“It’s weird, isn’t it?” Over the course of an hour, those are the words Yak frontman Oli Burslem says more than any others. Sometimes they’re in response to a question, sometimes seemingly apropos of nothing other than whatever is going on inside his head as he stares out of the window.
“Dry January,” he sighs after one instance, picking up his cup of tea as buses and cars roar past outside the East London cafe we’re currently sat in. It should be noted that Oli is probably the last person you would expect to partake in an alcohol abstinence campaign. Later, he’ll jokingly explain the band’s finances now they’re signed to Virgin EMI by saying: “£400 a month isn’t going to go far, is it? Not when you’ve got a massive boozing appetite. That’s like, a day!”
Despite that, he’s doing well so far, though finding it a bit longwinded. “I feel like it’s been ages but it’s been two days,” he says. “It was the World Cup that did it for me.”
“That was half a year ago,” says drummer Elliot Rawson, half amused, half exasperated. Oli either doesn’t hear him or just doesn’t acknowledge him and continues on. “I said during the World Cup, ‘I’m gonna drink every day.’ Someone would ask me to do something at one o’clock and I’d say, ‘I can’t at one, it’s Colombia versus Japan.’ I’d be at the pub watching Pointless waiting for the football to come on, drinking. If I start drinking again, that’s basically another two years disappeared out of my life.”
“If you have a lot of highs and lows, then there’s the matter of the comedown.”
He’s referring to a time that was more than a little chaotic for the band. Founding member Andy Jones moved to Australia and Oli followed him there for a while, via Japan, but was soon stranded, having spent all of his money. Once back in London, he had to live out of the back of a car while trying to figure out how to make another record.
“I can’t put it in any kind of order in my head, what happened,” he says now. “I was pretty fucked for most of it, which is a bit boring after a bit. It’s been a bit of a daze for many reasons. In certain states that we were in, it was quite hard to operate in those two years or be productive, or just about manage to do a gig. I think the proper last gig we played with Andy was the Scala and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that’s the last gig we’ll ever play. We’ll not do that again.’”
Somehow, Oli and Elliot managed to stick together and, with new bassist Vinny Davies, make astonishing second album, ‘Pursuit Of Momentary Happiness’. It’s a record that howls and sighs through manic post-punk, beautifully tender psych, and some of Yak’s best songs yet; a kind of blood-letting for all the chaos that was swirling around them as they made it. Its title feels fitting for the band, and particularly their frontman, of late. “There were loads of times we’d be at parties, raving, going out until all hours, and that seemed to give me the most happiness,” Oli says. “But also at the back of your head, that’s probably not the idea of any kind of longevity of happiness. Also if you have a lot of highs and lows, then there’s the matter of the comedown.”
He shoves another bite of his toastie in his mouth and, just when you think he’s finished on that point, begins explaining where the album title came from. “There’s this local street guy,” he says, prefacing the anecdote with another “it’s weird.” “He’d pulled a knife on me before. He’s coming down the street and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s this guy again, I hope he’s in a better mood’. He was asking for a fag or drugs or whatever. I didn’t have anything so I was like, ‘Pursuit of happiness, mate.’ And then he said, ‘Oh, it’s only momentary.’ That was after the song so I was like, ‘Woahhh!’ I remember thinking that’d be a good title.”
“I was thinking, ‘Right, this is it. Be normal for one day…’”
If anyone else told you that story, you’d immediately call them out for spouting cynically-concocted bollocks. But, with Oli, it’s always hard to tell whether something’s true, a complete fabrication, or a mixture of the two. He’s the kind of person who seems to roll through life, getting into scrapes, mishaps and odd situations without even trying. A conversation with him is one that’s peppered with tales where you’ll never quite figure out if he’s having you on or not.
During this particular conversation, he keeps any truly wild stories to himself, only hinting once at a night on tour that ended in a police chase. Press him for details and he’ll grin mischievously and reply: “I couldn’t possibly say.” Earlier, while talking about a day in the studio after Vinny joined the band, he gives a little insight into the workings of his brain as he tells a tale about deciding to cut his own hair while pissed, but only managing one clump before passing out.
“Then I got to the studio first [the next day] and had a very peculiar haircut,” he continued. “Vinny’s never cut hair before but I thought he’d be able to. So we got the kitchen scissors out of the rack and I stood in the car park. He did a great job.” He pauses before quietly dropping the pay-off. “I thought if there was a murder there I’d be done for the DNA.”
Later, the frontman dishes out some more illuminating assessments of himself that you might have already worked out by now. “I’m always a bit dramatic,” he says at one point. “I think I ran away to the circus when I was seven and got lost, got freaked out. As you get older and realise you haven’t changed a lot, you try not to be as melodramatic.” He pauses for the briefest of moments before he corrects that fragment of a yarn sandwiched between his self-analysis. “I think it was a fair, that’s what it was. Andy’s dad found me somewhere in the middle of nowhere and it was getting dark. I remember starting to be like, ‘OK, I’ve taken this a bit too far now.”
“Someone would ask me to do something at one o’clock and I’d say, ‘I can’t at one, it’s Colombia versus Japan.’”
That sentiment is one that may well have popped into Oli’s head more than once over the last two years. Yet, on the record’s title track - a twinkling waltz given a scruffy edge by his slurred delivery - he sighs, “If nobody felt anything […] that just ain’t living”. It seems to suggest that maybe the wildcard singer doesn’t really mind being in the eye of several storms at once. “I suppose so,” he shrugs. “We do see people just get on with it. I’m not one of them though. It’s nice to feel things occasionally…”
But does everything need to be quite so extreme all the time? Elliot lets out a wry laugh at the question, as Oli leans back and smiles. “Not necessarily, no,” he concedes, before clutching at the silk pyjama shirt underneath his jumper. “I put these on last night, I woke up this morning and the alarm went off. Usually I snooze it but it was like, ‘That’s off now. I’m a good guy.’ Slid out of bed, kettle’s on. I was thinking, ‘Right, this is it. Be normal for one day.’ You always wanna be something you’re not, don’t you?” That may be, but really, as ‘Pursuit Of Momentary Happiness’ shows, Yak are more than alright being their ridiculous, radical and - yes - weird selves.
Normality’s overrated anyway.
‘Pursuit Of Momentary Happiness’ is out now via Third Man Records / Virgin EMI.
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