House Nights Revisited: Jarvis Cocker Talks Returning to His Club Roots With New JARV IS Project

Jarvis Cocker
Daniel Cohen

Jarvis Cocker

Though it's been nearly 20 years since Jarvis Cocker released his last album as frontman of seminal Brtipop outfit Pulp -- effectively ending his time as an explicitly mainstream figure -- he's managed to remain one of rock's most compelling and singular figures in the decades since.

A pair of late-'00s albums on his own proved that his economically wry songwriting and winkingly debonair performance translated to a solo context, and produced an enduring protest anthem in "Running the World." Side project Relaxed Muscle, with Jason Buckle of All Seeing I, saw Cocker thrive in an electronic framework, while the 2017 hotel-themed concept LP Room 29 with pianist Chilly Gonzales successfully recast him as a theatrical lounge act. When he asks "Must I Evolve?" on a 2020 single of the same name, you don't need the backup signers' "yes, yes, yes, yes" response to know it's a rhetorical question.

That single comes from Beyond the Pale, Cocker's first album recorded with his new JARV IS... outfit. The seven-track LP was recorded mostly from tracks of live performances of the six-piece band working out Cocker's song sketches, which were then tweaked in the studio; "augmented reality," the frontman quips. "When you’re playing live, you’ve got so many other things on your mind," he offers of the benefits of using live tracks as the core of studio recordings. "So you can’t really get too self-conscious about it. And that’s good. I think self-consciousness is the enemy of creativity."

The resulting album is far too rich and mysterious for easy genre categorization, but Cocker's fascination with the house music of his youth is evident in its heavily electronic textures and hypnotic, stretched-out jams, as well as in lyrical references to genre icons Frankie Knuckles and Marshall Jefferson, whose signature single informs the title of "House Music All Night Long." No one will expect to find David Guetta listed among Cocker's new bandmates while listening, but the album does have a pulse to it that feels impressively vital, particularly for a frontman entering his fifth decade as a recording artist. "When I started to do [JARV IS...], I was thinking that rock music, in a way, seems to have come to some kind of halt," Cocker explains. "And I think that at least, music that comes from more of a dance background... it either makes you dance, or it doesn’t make you dance."

Back in February -- when it was still possible to talk realistically about JARV IS...' upcoming tour plans -- Billboard caught up with Cocker about his new band's captivating debut album, as well as his unlikely run at the U.K.'s Christmas No. 1 single, and his relationship with the late Scott Walker.

Your relationship with house music obviously weighs very heavily on Beyond the Pale, lyrically and sonically. Do you remember your first experiences being exposed to Frankie Knuckles or Marshall Jefferson, people like that?

That coincided with me moving down to London in 1988, to go to college. And it’s funny because I’d spent a lot of my time in nightclubs after I’d left [grade] school. And I thought, “Well, that’s that. I’ve done that.” I was 25, so I thought, “I’m going to be serious now. I’m going to go down to London, I’m going to study.” And then as luck would have it, I arrived there just as the acid house thing was really taking off.

I was just really curious, and friends were talking about it, and we found out about a party that was happening… you had to phone this number, and then go to this really kind of dodgy housing estate and buy a ticket... And that was my first experience, and I just thought it was amazing. It was what I’d always kind of wanted clubbing to be -- crazy, on a massive scale, and people from all over mixing together. 

What was clubbing for you in those days? Was it more new wave and disco?

It was a lot of like, provincial… even though Sheffield is technically a city, it’s quite provincial really. And a lot of those places, there’d only be one alternative club. So that had to keep all the subcultures satisfied. So what used to happen would be like -- there’d be 15 minutes of goth, and then it would change, there’d be 15 minutes of punk, and then 15 minutes of psychobilly or whatever was in. 

But the emphasis was on mostly people trying to find someone to have sex with, really. It wasn’t so much about dancing. So the thing that I liked about the acid house thing was that people just danced a lot, and really lost themselves in the music. And being involved in music... you sometimes feel that yourself, when you’re really enjoying something, or first come up with an idea for a song. You feel that way, that music can transport you. But to be among thousands of people all feeling that way was an amazing thing.

House trickled in sonically to some of the Pulp records of the time, particularly on the second half of 1992's Separations. Was there ever a thought that maybe this was going to be the direction that Pulp would dive headfirst into?

I dunno. I mean, you mention Separations. That’s a strange album, because it had been written all as traditional songs. And then we’d been to raves, and so we thought, “Right, we have to be modern now.” So then we tried to rewrite it or rearrange it all -- mainly the rhythm stuff, so we used an 808 drum machine. But I felt really sorry for the drummer -- he didn’t even know how to use it. So he had to try to program all these drum parts into this thing that he didn’t even understand. It’s a strange record for that; it’s this kind of weird hybrid form. 

I mean, there was a big [dance] scene in Sheffield. And [electronic music label] Warp Records came from Sheffield, and we knew the people that started that off. I don’t know why we didn’t go wholeheartedly into [dance music]. 

Is it just that that record took a long time to come out, and by the time it came out, the acid house movement had kind of evolved into something different?

Yeah, I guess you’re right. Because we’d recorded it just around the time that I went to college, the late ‘80s. But it didn’t come out until ‘92 or something like that. I’d finished college then, and we’d started to do a few shows towards the end of college -- playing more like a normal band -- and then people started to like us. So we went, “Right, let’s just keep going then.” But [the dance sound] was always there, in the background. 

Was it disappointing to you that when Britpop became the thing in the mid-’90s, that it sort of lost that influence of dance music? It became very rock, and sort of retro-rock focused. There’s still strains of dance in Pulp, obviously, but Oasis and Manic Street Preachers and groups like that, the tie was pretty much severed to the house lineage. 

Well also, as you say, I think the main problem -- and it’s understandable, but -- was that [this musical moment] just tried to make the ‘60s happen again. And that’s really not possible. I know that people like to have time travel in movies and things like that but it’s just not possible in real life. As far as I know. So it was just like they tried to turn the nine upside down and make it a six. 

And I understand it, because the ‘60s were an exciting time. And socially, in the U.K., it was when people from more working-class backgrounds and stuff finally managed to participate in mainstream culture, as a result of  higher education becoming more possible for people from those backgrounds. So there was a kind of opening up, and people wanting that to happen again. Which, like, the idea of that is good -- but you just can’t do a karaoke version of it. And unfortunately, that’s what it kind of ended up being.

Hopefully we’ve learnt from that now -- if a change comes, it has to be something that’s about now, rather than a revival. 

Were there any particular reasons or occurrences in your life that brought you back to that dance music place for the making of JARV IS...? 

I think just because of people that I knew. I’d been DJing quite a lot. I’m not a DJ, but I get asked to do stuff, and I like it. And so I’d kind of been hanging around with people from that world more. So I think when it came time to do music again, I thought, “Well, that would be a good place to start it off from.”

When I first started a group -- Pulp -- it was important that it was pop music. Or that it was trying to be like pop music. It was taking the structure of pop music -- you know, verse, chorus, middle eight, all that kind of stuff -- and then trying to add something to it. Which was maybe that the lyrical stuff wasn’t about traditional pop concerns.

And I think maybe that’s what I’m trying to do with [JARV IS...] as well... the sounds, and the ideas and structures are kind of coming from dance music. The lyrics are coming from wherever. I like that. I’ve always done that, I suppose. I like to experiment with putting things together that you wouldn’t necessarily imagine to be together. 

Do you remember the last time you stayed up listening to house music all night long?

Barcelona, about three years ago. We’ve got quite a long connection with the Primavera Festival. It’s a great festival. I think they’re talking about doing an American one soon, so look out for that. The thing is, in Spain, people don’t go out until midnight anyway. And I used to go DJ at this club called Razzamatazz there. They’d taken the name of the club from the Pulp song, so we got invited to come play quite a lot. And the starting time for the DJ set just got later, and later… so we’d not started until three in the morning. And I played at the Primavera Festival, and I think I didn’t go on until half-three.

That was just last year, a couple of days before we played. And I was really… I mean, first of all, I was just thinking, “How do I stay awake until then?” And then, “How do I stay awake whilst playing?” And then, “Will there actually be anyone else awake?” But it was great! So I played until half past five or whatever. It was just starting to come light. But that’s… it’s not a regular occurrence. 

You’ve talked a lot about how a lot of these songs have been built through the live track being used as the reference for the recording. How do you think that changes the energy of the song? 

It changes it a lot, actually. That came about because I wanted to finish some songs off... I’d been thinking about these songs for a long time, and they weren’t progressing very quickly. And then I just kind of thought, “Just get a band together, go and play them, and that will finish them off.” And that’s what happened. 

Because you can just feel, when you’re playing a song, which bits are going over. Or suddenly you’ll get an idea, and you’ll do something spontaneous, and it works. And we were lucky: the fact that we were recording every single show, thinking that you would just use that as a reference, to say, “Right OK, we’ve worked this one out now, let’s go record it." But then we realized that we could actually use that performance where you thought, “Right, OK, it’s ready now,” as the basis for the actual finished version. 

Are there songs you think would end up very different on the record had they been born in the studio, fussed over a little bit more?

Well, there’s a thing on there called “Am I Missing Something?” And that song -- I’d been working on that for like seven years. And in the end, that was just a case of when you go out and play live -- you know, I’d worked on it, and unfortunately in the modern world, you can just keep adding and adding and adding. And you can have like, 500 tracks of audio or something like that. Live, we can’t afford that many musicians. So you just have to get it down to like seven different parts. So that just edited it.… the actual finished song ended up a lot simpler than what I’d been trying to do with it. 

I wanted to ask about the grassroots movement to get "Running the World" to No. 1 that kind of took hold last Christmas. What were your impressions of that? 

Yeah, that was crazy! I was playing records at this place called The House of St. Barnabus, which is like a member’s club in London, but the money from it goes to homeless charities... and as I was leaving the [venue], this woman tapped me on the arm and said, “Oh, we’ve started a campaign to get you to Christmas No. 1.” This was only -- this was the 14th of December, so pretty near to Christmas. So I said, “Oh… good luck with that.” I really didn’t take it very seriously. 

And then the next day, it started appearing on Instagram and stuff. So then I thought, “Oh God, they really are doing it!” I think that it started just a little bit too late, because it went really high in the iTunes chart... it’s given me a bit of an insight of how the charts are put together, because now it’s this weird combination of actual downloads, physical sales, streaming… 

I kind of got quite excited about it. I mean, the thing was, it was in the aftermath of the general election in the U.K. That’s kind of the death of socialism in the U.K., basically, so a lot of people were pissed off about that. So the fact that they chose that song to vent their anger and frustration and feelings like that was very flattering to me. Because that’s a 13-year-old song that they picked up on. 

Had you noticed it starting to take on a folk-y timelessness over the years?

Yeah, it’s kind of subtly become a song of protest. And I’m happy with that. In the JARV IS... shows that we’ve done so far, we finish with that song, because it gives people a chance to swear.

But we changed it when we came here, actually. Because I know that the word that’s used in that ["C--ts"] -- in the U.K., and in Australia and places like that, it’s really just an insult. And it’s not confined to any gender. What I realized from being in the States is that it is more [gendered]. So we changed it to “Pricks are still running the world” when we were touring the West Coast. But it was important to do that, because it is mainly males who are causing the issues in the world at the moment. So I didn’t want to be misunderstood in that way. 

Do you see any of yourself, or of Pulp, in modern music? Stuff that’s popular, stuff that’s acclaimed? Anything that reminds you of yourself. 

No. Well… I don’t think so. Can you think of anybody? I can’t think of anybody. 

Well, I was talking to someone recently about Room 29, and I was sort of describing that album, “It’s stripped-down pop songs, kinda loungey, it’s very hotel-themed.” And she was like, “Oh, just like the last Arctic Monkeys album.” Did you hear that?

Oh, right, OK. I did hear that, actually. I don’t think musically it was that similar. Maybe some of the themes... Well, that’s OK. It’s a Sheffield thing. 

Is there something about Sheffield that lends itself to albums about hotels?

There aren’t any good hotels in Sheffield! You’re really excited when you stay in one. And there were rumors that a Chinese billionaire was going to build a big hotel with an extensive water feature outside of it. For some reason they made a big deal about the water feature. And as far as I know, it’s not being built yet. So we’re still… hotel-less. I had to stay in a hotel when I was up there at Christmas, and it wasn’t sumptuous, I’ll tell you. 

What is kind of new to you about the assemblage of musicians you’ve got in JARV IS..? What about it gives you something that you haven’t had before?

Well, Pulp was a thing of people [from similar roots] -- some of us had gone to school together, we’re all from the same town, we kind of hung out together... There’s that stuff in the band now, but I found people from different places.

Before Scott Walker passed away, about three years ago now, there were the proms at the Royal Albert Hall. They did all this kind of ‘60s music with an orchestra and a band. And because I know those records very well, I was ready to pounce on any mistake that they did. But they were amazing. So I thought, all right…

“If they’re good enough for Scott Walker, they’re good enough for me?”

Exactly. So I made a note that it’d be good to use those guys. So that’s how [bassist Andrew McKinney and drummer Adam Betts] came to be part of it. And Serafina [Steer, harp], I’d produced a record for her -- and Emma, who plays violin, was in a band with her. So they kind of came as a pair as well. And as I said, they come from more of… some of it’s almost a classical, crossover kind of thing, and also improvisation. So they provide the instrumental color in the band.

And the other guy who’s in the band is Jason Buckle, and I was in a band called Relaxed Muscle with him. We were like an electronic duo. So we’ve known each other for a very long time. So we’re kind of the two that can’t really play anything! But a lot of ideas for sounds and things like that. So that’s how it works together. It’s a different setup, but I just feel like it gives… I feel like there’s a lot of possibilities with the sound that we’ve got. 

I did want to ask you about Scott Walker. Obviously you had a long personal and professional relationship with him -- do you remember the last time you spoke to him before his passing?

Before this prom that happened, I interviewed him on my radio show. And he was… he was very open that day, actually. But as soon as the interview finished, he kinda got up and ran out of the studio. It was crazy! And I followed him, and said, “Scott, where are you going?” And he said, “Oh, I’ve got to get…” And he tried to get in somebody else’s car!

He was just very, very shy, and didn’t like to kinda reveal too much about himself. But he was a normal guy, and I was very upset when he passed away. And I wished that I’d spoken to him more recently. But that whole period was a nice memory of him, actually. Because I didn’t think he would come and attend the prom, but he did. And his daughter was there. And those songs from those ‘60s albums had never been performed -- he never did them [live]. Maybe one or two, but he’d never actually properly gone and played them.

He was really happy with the way it’d been done. And he was really happy that night. So that was a good memory to have of him. 

Was he someone you sort of looked to as a guide for how to stay… not just relevant, but kind of vital, as you entered into the middle phase of your career?

Yeah, I think he’s an amazing example for any artist really. Because he just kept doing his own thing, and not worrying about anything else. In fact, in that last interview I did with him, he said something -- I might get it wrong, but it was something along the lines of, “An artist has to follow the evolution of their own consciousness… wherever it leads you, you have to follow that, and then try to express that in the best way that you can. That’s your duty as an artist.”

And that was the only thing that drove him. He’d been through pop stardom and stuff like that, and he had this incredible shyness and awkwardness with people. So the fact that he put himself through -- what, for him, would be the agony of making a record, and stuff like that -- was testament to the fact that he was very driven… that was what his life was. He was dedicated to it. And so I think he’s a good example, really, of what a true artist would do. 

A moment from the Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets documentary that always stuck with me was during the “Help the Aged” segment, when you’re asked if you’re looking forward to getting older. And you sort of very quickly answer, “No.” I’m curious -- as you do get older, is there any part of it that you do appreciate more than you were expecting?

Well, nobody likes to get older, but… I think -- hopefully -- you get to know yourself. Most hurtful or bad things that people do tend to be because they don’t really understand themselves. And so they lash out, or they make poor decisions, thinking it’s going to solve something in them or whatever. I think if you kind of get over that, you can end up being nicer to other people. Which is good.

And also -- I think becoming more at peace with yourself then can also make you more productive, as well. Because a lot of the time, people can do things because they want to give a certain impression or something. I think it goes back to what we were just saying about Scott. What you have to realize is that you’ve just got to go with whatever you are. So I don’t think that means, “Become complacent and just not make an effort anymore.” But just accept yourself, and see where you can get. So I think it becomes more of an inner journey, and an inner process as you get older.