Fresh from dates in Bristol and Minehead, Babybird return to the road this coming week, London and Leeds dates followed by Liverpool and Manchester visits sandwiching a trip to Birmingham on a mini-tour publicising new LP Photosynthesis, a cohesive collection of 10 tracks self-recorded by Stephen Jones, the voice and songwriting genius behind this cult ‘90s breakthrough act, the latest album coming hot on the heels of similarly-acclaimed, latter-years compilation Happy Stupid Nothing.
Reason enough from my point of view to catch up with Babybird’s main inspiration, with both recent records timely reminders to the wider public that this inventive act has always been about more than 1996 top-three hit, ‘You’re Gorgeous’.
While aware that there are many who don’t even realise he’s still making music, this decade Stephen has been quietly building himself a reputation as one of the music world’s most prolific artists. What’s more, we have Babybird’s first vinyl album release in 21 years, a limited-edition gatefold LP on music blogger Ben Scott‘s RW/FF Recordings label.
Happy Stupid Nothing collected together some of the best Babybird recordings from recent years, garnering praise from BBC Radio 6 Music, Virgin Radio and many other radio stations worldwide. Meanwhile, Uncut hailed it ‘surreal, heartfelt’ and ‘dramatically poignant’, while Classic Pop welcomed its ‘eccentric curios and anthems in the making’, with rave reviews too from various music websites.
But while there was plenty on that collection to please indie fans who gravitated towards Babybird in the ‘90s, Stephen doesn’t see himself as an indie-rock musician, as proved by his latest LP, described as a ‘fluid yet more focused record’ drawing on an ‘advanced range of sounds … taking the listener on an alluring journey’.
Stephen was at his place in Hale, Cheshire, when I tracked him down. Home to the stars, I suggested.
“It’s amazing how many people live up here. I think Morrissey hangs around there …”
“Yes, the lovely Morrissey! But Johnny Marr runs around as well … in very short jogging shorts!”
Friend of this website, Alan Wilkes, best known for his band, Vinny Peculiar, recorded the Parlour Flames’ 2013 self-titled album in Hale with Bonehead, of Oasis fame, who has a studio there. And he suggested to me recently that those who live there suffer from Paradise Syndrome, as they ‘can’t believe how lucky they are’. What say, Stephen?
“I know exactly what he means. It’s great! I lived in North London for 15 years. It was such a relief to escape. I was in Belsize Park, in a flat on the top floor, so when it came to bringing up kids, it was time to move.”
Time flies, with Stephen’s daughter now 18 and studying at university in Liverpool, while his son is 13. Talking geography, his press suggests he spent time in the 1980s making demo tapes in a Sheffield bedsit. But he’s from Nottingham and attended Trent University, when he became involved with experimental theatre company, Dogs in Honey, writing songs for their productions. So how did the South Yorkshire move come about? I’m confused.
“Yeah, it wasn’t quite a bedsit, but that’s where I met the band, with two of them still with me. I started recording on my own, then the band came along as I moved there from Nottingham. I lived there two years, I think.”
By 1994 he’d written more than 400 songs and had gained a publishing deal with Chrysalis Music. However, unable to win a recording contract, he decided to self-finance the release of a series of albums featuring his demos, limited to 1,000 copies of each under the name Baby Bird. And that ultimately caught the ears of the music press, debut LP I Was Born a Man released in the Summer of ‘95 and positively received by the likes of the NME.
The following summer – by then with a band in tow – he signed to Echo Records, and then came crossover success, the rebranded (one-word) Babybird managing eight UK top-40 hit singles from 1995 to 2000. And while they’d argue that their music was too maverick and eclectic to be pinned down and put into a convenient box labelled BritPop, they sold more than two million records and were nominated for two Brit Awards, sticking with Echo for four years, until poor sales for third album Bugged led to them being dropped, a split following.
Stephen continued on his own, writing fiction, releasing solo work and creating a score for the film Blessed. Then, in October 2005 the band reformed, the main-man now solely joined by fellow originals Luke Scott (guitar) and Robert Gregory (drums), departed bass player John Pedder on his way to a successful career as an artist (with a link to his website here), his former bandmate playing down talk of any rift.
“It’s really difficult. When I moved to Sheffield, John put the band together really, finding the people. When we kind of parted ways it was strange. But I do talk to him, so I think it’s become okay.”
Time heals and all that?
“Yes, I think so.”
A new LP was released a year later, that version of the band continuing until 2013, a period including funding from long-term Babybird fan and Hollywood legend Johnny Depp for 2010 LP, Ex-Maniac, also playing guitar on a number of its songs and directing a powerful video for single ‘Unloveable’.
While recognised as a master of accessible melodies and captivating hooks, Stephen never lost his appetite for recording imaginative and challenging music. Since launching his Bandcamp page in 2012, he’s reconnected with his DIY roots, exploring new styles and approaches through various projects, producing many intriguing self-recorded, self-released records, independence allowing him to dig deeper creatively without having to worry about commercial expectations, his output ever-prolific.
After a number of further Babybird releases on Bandcamp from 2015, Stephen took the band back out on tour in late 2017 with another new line-up, and two years on – having hit the road with Dodgy earlier this year on the 25th anniversary tour for their Homegrown album – they continue apace, a flavour of their latest coming covered by that latest compilation album and the new LP.
This short tour ends at Manchester’s Deaf Institute on Friday, November 29th. You’ve played there before, so I’m guessing you enjoy the vibe.
“I think this will be the fourth time. Behind the bar there’s a huge array of old speakers, it’s golden and red in there, and it’s perfect.”
You’ve got to know Manchester well in recent years, I guess.
“Yes, my partner was born in North Manchester, and I lived here way back as well. I’ve been in and out of here since I was 20.”
It’s a relatively short tour this time around. Are there more dates to come early next year?
“I don’t know, there’s a possibility of going to France. That’s what I really miss, doing Europe. We played on a boat on the Seine, which was fantastic, so I’d like some more of that.
“Actually I had a heart attack, over two years ago. I was in hospital and it was fixed, and seen as a mild one, but in terms of touring I didn’t want to go crazy. I’m fighting fit now, and the doctor said I’m probably fitter now than before.“
Was that something of a wake-up call for you?
“Yeah, I work at home, in my studio, so I’m constantly sitting down all day, not doing any exercise, so it kicked me up the arse and I go to the gym and try and stay healthy now.”
Well, you’re talking to a guy who struggles not to sit on his own arse writing on a computer most of the day. Thankfully dog-walking has me out and about.
“Yeah, I think something like a smart watch can help too. Something that will buzz every 20 minutes, remind you to stand up. You get used to that, maybe it ignore it, but at first it made me move around as much as I can. And I’m always aware I’ve got to do my 30 minutes a day.”
I have a natural version of that, a nine-year-old Collie cross demanding regular walks and interaction.
“Ah, there you go! A dog is perfect.”
I’ve been playing the new album a fair bit of late, and I’m loving it. Are you pleased with the reaction to Photosynthesis?
“Yes, it’s amazing. It’s had nothing to do with me in terms of the whole set-up. A guy called Ben Scott, a huge fan who also had online reviews and a little record company, wanted to do it. I’ve started to get more into vinyl now, and although it was an expensive option, he was prepared to do it. So he’s done that, he’s got all the press … and you could make a small book of it – there’s loads. It’s been a real eye-opener, and he’s massively dedicated.”
And this is your first vinyl album in more than two decades.
“It is. And a proper gatefold. We’ve had the odd single here and there, and ‘Unloveable’ came out on seven 7” …”
That had the Johnny Depp link, of course. Is he still in touch?
“Yes, I’m in touch more with his PA, Stephen, who’s in touch with him and lives here. I hear from him every now and again though, but he’s a busy boy.”
Are you personally a vinyl, CD or digital buyer?
“I’m terrible really. I’m both, I love my Alexa, because I can be downstairs, washing up, and just ask it to play this album or this song. Incredibly lazy really, although I’m sure artists hardly get paid at all. I don’t really buy CDs but do buy vinyl, and like to go to charity shops and find classic albums.”
Do you see this album as a natural progression to what’s come before, or a departure? You’ve been heading this way, creatively speaking, a while really.
“Yes, I don’t know if you know my BandCamp stuff, but I’ve released a lot from there, and Scott’s taken some of his favourite songs from there and put them together … and there were quite a few on there I couldn’t remember. I’ve released too much, probably! It was like a journey for 20-odd minutes, then turning it over for another. It felt really new for me, and like listening to someone else.
“And it came at the right time. Things always do … like the Depp thing, not least as everyone always wants to talk about ‘You’re Gorgeous’. Even now that doesn’t go away, which is fair enough. But my career’s really small. It’s like a little cottage industry.”
The very phrase I was about to use – cottage industry. In this case that led to 10 new tracks, self-recorded, for Photosynthesis.
“That’s exactly it. But Ben compiled the whole thing this time, so that was a nice surprise.”
Of the Happy Stupid Nothing compilation, was that your way of reminding the world you’re still out there and not just the bloke who recorded that hit song?
“I don’t know. I’m kind of beyond that now. Obviously, I’d be lying if I said I don’t want to sell more, but I had massive luck 20 years ago. Getting record deals now and getting ahead in the music industry – unless you’re someone huge – doesn’t really work. I had my time, but I don’t think you could do that again – with small indie bands becoming bigger.”
Was there ever a point early on where you felt you might have to do something else for a living, and that big moment would never happen?
“Oh, I think that all the time. I was very grounded. I started in my late 20s. I was in a theatre company before that, but that paid nothing. I was doing that for 10 years, on £40 a week. But when it came to this, I knew a bit more about the business. My original manager used to book bands at The Leadmill in Sheffield.
“I knew what a cut-throat business it is. I was aware it wasn’t necessary going to be something which would be a career. I always knew it could end. But then there was ‘You’re Gorgeous’, and it went insane. We signed a big deal and all these things.
“You lose your head a bit then, but realise again after a few years that it’s not permanent. To this day, I don’t know where my next lot of money is coming from. And it’s always been like that.”
I suppose that way you at least retain a hunger for it all.
“Yeah, and you can work in any job and suddenly be made redundant. Music isn’t really a proper job, is it!”
A bit like writing about it.
“Well yeah, anything creative is seen as not being proper, as my Dad would say.”
What did your folks do for work?
“They were both teachers, and I think if you’re good teachers you’re guaranteed a job for life. Physics teachers. All my family were scientists. I really was the black sheep – crap at things like that!”
Maybe that gave you a different perspective in coming at all this.
“Definitely. You feel weird though. I’ve always felt like the weirdo, the one doing all this. That’s one good thing about success though. People are impressed by that. Not financial success, but the realisation that, ’Ooh, he might actually be quite good at that’!”
In a sense, you’ve had the best of both worlds. You came from those DIY roots, initial independent days followed by commercial success, when major record labels were still taking chances and splashing their cash on emerging artists.
“Oh, absolutely. And I’ve always regarded it like that. Even when the big deal was there and we were all over the place, on TV and what-have-you, I’d still be going home and recording on a little four-track cassette player. Nothing changed until I could afford to buy a laptop and started being a bit more out there, and more creative.”
In that sense you remind me of someone like WriteWyattUK regular Neil Arthur of Blancmange fame, and the way he approaches it all. He too has seen major success but now his work is largely under the radar in realtive terms. Yet his albums are just as good today, and arguably even more creative.
“Oh God, yeah, I loved Blancmange, especially the first album!”
Well, all these years on, now just involving Neil of the original band, he’s still bringing out great albums, usually without too much fuss. And I get the idea – as with your good self – there’s no compromise these days in terms of commercial expectations. It’s about doing it for the love of it, and creativity.
“Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s funny with Blancmange though. I went down to London around the time of their first single, went to see them in a weird venue, like an office block. Yes, I was a big fan.
“I think everyone would like to be bigger. I’m sure Neil would say the same. You want more people to hear you. They were huge, and it’s very hard to get back unless you’re staggering monsters like the Rolling Stones. But you know why they’re there, and I wouldn’t want that kind of life.”
True, and similarly I couldn’t see you involved in some kind of Lost 90s showcase for various bands.
“Oddly, we have been pushed in to all that. We did Cool Britannia … which was horrible, but we were paid a lot of money. That rarely happens, and I wanted the band to be paid. We do a lot of touring but don’t get very much money. That was weird though, playing with Dodgy and Echobelly and that. But I never saw myself as part of anything like that.”
There are positives to the multi-band event set-up though. If people see a five-song set from you at a summer festival they’ll go back and check out your music, providing opportunities to surprise them with regards to the rest of the catalogue.
“I totally agree, and that’s what people say to me if I’m moaning about it! You can still open people’s eyes, and there’s lots of music to grab on to. Very few people will know there’s 100-plus releases.”
Indeed. If one thing comes over just from looking at your Babybird statistics alone, it’s just how prolific you’ve been.
“Yeah, it’s one thing I can do, I enjoy it and do it pretty quickly. I’m not some torturous idiot in a cellar 24 hours a day. I’m a dad and doing everything else – doing the gardening, looking after my cat … like you with your dog.”
At the top of the new album alone, I hear unmistakably you, but also maybe acts probably selling more, like Damon Albarn and previous WriteWyattUK interviewees Alt J. And that kind of dirty blues on ‘October’ brings not only the latter to mind, but also Gomez.
“Oh, that’s cool!”
Were you listening to anything in particular, writing this album?
“I’ve never listened to stuff with that in mind. With lots of people, you get a guitar and start playing along with your favourite bands, but I’ve never been that kind of musician. I listen to stuff, and it must go in and come out subconsciously, but I don’t really do that. I listen to a lot of stuff but it’s not like anything that comes out.
“I like things like XXXTentacion. That’s really interesting. It’s hip-hop yet some of it sounds like Thom Yorke. It’s fascinating to listen to. And I’ve always loved old school hip-hop. I like Public Enemy and Ice Cube, and still listen to Eric B. & Rakim in the gym – that’s one of my things I can get through 30 minutes of!”
At the other end of that specific spectrum, there are trip-hop elements on this album. I hear bands like Portishead. It’s all in there.
“Massive Attack and Tricky I love a lot. These are songs I’m still listening to, so yeah. I like all that.”
So who was the first band you saw live and thought, ‘This is what I want to do with my life’?
“Joy Division, always. Peter Hook’s basslines are just so melodic. I can still go back and listen to all that. I saw them when they were in this little cinema in Derby, with Ian Curtis doing his little windmill dance with both arms. I think that was around 1979/80.”
When they were supporting Buzzcocks?
“No, but I did see the Buzzcocks too. I was at school, in the sixth form, cycling in with my friend Ralph. We’d see The Cockney Rejects, The UK Subs, all these bands … and also Joy Division.
“Peter Cook … we were talking about people round here, he’s another who drives around, and seems to have spent all his money on personalised number plates and huge cars.”
Erm … I guess you actually mean past WriteWyattUK interview victim Peter Hook, rather than Peter Cook.
“Oh, what am I talking about! A Freudian slip. People who have liked Babybird through the years have always been comedians!”
Well, Peter Cook did compere that iconic punk show, Revolver, of course And finally, what’s the live set-up on these dates?
“It’s just a four-piece. Rob and Luke were in the original band, and we first rehearsed in 1995. And Danny Lowe is the bass player now. It’s brilliant. It just sounds really cut down. You get the sparseness but also the power. It’s odd that you get more power from less people sometimes.”
Well, you’re talking to a big fan of the three-piece set-up.
“Oh God, yeah. I mean, The Jam – what a sound!”
Remaining November UK dates: Thursday 21st – The 100 Club, London; Friday 22nd – Brudenell, Leeds; Saturday 23rd – Jimmy’s, Liverpool; Thursday 28th – Hare & Hounds, Birmingham; Friday 29th – Deaf Institute, Manchester. For ticket details head to this SeeTickets page.
You can order new Babybird LP Photosynthesis at www.babybird.info or from selected independent record stores. Buy the LP from the online store and receive the single ‘No Cameras’ and digital-only bonus track ‘Photosynthesis’ as instant downloads. In addition, a number of further Babybird releases are planned, and you can download a free sampler containing several new songs via this link. You can also follow Stephen Jones via Facebook, or on Twitter at @Babybird_Music or @xbabybird.