How Jarvis Cocker Channeled His Childhood Cowboy to Write Songs for ‘Asteroid City’

TheWrap magazine: The musician and longtime Anderson collaborator also appears in the 1950s-set film

The cast of "Asteroid City"

Former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker has been part of the Wes Anderson universe since 2009, when he wrote and sang a song and did a voice for Anderson’s animated “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” followed by contributions to “The French Dispatch.” But in “Asteroid City,” the Anderson-Cocker collaboration reaches a new level, with Cocker co-writing two songs, including “Dear Alien (Who Art in Heaven),” and appearing in the film as a 1950s country and western musician. 

“When I was a kid, I used to wear a cowboy outfit and follow my mum around when she was shopping saying ‘Stick ’em up!’ and stuff like that,” he said. “So to actually play a cowboy in a film, I was happy about that.” Initially, Anderson had asked Cocker to learn to play the fiddle for his part, but the musician declined and opted for learning the washboard instead. 

Cocker co-wrote and performs the song “You Can’t Wake Up If You Don’t Fall Asleep” in the film, but his showiest contribution is “Dear Alien,” for which Anderson had written lyrics but needed music. The alternately foreboding and cheery ditty is supposed to be the work of a young boy whose class has been tasked with creating projects dealing with the recent arrival of an alien in their small Western town. For inspiration, the director played “Last Train to San Fernando,” Johnny Duncan and the Blue Grass Boys’ 1957 skiffle-inspired version of a Calypso song.

“Because of it being set in America at a certain time, I immediately thought of my friend Richard Hawley. He knows a lot more about that kind of music than I do,” Cocker said.

Hawley wrote a moody, mournful opening section for the song, while Cocker took over for a more frenetic, danceable second half that found the entire cast kicking up their heels. They recorded a studio version, but Anderson prefers to record his audio live, so the finished version was recorded on the set.

“We probably did about 15 versions of it, because every time we did it, somebody would have another idea for the dance,” Cocker said. At less than a minute and a half long, the final version is shorter than the original composition. Cocker doesn’t mind the cuts, but he is sorry he didn’t get to try out an arrangement idea.

“I was going to use a bullroarer, which is a piece of wood on a string,” he said. “You swing it around your head and it makes this eerie sound. I thought that would’ve been quite nice at the start, because the whole brief of the song was that it had to sound pretty mysterious and then go into this yee-haw bit. I even made a bullroarer myself, but I didn’t get to use it. That was my main regret, I suppose.” 

A version of this story originally appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the Race Begins issue here.

Sandra Huller Race Begins 2023
Sandra Huller shot for TheWrap by Jeff Vespa

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