PULP! LIVE! HARDCORE! UNCUT!
by Jason Anderson
To judge by its sales, This Is Hardcore proved too harsh for many of the fans who embraced “Common People,” it was but a very brave move. It was Pulp’s darkest and most morbid record since Separations, their third album and the one that was a turning point from a frustrating decade of obscurity to burgeoning artistic and commercial success.
And the title track was a definitively Pulpian thing, encapsulating the album’s preoccupations with the sickness, pallor and violence that lurks at the edges of the glamorous life.
What follows is a transcript of a conversation with Jarvis Cocker and Mark Webber of the group when they were in Toronto to promote the disc just before its release in April.
Firstly, I’d like to compliment you on not following the tradition of artists’ works after a breakthrough success—this is not an album about being famous.
Jarvis: “You know what? In a metaphorical way it might be, but it explicitly isn’t. As you say, there’s no interest in hearing some pampered prick complain how tough their life is. Although, I obviously, from what we’ve been through, you do get to see the reality of success, and there is a lot of irritating things about it. The thing is that the population at large don’t know what that kind of life is like so why should you bother them with it?”
Mark: “They don’t need to know”
Jarvis: “Go and tell your analyst about it. Yeah, you don’t need to know because it spoils it. That’s just something you have to deal with yourself. Most people who decide to be in bands start by being fans and build up fantasies and things about the people they like to listen to when they’re growing up and stuff, and it can be difficult that after being a fan, that you get to this stage that you’ve been reading about in pop biographies for years and years and it’s not all that’s cracked up to be. But that’s your personal problem.”
It’s so difficult to maintain a sense of drive in the face of success—if your main reason for creating art is to derive material success, what can you do when you’ve achieved that?
Jarvis: “Your motivation is gone. The Duran Duran effect, that’s what it’s known as.”
Mark: “Didn’t know we did it to be successful.”
Jarvis: “Duran Duran didn’t?”
Mark: “No, we didn’t do it to be successful.”
Jarvis: “No, that’s it, and we’ve still got a drive. Part of the challenge of making another record is trying to disprove the myth that by becoming successful you then have to bland out or become formulaized or stop making an effort or stop experimenting. The other thing is when people experiment too much, when they buy a synthesizer and say, ‘Yeah, I’ve discovered the future,’ and make a really awful album.”
The classic example of that being Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk.
Jarvis: “Ah, but that’s being reassessed.”
Yeah, but Lindsey Buckingham was obviously someone who wanted to push it so far that he made a record that took ten years for people to digest. Mark: “Didn’t do him any favours.”
Jarvis: “Have you got that album? Is it really good?”
Mark: “It’s very new wave.”
Jarvis: “I like the single ‘Tusk.’ I keep meaning to get it. Sometimes those dense, indulgent albums can be good. I like Death of a Ladies Man by Leonard Cohen—that’s, I suppose, considered one of the troughs in his career. Certainly, it didn’t sell very well.”
It was a risky record. I like his ‘80s disco period, too. Jarvis: “Like ‘First We Take Manhattan.’ Casio brought out a new keyboard that year.”
That thing spawned a whole raft of records that didn’t date well. Was there a sense of trying to reclaim Pulp as your own thing, beyond what people knew of it?
Jarvis: “A bit, yeah. We’d never have to contend with that thing of people having an expectation of you, especially in the UK with me being featured heavily in the media, especially after the Michael Jackson thing and stuff like that—you do turn into a cartoon character, and it’s a bit scary. You do have to reevalute the situation, think, do you want to be Mickey Mouse for the rest of your life, or do you want to do something that you’ll be able to sleep after doing it? There’s lots of opportunities in the pop world for becoming a very sad character. It’s easier to become a sad character than remain kind of together.”
People are more than eager to keep you comfortable. Jarvis: “That’s what turns people into idiots, is the fact that people pander to your whims and you don’t have to make efforts so much. You can pay people to be nice to you, basically.”
When I interviewed Ian Brown, he was very adamant about the dangers of having minders.
Jarvis: “He’s got this crusade against cocaine in the music business, especially because of how that impacted his relationship with John Squire.”
And having people take you to clubs and to hotels, how this contributes to a false reality.
Jarvis: “The first time I came across that, it was strange. It was during the halcyon days of Britpop and we went to the Good Mixer in Camden and bumped into a couple of the guys from Suede, not even the singer—it was the drummer and the bass player. I noticed this big bloke sitting near them, and I thought, what’s he doin’? It clicked after 20 minutes of talking that he was their minder, and I just thought, who’d want to bother the drummer out of Suede? What is the big deal? And the idea of sitting there, you know the kind of conversations you have when you go out, you talk about fuck all basically. It’s okay amongst friends but with this big bloke who sat there, he’s not gonna have the same interests, he’s not gonna talk about eyeliner or the glamour of the suburbs, he’s gonna be on about dog racing or doing a bank job. It was a weird situation. You get hassled when you go out. Not hassled, I’m lucky in that people usually don’t want to inflict physical violence on you. You have to deal with it. Eventually they’ll go away. If they don’t go away, you’ll have to go away (we all laugh).”
Was there a temptation to make the record even harsher-sounding?
Jarvis: “According to the frame of mind you’re in when you’re making something, that has to come out, doesn’t it? Part of the thing was this record was to confront some things that weren’t that comfortable. The only way to get through those things is to face them. Once you’ve faced them and done something with them, then that defuses the threat that they’ve got. That’s the way the record works really.”
Mark: “There was a conscious decision to not make it all totally depressing.” Jarvis: “A conscious decision… we were worried at some times. We didn’t want to make a record that would make people think, ‘Oh, they’ve gone SERIOUS.’ That did worry me, because even though it’s our career, to other people it’s entertainment, and you have to remember that.”
Did the more angry stuff come at beginning of the process—the album is sequenced such that it seems to lighten up in the second half. Jarvis: “That’s the intention.”
Was it recorded in a similar way?
Jarvis: “I’d like to say it was but it wasn’t. The way that you find all these things come together is usually by stumbling around in the dark. The fear was one of the early songs that we got, but then ‘This Is Hardcore’ came halfway through the second batch of songs we were writing. We get the engineer, Pete Lewis, to do the sequencing, this man who works with Chris Thomas. Because he did it on the last album and he came up with an order that I don’t think any of us would have chosen but it worked. We thought we’d give him a go this time, and there were a couple of changes, but it’s generally his order again. I would never have opened the record with ‘The Fear.’ I would’ve thought it was too harsh. I thought you’d have to butter people up before you get into that. But it does work. And the way you kind of start in pretty desperate circumstances and gradually come up for air throughout the album. That works well.”
The sequencing reminded me of that of Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure. Jarvis: “People have talked about Roxy Music, but I don’t actually own any Roxy Music. Chris Thomas worked on that. I’ve always been disappointed by Roxy Music albums. The singles are great, the greatest hits albums, but the albums are not what you’d expect from the singles. They tend to go into long, quite maudlin, depressive stuff. You don’t think of Bryan Ferry in that way, do you?”
There’s a similar perspective. Ferry wasn’t that famous yet, though he was entering that set, dating Jerry Hall.
Jarvis: “Be enough to depress anyone, wouldn’t it?”
How tough was it to create the form of ‘This Is Hardcore’? Jarvis: “It started off as an experiment. I’d be listening to these records by a group from San Francisco called Tipsy, and Stock, Hausen & Walkman. I liked the way they took stuff from lounge music or easy listening, but then they—especially with Stock, Hausen & Walkman—made something creepy, profoundly uneasy listening. I always liked easy listening music but I was put off it because there was a mini-revival of it in the UK, which featured Mike Flowers Pops and people wearing stupid suits. I thought that what they had was an interesting slant. I thought, let’s have a go at that. We’d come to grips with samples and computers and that. It started with the horn sample, kind of got the first section of the song written, and as we often do, we’ll then say, right, needs another bit now. We try grafting other bits on, sometimes they’re from other songs that we’ve tried and there’s a bit that you like and the rest of it’s no good. It just got jigsawed together in that way.
“I was really pleased with it because I’d been thinking vaguely before doing this record to get away from verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle bit-double chorus-end kind of structure, but still have a melody, still have something. And we kind of achieved it on that song. The piano at the start, I was trying to get the Ronnie Oldridge sound, when he would get two pianos to play at once, you have a rolling feel to it—it took ages to get that sound.
“It’s quite a violent song, but a lot of the starting off points for the sounds came from easy listening.”
You can’t get hardcore porn in England, can you?
Jarvis: “It’s pretty illegal. You can get it… or so I’m told. You can get it anywhere if you know who to ask. The only place I’ve really seen it is when we’re touring Scandinavia. It seems a requirement of the school curriculum.”
Mark: “The national pastime.”
Jarvis: “It was an eyeopener.”
The lyric is more explicit than in past songs. There’s no longer a level of coyness.
Jarvis: “This time around, I’ve always been an observer and always been a fan of pop culture, then the difference in our position when it came to making this record, is that we’re part of pop culture now. So in that song, instead of being just an observer, it’s somebody saying, right, I’ve seen all the pictures, now I wanna be in it. Once you become a participant, there’s a danger you’re gonna get used up—what’s the best way of saying it—I think the way that porn works a lot of time is there’s a guilt about it but people still want to consume it and it’s a massive industry but people don’t generally walk around with badges saying “I LIKE TO WATCH LOADS OF PORN.” It’s that simultaneous attraction and revulsion, I was hoping the song would get that across.”
There’s been much talk of the mainstreaming of porn, but it seems to be not so much a mainstreaming of the contemporary stuff as turning the vintage stuff into kitsch.
Jarvis: “That’s it, once something twenty years old, it’s gained some period charm, that defuses what it actually is.”
Mark: “It’s like the book I was reading on the plane.” Jarvis: “Yeah, Mark bought this book called Sex, American Style, which kind of goes through the films. It’s now considered a kind of golden age. You’ve got Boogie Nights, which tries to say that on film, it’s okay, and on video, it’s just exploitation. Hmm, yeah… I can see what he’s getting at, but… it’s strange that when I first read that Boogie Nights was coming out, it seemed a coincidence. You get people on different continents, starting to think about things in the same area.”
There’s also an attempt to suburbanize here, put the porn in regular shops in strip malls with the shutters always down.
Jarvis: “We’ve not got to that point in the U.K. It’s still quite underground. It’s funny how the shops and stuff always use neon signs. It’s very kind of pretty and glamourous on the inside, but dark and grotty on the inside, gynecological examinations on the videos.”
It’s my theory that the last few records have views of sex at different stages in your life—on His ‘n’ Hers, it seems fairly adolescent, Different Class is the college sex, and this one is the decrepid… Jarvis: “Going off sex (laughs). Stopping having it altogether. I haven’t thought that because I don’t go back to the records that we’ve made, but there could be something in that. Definitely your attitudes to sex change a lot as you get older. Going back to His n Hers, the song ‘Do You Remember The First Time,’ I realized there’d been a change in my attitude, because I was thinking about the first time I’d had sex, and for a long time it was a really secret thing, and only me and the person I did it with knew about it. It seemed like a sacred thing that we’d never talk about it. Then I realized it wasn’t such a big deal and some kind of mental change had gone on without me being aware of it, that’s what started that song off.”
It’s strange how important these things are to you, and how they can be utterly forgotten by the people who you were with, who you shared the experience with. You can end up as the sole participant in your memories. Jarvis: “It’s strange. The things that stick in your mind. I don’t know what the selection process is. There’s some right rubbish in that. It’s always a big bone of contention when me and my sister get together, and she’ll be trying to jog my memory about something and I just can’t remember it, usually quite important things, then I’ll remember what’s on the B-side of the Clash’s first single—really interesting and important thing to know. I guess that’s the genius of the people who invented Trivial Pursuit, realizing people have all this useless information kicking around.” “The odd kind of ideas I’d had about adulthoods, when I first went to pubs and stuff, and hear people talk vaguely, just hear a burble of conversation, wonder what people are talking about, having this idea that adults know what they’re on about, then becoming one yourself, even though you don’t feel like one yourself—because of the upheaval due to becoming successful in the last couple of years, actually feeling less sure of myself now than I did when I was 25. And now realizing that adults do not know anything at all, but they’re more dangerous because people assume that they do. And they end up running corporations…”
It’s all bluff.
Jarvis: “It is, and they’re less in touch with their basic impulses.”
Mark, how did the benefit concert for La Monte Young come about?
Mark: “I know him. And his wife is very ill and they’re very much in debt. I had the idea to do a concert, and it took me a few days to ask Jarvis if he’d be interested. Then over six weeks it came together. It was good.” Jarvis: “We raised quite a lot.”
Mark: “Nearly 30,000 dollars.”
It’s not much fun being sick and an artist in America. Jarvis: “He was going to get chucked out of his loft or something, which he’s been in for thirty years.”