The last couple of years have been a very strange time for any band to be releasing a debut album, but even amidst the chaos of the pandemic Leeds-based quartet Yard Act have managed to create a sizeable buzz for themselves, despite not having played a single live show by the time songs like ‘Fixer Upper’ were already receiving heavy rotation on radio and marking the band out as one of the most exciting to emerge from British shores in recent years.
In that time their line-up has shifted and then settled, with their debut album being put together remotely piece by piece, but with their maiden album The Overload finally unleashed into stores this week we caught up with frontman James Smith to talk about how it came together, why they thought they might end up just being a studio band, and why politics has become an unavoidable element of their music…
How are you feeling on the eve of your debut albums release?
“I kind of feel like it’s not really ours any more. It’s ours for a few more weeks and then it’s for everyone else to decide what it’s worth. And it’s been nearly a year since we recorded it, which feels like so long ago now that I’ve already been through the mill with it. I’ve loved it and hated about five times, and then I couldn’t listen to it any more.
“I actually listened to it for the first time on Christmas Eve when we got the finished vinyl through the post, and that was the first time I’d consumed it as a whole since it got mastered back in June or whatever it was. And I’m, proud of it. I think it’s good, I hope people like it, but I feel like I’m too far removed from it now.”
That must be an amazing feeling, getting your debut album on vinyl delivered to you…
“Yeah, the final step is to see it in a shop and know that it exists in the real world, but I guess it’s the second-to last step before it’s like ‘Right, cool, it’s out there now.’”
It sounds like you’ve been sitting on it for a while, how has it been putting together your debut with the pandemic going on?
“It’s all been recorded in bits and pieces. Basically me and Ryan, who plays bass, we recorded all of the rhythm tracks together last January down in Bristol. We went to stay in an Air B&B and worked with Ali Chant, who’s produced the record, and it was just the three of us in his studio for a week building all the tracks up. Then in March when everything opened up the rest of the band came in and we finished it in Leeds.
“The way we did it was that Sam recorded his guitar parts after I’d put my vocals on, and all of that was just the way that it had to work. We’ve just had to adapt along the way, really, but I think it has kind of served us well doing that. It helped us think outside of the conventional way that we would have gone into writing and recording had the pandemic not happened, so it’s all been part of the process. And that’s fine, you’ve just got to adapt, haven’t you?”
It’s quite an unusual way of putting a record together, how do you share out the writing duties in the band?
“Well, because of lockdown the album was pretty much written by Ryan sending over a few bass loops over a drum beat, and then I’d write all of the words over the top, looping and stretching the sections to fit what I needed, so I’d kind of arrange and edit Ryan’s raw idea, then a little bit later Sam would start writing his guitar parts after I’d done the vocals, so his guitar playing ended up being like the salt & pepper on top of it all, it sort of caters to the vocals and reacts to them.”
What kind of music did you all bond over when you started playing together?
“We’re all big fans of that first and second wave of post-punk, but it wasn’t something that we really discussed. When me and Ryan started writing together before the lockdown, he was living at my house, he’d moved in for a few months and that’s kind of when we started Yard Act, although we didn’t have a name for it and didn’t really have any intentions for it. But I had this little 4-track and basically in the beginning we were just trying to do Guides by Voices tunes! That first track ‘Trapper’s Pelt’, which ended up being the first thing that we released, that was us trying to do ‘Hot Freaks’ by Guided by Voices.
“Then Ryan was influenced I think by stuff like Liquid Liquid and ESG, those sort of new-wave or no-wave bands. We were kind of looking at those sorts of simple, repetitive grooves. And because we had the drum machine as well that kind of looping, psychotic repetition became quite important. Then when Sam joined on guitar and Jay joined on drums a little bit later on, they’re both really versatile, feel-driven musicians. I know Sam’s a big fan of Marc Ribot, Tom Waits’ guitarist, and he brings that kind of feel. It’s a very strip-it-to-the-bones approach, to not add any texture beyond that really dry, brittle sound of his guitar. He does a lot of word-painting with that style, if you know what I mean. Jay comes from a sort of breakbeat and hip-hop kind of place, so he hooked into that repetitive element and the loop element, and has helped develop that a bit I think. And I was just listening to a lot of rap music, really.”
Is that where your spoken-word kind of style comes from, do you think?
“Yeah, I think so. I guess it’s my interpretation of it. I grew up listening to hip-hop, I guess when Eminem came out that was what first got me interested, but then my dad would play me stuff by KRS ONE and Public Enemy, things like that. Then I bought Illmatic by Nas and that sort of led me on a journey of discovering all that East Coast hip-hop, stuff by Native Tongues and Mobb Deep. 2001 by Dre and Marshal Mathers were my introduction, and then through my dad I got into all of the more politically conscious stuff, then things like Wu-Tang and MF Doom a little bit later.
“That was a big thing for me, and I wasn’t going to just rap but it’s how I’ve interpreted it, it’s influenced my rhyming schemes and things like this, and the way write is sort of about linking things together with quite complex rhymes. All of that is taken from people like MF Doom and GZA from the Wu-Tang Clan, especially.”
On ‘Fixer Upper’ you wrote from the point of view of a character called Graham, this sort of Brexit Britain everyman – was he inspired by anyone in particular?
“I mean, he’s someone who lived on my street when I grew up, or he’s an uncle, or he’s my ex-landlord when I moved to Leeds, he’s sort of made up of a handful of people. He’s every bloke in the pub that you’ve ended up talking to after getting corned by in the bar.”
You mentioned being influenced by politically-conscious rap, do you think of yourselves as a political band?
“I think we are sort of political by default because we’re writing about observations on modern Britain, because that’s all I really know. It’s all based on experience and you can only really write about that, but I think by default that becomes political just because the last few years have been so aggressively political. I thing the thing that the Brexit referendum did was it made people who’d never really been that interested in politics become very engaged in a certain kind of politics, one that drives friction on both sides of the argument. And it’s become so grotesque, I think people have forgotten what they were arguing about in the first place.
“But I’m definitely not political in the sense that I think it’s my place to tell people what to think, or that I’m right and they’re wrong. That’s something that I’ve been quite conscious about.”
With Graham it feels like you’re poking fun at something without being sneering about it..
“Yeah. Well, it is sneering a bit. It’s a little bit of a sneer. But that’s fine as well, you know? It’s alright to dislike people and kick ‘em a bit sometimes! As long as you don’t think that you’ve got some sort of divine right to do that. But no, I definitely wasn’t trying to do that, I don’t have any interest in that. I don’t even particularly think I’m right, and I don’t think it really matters anyway. But I’m always conscious of how much space I take up in the debate and I don’t really think it’s my place to be the mouthpiece for all of that. I’d much rather be standing on the sidelines, jeering.”
You mentioned working with Ali Chant on your debut album – how did he get involved?
“During the various lockdowns I’ve been listening to a lot more music than I had been in years, because I had more time to do a bit more of that, and there were three records; Babelsburg by Gruff Rhys, Return by Katie J Pearson and Designer by Aldous Harding. Every time I listened to any of those records I thought ‘God, these sound gorgeous, the mix is amazing’. And every time I looked to see who had mixed them, it was Ali Chant. So I’d said to Ryan that maybe we should try and get Ali to mix our album. It was weird because within a week we got this little follow on Instagram, and it was Ali Chant.
“So I messaged him and was like ‘This is weird, but we were just talking about you.’ And he messaged back saying that he’d just heard us on 6Music, andthat he really liked it. So we asked if he would mix our album and he was like ‘Yeah, I will, but I’d rather produce it’. So we ended up having a few chats with him, booked in the studio time, and we didn’t really have an album at that stage but the idea was to go and do a few tracks with him and see if it worked. But when we got there we had 11 tracks by that point, so we got them all down with Ali and we just worked really fast.”
What was he able to bring to the table?
“He’s just an incredibly patient and unintrusive man. Different producers have different ways of working but with Ali he’s very hands-off, but he knew when to step in and give us a bit of a push. We weren’t quite ready to helm it ourselves, I suppose we were a bit unsure of ourselves because we hadn’t really played in front of an audience, so we didn’t really know what we were or what we were making. We hadn’t done any gigs and half the line-up had changed over the lockdown, so we knew it was kind of this weird thing, but Ali helped us just focus on the songs and guided us. His studio was ace and we’ve made a friend for life now I think. He’s one of the most genuinely sound people I’ve ever met and he’s helped us learn how to be ourselves a bit more, I think.”
You’ve been able to get out on the road a bit more this year, how have you found the reaction so far?
“Really good. It had got to the point where we were almost like ‘Well, maybe we’re just a studio band, maybe gigs will never happen again.’ We didn’t really have anything to compare it to, we’ve all been in bands in the past and slogged it for years playing to empty rooms and stuff, so we don’t take it for granted that we stepped back out after the summer and all our gigs were sold out, or that the festivals have been really busy for us.
“We just rose to it, I think. We didn’t have to be shy because we had a lot of the audience on our side already, which is a really strange position to be in for what is technically a new band, but I think through past experiences of having battled against uninterested audiences or empty rooms, we knew that we’d been given a golden ticket and I was quite surprised at how fast I found my inner performer. I kind of pulled something out from inside me that I didn’t really know was there, and I don’t know that I would have done that if I didn’t know that the audience knew half of our set already. We played about six festivals last summer and as good as the band are as musicians, you only become that living, breathing, singular organism when you’re playing for an audience and can react together. And by the end of the summer they were playing like beasts! Now I’m just buzzing to get back on it to be honest.”