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Jarvis Cocker interview: Jarvis

TEN minutes into meeting Jarvis Cocker, the spindly singer, leaps on to the table of a quiet pub in the East End of London. He starts dancing, a thoughtful expression on his bearded face, all angles from his elbows to his specs.

If I was Michael Jackson, he might whip round and bare his bottom for me, but I'm not and this isn't the 1996 Brit Awards, when Cocker lampooned Jackson's Jesus complex. Cocker has long since moved on from such chemically enhanced antics, and he is showing me what music does to him at the age of 45.

"The thing I like about music, and why I started to do it in the first place, is that I'm a fairly reserved person in normal life," he says, before he lifts a long leg on to the table. "It was always my chance, when I got on stage, to show off and come out of my shell a bit. It would be kind of stupid to deny myself that. Well, I can't help myself actually. I kind of do it to get excited."

Age comes up again and again during our lengthy, rangy conversation. When Cocker moved to Paris six years ago, he considered retiring from performing because "I thought it would be better for a man of my age to take a more arm's length position". It didn't take him long to change his mind. His new album, Further Complications, is a posturing slab of glam rock'n'roll complete with handclaps and pianos, very much the sound of Jarvis Cocker rocking out one more time. "I'd better do it while I've still got the ability," he says ruefully. "I keep thinking I'm going to have to go to a gym to get in shape. I imagine it's going to be quite strenuous to perform it." He addresses the dictaphone: "So come along people, and see if I have a heart attack trying to do it."

One of the best songs on the album, Leftovers, is a plea for love in the face of a dying relationship, and indeed Cocker has split with his wife, more of which later. He sings "I want to love you / While we both still have flesh on our bones" and refers to himself as "no eligible bachelor". He seems to be becoming more and more haunted by the sand slipping through the egg timer. "I was in the Museum of Paleontology in Paris looking at this dinosaur skeleton and there was an attractive woman in there," he says of the inspiration for the song. "As a man of a certain age you do start to become more aware of your mortality. Being attracted to people... you kind of wish you could just stop that. It would make life that much more simple if you didn't fancy anyone when you're supposed to be a mature and sensible person."

There are some things he likes about getting older. "But the physical decay aspect is horrible, just foul," he says. "It was like a joke as soon as I got to 40. Within a month my hearing started going. You just have to accept that you're going downhill. It's in the post and it will arrive. There's nothing you can do about it."

Cocker is a gift of an interviewee: intellectual, extraordinarily well-mannered for pop royalty, and full of the deadpan wit that made him Britpop's Alan Bennett. He likes the phrase "shit happens" and is good on mundane trivia. When I ask him what he misses about Britain, he talks about pedestrian crossings. "In Paris the amber light is only on for one hundredth of a second," he notes. "Here, you get flashing amber, like 'you could cross, the cars will start up soon, but it's up to you'. I prefer that British attitude."

Cocker is a brilliant lyricist because of his knack for observation. Being an outsider must appeal: the quintessential British artist exiled in Paris with his nose pressed up against the window of his homeland. He says, however, he's only playing at living abroad and comes back to London regularly. He still has a house nearby, pays his taxes in the UK and most of his friends live here. While we talk, a stream of people – including Jason Pierce of Spiritualized, who Cocker arranges to meet for a pint later – wander into the pub and stop to chat to him.

"I'll always be a foreigner in Paris," he says. "Some shopkeepers say hello to me now but I'll never be one of them. That's good but you should never be too much of an outsider. I think my impetus for doing things has always been the feeling of being a bit apart or not fitting in but being fascinated by it. What I'm trying to do is make myself fit in, or at least understand it."

Would he come back to Britain? "If enough people keep inviting me and being nice to me," he says. "I haven't got anything against it." He likes to think of himself as straddling the channel like a colossus, or "like in Jason And The Argonauts".

Cocker always felt like the odd one out growing up in Sheffield. He remembers being eight years old, painfully shy yet desperate for pop stardom. "I thought it would solve problems, that if I got famous everything would fall into place," he says. "I was very shy with girls. I thought if I got famous then girls would approach me." And it's true, they did, "but only crazy girls".

Pulp played their first gig in July 1980, but it took more than a decade for fame to come knocking. When it did, in May 1995, as Common People perfectly captured a class-fixated moment in time, it was a steep, drug-fuelled ascent. A year later, after the cover shoots, the tabloid exposes and the cocaine, Cocker was done. "There was a lot of crap to sort out and it took a long time to sort it out," he says. "It probably would have been better going to a shrink. It would have sped up the process, but then if you sort it out yourself it's cheaper and the lessons you teach yourself tend to stick a bit more."

Why didn't fame agree with him? "I wanted it to do something it couldn't do. I think it makes you go more into yourself because you can't go out. I'm an observer so I need to go out, and if I can't I'll just observe myself and disappear down a black hole, or up my own arse. It just wasn't right for me."

Pulp won't be reforming like a certain other Britpop band, but he did see Damon Albarn recently and, although "we didn't get on very well for a long time, it was nice and I'll probably go and see Blur".

Cocker is much happier now he is in his forties, grim awareness of mortality aside. He used to say he would never marry or have children, but then he met French stylist Camille Bidault-Waddington and had a son, Albert, who is now six. They split up "quite a while ago", though he still lives on the same street and refers to her as his wife. But it is testament to Cocker's lack of interest in celebrity these days that the news only came to light last week. His own father left when he was seven so being separated from his son has made him all the more determined to be around. "It was a big thing for me. I certainly didn't want to be an absent father. My father disappeared and I know the effects of that. When I met him many years later there was nothing there. It wasn't like we were antagonistic but there wasn't a feeling of love or affection and that was a bit sad. I guess I'm determined not to allow that to happen with my son."

A song on Further Complications with the title of I Never Said I Was Deep features the lines "If every relationship is a two-way street / I have been screwing in the back seat while you drive". Cocker's lyrics are often autobiographical – he tells me he sees his albums as the only record he has of his life – but he wrote these lines years ago while he was in Pulp. Further Complications was done by the time he broke up with his wife. "You have to be careful with that," he says. "You don't want to exploit people. You mustn't sacrifice your life on the altar of what you do. It's more important to have a life."

Is he managing to balance life with music? A rare smile glints through his salt and pepper beard. "I'm trying to reach maturity, whether I ever get there..."

• Further Complications is out 18 May on Rough Trade. Jarvis Cocker plays ABC, Glasgow, 12 June, www.jarviscocker.net

 
 
 

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