PLAYING Leeds Brudenell Social Club on Friday will bring back memories of Stephen Jones’s early Babybird travels.
“We deliberately requested these places [Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, London and Cardiff] as it feels like a rite of passage to return,” he says of this month’s short tour.
“These cities featured in our first tours in 1996 and 1997 and are the most memorable for the between-song banter and the enthusiasm. Though I live near Manchester, these other cities are our musical homes too.”
Joining 60-year-old Stephen on the road will be guitarist Luke Scott and drummer Robert Gregory, fixtures in the line-up since 1995, and bassist Danny Lowe, a band member for 15 years. “Everyone’s doing different things these days – Luke is a senior lecturer in London – but as soon as we get into the tour van it’s like a Chuckle tour,” he says.
Babybird officially split after ten Top 40 singles and 11 albums in 2013, but Stephen continues to write prolifically – up to seven songs a day – for solo release on Bandcamp. Around 100 albums so far and still rising, recorded on a laptop, Stephen still bursting with “monstrous lullabies for an unstable world”.
“Writing tunes is just something I can do,” he says. “Mowing the garden, I’ll put off forever, but going upstairs to the ‘fourth room’ to write the lyrics, that’s the hard part.”
He has been known to write in six-hour bursts, but he does not have a set routine. “Sometimes at four in the morning, I’ll have an idea that I’ll put on the phone, but I’ve never been the kind of writer who will be writing every day because that’s what they do. There’ll be days where I get up and don’t want to do it, but when I do it’s a pleasure,” he says.
“Looking back to those early albums [lo-fi Stephen Jones recordings made initially on cassettes in his Sheffield bedsit over six years], I had no intention of releasing them, but people were coming over and stealing them and saying I should release them!”
Now as then, “I always write for myself. I think everyone does. If you write for an audience, you become an automaton,” he says.
One tour preview summed up Stephen Jones’s post-2013 career as one where he will still “persist and meddle”. “I don’t think I would use the word ‘meddle’,” he says. “But I need to keep going financially, so you have to persist, and even if I had another job, I would persist with making music – but I’ve never had to give it up.”
Born in Wellington, Telford (“the same place as the comedian Stewart Lee,” he notes), Stephen was raised in Repton, Derbyshire, and Nottingham, where he studied film; made those notorious bedsit albums in the Steel City; moved to Manchester, and then to London for 15 years.
Home for the Jones family is now Hale in Altrincham, just outside Manchester. “We were living in a really nice place in London, a maisonette, but with no garden and with two kids, we decided to move back north. Nice garden…and my wife’s mother lives up here too. I love being on the verge of the Lake District,” he says.
If one album were still to sum up Babybird, it would be October 1996’s Ugly Beautiful, the one with “songs to annoy, enjoy and employ God with”; the one with the singles Goodnight, Candy Girl, Cornershop and global hit You’re Gorgeous.
“Obviously some songs I write are out-and-out happy and beautiful too, but that album title sums up everything. I like to write about subjects that aren’t necessarily dark but are realistic. When lots of songs have a sheen, if you’re going to write songs like a David Lynch film, there has to be beauty within,” says Stephen.
“I studied film on the creative arts course at Clifton, at Nottingham Polytechnic as it was then. Fassbinder movies; David Lynch; Eraserhead made a big impression on me. That’s my humour. Dark!”
You’re Gorgeous, a number three hit in autumn 1996, will forever be the signature song, with its theme of male exploitation and yet a misleadingly upbeat chorus. “It’s funny what happened,” says Stephen. “Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown, whose humour I don’t like, did a version. The Wurzels have done a version. Pinky And Perky, they did it, without changing the lyrics. The Smurfs wanted to change the words, so we could say ‘No’ to that!” Dame Berwick Kaler once sang it in a York Theatre Royal pantomime too, by the way.
Stephen wrote the song in his lo-fi recording days. “I always thought it might be a hit of course, but I was listening to Stewart Lee talking to Adam Buxton on his podcast about successful acts who wanted to be cults and those who are underground but who wanted to be successful,” he says.
“It’s a hard gap to straddle, but I’ve kind of done both and that’s why ‘Gorgeous’ is good, because although it can define you, I can keep going into the studio because all the airplay keeps the money coming in.”
Stephen has come through a heart attack too in 2017. “It did stop me in my tracks. It was like having an iron cage put over me, but it was coming,” he says, attributing what happened to alcohol. “Does it make you reassess? Well, you do for a while, but then you go back to a glass of wine.
“What I’m doing is the same as an office job. Now I get up every 20 minutes when I’m writing – and I go to the gym too. I was in a ward with four men who looked so much worse than me, but then depression comes, but you come out of that. The doctors say I’m in better health than ever, with a stent in me, and now I’m just having a good time doing these gigs.
“There’s no pressure to promote things, which doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s perfect now. I’m older now. I was inspired by the tail end of punk, seeing The Stranglers, and it’s still that DIY thing of glueing your sleeves together, thinking it’s totally up to you what you do.”
Stephen’s 20-year friendship with Johnny Depp found “lyrical diamond” Stephen attending the Hollywood A-lister’s guest appearance with guitarist Jeff Beck in Manchester last May in the aftermath of Depp’s successful libel trial against ex-partner Amber Heard. “I was meeting him in the dressing room, shortly after the verdict. I fell over and smashed my leg. I now have a huge tear,” he says.
Nothing that will stop him from performing in Leeds on Friday, however, still searching for the meaning of life that he happily acknowledges he may never find.
Babybird, supported by Terrorvision’s Tony Wright, Leeds Brudenell Social Club, May 5, doors 7.30pm. Box office: brudenellsocialclub.co.uk.
Did you know?
STEPHEN Jones has written two novels, The Bad Book in 2000 and Harry And Ida Swap Teeth (also the title of a Babybird B-side) in 2003. He wrote the score for the 2004 film Blessed.
Did you know too?
CHEF, cookery book writer, TV presenter and restaurateur Gordon Ramsay used Babybird’s song The F-Word in one of his TV series.