Spotlight: JARV IS…

Ryan Reed on November 16, 2020
Spotlight: JARV IS…

The centerpiece of Beyond the Pale, the debut album from Jarvis Cocker’s new band JARV IS…, is a druggy, droning Krautrock epic called “MUST I EVOLVE?” It’s almost laughably ambitious, with the former Pulp frontman tracing a couple’s relationship from the era of cave-people (“We moved in together/ You painted a wall; I discovered fire”) to a transformative rave Cocker attended beneath London’s M25 motorway in 1989 (“Someone has lost their drugs in the long grass/ Cars pass by and the occasional badger”).

“Because raves were illegal, it was this game of cat and mouse on the weekends, where the police would try to find out where [the rave was being planned] and shut it down,” Cocker says. “There are tunnels underneath the M25 that let animals like deer and badgers escape. They set up the rave in that weird concrete tunnel underneath the motorway. The music was at one end of the tunnel and, as you walked away, the sound got more and more echoey. Due to the state of my mind that particular night, I imagined I was walking backward in time.”

And caves were crucial to Beyond the Pale—both as a grand visual and as part of the record’s construction. Cocker formed JARV IS… specifically to play a show at Sigur Rós’ Icelandic festival Norður og Niður in 2017, leading to a U.K. tour focused on caverns and small venues the following spring.

In these intimate spaces, the sextet—Cocker, harpist/ keyboardist Serafina Steer, violinist/guitarist Emma Smith, bassist Andrew McKinney, synth/electronics player Jason Buckle and drummer Adam Betts—used Cocker’s loose arrangements as jumping-off points for a set of new songs, tweaking and developing the tunes at each gig. For the frontman, it was a way of reemphasizing the sacred shared experience of a concert—a rare commodity in an industry that he and many others would describe for the past two decades as “pretty fucked.”

“Since Napster, it’s all been doom and gloom,” he says. “With streaming, people say, ‘People don’t really listen to anything—they just let it stream past them.’ It makes me feel like the era of recorded music I experienced as kid— when people would get really excited about an album and rush to a shop to buy it on the first day, then sit with that record for a while—may be over. The only place where you get that kind of intense relationship with the music is when you go see it live. I thought maybe this would be an interesting way to keep it kind of pure and said to myself: ‘These songs are changing every time we play them, and if you want to hear them, just come to a show. That’s it.’”

Beyond the Pale marks Cocker’s first traditional album since his 2009 solo LP, Further Complications. But it’s not like he took a decade off: Starting in 2010, he hosted the BBC Radio 6 Music show Sunday Service for seven years, and he released a collaborative project with pianist Chilly Gonzales in 2017. Though new music had been brewing for years, it didn’t feel complete until Cocker put together the right band for the JARV IS… tour—and even then, it continued to grow as they played it.

“The 10 years since Further Complications was the longest stretch that I hadn’t been in a band,” Cocker says. “So when I did get a band together, I wanted to let them loose a bit. Plus, the two women in the band, Serafina and Emma, are from this East London improvisational scene. That’s their thing, really. They’re trained musicians and can read a score, which I can’t do. But they’re also good at making things up on the spot. I’d never had a chance to work in that environment, so I thought it would be silly not to see where we could get with that.”

Gentle improvisation permeated JARV IS…’s live set, with Cocker often guiding the band through songs via hand gestures—a practice he had devised decades prior to play Pulp’s more expansive cuts. “Sometimes we would experiment to combine, say, four different sections,” he says. “I had to come up with some system to give them a clue when I wanted to go into the next bit. Sometimes it would be pointing; sometimes it would be jumping. It was like sign language.”

JARV IS… recorded the sets for posterity, allowing a broader overview of the music’s development. But Cocker wasn’t originally aiming to build a record. The show essentially was the album, until it became something else: After an October 2018 stop at the Desert Daze festival, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow suggested they use those recordings to form a new project. So they did, resulting— in their words—in an “alive album.” The songs reflect that zig-zagging journey, with the brooding, arty dance-rock of “Am I Missing Something” and eerie electronic experimentation of “Sometimes I Am Pharaoh” stretching out like tightly coordinated jams.

For Cocker, it was a beautiful way to dissolve into the democracy of a band. “These songs had been hanging around in my consciousness in various states of completion for some time,” he says. “But when we started playing them, I realized they sounded loads better. I tried to remove myself musically—not as much as possible, but I tried to make sure I wasn’t playing for the sake of it.”