Interview: Julian Cope reveals unorthodox writing methods and musical influences ahead of 2014 Edinburgh Book Festival date
Rockstar-turned-writer on his debut novel, writing under the influence and why he's obsessed with Aberdeenshire
This article is from 2014.
When news surfaced that Julian Cope was writing his debut fiction, we all knew it would be no ordinary book. This modern antiquarian tells Fiona Shepherd just how far he threw himself into the novel
‘Write what you know’, goes the Mark Twain mantra for budding authors. So Julian Cope has written a debut novel about 80s and 90s rock stars, football tribalism and Neolithic portals in Sardinia. ‘If you’re going to be an author, people have really got to trust you and that’s what I’m about,’ he says. ‘The novel is all about people with their issues, and readers know that I’m not going to lay this crap on them unless I’ve truly interfaced with it.’
Cope first came to prominence at the turn of the 80s as the far-out frontman of The Teardrop Explodes. When the band broke up after four chaotic years, this accidental pop star transformed into a shamanic solo artist. But over the past two decades, he has become more celebrated for his writings than his music, carving a highly respected niche as an author of assiduously researched specialist tomes on stone circles (The Modern Antiquarian, The Megalithic European) and heavy music (Krautrocksampler, Japrocksampler), which excavate his passions in forensic first-hand detail.
His first foray into fiction is an uproarious Sardinia-set revenge thriller One Three One, named after the island highway along which most of the action takes place. It recounts the time-travelling exploits of a self-styled ‘80s musical burnout’ in a world where Jim Morrison is still alive and writing patchy poetry, where ancient Aberdonians invent football and where a glossary of the many and varied cultural references might have been handy.
Cope expertly captured a riotous cast of characters in his autobiographical memoirs Head-On and Repossessed. Now he has invented another lot, including protagonist Rock Section, posh rapper Full English Breakfast and antagonist Judge Barry Hertzog who revels in his reputation as ‘the first indie football hooligan’.
‘I think that is something I got from my old drummer who’d been a Millwall hooligan,’ says Cope. ‘He wasn’t even really a drummer, he was an orchestral percussionist, so he was a reader of music and a cultured person and yet he was also an absolute maniac. First time he ever met my guitar tech who was an intense West Ham fan and about a foot taller than him, he walked up to him and said “I’ve kidnapped your kind”, so I thought there’s really something for me to understand here.’ The narrative also features cameo references to some of Cope’s actual musical contemporaries, blurring the lines between his real and imagined worlds. Half Man Half Biscuit, we know. But Kit Kat Rappers? Skin Patrol? ‘Skin Patrol were real,’ he confirms. ‘And they did sound like an awful version of Orange Juice.’ Sure enough, there’s an online live recording of a song called ‘Rock Section’. Little did they know …
These days, Cope says he enjoys listening to music more than making it, though he still produces a steady stream of stoner and psychedelic rock releases in a number of guises. Thorough as ever, he even wrote all the made-up music in the novel. ‘I consider myself to be utterly gnostic in my writing,’ he says. ‘So in order to believe in these bands, I had to form them. I figured if I was going to write a soundtrack, it had to be as extreme as you’d imagine those bands would be.’
At the height of Teardrop Explodes mania, Cope appeared on Top of the Pops on acid (where he was entranced with Bucks Fizz) and has had many freaky adventures while high. His academic work has been a model of learned sobriety, but admits that he wrote One Three One while stoned.
‘First time I’ve ever written under the influence, and I felt I needed to be,’ he says. ‘Some of the states you have to be in to write something that evil, y’know? They say that the druids of the Iron Age spent 20 years in their colleges learning all the secrets. I’ve spent the last 25 years trawling around the British Isles and Europe learning all these hard-earned peripheral secrets and I figure I’m just going to distil them and throw them into some fiction.’
Cope had such a blast writing the novel that he is already planning a prequel-sequel. In addition, his Lives of the Prophets is still in the works and he is already eyeing up a possible Neolithic study of Aberdeenshire. ‘I couldn’t have written this novel without knowing huge amounts about Aberdeenshire and Sardinia,’ he says. ‘Nobody else has become so enthralled by their environment as I have with those two places. Both of them are the product of obsessive mindsets.’ Spoken like a man who’s been there and done that. To quote his own Twain-like mantra: ‘unless you go, you can’t know’.
Julian Cope, Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, 15 Aug, 9.30pm, £10 (£8).
More musicians at 2014 Edinburgh Book Festival
The ex-Teardrop Exploder isn’t the only sonic star popping our way. Here’s a further five with stories to tell
One half of Falkirk’s former indie cult band Arab Strap is here with his forthcoming first book. Not, as some might expect, an indulgence-fuelled rammy of excess and heartbreak, but a 54-page rhyming story about Mabel, whose dream is to get her hands on The Lavender Blue Dress ahead of her Christmas party.
10 Aug, 3.30pm, £4.50.
Having formed a group with Sid Vicious in 1976, Albertine then joined the Slits and was guitarist for one of the punk era’s most influential bands. Her memoir will chime with anyone who lived through that helter-skelter period and can still remember the safety-pinned anarchy that reigned across the UK.
10 Aug, 8.30pm, £10 (£8).
Having first performed piano in public at the tender age of three, harpist Shapley now plays regularly at some of the swankiest hotels in Edinburgh. She’s also a skilful storyteller and here will be spreading wisdom, wonder, mystery and magic as well as showing off her talents on the clarsach.
13 Aug, 2pm, £4.50.
Another indie hero pops up, this time it’s the Welsh chap behind Super Furry Animals. In American Interior, Rhys retraces a late 18th-century journey to the US made by Snowdonia farmhand John Evans, wondering along the way just what is it that possesses humans to take on certain madcap projects.
22 Aug, 8.30pm, £10 (£8).
This virtuoso pianist had nothing like a normal childhood, and in his memoir Instrumental, he details some pretty horrible stuff which ultimately fed into his adult life. But in among the misery, he is able to reflect upon the therapeutic power of music.
24 Aug, 3pm, £10 (£8).
All events at Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888.