Heard About The Bird: Stephen Jones interviewed
Is Stephen Jones a victim of his own brilliance? Having emerged in the early 1990s with a series of excellent lo-fi releases under his Babybird moniker, Jones was able to court indie success thanks to a talent for dark, emotive and frequently satirical song-writing, yet caught a major deal with Echo Records in 1996. Re-recording a number of tracks for their studio debut Ugly Beautiful alongside new original material, what happened next was rather unexpected - well, no doubt you remember 'You're Gorgeous'?
A number three hit in the UK singles charts is no mean feat but it's arguable that without it, Stephen Jones would today be held in very different regard by our fickle music press. It was a catchy, radio friendly hit, but listen close enough and you'll find a song as perceptively bleak as any of his other work. Alas, fans of the single were put off by the eclecticism of his albums, while the kind of people who would adore such records were put off by the single's obvious hook.
Fast forward two decades and Jones still appears to be in his creative prime with approximately 60 various releases hitting his Bandcamp page over the course of the last four years. Following the simultaneous release of three new Stephen Jones albums, a final Babybird album and a number of archived lo-fi works in the first half of 2015, we decided it was about time somebody checked in with the man himself.
Hello Stephen, how's 2015 treating you so far?
Not bad - enjoying family more than music business - as it should be.
The Bandcamp and Twitter release method. You're as prolific as ever but there's next to no coverage in the press. Is this a result of your distaste for the music industry or are there other forces at play here?
Sadly can’t afford the promo, but plans afoot to re-address that - new website and shop, etc.
In March you released three albums under your own name via Bandcamp. You say this trilogy of releases left you “a little ill with stress”. How do you feel now they are out there with the fans?
Very proud of it. The sheer volume I’m desperate to get out can be stressful. I just want it all out with people.
I understand you're now a father - how has your domestic life influenced your writing since the early days?
Hasn’t changed the lyrics or music. I always used to write about preserving innocence, etc., before i had kids, so that has always been there. ‘Like Them’ on Ex-Maniac is a full-on ‘leave my kids alone’ song. And now the media has exploded with paedophilia I want to write about all the fears we are spoon fed by these so-called news givers.
The first of the trilogy - 'Melancholy' immediately feels like being back in the world of Babybird. Tracks like 'Teenager' are as world weary and wry as anything you've written before, but how far back do these tracks date?
All these tracks are bang up-to-date. I recorded them then released them within two weeks (hence the stress probably - joyful stress of course). Around this time there were actual Babybird releases on Bandcamp too, with music going way back but just added to and tarted up.
You released 'Melancholy', 'Outsider' and 'No Message' as Stephen Jones but claim you're keeping a new name secret for future releases. How is your approach to song-writing different across your various monikers?
Deluder is dance. Trucker - grungy truck music. Arthritis Kid - orchestral/classical (my favourite) and Black Reindeer - epic, orchestral, soundtrack with beats/samples.
There was also the recent surprise release of Back to the Womb and Fatherhood 2 with music dating back to your 90s Lo-Fi days. Why hold back releasing these songs until now?
I literally discovered them in the garage in old bags, on cassette and Mini-Disc. Polished them up as best I could. Of course there are shit songs. They end up trashed.
Your artwork for these recent releases is quite striking. Are there any plans to release your photography in any other form?
I’d love to, and hopefully will. An exhibition and gig as one is a lifelong plan/dream.
Have you ever had a period where you've just stopped writing music altogether? It seems you still have a lot to say... especially on Twitter.
Twitter’s so shit. I get caught up in it. At the end of the day, its a necessary evil for informing fans of new releases. Most people on there I have no idea why they follow me. They aren’t interested in the music. If I put up a shit that has the face of Ed Sheeran they’ll retweet that, but the music rarely gets re-Tweeted.
But that’s irrelevant. It's for true fans and friends. I stop writing music all the time. It's a myth that I’m at it non-stop. I just write quick. I don’t pore over every little detail. Simple and fast flow is the key.
You're evidently not religious but you seem to have a lyrical obsession with faith and Jesus. “This is dedicated to Delphie, the stomach baby, who makes it a Jesus-free Xmas almost everyday” appearing in liner notes for example - not to mention songs like 'Jesus Is My Girlfriend' and 'Jesus Stag Night Club'. What is it about religion that makes it such a perfect fit for exploration in secular art?
It’s obviously very easy to have a go at Christians, as opposed to other religions. I did go to a school where we sung hymns, etc. so it was the closest experience of religion I’ve had. And the story of Jesus is obviously incredible, up there with Grimms fairy tales and Shakespeare. And all the iconic art. (Great 'Jesus on cross' museum in Barcelona btw). So I have a love hate thing, not with Jesus but with the hypocrisy of religion. Jesus this is beginning to sound like a sermon! Even if you’re an atheist you can't escape its hold. I remember trying to find a non religious school for my kids and being surrounded by catholic schools when I lived in London. Men wandering around in cassocks.
Can you shed some light on your relationship with Echo records and what happened 15 years ago? It seems like they neglected the band when it came to Bugged...
Well, it was more to do with my new plugger, Scott Piering, a great character, dying out of the blue.
Very sad, just before 'The F-Word' was released. The impetus, as you can imagine, was the catalyst for it falling apart. Loved that album. Got to see Italy, etc. Press need you to be pigeon-holed. And that was never me or the band, so ‘not making it easy’ goes against you, re: sales, exposure etc. Echo were good - very hard to know what really went wrong. 'The F-Word' got on The Ramsay Show though - 12 or so series. No one knows it was us though.
If a label approached you and offered to publish anniversary reissues of ugly beautiful or there's something going on on the basis of a supporting tour, would you go for it?
Yes! Sony did put these out recently but no idea what happened to them. I miss touring but sure it’ll happen again with new beginnings.
Ugly beautiful, in my mind, is a scatterbrained masterpiece. If you could go back and edit that track listing now, would you make any changes?
I have to be honest and say I’ve not listened to that for 20 years. It was a messy compilation of my tracks and band reworks. It was weird watching a producer tinker with your shit, sticking a big spoon in. Bugged and There's Something Going On are way superior, because we regained control.
How is your relationship with former Babybird band mates?
In touch with all except for Huw (piano). John (bass) and I tweet every now and then. Love’em!
A predictable and tiresome question but what are the chances you'll go back out on the road and perform in the near future?
No, not predictable, Sir! Desperate to go out again. Last tour which was three or four years ago, ending with the live DVD, I learnt to enjoy it. Not analyse it. Just have fun. It’ll happen again. Money guides these things. But plans are afoot.
Finally... what's next for Babybird / Stephen Jones / Black Reindeer/ 'unknown new name'?
Just released my favourite Bandcamp album yet - Arthritis Kid’s second album music. Then a new singing one on limited CD and download.
Being hand drawing and trying new packages - very cottage industry Lo-Fi.
You can find a treasure trove of Stephen Jones' music on Bandcamp