Interview: Stephen Jones on Babybird homecoming
Mark Perkins has set himself a challenge. We asked him to talk to Stephen Jones of Sheffield-born Britpop legends Babybird ahead of their Plug gig. But could he do an entire interview without referring to their massive hit single ‘You’re Gorgeous’? Let’s see how he got on…
I’m astonished at how much music you’ve produced since you started out in the mid-nineties, and especially recently. You must be writing all the time.
Well, no, I’m not really. I just write very, very quickly. I’ve not got a record label at present so it all gets released on Bandcamp. There’s so much of my stuff on there – too much really. I’m my own worst enemy. I’ve got a family, I do other things but if I go in my studio for a week and write, it just comes out really quickly. It’s my job – I’m not blowing my own trumpet, I just can’t do anything else. Bandcamp is really useful, and although they take their cut like anyone else, you’re still in control of everything. It’s a bit like the old punk ethic – DIY, flexi-discs, releasing your own stuff. The important thing is that you have control. For small musicians it can really work. I’ve been lucky. I’ve got a nice band of followers, and hopefully, if the music remains good, I can keep them and they’ll continue to buy my music.
How are you health-wise? I understand you’ve not been well.
Yeah I had a bit of a heart scare last June, but I’m OK. I’m on medication so I think without that I might be in trouble. I keep fit and go to the gym, which I used to hate, but I haven’t damaged my heart so things are fine really. I see people in there, looking fit and young and thin and I think to myself, ‘what are you doing here?’.
‘You’re Gorgeous’ wasn’t even considered good enough for our first 5 Lo-Fi albums and it was genuinely a shock when the record company put it out and it was such a big hit. People think you write songs and aim them at a particular market to try to have a hit, but it wasn’t like that.
And obviously the big news is that you have returned to live performing. Was there a particular moment which inspired the decision?
Yeah, after my heart problem I thought I’d have to stop playing live. I do prance and leap about on stage and the gigs are quite physical, but we did two gigs in a church in London around Christmas, as a sort of tester, and they went really well – especially the second one. We came off the stage after the second gig and we had a feeling that it had been a brilliant gig and wanted to do more. The line-up is mainly the original members of Babybird, but with a new bass player. They all live in and around Sheffield so I travel over from where I live in Cheshire to rehearse.
My friends were excited to hear you were coming to play here and already had tickets but some of them said the inevitable ‘I didn’t know he was still around’. You must get that a good deal.
Well of course that’s inevitable. It’s over 20 years since ‘You’re Gorgeous’, and I get it a lot. I feel incredibly lucky to still be doing it. When I had a record company behind me, they made the plans, and I went along with them. I didn’t enjoy that period, although I’m really grateful for it, but since about 2000 it’s been more in my control so it has been much more enjoyable. We had phenomenal success from nowhere. ‘You’re Gorgeous’ wasn’t even considered good enough for our first 5 Lo-Fi albums and it was genuinely a shock when the record company put it out and it was such a big hit. People think you write songs and aim them at a particular market to try to have a hit, but it wasn’t like that. Someone else heard it, liked the chorus and made it a single.
I promised myself I was going to try and avoid talking about that track, but I suppose you brought it up! I remember thinking how the lyrics to ‘You’re Gorgeous’ were a bit strange. I’d heard it and not really listened. I’d thought, ‘yeah, nice song, catchy chorus’, but when I listened closely to the lyrics I thought, ;hang on, this is actually a bit odd’. I was surprised to hear it’s a really popular wedding song.
Well, it’s up to them if they like it, but it is a bit strange. I’ve even had people asking me if I’ll come to their wedding and sing along to a backing tape, which is really odd. I’ve always been fascinated by the darker side to life. I was a big fan of David Lynch when I was at college and that track is a bit like one of his films: when you look beneath the surface there’s something odd there. If you’ve seen the video for ‘Unlovable’ which I did with Johnny Depp, that’s incredibly dark, but I like to think the the music is more joyous, and the pleasure comes if you combine the two. I don’t write shocking stuff, but it does have a message and a bit of depth.
What do you listen to at home these days?
I listen to a lot of Arvo Part from Estonia and Olafur Arnalds. They play modern classical, but I also old school hip-hop like Public Enemy and Eric B and Rakim. I did an instrumental album, not as Babybird but as Black Reindeer, which uses those sorts of beats, but also I’m a big fan of a lot of guitar music. I love the Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett collaboration album and the first track ‘Over Everything’ is one I cant stop listening to.
How do you choose from all your songs to compile a set-list to play live?
We only had two days to rehearse last time, so we had to stick to what we knew. I didn’t want to do new stuff, we hadn’t performed together for seven years and I knew people would be happy with the old songs. But we’ve got longer to prepare this time. It’s going to be difficult to substitute more recent ones as we love all the ones we do. Perhaps we should be our own support act and do a separate set after the interval. I’ve always wanted to do that.
Get tickets for Babybird’s homecoming show on May 19 at Plug here