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17th April 2022

Lost Guitars and Battles for Number 1: Jay Mitra interviews Yard Act

As Yard Act finish their first UK headline tour, Sam and Ryan tell The Mancunion about some of the highlights.
Lost Guitars and Battles for Number 1: Jay Mitra interviews Yard Act
Photo: Paul Hudson @ Flickr

Interview conducted by Jay Mitra.

It’s a March afternoon and I’m chatting with Yard Act’s bassist Ryan Needham and guitarist Sam Shjipstone, just a few days after they finished their first UK Headline tour. The post-punk Leeds outfit seem to have sprouted from nowhere, rising to fame during the height of the pandemic and getting on the radars of rock legends like Dave Grohl.

Yard Act’s debut album The Overload (2021) is a mouthy and sardonic take on post-Brexit Britain. Since its release, the band has punctured UK charts, battling Years and Years for No. 1.

With disparaging disco-rock, and wry humour reminiscent of The Fall and Talking Heads, it’s no surprise why this band has taken the British indie scene by storm. But when I ask them about their tour, it’s clear that the journey to success hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing.

“Flippin RyanAir lost my guitar!” says Sam, on the topic of touring.

He recalls the moment: his alarm going off at 7 am on the day had to leave Dublin. He’d had two hours of sleep due to the band partying in Dublin till the early hours of the morning.

Ryan adds to the picture: “We landed and were still in a weird haze, and then all the conveyer belts slowly dried up…and Sam’s guitar wasn’t there, and we were like fucking hell we gotta deal with this now? But this is a total first-world problem but that was a low point.”

“We got it back now but, in that moment, I was like oh there’s a rage building,” says Sam.

When I ask about the highlights, Sam’s answer is surprisingly mundane. It’s hard not to laugh when he counts his first-ever meal at Nandos as a highlight of his tour experience.

But things haven’t all been light-hearted with the band recently.

Sam is suddenly quiet, downcast even when I ask him about the incident that occurred during their London Village Underground show on February 17th. Shortly after a female fan made them aware of the sexual harassment she’d endured because of drunk older men at the gig, Yard Act released a statement warning fans to police themselves, with a stern warning telling men to “keep your hands to yourselves.”

“That was a real wakeup call for me that,” says Sam. “We have to make sure all the shows have things in place.”

Ryan admits that when it happened, he felt out of his depth with what they needed to do. He explains how the band sought out help from professionals to tackle the issue.

“When those things happen, you kind of need to get advice really, so there’s a good organisation called Good Night Out that we hit up immediately and just kind of got a bit of guidance really.

“They helped us talk about how we should communicate with this particular person. You can’t really go into this really hammer-fisted because it can really escalate things. They talked about things we can put in place.”

Sam adds, “We made sure that venues that we play in have policies and put up a post that hopefully might make people a bit more confident to say things when they happen in shows so that we can do something about it right away…I’m just so sorry, it’s not okay.”

It’s reassuring to hear that the band have really taken the incident to heart and actively made changes to their booking process to ensure venues are equipped to deal with sexual assault in public spaces.

“James dealt with a lot of this,” says Ryan. “It all came through Instagram really. James had followed it through.”

Speaking of James, we move on to discuss his writing and the punk poetry elements in Yard Act as well as the current alternative music scene. ‘Sprechgesang’ – a style of spoken singing – has been a reoccurring trope in the past few years, featuring in the work of other British alternative acts like Dry Cleaning, Idles and Black Country, New Road.

Their own use of punk poetry wasn’t a “self-conscious thing” according to Sam.

“I was thinking there’s been quite a lot of spoken word stuff in rock music for ages,” he says. “I was thinking of one of my favourite albums: Life Without Buildings [a band] from Glasgow. She’s got a really good spoken-word delivery, it’s not like The Fall or anything at all, it’s not even like hip hop, but she’s got an amazing flow to it.”

Ryan admits that adding the poetic element isn’t really his and Sam’s forte.

“Our role, in terms of Yard Act, is keeping things quite minimal and leaving space for James to just kind of do his stuff. I normally write a drum pattern and a bassline and send like five of those to James. Three of those he’ll have ideas for, two of those he’ll disregard.

“But then it’s up to the rest of the band to weave around James’ lyrics, we kind of work it that way really. It’s in the back of our minds to always put the lyrics upfront and centre and pick out bits that [will] highlight James’s lyrics.”

Yard Act’s lyrics have caused a bit of a stir, with characters such as ‘Graham’ and ‘Rich’  featuring in their most popular songs. But it seems like The Overload is the last we’ll be seeing of Graham and Rich, but Sam is adamant that fleshed out character studies will feature in their next album.

Sam says, “I think it’ll be new characters, there’ll definitely be characters.’

Though the pair are relatively elusive in their responses to questions about the direction the album of the new album, Sam is certain about what he loves playing most live.

“For live stuff, I think I’ll always want to keep it quite intense and loud,” he replies.

He begins to hint at electronic stuff in the pipeline but then immediately panics.

“Actually, Ryan save me, ‘cos I’m digging myself a hole,” he says, laughing.

“It’s what rock bands do, isn’t it? You do a rock album and then you’re like bringing a massive electronica pad on.”

Ryan chimes in: “Everyone’s got synths for Christmas.”

Sam reveals that though the first album is rock, he finds humour in its predominantly electronic production.

“What I love is the way – you know like on digital audio workstations, it’s always 120 beats per minute is what it defaults to – so many of our songs were 120bpm!”

Yard Act have already started working on the next record but won’t be releasing it this year. In terms of the direction the music is going to go, Ryan reveals that they’ll be keeping things relatively simplistic.

“I don’t think it’s gonna go too crazy,” he says. “I think James is kind of angling to a bit more singing and less spoken, but I think it’ll be a bit of a mix. We might get some collaborators in to do some vocals and stuff. Yeah, it’s gonna be a bit more chill, especially the bass lines and stuff. After doing covers of The Specials and learning the groove those musicians bring, it’s definitely rubbed off quite a bit.”

It’s surreal hearing that they had never played together when they wrote the first record. The Overload, according to Ryan was “largely a bedroom project” that took off and they are still getting to grips with each other as bandmates.

“Now we’re going out and playing live we’re learning how each other kind of vibes off stuff more,” he says. “We had to figure out how to play the songs as a four-piece relatively punk rock band.”

Even the cover was a quick collaborative effort.

“Me and James came up with the logo,” reveals Ryan. “It was like the Modern Lovers, The Strokes…you always reach for something that’s iconic.”

On the topic of iconic, I ask them which upcoming artists are pricking their attention.

“There’s a band from Leeds called Thank; a band from New York that we met called Gustav and they’re really great, I think they recorded with one of the people from Parquet courts, they’re really fun, good party bands,” says Ryan.

They also give a special mention to the duo called Baba Ali that came on tour with them.

Sam is in another band called Hollow Drum which he half-jokingly half-seriously mentions as a band for us to check out.

Yard Act’s own formation as a quartet is a result of what Ryan calls the “incestuous Leeds music scene.” James and Sam had crossed paths previously when playing in a band for the same singer. Two years on and the band is now brainstorming new ideas for their second record, but their priority is performing live now.

“We just got to concentrate on going out and playing,” says Ryan. “Like I said before, just learning how we all play together live. And developing our live shows and getting a light engineer on board. We’re playing bigger rooms now and none of us have ever done that before. You kind of got up the show a bit, so it’s just exploring that and having fun with it and figuring out how we’re gonna do that, but still doing it in a way that is us and not the obvious thing, we always like to be quite contrary.” He grins.

So, what’s next for Yard Act then?

Sam is stunned into silence.

“I do not think that far in life, and I probably really ought to. Having that in your head makes you do things, but I just don’t know.”

He ponders for a little and then comes out with: “I’d just really love to play on someone else’s album.”

Ryan bursts out laughing. “So not doing Yard Act then? That’s your end game?”

But on a serious note, Ryan says that their success caught them by surprise.

“None of us saw this coming, none of us thought we’d be in this position where we’d be battling for UK number 1,” he reveals. “Not saying we’re not ambitious but like where we are now is by far exceeded anything we ever thought would end up happening. So, it’s kind of all bets are off really… let’s just see, let’s keep making the right decisions and doing the right things.”

You can find out more about Yard act on their website, and listen to the album on Spotify here.

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