Interview: Jarvis Cocker

Jarvis Cocker confesses his darkest fears to Tristram Fane Saunders

Visiting Professor of Poetry John Kinsella has certainly been busy. After arranging for Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth) to give a poetry reading in the English Faculty last term, this term he convinced Jarvis Cocker to visit Cambridge and deliver - well, certainly not a poetry reading, but...

"A recital? That sounds a bit odd, doesn't it?"

Walking onstage with the delicately unbalanced saunter that has become his trademark, Jarvis is met with a lively response by the crowd filling the Lady Mitchell Hall. Tonight's "event" is not a poetry recital, as Cocker is quick to point out. Jarvis remains adamant that Mother Brother Lover (his new book of selected lyrics, published by Faber) is not a poetry book, despite Kinsella's attempts to argue otherwise. Tonight, Jarvis tells us, he will not be reading or talking about poetry.

What he does talk about is far better. Combining a slideshow-based history of pop lyrics (including a look at the FBI's 2-year investigation of the "indecipherable" Louie Louie) with a retrospective of his own thirty-year lyrical career, Jarvis is charming, modest and constantly surprising. The development of Cocker's writing voice is fascinating. As he explains, his lyrics are "the closest thing I have to a diary." We watch him progress from reluctant pop writer at his local comprehensive ("I had this ‘aww…do I really have to?' approach to writing, but I was the band's singer, so I had to make the words"), through misguided early efforts (like the unintentionally funny Life is a Circle, unfortunately never recorded), to the poignant, seedy narratives loved by fans.

Though a couple of well-known Pulp tracks make an appearance (Sorted For E's and Whizz is accompanied by unsettling silent footage of pilled-up ravers), the evening's highlights come from Jarvis' more obscure work: Wickerman's portrait of love and burnt nougat in Sheffield's underground river network earns the best audience response of the night. One audience member asks Jarvis which of his songs is his "favourite." Remarkably, he doesn't dismiss the question. Instead, he tries to make an earnest decision, flicking desperately back and forth through the book, apologising to the audience ("I don't know… maybe… well, it depends what mood you're in, doesn't it?") before settling on Wickerman as today's "favourite," and revealing that the song's surreal river-journey out of Sheffield actually happened ("I took a dinghy, and made it as far as Rotherham").

Questions from the public produced some of the evening's most interesting moments. One spectator asked, "What kind of thing do you write about now?"

JC: The little things that stick in your mind. It's always been like that, but with time the bits that stick in are different. The things that are worth writing about, most of them are eternal. If you've covered those, or covered your thoughts on them, you don't won't to repeat yourself. You do end up going back to them, but have to wait until you've moved to a different angle. It's all about angle, that's the thing. You have to look at the same thing all the time, but you have to contort yourself into different positions and viewpoints. Time will do that very well. It's not always a pretty sight, but time will do it… It's like a form of conversation with yourself.

Other audience questions were less enlightening. One overconfident inquiry: "In Common People, there are backward lyrics. What exactly are they, and why were they put there?"

JC: Lyrics... backwards? Like some kind of... satanic message? Wait... I think I know the bit you mean. If I remember correctly – I'm kind of loath to tell you this – I was playing the guitar, and I couldn't hear what I was doing, so I went "Oi! Turn the... turn up t'guitar! I can't..." and the producer thought it sounded really good.

Audience Member: That's really scary, because when you play it backwards...

Sadly, laughter drowned out the rest of this revelation, and so I am unable to inform our readers of precisely what does happen when Common People is played backwards.

"Part of the point of writing something is that the process of writing it makes you understand something. If you understood it before you wrote it, you wouldn't go through that process. It might not be until a few years down the line that you find out what it's about."

Later on in the lecture theatre's basement, TCS caught up with a rather tired looking Jarvis. Luckily, there is one phrase always likely to revitalize him.

TCS: On this day…

TCS: On this day 100 years ago, the last surviving members of Captain Scott's polar expedition finally made it back safely. You've spent some time in the Arctic yourself – what's it like?

JC: Well, it was cold. I went about 3 years ago, with Cape Farewell – they take creative types to the arctic, in the hope that they'll produce some work out of that experience. My only knowledge of the Arctic was Pingu – and, yes, I know that's the Antarctic. One of the most impressive things is that the water moves in this really weird, viscous way. It seems to move like treacle or something. You're in a very alien landscape. It's a very funny feeling, being on top of the world. Someone pointed out that everybody else on the planet is far south of you... and then I did cry, a bit. In a weird way. Not like "oh my god, the icecap is meeelllltingg..." – though that is sad - but there was some kind of instinctive realisation that if these things weren't there any more it would be really bad. A feeling that something you couldn't quite put your finger on had gone wrong. Maybe it's that there's no sign of humans... there's something very beautiful about it.

TCS: When you interviewed Leonard Cohen a couple of weeks ago, you did it by ‘firing his lyrics back at him', so we thought we'd do the same with you. Whenever you play F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E. live, you ask the audience what frightens them. What frightens you, Jarvis?

JC: Umm.

TCS: What's frightened you this week?

JC: It hasn't been that frightening this week. But last week was terrifying. I was in my apartment in Paris. I was working at night, trying to type something. I saw something move out of the corner of my eye, and it was just looking at me. Dead silent. I made a noise, it went away. I looked 10 minutes later, it was there again... it was observing me, writing.... I still don't know if it was a mouse or a rat. Maybe a small mouse. Or a large rat.

Anyway, I thought, I can't do this – I went to bed and carried on working. I'd been working in bed for about five minutes, and it was there again. It'd moved to underneath the bedroom window. I was a nervous wreck for about four days after. I kept seeing things move everywhere I went. I'd see a sweet wrapper blow across the pavement and think it was a mouse, coming to get me. I had to go and sleep in the spare room. I mean, I hire a cleaner, it's not a dirty apartment, but there's... an infestation.

He flashes a smile – half awkward, half conspiratorial – and our interview finishes. Jarvis may not be a poet, but whatever he is, he's something special.

‘Mother Brother Lover' is out now

Tristram Fane Saunders

Interview first published 23 February 2012

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