We’ve Got A File On You: Jarvis Cocker
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
More than 15 years ago, Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker considered retiring from music altogether. This was a few years after Pulp’s last album, We Love Life, and shortly following the loss of his beloved acoustic guitar in a road accident. A lifeline from Nancy Sinatra — who asked Cocker to write songs for her new album — roped the English singer back into the game, and thank goodness for that.
In the past decade and a half, Cocker has continued building a storied career, with solo albums and many collaborations, including one with Chilly Gonzalez in 2017. His latest endeavor is a band under the name JARV IS…, which began as a live group that played caverns and small venues around the UK. The band consists of Serafina Steer, Emma Smith, Andrew McKinney, Jason Buckle, and Adam Betts. Their first album, Beyond The Pale, arrives next week.
Outside of music, Cocker can be found in corners of cinema. He studied film as a college student and influences of his education can be found in Pulp’s videography — notably “Babies,” which Cocker himself directed, a Sofia Coppola-esque coming-of-age (released pre-Sofia) rife with film school jokes. Currently he can be found interviewing the British director Mike Leigh on the Criterion Channel; Cocker also appeared as a wizard rock star in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire along with some Radiohead members; his song “Running the World” can be found in the end credits of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children Of Men; he and Pulp were the subject of a documentary in 2014, released a couple years after the band’s reunion. He also appeared in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009 and most recently can be heard in the trailer of the filmmaker’s upcoming The French Dispatch.
When we met in New York in mid-February, Cocker gave an abridged rundown of his expansive career, including choosing his own Harry Potter wardrobe, judging a rather disturbing Pulp karaoke contest, and the C-words that are still running the world.
JARV IS… Beyond The Pale (2020)
STEREOGUM: The first single “Must I Evolve?” feels sort of relevant to the times in a way your music has always felt. Why was that chosen as the first?
JARVIS COCKER: Really? Oh, good. I’m happy if that’s the case but we’re all living in the same world, aren’t we? So we pick up on things. I really do believe that people tune into what’s going on and express it in their own way. I guess it was the first single because that was the song that came together quickest. The group was formed in order to finish off ideas of songs I’ve had for a long time. It was a very slow process and I thought, “If we go play them, we have to finish them, otherwise the audience will notice.”
We went out with these songs that were pretty well-formed but we knew that the actual arrangement and shape would change by playing them to people. We played a show in a cave quite near to where I was brought up, Sheffield. The songs really came together in the cave and I was excited because part of the lyrics are about being in a cave. It felt like it was in its natural habitat. When the group first started we thought maybe we would never release a record, we would just do it as a live thing, so people would have to come to a show.
Sometimes accessing music feels too easy now — rather, it’s hard to avoid music. When I was coming into New York yesterday, it was very early in the morning, and the place I was getting juice from had really loud music on. Music’s everywhere and it’s a precious thing. It’s transported me to different places and I really respect it. I don’t really like background music so much so I thought one way to make people take notice is to do it live. That’s when you will give all your attention to a song.
STEREOGUM: Was the album recorded purely from live performances?
COCKER: With “Must I Evolve?” we did a good performance of it so we kept the instruments but technically the vocals didn’t sound so good so we replaced the vocals and I did one or two other things. The shape of the song is from that one particular line.
STEREOGUM: A line that really tickles me is from “Sometimes I Am Pharaoh” that goes like, “fried food in front of famous buildings.” What’s that about?
COCKER: Where I’d been living in Paris is not that far from the Sacré-Cœur and when my son was younger, in a stroller, I would walk up there and look around. You’d see a lot of tourists and it happens all over the world: People go to religious sites and I don’t know if they’re looking for a spiritual experience. We’re living in a world, in the West, where religion isn’t such a central part of their lives. I do it too. What normally happens is people go to these places and buy some junk food outside. That’s where that line came from. Another thing you get is those human statue people. I kind of started getting fascinated with them, thinking what a strange job this is. What kind of person does that? So the song is also written from the point of view of them. I thought it would be cool to get a few of the human statue guys to stand on stage. I eventually found one guy to perform with us.
Singing For Wes Anderson Films, Including The French Dispatch (2020) And Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
COCKER: The film is about a fictional magazine in France and he wanted French songs. Wes wanted a cover of Christophe’s “Aline,” which was a hit back in the ’60s. He told me a bit about the film and I watched some of the filming.
STEREOGUM: You have a funnier song on Fantastic Mr. Fox. How did that happen?
COCKER: I met him just after he moved to Paris. There was a premiere party for Marie Antoinette that I DJ’ed. I might’ve met him once before but we got to know each other in Paris. He wrote the words to the Fantastic Mr. Fox song.
STEREOGUM: Did you know you would have your likeness in the movie as opposed to being an animal? Did you want to be one of the animals?
COCKER: I didn’t have any choice in it. But my car is also in it! He liked this car. It’s featured towards the end of the film and it’s quite vital to the plot so I’m proud of my car.
Appearing In Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire (2005)
STEREOGUM: Your appearance here is surreal. How did this come about?
COCKER: There’s the big Yule Ball scene so the word went out asking people to write songs so I submitted and they liked it. I thought they were just going to have the song playing in the film, then they asked me to be in it. We put a supergroup together — Johnny Greenwood, Phil Selway. Even though it’s a very short scene in the film, we were on the set for two or three days. We were paid to sing on stage with all these extras screaming at us as if we were the Beatles.
STEREOGUM: What was the concept for your look? It’s very glam rock.
COCKER: They showed me some costume designs and I wasn’t keen on them so I went to some shops in Paris that I knew and bought some outlandish clothes. My character in the film is called Myron Wagtail. Somebody told me they went to the Harry Potter Experience in London and there are drawers with wands for every character. I’m on there! I’m basically a wizard.
STEREOGUM: Were you a Harry Potter fan? Why did you submit in the first place?
COCKER: My son was pretty young but my stepson liked the books and so did my sister’s kids. I did it to be popular with the kids. I became the best uncle ever.
Pulp’s “Babies” Video (1993)
STEREOGUM: I love how much it looks like a coming-of-age movie. Were there specific influences?
COCKER: That’s the one that I made. That was not long after I finished film school. The girls were real sisters. You know the group Saint Etienne? The younger girl was Bob Stanley’s girlfriend at the time. She was good fun. She wasn’t an actress but I thought she could play that part well. Her sister was two or three years older so their relationship was perfect for the song. They didn’t mind being nasty to each other.
STEREOGUM: This was obviously made before, but it reminds me of a Sofia Coppola film, actually.
COCKER: Oh really? I think I used the college equipment to make it. Some of it was shot at their house. There’s a scene with scissors that I stole from Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou. There is the jump cut, which is a film joke because we were told to avoid jump cuts but I thought it would be funny to keep the camera angle the same but change costume and literally jump.
STEREOGUM: What kinds of films did you like growing up?
COCKER: I like the British kitchen sink movies because they were films that tried to show real life. Lindsay Anderson. And Mike Leigh, who I got to know a bit.
“Running The World” On The Children Of Men Soundtrack (2006)
STEREOGUM: I love that solo album, by the way. And cunts are still running the world!
COCKER: That song seems to be having a kind of renaissance because there was a campaign in the UK to try and get it to #1 before Christmas. It got to #2 mid-week. That was in the aftermath of the general election. More liberal people were very disappointed with the results and used that song to vent their anger. I was very pleased they chose this one. It keeps coming back. I know it’s been sung quite a lot at extinction rebellion events also.
STEREOGUM: How did it become the end credits song?
COCKER: I knew Alfonso Cuarón a bit because we wrote a song specifically for Great Expectations: “Like a Friend,” which is a good song actually. I just recorded “Running the World” and a mutual friend played it for him and he put it in the end credits. That was before my solo album even came out. I think about that film a lot, actually. It’s unfortunately quite a prescient film.
STEREOGUM: Yes, both the song and the film are. When you wrote it, who did you have in mind?
COCKER: The phrase came into my mind when I was in a bank. I thought, “That’s a strange thing to think,” but I wrote it down. After the fall of communism, capitalism is the only game in town, so everything comes down to money. I happen to believe that life isn’t just about financial transactions. All the good things in life are personal things. I know we need to have money to survive, but there’s no ethos apart from whether something makes a profit and what that leads to is exploitation. You’re gonna end up with horrible people being in charge.
So that’s where it came from. I think what’s happening now is there’s a split in society. Some people are saying let’s carry on raping the planet and sucking all the life out of it for profit and other people are saying hold on, if we do that, there’s gonna be no planet left, so stop. That’s the battle now in the world. Unfortunately all the people making the decisions are all on the former side — the ones that want to keep fucking everything up.
The Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets Documentary (2014)
STEREOGUM: I love all the details of the town, people singing “Help The Aged” in old people’s homes, the soccer jerseys with the Pulp logo… Should I move to Sheffield?
COCKER: It’s strange you say that because I left in the late ’80s to go to college and it’s changed a lot since then. I spoke to the filmmaker, Florian Habicht, who’s from New Zealand. I gave him a list of places that are important for me. The people singing “Help The Aged” — that actually was a market I used to work at. That place doesn’t exist anymore. In a weird way, this film captured a Sheffield that shortly after disappeared. It’s a shame, they were unique places. I think he found some really interesting people and caught the spirit of the place. Florian was very intelligent about his approach. I thought it would be interesting to do a concert film where you don’t take too much notice of the band but looked more at the audience. When I’m on stage, sometimes I look out and think, “Where did they come from and where do they live?” I’m not stalking, but I’m just curious.
STEREOGUM: I also submitted to the karaoke contest when the film screened in New York. But no one had a chance against the nine-year-old who sang “This Is Hardcore.”
COCKER: That incident kind of haunted me afterwards. First I thought, “Did that really happen?” And then I thought, “Was that really appropriate?” He must be 15, 16 years old now. Maybe he’s grown out of it now. Let’s hope so!
Pulp Reunion Tour And “After You” (2012)
STEREOGUM: Is there talk of another Pulp reunion anytime soon?
COCKER: No. That reunion felt like the right thing to do. I’ve been thinking about it a lot because I had a close friend in my solo band who died 10 years ago. I was very upset by that and I knew that I couldn’t go back to singing Jarvis stuff for a while because I’d always think of him. And then that made me think of mortality. I think Pulp ended when I wasn’t in a great place mentally and I wanted to revisit it in a better way.
We took a long time relearning the songs and making sure we could perform them. That was probably the best thing about the reunion — that these songs from almost 20 years ago still felt real. I could still inhabit them and they still had an emotional truth to them. I thought, “Wow, I didn’t waste all my youth!” It went just about as perfectly as I could’ve wished for. Pulp never split up. We all still talk to each other. But another reunion hasn’t been spoken about.
STEREOGUM: The song “After You” came shortly after. Was there talk of doing a whole album?
COCKER: We started recording it during the sessions for the last Pulp record, We Love Life and I always thought it was quite a good song. We had some spare time on the Coachella cruise. We had a big cabin with a piano in it and James Murphy helped us with it.
Collaborating With Nancy Sinatra (2004)
STEREOGUM: You have so many cool collaborations, but I’d love to hear about how you got to work with Nancy Sinatra.
COCKER: That collaboration was really important. It was not long after I moved to Paris and I thought I was going to retire from music. Then I got asked if I would write songs for Nancy’s album. I love those records she made with Lee Hazlewood in the ’60s, so I couldn’t turn it down. That got me back into songwriting.
I’m not really a superstitious person but when I was moving to Paris, we packed my belongings on top of my car (the same one in Fantastic Mr. Fox). Halfway down the motorway, the acoustic guitar on my roof blew off and it was run over by a lot of cars. There was nothing left. It was the only decent guitar I had. I got to Paris and didn’t have any instruments so I thought I was going to retire. Then this request came in so I went out and bought a guitar and carried on writing. I don’t know if I really would’ve retired but the opportunity came at a good time.
His Cameo In The Nick Cave Video “Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow” (2001) And Covering “Red Right Hand” With Iggy Pop (2017)
COCKER: There’s a long time between those two things. With the video, I got a call to be in it and I’ve always been a fan of his. It was a funny day. There was a lot of smoke and we had to wander around, dancing. And then the “Red Right Hand” thing came because a friend of mine was doing the music for a season of Peaky Blinders. He said, “How about you do a duet with Iggy Pop?” Again, I wasn’t going to turn down the chance to sing with Iggy. I’ve met him a couple of times and have been a great fan of his.
That was a humbling experience because we didn’t actually sing in the same studio. He did his part in Miami and we had a video link up and he was just sitting with a cup of coffee. He didn’t even stand up and did it three times. Then he was like, “You got it there, Jarvis.” So then I had to try to sing my bit but his voice is so gigantic, even though he was sitting and almost talking throughout. I felt like this little ant trying to jump and make myself heard behind this giant behemoth of Iggy-ness. I ended up screaming my part and I think we got it to be okay. It was so strange that he did his part so effortlessly and I had to kind of really push myself so I could achieve that kind of intensity. That’s one of the most amazing things about Iggy. There are not many performers who immediately put you in this very intense space.
Pulp – “Paula” (1995)
STEREOGUM: This is probably my favorite B-side.
COCKER: Oh, that’s a strange one. There was a Paula. She was a fan who would follow us around and turn up at a lot of shows. I’ve got an obsession with names that end in “a.” We’ve got “Deborah, Deborah” from “Disco 2000,” we’ve got “Paula,” and then “Angela” from the Further Complications album. That’s how “Paula” came about. I bought this chain the other day and it’s got my star sign on it, Virgo. There’s a line in “Paula” that goes like “Horoscopes just send me fast asleep.” I have not thought about that song in a long time. I’m impressed you even know it. The song is quite chirpy. It sounds like we’re trying to be Supergrass.
Beyond The Pale is out 7/17 via Rough Trade. Pre-order it here.