Saturday, August 11, 2007

unpublished interview for Melody Maker, 1991

by Simon Reynolds

A few years ago, Comrade Stubbs and I decreed: "to hell with the good talkers". We argued that the bane of late Eighties pop were the masterplanners and manifesto-mongerers, with their overly-premeditated scams and subterfuges, and
their nice line in sales patter. The idea was that 'good copy' doesn't equal 'good music'. We went further, insisting that only those who were incapable of articulating what they were about, who operated semi-consciously, were capable of
chancing on the sublime, music that left you lost for words.

But after years of enduring bands who are lost for words, let me recant. Come back "good talkers", come back please: all is forgiven. And so Julian Cope, whose erudition, animation, eloquence and wit, make for a blessed reprieve
from the tongue-tied norm (all those bands who say "we don't think too much about what we do, we just let it happen" - jesus wept, this is YOUR LIFE you're pissing away thoughtlessly!). It helps that Cope has just made the best music of his career in Peggy Suicide. Hitherto, Cope had always been a paradigm, for me, of the brilliant mind with an unrivalled insight into what makes great rock'n'roll tick, but who just couldn't cut it. He didn't have "it", wasn't a natural. But now, by dint of sheer mental vivacity and will-to-greatness, he's made a 50 per cent fab record. From the towering acid-blues mantra of "Safesurfer" to the eerie Sly Stone-influenced wah-wah funk of "Uptight", "Not Raving But Drowning", "Hung Up and Hanging Out To Dry" (beating the baggies at their own game), Cope has made me eat my words, and boy do they taste good.

* * * * * *
As the Studs have already documented, Peggy Suicide is Cope saying bye bye to hallucinogens, bidding farewell to his image as acid-fried buffoon, above all wishing a fond but firm adieu to the "white male fuck-up"/rock'n'roll outsider lineage that had sustained him for so long. After a decade as a self-obsessed, garrulous-gobbed eccentric (modelled on Syd Barrett, Jim Morrison and Roky Erikson), Cope has made the crucial transition that many tragically never reach: he's gone from celebrating his own unique individuality to affirming something bigger than himself: Mother Nature.
"Wild, isn't it?," Cope gushes, wide-eyed and breathless. "I always used to write autobiographically, about how fucked up I was and how important that was. I think I just had some weird awakening. I had always associated those kind of awakenings with becoming "born again": turning into one of those people you don't want in the room, the kind that have a unnerving gleam in their eyes, cos they're off their head in a smiley sort of way. I always thought that being caring meant that you had to be like Sting - sanctimonious, earnest, an arsehole.

"But I really did kinda fall in love with everybody. And that made me realise that there is a way forward that is very caring, but it's really hard, really meant, and FULL ON. I don't want to push anything now other than 'yeah, life is really boring for most people, so I'm going to be so completely unboring'. I don't have some high-falutin' notion of what's going on, but I do have a FULL ON love for the world. I knew from the start Peggy had to be a double, because it had to be sprawling, diverse, epic, FULL ON."

In a way, Cope's got religion: he's become a Nature-worshipping, Green pagan. Peggy Suicide is a lament for our sorely abused biosphere. But isn't there an argument for saying that rock'n'roll is intrinsically anti-ecological? Isn't it all about delinquency, getting wasted, burning the candle at both ends, living like there's no tomorrow? Can rock incorporate compassion and caution, and still rock? Doesn't rock'n'roll depend on electricity, on abused and abusive technology?

"I disagree, I think if you took the VU's electricity away, they'd be grunging away as mad mountain people. There's an intuitive trip underneath that's makes the music amazing. If you listen to the greatest rock'n'roll, and take away the least important things, a lot of the time the least important thing is the volume. So when people say to me that in my ecological sound paradise there's be no electric guitars, I don't think that matters. I think rock'n'roll is massively primitive."

Cope has renounced a lot of the staple elements that many think of as essential and intrinsic to rock. Forinstance, the idea of the artist being driven by demons.

"I was always scared that the artist that didn't have a devil in him, wasn't going to have a real muse. What I've discovered is that artist who has demons can never have a true muse, becaus the devil in him throws whim into the machinery. It plays devil's advocate, says why don't you get into some weirdness. But a year or so before 'Peggy' I realised that having a devil in me wasn't productive. And
suddenly I found I had this amazing freedom, a George Clinton/Funkadelic freedom; true freedom is being free of the need to be free all the time. Freedom is accepting discipline. Within that prison, you can stretch out and take the piss. So now I can accept being part of the industry, and having singles out, and all the stuff that used to bug me."

Cope has shaken off the ghosts of his role models (Jim Morrison, Syd Barrett, Roky Erikson) whose reproaches used to goad him to feats of caprice and folly.

"When I did madcap, perverse things, or put out Droolian just to piss off the record company, I was thinking 'what would my heroes do?' The idea was that the accumulation of my heroes would add up to one hell of a god to be! So for a long while I resisted the idea of caring about the world because none of my heroes had done that. But then I realised that I didn't have to have a role model anymore, because I'd got me as a role model. I'm in this weird area now where there isn't an obvious role mode. Which is good, cos I've always been too much of a conglomerate. But now I've accumlated all my heroes, dug 'em, and moved on to admiring different people. Like psychologists. It's a great thing to go from idolising poets to psychologists, because psychologists are the classic case of scientists who are frustrated artists. Like Jung. I paraphrase his stuff all the time, he's incredible."

Cope's also grown out of the idea that there's anything romantic about "life on the edge".

"I'm now living in the center. I always used to think that living on the edge is where it all happened. But then I realised that where I wanted to be was absolutely right in the middle. I always thought that meant 'middle of the road', But actually, rather than teetering on the edge, you're right there pouring it all out, and you're actually more open and exposed than on the edge. You're open in a first 13th floor Elevators album way: absolutely FULL ON, travelling towards greater beauty and greater truth.

"The 13th Floor Elevators album is something to aspire to. In the 21st Century, people will be flipping out that they didn't realise how amazing that album was at the time. I'd connect it with Jung's concept of the collective unconscious. Last year, I realised that Tommy Hall, the guy who was writing all the songs and making all the weird jug noises, was actually not on any drug trip but was on a heavy
Gurdjieff and Jung trip. And he was beating the hell out of himself, working the band and himself to the point of insanity. He wanted to turn them all into visionaries. He was doing an hour and half a night of breathing into a jug, so that he was hyperventilating and going into a trance. When I realised that I knew why ever since I first heard that album in 1977 I've played it endlessly. And I'm still ripping it off. That record is inexhaustible. It's wild to think of rock'n'roll in those terms, but I'd say that record is a religious document. When I say that sort of thing, it sounds preposterous, which is why I make a point of doing a lot of research and being well-read: so that I can back up the weird shit with something that has a bit of credibility, like a Robert Graves' quote."

Finally, Cope has renounced the idea of "systematic derangement of the sense", of frying your head with "edge substances". "Not Raving But Drowning" is a cautionary tale, about an E-blitzed teen who tumbles off a ferry.

"Nowhere do I actually say that it's bad to take drugs, all I'm saying is that when I took drugs I risked my life many times. I don't think people should fry their brains, but I do agree with the New York Commisioner of Hygiene who says that it has been proven that a certain amount of brain damage can prove beneficial! But personally, I've gone into a completely different area now. I'm on a FULL ON trip, that's nothing to do with being fucked up. I just wanna get people's attention by being really fucking interesting. I just want to turn people on. I reckon my peers, like Mark E. Smith and Ian McCulloch are all really lazy. To be allowed to do this as a job, you almost have a duty to be wildly interesting and FULL ON and ablaze. So that even if people think I'm shit, they can say to themselves 'well, I enjoy hating Julian Cope'."

Ironically, the music Cope's making now is wiggier and wilder than anything he did in his acid-baked daze: "Safesurfer" is ample proof of that.

"With that track, I wanted to do something that was just so monumental, that it could take the subject matter (AIDS and casual sex). It was a case of not copping out, otherwise it would be just disgusting. And the track is close to being disgustingly overblown. But it is transcendental. Hitherto I'd always followed the advice of Harley Earl (a hero of mine, who designed all the cars for General Motors) which was 'go all the way, and then back off'. But on Peggy Suicide I realised that it was even better to go all the way and don't back off!"

Cope might have shed some of the egocentricity and studious eccentricity that many found so annoying, but he still maintains a lively interest in his own existence. It's quite clear that he constantly amazes himself.

"I wrote an autobiography called Head On," he explains, with nary a blush. "And then I started to write another one, and I thought this is a bit presumptuous, but I decided to be the king of presumption. So I wrote a 150 pages of another autobiography. And then I had an idea for an autobiographical fantasy called Let Me Speak To The Driver. I have different journals, I check out different sides of my mind, different symptoms every six months. See, the only way I can really learn about everybody else, is to really understand me."

But unlike all those vapidly narcissistic bands who've copped the Ian Brown "wanna be adored" attitude (Blur, Ocean Colour Scene), Cope is also ravenously interested in the outside world, insatiably curious. He reads constantly, carries a notebook and dictaphone wherever he goes, and generates theories and weird ideas non-stop. Peggy Suicide comes decked with copious, T.S. Eliot-style footnotes explaining exactly what each track is about and what books have influenced it. Currently, one of Cope's major trains of thought concerns penetration: male sexuality as both metaphor and explanation for why the world is fucked. "Safesurfer", like the anti-automobile song "East Easy Rider", is about men
feeling "I cannot deny myself this luxury", refusing to change their predatorial nature. "It's a real dick feeling". Peggy Suicide takes its cue from a line in George Clinton's "Maggot Brain": "Mother Earth is pregnant... for y'all have knocked her up." Can men change their ways?

"Man is about to be reborn as a New Man, but he's so reluctant to be born. Cos this way of life is okay. But it's a fucked way of living, and it's terminal. We live with a kind of weird freedom because it's been offered us, but if we lived with the other kind of freedom, we might like it better if we tried it."

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