Interview: Jarvis Cocker & Chilly Gonzales

Presenting entire worlds illuminated on screen, cinema is a medium that operates as a means of escape, perhaps above all others. Since the moment the technologies were devised filmmakers have been using their craft to create something real out of fantasy.

In 1924, Buster Keaton was among the first to toy with this idea. In Sherlock Jr. we see the protagonist, a cinema projectionist played by Keaton, fall asleep on the job. What follows is a marvellous feat of camera trickery in which a dream-form of Keaton steps inside the screen at the cinema where he works and becomes a part of the film he is showing, leaving all the troubles that previously befell him behind.

Nearly a century has passed since then. The ways in which the world has changed are too many to comprehend, but cinema remains as it always has been: a vehicle of escape and fantasy. With the advent of TV, and the advance of mobile technologies, that escape is more accessible now than ever. But the representation of life that the screen offers is just that – a representation – and one that diminishes in the harsh light of reality.

“You don’t have to learn how to watch TV,” Jarvis Cocker says. “You just open your eyes and it’s there.” Just because we can see it, and to a certain extent, experience it, doesn’t make it real. This is an idea that’s long captivated the musician, recurring time and time again in his music. “You can’t be a spectator, oh no,” he sings on Pulp’s “This Is Hardcore“, “You got to take these dreams and make them whole.” It’s a striking realisation, one that cuts through the track’s strident piano chords and rising strings with a chilling acuity.

It was while touring with a reformed Pulp in 2012 that Jarvis stayed at Los Angeles’ infamous Chateau Marmont. With its iconic décor and sheltered location, the hotel has a history of being home to Hollywood’s greatest talents. If these walls could talk, they’d be able to tell tales of everyone from James Dean to John Belushi, from Led Zeppelin to Death Grips. When offering advice to a couple of his stars in 1939, the founder of Columbia Pictures told them “If you must get into trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont.”

Upgraded to a larger suite for the duration of his stay, Jarvis entered his room to be greeted by the sight of a baby grand piano. “That was really the lightbulb moment,” he affirms, “…when the idea for this record first popped into my head.”

Titled Room 29 (after the room that inspired the concept), the record is the first full-length collaboration between Cocker and composer/pianist Chilly Gonzales. Inspired by the mystery and history of the Chateau Marmont, the record is a near-hour-long escape from reality underpinned with a sobering self-awareness. “It’s a story about two guys, Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales, who grew up watching TV and decided they wanted to live in the TV in a certain way,” Gonzales explains. “They went on stage instead and lived out a fantasy.”

That idea of living out a fantasy was the foundation for Room 29. Drawing from the Hollywood history of the Chateau Marmont, and the surreal displacement of being in a hotel room, the two musicians set about creating their own fantasy. “Jarvis and I, both of us, we only know how to make music from a personal standpoint,” Gonzales says. “We can tell stories, but only in as much as they express what we want to express personally.”

“We chose these stories because they have some kind of personal resonance for us,” Cocker asserts. Working with the ethos that “any project that you do has to have something personal in it for you,” the result of these efforts is, essentially, “an album about fantasy and reality.”

It certainly isn’t short of narrative, both real and fictionalised. “Bombshell” is an imagined account of Jean Harlow’s honeymoon with her second husband, Paul Bern, two months before he committed suicide – leaving behind a note that ended “You understand that last night was only a comedy.” “Belle Boy” follows a hotel porter as they make their rounds, a silent observer of what goes on behind many closed doors. But there’s more to the record than character studies.

“A lot of the subject matter of the songs is to do with how film and TV and moving images have affected me in the way that I grew up. I had a lot of ideas about the way the world works and what to expect from life from watching telly,” Cocker says. “It isn’t always the best place to take your ideas from, I don’t think,” he chuckles. Toying with the juxtaposition of the real and the represented, the personal and the public, the home and the hotel, Room 29 is at once a world calling out for exploration and its own subtle warning.

“A lifetime of spectating makes you impotent, unable to join in without a frame of reference, watching the playback after the event,” Cocker utters on the opening track, inviting the listener to take a step out of reality and into the world of the album while in the same moment heavily foreshadowing the dangers. “This is what I have been dreaming about, life with the boring bits edited out,” he laments elsewhere on the LP, lost in the intangible nature of the medium it finds itself in.

“Hollywood is the origin story for the sad gap between fantasy and reality,” Gonzales continues. Opening around the same time that Hollywood began to really take off, the Chateau Marmont is intrinsically linked to the early days of the cinema industry. But it wasn’t just film that was advancing. “This is a time in musical history when the world of classical music took this turn towards the very intellectual,” Gonzales dictates. “It was hopelessly out of fashion to just want to write traditional, pleasing melodies. It became about writing contemporary, difficult, challenging music. Just at that time, Hollywood sprang up.”

Harkening back to the likes of Bernard Hermann composing scores for Alfred Hitchcock, the world of classical music was indeed heavily influenced by its visual counterpart. “Culturally speaking, it began with movies and the screen,” Gonzales affirms.

With such a focus on visuals, it seemed natural that the project should be more than your standard album. “We thought maybe it’s going to be a film, or maybe it could’ve even been a radio show or something,” Cocker ponders. “In a way, the record is kind of like the original soundtrack album. The stage show that we’re going to be doing is really the thing.”

“It starts with Jarvis getting into the hotel room,” Gonzales explains. Much like when we sit down in front of a screen, when you check into Room 29 you temporarily leave the real world behind. “When you’re in a hotel room, you’re sort of in this bubble. You feel like you’re really in your own place, even though there’s 200 copies of the exact room you’re in all around you.” It’s not entirely dissimilar from sitting in a movie theatre, oblivious to the other rooms and seats around you while you watch lives play out on screen. “You want to suspend disbelief and believe that it’s your space for the time you’re in it.”

Everything about the album is constructed to immerse listeners into this fantasised world. The distant whirring of an elevator, the dripping of a tap, the soft scratching of pen on paper… the omnipresent sounds of hotel life can all be heard throughout the record, transporting listeners right into the heart of this vivid setting. “I thought it’d be nice to try and make people feel like if they closed their eyes they could imagine they’re in this hotel room with someone playing the piano and someone else stood quite near them singing a song,” says Cocker.

The album’s distinct sense of place is strengthened in its depiction of universal sentiment. Gonzales elaborates: “It’s maybe more about how it feels to be confronting yourself. It cycles through some of the different stories – at the start, the character Jarvis is portraying is not sure why he’s alienated, but by the end of the album there’s a little bit of an awareness that this isn’t the right way to live.”

“To think you want to escape into the TV screen,” Gonzales continues, “That’s just not quite going to cut it. It’ll never quite measure up.” With the seemingly endless bombardment of perfect figures and happily ever afters that occur in films and on TV, it’s hard to not feel a longing for a part of that. “It’s the disease of wanting to live in the TV, or now, I guess, wanting to live in your phone screen – they’re all variations of what the movies brought: the idea that you can look up at a screen and see this version of life that was perfectly edited, and everyone was lit perfectly…”

It’s a commonly held conception. Film historian David Thomson has written at length about the effect the screen has had on our culture. “The first one of his books that I latched on to was a book called The Big Screen,” Cocker says. “The subtitle of that is The Movies And What They Did To Us. He writes very well about this idea that we’ve been affected by movies in ways that maybe we don’t quite understand.” The historian even features on the album, snippets from an interview Jarvis conducted with him scattered through the songs, introducing the very real individuals who inspired them.

“Reality is reality. You can try to escape it all you might, but life doesn’t have the boring bits edited out. Life is what we know it as,” says Gonzales. It’s a sobering notion, and one that’s laced into the very framework of Room 29. “You hear the regret of someone who threw it all away because they were hoodwinked by a fantasy,” he says, speaking on the album’s climax. A cautionary tale against placing too much faith in fantasy, the album is a resounding cry for something real.

“I think watching a movie is wanting to escape into a fantasy, to a certain extent,” Gonzales says. “TV is the same. Social media is even the same these days.” With the ability to portray ourselves to the world however we most wish available a mere few button clicks away, the notion of reality has never been more blurred. “This idea that you can escape into a fantasy… becoming a musician who goes on stage is that story.”

And so that’s exactly what this album does: it’s creates a fantasy and escapes inside it, imagining all the glitz, glamour, and purpose of the world it portrays. Room 29 is a reminder that perfection is just a projection.

“If you expect your life to have a plot and lots of incident because of watching TV, you can sometimes get a bit disappointed by real life,” Cocker muses. “It’s better to live your own life than watch somebody else living theirs.”

Room 29 is out now via Deutsche Grammophon. Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales perform at The Barbican in London from 23-25 March.
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