Once described as “arguably the fifth most famous man in Britain”, Jarvis Cocker knows more than most about illusion and celebrity. For the past decade, however, the former Pulp frontman has stepped back from centre-stage. It has been eight years since his last musical release, Further Complications, a hiatus that is about to come to an end with Room 29, a collaboration with pianist and composer Chilly Gonzales.
When I meet Cocker in a villa in north London – all busts and chandeliers and brocade tapestries – where he has just finished a photo shoot, he tells me he never stopped making music, he just stopped letting other people hear it. “There’s so much out there, there’s no point in putting something else out unless you’re convinced it hasn’t been done before,” he says. “I just don’t like litter. And there’s a lot of cultural litter about.”
Instead of adding to the noise, Cocker has been taking on a more curatorial role, concentrating on championing other people’s work: curating the Meltdown festival in 2007, being editor-at-large for Faber & Faber, presenting his soothing, erudite afternoons on 6 Music, Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service. Later this month he’ll be exploring stories of people after dark in Wireless Nights on Radio 4, and he’s been working with Pulp bassist Steve Mackey on Dancefloor Meditations (“a cross between a guided meditation class and a disco”).
Reducing his own output was, in some ways, a political choice as well as an aesthetic one. He warns against the dangers of consumerism: “If all the time it’s one-way traffic, stuff coming in, you consuming, consuming, consuming, without digesting that and making it into something else, it leads to all kinds of psychic and physical issues. We weren’t made just to consume things.
“We’re treated like that now, because the Industrial Revolution’s over so the working class has become a consuming class, and the way people make themselves useful now is to buy stuff. And that keeps the wheels rolling, and the mantra of growth, growth, growth. Theresa May has excused going to America because we have to think of trade, as if that’s the biggest thing to be considered. There’s no such thing as a moral or ethical framework that might be more important than flogging shit to people.”
The “less litter” approach could also describe Cocker’s lyric writing. Ever since Pulp, he has been able to evoke complex stories full of pathos and humour using just a few words. The fewer words you can use and still get that picture across, he says, the better. “That’s the other great thing about music, you leave a bit for the listener to fill in. And we need that. It’s just pleasurable to use your imagination.” The new record with Gonzales – a concept album about the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood – is no different: “She’s waiting at the airport/ You’re in your hotel room/ With someone who doesn’t know you,” goes one song.
Cocker’s penchant for darkly amusing vignettes and character sketches found a perfect fit in the glittering Chateau Marmont. Its stories of decadence and despair are the stuff of Hollywood legend. As Harry Cohn, studio head of Columbia, said to his stars: “If you must get in trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont.” Celebrities obliged: James Dean jumped out of a window; Dennis Hopper organised orgies; Led Zeppelin drove their Harley Davidsons through the lobby; Johnny Depp claims to have bedded Kate Moss in every room. It’s also where John Belushi had a fatal overdose. Once frequented by Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, the hotel now attracts everyone from Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton to Lana Del Rey and Father John Misty. Aaron Sorkin has long been working on an HBO miniseries about it; Sofia Coppola’s roundly maligned Somewhere is set there.
If that all sounds rather showbiz, Room 29 eschews the more obvious celebrity gossip, instead digging up lesser known stories and using them as a springboard to discuss what they reveal about us as humans, fusing history and fictional elements. The room is more of a McGuffin, says Cocker. “It’s a container for these ideas to roll around in, but it’s handy that it is in fact a real room and it really does have a piano in it.” It is also, according to the lyrics in the title track, “a comfortable venue for a nervous breakdown”.
Cocker first stayed at the Chateau Marmont in the mid-90s while touring with Pulp. He had been dumped by a lover at the hotel, and, left on his own while the rest of the band were off having fun, he instinctively picked up a copy of Life at the Marmont by Fred Basten and Raymond Sarlot, making a mental note that it might come in useful at some point.
He returned to the hotel in 2012, again touring with Pulp, and was randomly upgraded to Room 29; there he found a baby grand piano and inspiration struck. “It was the idea that the piano had been there perhaps since the hotel opened and could tell you something about what had happened,” he says. He had also been looking for a project to do with pianist Gonzales, with whom he struck up a friendship after they bumped into each other on the Métro in Paris and realised they both lived there.
The somewhat unlikely duo have been friends for more than a decade, and while Gonzales has moved to Cologne in Germany, Cocker now lives in the former’s old Paris apartment. On the phone later, Gonzales tells me: “We ran into each other after we’d both seen the movie Borat. I thought, how bad can this guy be? He’s a great performer, I love his lyrics and now I know he’s a fan of Borat.” The piano in Room 29 immediately made Cocker think of Gonzales, and after years of experimenting with formats they came up with the project, not so much an album as a song cycle, a 19th-century format of which Schubert was a great exponent: the songs are in a precise order, linked by a theme and an unfolding narrative.
Gonzales composed the music then sent it over to Cocker to write the lyrics. “I allowed myself to make the music as pretty as I wanted it to be,” says Gonzales, “because Jarvis’s voice is not a traditionally pretty voice but a performer’s voice. That’s not to sell it short – if anything it’s more difficult to sing how Jarvis does.” In its live iteration, the project will be an immersive audiovisual performance. “I would like it if people feel they’re sat in the room,” says Cocker, “somebody is playing the piano and I am over there, maybe a little too near, telling stories.”
One of the songs tells the story of Jean Harlow’s honeymoon with her second husband, film producer Paul Bern, in Room 29. What happened that night is unclear; perhaps Bern was physically or mentally unable to consummate the marriage. He killed himself two months later, leaving a note that ended: “You understand that last night was only a comedy.” The story appealed to Cocker’s imagination: “It’s a very bold example of somebody falling in love with an illusion, and then when the reality comes – marrying maybe the sexiest woman in America at that time – they can’t handle it.”
Another song, Clara, imagines that the piano in the room belonged to Mark Twain’s daughter, Clara Clemens. Her first husband was a concert pianist who died after a long and painful illness, and their daughter was addicted to drugs and alcohol and died young. “So another cheery story,” says Cocker, with a big grin. “She was a bit of a tragic figure in the hotel. She used to play her husband’s old 78s and cry or pick out the tunes he used to play on the piano. Someone from the label was saying what a sad song that was, but I thought it was quite funny that one, because it rhymes melodic with alcoholic.” He pauses. “Well I was pleased to find that rhyme. And dark humour is the humour I like.”
There is also, inevitably, a certain element of tawdriness. Extramarital liaisons abound, young women are told to “shake [their] pretty money maker”, starlets are promised roles in exchange for fellatio. Was it difficult inhabiting these unsavoury characters? Or is there a thrill in exploring a darker side of human nature? “I’m going to have to be careful here how I answer that question,” he says. “I remember somebody once telling me: ‘If you want to say something about yourself, try writing in character.’ I don’t know whether that makes me unsavoury, but I tend to respond to stories that don’t give you the standard outcome.” (I attempt to extort some personal anecdotes from the hotel, but his response is a disappointing “No salacious stories. I’m very discreet.”)
While the album does point out the dark sides of excess, it isn’t a lecture on morality. Cocker acknowledges the power of the illusion: “This whole place is built on a lie/ Yeah, but what a lie […] Unhealthy, unfair, and extremely entertaining,” goes one lyric. Another, inspired by a couple Cocker saw, conjures the glamour of old-school Hollywood: “We ordered ice-cream as main course/ In a turban of silk/ Drinking chocolate milk/ With a shot of rum on the side, well of course.”
Cocker wanted to explore how what we watch affects the way we understand the world and shapes our desires – something that has preoccupied him since Pulp songs such as TV Movie and Happy Endings. “We’ve all been affected by it. I certainly was. I can feel it has affected my development as a person. I grew up absorbing it through the telly, which lots of parents use as an electronic babysitter.” You learn in that language from an early age, he says, but because it isn’t verbal, you’re not aware of it. For example, one thing you learn is that attractive people are good, and ugly people are the villains. “In real life,” he says, somewhat pointedly, “good-looking people are often arseholes.”
But although movies affect our expectations of life, what we see on screen has often been heavily altered, with makeup, lighting and special effects. “You’ve got this embodiment of erotic desire, these amazing-looking creatures, and you just wouldn’t see anybody looking like that,” says Cocker. “People fall in love with an illusion, something that’s never existed, and maybe a bit out of love with the actual world they live in. And that’s a strange zone to be inhabiting.”
The desires cinema stirred up were not only sexual, but also consumerist. “It really stoked people’s imaginations: you can wear clothes like this, you can have a kitchen as big as this, you can have a bedroom as sumptuous as this. Suddenly it was like, ‘Whoa, I want some of that, I’m living in a shack.’” And the effect wasn’t confined to the US. “I think it speeded up a lot of the developments that happened in the 20th century,” Cocker adds. “Those appetites that were ignited are still with us.”
One modern variant, of course, is the internet. “Life with the boring bits edited out” is a line in the album about film, but could just as well be describing social media’s parade of holiday snaps and life achievements. “I didn’t want to write about the internet,” says Cocker. “We wanted to go back to the big bang. To find out why it’s a big deal you have to go back and think: ‘What was the last big deal?’”
Mobile phones have given everyone the ability to make themselves the star, often with retro effects recalling classic cinema. “You put yourself in the movies – that’s the exciting thing about filters. You take your selfie and it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m in 1960s California, man.’”
As with any dream, there’s always the danger of a let-down, and we must eventually return to our day-to-day lives. Cinemas and hotel rooms are similar in this way: “They’re a place where, for a few hours, you leave yourself behind and have this fantasy that you could be somebody else. There’s no responsibility, somebody changes the bed linen afterwards, you just walk out and get on with your life. I enjoy that but sometimes you think, ‘I want this all the time’. And that’s where you get a bit of a problem.”
As part of the lengthy research process for the project, Cocker spoke to film historian David Thomson, author of The Big Screen, whose voice is heard a few times on the record. One of his theories was that films came along at the same time as a decline in people going to church, and that since most films had a happy ending, they comforted people in the way religion used to do; this was part of the myth keeping America together through troubled times like the Depression.
But another thing Thomson was saying, which Cocker didn’t pick up on so much at the time, three years ago, was that people were beginning to see through the myth, and that he feared for what was going to happen then. “I think obviously recent events are maybe legitimising that point of view. I don’t think we realised that those fundamental myths are really powerful. If you don’t believe in the happy ending any more, and new ones [come along]… it’s a big thing. And not a particularly pleasant one.”
Closer to home, the results of last June’s referendum continue to reverberate. In Sheffield, which was widely expected to vote for Remain, Leave won by 51%. Was Cocker surprised? “Yeah. It puts you in a strange position. Because Sheffield’s my home town, so I’m always going to love it, but that wasn’t the outcome I expected. But one of the things I think has become very dangerous in the fallout from Brexit is this obsession with saying, ‘Educated people voted to remain and uneducated people voted to leave.’ There are different types of intelligence. I was brought up in Sheffield, and it’s a kind of working-class city, and the environment I grew up in wasn’t xenophobic or racist.”
He speaks slowly, choosing his words with deliberation. “I think people have to be careful about that stuff, because if you’re not, it will come true. If you insult people, tell them ‘You’re thick, you don’t know what you’re on about’, they might just act in accordance. All these problems come from an inability for people to realise that we’re all motivated by the same things. This insistence that it’s all someone else’s fault – that’s at the root of it. Yeah; I was really upset by the result, and that Sheffield had done that.”
In France, where he lives, a general election is coming up in April, bringing fears that the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen might swoop to victory. A friend recently pointed out to Cocker that if a candidate wins a majority of votes in the first round it doesn’t go to a second round. “That really frightened me. I really hope that France will resist the temptation to go down that road. But I can’t say for sure.”
On a local level, he has campaigned to save some trees the council was chopping down in Sheffield (“Pulp had a song called Trees, so I had to join in. You know. I like trees”). Does he plan on getting involved in politics on a larger scale? “We’ll have to see. When it comes so close to home, you can’t just say, ‘I’m really not that into politics,’ or, ‘I’ve got a lot on at the moment.’ You’ve got to think about it. I suppose that’s the period we’re in now. We’re all trying to get our heads round what’s happened and what’s going to happen. But we’ve already seen people getting more vocal and committed to opposition.”
One idea he has is a response to our increased reliance on technology. In 2015 he wrote a “Nu-Troglodyte Manifesto” for Another Man magazine, in which he advocated turning our backs on the internet and going off the grid. Recently, after a hike in Scotland, he found himself thinking about the possibility of digital wildernesses – places where, much like in areas of preservation of natural habitats, there is no internet coverage. “People might move there. You don’t get phone coverage in caves, and we all came from caves. I think maybe that will happen. Not on a massive scale. But I think everybody acknowledges that the adoption of new technology has kind of led to the political events of the last year. So now that has been pointed out to us in very stark manner, people might start to think, ‘I don’t want the world to go down that path.’”
Considering the recent craze over the reissue of the “dumbphone” Nokia 3310, he may be on to something. He continues: “Maybe you’ll get internet-free cities where they’ve got transport systems and the things necessary to function – perhaps they’ll decide to do their own thing instead of going along with the prevailing horribleness.” It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years, he says. “For a long time it seemed like nothing was changing and everything was getting boring. And I guess that’s why such a violent thing has happened, why an extreme thing has happened. There’s no ignoring it now.”
When I ask Chilly Gonzales about working with Cocker, he enthuses about his sardonic delivery, his humour, his musical ability. But another aspect that emerges is a version of the illusions we’ve been discussing. “When Pulp were just coming out I thought, this guy is living out a fantasy. The way you feel when Jarvis is on stage is probably the same as how he would have danced in front of the mirror when he was a teenager; he’s letting you into his fantasy, in a way that’s playful but speaks to a deeper truth about him. That’s a rare thing to pull off. Rappers sometimes manage it, and performers like David Bowie and Prince. Jarvis is the same. It’s iconic, the way he presents himself on stage and, for me, that quality is intimacy.”
Maintaining longevity and evolving as an artist isn’t easy. Does the fact that his songs have meant so much to so many people make it more difficult to make new music? Cocker muses: “Nah, I think you’re aware of what you’ve done so you don’t want to repeat it or spoil it by doing something rubbish. Hopefully, you develop. I interviewed Marina Abramović on the radio show, and she said all artists only have one idea, except maybe Picasso had two, but he was a real exception. So I think you end up ploughing the same furrow your whole life. You just have to keep digging deeper, and that takes time. So I hope this latest bit is a further excavation.” He smiles. “But we’re not at the centre of the world yet.”
Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales’s Room 29 is out on Deutsche Grammophon on 17 March. They will be performing live at the Barbican Centre, London EC2, 23-25 March
– Stolen from theguardian