Interview With Julian Cope
by Denise Sullivan
thought and expression lies a lifetime"--Lou Reed
"That's bullshit."--Julian Cope
Julian Cope was barely 20 years old in 1976--a stone freak with a passion for the music of '60s holdovers like the Doors and Love and a sophisticated ear for Krautrockers Can and Faust-- but by the end of that year, he'd gotten turned on to the Modern Lovers, Patti Smith and Television. Like so many of his generation, "Once, I heard this stuff, there was no going back," he says. So, inspired by the D.I.Y. spirit that had infested London, he started his own band which ultimately became the Teardrop Explodes.
As the neo-psychedelic band's frontman from 1978-1983, Cope belonged to a group of Northern mavericks who set off the second musical revolution to come straight outta Liverpool within twenty years. With his dusky voice and unpredictable behavior, he quickly established himself as a strong-willed, charismatic performer with an apocalyptic vision. But after only two studio albums, the Teardrops exploded. Ten years later and with the beginnings of a solo career already behind him, Cope, recounted those dizzying years in his 1994 memoir, Head-On. By that time, he'd already released a load of confusing solo albums, including World Shut Your Mouth and most notably Fried. Though still dabbling in neo-psychedelic sounds as a solo artist, Cope himself was drowning in hallucinogens and his music and image reflected his experimentation--for better and sometimes, worse. On the album cover for Fried, he appeared to be crawling, naked, shielded only by a tortoise shell. The image created a feeding frenzy in the British press and solidified his reputation as that of King Loony. Even his record company began to have their doubts about him, though they allowed him to persevere with less than sales-record-breaking recordings like St. Julian and My Nation Underground. And oddly, perhaps to spite them, he independently released experimental/improvisational home recordings like the superb but difficult to track-down Droolian and Skellington , which further fueled his mythology.
In 1991, he reorganized for Peggy Suicide, his first in a three part series of albums devoted to endangered Mother Earth. It was around the time of recording the second, Jehovahkill in 1992, that he says he accepted his purpose on earth as a Gnostic, truth seeker, storyteller and modern-day mystic. In 1994, vanguard label American Recordings picked up Autogeddon; the final album in the eco-terror trilogy; 20 Mothers, a celebration of all things familial, quickly followed. The records were the death knell (or a God-send) to Cope's 20th Century career in the major label recording arena, though ironically, they include some of the high points in an extensive catalog of excess--proven to be key to his musical and personal development.
In 1996, the techno and psych-driven album, Interpreter, was a culmination of Cope's introspection and explorations of ancient spirituality, mysticism and sacred sites. The erratic behavior and bitterness he purged in his autobiography now behind him, for part two of his life story, Repossessed (published in 1999), he took a more subdued (though by no means entirely sane) view of his life and career. Inspired by the writings of Lester Bangs and John Sinclair and the recordings of Sly Stone and Burton Cummings (!) Cope retraced his trip to the edge of madness and back again. When I spoke to Cope in 1995, he was in rehearsals for an upcoming American tour.
been to California in a really long time.
I'm not coming to San Francisco. I'm living by the Arthurian principle which means that I have to avoid fault lines.
Is that really true?
Yes! I'm affected by cosmic effervescences.
But you say in your notes on 20 Mothers that you were going to put the millennium psychoses aside, that it's going to be an easy ride....
I'm trying to put it aside as much in my songs as I can, but unfortunately it still manifests itself in my everyday life. Because I'm livin' on the fumes of the mother earth at the moment, it's hard going to America and it's hard going to London. I'm not being a prima donna. I'm going to attempt to do as much as I can. The whole point of the poet or the artist or whatever you want to call him is that he has a duty to get his message to people. So I know that I have to come and say these things.
The thing that strikes me about your book Krautrocksampler, is that you are the ultimate fan, yet, I never really heard the influence in your work till recently. Were there subtle traces of it in your music before?
Yeah, I think there's always been traces of it. The Krautrock influence was so fundamental to the Northern post- punk thing. It's extremely prevalent in the Teardrops. You wouldn't really hear it because it was so fundamental to the Teardrops sound that you would think that it was just our sound. Everything was very Krautrock influenced in attitude, but not a lot musically, until I went solo. The difference is, is that in the old days, if you consider my trip as a diagram, it was a narrow, upwards facing arrow going at about 45 miles per hour. Now I'd say the same arrow is about two foot wider so it's really fat, but it's going at five miles per hour. And that's the difference. Now I have a voice that covers more of the spectrum. In Britain I recently did Top of the Pops a couple of times and I wore a Neu! t-shirt. That was my way of saying, 'I'm going out to twenty million people and they're all going to know about Krautrock.'
I suppose I
hear the Krautrock influence in the darker side of the Teardrop Explodes, but
then I never thought of the Teardrops as a very dark band.
No! We were quite the opposite. I think we were an offending light band. I'll tell you what, the story of Krautrock is a really spiritual one. Imagine these people as young kids, sort of 16 and onwards, suddenly coming to psychedelic music via America and Britain, six months late. But at the same time, they were just coming to terms with the fact that all these atrocities had been performed on their land by their parents and their parents friends. However touched by the world you are, multiply that by how you would feel if just down the road, fifty thousand people were killed. To keep people in Berlin, because everyone was leaving, the West German government started to give people grants to stay. So all the freaks stayed there and spent their money on synthesizers and drugs and taking acid. The weirdest music in the whole of the world was made in the '60s and early '70s, 96 miles inside the Eastern Bloc by Western musicians. It was really weird.
I see why it was worth documenting.
I thought it was up to me to write the book because I have the time to do it and I'm capable of doing it. It's shadowy and it shouldn't be shadowy. Krautrock is symbolic of the underground and the occult and everything that is underneath and it's my job to bring it out to people.
So for now, recorded music and your books are the way you get your message out there, rather than touring?
Yeah, which is fair enough.
You say the way you were raised helped you deal with contradictions in life from a very young age. Is that how you reconcile releasing your songs about vegetarianism, green politics, preserving sacred sites and love of family through notoriously sleazy music business channels?
I think what I always thought was that as I got older it would become easier.
But what I found is that whatever state it gets to, it's never easy for me because
however easy it is, I put barriers in the way. When Mahatma Gandhi came to Britain
in 1947 in the worst winter of the '40s wearing a sari, he said later that he
arrived like that because he knew the British were so pompous and so worried
about decorum that they'd have to get Mr. Gandhi indoors and seen to quickly,
even though he was a real spanner in the British works. And that's the way that
I have to be seen. That's why I dress bizarrely. Everything that I say is true,
and I don't mean that everybody has to believe it. But I feel that it has to
look that bizarre as well because that's the way that I'm being told [to dress].
It's not easy for me to walk down the street because I look too ridiculous,
but that's obviously the way that it's meant to be. People like Sly Stone always
came over in a big family way and I want to be the white version. I want to
look as ridiculous as those black guys got and I want to look for a bit of that
grace. If I have to become a Stardust Cowboy to be that, then I'm gonna be.
It's like George Clinton in the early '70s. He was full of incredible, stellar
wisdom and he imparted it through Funkadelic. That's why I quote him all the
time now on my records and on my adverts. The reason I do that is that true
wisdom comes from the most unlikely places. See what it is, I've kind of fallen
in love with the world and the world radiates so much light at me and I look
at everybody and go 'fuckin' hell you just look amazin'' and I fall so much
in love with that life and it reflects on me.
The songs on this album seem to be specifically about the people and things that make you feel that way:"Wheelbarrow Man" is about sibling love, "Try Try Try" about motherly love, "Queen/Mother" about Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. That wasn't happening on your other records quite as intentionally, was it?
I always use a different voice. Sometimes the voice speaks to one person and sometimes it speaks to a lot. Even when the songs are specific, as soon as you put them out into public domain, they lose their specifics. I shoot stars out to everybody that I know and everybody that I don't know. When I put out a record or a book now, I just hope that I'm going to make those connections and I do.
And the strange phenomenon you're into, the stone circles and sacred landscapes you speak about in interviews and fan club correspondence--it's just as important to get those ideas across ?
Yeah, because it's part of the whole. Everything in my trip is a holistic thing. Some of it's very left-field and some of it is right in the center. I believe that we formerly had collective magic that we used in a community way. I think that the collective magic in 3000 B.C. in Britain made large stone circles. The stones were so big no one can even imagine it now as magic--because it was a communal effort. But at the same time, we are in the middle of a very high technological magic which we don't even accept. If archaeologists, using the kind of ideas they use now in 5000 years discover car culture, they really won't believe that we could have driven at 80 miles per hour on the motorway with very few collisions. If you think about that in a rationalist way, it doesn't really make sense. But we think that it can't be magic because we can do it. That's what I term the whole Fordism, the car culture. So we still have that collective magic, but we've applied it to technological pursuits and we fall victim to thinking in a technological way so we can't get back to our magical selves. So that's my job, to let people know about it.
, people who represent outsider, underground and fringe interests end up with
a loony or freak tag. How do you cope with that?
For my first 11 years in music, I served an apprenticeship to understand what it would be like when I was on the trip. I've been on this trip now for five years, but because I suffered at the hands of the press all the time with things like when I put Fried out--imagine putting Fried out in 1984 when everybody was in high couture and I was naked under a turtle shell? I'm so used to being utterly slagged just for being who I am. It makes you so strong that you no longer even react to it, you merely act. You can throw it off.
The other side of this whole discussion is that you drive a car and you obviously have a phone and fax. I'm staying in Tunbridge Wells where the new-age travelers want to live off the land, yet they are tapping into water supplies and waste disposal systems that the town's people pay for--more of those contradictions.
The thing is, that's why on 20 Mothers it says 'Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.' I think you've got to start somewhere. You have to confess to yourself, 'What am I guilty of,' and then say, 'I'm guilty of all these things that I can't get 'round.' I'm not pointing fingers at anybody, other than everybody. I'm pointing the finger at myself. I'm not like Sting saying, 'You're all wrong,' I'm saying 'We're all wrong.' Cynics will always say, 'You're not perfect, so you're not in a position to comment,' and the thing is, that is the greedhead's way of stopping people from getting anything changed. I believe that I can be ninety percent wrong but it doesn't matter because if ten percent of me or even five percent of me has got a little grain going, 'This is right,' then I've got to act on that grain. That's why I say on 'Ain't No Getting 'Round Getting 'Round,' I need to get to London and I need to get there fast but my car is a polluter and it's messing up my future and there ain't no getting 'round getting 'round."
If you ever came to California again, you'd find a lot of people who share your beliefs --you might enjoy trading ideas with them.
I know that I would, but you'll have to solder up that fault first.
When it comes to songwriting, do you think to yourself, ''Hm...I want to address this issue of the car and the role it plays in our society'..."?
No! No! Nothing
like that. It's nothing to do with me. It's a gnostic odyssey. When I say that
I have vision and clarity and lyrics pass through me, I mean that. Before I
recorded "Upwards of Forty-Five Degrees" off Jehovahkill, I have notes
in my journal from that time where I believed that if I didn't quickly record
it I was going to die--so I obviously believed that it was high knowledge. And
I know that because one of the lyrics, 'To penetrate the diamond, the pituitary
gland gets torn on its axis and frees,' is exactly what happened to me. It did.
It's how my third eye opened. The reason I write so many songs now is that it
has nothing to do with me, but it's a huge, tumultuous tidal wave of white gooey
And it just kind of comes out in one spurt and there's no going back and playing around with it?
Not really because I'm not the interpreter. Maybe I'm the translator, but I'm not the interpreter. Have you heard the Lou Reed lyric, 'Between thought and expression lies a lifetime'? That's bullshit. That's an intellectual truth, but intuitively it's not true. When stuff comes out of the heavens, it comes directly through you and words describe
Maybe it's a stupid question, but could you ever conceive of going back to songwriting as you knew it?
That would be like saying...
Could you go back to eating meat?
Eating meat, or could I go back to having the TV on when I wasn't watching it. Like I can't even have the TV on when I am watching it. I can't take that amount of information anymore. I'm primed to take in information in precisely the right the amounts.
Where do you get your information in a given week?
From books, from people and from walking because I'm walking on the sacred landscape and a lot of my vision and a lot of my fuel is just through walking.
Things like films, music, other art forms...how do you gauge how you will take it in?
Well, with a lot of modern music, I don't even make an effort because psychically, I can't deal with records that are made in an atmosphere of hopelessness, so I usually deal with things through recommendations. I don't watch films a lot because I can't take that kind of generation of energy. But occasionally, we do watch a film. My wife watches films but I just can't take it. I mainly spend a lot of time under the stars, you know. And that's the way my information is picked up. Like I'm an aerial. Can I tell you something? Where we live is a sacred landscape. It's the central sacred ceremonial area of the Neolithic culture who inhabited the area from the top of Sweden to the Iberian Peninsula from 3000 B.C. to about 1500 B.C. And the central ceremonial area was at Avebury and we live four miles from there. In four weeks we move two miles closer. But that's why I go there and I walk everyday because it's sort of Avalon. All the great mystics have written about it and spent time there. It's a kind of Blakian landscape, and I suppose that's the reason my music and my everything sounds the way that it does now. The music is more extreme than ever, really. This last album I wanted to make a pop album, but it's still pretty wild soundin'.
You encourage your fans to stay in touch and interact with you.
Yeah! The weirdest thing about this last tour that I did in Britain was that I did three hour shows and I had a walkway so I could get right down to the front row and it was just phenomenal because there was so much physical contact. I was neckin' with women and guys all the time. The audience was moving in waves like in a very different way to any shows I've ever done in the past. It was like a real physical show and I thought, if you treat women like goddesses, they respond by acting that way. And if a woman comes up and treats you like a god, you walk taller. I just figure, something clicked on that tour where everybody felt bigger and better and I believe in it more than ever now.
I like that
you're such a big champion of the underdog.
I appreciate the underdog who is a frog about to turn into a prince. And I appreciate it that everybody moves me up to the next notch. So I figure that it's absolutely my job
to champion the underdog; if I don't do that then I'm full of shit.
The Best of Julian Cope & The Teardrop Explodes 1979-1991 (Island, 1992)
Floored Genius: Volume 2 (1983-1992) (Dutch East, 1994)
Leper Skin- An Introduction to Julian Cope (Island, 1999)
Any or all of these collections would be a fine overview of the Cope's supersonic psychotic pop milieu as they cover his many guises: From straight-ahead chart pop artist to unpredictable, psychedelia-drenched experimentalist.
Droolian (1990, Zippo)
Both of these albums are difficult to come by but well worth seeking out as they far exceed any of Cope's major label-supported studio recordings. Recorded in spare acoustic style (in the case of Skellington, in one and a half days) Cope takes on his old favorites and unearths classics like "Out of My Mind On Dope And Speed" to great effect. Read all about it in Repossessed.
Cope born in Deri, South Wales
1978 Cope forms an early band in Liverpool; scenesters Ian McCullough, Pete Wylie and Budgie all pass through.
1979 Teardrop Explodes forms
1980 Teardrop Explodes debuts with Kilimanjaro
1983 Teardrops disband
1984 Cope marries Dorian Beslity; Cope's solo debut album, "World Shut Your Mouth"
1985 Spends the spun-out days and nights chronicled in Repossessed
1989 Writes part one of his autobiography, Head On
1991 Goes exploring England's standing stone monuments and sacred sites; daughter Albany born
1994 Daughter Avalon born; Head-On finally published
1995 Krautrocksampler published
1998 Modern Antiquarian published
1999 Part two of autobiography, Repossessed published