Darren Spooner: Who the hell does he think he is?

He looks like Jarvis Cocker, he sounds like Jarvis Cocker, but he certainly doesn't act like him. Is this Pulp fiction, or just a coincidence? Darren Spooner, the eccentric frontman of Relaxed Muscle, talks to Glyn Brown
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The Independent Culture

It always seems a terrible shame that, when a new band comes along, it can suffer an initial lack of publicity and disappear when it actually has a great deal to offer. This is unlikely to happen to Relaxed Muscle. Hailing from Yorkshire, the Muscle's debut release, A Heavy Night With... is, frankly, controversial. How to describe it? Against riotous, depraved electronics - a kind of skronky industrial glam - the listener can make out lyrics of a shockingly macho, fetishistic sort, sometimes accompanied by farmyard sound effects. If sleazy isn't the word, hardcore, in a way, might be. (The Muscle have been compared to Cabaret Voltaire playing Batley Variety Club.)

It's all in the worst possible taste: exultant, malign, and, now and then, quite funny (unintentionally, obviously, and I'm sure that will get ironed out). Hailed as "the sound of young Doncaster", this mind-numbing explosion is produced by just two people, Darren Spooner and guitar/electro wizard J P Buckle. But the coup de grâce, you see, is - and here's their real stroke of luck - Mr Spooner looks just like Pulp's Jarvis Cocker in disguise. It can't be him, of course. As anyone who's interested knows, Cocker is living in Paris with his fashion-stylist wife Camille Bidault-Waddington and their new baby Albert (or "Alberrr").

On the other hand, Pulp are in the midst of a hiatus; having split with their record company, Island, the band are officially on hold. Cocker's an inveterate showman, and far too bright to sit around twiddling thumbs. Still, he can't need to work - Pulp has sold more than 10 million records. And you're not telling me that mild-mannered Jarvis Cocker gets tricked out in make-up and a body-stocking and reappears as the amazingly offensive throwback Darren Spooner. Are you?

Ring, ring. Click. "Hello?" Sounds like Jarvis Cocker. Er, I was just wondering if Mr Spooner was there? I was given this number to call him. "Ah. Yeah. No..." (Bit distracted. Baby noise in background.)

I'm a bit early.

"Yeah."

I'll call back. What time would suit you? It's Glyn, by the way, from The Independent.

"Right. Erm. What time were you supposed to ring?"

Well, now. But whenever suits.

"It'd be better this afternoon, because I've got ter see me wife to the Eurostar ter go home. Is half one OK?"

Just fine.

At the appointed time, we reconvene. That is, I call, the phone is answered - and a scary voice is on the line. It's some sort of minotaur, perhaps. A slurred, growly bass with something electronic to it, like a normal person talking through a vocoder. In most cases, a telephone interview is less-than-satisfactory - I can't see the facial expression that goes with the words - but when the interviewee is a mystery, possibly an illusion, it is an advantage. I can suspend disbelief.

Voice goes: "Hurlow?"

Mr Spooner?

"Yes." Ow. Terrifying rumble, rather like Darth Vader, or Santa on Librium. "Who's this?"

Introducing myself, I squeak that I like the record.

"Ah'm glad." It's hard to hear you. Have you got a sore throat?

"No, it's all the years of smoking, it's given me quite a deep voice."

But looking at your pictures, you don't seem older than your thirties. 'That's very kind of yer ter say, love, but I'm actually 44." (Cocker, by the way, is 40.) "Obviously, make-up does help a bit. But I've been trying ter keep meself in shape recently." At the gym? Laconically: "No, it's martial arts that turned my life around. Tae kwondo mainly, but occasionally a bit o' karate. Hones body and mind."

Ah. You employ these skills in your act, I know - karate chops on bits of wood. I thought that was the outlet of an angry man, but evidently not. "It's three things." Brusque. Slight irritation? "First, we're trying to provide entertainment. Next, it helps me focus on the job. Finally, because we're starting out we can't afford security, so it serves as a warning to smartarses in the audience who think they can cause a bit of trouble. Smashing some wood just, like, subtly says, Don't try any monkey business because you're gonna come off worst."

I see. One other thing on presentation. It's said that your make-up covers a facial disfigurement. Is that, I wonder, something you were born with? "It was..." (Grief, his voice is even deeper. It's barely human) "from a few years ago, when I was caught tryin' ter do some moonlighting work. I was cleanin' out a silo and using this very strong industrial cleaner without the appropriate safety goggles and clothing, and I suffered burns to me hands and me face." That's appalling. Spooner responds airily, "Oh, it's not that bad. But it's something that..." A moment's thought. "It could put you off yer dinner, I suppose. And also, for me the make-up is like Red Indian warpaint. Gets you in the mood." Again, I am thankful this interview is not face to face.

So, back to the make-up. It's quite extreme. You've achieved a blend of Alice Cooper, Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein and Widow Twankey. Is there any make-up brand you prefer?

"Avon's good, but as long as you put on cold cream first, you can use what you like."

Darren Spooner's is a chequered history. Born and brought up in Doncaster ("And I don't think I'll leave, not at my age. It's not the greatest place in the world, but the racecourse is nice"), he didn't apply himself in school, ended up in a gang ("We've all done things we regret...") and went into showbiz with his band, Heavy Cochran, playing cover versions around the working-men's clubs of the North. It was a decent living until Spooner's drinking undid him. The band split in the late Eighties. There followed "a long, slow spiral. Me marriage collapsed. I did try ter keep workin' but me behaviour got a bit erratic. I started pissing people off in the clubs, upsetting pensioners, y'know, who were only there for the bingo." Bookings dried, and Spooner resorted to dabbling in petty crime. "Eventually, I was caught trying ter carry out a burglary." His tone is resigned. "I was drunk." Nevertheless, good came of this episode. He was given community service, "and it saved me life, because it was on community service, cleaning up one of the parks in Doncaster, that I met Jason, who does all the music in Relaxed Muscle."

It has been said that this is the same Jason Buckle who plays with the American hard-rock merchants the Fat Truckers, but Spooner instantly confirms his guitarist's Doncastrian heritage. He also admits that, following the community service, he has retained quite an interest in flowers.

Let's pause for a minute. What do we think so far? As we know, any band leader who goes solo is seen as wanting to be taken seriously (consider The Verve's Richard Ashcroft); this makes them ripe for puncturing. Cocker, however (if indeed it's him, and we can't be sure) is already having a laugh, so no one else is likely to. It worked for Damon Albarn: Gorillaz was a more than successful wheeze and probably quite invigorating. In the current situation, we're possibly also getting a method-acting tour de force. Though it must be said that Spooner, when thoughtful, sounds not unlike a beleaguered Jack Duckworth. You couldn't pick a less likely pop persona. Is that the idea?

The album, then. The last track takes the form of a phone message, live and uncut, to Spooner's ex-wife Mary, and it's genuinely moving. "That's the kind of call you mek at four in the morning, pissed, asking somebody ter forgive you and tek yer back." He swallows. "But ringin' up pissed is probably the reason they left yer in the first place."

We've all done it. Let's move on to "Let It Ride". Sex as a sort of horse race? Spooner brightens. "Well, as I say, Doncaster racecourse is not far from my house." More animals rear up on "Beastmaster", the third track, which opens with a crazed roar. Again, it deals with Spooner's remarkable sexual ability, and includes the modest line, "I'm gonna make you howl like a wolf, squeal like a pig, go through the roof." And yet, as we know, there's a sensitive side to the fellow. Isn't there?

"Everybody's got a softer side. As you get older, you can find yerself cryin' like a baby at some things. For instance, two of my heroes passed away quite recently. Barry White and Charles Bronson. I shed a tear, but I'm over it now."

It's probably best to move straight past "Rod Of Iron", though the readers of magazines such as Loaded would find nothing sordid in it. And what else? There's "B-Real", where Spooner berates modern youth entertainment for its fakery, ending with the deathly coda of "Late bar, DJ, stone-baked pizza". There's "Battered", about going out, getting drunk, having a fight and wasting your life that way. There's "Tuff It Out", about how hard the world can be, and how one should cope. On which subject, Spooner explodes, "People have got to take more responsibility. They think they're entitled to a fridge-freezer, entitled to a dishwasher. They need to start doing more. That's why they're fat!". And there's the final number, about the ex-wife, about having kids on drugs. Is there any answer to that particular problem?

"Youth clubs. Get some clubs open and give free martial-arts instruction. That would sort a lot of society's problems out..." And so on.

What a conundrum. It's a two-pipe problem, Watson. Is this Jarvis Cocker? A man known for his liberal sensibilities, mouthing platitudes best suited to a screwed-up reactionary? And yet. Pulp were always seen as arty and ironic, when in fact their music was emotionally wrought and deeply heartfelt. It was the disaffected that they discussed, and psychological disquiet. What's Relaxed Muscle but the outpourings of someone not wholly articulate, and just a bit damaged?

Or, who knows, there could be a few of Mr Cocker's own views in here. This is the chap, remember, who once so impressed a particular make-up artist that she told the News of the World: "In bed, he satisfied my every need." Or, possibly, it's just Jarvis Cocker enjoying being shocking. Didn't he come up with some wild character called Darren Spooner for a video shoot years back? Took him a bottle of brandy to get into character, and part of him clearly never came out.

"As I say, love, we're not expecting the record to go to the top of the charts. Though it's better than most of the crap that's there at the moment."

You never know, Mr Spooner. You just never know.

'A Heavy Night With...' is released on 27 October, and Relaxed Muscle play the Queens of Noize 'Night of the Living Dead' Hallowe'en party, at Barfly London, in Camden, on 31 October

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