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A Magazine for Sheffield

Pulp Jarvis Cocker talks about homecoming gig documentary

Nat Urazmetova

Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets will be screened in Sheffield on 7 June at this year’s Doc/Fest. A genre-bender of kitsch and kitchen sink, the documentary by filmmaker and Pulp fan Florian Habicht charts the feverish build-up to the band’s 2012 homecoming reunion gig at Sheffield Arena. Picking out the unlikeliest of fans, he daubs an eccentric and endearing sketch of Sheffield, the city behind the songs.

Seemingly an overnight success when their ‘anthem for the Netto generation’ Common People charted at number 2 in 1995, it had actually taken lynchpin Jarvis Cocker over a decade of line-ups and near misses to finally make it. After Pulp, Jarvis went solo before stealing the show in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as the sleazy sexpot singer of the Weird Sisters. More recently, he presented BBC Radio 6’s Sunday Service.

The documentary is all about the build-up to your comeback gig. How was it for you?

We were a bit nervous. Coming from Sheffield, when your ultimate compliment is somebody saying “Oh, it were alright” - that’s a bit scary. It’s where you were brought up so it still means a lot. So we were lucky enough to actually play ‘alright’ this last time.

The documentary is also a celebration of Sheffield. A lot of places from your songs have disappeared since. What do you cherish most?

The filmmaker Florian, who’s from New Zealand, asked me if there were any places he should go and I got a copy of [Cocker’s selected lyrics book] Mother, Brother, Lover and underlined a few places. I gave him my sister’s number, cos she still lives in Sheffield, and said get in touch with her and she’ll tell you how to get to these places. One of them was Castle Market, and he really latched onto that and got a lot of the people from the film from there, so the film is like a requiem for Castle Market. For me, that was one of the pleasant surprises of the film. I didn’t know whether people like that were still around in Sheffield, so it was great that he found all these interesting people and it kind of amazed me that it was all still there. I thought it might have been all bulldozed and gentrified by now.

Your career is like the longest foreplay ever. Is your sex drive intimately tied to your desire to be a star?

That’s a very personal question! I don’t think it is, no. I do think that if you prance around on stage, that is some form of sexual display. Now I’m older maybe I don’t confuse the two so much. You’d have to ask my girlfriend.

I saw you a few years ago in Somerfield on Ecclesall Road. You’d chosen the time of day quite well. It was full of OAPs who didn’t recognise you. Is being famous like being a spy, having to creep around in the shadows?

Well, I’ve always done that. That’s where I get all my ideas from for writing, from spying. I try to avoid supermarkets as much as possible cos they depress me. I shouldn’t really say this, but I find that whenever I go to the supermarket I get an uncontrollable urge to go to the toilet whilst I’m there. I’ll be trying to get my shopping done, walking really carefully and probably looking a bit pale trying to finish my shopping off, and you can always bet that somebody’ll recognise me and come up and say hello and I’ll be stood there trying to keep still, wanting to get out to sort myself out. So I generally prefer to go to the corner shop.

Your lyrics are all about being an outsider. How did it feel once you were inside?

It didn’t really work out so well [laughs]. We’d all grown up fantasising what it would be like to be famous and live in Pop Land. Of course, when you’re living in it, it in’t Pop Land, it’s just a job. Suddenly you had to work and cos we’d all been on the dole for so long we didn’t wanna work, and we didn’t know how to, so it turned that escape into a trap.

There’s a voyeuristic male gaze in your lyrics, but then you became a sex symbol yourself. How did it feel?

Well, I don’t know if that happened. I don’t know if I agree with you about the voyeuristic gaze because quite a lot of the songs are written from the point of the view of a girl. Like, if you take the B-sides of ‘Babies’, ‘Inside Susan’, it’s three songs that follow a girl through growing up [‘Stacks’, ‘Inside Susan’ and ’59 Lyndhurst Grove’]. And if they’re not from the point of view of a girl or woman, then they’re often addressed to a woman, like ‘Have You Seen Her Lately?’ or even ‘Babies’ itself, which is talking about hiding in the wardrobe, but is talking to this girl’s sister.

My background is being brought up in almost an exclusively female environment, because my father left and basically all the husbands in our bit of the street went at the same time, so there weren’t many male role models around. My perspective when I wanted to find out about sex and relationships would be what I picked up from eavesdropping on my mother and her friends talking about blokes that they’d been out with. It wasn’t until I made my first fumbling attempts that I started getting the male side of the story and that’s what I’ve ended up writing about a lot, that thing of ‘I am a man’ [laughs]. Perhaps not the most manly man in the world, but I am a man and I do fancy women, but I wasn’t brought up in that male environment. It’s something that I try to sort out in what I write, but I don’t know if I’ll ever sort it out. But I have a go.

In the 90s, the media set up this war between the arty middle class (Blur) and working class underdogs (Oasis). As a working class art band, did Pulp break down some of the class barriers?

I don’t know if we did. My point would be that people don’t have to be defined by their class. That’s what really saddened me recently about people having to pay for their education and what that’s going to do to arts education. People from my kind of background just won’t go to art college because they can’t afford to. If I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have ended up doing what I do now. I feel very keenly that a big door has been slammed in the face of a whole sector of people. You have to be conscious of your background, but you don’t have to be hidebound by it. If Pulp stood for anything, they stood up for people who felt a bit different, who didn’t fit in with the kind of roles they were supposed to play.

Florian has corralled lots of local oddballs into the documentary. Is there a danger the film might exploit the people of Sheffield?

I don’t think so, no. It gives people a voice. Like the young girl, Liberty, and her brother [Rio]. When you first see them they’re really excited to be in the film, so you’re thinking, ‘Oh yeah, kids nowadays, it’s just like X Factor. They want to become famous and that’s gonna make them happy.’ But then it goes back to her and she’s talking about how she doesn’t want to grow up too fast and she likes being young.

I was harmlessly Googling your name and I came across a dinosaur porn story about you and a T Rex. I guess you have no control over how people use you in the public sphere…

[Laughs] Well, that’s not a genre I’m familiar with. I’ll have to cast my eye over that. I suppose the time when I really realised that and didn’t like it was back in our pop phase when somebody went on Stars in Their Eyes and did me. All those little moves and twitches which looked really comical with him doing them, they’re just things that I picked up unconsciously over the years. It did me head in, basically. Next time we played, I was really self-conscious cos I was thinking I’m going to look like that guy doing an impression of me. Maybe I draw the line at shagging a Tyrannosaurus. I’ll have to have a look at that [laughs].

You talk about pop having a social function, and Pulp in particular. Would you describe yourself as a trojan horse, smuggling stuff into the mainstream?

Well, I don’t think we were as dangerous a real trojan horse, cos they totally slaughtered everybody. But I hope that we had a go and I hope that we still are in a way. I think that’s something that I thought was the point of pop, or the pop that I grew up with. Even when music wasn’t like explicitly ‘smash the system’, it was seen as a bit of an alternative thing, and the thing is now it’s everywhere, isn’t it? You go in a lift, there’s music, you go in a shop, there’s music. It’s like a scented candle now. It’s like something that creates an atmosphere for the next people that buy stuff. Something like streaming, it’s using water imagery to say it’s just going to flow through your life and irrigate you with its niceness, whereas before maybe it was something a bit spikier. Everybody’s got to get spiky!

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