderson’s film Fantastic Mr. Fox, serving for a time as editor-at-large for the book publisher Faber and Faber and hosting Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service for the BBC.
“I have thought about retiring sometimes before. When I first got married and I moved to Paris, I thought, ‘Maybe... Well, that’s it. That’s the end, Pulp could come to a close.’ It was just the start of this millennium, which weirdly is 20 years ago now,” he reflects. “And I wondered whether that was gonna happen then. That’s the nearest I’ve come to it. I thought when I started doing the radio show, that’'Well, this is kind of good. It’s almost like performing.’ But I think in the end you don’t really have much choice over what you decide to do.”
Speaking of princes and princesses, Cocker may have taken a break from writing, or at least finishing songs, but he probably couldn’t take a break from having sharp opinions about the world if he tried.
From Johnny Rotten to Morrissey, England has a long tradition of rock stars that hold the royal family in withering contempt, and Cocker has spent his career mocking elites. But even he was a bit sad to see Prince Harry and Meghan Markle make a #Megxit to America and Canada in response to racist hounding from the British tabloids. (The couple are reportedly currently delivering meals to people while living in Los Angeles and speaking out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.)
“I don’t read those tabloid newspapers or watch things like Piers Morgan’s show or whatever, so I understand from what people’ve told me that she kinda got more pounded a bit on those, and that’s driven her away,” he says. “I think it’s good because it’s like, instead of just submitting to being a punch bag or whatever, she said, ‘Fuck you all, I’m going to Canada to go and smoke some grass.’
“I think it could be interesting because they were the popular ones in the royal family. They were younger, and there was that kind of thing, the ‘Oh wow, we’ve got someone of color in the royal family.’ I’m not that into the royal family, but I’ve got to admit this is a forward step. I think it’s a massive blow to them that they’ve gone off. Whether it’s the end of the royals, I don’t know.”
Or maybe the end of the royal family will come another way. People are full of surprises, and even a man ever ready to roll his eyes at the aristocracy couldn’t help but be sucked into The Crown, Netflix’s decades-spanning series about the life of Queen Elizabeth II.
“I was really resistant to watching that because I was thinking, ‘What the fuck do I wanna watch something about the royal family for?’ But my girlfriend kept watching it, and eventually, I got bored of going and sitting in another room whilst it was on, and I came and watched it,” he says. “As it’s come more up to date about things in the ‘60s that I’ve got a very vague memory, it’s shone a very interesting light on British society.”
“The next series, we’re gonna start coming towards Diana and stuff like that, and if too much goes out about it, it might really dispel the mystery of them and maybe that’ll be the end of it, I don’t know," he says. For the record, he says he’s not sure how he would feel if “Common People” or one of his other songs ended up on The Crown, perhaps during a scene where the royal family deals with the people’s contempt for them, though Cocker think it’s more likely the producers would select a song by The Smiths instead.
As the conversation continues to drift towards politics, he notes with a chuckle that “This is where I’m gonna get myself in trouble then. This is where I’m probably gonna get banned. My visa will get revoked or something, won’t it?”
Cocker was at the now famous moment when Jeremy Corbyn, socialist icon and former Labour Party leader, spoke to the crowd at the 2017 Glastonbury Festival and offered a message of unity and resilience. “I’ve never experienced that in Glastonbury. The whole of the festival went silent and all you could hear was his speech echoing and that seemed like a massive moment,” he says, “and it’s a pity that in the end [it] didn’t translate.”
While Corbyn attracted a mass following with younger Brits, he faced intense criticism from right-wing British tabloids, and eventually lost the 2019 election to Boris Johnson, thus ensuring the implementation of Brexit.
“It did make me realize this cliche about the echo chambers that we all live in. Because my only social media is Instagram, and in the run-up to the election, all my Instagram feed was ‘Jeremy Corbyn, and this is gonna happen?’ So, if I just believed that news, I would’ve thought he’s gonna do it easy. So, the fact that he got beaten so convincingly, just shows that I am living in a bubble,” he says. “He was vilified, really, for actually having old school socialist ideas. And now there’ll be all this soul-searching in the Labour Party.
“At the moment they are trying to pick a new leader. Just like a lot of people, I just cannot bring myself really to take much interest in that, because I think we’ve had an actual left-wing leader. It became apparent that the party itself didn’t even want that,” he says. “And you’ve got supposedly left-wing publications such as The New Statesman, who just hated him. Wouldn’t or couldn’t bring themselves to say anything nice about him. So it’s kind of like the left has kind of disgraced itself. They had a chance to get behind something that was really left and they bolted. I don’t know. But I’m kinda going with them. That’s how I feel at the moment. So we’re left with Boris Johnson.”
Cocker is no less opinionated on Johnson, who after this interview dismissed the seriousness of COVID-19, only to later contract the virus and face widespread criticism for his Trump-like failure to properly contain the spread of the pandemic.
“Jesus Christ!,” Cocker replies, quite loudly, when asked what he thinks of England’s leader. “He’s like a karaoke Trump. He’s got this ridiculous appearance, the kind of bumbling thing which for some reason, in this age of reality TV and everything having to be entertainment, people think, ‘Oh he’s funny, he’s a lovable rogue.’ It’s like the entertainment factor has become the overriding thing. And the only positive thing that happened for me personally was in the aftermath of the election, there was a campaign to get one of my songs to No. 1 in the U.K.”
That song, now known as “Running The World” (and formerly with a title that contained a crude term that is a common insult in the U.K. but considered highly sexist in America) was a highlight of Jarvis and a fan-favorite, and was the subject of an online fan-voting campaign to make it top the Christmas charts at the end of last year.
“And that was a direct reaction to the election result. And so I was flattered that they chose that song to do that. And it did pretty well. Then Brexit came straight after that,” he says, referring to the televised countdown to England officially leaving the European Union. “I watched it on French TV. It just made me feel really ashamed. Just all this stuff going on in Parliament Square and this horrible band, just really shit, like a fifth-grade wedding band with union jackets on playing these rock hits. Just so shit.”
In between despairing at the news, Cocker couldn’t help but continue to write, even if he couldn’t bring himself to finish anything. Turns out that even the best writers can suffer from indecision, and can benefit from a deadline. In 2017, the band Sigur Rós invited him to play the norður og niður festival in Iceland. “I was about to turn it down because I didn’t have a band, and then something clicked, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe if I get a band together, then these songs will finally get finished.’ Which was really stupid of me not to have thought of that before, since I’ve been in bands for most of my adult life.”
He brought his new ideas to his new bandmates, and they would improvise on them every night during a short tour of small venues. “I don’t like to use words like ‘comfort zone’ or ‘think outside the box,’ but I was outside of the area that I normally would be working in, and I found that a really reenergizing thing to do,” he says. “We were playing new material in small places, and I insisted that there were no crowd barriers or anything. You’re actually more or less just staring into the eyes of the people in the front row. You have to convince the person standing in front of you that what you’re doing is valid and I think that’s a very focusing thing to do.”
Recordings of those live shows served as the raw basis for Beyond the Pale, with Cocker and company adding vocals and overdubs later. The resulting album finds him in full command of his pen. He pays tribute to his longtime idol Leonard Cohen by dipping into his lower register on “Save the Whale,” looks back wistfully on his days of attending raves on the slinky “House Music All Night Long,” and confronts the indignities of aging on the call-and-response chamber pop number “Must I Evolve?”
“No one likes to get older. But if you call it evolution rather than aging, that sounds better. There are downsides to getting older but there are upsides as well, and part of it is knowing yourself a bit better and hopefully having a bit more of a range of emotions to play with, and also just experiences to use in what you create,” he says. “But you have to accept it with good grace.”
While pondering why it took him so long to finally finish the album, he takes a moment and then points out that 10 years and three days ago, his good friend Tim McCall died. McCall was the guitar player in Cocker’s solo band, “and that really was a big blow and really affected me. It basically brought the Jarvis band and the first solo album and Further Complications to a halt because it was too upsetting to think of playing without him being there,” he says. “I mean, this is with hindsight, but you get those intonations of mortality or whatever, and I just thought, well, the Pulp thing, I always felt kind of... I wasn’t so happy with the way that we’d left it, even though we never officially split up or anything. I just thought we could’ve done that better.”
In 2011, Pulp reunited for a victory lap that included a celebrated performance at the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, by far the biggest U.S. performance of the band’s career. The group recorded the one-off single “After You” (an uncompleted song from the We Love Life era) with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy after they met on a Coachella cruise, but other than that he says there are no plans for a reunion album.
“We never really tried to write new material. I really enjoyed that tour, because we weren’t trying to sell anything to anybody, we were just saying, ‘If you wanna hear Pulp songs, they’re here,’” he says. “I don’t know whether this is a good or a bad thing, but it wasn’t reformed with the idea of doing some new tune, it was more like, ‘Can we perform the old material convincingly. And make it, do it in a believable way. Then this will leave things on what I feel would be a better note?’ So that was really the mission statement there, and I think we achieved that.”
Cocker has made peace with his past, and was hoping to start a new chapter in his career. But like with everything else, that’s on hold at the moment. Of course, life was pretty damn screwed up before the ongoing pandemic. But Cocker isn’t going to let all the Boris Johnsons out there run the world into the ground without a fight.
When asked if he’s completely cynical (rather than just mostly cynical) about the future, he takes a moment and points at the pin on his jacket. He’s been a vocal supporter of the Extinction Rebellion, even bringing members of the group with him to last year’s Q Awards ceremony and helping them carry a banner reading “No Music On A Dead Planet” on the red carpet.
“Maybe it’s just because I’m a bit sick of traditional politics. But the idea that that’s a clear-cut battle of, ‘Do you wanna conserve things or do you wanna screw things up?’ And I think that that’s a positive thing where you could take sides and you could fight to save the planet,” he says. “Maybe this is kind of cloud cuckoo land, wishful thinking on my part. But that’s something that I feel that I could get behind at the moment. As a concept, to accept the fact that you are part of the world rather than the world is your bitch to be raped and pillaged is a better position to take.”
It’s not easy, but he’s determined not to give up hope. “I have to. I’ve got a kid and my New Year’s resolution was to be optimistic because I think in shit times you’ve got to make an effort to do it.”