Jean Harlow, Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe… Jarvis Cocker. What do they all have in common? They’ve all checked in to Room 29 at the legendary Chateau Marmont Hotel, Hollywood, Los Angeles.
Inspired by his stays in the room, with its grand piano and a score of memories, the former Pulp frontman, singer-songwriter, writer, actor and radio presenter has teamed up with piano virtuoso Chilly Gonzales to give voice to the visitors that have inhabited the space with a cycle of songs. And next month at the Edinburgh Festival he’s inviting us to join him in Room 29 too.
From Mark Twain’s pianist daughter Clara, on a mission to summon up her dead husband’s spirit, to Jean Harlow’s honeymoon – not the explosion of passion the blonde bombshell had anticipated – this is a room that has seen more than its fair share of excitement. Now Cocker and Gonzales, pianist, composer/arranger for Feist, Peaches, Daft Punk and fellow Canadian Drake, along with Kaiser Quartett, are using music, dance, theatrics and clips from Hollywood classics to tell its story.
Cocker became fascinated with Room 29 and the effect of its mystique after crossing the threshold when he was unexpectedly upgraded at the iconic Sunset Boulevard hotel.
“I’ve stayed there four or five times, the first with Pulp in the mid 1990s, but the real key was later, getting randomly upgraded to Room 29. I’d never stayed in a room with a piano before, and I thought what if the piano could play you songs and tell you what had gone on?
“Unfortunately I can’t play, but I’d got to know Gonzales because I’d been a fan of his Solo Piano record and we discovered we lived near each other in Paris and got friendly. We always said we should collaborate, then I walked into that room and saw the piano and it fell into place. He would send me bits of music and I’d write some words and we’d piece it together like that over three or four years.”
Cocker can’t stress enough how much this project is a joint collaboration between the two musicians. “I just wrote the words and the vocal melodies, and he did all the music. And we discussed the themes together. It’s something a little different for both of us, but I think it works.”
In terms of choosing the stories to tell, the pair were drawn to the ones from the birth of the film industry, rather than the more recent Chateau tales of Johnny Depp and Kate Moss sexathons or John Belushi’s death.
“Whenever we mention this project to people, they would ask about the fresher stories, the John Belushi overdose, but we didn’t want to go down that kind of Hello! magazine route. We wanted stories, that… yes there is scandal… but ones that would shine a light on a bigger subject.”
The bigger subject being the gap between reality and illusion, embodied in the liminal space that is Room 29. Located in the heart of la-la land, a city where the main industry is make believe, in a hotel that opened in 1929, as cinema was taking its first flickering steps, Room 29 probably couldn’t exist anywhere else.
“Stories like the one about Jean Harlow, the biggest sex symbol on the screen, yet her husband Paul Bern, a successful movie producer, was unable to consummate the marriage and ended up committing suicide a month later. For me that says something about this kind of schism between fantasy and reality, that you have this woman who has become a sex object to so many, and this guy who marries her is the envy of half the male population of the USA, and yet the reality of the woman is something he can’t handle.
“Those kind of stories, from the early days of Hollywood, when movies were born. Nowadays we have moving images everywhere, and we get our cue for how to live from them, but back then they were still making it up, inventing the language of film that we now all speak – editing, close-ups, manipulating the emotions with music.
“It’s not just the autobiography of a hotel room, but also says something about the industry that surrounds the hotel, which is something I’ve always felt had a profound effect on my view of the world and expectations of it. Pulp had songs that dealt with that – TV Movie, Happy Endings – but this was a chance to explore that further.”
It was Cocker’s love of the moving image that saw him leave his native Sheffield to study Fine Art and Film at Central St Martins in London. Born in September 1963, Jarvis Branson Cocker grew up with his mum and sister after his dad left, and while still at school, formed the band that would later be identified as part of the Britpop genre of the mid-90s, a term Cocker never embraced.
“Ah, listen we never called it Britpop. I still would never call it Britpop,” he says. “It was a f***ing horrible name. Anything with any inklings of nationalism behind it is an anathema to us and always has been.”
Cocker had taught himself guitar on a wrecked junk shop find of his mother’s, then later on a Hopf gifted to him by a German scuba diving instructor she had a holiday romance with when he was about 13.
“He was a nice guy, saw I was into music and promised me a guitar. He arrived at Christmas, but no guitar case, so I was disappointed, then when he unpacked, he’d dismantled it to transport it and put it all back together. It’s a German make, Hopf. It was my guitar and I was so excited to have one. For a long time that was my only guitar. It’s still the one I write songs on and play on stage.”
Cocker has been thinking about the scuba diving instructor of late, of tracking him down to thank him for the guitar. “It would be nice to let him know that I’ve had a career in music, and a lot of it is down to him,” he says.
Armed with his Hopf, Jarvis made a cool frontman, the Sheffield miserablist, wry and droll with his shirts, ties and jackets in cord, velvet and tweed draped over his rangy frame, always insouciantly dapper, part geography teacher, part Yves Saint Laurent-inspired tux. He still rocks his trademark dark framed specs and side swept parting at 53, even if his beard has a touch of the badger about it these days and he “hasn’t been in a charity shop since they went colour coded” and spoilt it for him.
Pulp made seven studio albums, one EP, ten compilation albums and 24 singles, including hits such as Disco 2000, This is Hardcore, Common People and Sorted for E’s and Wizz and headlined Glastonbury before they took a hiatus in 2003.
Cocker also made an album and EPs with his other band, Relaxed Muscle, and his solo credits extend to two studio albums, six singles and numerous collaborations with other artists, from Leonard Cohen to Marc Almond. Pulp reformed briefly in 2010-12, touring and taking in the Coachella and Primavera festivals, and released the one-off single After You in 2012. “I loved that tour,” he says. “It couldn’t have gone better and it was the right time. We all still get on and everything – we were all just together at this year’s Ivor Novello Awards [Pulp were honoured for their Outstanding Music Collection]. We’d have to have something to say about what’s going on now. Especially on a day like today,” he says. We’re talking on election day, and Cocker is off to vote Labour, the Conservative government, and Brexit in particular having rumpled his corduroy.
“Brexit feels personal to me,” he says, with a son in state school in France. Albert, known as Al, is his child from his seven-year marriage to Camille Bidault-Waddington, was born in 2003, and lives with his mother in Paris, with Cocker splitting his time between the French and English capitals.
“I’d taken it for granted to be able to move between here and Paris and it wouldn’t be a big deal,” he says. “And talking about bringing back fox hunting, I’m surprised they didn’t say oh, and we’ll bring back hanging as well, why not get that back in while we’re at it.
“Yeah, it’s weird times at the moment, but the main thing is there’s no point letting politics rule your life because it’s always going to depress you.”
Fuelled by a mug of green tea, his voice down the phone confirms his Sheffield roots. “I haven’t lived there for over ’alf me life now,” he says, “but I still kind of view the world through a prism of Sheffield.” His tones are mellifluous, as you’d expect from the man who puts the soothe in Sunday afternoons with Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service on BBC Radio 6, with “quality tracks, random thoughts and spoken word gems”, from Joy Division to Ornette Coleman and John Cooper Clarke. He also presents Radio 4’s Wireless Nights, a show by and for night people.
Aside from presenting, Cocker has been performing Room 29 with Gonzales, in Hamburg in January, and more recently at The Barbican in London where those expecting to hear any Pulp found themselves on the dry end of Gonzales’ wit.
“There was one night at The Barbican where a couple of women shouted for a Pulp song and Gonzales…” Cocker laughs… “doesn’t suffer things like that very gladly, so he just told them to shut up. I will do anything to ingratiate myself with an audience, whereas he doesn’t mind telling them off, so it’s quite a funny combination.
“It’s a stage show, not musical theatre, not a musical, not opera, it’s halfway between a concert and a play. It’s got projected bits, a dance bit and it’s a little bit immersive because when you come into the theatre you’re given a key and there’s a bit of audience participation at one point. Yeah, those with stage fright should sit in the balcony,” he says. Classic Edinburgh Festival advice I say, to which Cocker replies he has never been before.
“I’m slightly sheepish to say that. I went to the Film Festival in 1996 when they presented some Pulp video stuff, but never the theatre festival.”
With Edinburgh just a month away, Cocker and Gonzales have just been performing their show in France, at the Philharmonie de Paris, where they were billed as an eccentric Canadian and a dandy Briton.
“Then we’ve got a day before in Edinburgh to blow the dust off,” says Cocker. “We filmed it already in Paris so we’ve got a visual record that’s really handy to see. For instance I realised I really should take the trouble to brush the back of me hair before going on stage. It looked a right bloody mess, like a jackdaw’s nest that you get down your chimney.”
So we know we can expect to see a more carefully coiffured Cocker when Room 29 arrives in Edinburgh and the audience are handed their keys. As for what else will unfold, you’ll have to check in and check it out yourself.
“A hotel room is just a room made out of bricks,” he says. “The atmosphere is something you bring yourself. That’s why sometimes people freak out in hotel rooms because there’re too many possibilities. You’ve got a blank canvas, a hotel room you could do anything in for the time you’ve paid for it, so what do you want to do? It throws the question open…”
Words to send a shudder through the hoteliers of Edinburgh, as the season of festival excess hoves into view.
“Listen,” says Cocker. “My record in ’otels, they can check. They can ring up the maitre d’s and concierges of many international hotels… I’ve never caused trouble. I don’t agree with all that crap. The TV has never gone out of the window.”
Edinburgh International Festival, Room 29: Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales with Kaiser Quartett, King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street, Edinburgh, 8pm-9.30pm, 22-24 August, £22 (0131-473 2000, www.eif.co.uk