Back Talk: Jarvis Cocker

Back Talk: Jarvis Cocker

A conversation with the former frontman of Pulp about the sound of music in the digital era.


Jarvis Cocker, the former frontman of the Brit-pop band Pulp, recently released his second solo album, Further Complications (Rough Trade; $21.45). In May he spent a week with his band working in an art gallery in Paris, trying to answer the question, What is music?   —Christine Smallwood

So: what is music?

That’s a tall order, really. I was investigating what music can be. Now that it’s no longer a supposedly viable commercial venture, would the gallery system be a valid way of disseminating it? That sounds very dry and academic, but it isn’t. We set up in this small gallery space and rehearsed, and every now and again we’d have hours where people would bring an instrument and play along, and then we provided the music to different classes, like a yoga class and a belly-dancing class. What I liked was that there were spontaneous moments–the music happened for ten minutes or however long it took, and then it was gone. So many things in our culture are based around repetition and being relived, and it’s nice to have something that comes out of nowhere and returns to nowhere.

How was it related to your work as a curator, like when you organized the Meltdown festival in London in 2007?

Meltdown was about the fact that culture isn’t something you consume. You can create it yourself; you can participate in it. The gallery residency was a natural progression of that: people were invited to participate through playing with us onstage, or people who couldn’t play an instrument could join one of the classes with our music. People have become spectators in their own life. The consumer ethos has infiltrated not just the way people live their lives but also the way they consume culture. I’m an old person, so I was brought up when punk rock happened, and the message was that you can do it yourself.

Have computer programs like GarageBand made DIY easier?

My son goes on my computer and writes, well, I couldn’t really call them songs, but he makes music on that. It’s weird because for him that’s one of his first introductions to the world of making music, so he probably thinks that music comes ready-made in loop form. It’s like taking bits off a shelf and then combining them in a strange way rather than making it up from scratch. That’s inevitable because popular music has existed for more than fifty years. You can’t start from scratch now. Anything you do in some way will involve recycling. But I do worry a little bit about the fact that instead of things being filtered through the human memory and getting changed–people have always tried to copy other things, but usually the filter of memory adds in discrepancies and sometimes you end up creating something new–now you just get the real thing and loop it, and that doesn’t change it so much.

How has the Internet changed how we listen to music?

People don’t know what bass is anymore. When you listen to sounds on a computer speaker, there are no bass frequencies whatsoever. As far as MP3 players go, music becomes a matter of quantity in some way. I think it’s turned music listening into a bit like stamp collecting, because people want to fill up their iPod. I’m a musician. I’ve got a lot of records, and I’ve had a computer for ten years. Even though I put songs on my iPod, there are still only 2,200 tracks on it. And I’m not being lazy. I download things when I feel like it, and I put CDs in when I feel like it. So when people say they’ve got 15,000 or 30,000 tracks on their iPod, that’s flabbergasting. They will have music on there that they still will not have listened to when they die. It’s just stuck in a dusty part of a computer’s hard drive. Or maybe it will get played once.

When I first got a computer, I put certain records on it, and then I realized I didn’t want them on my computer. There are certain songs in your life that you don’t want to come across on a shuffle. There are songs that you choose to listen to at certain points in your life, maybe a breakup song or a going-out song–you want to physically choose to play it. If it just turns up on a shuffle when you’re halfway between Pittsburgh and LA, it’s not appropriate. It might make you crash the car. I took certain songs off my iPod because I didn’t want to stumble across them by accident. Others exist only on my iPod because they’re a bit more wallpapery and appropriate for when I’m driving or traveling on an airplane. You adapt. Whenever anybody invents a new technology, they always say, This is it. But it isn’t. OK, cassettes have been superseded. That’s why I released one. Only 300 were made. It was a Rough Trade sampler.

What is it like to have such an acclaimed solo career relatively late in life?

Well, I’m lucky, aren’t I? But I haven’t started performing yet. It has crossed my mind that I’ve written quite a loud, fast record that may pose certain problems for me in performance. I do like to move around onstage. Perhaps I should have been doing some military-style training.

Do you ever download music illegally?

No. Never, never. I do think iTunes is a bit rubbish, because often it will have the crap version of the song you want. I was trying to get the original version of Jonathan Richman’s "Roadrunner" the other day. On iTunes in the UK you can only get a live version or the John Cale version; you can’t get Richman’s actual studio version. It’s irritating when that happens. And I can understand people illegally downloading things then. If you can’t get the thing you want, you’re within your rights. But generally speaking, I don’t download things for free.

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