INTERVIEW: Julian Cope
Pretty Green X Shiiine On: Birmingham
Polymath pioneer of ‘Frazzle Rock’, this bovine lover of cows waxes lyrical and cynical and pulls no punches in a rousting jousting chat amongst the margins.
Recounting his story within the history of drinking, back-to-nature-thinking, an aggro-cultural dialogue exchange on the meaning of meaning, the historicity of ‘things’, the stage craft of the ancients, just who would beat the skins for the reformed Crucial Three, life on and offline and why standing still is anathema, still.
Being on the periphery is ‘where’s the place to be’ and where the journey perennially trumps the destination. Hop along for the ride.
You’re playing Shiiine On at the Birmingham NEC in September, your only gig this year. What are your thoughts?
I’m writing two books (of which more to follow) and the venue’s close to home, plus it’s central so people can come in from anywhere, even the Outer Hebrides. Where I live, Tamworth’s the nearest town and now it’s kind of like Las Vegas or something. As I was growing up it was a bit like a Birmingham overspill, but, then again the West Midlands is a Birmingham overspill, they’re amazing places, some of my favourite places in Britain are places like Barton-in-the-Beans, what kind of name’s that? It’s great as well.
In 2017 you released the Drunken Songs E.P., six odes to the intoxicating power of ale. How many units are you partaking a week? Honestly.
Honestly? This is a conversation for me and my postman, we both fly under the same amount, he’s a bit younger than me so he’s always worried. I’m a generous middle-aged man, I’m very generous to myself …
Is that the result of experience?
Yeeeeaaah, in truth, I think the whole world experience, adulthood experience, is so long and drawn out that I can forgive anybody for spending probably 70% of the time quite cunted.
Where we’re coming from, one of the reasons why I started to study the very ancient times was I wanted to know how divorced from those times we’ve become, I didn’t really see a very big difference, one of the big archaeological discoveries when it came to the public, was that when they came to the conclusion that ancient agricultural human beings were just as likely, possibly more likely, to use those first bits of farming, for beer rather than food.
I just think we’re always attuned to tuning out. We live next door to a field of cattle and I really like to get ‘bovine’, it’s easy. I used to like getting ‘amphibian’ as a kid and just dog-paddle around and go ‘Uuuuurrrrggggh’ and quickly you’re just reduced to your lower self.
I think we should be spending more time with our lower self.
The term ‘bovine’ and ‘amphibian’ obviously describe something, but, as you say in terms of human behaviour they articulate that form of behaviour. ‘Bovine’ has negative connotations …
You know why that is, the connotations are probably made by urbanites about other urbanites generally. I’m living in the absolute rural Midlands, middle of it, I tell you what, there’s nothing wrong with being bovine.
Cows are my favourite animal …
They’re amazing aren’t they? Overnight we had another calf, there were three calves yesterday, now there’s four. For me that’s my reason for being alive.
(Julian then says ‘Hold on, there’s a plane going over, let me go and see what that is’). It’s mental, there’s air shows going on all the time this time of year, so they’re just always doing flyovers, Yatesbury used to be RAF Yatesbury during the war, so it’s on the flight path so suddenly you’ll see three DH4s flying over from World War One.
You see some mental stuff because of it (the shows).
A mix between the rural and the agricultural, then you’ve got these flying machines that typify modernism and death and destruction?
Yeah, one of the things that I learned when I was doing The Modern Antiquarian, was that whenever you’re in the middle of nowhere you’d get Hercules flying over.
With a song like ‘Liver as big as Hartlepool’, it’s a psychogeographical derive through the ‘Mersey-sides’ and it’s funny to hear the term ‘woolyback’ in song. It’s a recollection of your-selves, but, is it also a comment on parochialism and insularism?
Yeah, I would say Liverpool is an enclave and one of the finest enclaves there can be, I don’t have a problem with enclaves, they are what they. There’s nothing you can do about it. Detroit’s quite an enclave, I’ve always thought Liverpool and Detroit are similar, there’s something ‘end of the line’ about it, even hitching into Liverpool, everything about it was a terminus.
It’s (Liverpool) ‘different’. I wrote Head On because it was an outsider’s tale … Pete Wylie could actually get out of bed and get an 8 pence bus and he’d be in Eric’s. Mine was a really convoluted story to get there so I really appreciated what they, not took for granted, but, considered was their entitlement.
That’s one of the reasons I continue to be fascinated by things, because I came in from quite an interesting journey … I think that’s probably the most important thing that’s kept me ‘interested’ is the fact that it’s always been a good journey.
I’m married to an American and she’s very unlike Americans, but, she’s got that ‘international overview’ that Americans have, travelled and she knows Britain is brilliant because she’s been to so many other places.
There’s always that outsider perspective looking in?
It’s very important because what it means is that nowadays you can’t really be English and go ‘Whooaaar England’s fucking great!’ but if you’ve got an American missus she can stand behind you and go ‘You can all fuck off …without England …’
She went to the Shetland Isles and three times to the Orkneys, that’s good for a girl you met in Manhattan, she’s starting to get a proper perspective then.
I wrote the novel about Sardinia and the reason was because it really reminded me of the Liverpool worldview of this enclave that was passionately itself, and was not gauchely telling everybody else to ‘fuck off’ but was just guarded and guardedness is really important.
Is that where the humour comes from? A self-defence mechanism?
Yeah, it is.
On new LP Skellington 3, there’s ‘Seel Street Waltz’, another homage to Liverpool?
I tell you what brought on ‘Seel Street Waltz’ was we were schlepping up after the Liverpool show and we couldn’t move, it was contra-jamming and it was all the women and it was fantastic. I just thought, again I’ll write it from the point of view of the outsider, but, I’m an outsider who knows all those points and knows how far it is down Bold Street in really high heels because I’ve walked with them … Pete Burns included!
Also on the new album there’s ‘Stop harping about the way life used to be’ it seems that as with Drunken Songs EP there’s a clearing of detritus, a re-enacting of memories. Is that true?
I think it was Augustine who said that people, men especially as they get older, they look back and laugh at the idealism of their youth and I just laugh at it, I think it’s essential that you have constant renewal, so I’m always trying to do something that I haven’t done before.
I don’t mean ‘Oh, I’ll do this then I’ll be a jack-off of all trades’, but, go into it really thoroughly so when I come out I’m different. I don’t believe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, what you’ve got to do as an artist is you’ve got to be defiantly forward moving, but, you’ve got to look back and see where you came from, if you don’t do that then you end up sagging like a Spanish galleon overladen with gold, you become gross.
To remember the journeys that you make to get to these things. I did the book The Megalithic European, and it absolutely killed me, I had to go to so many places I’d already been, but, now with the eyes of an author who needs to get the information and it was really debilitating, whenever I look at the book I go ‘Fucking hell, what an amazing photo’, but, I know that I had to be there at 5 a.m. so there’s always a little part of me that’s got pangs of being on the Danish Djursland peninsular and having left too early and freezing your nuts off.
But, life’s very brief and you’ve just got to keep moving, keep moving up the incline.
The problem with ‘Stop harping …’ is for a lot of people life used to be better because they’ve had more years in which to be beaten again and again and that’s the problem about aging, I’ve been lucky, my journey to Liverpool was a very big journey to even get onto the Eric’s stage and in doing that journey I’ve never forgotten that journey. I think if you are more entitled it’s probably easier to forget where you came from.
I think that’s one of the reasons why Head On made sense was because I was this enthusiastic guy and everybody else was like ‘Oh, bloody hell we don’t have any milk’ so I’d leg down and get milk.
Instead of sitting around pontificating about it you went and did it?
It’s quite peculiar because looking back I honestly think the early days of me fitting in was more to do with the fact that I was incredibly interested in it all, that situation just seized me.
If you’ve constantly got that desire for renewal and change and the passion to do it, then it’s just going to continue fuelling that passion?
Exactly, I’m very motivated by the way of the English Civil War, the Roundheads always said ‘Keep your musket handy and your powder dry’ and that’s really important.
If an Avro Lancaster flew over today that’d be quite historic, but, if I don’t have my camera handy then it’s just a personal conceit that I saw it. That’s what I’m about, recording something through the lens of somebody who’s still a bit in shock about the whole life deal.
A wide-eyed innocence that means you’re not jaded by cynicism?
No, I’m still not.
Have you been back to Liverpool, the new Eric’s?
No, I’m not interested in anything that’s the ‘old’, but, I’ve played Liverpool a couple of times in the last four years and Liverpool astounds me in how much it’s changed, but, very positively, but, then again it looks like a future centre of commerce and people enjoying themselves at night.
You’ve (re)discovered Krautrock, Japrock, obscure Detroit Rock, any more hidden histories to unearth?
Probably … sometimes I just write out of a sense of duty, the main reason I wrote the Japanese book was because I didn’t think anyone would go to it and write about the original rock and roll spirit arriving in Japan, I didn’t think they’d write it without being ‘Japan bumming’.
About four years ago a BBC producer got in touch with me and said ‘We’re doing a programme on Japanese culture and we’ve got a guy talking about Japanese food, we’ve got a guy talking about Japanese architecture and we wanted you to come and talk about music’ and I said ‘I hate Japanese culture … the main reason I wrote the Japanese book was because I was inspired by the people because they all hated Japanese culture so they didn’t want to be Japanese so they brought something new which involved Japan without being Japanese and I was looking for something that wasn’t just them trying to be American. I didn’t pick ‘that’ stuff I picked something they’d created that was genuinely a kind of far Eastern spirit.
So they’d filtered it?
Yeah. That’s the thing, I’m not sitting on a lower table drinking a green tea while I’m writing Japrocksampler, I’m a motherfucker! I’m swigging lager listening to Flower Travellin’ Band …
So, by ‘bumming’ you mean that in that case you went against the diplomatic grain, an anti-patronising stance?
It’s like when people go (adopts American twang) ‘I really love the Geordies’ it’s like, how can you say that, most people are cunts, there are some people who are Geordies and you love them, that’s because there are some lovely Geordies. It doesn’t mean to say you love everybody, that’s just mental.
You wrote a memorable article on ‘forgotten’ garage music in the New Musical Express in 1983, re-reading it now there’s a sense the past was fixed in the past, a sense of history passing by those that had been marginalised? Can you imagine, for example, 2015 being excavated and reappraised in years to come?
Yeah, I would imagine so, the thing is what makes it so interesting at the moment is the underground is the underground and it always was, when I was listening to Neu! I was listening to Neu! because John Peel was playing them. He had a show that was right next to Anne Nightingale and Annie Nightingale played some great underground stuff, but, she could have been on a hundred years and she’d never have played Neu!
I think the most important thing is there’s great underground ALL the time and to a certain extent the underground gets better because as we get more control of technology we can make even longer, more excruciatingly far-out pieces, we don’t have the limits of vinyl anymore …
As far as ‘pop’ music’s concerned it’s always been like this and I think because of the social changes it’s probably one of the most fascinating crossroads in culture in everything at the moment.
Social media: equalising force or tranquilising farce?
I think … ok, here’s a good one, when mobile phones came in loads of my mates who I grew up with were like ‘Uurrgh, I’m not getting a mobile phone …’and I was like ‘WE’RE part of the ‘beam me up, Scotty’ generation, of course you’ve got to get a mobile phone. That’s just like saying ‘I’ll never be in the middle of nowhere’.
I remember phoning my wife in New York when out in Armenia 20 kilometres form the Iranian border, now, we had our communicators yet the people who were standing on the hilltop villages were looking at me like I WAS Captain Kirk because they had been totally ripped off in Armenia by a Greek telecom company so they had to go via Greece even to do an inland phone call.
What we’re striving for is … I don’t know how you keep up … you don’t keep up with it, but, I’ve got a song called ‘Your Facebook, my laptop’ and it really is ‘social media’s killing me, I’ll have to change my history’.
I guess so … it’s just me saying ‘those who live by social media will inevitably die by it’. For years I was writing a monthly column of comments on my website and in the end I gave up because people would be writing irate notes saying ‘Julian’s forgotten to wrote an obituary for Billy out of Snotgobbler’ who died last week and I’d be like, is this all it’s going to come to, one thing I do know is people of my age who are rock and rollers are going to be dying every month, all I’d be doing is writing obituaries so in the end I’d stopped making any comments at all and I think it’s good, I need to be a bit safe.
It’s not time to be shouting your mouth off about things that you haven’t really thought about …
On your website, Head Heritage, you’re selling toys, instruments, paraphernalia, memorabilia, artefacts, it is a statement on the increasing infantilisation of aging consumers? What’s made you decide to do it now?
My mind’s been totally blasted over the years with all the mad artefacts that I’ve interfaded with, you imagine in order to write the Krautrock book I had to go through a lot of crap. It wasn’t just a case of listening on Youtube, I had to buy a lot of crap.
Also, we were moving around for years so I’d end up with ‘Shit, I’ve got three Amon Duul albums of the same name’, I just don’t want to have this big, fat past that I’d bequeath to my kids who don’t really want it themselves, so I decided that it would be more interesting to get rid of things. I’d buy a book by an archaeologist and then he’d get to know me and send me that same book so I’d have doubles of things.
Do you find it interesting that fans of yours are bidding against themselves to buy a toy car that you bought 30 years ago?
The way that I see it is, if somebody said, let’s say Mark (E.) Smith had collected, I don’t know, if he’d collected (American hotel chain) ‘Howard Johnson toothpaste and soaps’ from all The Fall tours in America, then suddenly once he’d died his Missus sells all that stuff, I would completely understand people thinking that was interesting and wanting something because it was HIS.
The way I see it, rock and roll has always been a good substitute for religion, and so when I saw in a classic guitar shop in bath and they had Jimmy Page’s original Danelectro, I’m not even a Zeppelin fan and I was really pleased to see it because it was just such a beaten-up piece of fantastic history. Looking at it, that probably cost him about £80 and he’s done all ‘that’ history on ‘that’ piece of shit because technically it’s rubbish. I think that’s what it is …
I’ve been selling experimental guitars and sometimes people come and pick them up and it’s really interesting because you just meet people who are into rock and roll not to sound like Oasis, but, to sound like something that hasn’t yet happened and they think that one of ‘Cope’s relics in me arsenal is going to give me more balls’ and I think, ‘Well, maybe it will’ because I am a kind of magical …
Like a transference of energy?
I wouldn’t be surprised by it, knowing from the energy that I got from being into The 13th Floor Elevators and they were doing that from Texas. That’s why I’m such a big fan of electricity, you look at the first classic rock and roll piece, probably (Ike Turner’s) ‘Rocket 88’, think of Turner’s ice-blue fender Stratocaster without electricity, it’s a fucking slab of … nothing. Leo Fender didn’t even attempt to make it look like the guitars of the past, he just said ‘Look, I’m just gonna slap some car paint on it’ cos there’s a body shop down the road, gives it to Ike Turner and it just becomes the most futuristic thing since the jet-plane. And that’s all because of Thomas Edison.
To a certain extent rock and roll is run by the Gods, it’s just that our Gods are Thomas Edison and all the other people that Edison ripped off along the way.
Most people cite rock n’ roll within a 50s/birth of the teenager context. You seem to locate rock and roll (or at least some its qualities and properties) within a much older (even possibly prehistoric) context. Therefore, do you think rock ‘n’ roll draws on performance as a sacred space, the shaman as deity, rituals and habituals, idols and gods?
What makes rock and roll so in touch with the past is that it’s not quite nomadic, but, it’s still pastoral so when we moved out of our nomadic phase it was because we’d gone round the landscape long enough to go ‘You know what, let’s spend Summer by that lake’ and then we can go to the mountains in the Autumn and we can get those bits of fruit that we love and they’d go round … rock and roll’s like that, you don’t know quite where you’re gonna have to set up your temple, the temple is where you’re booked so it means that you retain a lot of that shamanic element because you have to go in, look at and make a judgement based on the size of the stage, where the audience is going to be coming in, how you do your show, are you going to be able to use ‘shock and awe’ tactics, are you going to be able to be a show-off or are you going to have to work really hard just to get them on side.
All of that would have been very important in terms of the pastoral, I suppose going back to the nomadic as well as the shaman would have been the guy legging on ahead and going ‘oh, great, there’s a gorge coming up, if I have them all come in from there I can be behind that hollow rotting log and I can make it sound like there’s somebody else with me’ and it’s thinking on your feet, rock and roll has to have an element of thinking on your feet. When rock and roll was at its height it was still trying to prove itself as something more than just a Saturday night entertainment so it tried really hard so I’m always trying to inject myself with that spirit that forced The Monkees to do seven albums in the first three years, that forced Grand Funk Railroad to do four albums in the first fourteen months.
If you can do that, force yourself, you end up like … Duke Ellington. Duke Ellington did a film score ad the producer said ‘Do you need more time?’ and Duke Ellington said ‘Don’t ever give me more time just give me a deadline!’. The reason I did Skellington 3 was I wanted to write something and record it very quickly and didn’t want to worry about the themes being coherent, could I achieve it in a couple of days, and still make good performance and make a good report of the songs.
To a certain extent as you get older you have to force what the shaman had to do every day before he got his temple and became cosy as the priest.
Back in 1981 there was going to be a second Teardrops album called The Great Dominions. Some songs turned up on Wilder, and some in quite different forms than they had been toured. The title track on sessions had just been yourself and the piano for instance, therefore an extended version of ‘Like Leila Khaled Said’ never happened. Was this a great lost album? Is it likely to be dug up some day?
No, I wouldn’t have thought it could be … in truth we were too out of it to finish things without being bullied. Me and Balfey had such a dream that once it changed from The Great Dominions it could have been several different names and so it became … it’s hard to explain now, but, the Teardrops were started more just to create what I would term a ‘psychedelic soul band’ because it was possible to do because I had a drummer who could play a great soul beat and a great reggae beat and wat was difficult was writing songs that were simple enough, not for the us to play, but, simple enough for them to remember next rehearsal.
So what happened to change into by the time of Wilder was the band had got sucked along seemingly so quickly that we were suddenly this professional band, but, we weren’t remotely professional so anything could upend us so although there’s lots of songs so many of them are just like ‘drawing board’.
Me on vocals, Balfey on Prophet synth Gary on a bass drum, that basic and because were in Air Studios we would have just taken ages.
You once said that rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t an excuse for sloth, it was made by forward thinking mofos. From that, early Teardrop Explodes songs seemed to contain a lot of ‘wandering around’. Do you feel more purposeful now? You are certainly active – a serious renaissance man who has said that what artists do should be of ‘use’ to culture. There seem to be plenty of rockers around who are just as content to churn out the same stuff as they always did.
I’m probably feeling in a slightly more generous mode nowadays … if you aren’t beset by the need to be useful and you don’t have a feel of duty then everybody would have it if that was a necessity. Some people make great, brilliant art just by being the selfish bastards they always were.
I can’t really say that it’s ever bothered me that Mick Jagger seems like a prick because it’s almost a bit like saying ‘No shit, Sherlock’. My expectations are different, I just have more expectations for ME, I really think from my beginnings to where I am it’s been a really long, unfolding sometimes dogged journey so if I ever have days or even weeks of just looking out the window lolling like an interested dog then I’m quite generous to myself and just think ‘Go ahead and do it’
If everyone has a price what would it cost to get the Crucial Three ‘back together’ for one night only? (the mythical band comprised of Cope/Ian McCulloch and Pete Wylie that lasted 6 weeks in 1977) Even as holograms?
*long pause* The only problem with that is … who’d play drums, would it have to be Clem Burke?
You tell me, you’re naming the price.
Who else … tell you what, it’d have to be one person who’s in every reformation, maybe The Pretenders’s Martin Chambers. It would have been Cozy Powell if Cozy hadn’t gone … I don’t know, how much would it cost to get the Crucial Three back together even as holograms … the only way it would ever work would be as holograms of us all at different phases of our careers.
ABBA are doing it and I think they are all frozen from that period from 1979
That’s really, really amazing, but, the thing is ABBA were always wank, you can read past them ironically as many times as you like, but, to me they’re lower than Queen. So really, I don’t know, the Crucial Three? Maybe when we’re 80, if we make to when we’re 80 maybe that’s when we’ll do it, we’ll do it just to embarrass everybody. I’ve often thought it’d be good to have a band just for your sanatorium, like three of you sat in wheelchairs on the hillside, but, then again I suppose Van Halen will do that.
You’re working on two books?
I’m writing a book for Faber & Faber called The Rise of the Prophets: A new perspective, all the biblical prophets that have informed all the great religions, but, it’s seeing them in context with what would they be like now and who else in history could have been considered ‘prophet like’ in the manner that they established themselves. That’s a right old kerfuffle …
Would that incorporate rock stars, film stars, people that purport to be spokespeople?
What it really looks at is there seem to be times throughout history of revelation and then there’s great swathes of time when there’s no revelation and nobody dares says ‘fuck all’, then suddenly there’s loads and loads of messiahs all start claiming.
After the English Civil war during the Commonwealth, the original leader of the Quakers was so troublesome to the authorities that the Quakers themselves have written him out of their history. They now talk about a guy called George Fox because they guy who originally started Quakerism believed that he was Jesus Christ. But then again there were lots of Jesus Christ wannabees at that time, you go back to the time of Jesus Christ there were several prophets all claiming …
When’s that likely to be finished and published?
I’ve no idea … it’s a thorny book, you can imagine
And what’s the other one?
The other one is a very weird novel in three parts, that’s really fucking wild.
The prophets’ book is more of a text book than Robert Graves ever got me at, but, it’s a spirited appraisal to say the least. The novel is mind-boggling, but, I think I’m going to make up for that by just being fascinating and interesting, a juicy read.
And with that, the archdrude site-seer, novel-writing fount of the arcane and provider of acid brain rain was gone. To be next found performing in the Birmingham area in September.
Tickets on sale HERE