jarvis cocker on writing an album in room 29 of the chateau marmont

We caught up with Jarvis to discuss his new project with Chilly Gonzales, a tribute to the sad, surreal glamour of old Hollywood.

by Nadja Sayej
02 May 2017, 7:55am

Over the course of its 88-year history, the Chateau Marmont Hotel has become a West Hollywood landmark. It was where Romy Schneider did her screen tests, James Dean jumped through a window for an audition and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a book. It's also where Led Zeppelin's John Bonham drove a motorbike through its lobby, Lindsay Lohan racked up a $46,000 bill and where Britney Spears was kicked out for smearing food over her face.

Now, Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker has teamed up with Canadian musician Chilly Gonzales for their new collaborative album, Room 29. A look into one of the world's most legendary hotels, their live set is more than just a rock show. It opens with Cocker dragging out a suitcase onstage and sitting on a bed, where he orders the bellboy to bring out cocktails. As audience members are seated, there is already an old fashioned key waiting for them with a name tag that says "Room 29."

The room was the famed honeymoon suite for Hollywood actress Jean Harlow and Paul Bern and the album is an ode to Old Hollywood with songs like Bellboy and Ice Cream as the Main Course.

Ahead of their next show at the Cité de la Musique Philharmonic in Paris on July 9, Cocker took some time to speak to us about the new album, film theory and the romance of Old Hollywood.

This all began on the Paris metro, is that right? You and Chilly Gonzales were both on your way home from the same movie screening of Borat.
Jarvis Cocker: It did, I was on a subway station platform when I bumped into Chilly, who I met a few times before. We realised we live in the same area of Paris. In fact, he now lives in Cologne but I live in his old apartment in Paris. We both enjoyed the film and because we both have the same taste in films, we started to hang out a bit more.

There's an element of comedy in Room 29 stage show too.
We like to make each other laugh. It's strange because there's a tendency to think people who make jokes are not serious about what they're doing. We've both realised humour can be a defence but also a form of attack. I don't like art that doesn't have an element of humour to it. If it's devoid of humour, it's devoid of humanity. Sometimes the way to deal with situations is to laugh at them because otherwise, they can crush you. We're all learning that with certain events in the world. If you really let them get to you, they'd really destroy you.

There is a video element that goes along with your stage performance where you travel to Chateau Marmont and stay in the hotel room. Is it all real?
It's all real, so there is a documentary aspect to it. Five years ago, I was touring with Pulp and I got upgraded to that room randomly and saw it had a piano in the room, which gave me an 'aha' moment. I thought, 'we could use this, we could make something.' The story we tell in the music is the real story.

From the video clips, the hotel room doesn't look very ornate.
That's the thing, Chateau Marmont isn't really a swanky hotel. At one time, it was really down at heel. People lived there in the mid-70s, it was almost a crash pad. It was built as an apartment building but it opened as the depression happened, so nobody had the money to live there. It was turned into a hotel. To this day, all the rooms have kitchens. It feels like you're living in someone's house or flat. It used to be cheap, somewhere you could hide away and go about your business in a discreet manner. It has a higher profile now but it still operates on that level. I usually stay there when I go to L.A. and some of my friends say 'Why do you stay there? You never get your messages, room service takes ages,' things like that. There are much more luxurious hotels than the Chateau Marmont.

The hotel has many different stories, like Howard Hughes casting girls he saw in the swimming pool for his films, and comedian John Belushi who overdosed and died there. Why did you decide which stories to mention?
We were really interested in how the hotel's history mirrors the history of movies. The hotel opened in 1929, the same year sound came into films. The stories we chose are those that illustrated that, like Jean Harlow's honeymoon. She was the biggest sex symbol of the era, yet her husband was unable to consummate the marriage. It was difficult for him to get his head around who Harlow was on screen as opposed to in reality. We wanted stories that illustrated the larger idea of films, the movies and what they've built. For our stage show, we have some narration by film critic David Thomson, I've read a lot of his writing while researching this project, I also interviewed him at the Chateau Marmont, that's where his quotes come from. He wrote a book called The Big Screen: The Story of Movies and What They Did to Us, I love that title. Many see a TV before we learn to talk. It teaches you how to watch a film.

You've played a lot of music festivals and you know how to work a crowd. Here, you have a toned-down approach that is a very different style of music. What was the approach?
Very different. It's been interesting for me to adapt to that, it's very low key. You get onstage at a festival and say: "Hey! Pittsburgh! How's it going?!" Here, I come on with a suitcase and start singing a quiet song. It's not a scripted show but it has to go in a certain order; it's less physically demanding than a Pulp show but more mentally demanding. You don't get this kind of abandon to it, it's a different way of performing. We didn't want a musical, we wanted it to be halfway between a rock show and a theatre piece.

There's a line between the hotel's history in the songs and your own personal stories, like eating ice cream for the main course with your lover. Why?
All the songs have a personal element, as we didn't want it to come across as a Hollywood documentary. The stories we came up with deal with things we care about; it's difficult to perform songs you don't care about. There has to be a personal investment in them.

There's a part towards the conclusion of the live piece where you're at the oldest restaurant in Hollywood. Why there?
I tell a story about an old 80-year-old couple who ordered everything on the menu and got it all at once. It's this desire to have everything all at once that Hollywood gave us. Life could be so much more than what we believed it to be. I love old movies and the illusion of Hollywood. I like the fantasy of it. But life can't be like that all the time. These people who still live the dream, I fell in love with them. It doesn't just happen onscreen, it happens in real life—if you believe in it enough.


Text Nadja Sayej
Photography Courtesy REM Productions and Philipp Jedicke