Even after 30 years in music, Jarvis Cocker still gets a thrill when he sees his records on billboards.
“I saw a poster print the other day, that was really exciting,” Cocker says over the phone. “I took a photograph of it. This one was quite near a traffic island that’s near where I live in London. It’s in my area so people who I pass and see in shops and things like that will know that my record exists. If it’s a billboard, it must really be coming out.”
Cocker is talking about the effusive Beyond the Pale, his first new record in a decade and first with an actual band (named, cheekily, JARV IS…) since the dissolution of beloved Britpop act Pulp in 2002. Though originally slated for May, Beyond the Pale suffered a similar fate to that of many records with spring release dates by being delayed thanks to COVID-19. After nearly six months of doing press for a record with no concrete release date in sight, it’s no wonder Cocker is excited to see evidence of his hard work in public, especially considering the long and rather complex creation process behind the record.
First of all, Cocker didn’t even have a band when he was invited by Sigur Rós to perform at their Norður og Niður festival in 2017, which caused a bit of a crisis.
“I had ideas for songs, some of which I’ve had for a long time, but I never managed to completely bring them to fruition,” he explains. “Then I got asked to play this festival. Something in me said, ‘Just say yes,’ and so I said yes. Then I kind of panicked and had to get a band together to play the new songs. But that was the best thing I did because as soon as I involved other musicians, the songs started to kind of come alive and be real.”
JARV IS… went on to perform at the Desert Daze festival in California in 2018 and then embarked on a tour of small venues around the UK, including a stop in a cave venue in Derbyshire near Cocker’s home in Sheffield, that further solidified their chemistry and resulted in recordings that would eventually become the building blocks of Beyond the Pale.
Beyond the Pale is billed as an “alive” record, meaning that it is a mixture of studio and live recordings, something that was suggested to Cocker by Geoff Barrow of Portishead and BEAK fame. Yet the band was never able to take the completed product on the road, as lockdown put a stop to touring plans and even the band’s ability to practice. In fact, JARV IS…. were only recently able to get together in person to play, returning to the same cave venue in Derbyshire to film a sort of virtual “listening party” for the record, an experience Cocker relays with similar excitement to seeing Beyond the Pale advertised on a billboard.
“It was so great after all this frustration of not being able to play and different ways of trying to make it work online, the simple thing of just being all in this space together, when we first just started playing together again, was such a lovely feeling, it was so great,” says Cocker. “In fact, it was a good job that we were all so buzzed up by it because the cave is really cold. Otherwise everybody would’ve gotten in a pretty bad mood […] and once you’ve been in there for a few hours you start to really feel it in your bones.”
As it’s the end of the press cycle for Beyond the Pale, rather than focus on the more quotidian and biographical details behind the record, which you can readily find in any other music publication if you are so inclined, we chatted a little more broadly about the changing nature of music in the post-COVID world, with Cocker sharing thoughts on the future of festivals, the difficulties of finding good caves to play in, and why he thinks lockdown might ultimately prove to be beneficial for bands.
Where are you quarantined?
Just north of Sheffield, UK, where I was born. I’ve been here during the pandemic. It’s kind of near my mother and my sister and my family, they still live up here. It’s been good. It’s not in a city so I think that makes it easier to deal with the situation.
Yeah, same. I’m in very rural West Virginia, so there are very few people, but a lot of horses.
Over here it’s sheep. I realized for the first kind of month of lockdown I saw more sheep than people. That’s a first in my life.
There’s something peaceful about it, though. Animals aren’t bothersome.
Yeah, especially since it was March when we arrived. That’s the lambing season, so every time we went for a walk, there was a newborn lamb somewhere. In the midst of all the death that was on the news all the time, it was a very welcome kind of antidote.
The new record is kind of a hybrid live and studio record, but it’s not really done in the usual way, where they take something recorded in the studio and then pump a bunch of applause and cheers into it or just take a live recording and clean it up. What was the inspiration for doing it as a combination of both?
It’s funny. I hadn’t really thought about that before, because sometimes people do those really phony live albums where they actually did it in the studio and then they put some applause at the end of it as if it were live. It happened almost accidentally, really.
I never thought we were gonna end up using live recordings. I thought we were just working the songs out and once we were happy with them, we’d go into the studio and record them. We were recording the shows so that we could check how the songs were progressing, and I was talking to Geoff Barrow after we played at a festival called Desert Daze in California in 2018. I told him what we’d been doing. He particularly liked that song ‘Must I Evolve’ and then I said, ‘Oh, we did a really good recording of that, we did it in a cave and it came out really well.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you just release that?’ I said, ‘Well, you can’t do that. You have to do it properly.’ He said ‘No, why don’t you just go into the studio, I know this guy.’ This guy that he’s worked with called Craig Silvey, who’s also worked with Arcade Fire and he recently did some stuff with the Rolling Stones. He just said, ‘Give it to Craig, he’ll mix it and it’ll be fine.’ We did change some bits. We re-recorded the vocals. They were a bit messy because vocal mics on stage will pick up all the other things as well. But the basic performances that you hear on ‘I Must Evolve’ and ‘Sometimes I’m Pharaoh’ and ‘Children of the Echo,’ they were all recorded at live shows.
What was it like playing Desert Daze?
Have you been to that festival?
Yes, but before it became the huge, big thing that it is now, or was. I used to go when they would hold it in little road houses around Palm Desert and was much smaller. But then it just blew up and became like Coachella junior.
They’re still more interesting than Coachella, way more interesting. I was in L.A. on holiday with my son about two years ago. I was staying at the Ace Hotel and sometimes they have people DJing on the roof there. There was a Desert Daze thing happening and I said, ‘Oh, can I DJ as well, please?’ I just kind of gate-crashed their DJ night. We got to chatting and then I checked out the festival and I just saw that the bands that they had playing were really interesting. They just felt like a really good line-up of stuff. The festival is kind of picking up on the original spirit of festivals from the ’60s. What I liked about it was it didn’t seem like it was doing it in a completely retro way. It was kind of trying to take that spirit and take it on, even down to something like the stage we played on. They were doing those liquid light show things, which is something that originated in the ’60s when people would drop bits of dye into a tray and project it onto the stage. But Desert Daze were using video technology to amplify it and project it into all other places. I liked the way they were kind of taking that ethos and bringing it into the 21st century, so I was really excited about playing. It was quite an eventful festival that year because the night we played, about an hour after we finished and just at the start of Tame Impala’s set, there was this gigantic thunderstorm and the whole site had to be evacuated. Then it was kind of mayhem.
What do you think the future is going to be for festivals like Desert Daze, if there are even going to be festivals post-COVID. Do you think something like that will ever happen again?
I really hope so. I feel it quite keenly at the moment because of the process I described to you earlier about how we made this record, which was in small shows where you stand and you are maybe looking straight into the eyes of the people in the front row. There’s no barrier or anything, the stage is maybe four inches high. Those shows are the best shows and those shows are where music’s got nowhere to go. In a venue that small, it’s like it enters your body and you kind of feel it in you. I want that to come back. That’s a real show for me. Festivals, you know, you have to be in a sea of people and that’s the vibe of it. That’s why you want to be there, so you can lose yourself within that crowd and pick up on the kind of atmosphere that’s in that place.
A lot of people are talking about it in the UK at the moment because there was an announcement at the end of last week that some outdoor events can take place now, like outdoor theater or maybe some kind of musical performances. Of course the big question in all that is what about the audience, what can the audience do? How near can the audience be to each other? Can you do it in a way that it’s a satisfying experience for an audience to have? I’m hoping to talk to my agent tomorrow actually about what ideas might be around. The only idea I’ve had so far is…do you know that guy he’s called Mike Skinner, but he performs as the Streets? He and Dizzee Rascal are planning on setting up in a multi-story car park where everybody turns up in their car. I don’t know whether they’re going to stay in their car while they’re watching or if the music will come through the car radio or whether you’re allowed to dance around your car. But it sounds interesting, I might go.
I heard about some people in Texas who kind of did a drive-in show where the band set up on a flatbed of a truck, and everybody just pulled up in their cars and sat while the band played.
I’m just trying to put myself in the position of the performer—of looking out from the stage and just seeing cars, as if you’re playing to cars. And then would people do things like instead of clapping they’d all just honk their horns at the end of the song? Or maybe flash their lights or, you know, when you get to the lighters-in-the-air moment you tell everyone to turn their blinkers on or something like that. Maybe that’d be good.
People are really missing live music, so they’re willing to try all sorts of things.
I think someone will come up with a good idea for sure. I think that’s been one hallmark of what’s happened over the last couple of months during lockdown is people being quite ingenious in dealing with it.
Is there anything in particular that you’ve seen people doing during quarantine that sticks out to you as being really cool?
I did my own series of domestic discos where I was just playing records in my front room and broadcasting on Instagram Live. That was inspired by a guy who was doing that in upstate New York, his Instagram handle is @jlube64. He was playing records from his garage and the thing that really kind of caught my attention was he was playing records, but people were commenting on the records by texting stuff and giving shout outs. I was impressed because it was almost like a party was going on except the people weren’t in the garage with him, they were just carrying on the party from wherever they were. So I was inspired by him to try it myself.
How has that gone? Has it been a good experience?
It went really well; it was good! At first I think some people tuned in to laugh at me attempting to set up all the equipment because it’s been a long time since I’ve had to do my own kind of backline technician stuff. So sometimes that would go wrong and I’d kind of lose it and start shouting at basic equipment. I blew a couple of amplifiers up because I obviously didn’t set it up properly. Then I had a word with my sound guy and he helped me through it. My girlfriend was helping me with it, and we would dance together sometimes if I happened to put on a song that we were both really into. So it was good! It seemed to work really well. It was useful because dancing is a really great way— I mean music generally is good at helping you to escape your surroundings. If you’re really into a piece of music and you’re dancing to it or listening to it with your eyes closed, your situation melts away and you just inhabit that realm that that song creates, and that’s why we like it, isn’t it?
Yeah, definitely—that’s really cool. So you put a band together for this record after not having had a band for a long time. Was it kind of weird that you couldn’t practice together?
Yeah, it was. We’ve been through a bit of a journey on that one. It started off like I suppose all bands. When it first happened we had a Zoom call and we all thought, ‘Oh let’s try and do a song now while we’re on the Zoom call.’ Then you suddenly find out that everybody’s got these different latency issues with their connections. It’s really dispiriting because it’s like you’ve gone back to when you first formed a band and you can’t actually play so everything’s out of time and all over the place. Then we were talking to someone who reckoned they had a method of making it work so you could all play together online, and we had a couple of abortive sessions where we tried to make that work, but it was very frustrating. Then, I’m glad to say, that last Tuesday, nine days ago, we finally managed to all get together, in the cave that I was telling you about before that we played a concert in, we went back to that cave and we played the whole album there. It was filmed and recorded and that’s gonna be broadcast next Tuesday on YouTube; I think the edit is finishing today.
Do you feel like having had this sort of forced separation that when you came together to play again, the songs were different in some way? Were there some new elements that otherwise wouldn’t have been there if you had been able to do it the normal way?
That’s interesting because the hard fact of it was that we hadn’t played together or rehearsed for four months. The people in the band are really great music players but any band that hasn’t played together for four months is probably going to be a bit rusty. The fact that we were being filmed and this was going to be something that was going to be shown to other people, for those people I guess it’ll be their introduction to the record. It’s almost a kind of listening party time thing. It did flash through my mind that maybe it was going to be a mess, but weirdly enough, we were great! Maybe it was because everybody was just so happy to be playing so there was no kind of going off. Also we were in a really weird, not normal situation. We were in this cavern deep below the earth with loads of lasers and smoke machines and stuff like that, so it was. I think everybody just got excited and played really well.
Playing in caves, I assume you have to get permission to do that.
This cave that we played in, is about four miles away from where I’m speaking to you from, it does have concerts. It has quite a big wide mouth and they have shows in there. A lot of the shows are kind of tribute bands, like people pretending to be Queen or Billy Joel and Elton John on the same bill, obviously never would happen in real life. Wait, maybe it did. [It did.] Well, it certainly wouldn’t happen in a small village in Derbyshire. It holds about 400 people so it’s not massive, but it’s quite big for a cave. So they do have stuff there, it’s like we just turned up with a generator and decided to do it. We weren’t squatting a cave.
There are people who used to do something like that in the Bay Area. There was this DIY venue, but it was a cave and people would show up with a generator and everything.
That interests me because I’ve had this obsession for a while. Some of the themes on the record come from a book I read about caves called The Mind in the Cave, which is all this theory about how our modern consciousness developed when we started living in caves and doing cave paintings and all that stuff. So I had this theory that we were going to do a tour of caves all over the world. I have actually discussed this quite a lot with my agent and to his credit he hasn’t put the phone down on me. I was trying to look on my own, because, you know, America is a massive country there have to be loads of venues in caves, but I could only find one that was in Tennessee or somewhere, some kind of country venue that’s in a cave. I think David Berman [Silver Jews] did a solo show down there a few years ago. I can’t remember the name of it, but apart from that I couldn’t find any cave venues. And now you’ve told me there’s another one in the Bay area.
Well, it’s not a “real” venue, it’s DIY and punk. You’ll have to DIY it!
Well, where there’s a will there’s a way.
You’ll have to come to West Virginia, then, because there’s tons of caves here.
Alright, well there you go, that’s almost a tour, two venues.
Are there environmental concerns with playing in caves? What with bats and things that live in there?
That is a very good question. I didn’t see any evidence of any kind of life in that cave. You would think that maybe some bats would hang out there, but I didn’t see one. There is water in this cave and that was another thing that was a little bit worrying because it has been raining around here for quite a while. Apparently what happens is like a delay, it takes maybe three or four days for the water to percolate through the limestone before it comes out into the cave and it does flood from time to time. So that was an added level of excitement that maybe suddenly there’d be a raging torrent and wash us all away.
You’ve gotta take a risk! So, this album was supposed to come out earlier this year and then it was pushed to September and then moved back to July. How do you feel about the changing release dates? How much input did you have into that?
I didn’t have any input. Initially, I was glad that it got moved from May because the pandemic was all new then, it seemed that everybody had a lot of stuff on their mind and we had to work out how they were going to deal with this new situation. I did feel that it being moved back to September seemed like a long time. You know, if you talk to people in bands, it takes you a certain amount of time to get a record together. In my case it takes a long time because I’m a very slow worker, but when you finally get it together and you’re happy with it and it’s finished it’s like then you can’t wait for it to come out because, until it comes out, you can’t really move on to the next thing. You have to get the chapter out there for that chapter to finish, so it was a bit frustrating for me having gone through all these complicated things—caves, Iceland, playing live—this kind of complicated formula made this album happen. I was really happy with it and excited about people hearing it so it was a bit of a downer having that delay. When they suggested putting it moving it back a bit to July, the logic there being that normally people release in the summer because nobody can afford to go on holiday anymore you can release in summer, I thought that was good. It’s kind of weird because I had already started a bit of the promotional thing before lockdown happened. I’ve basically been talking about this record for six months now so it’s gonna be really weird by next week. It’s almost like it’s become something that I don’t really think actually exists. It’s more like a concept, or something.
Moving over to new music—do you still actively seek out new acts and bands and stuff, or do they sort of come to you. What have you been listening to lately?
I was really lucky a few years ago, because from around 2011 to 2017, I was doing a radio show here in the UK and I got sent records all the time. That was really good for me because that introduced me to a lot of new music that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. In fact, on a really primal level, this new group wouldn’t have existed without that because Serafina Speer, who is the keyboardist and harpist in the band, hers is one of the first records that I really latched on to in the early days of the radio show. It was on a really small label so I never would have known about it if it hadn’t been for this radio show. That was a way that I found out about new music for a long time. I stopped doing the radio show in 2017 so now I find out about it in different ways.
I have bought things through Bandcamp. I’m not just saying that because I’m talking to you. Ian Svenonious of the Make-Up has a new project called ESCAPE-ISM that’s kind of a techno, disco-type thing. It’s really quite good and I bought a 7″ single of his through Bandcamp. That should arrive in the mail any moment now. I also just buy things digitally occasionally as well. This guy Luxury does a lot of interesting edits of old songs, he puts his stuff out through Bandcamp and I bought quite a few of them because when I was doing that domestic disco thing I played a lot of his reworks. Bandcamp is one of the ways that I find out about new stuff.
What do you think is going to happen with live music or bands going forward? Do you have any observations or hopes because I’m a big fan of bands and it kind of makes me sad that it’s going to be really tough for a bunch of people to get together and play music for a while.
Yeah, I agree. I do try to look for the silver linings, as I described to you my personal experience of finally being able to play with the band last week was so exciting that it almost was like you rediscovered why you got into it in the first place. Somehow having it being taken away from you for a while rekindled the enthusiasm for it, you know, because when things are available to you all the time, 24/7, you can sometimes take them for granted and they can be not valued as much as you should do. That happens in everything, doesn’t it? It happens in relationships, everything that goes on. So I think maybe bands will re-discover it, they’ll get excited about what they’re doing again. That’s what I’m hoping. There you go. I’m just Mr. Positivity today. I don’t know where this is coming from, but I am.