“What a day to be alive! The state of everything”, yell Yard Act right at you in the first line of their debut single ‘The Trapper’s Pelts’. Somehow, that one sentence instantly captures what they are all about. You’re suddenly getting served that hard-squeezed, fresh-out-of-the-box and thoroughly shaken essence. They’ve brewed it for a while out of the ridiculousness of their surroundings and a drop of groovy drum machine beats. There’s no time for niceties. This stuff is real. Real nuts.
2020 was the perfect year for Yard Act to pop up on the musical horizon. The thing is, sometimes the world is just bonkers and all there’s left to do is to laugh at it. That snappily sarcastic formation has dissected and nailed down this attitude. Yard Act have gone miles beyond the obvious with their minimalistic rock bangers, speeding far away from the last seasons’ bland batch of post-punk bands whose only special power is Tory-hating (not that it’s not a useful skill) and decided to play to their smarts. Coming from Leeds’ music scene and thousand nights of knocking around local venues, vocalist James Smith and bassist Ryan Needham got together to smash out some smirky bits and overlay spoken-word vocals on them. As it happened to slap harder than UK’s current political climate, they’ve dragged drummer George Townend and recently-new guitarist Sam Shjipstone into the enterprise to join them on a mission of becoming a proper band.
With four singles out and the plenty of buzz in the media air, Yard Act are more than motivated to prove us that they can live up to the hype. Not really having a chance to demonstrate their performance skills much as the pandemic has blown up just as they did too, they locked themselves away to pour the frustration into studio time and press a debut album out of it.
James Smith shared why it’ll sound different than what we’ve heard so far, took us to the backstage of working-class musicians’ struggles and recommended a film to watch as the world is falling apart. All with a pinch of irony, humour and a tiny touch of hope for this year.
Can you tell me how Yard Act came to existence and whether you had a precise concept for it at the beginning?
It originally came into existence because Ryan, who plays bass, I knew him from knocking around Leeds. He wasn’t a close friend but we always said we’ll start a band together. Then he didn’t have anywhere to live so he ended up living in my spare bedroom and that’s how the band started. Originally it was going to be like a really scrappy, garage kind of band. We were writing demos at night and then we had the first song. ‘The Trapper’s Pelts’ was the first one when my vocals became more talking less singing and we just chased that.
Despite getting together as a band in 2019, there’s already been some press noise and hype about you in addition to the growing fanbase. How does it feel to be in the middle of all that?
Really exciting. It’s nice. It’s hard to gauge what that hype is because we’ve not played any gigs. If we played shows, we’d probably have that measurement of either they’d be getting busier or wouldn’t be. You can’t read people’s reactions properly on the internet even though they’re saying nice things, obviously. The longer it goes on, the funnier it gets. It’s becoming kind of a joke that we might never actually play a gig which we were actually quite excited about. But we will, I think. The reaction’s ace. We’re just running with it, it’s just really great that people are into it. It doesn’t feel real.
You can’t play gigs but I’ve heard that you’ve been spending a lot of time in the studio recently, so what have you been working on?
We’ve been working on an album. The way we built it is sort of rhythm first. There’s a lot of percussion on it and there’s a lot of drum machines on it. We’ve gone quite heavy on that side of the things. We went with it half-finished so we could kind of jam music underneath and still rewrite lyrics. We are finishing it off in a few months in Leeds, adding guitars to it and putting some vocals on it. None of the tracks that we put out so far are on it so it’s all completely new. It’s got recurring themes, a lot of the songs are about capitalism, money and corruption. It flows in a really interesting way. It starts really miserable, then the last few songs kind of open up, and then there’s a bit of lightness at the end of it. We’ve done a lot of stuff on the record that I don’t think, based on the songs people have heard by us, they wouldn’t expect us to do. With the album, it felt like we could expand on themes. We didn’t just have to do one thing so we’ve taken the opportunity to push out in different styles because that’s what we’re more interested in anyway. We’re not just interested in one kind of music and you can’t really articulate that on a couple of singles because you trying to get some sort of coherence and consistency in what you’re doing. You’ve only got one shot at the time to get people’s attention. Now that we’ve got the album, the bases of it, there are changes in direction and nods to sort of 60s electronic music and late 80s/90s hip-hop. Then there’s even like a ballad on it.
Recently there’s been a re-emergence of the UK’s post-punk bands playing loud anti-capitalistic hymns. With everyone wanting to rebel against the system, not many can present the old left-wing musings in a fresh, amusing way like you do. What do you think makes Yard Act stand out from the crowd?
You’re right, there’s like tons of post-punk bands. There’s a fascination with it at the moment. I think the main thing is that we’re not actually interested in that kind of music so I don’t think we’re trying to emulate it. It just happens to be that’s where we’re coming from. I don’t know what makes us stand out. Maybe there’s no pretence about it. It’s honest. We don’t try to act cooler than we are. We are ourselves. We don’t try to pretend that we’re moody or distant. People got into that – the way that I write – and I don’t always write in the first person. A lot of the time, a lot of me slips into that. More extreme versions of my character slip into different songs, but then other voices are coming out of that as well. It’s like writing about other people, other situations but without actually imposing your own judgement on them and trying not to. I’m not really interested in enforcing my opinions on other people. If anything, people can make their own minds up. We’re not as antagonistic in that sense even though we are. I definitely don’t think I have all the answers all the time so I make a conscious effort not to judge.
Your lyricism, besides being political and very on the modern punk agenda, reminds also of a spoken word and sharp-on-point poetry. What are your musical and other/outside influences?
I really like [Kurt] Vonnegut, the writer. I guess that comes into it. It’s mainly just everything around me. I draw a lot on what I saw around me growing up. It’s mainly stuff that makes me laugh. I find most things quite funny. Even in serious situations, there’s something peculiar you can laugh at. Not in a vicious way but absurd. When stuff’s absurd, I always find it quite funny. I’ve always gravitated towards people that made me laugh. I’ve used it as a way to deflect and probably cope with situations. Humour is a really good way of processing and coping with serious dark things which we experience every day.
Your newest single ‘Dark Days’ is finally out. How the process of creating it looked like and what’s the story behind it?
I’ve written a book about the first four songs that links them all together. I already half-started writing the book and then we decided that ‘Dark Days’ will be a way to set a scene for the novel. It all imagines Yorkshire 100 years in the future so like a near dystopia. I want to paint this picture of ‘this is where society and humanity could be heading’ but then blow it with ‘this is where we already are’ and drawing on the stuff that is happening now that’s terrifying, really overwhelming and crashing people. There’s a lot of dystopian stuff now like Handmaid’s Tale. But we’re already there. Its’ not like it’s the future. It’s now. That’s what this song is looking at. I’ve just watched that film, Children of Men. It’s set in the near future in the UK in the world where for some reason women stopped being able to get pregnant and society is going to shit because there’s no hope, no future generations.
Talking about no hope and despair, how is the life of the working-class musicians treating you, especially now that the government is almost admitting to not care much for the independent music and creative industry?
It’s crap. This government doesn’t care at all. I’m at the point where I’ve got two jobs. I’ve been doing music for like ten years and working jobs. I never made a living from it. Maybe that will change with Yard Act because of the amount of buzz it’s getting but I still don’t know if it’s feasible to make a living off it, and there’s no support. In the music industry everything is changing so fast because of the internet, because of streaming, because people aren’t buying music like they used to. Musicians will have to find new ways to cope and survive. But you look at other European countries or somewhere like Canada where there is so much funding and grants for artists to go and do stuff. There’s just nothing over here. The government just don’t give a fuck because they don’t understand the culture. They don’t come from a place where normal people exist together and have shared experiences. The government we have is born from a fucking elite position so they’re never gonna understand it, are they? They don’t know what it’s like to stand in a room with 50 people watching bands sweating away on the stage. They’ve never experienced that so they will never be able to understand how little bands had in the first place. Now, they have even that taken away from them. They don’t understand what grassroots culture is and how it grows. They’ve never been at the start of something like that. But I also think there’s resilience and I get that musicians, and just everyone, is pretty worn down at the moment. It’s really brutal and maybe you’ll get this if you watch Children of Men. There’s just this resilience to human beings. They’re actually really adaptable and feisty creatures that do push through and persevere. I have a lot of hope for the future. I think the kids are alright.
You’re releasing your music on your own label Zen F.C., how come that you have decided to do this instead of just go the obvious way and try to get signed somewhere?
Just because when we started, nobody knew who we were and we just wanted to get on with it – then it went really well. Ryan does a lot of design stuff as well, so it felt really nice designing the label. It’s named after the first song we ever wrote which we never played live and we probably never will because it’s not as good as the new stuff. In tribute to that, we named the label after it. There was a lot of talk about using the label to release other artists’ stuff in the future. There’s a lot of labels getting in touch now. We have to make a choice for the album, what we want to do because there’s – I won’t say, but there are labels I wanted to sign to all my life getting in touch and putting offers on the table. We’ve had a whole spectrum of offers. Maybe we’re on this good path with our own label. Maybe we should stick with that. I don’t know what we’re gonna do yet.
The current UK’s music scene seems to be very London-centric and while obviously there are some great musicians here, the other cities do deserve the spotlight as well. So, since you’re from Leeds can you tell me what is the scene like there and what makes it special?
Leeds is really good. It does feel really London-centric at the moment but I think that’s fine. I’ve always felt that Leeds is separate to the rest of the country. Leeds is really quite insular in a really positive way. I feel like bands don’t really break out of Leeds because they get really comfortable being within it and getting the credibility of other Leeds bands. There’s a lot of small venues to play, hopefully, there will be when they reopen, because there were so many to play, you end up gigging around Leeds frequently.
If your plans will come to fruition, fingers crossed, you’ll be pretty busy this year – End Of The Road Festival, Sonic Wave, hopefully, rescheduled socially distanced headline shows and probably lots more. What are you the most excited for this year?
Well, that London show at The Lexington sold out really fast so I was really excited about that. Not sure if it all will happen in June now but I’m looking forward to playing that. End Of The Road was one of the things we said we want to do when we started the band because I’ve never played that festival and the line-up is always amazing. Then it happened and we got booked for it so I’m really hoping that happens. There’s some stuff later in the year that we’re booked in for that I can’t mention but like really cool stuff that I’m excited about. I’m just looking forward to playing some shows now. I’m just thinking that everyone will be desperate to watch any band. No matter how bad they sound so I feel like we’ll be alright. We’ll get through it.
Can you describe Yard Act in five words?
Oh, that’s a good one. I can’t think of what to say now. I feel like I have to represent the whole band in five words. ‘Most Likely To Disappoint Live’. That’s what I’ll go with. Self-deprecating. Just make sure that’s in the big letters at the top.
Words: Alex Brzezicka // Photos: James Brown
Yard Act’s ‘Dark Days EP’ is out now via their own label, Zen FC. You can stream and purchase it via their Bandcamp.