9 DECEMBER 1995
TWEET AS A NUT
Surprise, surprise? Ummm, not today thank you. See, beneath that glamourous, explosive, glorious exterior The Pop Monster has turned into a reactionary old sod. Hotel bars may still be guzzled dry. Tasmanian talcum powder may still be vigorously inhaled. Like, snorted, geezer.
The rock beasts’ more dysfunctional offspring may indeed still persist in toppling over the most premature of hurdles.
But the fundamental mechanics of the indie-style industry remain resolutely untampered with. To wit you are a fashionable new band with a handful of Zeitgeist-zinging songs. You will make a demo tape. You will play a few low-key gigs and, if you can actually stand up for the duration ‘ of your initial performances, you may well wobble unsteadily but with a brash degree of cockiness beneath the wings of the A&R Mother Goose.
Cue debut single, preferably on snotty seven-inch vinyl. Cue tasty national support tour. Cue a few follow-up CD digipaks, a first album and cue….another bunch of suckers trapped on the treadmill. Easy, eh?
What you do not do is sit in a room and write 400 songs. You do not record them all by your lonesome on a four-track machine. And you most certainly do not decide to attempt to release several of these scratchily home recordings, say about 70 all told, across five CDs within the space of, oooh, six months. Unless, of course, you are a few sesame seeds short of the full burger bun. Or, alternatively, you are Baby Bird.
“Oh, everybody laughed at first,” beams Mr B Bird, aka one Steven Jones. “They said, ‘Get out and write some proper songs – these are just demos’. Nick Beggs of Kajagoogoo – he’s an A&R man now – wrote us a letter and said, ‘Come back when you’ve got a middle eight and then I’ll consider it. Possibly….’”
Surprise! Surprise! Sometimes dreams come true if you really want them to. And Baby Bird is one of them. A couple of weeks ago the Baby Bird band signed on the dotted line with Echo records. A few days after that, they played the second in a season of rapturously-received shows at the Splash! Club in King’s Cross: in the audience was one Eddie Izzard, feverishly showing his appreciation for Man’s Tight Vest, the Birds’ very own paean to the whole ball of confusion that is androgyny.
Better still, they have just reached the halfway point in their ‘grand’ ‘plan’ with Fatherhood, the third in the ambitious/foolhardy series of five albums. Oh, after the final two appear, probably next January, possibly as a double package, Baby Bird will be polling their fans to discover which songs are the most loved.
The idea is that the tunes with the most votes will form the tracklist-ing for an imminent compilation album. Confused? Yes, very bloody much so, actually.
Luckily, Baby Bird themselves are experiencing a bona fide ‘weird’ phase. Gathered within the tech-mungous bowels of Sheffield’s Fon Studios on a dim Monday afternoon, Steven Jones, guitarist Luke Scott, drummer Rob Gregory and bassist John Pedder are in modest frame of mind, mulling cheerily over the various twists and turns that have led Baby Bird by the proverbial beak to the brink of stardom.
Keyboard player Hugh Chadbourne is off running errands for this evening’s typically low-key hometown pub gig. Everyone else is just talking about….well, how weird it all is. And – surprise! sur-bleeding-prise! – they are shattering a few Birdie myths. Like the one about Steven’s exotic, mystical upbringing in the antipodes. True, he did travel to New Zealand when he was four. True, it was “amazing”. But, uh, “mystical”?
“All I can remember on the boat on the way back was Carnation milk. That and celebrating going over the equator, because they do this thing where they dress up as Neptune, throw custard pies and chuck each other into the swimming pool…” Uh-huh.
Time zipped by. Steven found himself in Nottingham making soundtrack music and occasionally playing in piss-poor bands. Then something even more significant than custard pie fights occurred. “This drummer I was using got up and started smashing his kit up and kicking it over,” he sighs like a man tired of dallying with buffoons. “I thought, ‘No way do I wanna work with musicians ever again’.”
So six years ago he started writing songs with just a four-track machine for company. It was the start of a beautiful relationship: “I was just getting bored really quickly and wanting to write.” shrugs Steven. “One reviewer said I’m this person who sits in a little room for 24 hours eating fish fingers, but that’s a load of crap.” “They said Pot Noodle,” corrects Rob.
“Oh yeah. Pot Noodle. Anyway, I just work really fast so I can get these songs done in five to six hours. I don’t write every single day.”
But prolific he was, pouring out a stream of diamante-spangled melodic nuggets. Some were nasty and twisted. Other were graceful and caring. A few were just downright comical. They veered from the violent, as befits a frustrated, lonely artiste, to the fragile and utterly charming, as befits a man in control of his complete oeuvre. Crucially, the common link running through these drum-machine-driven creations was sheer instinctive pop brilliance.
The manager spent 18 months touring tapes around London. Fortunately Nick Beggs wasn’t working at Chrysalis Publishing, who cannily decided here was something worth investing in. Steven, meanwhile, attempted the odd live soiree either miming with DATs or using the even odder musician, but basically he recalls, “I didn’t have a clue how it could happen, how these songs could be done live.”
So along the way Steve was ‘moved’ to Sheffield and a full Baby Bird band – a clawful of sympathetic sorts with a similar going-nowhere -slowly background – was assembled. Along wombled comprehensive live shows. To add to the general bewilderment, while the CDs retained the creator’s original unwitting essence de lo-fi, the live appearances were the opposite, being majestic frilly-shirted shenanigans peppered with smooth, suave thrills. Innocent punters watched, jaws hanging, and gasped. “Woooowww! Where has Baby Bird been all my life!?” between each and every song.
Out trotted the albums: I Was Born A Man on July 31. Bad Shave on September 25. Fatherhood for December 11. Baby Bird are not the new Stone Roses. The records suggested The New Beck. The ‘filthy glamour’ of the gigs made Pulp look like Mega City Four. Yep, in Baby Bird we had discovered a strange new disease called, quite simply, ‘Belp’.
“I don’t think anyone is writing songs like this,” says Steven, to his credit wincing only slightly at the ‘Belp’ word. “I’m not being blase, but I think we’re separate from everything else. We don’t want to be, we just are. What I’m doing is unstructured – that’s why we don’t have middle eights. I’ve never grown up playing along to stuff.
I’ve never had direct influences, so there are so many different styles on the records. And the songs are very simple – there’s no wanky musicianship.”
“We’re all decent musicians,” nods John. People have said we’re session musicians, but we’re not at all! We couldn’t go out and play on the Mariah Carey album! A lot of musicians could do this, but then again a lot of them couldn’t, because being in Baby Bird is all about holding back. All we have to do is interpret the songs simply. If we can cut out notes, we will do.”
The end result, reckon Baby Bird, is that they represent “a refreshing change”. They sound and look so individual that promoters are so flummoxed by what bill to put the group on they end up playing with punk and metal bands. A disastrous mixture? In reality yes, but in Baby Bird’s world they are unique they can, paradoxically, play with almost anyone.
“Most of the time we’re going on after bands who’ve just burst eardrums,” grins John, “and we come on and do this….thing. And it still works!” “That’s the refreshing change,” enthuses Luke. “Some metal geezer came up to us after one of our gigs and said ‘I liked that – that was intelligent’.”
Exactly! But Baby Bird are not pretentious. Steve Jones may have a way with the quirksome, look-at-me-I’m-great! lyric, yet one reason for the sheer magnitude of his output is the fact that he doesn’t agonisingly overload his songs with Prefab Sprout-style wordisms. Baby Bird may be smart, but they aren’t smartarse.
“I know when to stop.” shrugs the original Birdman. “Like musicianship gets in the way, so 1 try to be as economical with words as possible.”
Do you ever think ‘This is my art’, Steven? “I think ‘This is my arse’, more like.”
“It’s been called a scam,” sneers Steven later on, referring to the original idea of releasing five albums in such a short space of time. “It is not a scam. I mean, how else do you get 400 songs out? We’ve managed 70, but…” “I think it’s such a simple idea that people just couldn’t get their head around it, so they laughed at it,” observes Rob.
“Then you actually do it and then they turn around and say ‘That was a f-ing good idea!”.
“And that’s the whole Baby Bird thing.” says Steven. “People have discovered it. They’ve found a copy of one of the albums and they’ve made it theirs,”
Indeed they have, without the DJ-chummy snot-green seven-inch single, without the A&R (“I used to call them Arse & Rectum on stage,” admits Steve, sadly. “That was probably going a bit too far…”) pre-requisites of attitood, yoof and brattish Britpop ‘suss’, and fundamentally, without much of a f-ing clue: “It might sound a bit naive,” frowns Steven, “but 1 never wrote these songs with any intention of actually releasing them…”
It is somewhat logical then that their third album in the space of five months, the one that more people than ever before will be analysing and dissecting, if not simply ‘gagging for’, should be an unusually downbeat affair, encapsulated within the scary confines of a malicious little bastard of a tune called Didn’t Want To Wake You Up.
“That’s about death,” explains Steven, somewhat unnecessarily. “I like listening to a lot of downbeat stuff- I find that elating in itself. It doesn’t have to be happy, happy, happy all the time. But it’s not depressing music – I’m not sitting here with a razor blade.”
Nor, he insists, is he ‘twisted’, or ‘strange’ or ‘bitter’. In fact, he claims to be exceedingly normal, which is quite possibly why punters troop along to Baby Bird gigs and grin through the entire set. Hell, people enjoy Baby Bird so much one of them even invited the entire band around to their house “for some crisps”. Excellent behaviour.
“My brother, who likes George Benson and all that crap, he thinks it’s wonderful,” leers Steven. “And my mum warms up for her aerobics exercises by listening to Baby Bird ballads. So she loves it!”
And she should. Surprised, surprised? You will be.