“Music doesn’t often go for joy, and there’s nothing more elating than humour” – In Conversation with Yard Act
By Sarah Taylor, Alex Cooper and Antonio Ross
Yard Act have had one helluva an 18 months. Following the January 2022 release of their decorated debut album The Overload, the Leeds-based foursome have been non-stop globe-trotting. Rounding off their album cycle with a five-night residency at Leeds’ beloved Brudenell Social Club (affectionately referred to as “the Brude”), frontman James Smith joined The Mancunion for a coffee before the band’s long-awaited Albert Hall date – the band’s seventh sold-out Manchester gig in a tumultuous two years.
Smith, who moved from Warrington to Leeds for university, weaved his way in and out of local bands before forming Yard Act with bassist and co-lyricist Ryan Needham: “We kind of sensed that we were doing something that we previously hadn’t done and we didn’t want to waste it and so we kind of ran with it, and we didn’t let any of the singles drop below a level.”
Independent music venues have been a vital stepping stone for Yard Act and while there was talk of playing Leeds’ 13,000 capacity First Direct Arena, “A week at the Brudenell felt like a really nice way to bring it back to where it started because that’s where we all played our gigs for years when we were in other bands and that’s where we ended up. Nath [Clark] supported us during the lockdown, we filmed a Great Escape set there and he booked all the regional shows we did in Warrington, Blackpool, Blackburn. He was so supportive, especially when he pulled out all the stops in that album week and worked to set up that show. It just felt like it was a nice place to bring it full circle. And, you know, whatever happens going forward I hope we can always bring it back to that and always find the time to do stuff there.”
A last minute free matinee on the Friday afternoon brought Yard Act total consecutive shows at the venue to six, narrowly surpassing West Yorkshire heavyweights The Cribs’ previous record. The residency saw the band supported by a coterie of comedians – Phill Jupitus, Harry Hill, Nish Kumar, Lolly Adefope, and Rose Matafeo (via Zoom). Smith explains: “It felt like a little bit of the variety of shows was getting lost and homogenized a little bit and so we wanted to support and express other creative mediums. I feel like music and comedy go hand in hand and it’s important to get away from the sort of self-importance and the seriousness that a lot of bands have, so it felt natural to do that, but the main thing was just that we rolled the dice, we never expected them all to say yeah, and that was really weird.”
This blend of musical creativity and comedy is reflected in Yard Act’s repertoire – from the spangly silliness of ‘Land of the Blind’ where Smith will implore his audience to lend him 50p for a magic trick, only to put in his pocket (tonight he manages to wangle a whole tenner) to the surrealist Sprechgesang of ‘Peanuts’ and the sentimental but self-aware ‘100% Endurance’. “I grew up on Vic [Reeves] and Bob [Mortimer] and I feel like they probably shaped my approach to creating stuff more so than any musician. […] There’s so much escapism in what they do, so much surrealism and it hits a joyous verse […] Music often goes for difference, music doesn’t often go for joy and there’s nothing more elating than humour. Bands try and often put themselves at arms length from that because it’s easier to be cool by being standoffish, but to try and tap into humour is a much bigger risk and if it falls flat it’s way more embarrassing.”
It’s not just ‘Land of the Blind’ that calls for audience participation. In fact, the unpredictability of Yard Act’s live show has spurred on much of the buzz that has led to seven consecutive sold-out Manchester shows. Early single ‘Peanuts’, which James describes as being the “litmus test for how far we could push it” has inspired gig-goers to take to the stage and perform its bizarre spoken-word section. He recalls Georgia, the trailblazer, who first requested to give it a go: “she knocked it out of the park. […] There’s been a few that have been questionable since.”, Smith adds with a laugh.
“I feel like music and comedy go hand in hand, and it’s important to get away from the self-importance and the seriousness that a lot of bands have”
The latter song, ‘100% Endurance’ is perhaps the band’s most vulnerable and sincere track, the antithesis of ‘Peanuts’ if you will, and it is one that crops up in our conversation several times. “That one is really special. At that point [of writing the album], I think we weren’t ready to write a song like ‘100% Endurance’ and pretty much everything on the album up until ‘Tall Poppies’ has got that sarcastic sort of screen that I’ve struggled to let down over the years because it’s a defence mechanism and it’s easier to be sarcastic than it is to be honest. ‘100% Endurance’ was the last song we wrote for the album, and that felt like we unlocked a new level to our writing which was being honest in a way that we hadn’t previously been able to. Beyond that, the next level came from the reception it got and out of everything that we’ve done that song will forever be […] I mean you don’t get to write a song like that very often and I’m really grateful for that and that it’s sort of made a connection to people. It’d be cynical to write a song like that intentionally, so you have to do it unknowingly, and then you have to watch it unfold. The second album’s got a lot more of that […] it kind of picks up where ‘100%…’ leaves off.”
Diving a little deeper into the song’s origins, James reminisces on the writing process: “When me and Ryan were writing demos, we would record them on our laptops and send them back and forth to each other, and before we’d finish them we’d usually just WhatsApp film a speaker playing a song and send each other video clips to gauge if we liked it and he sent me the music for ‘100% Endurance’ – just that drum and bass loop, and I immediately had the line ‘I was woken by a bang’. All week I was messaging Ryan going ‘send me that song’ and he just kept ignoring me, so I wrote the song to this WhatsApp video and I kept having to rewind it and play it again. When he finally sent it over, I immediately in one take recorded everything I had and I bounced it back to Ryan and our manager and they were both like ‘that’s the end of the album’. And that vocal take remains on the album, that’s the first time I ever said the first verse and the choruses, that was straight off the cuff, and you can hear some of the microphone brush and stuff.”
With a star-studded set of pals-turned-collaborators including the legendary Elton John and actor David Thewlis who guested in the ‘100% Endurance’ music video, we had to prod and see if there were more cameos in the works. Each night at the Brudenell has culminated in a Chumbawamba sing-along with the aforementioned comedians. “We’ve had a few actors offer their services. People whose work I love. But you don’t want to just lean on it all the time. […] With David it felt so natural, and he fit into it so perfectly, also it’s quite hard to top David Thewlis, and you don’t just want to get into a case of one-upping. He offered to do it because he was a fan of the band. That relationship with him made it special. […] But also, you kind of want a famous face to puncture the world, you don’t want it to become the norm.” The “world” in question of course refers to the character-based lore Yard Act have cultivated, spearheaded by Graeme of ‘Fixer Upper’, the proud owner of two homes and a golden rover. He jokes about involving the “shit Beastie Boys”, a trio of fans who joined the band onstage at Band on the Wall last year.
But when our conversation reaches the band’s “difficult” second album, James explains this time around it’ll be “less character-based and a lot more about me. […] It’s written about basically what I’ve been through in the last two years, which is having a child and being away from home all the time, and trying to write about that in an interesting way that’s not neurotic and egotistical. I think I’ve got it, I’ll have to wait until everyone hears it, but I think I managed to get an angle on this that’s human and relatable without being like ‘It’s really hard being in a van all the time’. It’s finding the balance between […] knowing that I had to pursue this and I’d regret it if I didn’t, but knowing what I had to sacrifice to do that. And fortunately, I have a really supportive partner who’s encouraged us.”
One venue that the band have kept returning to over the past two years is YES. Tonight they play a post-gig DJ set in the main bar. “We’ve been practising [DJing] on the bus – we’ve got decks set-up. It’s a good mix of stuff, it’s gonna be eclectic.” When it comes to bucket list venues, Manchester’s O2 Apollo is top of the list now for James – he recalls seeing Queens of the Stone Age as a teenager there, along with Pixies and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. With a rich history of hosting icons since its doors opened in 1938, and a capacity of 3,500, it seems like a natural next step for Yard Act, whose audience is ever-expanding.
Being a student newspaper, it seemed only right to probe for a Fallowfield anecdote, and it’s not long before James gives a nod to Fuel, the beloved cafe-bar on Wilmslow Road in the heart of Withington along with the now-defunct Roadhouse in Northern Quarter: “I had a mate who went to the Poly. […] There used to be a really good club night called ‘Underachievers, Please Try Harder’ which was the indie night. I don’t think the Roadhouse is open anymore. But that was a really cool club night. […] Manchester’s a weird one because growing up in Warrington, the reason I moved to Leeds was I didn’t want to leave the north but Manchester was too close to home. I didn’t want to get home that quickly, I wanted to separate myself from that.”
“[The music] is something we never expected to leave here […] I think that’s what in the beauty of it, what is completely mundane and normal to us is quite exotic and interesting”
It’s clear from our time with James that he is incredibly knowledgeable about music of many genres, and Yard Act’s varied sound is testament to their plentiful influences. Their second LP, which is due next year, is nearly finished. “We’ve just got to put a gospel choir on it and some strings. It’s a lot more varied musically than the first one. Some of the tracks have got a bit of an afrobeat feel, some of them are sort of looking at sort of Chicago house music a little bit, even industrial dub.”
At one point we’re pitching our dream festival headliners – James goes for Talking Heads, PJ Harvey, and Wu-Tang Clan. “I saw Wu-Tang at the MEN a few years ago, they did a Gods of Rap tour with De La Soul.” Rap may seem like a reach for a band that have found themselves lumped into the post-punk pile, but the sharp lyricism, tight rhyme schemes, and syncopation of a song like ‘Tall Poppies’ says otherwise.
“My dad was into hip-hop growing up, so it was kind of on the stereo. He was into a lot of late 80s early 90s sort of social consciousness hip hop, Public Enemy and KRS-One and stuff like that. Eminem came out when I was like eight, so that was dead exciting at the time, because it was just like a cartoon, designed to appeal to children with the controversy of it all, but he was also super talented and the songs were really great, and that sent me off on a path sort of discovering what West Coast hip-hop was, and then East Coast hip-hop. The first Nas album was huge in terms of craft, of like what rap could be, but probably De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising. […] They’re so underrated. And they had such a fucking rough time with that label stuff and they’ve not been on streaming until this year. Then Dave [Jolicoeur] died which was really sad. Yeah, De La Soul; their records ooze with playfulness and humour.”
This playfulness is evident on The Overload, especially in its ability to capture the zeitgeist on songs like ‘Dead Horse’ (‘Are you seriously still tryna kid me that our culture will be just fine / When all that’s left is knobheads morris dancing to sham 69?’) and ‘Tall Poppies’, the latter of which is abundant in its regional references (‘A scout from Crewe Alexandra’). “[The music] is something we never expected to leave here. And when it first started gaining traction in Europe, when we went out to go and do those first shows I was kind of expecting the band to do the talking, the music to do the talking, and I’d just be an additional instrument. I think what is in the beauty of it, what is completely mundane and normal to us is quite exotic and interesting. It’s why I’m interested in going to Mexico, and someone from Mexico City will be like that’s just fucking, that’s just a taco truck, we’ve got taco trucks everywhere, but for me it’s like this is amazing because it’s authentic and whatever you don’t know always seems more appealing and that goes for the North of England despite the fact you might not feel it. […] that’s the kind of beauty of writing in that style.”
The reference to ‘A genuine authentic Italian restaurant run by a family of fantastic old school Neapolitans’ gets a good reaction in Italy. Meanwhile the lyric ‘That there are more handsome men and better footballers out there in Greater Manchester’ didn’t go down quite as well when Yard Act played District in Liverpool last May. “It’s funny to play with people like that sometimes. […] As long as everyone feels welcome and safe within that, I think diversity is important. Having seen our crowds and having met a lot of people who like our music from different backgrounds and different ages, I’ve noticed as we’ve got bigger I’ve seen more females in the audience which is like really welcome, and it’s good that – touch wood – they’re feeling safe within our crowd and that our crowd is supporting itself, but it’s always a fear as you get bigger that you get less and less control over it, once you attain a certain level you have no control. The only control you have is by the people you attract by the way you act, I think that’s all you can kind of do, as long as everyone knows they’re all welcome and as long as they don’t fuck about, it’s fine.”