As he arrives at the old-fashioned Indian restaurant in central London where we've arranged to meet, the waiting staff manage to look unfazed by the arrival of the six-foot tall, longhaired Julian Cope. It's been a long time since he was a Smash Hits cover star – today, he's dressed in shades, leather trousers, a leather sleeveless jerkin exposing his trim, pale white arms (it's two degrees outside) and a Vietnam-era American army brigadier's cap. But the waiters have no doubt seen it all before and let Cope choose what he suggests is a suitably "conspiratorial corner" where we can talk undisturbed.
The fact that part of the military regalia he's wearing could easily be mistaken for Nazi insignia is part of Cope's mission to jolt people into a reaction – not only to him, but to the state of the world in general. "When I wage war with the ones who wage war, only then I'm at peace," he writes on the sleeve of his recent album Black Sheep – which also happens to contain some of the poppiest, catchiest psychedelic tunes he's written since his early days in The Teardrop Explodes and his subsequent, underrated solo albums Fried and World Shut Your Mouth. And he is indeed waging a war, albeit in a singularly poetic, often wonderfully melodic manner.
Over the course of our lunch, in conversation peppered with references to Jim Morrison, the Norse god Odin, William Blake and the medieval historian Bede, he talks about the key themes to both Black Sheep and his forthcoming Kiss My Sweet Apocalypse release (a gatefold-sleeve double album celebrating alternative heroes including Che Guevara, Yoko Ono and Carl Jung). Namely, his anger at our consumerist society; how capitalism and organised, patriarchal religion pose the biggest threats to democracy; the looming catastrophe of the peak-oil crisis (the anticipated point at which the rate of crude-oil production will not be able to keep pace with demand); women's rights; and the notion of the "black sheep" who dares to stand out as a lone voice of dissent. It's quite a lunch...
"There has to be more eco-terrorism," he tells me in the well-spoken diction of his distinctive baritone, an occasional lilt suggesting his Staffordshire roots. "People's lives have to be disrupted to get them to slow down. We haven't hit peak oil yet, but it's very close. We've gotta stop flying cos it's just so gratuitous. What we should be doing is getting used to the guarantees falling, like not having guaranteed pensions any more."
Cope is a far cry from your average rock star bemoaning the state of the world. Since his pop-star days in the 1980s, in parallel to recording and performing as a solo artist he has developed a secondary career as an internationally respected expert on neolithic stones and written two hugely successful books on the subject (The Modern Antiquarian and The Megalithic European); there have also been two highly acclaimed volumes of autobiography as well as explorations of niche musical genres: Krautrocksampler and Japrocksampler. He has also lectured at the British Museum and is planning a day-long event-cum-gig on protest and civil insurrection later this month at Manchester University (he lectures bare-chested and be-hatted, in his trademark leathers).
The 51-year-old, you may have guessed, has little faith in the conventional democratic process and its capacity to effect change, believing it merely lulls people into a complacency. While he concedes that Barack Obama's recent victory is a major achievement, he nevertheless sees Obama, too, as just part of the machinery of the capitalist system. "It's great he's got in, cos everybody can feel better for a while," says Cope. "But [Obama] won't do anything about the things I'm talking about because he had enough money to run for president and that makes him a cunt. Albeit a far higher quality of cunt."
To effect genuine change, Cope believes activism is the way forward and has not shied away from taking to the streets himself, both in the notorious 1990 poll-tax march in London (on stilts) and at the Newbury Bypass protests. "Civil insurrection does work," he says, "and violence and civil insurrection are the only way forward because greedheads and priests have to fall. Since the poll-tax riots I've looked for peace and haven't seen it. That's one of the reasons I wrote The Modern Antiquarian: to look for [an age] when we were peaceful and see if there was a good model. There isn't – the neolithic [age] was really violent, you know? So I had to become a militant peacenik."
"Militant peacenik" might seem a contradiction in terms, but Cope is no stranger to contradictions. He dresses like an acid-crazed biker hippie with a yen for provocative imagery, but he is also charming and erudite, with the manners of an English gentleman. Likewise, he is the ex-pop star who's spent much of the past 10 years making heavy stoner-rock records with his Brain Donor project, yet lives quietly in rural Wiltshire with his wife of 25 years and two teen daughters, getting up at 5.45am every day to write his books.
Cope's militancy began with the poll-tax march. "I had a revelation on that march," he explains, "that an idea can come out of nowhere and be a reality really quickly. That suddenly you could act. So from then until now, everything I've done – books, records – is to provide evidence to anybody out there that I'm sustaining an interesting trip."
Cope came up in an era when post-punk pop was frequently political – The Specials were storming the charts with "Ghost Town" and "Free Nelson Mandela" and an artist as overtly politicised as Billy Bragg could still turn up on Top of the Pops. But that was then. These days few acts attempt to address the bigger world picture and fewer still do so while fusing thought-provoking lyrics with an infectious pop tune. Happily, Cope is unflinchingly committed to speaking out, whether it's through music, books, performances or his Head Heritage website – a forum for news, reviews, conversations and ideas. "Robert Graves once did a magazine for four or five years," he explains, "and I thought that's really amazing, cos poets used to do that shit in the old days. So I thought, 'I want to do that: I want to be a practitioner and I want to show people that you might think Cope's a wanker, but he's such a sustaining wanker,' so that's what I was about: just providing evidence that what I don't know about, I'll shut up about, but what I do know about, I'll have a word."
By popular dissent: Cope's protest idols
Yoko Ono, artist
"She is such a great example of protest through art, of somebody who demands to be heard and who has had to fight xenophobia, racism and sexism. She's also somebody who has a very, very big world view."
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Dutch feminist, writer and politician
"She is an absolute heroine – an extreme personal inspiration to me in that she dares to speak out against the Islamic patriarchy in a way that very few ever would."
Vachel Lindsay, wandering poet
"He was the first American poet to recognise that whether he liked it or not, he came to American soil as an invader spirit and he dared to address things that were taboos."
Emmeline Pankhurst, women's rights campaigner
"She was so militant at a time when men wanted the ground to open and swallow her up, and she kept on at a time when it just wasn't the done thing in her class." EF
'Kiss My Sweet Apocalypse' is out on vinyl on 24 January and on CD on 20 February on Invada. www.headheritage.co.uk
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies