Stateside, Jarvis Cocker is best known for “Common People,” the hit 1995 single from seminal Britpop band Pulp. But in the U.K., Cocker, who’s been flying solo since 2002, is a ubiquitous pop-culture icon: When he’s not dropping albums — like May’s excellent, atypically rocking Further Complications — he’s doing things like guest-hosting BBC Radio or philosophizing on political TV shows. Since Michael Jackson’s death, Cocker’s also done some talking about an odd incident at the 1996 BRIT Awards when, spurred by his distaste for Jackson’s Christlike posing during a performance of “Earth Song,” Cocker invaded the man’s stage. In advance of his show tonight at Music Hall of Williamsburg, Cocker spoke with Vulture about Complications and bum-rushing MJ.
You’ve been performing the songs from the album for a while now. Has the experience been different than in the past, considering they’re a bit faster and louder than your previous stuff?
Yeah, luckily I haven’t had any heart attacks or anything like that yet. It is more physically demanding, but I quite like that. A lot is being made of the fact that this is supposed to be a bit more of a rock album, but I’m sure if you played it for someone in a real proper rock band, they’d think it was pussy music. I mean, I hope these songs are quite entertaining. I enjoy performing them because I get to leap around a bit, and being onstage is about the only excitement I ever get.
How was working with Steve Albini on Further Complications?
It was kind like the polar opposite of most producers. He didn’t want to get his fingerprints all over the record. And we’re not that dissimilar in age; even though we were growing up in other continents, I guess it’s that punk movement that brought us into music, so there were some points of reference in common. You know, being in the studio can be very, very dull, but this wasn’t at all because when he wasn’t playing poker online, we actually had some quite interesting conversations. And I suppose it’s well-known — he wears overalls to work because he treats it as a job rather than a creative enterprise, and that was quite a refreshing thing.
The album has been out for a couple of months now. Have you been pleased with the reaction it’s gotten?
We worked on the songs for around a year, so I had gotten used to the fact that it was going to be more abrasive, and louder, but some people found that a bit of a shock. Not so much in the states. In this country, in the U.K., I suppose, where I still have that kind of hangover from all the Pulp thing, people kind of have certain expectations, and some reviewers seem to be mortally offended that I haven’t made a record of the kind that they wanted me to make. And I just thought, well that’s a bit silly, just go on and listen to the old records then.
Did you get what you wanted out of your residency at the Gallerie Chappe in Paris, where you held open rehearsals?
I mean, I didn’t really know what I was after. I do think now that the music industry is in its death throes, you have to look at different ways of placing music, of getting music out to the public. We had a very loose thing, we just set up and play, and the word spread. It didn’t feel hyped, it didn’t feel faulty, people turned up with instruments and it was a pleasure to play with them. I thought you’d get people, like when you walk into a music shop and you get someone playing “Stairway to Heaven,” just showing off their blues scales, but we didn’t at all. And these jam things, whether they were the greatest pieces of music ever recorded really isn’t the point. The point is that, people in the room at that time, they collaborated and made something out of nothing.
You have some strange history with Michael Jackson. Have people been looking for reactions from you to his death?
That instance in ’96, it happened and it was about a specific performance. But I didn’t say anything about [his death], because I haven’t got anything particularly insightful to say about it. Also, since that event, I didn’t want to be defined in most people’s consciousness as the guy who invaded Michael Jackson’s stage. Having spent the last thirteen years trying to avoid talking about it as much as possible, it would seem to me to be pretty hypocritical to start mouthing off about it and offering opinions after he died.
What do you remember from the incident itself?
I was in prison for a night. Yeah, they arrested me. Accused me of having like punched some kids. Honestly. It was pretty bad. The case all fell apart. At first there was no close-up footage of the incident, and then David Bowie was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award that night, and, as luck would have it, his camera crew was setting up as that happened, and they had very close shots of it, and it was obvious nothing untoward had happened.
You’re pretty active with random, nonmusic activities. Do you seek that stuff out or does it come to you?
I’m lucky that people ask me to do stuff. It’s very important to me. I don’t’ know, it just keeps my brain ticking over. It gives me a view of people other than amplifiers and old guitars and stuff like that. If you talk to a lot of bands, you must find, they get into a treadmill mentality, and the records get worse and worse; they got nothing, no outside stimulation. I think it’s really silly to do that. If you want your records to be good, you have to take interest in the world around you.
On that note, what’s the word with The Fantastic Mr. Fox? Last we heard, your narration got cut.
I believe, yeah. And I was trying to be clear. I mean I hope that you’re not finding too hard to understand me?
So yeah, I was trying to enunciate clearly. But obviously, the people found it a bit difficult. So yeah, that particular bit, the narration bit at the start of the film, got cut, but I still do perform a song in the film.
A bit of a general question: The narrative of your career at this point is of someone who is critically respected and commercially viable, as far as touring and everything, but who has already made the music that will define his career. Do you agree with that?
Oh, no. My son is now coming in. I’m doing an interview, go outside. No, I vehemently disagree with that. Otherwise I wouldn’t make records anymore. Obviously, the stuff that you’ve done before affects or informs what I do now. But, um, if I thought that I was rehashing things or saying something that I had already said I’d have to be stopped, you know? Stop it. Don’t break your glasses. You’re going to break them doing that. Sorry. Stop it Albert, you’re going to break them. I don’t know how it is in America, I never really was that well-known in America, anyways. Pulp were a popular group in the U.K., and people know that stuff much more than they know the stuff that I’m doing now in America, I don’t know.
Last thing. The underwear you sold for charity went for over $200. Is your underwear worth that much?
Yeah. When I start designing my own range, I’ll be charging much more than that.