Jarvis Cocker Checks Into Room 29 | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Jarvis Cocker Checks Into Room 29

Illusions of the Screen

Jul 03, 2017 Chilly Gonzales Bookmark and Share

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On a level with The Hollywood Sign and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the storied Chateau Marmont is a landmark forever entwined in the history of Hollywood filmmaking (and thus American popular culture at large.) One particular suite of the distinguished hotel became the subject of Room 29, a concept album by British songwriterand Pulp frontmanJarvis Cocker and Canadian composer Chilly Gonzales. The record explores the tales of just a few of the Chateau’s many famous (and infamous) guests.

In this extended Q&A, Jarvis Cocker talks in greater detail about his personal history with the hotel, the connection he established with television at an early age, and the research which went into writing the record. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Jarvis Cocker, quotes that didn’t make it into our main print article on Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales.]

Austin Trunick (Under the Radar): Do you recall what your impressions were on your first visit to the Chateau?

Jarvis Cocker: Well, it would have been in the mid-‘90s when I first stayed there. Like a lot of people, I suppose I’d heard of the hotel. I’m trying to remember, because a lot of the information for this record came from a book called Hollywood Handbook. Andre Balazs, who bought the hotel in the mid-1990s, did this anthology of writing about Hollywood, and specifically the Chateau. It’s a really good anthology of writing; actually, there’s some Raymond Carver stuff in there, and Eve Babitzit was the first time I’d read anything from her. I can’t remember whether I bought that book before I stayed at the hotel, or after. I do remember [Pulp] stayed at the hotel and I was ill. It was one of the few times I ever had to cancel shows. And so, I ended up being alone in the hotel for three days while the rest of the band went off and enjoyed themselves whilst I recover from this illness. So my first visit was quite strange, really, because I wasn’t in a state to enjoy my stay. I wasn’t very well.

The idea for the album came about when you stayed there in 2012 and saw the piano in room 29. Did you have an impulse to write songs about the room right away, or did it form as you read and learned more about the people who stayed there?

The idea to do the record came immediately. Even though I’d stayed in the hotel almost 20 years earlier, the idea had never come before that, and I had bought this book. In the interim I’d met [Chilly] Gonzales and we’d gotten to know each other, and we’d talked a little bit about making a record together but not really knowing what kind of project to work on. It needed me to walk into that room and see the piano there. Then it was like, “Ding!,” and all of the stories fell into place. The idea to do it was immediate, but then working out how to do it and how not to make it cornyor, how not to make it too much like other things that had already been madethat took a bit of time. And also, we had to learn how to work together properly. The way we did it is that he would send me instrumentals on the piano. Let’s say, if he sent me six pieces, I would choose two that I liked or thought were right for that particular project, and then I would write the words and would send it back to him. We proceeded that way.

Writing from his instrumentalsisn’t that the reverse of how you usually work?

With Pulp or with my own music, I’m involved in the musical part as well. I ended up playing percussion or tiny things on some of [these] songs, but basically there was a very clear division of labor on this record. He did the music and I did the singing, and that’s it. That was an interesting way to work. I hope that I did my part of the job well.

Did you go back to the Chateau while you were writing or recording the record?

Yes, I went back. So, I should mentionI’m just about to start rehearsals for the stage show [which took place in Hamburg, London, and Berlin in March of 2017]. I should go and point out that I kind of view the record as a soundtrack to that show. I went back [to the Chateau] in 2014 and did some filming there. At that time, we thought that this project might wind up being a feature film. Maybe that still might happen. So, there are some bits shot at the Chateau that pop up in the stage show. And also, there’s a voice that pops up on the record sometimes and that’s film historian David Thomson. Those bits are taken from an interview that I conducted with him when I went back in 2014…. So, yeah, I’ve been back a few times since. It’s nice when you start to feel you know a place a little.

Were you able to use all of the stories that you wanted to? Or were there some you didn’t have room for within the project?

We didn’t want to go down the tabloid newspaper route, or the Jackie Collins Hollywood Wives route…. I was looking for stories that had a personal resonance to me. That weren’t maybe the best known stories, but said something about the appetite that moving pictures stoked within people. That was something that I felt. Even me, being brought up in the U.K., which was a long, long, long way away from Hollywood, geographically and culturally. But I was still exposed to the culture that came from Hollywood because, you know, old Hollywood movies would be played in the afternoon on TV in the U.K.. So that was something that I wanted to explore. I think a language was invented [in cinema’s early days] that’s still being used today. It’s been used for so long that I don’t think anyone can pinpoint exactly how it was devised, and so I got interested in that. I think all of us were brought up on moving images on TV from very early ages. I think all of those images just go in when you’re a kid. You’ve got no filter. You’re just lying around, absorbing it into your subconscious. It can actually be quite profound things, and they’ve gone in at such a young age that they feel like part of your own, personal mythology, but they were manufactured by other human beings. And, I got interested in that. The three strands of the record are my personal story and experiences, trying to make sense of that; the historical stories of people like Jean Harlow and Howard Hughes; the third thing being the hotel itself. It’s quite a character within the record, as well.

Can you tell me about what you saw when you were young that might have influenced your life? What sort of shows and movies were you watching on TV?

I remember when I was about eight or nine, and I was thinking about becoming an adult. I was thinking about what would be a cool way to be an adult. To me, the most luxurious and fantastic way to livethis was at eight years oldwould be to live in a hotel so that you didn’t have to worry about cleaning dishes or changing the bed or anything like that, and have a paid servant who would come in and project your favorite TV programs whenever you wanted them. At that point in my life, my favorite TV programs were Batman and The Monkees. In a weird way, that ambition stayed with me when I got older. I remember when [Pulp] first went on tour in Japan, I bought the entire Monkees TV series on VHS tapes. I had to carry them all around Japan while we toured, and then I had to buy a special tape player when I got home, because they were Japanese tapes and they wouldn’t play on a U.K. video player. I tried to live my dream, but halfway through the second episode of The Monkees I realized it wasn’t going to be as great as I imagined it. And so I started thinking about all of these weird ambitions I’d had, and wondering where they’d come from. Some of these obsessions and ideas I’ve had for a very long time. Some Pulp songs were about similar things. Songs like “Happy Endings,” “This Is Hardcore,” and another from the This Is Hardcore album called “TV Movie.” There’s always been something in my consciousness about comparing reality to what you see on the screen, and which seems better, or more attractive. I’ve always had an issue with that. I guess, in a way, I’ve been working up to this record for a long time.

Why do you think this specific era of Hollywood cinema still resonates with so many people? Movies from the 1930s and 1940s don’t seem to have aged in the same way as other forms of art from the same period.

I think at that point [cinema] was still new enough for people to be genuinely in love with it, and for people to genuinely want to make images that were as beautiful as possible. With the development of Technicolor, you had colors that were so intense that they could never exist in real life. In a way, you really did improve on reality. You made everything much more vivid than it ever could be. That’s interesting, when you have a man-made thing that you project on a screen that seems more involving or more exciting than the life that you’re living. It seems more vital, and that’s a weird dynamic. We’re still watching moving images, but we’re watching them in different ways. I think it’s interesting to see where that interaction with screens first started. We weren’t always watching things projected. David Thomson, who I mentioned, makes a good point, which is that the word “screen” has two meanings. It can be something that you project an image onto, but it can also be something which hides. You would take your clothes off behind a screen, if you didn’t want someone to see. And so, it can also be something that masks things, and I think that’s a really good point. When you look at a movie screen, or a TV screen, or a computer screen, you think you’re looking through a window into another world; a portal which gives you access to something. But in many ways, it’s actually screening you off from the reality you long to interact with.

That is a great point.

I know. I wish that I’d come up with it myself! [Laughs]

As you were doing all of your writing and research, was there one character from the Chateau’s past which you connected with or were intrigued by more so than the others?

Well, they’ve all left their mark. This is going to sound bad, in a way, but the story of Jean Harlow’s honeymoon-that was one of the stories that, when I found about it, I was probably most excited about. That actually did happen in Room 29. It was the room in which she spent her honeymoon. She was the big sex goddess of those times. She got married to this guy [MGM executive Paul Bern], and he just couldn’t consummate the marriage. There are theories, and some people say it was because he was gay, but it just as well might have been that he couldn’t marry the illusion of this screen goddess with actually holding this screen goddess. That story, in my mind, became a physical manifestation of this very thing I’m talking about, of how appearances don’t always match with reality, and sometimes the artificial thing seems more real than the real thing. It seemed to be encapsulated within this story of a guy who got married to the greatest sex symbol in America, and then couldn’t get it on. [Laughs] It brought a lot of these things together in one story, and so when I found that I knew it had to be on the record.

[Note: This article originally appeared in the digital version (for smart phones and tablets) of Under the Radar’s Spring 2017 Issue (April/May/June 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]



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toko bunga bandung
July 3rd 2017

We’re still watching moving images, but we’re watching them in different ways. I think it’s interesting to see where that interaction with screens first started.