Exclusive interview: Stephen Jones is nervous before the release of Babybird’s first album in four years. But there’s a safety net when a movie star is involved. Learn what Stephen likes best about Ex-maniac, how he finds life on the road with a group of middle-aged men.
What’s Ex-Maniac about?
“It’s about trying to abandon demons, whilst not losing edge. ‘Drugtime’ blatantly deals with this. It’s a mixture of personal and people I know”.
Are you an ex-maniac?
“Yes. Though to my knowledge I’ve never gone mental and killed people with a machete”.
What do you like best about the album?
“The Mariachi trumpets on the last song of the album has always been a dream of mine.
I’ve probably again made it difficult for songs to get radio play – after all the first line of the album is ‘I will kill you, said the 5 year old…’.
I make it difficult for myself as the true nature of popular music is to fabricate feeling into lovely little packets. Like Bad Old Man entering the top 40, it’s a satisfying achievement. On the next album, I’m going to change the lyrical flow and deal with stuff, but temper the language. In a good satisfying way.”
How was recording in L.A. with Bruce Witkin? “It’s very hard not to like ‘Hell A’ and La La Land: Sunshine, Mulholland, ridiculously blue skies. The studio was again like any in the world with no windows, dark and air conditioned. But when you step out, it’s full-on Americana which I love to bits.
I actually spent a lot of my time sat on a black leather couch sitting back and listening while Bruce re-played the parts on my demos, which is great as my playing is simple. We’d alter the drumloops and replace them with four drummers. I play most things but drums to me are alien.
So they amaze with being able to bang stuff in time, with feet and hands all going off at once. Bruce and his wife made great steak and fried salmon. Even though I was sharing a room with a black widow and ants.”
Would you record with Witkin in the US again?
“I hope so! This whole thing is different because even though a label – and Depp – is involved, they love the music, and it’s not dependent on success.
Of course we want Ex-Maniac to be heard by as many people as possible, but there’s a safety net. I hope. Also, I have over 400 pieces of music ready to be sung on and un-demoed so to speak. With huge horns and strings – big like Sigur Ros and M83.”
How do you feel right now about the release?
“Nervous. Radio-play will be hard and that breaks a record. But all the ingredients are there: Movie star on guitar, monster build-up, big climax, video of Unloveable. Weird if it goes wrong.
But ‘You’re Gorgeous’ is a powerful millstone, and sometimes, though I don’t mind the song, it’s 20 years old, and I’m being ground up under it. One day I’ll wear that millstone like a fucking king.”
How was it being back in a band again?
“Fantastic… All the members (ooh err) I know as friends. The four dates in November were truly terrific. A glass of ladies rose wine and just seemed to sink under a warm river of pleasure.”
Why did you decide to leave out the keyboards?
“On the next tour we’ll have piano. We just tried the songs and it worked without it. I guess most of my demos were guitar led.”
Why is You’re Gorgeous still in the setlist?
“People want it. And I like the different versions and which there are three or four of. The slow version was used on a TV comedy drama pilot called The Abbey and was touching and beautiful.
The song kind of gave me enough money to be able to do the music I want to do. Not be too commercial, or at least fight what some people want to turn you into … So far anyway.”
How was it like being surrounded by the paparazzi on the last tour?
“Didn’t see any. Johnny Depp genuinely wanted to come and play a few songs on the tour, but logistically it wasn’t never going to happen. The papanazis did come to the video shoot though, and one geezer got escorted off the premises. Still photos leaked out in which I look fucking awful and Johnny looks like a dwarf. They do love to fuck you up.”
How’s life on the road with five middle-aged men?
“Generally a whole better experience than being surrounded by moron kids drinking their guts up, watching dog porn, and listening to some dick in tight trousers with a comb over, singing shit new wave indie, on the hi-fi that doesn’t work.
But whatever age you are, you’re still sitting around for the whole day waiting for two hours of performing. But at least this time its with a nice cup of tea, slippers and pipe.”
What do you do five minutes before a gig?
“Try to find the stage, because of course we’re middle aged, infirm, and have just shat our pants in a madonna-esque group hug and prayer, then we stumble on stage…”
…and 5 minutes after?
“Scream if it was good. Howl if it was bad. Do another encore. Collapse. Do coke. Puke.”
What can we expect from you and the band in March?
“Definitely new songs. Keyboards. More love.”
Any live dates coming up after this tour ends?
“Yes … In may, then festivals. Gig in paris at the end of march we hope.”
All about Unloveable.
What good (or bad) has Johnny Depp done for Babybird?
“All good. His help has been a Babybird lifesaver. I’ve known him for seven years, and he loves the music, so its obviously great. He directed the video, putting a fantastic team around the four day shoot.
His generosity is boundless. He started the whole thing off by setting me up with Bruce [Witkin], to get him to produce the album. Johnny then came into the studio and played guitar on Unloveable. Icing on the cake.”
Why do you think he likes your work? “
He was sat with Marilyn Manson eight years ago listening to Bad Old Man and Take Me Back, and the story goes that Manson exclaimed loudly: ‘I must sign this man’ when he heard Bad Old Man. Johnny listened to stuff to get him into the mood, and Babybird was part of that. His people got me to come seven hours from Pembrokeshire to London whilst he filming Finding Neverland, and over homous and carrot sticks he explained why he liked it. Particularly the lyrics to There’s Something Going On. Also he likes it because I’m a fucking genius of untold proportions!!!”
Was there really talk of him joining you on stage in London?
“Yes, indeed, but he’s a very busy man, and there was no dressing room in Hoxton. Would have been madness. But he definitely wanted to play a few songs.”
Tell us something about Depp we don’t know!
“He’s lovely in real life.”
You said recently that a name change was next up for Babybird. Why did change your mind?
“I’m always persuaded that the name makes it easier on the business side. Bad reason, but it avoids re-invention. It’s very hard for me to be disconnected from it as others outside Babybird can be. My problem is that it is always linked to ‘You’re Gorgeous’ and that single sadly overshadows my other material. I have Death of the Neighbourhood, and there will be another album of more straight forward new music to come on the ATIC label. That gives me an alternative to Babybird.”
So (again) what’s next for Babybird?
“Release across the world. Tour Scandinavia, France, The US etc. Then start work on a new album I hope. “
Can you describe the next Death of the Neighbourhood?
”It’s new material. The first album was a compilation of old stuff, up to 15 years old. I just need to add vocals and we’re away. Has to fit it into the Ex-Maniac schedule.”
Have you stopped writing novels?
“No I’m hoping to do another one as we speak. It’s ready to be written from amassed ideas. Just need a publisher, which I’m looking at now. Fingers crossed”
The Best of Lo-Fi? How about some new lo-fi instead?
“The [coming] Best Of is for fans in the US, an introduction as it was limited over there. I had always planned to do this album so it would open up America, but you are always convinced that you should start through your own country . Bloody england.“
Who would you like to work with?
“Depp again of course. But to be honest I’ve never thought of other people to work with. I think my style is too unusual sometimes. In terms of film, I really need to do soundtracks as that’s my first love. There is a possibility of doing some.“
Do you consider yourself a controversial artist?
“No. I just speak my mind. But others probably do think I am. The world is a very conservative place.”
Have you experienced censorship from the music industry or felt pressured into changing lyrics or music?
“Yes, but only indirectly. You also have to listen to stuff you never know if its true or not. All the mumbo jumbo you experience once an album is made really fucks my head up. Business and music don’t mix. A lot of stuff you’re told is sugar-coated. And the diamonds are plastic. The next single might be ‘Bastard and even the title might have to be changed and the words bleeped. Which I don’t mind at all. But I’ve never changed lyrics. Or music.“
Do you think you have ever practised self-censorship?
“All the time, but not in what I say. Only in respect to what’s good lyrically or what’s not good.
It usually just flows. Shocking stuff never works, and at the end of the day it’s music. It’s there to entertain. It has to let you escape.”
How would you like Babybird to be remembered when we are all gone?
“Really not bothered. I want my kids to be safe. And for Babybird music to effect people here and now, if that doesn’t sound too pompous.”