To American audiences, Pulp front man Jarvis Cocker has always been a little inscrutable. British, rail thin, well-dressed, and bespectacled, Cocker resembles something of a hybrid of Bryan Ferry and Philip Larkin. Although Pulp first scored an international hit in 1995 with “Common People," Cocker had been laboring away under the same moniker since 1978 — many of those years in his small hometown of Sheffield. Nearly a decade after the band’s demise, Florian Habicht’s new documentary, Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets, out now in theaters, follows Cocker & Co. back to Sheffield as they conclude their 2012 reunion tour.
Musicians have said that the worst shows are hometown shows and the worst audiences are hometown audiences. Was that Pulp’s experience going back home to Sheffield?
That was definitely a factor in why we were nervous playing [Sheffield] and maybe why we had put it off until the last show of the [reunion] tour. We didn’t set up this situation where we knew that the last show was going to be in our hometown. But we realized we had to play in Sheffield; otherwise, I’d just probably never ever be able to go home and visit my mother again. And there’s always that thing of where you were born and where you come from — so you kind of imagine all those kids who bullied you when you were in school are going to come along. You feel really vulnerable. Hometown shows are always stressful.
Musically, Sheffield is a very odd place. It birthed groups like Cabaret Voltaire, Human League, Arctic Monkeys, Pulp, and Warp Records — but also Def Leppard.
Yeah, sorry about that one. I apologize. It’s always been quite a big, heavy metal town. Pardon the pun, but maybe because of the industry of the steel works. It’s a very down-to-earth place in one way, because it was an industrial city with a working-class population, but there has been this other side that has always been experimental.
In between the documentary’s concert footage, there are all these vignettes of the band around town. There’s one of you changing a tire and another of you by a river.
Yeah, I’m kicking some pigeons by the river, yeah. Somebody pointed out that I was feeding ducks but kicking pigeons. I don’t really like pigeons, but I don’t go out and kill them or anything.
It sort of reminded me of that BBC documentary back in the '60s of John Betjeman visiting the famous poet Philip Larkin at the library in Hull, where he worked for something like 30 years, and Larkin takes him around the town to show him the shopping malls and cemeteries. Are you the Philip Larkin of Sheffield?
He was a very repressed guy. The more that comes out about him, I suppose the more people think that it damages his reputation. On the other hand, his poems seem to grow in stature as the years go by. I think there was some kind of survey recently that he’s now [England’s] favorite poet. It’s interesting that, because, like you say, he went and worked in this library in Hull and his life kind of dwindled away — he never got married, never had kids. It’s kind of a strange example, and I wouldn’t want to be like him in that respect.
Had you not left Sheffield, do you think you would have become a librarian?
I like libraries. I could see that. Sometimes as part of the radio show I do on [BBC 6], I’ve gone to the BBC archive or the [archives] in Paris. It’s a dangerous environment for me, because I could imagine losing myself in those places and spending the rest of my life looking at all the records on the shelves. But thankfully I think I resisted my natural calling and ended up on the stage. It’s a big loss to the library system.
You’ve said in other interviews that rock is a young man’s game, physically, mentally, and sexually. I thought it was interesting in the documentary to see these young teen girls who are swooning over you. Are you still a sex symbol?
That was the impetus to start a band when I was 14. It was the age-old story of a shy kid who has fantasies of being in a position of power, and the available fantasy at that point was to be a pop star. I don’t know whether it would be the same thing now. Maybe it would be like being an app designer. I don’t know what’s supposed to impress girls now. I’ll have to ask my son. I haven’t said I’ve given up sex, but that is not my primary motivation for doing it. When [Pulp] decided to get together to do that last tour, I didn’t call a meeting and say, “Guys, I need to get laid. Let’s do a tour!” I’m in a long-term relationship, so, if anything, I was hoping I wouldn’t get laid on the tour.
What does it mean to age gracefully in pop music?
All you can really hope for is to be sincere, and that’s a horrible word to use in musical terms. You deal with something honestly — you don’t ignore it, but you don’t wallow in it — then maybe you can pull it off. Two good examples there are [musicians] Scott [Walker] and Leonard Cohen. One avoids public performance and the other sort of wallows in it. That seems to work for them. If you still feel you have something to say, then you have to keep doing it. In the end, you don’t really have a choice.
How did everyone get along on that final tour? In the documentary, the band members are interviewed separately, and the only time we see everyone together is onstage.
I’d love to tell you that we’re like One Direction: We all have our different cars and we all go off in our different modes of transport after the show. But we actually all did travel together during the tour. I’m sorry to tell you that it was all a bit boring, really, and we still talk to each other.
What does the future hold for Pulp? Do you foresee any more reunions?
The reunion happened and it wasn’t because it was, like, twenty years since the album dropped or any kind of anniversary tour. We just kind of decided to do it when it felt right to us. So it would have to be something for the future. Personally, I’ve taken this year off from the radio show to write some stuff. Some of it musical, some of it not musical. You will hear from me. It’s like Arnie … I’ll be back.
Do you think you'll ever follow Morrissey or Dylan and write your memoirs, or perhaps a novel?
I’d love to be able to do that. I have been writing bits and pieces and I really enjoy it when I get around to it. I’ve been thinking about getting some of that voice-recognition software and doing it that way.
Anything else you’d like to add about the film?
I’m very glad that it’s come out in the States. Because the way the film came together was very last minute. I was just thinking it would be quite nice to have a souvenir of this stage of the band’s existence. For a band that never really sold records in the U.S. and came from an obscure town — and this film is as much about the town as the group — it’s kind of strange that it’s out there. I’m not kidding myself — I don’t think it’s troubling Interstellar at the box office — but it’s out.