‘In order to make the best impression it’s best to disguise myself as an invader’
Post-punk icon Julian Cope retraces familiar territory next week when he plays Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre. MALCOLM WYATT reached the self-proclaimed Archdrude in wintry Wiltshire via a suspect phone connection.
Before we start, I should warn you we’re in the middle of nowhere. If we keep cutting out, it might be because of the heavy snowfall we’ve had. If I suddenly disappear, you’ll have to ring back.”
Julian Cope, the legendary former frontman of The Teardrop Explodes turned successful solo artist and self-confessed nutcase, is out in the wilds again.
He’s happily settled with his wife Dorian in Avebury, Wiltshire these days, researching and writing between tour dates and family engagements with his grown-up daughters.
While Julian was raised in Tamworth and made his name as one of the leading post-punk forces in Liverpool, his current base seems practical for an artist now perhaps better associated with neolithic burial chambers and standing stones.
And his home - “literally a terminus” – is just the base he needs to work on the follow-up to recent novel, One Three One, and prepare for a forthcoming seven-date tour.
Julian’s no stranger to writing, having penned a wealth of great songs over the years, while receiving plenty of acclaim for autobiographical works Head On and Repossessed, plus further books on underground musicology, Neolithic culture and archaeology.
Then there are the musical side-projects, his bands Queen Elizabeth, Brain Donor and Black Sheep. So, which title sits best with him - visionary rock musician, musicologist,cultural commentator, post-punk icon, arch-drude, modern antiquarian or novelist?
“To be honest, I’ve just been lucky to hit rock’n’roll at a time when I could be all these things. If I’d started maybe five years earlier I wouldn’t have been accepted.
“You needed people like Patti Smith demanding to be a poet and rock’n’roller. People have adopted a very generous spirit towards me.
“I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that it’s not how good I am or my projects are, but the fact I do finish them and punt them out into the wider world.
“A lot of people might think, ‘I don’t give a damn about ancient monuments, but Cope writes in a way that makes them intriguing - this tripping, psychedelic rock’n’roller.”
A case in point is his film documentary The Modern Antiquarian, which follows his travels across the UK showcasing ancient monuments and historic sites.
If presented by someone else, I might have switched off within 20 minutes, but it seems unpredictable in Julian’s hands – not least to see what bizarre outfit he might wear in the next scene.
“As an artist, a poet or rock’n’roller, you’ve got to be interesting and also genuinely have an obsession. You can’t manufacture interestingness.
“When I did The Modern Antiquarian, the only reason the book got finished was because I just wanted to know what was going on, all the way up to the Shetlands.”
He’s also plugging his latest album at present, Trip Advizer, a compilation covering 1999 to date. Is it a bit of a Julian Cope musical CV for the last 15 years? “Yeah, I like that. It’s a musical CV.”
It also appears to be a celebration of his move away from the established music industry ‘greedheads’, as he would have it. Julian famously had a fiery relationship with first label boss, Bill Drummond. These days, it’s his own label, led by the mysterious Lord Yatesbury.
Before Julian can comment on how the two compare, the phone is snatched by the venerable peer himself, his plummy tones roaring down the telephone line.“Lord Yatesbury always adopts a generous attitude towards the greedheads, because hopefully it’s not a dynasty we’re fighting against. They’re all individuals, so at least their greediness is brought on because we have such a doubtful meritocracy.”
At that point, Julian wrestles back the phone, adding, “Because I came out of punk, there were antecedents to punk, and the best were people who were unbeatable in their own way.
“Jim Morrison as a person demanded he was able to use terms like ‘shaman’ at a time when rock’n’roll wasn’t really far past being Saturday night entertainment. All my heroes have turned out to be cheeky monkeys! It’s like, ‘Who are you to do this?’”He goes on to explain how The Modern Antiquarian led to a link with The British Museum and Julian presenting two shows at this iconic location.
“This director, who was in his 70s, wore golf spats and looked like Bing Crosby, said, ‘I think this is going to be so much fun, but would you do me a favour? You don’t dress very conventionally - would you dress the same way when you present?’
“I told him I’d be delighted - it had never occurred to me for it to be any other way.”
The subsequent dates proved a success, selling out and leading to further bookings. “I think people have a place in their heart for at least one full-on mentalist, and people know that ultimately my goal is education and enlightenment rather than a big wad of dosh.”
And I don’t suppose the word ‘compromise’ comes into it for Julian.
“I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been with my wife 33 years, and she’s driven in no way anything other than changing people’s attitudes to things. Being American, she sees things differently.”
Does it frustrate him that he needs to do a bit more self-promotion today? Or does that complement his sense of independent spirit?
“It’s something I’ve always done. One of the things very marked about punk was that it allowed people to release material on independent labels and be very much their own spokesmen.
“Some punks were opportunists who leapt onto a major label to become the new Rod Stewart. But for everybody who did that, there were people like Mark E. Smith and Howard Devoto, who really brought an erudite and wise side to something that is also still mental! “That’s the important thing – to be able to sustain a long career and be considered an outsider and a maverick yet still be able to keep a conversation together and finish a book ... an album ... to deliver. That’s been my most successful side.
“But you’re only as good as your partner. If you don’t have a partner who’s gung-ho for the whole thing, eventually they’ll start to tire of your singularity.
“If my wife was like, ‘Okay, I’ll facilitate this in the hope it all comes out nice’, I wouldn’t have been successful.”
For all his recent acceptance in archaeological and university circles, I mention that judging by the new CD cover, he clearly still has a hankering for dressing up in old military gear.
“I think that in order to make the best impression, it’s best to disguise myself as an invader. Also, I’d ask. ‘who put the fist in pacifist?’
“It’s very important not to fall into middle age, but constantly try something new that you didn’t know how to do. Pablo Picasso said, ‘I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.’
“When I finally learned to drive at the age of 34, there was a certain sense of freedom. I still live with that sense of freedom, and I’m always trying to serve new apprenticeships.
“Punk taught me to adopt an attitude of positivity, then you can achieve something.
And what makes mew more useful than most is that I just won’t be beaten.” I believe we have Julian’s mum’s love of poetry for his desire to produce a neat opening line in his songs, something I first appreciated on The Teardrop Explodes’ breakthrough hit Reward in 1981, with “Bless my cotton socks, I’m in the news!”
“Absolutely. You’ve got to grab people with that first line, as it’s meant to be a pop art culture. I’ll even deploy very dubious first line in order to ensnare people.
“People won’t walk away humming your song if it’s merely a beautiful idea. And Reward is so hectic it’s actually finished before you’ve realised. It’s just a rush.”
So what became of the Austin Champ jeep used in the accompanying video? The one his band and a few known hangers-on drove around Liverpool’s early-‘80s dockland.
“I think one of our tour managers sold it. It turned out it had a Rolls Royce engine and only did eight miles to the gallon!
“Yeah man, looking back though, it sorted us out, separating us from the rest of the pop groups. And the video very much reflected the way we were living.”
Not as if Julian remembers much about the location, admitting a heavy dependency on LSD at the time, as illustrated in Head On.
But he’ll be near old haunts like the legendary Eric’s nightspot when he plays the Epstein Theatre as part of this new tour. So when did he last visit Liverpool?
“I’ve been quite a lot lately, as I’m writing a follow-up novel to One Three One and a few stories I’ve wanted to tell take place in the great bowl of the Irish Sea, in areas between Ormskirk and the Wirral. I’ve been doing a lot of research there.”
I tell him there’s a nice display of memorabilia involving his former Crucial Three compatriate Pete Wylie, of The Mighty Wah! fame, at the Museum of Liverpool now.
And I suggest he should donate one of his infamous revolving microphone stands. “There were three of those stands, and I broke the first one but couldn’t bear to throw it away. The second I gave away to a goth. I wish I hadn’t, he never did anything with it. I thought he might have some kind of maverick career.
“I still have the final one, but don’t know if I could bear to give it away. It’s got a fantastic quote from William Blake painted on it, that took me weeks.”
Head On is very detailed about his days with The Teardrop Explodes. Was he a meticulous diary writer back then?
“I was. I also lived a life that was very well recorded, so to a certain extent I could call up friends and ask, ‘After that gig, we did that journey from so-and-so to so-andso. Did I really fall out of the van?’ And they’d say, ‘Course you did, you nutcase!’ Some of those stories, particularly the drug-related ones, are particularly lurid. In fact, it’s a wonder he’s still with us.
“I look back now and think I wouldn’t have wanted to be our tour manager. And Bill Drummond would always invite people to look after us who didn’t have much to lose!”
I ask how a typical day – if there is such a thing – starts for Julian Cope these days?
“At the moment I wake up about half six, because I’m doing lots of research. This time of year the days are too short for doing any really good field-work. I have lots of maps of the Irish Sea area I’m concentrating on though.
“Then my wife comes in, has a cup of tea with me, then we’re both on a schedule of writing. Writing together in the same room, we’re like two informers looking at each other - making sure we’re not both on Ebay!
“I also do a lot of my own artwork, hand-rendered, and while I find the short days problematic, I actually work harder as I know the day’s coming to an end quicker.”Does he ever revisit his hometown, Tamworth, or nearby Drayton Bassett, where he first set up home with Dorian, and the cover of 1986 album Fried was shot – with
Julian disguised as a tortoise.“Yes, last time about a year ago. My daughters are both fascinated by a period when their Dad would appear naked underneath a turtle shell for a record sleeve!
“We do a lot of stuff like that. They’re very interested, saying “Dad, you really get away with a lot of stuff!
“My youngest daughter worked at Faber & Faber for a while and spent most of the time fending off questions, staff asking, ‘Is it true your Dad did so-and-so?’
He was soon back on more commercial ground and enjoyed a few hits over the following decade, including World Shut Your Mouth, Trampolene, Charlotte Anne and Beautiful Love.
“I think I was just surprised to be in a position to have another stab at it. I think I’d gone just a bit too far with the psychedelic.
“Being the way I am though, I guess my natural propensity for being a weird sod is just around the corner!”
So is the Julian Cope that Dorian puts up with in 2014 a little easier than the one she first latched on to in 1981?
“She says I’m more difficult. But what I like is that she had mad parents, including a very mad father. Whenever her father and I got together we were close friends. He was a real nutcase.
“My mother-in-law would say, ‘Oh, Julian’s always very easy to manage, compared to Steve’. And my wife’s always said to me, ‘You’ve never ever bored me’.”
Having children – with Albany now 23 and Avalon 20 – also brought Julian a new focus.
“I think that’s really good for someone known as a nutcase artist.
“In order to become a successful father, you’ve either not got to be yourself, or be yourself but have a good explanation. And I’ve chosen the latter!”
Finally, what advice might 57-year-old Julian offer his 17-year-old student self in 1975, or even his 27-year-old shell-clad self in 1985?
“I would say keep going, and it will all turn out fine. Just persist!”
Julian Cope is at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre on Thursday, February 5, with tickets £23 in advance (£25 on the door) via 0844 888 4411, online at
www.epsteinliverpool.co.uk or in person at the venue.
And for more about his other projects and Trip Advizer, try www.headheritage.co.uk.