In early May this years, Parisians wandering the quiet back streets of Montmartre would have heard an almighty racket coming from inside the small Galerie Chappe. If they’d stopped to stick their heads in, they’d have seen former Pulp frontman and bona fide cultural icon Jarvis Cocker rehearsing with his new band. While people did yoga. Or did aerobics. Or just kinda milled about, watching in fascination.
In all, Cocker and band spent five days at the gallery, playing and participating in a variety of activities. The concept was such a success that he recently repeated it at a gallery in London. So what was the idea behind it?
Speaking in slow, considered tones, his Sheffield accent untarnished by his years in London, he seems pleased to have been asked about his idea. “It really started,” he explains, “when I went to this gallery quite near my house [Cocker has been living in Paris for some years] – a friend of mine had a picture exhibition there. Which,” he adds proudly, “was 15 different portraits of Amy Winehouse. So that was quite interesting. I liked the layout of the gallery and where it was, and it made me think about whether I could do something there.
“The thing is that I studied at art college when I was younger – I went to St Martin’s. I’ve come back to doing music, but [while] music is the art form that I practice, it doesn’t traditionally go in galleries. I wondered and it could work. So when it came time for the record to be coming out, and I thought, ‘This could be the time to try it’. I thought, instead of just going and hiring a rehearsal room for a while, we’d [rehearse] in this gallery… open it up a bit and ask people to come down with instruments and play along, and also provide a live improvised soundtrack to a yoga session, and a belly-dancing session… A kids’ day…”
And it was a success? “It exceeded my expectations, really,” he says. “I kind of had an inkling that it might work, but it was great because it wasn’t like a hype thing – we just started doing it, and word got around. You’d have people hearing the noise and coming in out of curiosity and maybe sitting down for half an hour and listening, maybe coming back the next day with an instrument. It really worked. It keys into a lot of ideas that have been going on in my head recently about the fact that culture shouldn’t be something that people consume. It’s good if you can participate in stuff as well.”
Unlike classical music, contemporary music has often been regarded as lowbrow or somehow disposable by “serious” culture aficonados. Does Cocker think that popular music has been under-appreciated as art?
“Well, I think when it’s taken seriously as art, it usually turns out really bad,” he chuckles. “That’s why I always preferred the term ‘pop music’ to ‘rock music’, because ‘rock music’ seemed to be convinced of its worth as art, and you got those horrible crimes of the mid-‘70s, with prog rock and stuff, where people really thought they were doing something very profound, and you got things like Deep Purple playing with the London Philarmonic… it’s awful. I think that pop music can attain that status [of being art], but only when it works within its own terms and does its job well, rather than trying to be art. This thing in the gallery wasn’t really saying, ‘Ooh, this is a serious piece of art’ – it was just a way of presenting stuff. It’s not like I think it’s the future of pop music, I think it’s a different way of looking at it.”
Still, he says, the idea of looking at different ways of presenting music is a particularly apposite one at a time when the music industry is undergoing fairly radical change. “Music is changing. There’s all this stuff about the death of music, and really what it is is the death of the record industry. In other places, music is expanding. It’s moving into other areas. It’s not like it’s dying out, it’s just moving out of its traditional areas. This was an experiment in the same spirit, really.”
There’s a school of thought that the record industry as a whole is a kinda historical blip – that for all of history bar the late 20th century, musicians have made their living via live performance, and that the music industry’s current travails mean that live performance is returning to its traditional position as the most important source of income for musicians. Inpress asks Cocker for his thoughts on the idea.
“When people invented recording technology,” Cocker muses, “they didn’t invent it to do away with live performance. They did it to capture live performance. But somewhere along the way, the record became the thing, and live performance was measured against records. Y’know what I mean? The ultimate compliment became, ‘Wow, it sounded just like the album!’. That’s kind of weird, because… What’s the point, really? So yeah, if [music] goes back to being more live-based, I don’t think that’s a bad thing, really.”
As well as being another year of change for the record industry, 2009 marks 15 years since the height of Britpop hype. The final demise of Oasis, along with the near-simultaneous rebirth of Blur, have thrown the spotlight back onto the era. Cocker, of course, has stayed firmly out of that particular spotlight – but how does he look back on those days now? Do they seem kinda… bizarre?
“Bizarre?” he says, sounding alarmed.
Well, the extent to which the British papers hyped up the Blur/Oasis rivalry, the extent to which music really seemed to matter and dominate popular culture… it seems so strange in retrospect. “I suppose so, yeah. And the nostalgia industry’s already started work on it, hasn’t it? Mojo did a Britpop special [earlier in the year], which I have to admit that I bought. I resisted for a while, but then I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll have a look’. The thing that struck me was… You’re right, it was the last time. In Britain, anyway, it’s seen as the last major musical movement. I think the slightly sad thing about that is that it wasn’t really a new thing. It was a re-hash of the ‘60s and even ‘80s songs, y’know what I mean? It wasn’t really doing anything new. I think it’s a bit sad that the last major musical movement in the UK was a revival, basically.”
Sounding somewhat forlorn, he continues, “It seems to be harder for people to make something new now. Stuff doesn’t go away so much, and people seem to be more aware of the heritage of rock music. Everything seems to be more made up of a series of influences.”
Is Cocker hearing anything that’s bucking the trend? “I really like Wooden Shjips,” he says. “There’s nods to psychedelia, but something about it that stops it being a straightforward pastiche. There isn’t an agenda or a subtext to it. It’s striving after something. In a similar way, that group Sunn 0))) – it doesn’t come across on record, but in performance, their music is working on an almost physical level. You get bits of your body vibrating. It’s working in a different way. I find that interesting.”