An Audience With... Julian Cope
The deluxe reissue of Saint Julian is reviewed in the new issue of Uncut, dated March 2013, and out now, so it seemed time to revisit October 2007's issue (Take 125), when the always-enlightening Julian Cope answered questions from readers and famous fans… Words: John Lewis / Photo: Sam Jones
Julian Cope greets Uncut dressed, as ever, in full storm-trooping rock messiah garb. “I’m in this uniform by 7am each morning,” he says. “Always dress ready to face your enemy.”
As you enter his rather quaint Wiltshire cottage, a five-minute drive from the Avebury stone circles, you’re greeted by a few reassuring sights: a bookcase filled with rock biographies, a portrait of the visionary American poet and critic, Vachel Lindsay, a cabinet full of antique toys, and several random stacks of vintage 1970s amplifiers and speakers.
A two-hour conversation with Cope inevitably becomes a fascinating lecture on religion, anthropology, Greek and Nordic mythology and the semiotics of rock’n’roll. Things are either “Lokian” (rocking) or “Olympian” (dreary); pop cultural figures are “Odin” (fearsome) or “Thor” (a bit lame). Subjects range from a 1978 Van Halen bootleg Fresh & Wild (“it’s freeform rock, like Miles Davis’ funk period”) to the diminished role of women in the Middle East (“desert culture is about strong chieftains who will protect the water supply – latitudes that are more fertile are much more comfortable with women in charge”). He also finds the time to answer your questions…
Were you once Mark E Smith’s drug dealer?
Philip Harrison, Leeds
Well, on the first Fall album there’s a track called “Two Steps Back”, with the lyric “Julian says/How was the gear/They don’t sell things to you over here”. People assume this is about me, because Mark and I were quite good friends at the time. He’s only six months older than me and we used to write to each other a lot – Mark’s letters were always highly illustrated. The thing was, although Mark and I talked a lot about drugs in a purely theoretical sense, I was actually very straight-edge at the time. So I never sold him anything. I’m sorry if that’s disappointing.
After Krautrock, why Japrock? Are you working your way through the axis of evil?
Jenny Brittain, Derbyshire
Ha ha! Yes, I’ve been asked if I’m doing a Woprock Sampler to complete the series. And there is some great Italian psychedelia, as it happens. It’s just that Japan had the best story. I can also relate to Japan because they have a similar collective psyche to the British. We’re both island people, we both have a dodgy relationship with a big continental landmass, we’re both very solipsistic. It’s just that the Japanese are far, far more extreme than us. Until 1853, any shipwrecked foreigner who ended up in Japan was summarily executed! Foreigners were thought to bring only psychic disease. So I love the way in which, even today, when they import foreign ideas like rock’n’roll, they put it through a distinctly Japanese filter.
Was Pete Doherty really chucked out of your studio for eating a meat pie?
Keith, North Wales
Definitely. It was a studio that we had block-booked, so we had lockout, and we were letting The Libertines use our studio time. And, when you have lockouts, you don’t want it being undermined by gits. I hope that’s not me being a bit twattish, is it? I think that if you book a place, you have to uphold the traditions of that place. If I go to Armenia and it’s 113°F and I wanna wear shorts, then I’ve got to suffer the consequences.
Is it true you can’t get a visa to tour the US?
Yes. I probably could now, but until recently I had an Armenian visa in my passport. And a very big beard. Now, because the Mujahadeen sometimes hide in Armenia, neither went down well at the US Embassy. Despite the fact that I’ve been married to an American for more than 20 years! The beard was pretty magnificent, though. My wife said I looked like ‘Rastaputin’.
I’ve been listening to this fantastic Japanese music from the ’60s called Group Sounds, but I don’t really know much about it. Does Julian cover it in his new book, Japrocksampler?
Oh yes. This was music made in the mid-’60s, by Japanese kids trying to copy The Beatles, in such a fastidious way that it’s excruciating, yet often brilliant. You can spend £3,000 on Group Sounds records on eBay and come out with 50 seven-inch singles, of which three will be listenable. The rest sound like fucking Val Doonican. But, when they’re great, they’re amazing.
Have you ever seen a ghost?
Charlie Newlands, Cornwall
This sounds ridiculous, because it is, but in 2004 I was followed around by Death for about five days. You know, Death, replete with scythe, as they say. One day I was walking about half a mile from Avebury, and he was hanging in the sky, and I thought, ‘Oh, you’re not Death after all, you’re a fucking alien.’ And after that, he disappeared. Proper visions, as William Blake described them, aren’t blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em moments. They’re long and sustained and physically painful. I probably get this because I’m putting myself in a landscape that’s been populated by Mesolithic and Neolithic nutcases who believe all kinds of weird shit.
If hell froze over and Ian McCulloch, Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe all came up to you and apologised for all the stuff in the past, could you forgive and forget?
No, because I’m not Christian and I really don’t believe in forgiveness. I won’t forgive them, but as someone who’s got an inherently Viking approach to life, I’d love to be in a position to garrote the three of them and summarily execute them as a dedication to Frig or Freya in some Danish bog.
Are you ever going to reprint or update the Krautrocksampler book? It’s a classic.
Stuart Braithwaite, Mogwai
No. Krautrocksampler was just a first step. I’m an experimental artist, and true experimental art should be rendered obsolete by what comes next. I was just the frontiersman, asking the questions that no-one else was asking. If it was republished, I’d have to totally rewrite it, because we know so much more now. I already get people saying, “Hey Cope, you forgot to write about, I dunno, Billy Nobsuck from Dresden.” So I’m happy for others to do that.
What are you more proud of, Peggy Suicide or The Modern Antiquarian?
Frank Stephens, Manchester
It’s all the same. I’m on the same riff, whether it’s a book or music. Everything that I do is to be of use to culture. I operate on what the psychologist Gurdjieff described as “being duty”. From the moment I’m awake in the morning to the moment I go to sleep, I’m informed by this total “Fucking hell!”, and it’s my job as an artist to turn that constant “Fucking hell!” into something that’s useful to other people. When I wake up every morning at about 5.15am and see this ribbon of cars on the A4, starting their three-hour commute to London, that drives me to be interesting. If they’re going to do that, I’m gonna work like a fucking lunatic to make music and write books that genuinely contribute to culture.
What’s your favourite Roman Polanski film?
Ethan Miller, Comets On Fire/Howlin Rain
It’s a 1976 film called The Tenant. It has a deep resonance for me ’cos I once lived next door to a moronic, mohicanned punk. His favourite song was “Pulsar” from my LP, Saint Julian, which he’d blast constantly, to drive me insane. And I went round one day, and said, “You’re driving me mad. You don’t wanna kill the bloke who wrote that song, do you?” He paused and said, “Well, it’s got an appeal, hasn’t it…” It was a real Polanski moment, to be driven mad by your own song. It could have been a scene from The Tenant.
What do you think about LSD at the moment?
Mika Hyytiyffe, Finland
It’s essential for people of my persuasion. If you’re aiming to live a 9-to-5 life, stay off it. Stay on E or mushies. But, if you want to live a rich inner life, then sustainable, controlled LSD intake is useful. I only gave it up because my mother-in-law said it would make my kids mad if I carried on. And I trust my mother-in-law. My kids always knew about the drug use. I was convinced that I’d kept it from them, but my eldest daughter simply pointed at a Texas number plate on the wall of our living room that reads LSD 615, and informed me that she’d known what LSD was since she was six. The thing is, you can’t live a truly artistic life with one eye on the future of your kids. You can’t. Your artistic life always had to be true. Luckily, my daughters are both pretty straight-edge.
What is your personal favourite of all the stone circles/standing stones/burial chambers you’ve visited, and why?
Mark Trow, Yockleton, Shropshire
There are two – the monuments of Sardinia and the monuments of Aberdeenshire. They’re both created by the most modern mindset that I’ve ever seen. They are evidence that we’re not just near the people of 6,000 years ago, but we’re exactly the same. These were guys who were obsessive about building things to the point of destroying their own farming landscape. “Hey lads, haven’t we got one of these stone circles 300 yards away?” “Ah, fuck it, let’s build some more.” Both of these monuments mirror the absolute obsessiveness of modern humankind.
What are your favourite music books, given that you’re something of a master of the craft?
Malcolm Ross, Josef K
In terms of rock biogs, there are two unexpectedly brilliant ones: Freaky Dancing by Bez, and David Lee Roth’s Crazy From The Heat. David Lee Roth is a bit like Pete Burns – he does everything to make you think he doesn’t have two brain cells to rub together. But, like Peter Burns, he’s a closet intellectual. When he was playing 50,000 seaters, he would insist on getting to the stage before the crew and clean every square inch of it. Because that was his altar. That’s fucking hardcore. That’s a guy who understands the shamanistic nature of rock.
Are you really a “fucking cunt for a singing drummer”. Who are your favourites?
Peter Sheppard, Sutton
Oh, yes. There’s Joey Smith from a Japanese proto-metal trio called Speed Glue And Shinki. Joey’s stage name was Speed, because all of his songs were about scoring, selling and taking amphetamines. What’s great is that, mid-song, when he wants to make a point, he just slows the whole song down, because he’s in charge of the rhythm. The other great singing drummer is John Garner from Sir Lord Baltimore. They were the first band to be described as heavy metal, by Creem magazine in 1970. He was an outrageous singer. Think of yourself at your most ecstatic – probably inside your missus – well, John Garner starts at that point and goes up from there. It’s as ridiculous as you can get. Of course, there are other great singing drummers – Robert Wyatt, Karen Carpenter, Iggy Pop and so on. But those two – Speed and John Garner – are the Moses and Mohammed of singing drummers.
My wife wants to know your secret for an evidently long and happy marriage.
Sex, of course. Dorian and I worked this out ages ago. If we weren’t still horny for each other, it would have been long over. I can get the conversation anywhere. It’s only because I think she’s gorgeous.
You often gloat at your live shows about your ability to still pull in a healthy front row of female fans. As a feminist, what role do these women play at your gigs and would it make any difference to you if they weren’t there?
Alex Moulding, Somerset
We in the West are strong because we’ve got strong women. You go back to the Domesday Book, and a lot of the Saxon landowners were women. Norse myths are full of female deities. I don’t think you’re going to have a balanced civilisation unless the woman is at the basis of it. And that’s why I love rock’n’roll, because it’s based on women not being reduced by getting their tits out, but by being worshipped because of it. My primary argument for rock’n’roll is the same as my primary argument against monotheistic religions. Rock’n’roll is part of the Western experiment of taking Afro-American-informed rhythm, which is basically fuck music, and ritualising it and electrifying it so that it’s even better to fuck to. You then get to the point where there’s a symbiotic relationship between the audience and the performer. And yes, I need women in my audience. One of my best mates, Stephen O’Malley from Sunn O))), asked if he could form a band with me. He said: “I’m just so fed up playing to bellies and beards.” Ha! Having women in my audience validates everything ritualistic about rock’n’roll.
Do you believe in Valhalla?
I certainly believe I’m going to Hell. If the Christian revelation is true, then I wish to be damned. If Mohammed’s revelations are true, then I am damned, ’cos I’m just a dhimmi. If the Norse perspective is true, then I want to go to Hell because, in the Norse myth, Hell is a goddess. She was like St Peter, the guardian of the gates. She kind of looked like Nico before she entirely lost it. It’s all good underworld stuff. And I’m a cunt for the underworld.
What’s the best thing that your daughters have said or done in school that makes you feel a proud and happy rock’n’roll father?
Ilias Piknadas, Athens, Greece
My 13-year-old won the school music contest by playing a medley, on her electric guitar, of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, “Heartbreaker” by Led Zeppelin and “Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple. Meanwhile, my 16-year-old, Albany, surpassed herself when they were asked, in Religious Education, to draw their image of “Christian stewardship”. She drew a monkey being nailed to a cross. That made me very proud.
I just read Krautrocksampler on tour. Why did you diss Future Days by Can? It’s an Animal Collective favourite!
Geologist, Animal Collective
Yes, there are several great unexpected moments in late Can. But, when I wrote Krautrocksampler, I had to take on a fundamentalist stance, because nothing had ever been written about it before, so my attitude had to be weighted towards the pre-Ege Bamyasi stuff. And also, when Future Days came out, I was the Can-head at school who was disappointed by the album, so that gutted 16-year-old character informed my stance.
Are you still driving and, if so, do you have an environmentally friendly car?
Lee Haynes, London
I’d say that ‘environmentally friendly car’ is an oxymoron. It’s like the eternal paradox that a meat-eater doesn’t necessarily have to wish animals to die in order to choose to eat meat. You either accept that paradox or you spend your whole time being totally irreconcilable. I’m afraid I drive a 4x4 for the simple reason that, every time I’ve been stuck behind a 4x4 drivers, those bastards are very likely to kill me. And, if they’re going to smash into me, I want to be in a 4x4 when they do it. But I do try to drive my 4x4 as morally as I can.