Category Archives: Interview

STEPHEN JONES

IF THE NAMES BLACK REINDEER AND DEATH OF THE NEIGHBOURHOOD DON’T MEAN ANYTHING TO YOU, BABYBIRD SURELY WILL. THE INESCAPABLE YOU’RE GORGEOUS SPREAD ITSELF ACROSS 1996 LIKE THE MODEL’S LEGS ON CAR BONNET OF WHICH IT SPOKE. THERE WAS ACTUALLY, OF COURSE, FAR MORE TO BABYBIRD THAN JUST THAT ONE HUGE HIT SINGLE.

Stephen Jones 3Opinionated, forthright, clever and funny, there was also always much more to interviews with frontman Stephen Jones than explanations of how there was more to Babybird than an omnipresent single.
The very definition of Ten Hit Wonders, Babybird also spread wings in the UK singles chart with, amongst others, the sinister piano tumbles of BAD OLD MAN, IF YOU’LL BE MINE’s rhythmic skittering over U2 stadium melody, BACK TOGETHER’s epic pleas and devastating fractures, and the precise power-pop of the self-deprecating GOODNIGHT.
Jones’ knack for subverting beautiful melodies with wry observation or dark comedy – YOU’RE GORGEOUS itself is not quite what its chorus suggests – or for caging profound sadness (DEAD BIRD SINGS) ensured that his first releases (five limited edition cycle of life themed ‘lo-fi’ albums released over nine months, from mid-1995) quickly became sought-after cult classics.
Jones then framed a full band around this collection of bedsit-proportioned songs for 1996’s well appointed UGLY BEAUTIFUL, cherry-picking the best moments so far and rebuilding them from the foundations up – and at arena scale. The hook-heavy album flew to number three and also spawned Top 40 singles CORNERSHOP and CANDY GIRL. Babybird releases since have included the albums THERE’S SOMETHING GOING ON (1998), BUGGED (2000) and BETWEEN MY EARS THERE IS NOTHING BUT MUSIC (2006). 2010’s EX-MANIAC and THE PLEASURES OF SELF-DESTRUCTION (2011) both feature Johnny Depp on guitar. Hugely prolific Jones, music seeming to tumble out of him effortlessly, also issued a couple of eponymous collections of filmic instrumental pieces, two albums by the weird and wired Death Of The Neighbourhood, and two by Black Reindeer, his current project. Black Reindeer’s latest collection – A DIFFICULT THIRD ALBUM – is issued this week.
Here, Stephen Jones talks to The Mouth Magazine about his new album, balancing four musical projects, creativity during time on the dole, and the legacy of that hit…


YOU HAD A BUSY 2012 – FIVE ALBUMS RELEASED, UNDER FOUR DIFFERENT NAMES: BLACK REINDEER, DEATH OF THE NEIGHBOURHOOD, YOUR OWN AND, OF COURSE, BABYBIRD. DOES THE MUSIC ACTUALLY DIFFER MUCH, IN RELATION TO EACH MONIKER?

It does, yes. They’re each distinctly different. The name Stephen Jones applies to everything. On a weirdness scale, it goes: Babybird is the least weird, then Black Reindeer, and then DOTN. Black Reindeer is 99% instrumental, while DOTN uses more falsetto vocals and sampled voice. Babybird is still ‘proper’ songs. Whatever they are.

2012YOU ALSO PUBLISHED A COUPLE OF NOVELS. WHAT DO YOU GET OUT OF THAT THAT YOU DON’T GET OUT OF MUSIC?
Expanding ideas, being more detailed… Seeing it as filmic.

BLACK REINDEER IS WHAT YOU’RE CONCENTRATING ON AT THE MOMENT… WHAT DOES IT OFFER THAT YOUR OTHER PROJECTS DON’T?
Black Reindeer reflects my favourite type of music – soundtracks. Piano foremost. I’m releasing music exactly how I want it to sound.

THE FIRST TWO BLACK REINDEER ALBUMS HAVE GOT SOME BEAUTIFUL PIECES ON THEM, REALLY MOVING, BUT THE COVERS ARE QUITE CHALLENGING. SOME OF THE TRACK TITLES, TOO: AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA AMERICAN FISH BRING AIR BUBBLES TO OSAMA… AS PARIS CRUMBLES I DRINK MYSELF TO DEATH… YOU’VE OFTEN DONE THAT – PERVERTED THE BEAUTY OF THE MUSIC WITH A DIFFICULT IMAGE OR TITLE. DO YOU LIKE TO THROW PEOPLE OFF THE SCENT, SOMEHOW?
For the third album, it will have very simple one or two word titles. With the first two albums I just wanted to give the tracks an extra filmic quality with the titles. There’s no film to go with them, it’s something extra to spark an image. I definitely don’t want to confuse people. Just add an image they can use or leave.

YOU’RE ABOUT TO RELEASE THE THIRD… DOES IT DIFFER FROM THE OTHER TWO?
There’s more voice creeping in. It’s more varied.

THE COVER’S LESS CONFRONTATIONAL, MORE DREAMLIKE – SO ARE THERE SPECIFIC THINGS, MUSICALLY, THAT YOU’RE PUSHING FURTHER OUT?
I really hope I’m not confrontational. I think, with all my career, I’ve not done what popular music does (ie. give a sanitised view). I like to take real life, real things, and inject them into uplifting or dark or sad or happy music…

CREATIVELY, WHAT DO YOU GET OUT THE WORK? RELEASE? REDEMPTION?
It’s the only thing I’m any good at. It’s like meditation – playing a guitar or piano empties your mind, and you forget about everything.

YOU’RE ISSUING YOUR STUFF THROUGH BANDCAMP…
The discovery of that website was a revelation. It allows me to plug the gaps between Babybird albums. It’s like releasing the early lo-fi albums. Bandcamp is a DIY artist controlled medium to get the work direct to the fans.

AND THERE’S A LOT OF WORK. BEING SO PROLIFIC SUGGESTS AN OBSESSION?
I always did music to stave off the boredom of being on the dole. It feels no different now, except I have a bit more money to do a wider range of things. I’m not obsessive, though. I just genuinely love doing it.

SO YOU WERE UNEMPLOYED, LATE 80s / EARLY 90s – AND IT WAS DURING THIS PERIOD THAT YOU PUT TOGETHER THAT SERIES OF FIVE LO-FI ALBUMS. WERE YOU ENTIRELY FOCUSED ON THAT WORK?
Unemployment focused me on the songs. I was writing four or five songs a day. Recording them on cassette. Killing time. Having no plan or no idea of what I wanted to do. I didn’t know making money from music or being signed was possible.


WHAT CHANGED?

It all changed when one of my oldest friends – Graham Wrench, who then worked at the Leadmill, the music venue in Sheffield – had the idea for putting the recordings out on albums, punk DIY style. A birth-to-death cycle of five albums released over nine months. That’s illustrated in the titles of those albums (I WAS BORN A MAN, BAD SHAVE, FATHERHOOD, THE HAPPIEST MAN ALIVE and DYING HAPPY).

LO FITHEY FELT “COMPLETE”, “CONTAINED” – THE DESIGN, THE CONCEPT, THE NEVER-ENDING STREAM OF MUSICAL IDEAS. OUTTAKES HAVE SURFACED OVER THE YEARS, BUT THAT ERA ACTUALLY ALSO REMAINS MAGICALLY OUT OF REACH…
I like that! The perfect way of looking at it. It’s funny, I’ve just moved house, and unearthed a heap of old cassettes and mini-discs which I’m going to make available on Bandcamp. Unless, of course, they’re shit.

THERE WAS POIGNANCY IN THERE (DEAD BIRD SINGS), BLACK HUMOUR (COPPER FEEL) AND SOCIAL COMMENT (CORNERSHOP)… BUT THERE WAS ALSO REAL BLEAKNESS. WAS THAT THE SONICS, OR ARE YOU GENERALLY BLEAK-MINDED?
I’m certainly not a tortured artist dick.

YOU DEFINITELY HAVE AN ARCH VIEW OF THE WORLD, THOUGH. LISTENING TO THOSE RECORDS I’VE SOMETIMES WONDERED HOW YOU MANAGED TO FUNCTION, LIVE A ‘NORMAL’ LIFE WITHOUT TEARING DOWN THE WORLD…
I think I’m extremely normal, and I’m pretty happy. Therefore it’s good to invent an opposite, to invent these characters and themes for the songs. It’s difficult to break moulds, as standard music is all about escaping and forgetting your work and worries. That’s the history of most modern music. But I try to reflect the process of that escape and talk about the bad things that need escaping from. I try to be lyrically realistic. Whether that’s seen as bleak or dark, hopefully I do it without ruining the ‘up’ feel of the music and the tune. People, media, see that sort of thing as ‘difficult’ or ‘too edgy’… That’s the stuff that keeps me out of the mainstream.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE MAINSTREAM THESE DAYS, AND HOW IT AFFECTS AN ARTIST SUCH AS YOURSELF? I’VE ALWAYS HAD THE IMPRESSION YOU QUITE LIKED IT ‘OUT THERE’ ON THE FRINGE. BUT DO YOU HAVE ANY DESIRE TO BE ‘IN THERE’… WRESTLING WITH EMELI SANDÉ?
I hate being on the fringe. I still want to sell many more records. But how, I’ve no idea. BAD OLD MAN went to 31 in the charts… That’s the right balance of sales and infiltration that I like… Mass-marketed music is for sheep. I fucking hate bland. And Sandé is that. I still hunt for stuff and, when you find it, it’s like it’s all yours, nobody else’s…

GROWING UP, WHAT WAS ‘YOURS’? WHAT WERE THE RECORDS THAT MADE YOUR HEART FLOAT, YOUR BRAIN EXPLODE, YOUR GROIN THROB?
I’m still growing up. Joy Division. Albonini. Arvo Pärt. Eric B And Rakim. Public Enemy. Ice Cube. First records: Stranglers, Adam And The Ants.

WHAT DO YOU HEAR THESE DAYS THAT SPARKS CREATIVITY IN YOU?
Olafur Arnalds. Sigur Ros. Thomas Newman… I was always more influenced by film – Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch – and the parts that music played in films.

WHERE’S YOUR CREATIVITY AT NOW? WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
A musical, possibly – but certainly not in terms of West End shite. Mould breaking, I hope… And I’m starting writing for film, called DOWN DOG. But in terms of actual new songs, I’m writing for a new album. Not sure what name it’ll be under – but it’ll probably be with Unison (record label) and recorded in America…

MANIAC DESTRUCTIONEX-MANIAC AND THE PLEASURES OF SELF-DESTRUCTION WERE RECORDED IN THE USA. YOU’VE SAID THAT THEY HAVE A SLIGHTLY MORE AMERICAN FEEL…
Obviously when I’m in America, LA, I’m not demoing. I’m recording with people… It’s warm and there’s sunshine everywhere… But once in the studio itself it’s dark, air-coned and tomb-like. You can focus without distraction. All studios are roughly the same. I’ve already got the demos written, and then it’s just to make sure that the vocal booth is comfortable etc… Sounds like a bloody job…

JOHNNY DEPP PLAYED ON THOSE ALBUMS AND DIRECTED A VIDEO. DID YOU FEEL ANY PRESSURE FROM HIS ATTENTION, HIS INVOLVEMENT?
No. Believe it or not, he’s just a man. He’s laid back and he just wants to help.

YOU’VE JUST MOVED HOUSE… SETTLED IN YET?
Boxes fucking boxes. But homely. Yes. It’s rather lovely. I’ve a doghouse to record in…

DOES ‘PLACE’ INFLUENCE THE MUSIC? HOW DID THE GEOGRAPHY OF THOSE EARLY DAYS AFFECT THE WORK?
Nottingham was a weird place to be. I did a Mickey Mouse college course – but there I at least learnt colour photography and simple four-track recording. My theatre company had ended, so I closed myself off and wrote like a demon. Escaped…

… THERE’S AN ATTACHMENT TO SHEFFIELD…
Yes. Sheffield was where I moved to when I wanted to put a band around the demos I’d written… Then it went ballistic…

MY FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH YOU, WITH BABYBIRD, WAS AT SHEFFIELD LEADMILL, SUPPORTING JOOLS HOLLAND. YOU WALKED OUT ON STAGE IN SUNGLASSES WITH “POP” AND “STAR” STENCILLED ACROSS THE LENSES…
That’s where the madness started. It was all too fast, a blur. I vaguely remember Richard Hawley passing out at the hotel after that gig…

… I LAUGHED. BUT THE SONGS REALLY LIVED UP TO IT – I WASN’T SURPRISED IN THE SLIGHTEST WHEN YOU’RE GORGEOUS WAS A HIT THE FOLLOWING YEAR…
I’ve said it before, but that song was actually written as an afterthought. It was just a demo, done in 30 minutes. It never even made it onto the shortlist for the first five lo-fi albums.

MUCH MISUNDERSTOOD LYRICS, THAT SONG…
Yes. I guess you can look at the chorus and it seems like a natural hit… But the verses are dark and political. Naively, I had absolutely no idea it would blow up like it did. Others persuaded me to release it – and I’m glad I did. Financially…

bird… BUT HAS IT BECOME A MILLSTONE AROUND YOUR NECK, OR HAS IT SORT OF “PAID” FOR THE CONTINUATION OF WHAT YOU DO?
It definitely put me on the map to do the things I’m now doing. Sadly, on the downside, it made people wary of Babybird because it was a big hit, an overnight thing. People don’t even know the band had nine other Top 40 hits. It overshadowed – and it still does today.

YOU RECENTLY RECOMMENDED IN A TIME LAPSE, THE NEW LUDOVICO EINAUDI ALBUM. I SAW A GIG TEN YEARS AGO AND IT BLEW ME AWAY. THE MOODS ONE PERSON COULD CREATE WITH JUST A PIANO AND SOME MELODY…
I came to him a bit late, actually, having heard him on the Shane Meadows film THIS IS ENGLAND. It was bizarre that Stephen Graham, the actor, was later in the video for my single UNLOVEABLE, the one directed by Johnny Depp… But, like Olafur Arnalds, Einaudi is fantastic. What you can do on a piano…

APPARENTLY THE ACTUAL PHYSICAL SIZE OF ELTON JOHN’S HANDS LIMITS THE NOTES HE CAN REACH ON HIS PIANO, AND THEREFORE AFFECTS HIS SONGWRITING. THERE ARE CERTAIN CHORD SHAPES HE CAN’T MAKE…
I shook David Furnish’s hand once (interesting to think where that had been) so I’ve actually been close to Elton John’s ‘hand’… With his money he could have had knuckle extensions… But, no, I never knew that.

… I GUESS I’M ASKING THIS: THOSE LIMITATIONS THAT YOU WERE UNDER IN THE EARLY DAYS – UNEMPLOYMENT AND NO MONEY, THEREFORE JUST THAT LO-FI GEAR – DID THAT DIRECTLY AFFECT YOUR SONGWRITING?
I wrote a lot about this in AMPLIFIED SILENCE, the book about my early recording disasters… Lack of equipment and money is actually great for songwriting. Whether a guitar is expensive or not is irrelevant. When I started I had just the four tracks to record on. So it was guitar and bass on one, two for voice or overdubs, then Casio keyboard on the other. I spent a lot of time fuzzing and fucking-up those clean and awful string sounds you get on the Casio to make a great fuck-off sound… Limitations make you extremely resourceful. You keep it simple. And that’s why a lot of fans still like the early lo-fi records, from before the band came along.

SO LATER ON WHEN YOU DID HAVE MONEY COMING IN, AND ACCESS TO GOOD GEAR, DID IT ACTUALLY CHANGE WHAT YOU DID?
I used to record in my bedroom and I had to whisper vocals… You can hear that on 90% of those lo-fi songs. When I shout a little, on those recordings, that’s when the neighbours must have been out… Later on, when the band started interpreting the songs, we’d get drunk and I’d start using a much bigger voice – one I never knew I had…

CURED DEATH… AND IS THAT THE VOICE YOU’VE USED SINCE?
The albums ALMOST CURED OF SADNESS (2003) and DEATH OF THE NEIGHBOURHOOD (2008) made me remember that you don’t actually have to scream all the time. Falsetto and gentleness was something that the name Babybird was invented for… For innocent, simple and soft… Nowadays I try to get a balance – but when I get in a soundproofed studio the Babybird monster comes out all too often…

A DIFFICULT THIRD ALBUM is available from Stephen Jones’ Bandcamp page (along with other albums and some free downloads by Babybird and Death Of The Neighbourhood).