With a new album out and a Liverpool date on the horizon, Ant23 talks to Babybird about his incredible work rate, self-loathing and being spat at by Johnny Rotten.
Things move quickly in the Babybird world, this interview was initially to coincide with the release of Stephen (Babybird) Jones’ latest album Photosynthesis.
However, in the two weeks between its release and this conversation, Stephen has self-released a further 3 CDs through the online music hub Bandcamp and has another album already scheduled for September.
To say that Stephen Jones is prolific is an understatement, but this should never devalue the passion and integrity of his work.
Photosynthesis is a thought-provoking and coherent collection of songs harvested from Stephen Jones’ 100 plus (and counting) Bandcamp albums.
Reality imbued love songs feathered with moments of melancholy and rapture, take flight amidst orchestral swoops and hip-hoppity flutters.
Thundering drums literally smash through lullabies like a derailing train.
Synth noir soundscapes, distressed and flooded with blues guitar tears, are simultaneously cushioned and sedated with Lithium, Xanax and Quaalude drones.
Photosynthesis is a window into a dark world where the mundane is championed, it is inhabited by innocents and idiots, by lovers and the lonely, by self-obsessed, celebrity-fixated, suburban zombies.
I spoke to Stephen as he battled through the high pollen count of an English summer.
Hi Stephen, so Photosynthesis has just been released and unbelievably it’s your first album on vinyl for a couple of decades. Do you still have a turntable and if so what’s it like being able to play a new Babybird record again?
“Well, it came as two test pressings from Ben Scott (RW/FF Recordings) who put Photosynthesis out himself. I have three record players actually as you can pick them up for around £30.
On vinyl, I like the scratchiness of it, even though it wasn’t scratched when it arrived. Just that lo-fi sound. It was a journey listening to it, particularly on vinyl cos it’s that twenty-minute a side thing, where you have to turn it over and you sit there and you listen.
Something you don’t do when you download stuff, flicking from one thing to another.”
Can you remember the excitement of the 1st record you bought yourself?
“Yeah It was the Bay City Rollers, who are playing near my village by coincidence in a couple of days. I’m not going!
Of course, it was punk that really changed my early pop music 7” buying. Around 1978/79 me and my friends would cycle in to Derby to go and see bands like The Cockney Rejects, UK Subs and The Stranglers.
We once played a festival in Norway or Sweden and the Pistols were on one of their comebacks. John Lydon or Johnny Rotten, whatever character he was playing, walked past, just kind of spat on the floor and winked at us. It’s quite funny how that’s one of the perks of what I’ve done, in that we get to meet these people that were sort of our idols.
Well not meet them – he spat at us, I mean spat at the floor and walked past. Classic moment.”
Photosynthesis has also been released on a mini-CD. Is this the new cassette for hipsters?
“Oh yeah, I’m surprised Ben hasn’t put it out on cassette. But cassettes are a pain in the arse. You put one on and you can’t find any tracks you want. I did mini-CDs years ago but they weren’t ever really meant to play, they were just for promotional purposes.
If you put them in your CD player that’s probably the last you’ll ever see of them. And if you put them in a computer you’re buggered.”
The title of the album, Photosynthesis, means the method of converting light into chemical energy. Is this a metaphor for what RW/FF have done with the album?
“That’s a good way of looking at it. I will ask Ben but I think yes that definitely describes how it was put together and released.”
Continuing that metaphor, do you see the RW/FF relationship as something which can fuel your future energies?
“Yes, King Of Nothing will definitely come out on vinyl.”
When creating your albums do you find it less complicated to be in sole control of all the aspects of the release?
“Oh God yeah, Bandcamp is so simple. It’s small but I personalize all the CDs so that’s a lot of work. I try to make them special with gifts attached. That’s the hard bit and to then post them all.
Everyone knows me in the local post office. Making the songs, that’s the enjoyable part. I’ve mostly always recorded on my own. It’s not a control freaky thing. It’s just that I can get it to where I want it.”
You have definitely adopted the late 70s early 80s punk and post-punk DIY ethos.
“Yes it is that thing I grew up with when I was 16/17. I remember Flexi-discs and that Do It Yourself aesthetic. It definitely feels like that and that’s what’s nice.”
Which of the bands you listened to as a teenager inspired you to become a songwriter?
“Joy Division without a doubt. Peter Hook‘s bass-lines were very melodic and I started out playing bass. His melodies on the bass were incredible. “
Joy Division definitely have a beauty and melancholy in their songs which I recognise as a constant throughout your work.
“Atmosphere is the classic example of something that is beautiful and melancholic. I actually see Peter Hook all over the place. When I’m dropping my cat off at the cattery to go on holiday, he always seems to be there. I’ve never spoken to him but maybe I’ll have to.”
Is there a pleasure in self-releasing from the fringes of the music business? Literally the OUTSIDER (one of Jones’ aliases) and without artistic compromise?
“Artistically yes, but it is frustrating because it doesn’t get to enough people. RW/FF are doing a good job with this and it’s getting played on 6 Music which is nice to hear.”
RW/FF have made Photosynthesis feel fresh and cohesive. Was it a deliberate ploy to pick songs from across as many of your aliases as possible?
“I really had no idea what the plan was. It came as a complete surprise and it was like a journey for me, as there were songs on there I couldn’t really remember. That was what was really pleasurable. It was like listening to another artist.”
How do you market Stephen Jones the brand when you have, or have had, close to 20 aliases and Twitter seems to be preaching to the converted?
“It’s very confusing I think and Bandcamp doesn’t help as there are over 120 different albums and singles on there. I don’t help myself but I’ve always been like that you know, since recording on my four-track cassette thing. I’ve got bags of these cassettes and I never even used to label them.
So I’ve always made it hard work for myself. I don’t think our early label Echo, after releasing Goodnight in 96, really knew the path. Of course they had You’re Gorgeous and could pretend it was just a chorus and could get their teeth into that.
Once you’ve had a gold album and this massive peak, there was nowhere else to go really. I was never interested in keeping that going, I didn’t like that period of time. It was nice for a while but you can only fall down the other side of the hill. I’m kinda still rolling down it but in a good way.
I’m happy to be still doing this. Without Gorgeous or The F-Word” being on the Gordon Ramsay show, I wouldn’t be able to be still doing this.”
The music press has overwhelmingly given critical acclaim to Photosynthesis. But it must irk that it seems to require a mainstream presence to attract the attention of the music business?
“Yes, but I think now people are listening to the music. Ten years ago if I released an album and it was getting press, there would always be a mention of You’re Gorgeous. This release has cleared that away a bit which is really nice.”
Going back to your comment about Echo, is Photosynthesis that new Ugly Beautiful moment, where a myriad of songs will be let loose to a wider audience?
“Yes I think it will be a stepping stone to more things. I still have to pinch myself that Ben essentially was a fan and has now set up a record company simply because he wanted more people to hear this stuff. It’s quite astonishing really.”
You went back on tour recently not long after suffering a heart attack. Has your attack and recovery given you an invigorated view of life?
“Yes, probably. About six months after it, I realised I just had to take care of myself. My attitude has always been that I work at home and I’m an at-home dad.
I think the heart attack just made me feel even more that I had to concentrate on those important things. My children and my family are what make the difference.
I enjoy the gigs but there is no pressure on them. I just want them to be fun for the people that do come after 27/28 years.”
Can I ask about your writing process? You mention you write from home within the family environment. Your output is prolific however never at the expense of merit. How do you structure your writing to accommodate your busy release schedules in conjunction with quality control?
“Well I was just thinking now that I do need to release a new album soon as I’ve got hundreds of songs waiting to be tarted up.
Especially instrumental stuff. I do write very fast. It’s the lyrics that are the hardest thing for me. I’m in the small box-room but I’m not in there for hours. I don’t know how it gets done so quickly. It’s the one thing in life I seem able to do. I just seem to work very fast.
I’m on a computer these days but it’s very similar to the Lo-Fi four track working. You just have to be very precise and that’s what makes it quick.
When I went into big studios with the band, and you had all this equipment, well I was never really interested in that. I write up to seven songs a day but it just happens very quickly. I’m not a man stuck in a shed for hours and hours.
Making the CD covers and releasing it is what takes the time. The writing is really meditation for me. It’s a pleasure. I start with a loop. I put a bass-line on it, like the Peter Hook thing, and then just layer it.
It doesn’t really matter what that loop is as I’ll just change it later if I don’t like it. And as I loop stuff, I don’t play all the way through the song.
I try to sing all the way through but even then I will double up a chorus, and loop it, and cut and paste it. I just want to get it done quickly as I’m thinking about the next song already.”
Your songs routinely have the capacity to affect listeners on an emotional level. Do you ever write with your audience in mind or is it simply an organic process of self-expression?
“The second one definitely. I’ve never written with someone in mind. I write about innocence. How things are being very slowly eroded and they’re gone and you don’t realise they are gone. And big subjects – marriage; religion; anything particular to me.”
Your songs have a cinematic soundtrack quality about them. In fact, you have written a few movie scores. Is scoring for a film a very different process versus how you would approach the more instrumental Black Reindeer and Arthritis Kid tracks?
“I’d love to do more, that’s a regret. It’s a precision thing, very much a technical thing, that’s the only difference.”
Not only is there a cinematic soundtrack quality to your songs but further, a vivid filmic aspect gained through character and plot. Does constructing a song almost as a short story best allow you to chronicle your ideas and for the listener to fully interact and empathize?
“Definitely. On Beach Grave, when I’m writing the words to that, I’m literally on the beach. That’s how my mind works. That image is also in the video for Goodnight – it’s a recurring theme of me being buried in the sand.
The idea of the juxtaposition of let’s bury down in the sand and taking that further. With it becoming sinister and being left there and maybe suffocating.
It’s got to be emotional and hopefully, someone comes and rescues you. Not shocking or disturbing for the sake of it. That’s why David Lynch works so well. It’s disturbing but with massive amounts of humour in there as well.”
Contradictions, oxymorons, ambiguities, metaphors and all manner of playful tropes populate your lyrics and titles. Is the humour and word-play in your writing as important and gratifying to you as the often weighty subject matter?
“Definitely. Absolutely. I’m not tortured about words as such but I do care about the lyrics being right. I know the staple of most music is the basic I love you and you love me but I’ve always wanted to stay clear of that.”
Humour also comes to the fore in your mischievous allegorical mash-ups between love and death, religion and global corporations, the media and social commentary. Are these purely mischievous? You said before you never want to shock for shock’s sake but do these extreme visual metaphors enable you to agitate?
“If it nudges people towards something, definitely. I think it’s a balancing act, as the music side of it is catchy nursery rhymes which draw you in. These very simple Baa Baa Black Sheep songs have been around forever and that’s why people remember them.
But it’s a piece of music at the end of the day, so you never want to be irritated by it. Roger Taylor of Queen did a song called Nazis 1994; it was a very big political statement and it was horrific. I would never want to do that, so you have to temper the two.
Gorgeous is a great example. You haven’t mentioned it once. I’m terrible I keep mentioning it. Look at the lyrics to that as a perfect definition of how I write. I don’t want to irritate people, agitate not irritate.
The delivery of the words is very important.”
On a similar note, with Bad Old Man, for example, is there delight and/or devilment in camouflaging darker or more menacing content within a sing-a-long pop song with a “sha-la-la” chorus?
“Absolutely and Bad Old Man is a perfect example. Though there are songs like Take Me Back which is out and out an horrific picture. Take Me Back does also have a heart to it though, as it’s about wanting to protect someone who’s been damaged.”
Take Me Back is a song lyrically capable of being both unsettling and intriguing. Do you consciously compose lyrics to reveal but never fully be unravelled?
“All songs should be re-interpreted by the listener. If you are listening to a piece of music for the first time, whether or not anyone has listened to it before, it’s your song. Interpretation is in there as well.
You can interpret in different ways. People thought I was a misogynist during the release of There’s Something Going On and it’s quite clearly not – It might be a bit self-loathing.
Bad Old Man is also a classic example of being filmic. Hundreds of things in there from my old manager, to how things are sold on billboards, to how people are released from prison early.
Thousands of images in it. There could be two sentences next to each other, which were written in different times, but put together to create an image that bounces into the next.
Without sounding too pretentious a song should spark an image in your head. It’s hard to balance as Popular Music is there to make you forget everything and escape. But you can also write lyrics that you can enjoy whilst challenging.
Returning to what you were saying about people confusing you and your protagonists on There’s Something’s Going On. Is it ever possible to draw a definitive line between autobiography and fiction?
“Bad Old Man, that’s not me, that’s a character. I like films, which is very much escaping through other characters. You need to distance yourself from yourself. But ultimately it is coming from me, so it is personal. Everything is personal, just mixed with other characters and other voices in my head.”
Speaking of which, going back to Photosynthesis, it’s nice to see the return of the “Unloveable” anti-hero character on the track October.
“Yes, the characters make a comeback on every album really. Cigarette Candle, [the latest Bandcamp released album] is about an errant dad who comes back, sees his daughter and sticks his fag in her cake. It’s always the same man, the bad old man, the all men are evil and so all the girls are good joke.”
Your songs also often depict characters who are looking to escape the humdrum of the mainstream and the cacophony of the modern world. They achieve this through many devices. Repeatedly you portray this compulsion to escape taken to an obsessional, fixated extreme. Is addiction the ultimate symptom and the real predicament of modern life?
“Well yes – coffee! And I drink too much alcohol which gave me a heart attack. It’s all about addiction – buying clothes, stuff, gadgets. It’s all that pressure but really I know the truth or fix is a walk in the hills.
Then I get confused cos if I go on holiday to the Lake District I can get bored with the views very quickly. When I’m writing music or playing music that is peace for me because you’re not thinking about anything at all. Your head is empty, in the moment.
I am trying to look for the meaning of life but you’re never going to find it. Trying to be happy is the main thing. “
So music and, more so making music, allows you to escape or calm the world in your “Beautiful Place”: “If things get too much and my thoughts too loud if I can’t see the light for the clouds”.
And in Sing It Away, “When you’re down and the day is long. I’ll come around with your favourite song. Turn the speakers up, tell the world to fuck off and scream along, sing along …sing sing sing it all away.“
“Ha-Ha Exactly – I’m never going to be one of those people happy with things. I’m always going to be questioning that’s why the lyrics are like they are. Beautiful Place is a real dreamy song, when you put it on it does make you escape. I like that song a lot.”
If The Pleasures Of Self Destruction is literally a record of excesses; Almost Cured of Sadness the process of rehabilitation; and Ex Maniac a chronicle of recovery – where are we now with the imminent Bandcamp release of the next album Dead/Death?
“Well again that is a joke, very much a joke. Having had a heart attack of course I have been closer to death than other people, but I don’t think I was close to death really. I was fixed – plumbed as it were.”
Is death the ultimate escape – the ultimate silence?
“Well yes I reckon but again I get older and I think more and more about spirituality. I’ve never believed in God, but I’m fascinated by the stories of Jesus and the stories of the Bible. You can take them as Shakespeare. Classic stories.
The older you get the more you are looking for something and that could be spirituality. So if it’s aliens or life after death, you know it’s all interesting fodder to read, whether it’s true or not. Dead/Death is a facetious joke and there will be happy songs on there.”
If Jones’ melancholic and heart-breaking tones are the spine of his diverse creations, obsidian and astringent lyrics are the bones.
He views and approaches the world from an outsider’s perspective, his melancholic musings offer a welcome and more often than not, witty and uplifting alternative experience.
His songs are simultaneously incredibly sophisticated and as fragile as nursery rhymes, as the moniker Babybird may suggest, innocence and vulnerability underpin his work.
Jones’ catalogue reveals a social and political world view where those in power – big business and the media, construct, constrain and captivate our daily lives. His lyrics however offer a discordant, dissonant and yet joyous devilment of escape.
Check out Stephen Jones’ Bandcamp if you haven’t already.
An embarrassment of aural riches since 2012.