Pulp’s Russell Senior sets the records straight on life in a Sheffield pop phenomenon

Russell Senior
Russell Senior

“In a way I had to get it out of my system,” says Russell Senior, thoughtfully sipping a pint in the Showroom cinema bar and explaining why he’s decided to publish a memoir lifting the lid on his time with Pulp.

It’s nearly two decades since he left his role as the group’s lead guitarist and violinist at the height of the band’s success, and over four years after he unexpectedly returned for the Sheffield band’s reunion tour.

The book jacket of Freak Out The Squares

The book jacket of Freak Out The Squares

“I saw a documentary about 10 years ago on Britpop, and it looked really stale, and I thought, well, nothing’s got to the heart of it yet anyway, so I thought I’d have my take on it. If you’ve been to the moon you’ve got to describe it, you know?”

Russell’s book - Freak Out The Squares - is an honest, idiosyncratic, and above all extremely funny recollection of Pulp’s dogged struggle throughout the 1980s, their imperial phase in the 1990s and the triumphant lap of honour round Europe’s music festivals in 2011.

The first insider account of life in Pulp, it’s all there and more besides - from a ringside account of when his band’s singer, Jarvis Cocker, invaded the stage while Michael Jackson performed at the 1996 Brit Awards, to memories of headlining Glastonbury.

There’s tales of exploits with bands such as Blur, Saint Etienne and Menswear, and details of living with Jarvis (in a flat above a shop with woodchip on the wall... inspiring both Common People and Disco 2000) at the top of School Road in Crookes.

Russell, originally from Firth Park, joined Pulp in 1983 after the initial line-up disintegrated. He was unusually politically active among his peers, acting as a flying picket during the miners’ strike - “It was a source of abiding disappointment that nobody else ever came on these things,” he says - and worked hard to keep the band active before the hits finally came.

“For a number of years I was like the manager, promoter and booking agent for the band, and that kept it going even though nobody was that interested, apart from in Sheffield, about the band.”

He’s ‘entirely comfortable’ with the term Britpop. His book theorises the movement began when Pulp shared a bill with Blur and Lush in France in the early 1990s.

“I liked the fact there was a gang to be in. We were all nicking each other’s ideas.”

From other bands Pulp learned that ‘if you want to be a star, act like a star’, Russell thinks.

“The notion of glamour was something we had a strong sense of - the glitter ball, the lit-up dance floor - we just didn’t want to be in the indie category.

“I like people who take a risk. There’s something beautiful about tottering around on your high heels and then coming a cropper. Glamour is a fragile thing.”

But Russell made his mind up to leave Pulp in January 1997, 18 months after the release of their defining album, Different Class, which went to number one, won the Mercury Prize and went on to sell more than a million copies.

Fans were shocked but there were no big bust-ups – success, it seems, wore thin. Russell had stayed in Sheffield with his girlfriend and young daughter, whereas with the exception of drummer Nick Banks, the rest of the band’s classic line-up - Cocker, keyboard player Candida Doyle, bass player Steve Mackey and guitarist Mark Webber - were living in London.

“I always wanted success but when success came I found it quite alienating. There became a north/south divide in the band. So we were just different people.”

The Brits incident had also become ‘a bit of a millstone’. “People were interested in the controversy but it didn’t sell us any records.”

Pulp made two more albums, and while the music remained excellent, Russell’s distinctive edge - all sharp suits, tinny guitar lines, eerie violin sounds, severely-parted hair and confrontational stare - was missed.

“Obviously to the man in the street the band was a one-man show but that’s not really the case, that’s not how the music was made.

“It was a collective effort, it wasn’t an interchangeable set of musicians.”

So when the reunion came about, Russell was the first member Jarvis called.

“Because it was the reformation of a classic line-up. And the difference between the current line-up and then was me, really, I was kind of the missing link in that.”

It wound up being his favourite tour - “The music was brilliant” - but he declined to sign up for further dates in 2012, including the big homecoming at Sheffield Arena.

“I was asked repeatedly to do it and I didn’t want to,” he says of the arena gig.

“This is nothing against Sheffield, but I think maybe it’s not the most intimate venue for it. I was trying to organise ‘Pulp at Park Hill’, which didn’t come about. After it was too late people got really excited about it, but I spent a lot of time trying to put it together. I scoped it out and drove round there, because it is like a natural amphitheatre.”

Russell is keen to convey that he loves his home city ‘to distraction’. A lengthy section of the book is devoted to an incredibly dangerous journey he once took through underground river culverts in Sheffield city centre, an ‘odyssey’ which inspired the Pulp song Wickerman, written and recorded after his departure.

“It brought a tear to my eye listening to Wickerman, because it was personal.”

However, keen-eyed readers will spot a caveat in the memoir’s acknowledgements: ‘This story is best regarded as historical fiction based on real events.’

“Because it’s condensed and elided,” says Russell, who spent two years writing the book.

“Also, there’s probably quite a lot of false memory in there.”

One reported incident - where a huge ‘O’ from a hotel sign fell and landed over Jarvis during an earthquake in Los Angeles - didn’t happen, he admits.

“What did actually happen was in 1983 me and Jarvis were walking past the Gaumont Theatre and he said ‘I’d like to die by having the giant G fall on my head’. By telling lies it’s truer.”

Just one passage was taken out at Cocker’s request.

“I described him ‘wiggling’ at Michael Jackson and he said ‘I never actually mooned at him’ - so that’s fair enough, he didn’t actually do that!”

There are also plenty of musings on the ‘unreality’ of pop stardom. Bumping into a cardboard cut-out of himself on Scarborough beach, where it had been left behind from the Different Class cover shoot, was particularly ‘uncanny’.

“I think you’ve got to be a bit weird to not find these things unreal. I was a bloke from Sheffield. I never felt a sense of entitlement to fame.”

Russell, now 54 and a father-of-two living in Millhouses, dabbled in dealing antique glassware after leaving the music industry, and is now concentrating on writing full-time.

A planned musical about the miners’ strike is on hold, but he has three more books on the go: a guide to foraging, a ‘fictional geology-based romance set in the Peak District’ and a history of Anglo-Saxon King Edwin of Northumbria.

Rejoining Pulp is not on the cards for the forseeable future.

“The inherent combustibility to the nature of Pulp, and all pop and indeed all art, is part of what makes it beautiful. It’s not a plastic flower - it’s something that looks beautiful, attains its apogee, wilts and dies. I think you should know when to quit. Give it 10 years – the Zimmer frame tour.”

Freak Out The Squares is out now, published by Aurum Press, £18.99.