Former frontman for Teardrop Explodes Julian Cope has taken up writing. Duncan Seaman spoke to him ahead of his gig in Hebden Bridge.
FOR a man currently sporting an intimidating look that’s one part Hells Angel and another part German fighter pilot, Julian Cope is disarmingly softly spoken and polite.
The singer turned writer wryly admits his get-up is “over the top” but says it serves a purpose.
“I wanted to adopt something that could see me through until I was 70. The hat makes me look two inches taller and the sleeveless leather is generous to the physique of a middle-aged man. I’m terribly practical. It might seem like I’m weird but I’m really pragmatic.”
His 2007 book Japrocksampler, a well-regarded history of Japanese rock from 1951 to 1978, was born out of such an attitude. “My wife said, ‘You’ve been collecting all this expensive Japanese stuff – when are you writing the book?’”
One Three One, his recently published first novel, followed a similarly pragmatic path. The setting itself is a road in Sardinia familiar to the 56-year-old author from research trips he undertook while writing The Megalithic European, a guide to the standing stones and ancient temples of prehistoric Europe that came out in 2004.
The novel’s protagonist, Rock Section, a middle aged rock star, has returned to seek the truth and exact revenge on a gang of kidnappers who had abducted and tortured him and his English hooligan mates 14 years earlier.
For Cope, this was an opportunity to tell “home truths from abroad” by exploring not only the landscape of the island but the “world view” of people he’d encountered there.
“I was writing a book on ancient Sardinia when the novel came up, it’s about the way people are forced to adapt if you live in somewhere peripheral. Sardinians live with such a peripheral attitude.”
The character of Rock Section is “the perfect combination” for his creator. Pop stardom is something Cope knows about from his time fronting the Liverpool band Teardrop Explodes and his own cult career.
There’s something of DH Lawrence about the book too. Cope “spent a lot of time writing at DH Lawrence’s childhood home” in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire and saw strong parallels between the town and where he grew up in Tamworth, Staffordshire. “I was a bit shocked by the similarities in these Midlands mining towns. It was very easy to put it in context,” he says.
Another key influence on the book was the hallucinogenic drug salvia divornum. No stranger to narcotic pleasures, Cope said he did his research on the substance once favoured by Mazatec shamen but even he was unprepared for the results. “It was appallingly heavy,” he says. “It takes your experience and throws it back at you in a dark and evil way.” He ended up using “that side of the drug experience” in the novel. “It was such a genuine truth, it was very peculiar.”
It’s why he subtitled the book a Gnostic road novel, he says. It was the closest he came to “interfacing” with the strangeness of some of his experiences in Sardinia – one of the most significant of which was an encounter six years ago with one of the island’s most notorious former kidnappers who is now a successful artist and shepherd who is “revered as having a shamanic element to him”. The only way he could trace his whereabouts, Cope says, was via a motorway service station that sold his paintings. “I walked up the mountain and he came down with his flock. He was very pragmatic as well. The only outlet for his art was the motorway services.
“The characters in One Three One were very much based on people I interfaced with quite a lot,” he adds. “I’ve met some very rum characters.”
It’s 20 years since Cope’s first foray into literature with his memoir Head-On. Around the same time he released Skellington, an album of demos that Island Records, his label at the time, tried to block. It was an act of artistic self-assertion that was to set the singer on a new path of constant change and experimentation, trying his hand at everything from ambient music to metal.
“Looking back over the first five years of my career I could have been out on my ear at any point,” he reflects. “You are trying to create a situation where you are necessary.
“It’s easy to look back on the third and fourth solo album and I’m doing OK but I was very much there by the grace of the head of Polydor Records or Chris Blackwell at Island. I came to the conclusion that however much I had deluded myself I knew I was not going to enjoy trying to make a rock and roll career in the classic tradition. I did not think what I was offering would be enough. To be perfectly honest a lot of other people make better rock and roll heroes than me.”
Today, aside from his books, Cope is working on new music. “At the moment I am really enjoying writing songs,” he says. Researching his novel made him think of sounds from the early 1990s. “For the last few years I’ve been doing cheap Balearic rave beats. I wanted to put that pressure on. When you get to my age you have a little dabble then a little rest but I went in really tough.”
Ultimately he would like to be remembered as “a rock and roller who writes”.
“I could not have sustained it as a pure rock and roller. I do think I write with the dynamics of a rock and roller –it’s one of the reasons why I’ve got away with taking liberties that a lot of writers would feel were too cheeky. I range widely but I don’t have a choice, I’ve met so many rum characters in my life.”
• Julian Cope plays at Hebden Bridge Trades Club on October 25. Doors 8pm, £21-24. http://thetradesclub.com/events/julian-cope