DON’T expect many church regulars to be in the audience for Babybird’s shows in their former feeding ground.
Not that leader Stephen Jones says they have anything to fear after he hit the tabloids over religious grumbles about his Johnny Depp-featuring pre-Christmas single Jesus Stag Night Club.
The Rum Diary film star also came in for flack from the likes of The Christian Coalition for the song about a drunken, joy-riding Christ look-alike who gets his kicks at lap-dancing clubs.
It might not have rivalled The X-Factor or Military Wives for the festive number one but it did have one critic claiming “Depp and his cronies will face the judgement of our Lord and burn in hell” while boosting the profile of the former Sheffield musician.
Surely Jones, the man behind the huge ’90s hit You’re Gorgeous, realised a title like that is going to raise eyebrows?
“I didn’t, I genuinely naively didn’t, think it was going to cause any trouble. Someone put on Twitter ‘Jesus is an easy target’ and he probably is because you can’t say anything against any other faith because you’re committing treason or you’ll get a fatwa – I’ve probably got one just for saying the word.
“It’s been there since I was born, Jesus and church, so it’s fair game. It’s part of our society. The song wasn’t an attack on Jesus, it was purely a Jesus lookalike organising stag nights, simple as that.
“I actually find him a fascinating character. I have a Jewish girlfriend so it’s stranger still and, because she is, the children are Jewish. The whole Depp thing, people saying they were outraged because he was singing these terrible words...they don’t have a clue, like the people who were outside the Meaning Of Life picketing but had never seen the film. It’s the same, very interesting.”
Either way, it was an intriguing development to a maybe unlikely association between a maverick muso and one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars.
“He was laughing about it,” says Jones, who has Depp playing on new album The Pleasures of Self Destruction after his guitar début on previous record Ex-Maniac. “I got reports back from Bruce, his friend who produces the albums, and they thought it was very funny.”
Certainly it put the media spotlight back on a former Sheffield-based star who has been prone to bouts of brilliance but is often criminally under-rated, even if he admits sometimes to being his own worst enemy, subject matter often proving that bit too “edgy” even if the melody begs radio play.
“Too few people know about Babybird. I’ve never broken out of that. Getting the music to people is the eternal curse. I know people would like it if they heard it or came to the gigs, but it’s getting them there.
“On one side it’s quite a small thing, which is what I always intended it to be, honestly. I never expected it to blow up.
“Then you’ve got Depp on the other side helping out.
“So you’ve got megastars against the toilet tour – it’s very strange.”
With Depp fancied in some circles to play Jacko in a Michael Jackson biopic, it is unlikely the actor will be gracing the stage at Sheffield’s O2 Academy on February 3 or Doncaster’s revamped Leopard the Monday before.
“I would love him to parachute out of a helicopter with exploding trousers into the venue.”
The pair revived their friendship when Jones travelled from Cheshire to Los Angeles to record his seventh studio long-player with Grammy-nominated producers Bruce Witkin and Ryan Dorn.
“It’s a tiny label, they don’t have any money, so we have to see how it goes.
“The key is getting a record played on the radio; that’s the impossible task for us. But if it did happen, or maybe a film, that would change everything. That’s been my career since it started.
“I know from reports the boss of Xfm really likes Babybird but he thought we were too edgy, which I think is bizarre; isn’t edginess a good thing?
“But it just doesn’t fit between Rihanna and Olly Murs – which is great because I wouldn’t want to be in that sandwich.”
That’s not surprising, perhaps, given a performance art past that has informed his lyrics and his record sleeve artwork – the Cornershop cover pictured Jones with his head drizzled with beans and Bad Shave, a face caked in fake blood.
In fact, it is still easy to get the impression that if Jones were not doing this he’d be scaring the courgettes out of shoppers in front of Asda.
“I’m really lucky. I know plenty of people who had to go and get proper jobs because they couldn’t carry on doing this slightly strange thing,” admits a musician who has kept his family fed thanks to a mix of Gorgeous royalties, soundtrack work and a publishing deal that gets his music on to various things.
“Years ago Veet, the lady waxing company, offered £400,000 for a song to be used for a year. We were up against two other people, almost got it, but that’s how if you do get that song it can completely change your fortunes.
“That is an obscene amount of money and hopefully if I’d got it I would have turned it down on principle, but you know if a piece of music gets picked up and put on a film, the profile would be raised.”
Still, Jones remains a prolific writer of music and novels – he’s just finished his fourth – and has compiled a Babybird book to sell on tour. Hits are the problem, not penning tunes, it seems. He remains like a sponge, soaking up themes and stories and seeing what colour the water runs when wrung out.
“I don’t think that will ever change. Writing was always my thing when I was on the dole, that’s how I killed time. It’s what I do now. It’s like a piano player practising, I’m just drawn to it like a magnet.
“If it’s hard work and nothing is coming then I’ll stop and do something else, but it’s always been an easy thing. That’s probably why it’s not necessarily a commercial venture because I kind of still do what I want.
“Maybe if I thought more about how I could sell stuff I would change, but I don’t want to. I want to sell more records but I don’t know if I want to bend that much.
“There’s a song on the new album called I Love Her which I thought would have made a great single but then I’m reminded by people who do my press that it’s got references to cider and drugs. I don’t think of it like that, I think it’s about giving up those things.
“Lady Gaga can do what she likes, hang herself in a video which she did for a second in one of them, but it’s all to do with the image and the money around it.”
New single Can’t Love You Anymore is out