Yard Act: Dream Catchers

When fulfilling your ambitions fails to fill a hole, what do you do next? With widescreen second LP ‘Where’s My Utopia?’ Yard Act are unearthing the answers (or at least some of them) in familial foundations and unfettered creative freedom.

“The idea of ‘making it’ as a band indicates that it stops when you’ve ‘made it’, but it doesn’t. And so a Mercury nomination - that’s brilliant, but then [everything] just carries on and what do you do? You either do it again, or you never do it again and you feel like you’ve failed. You have to learn how to live with yourself and [understand] why you’re doing it.”

James Smith - the charismatic frontman of Leeds quartet Yard Act - is no stranger to contemplation; his existential musings on politics and purpose, delivered in a distinctive Yorkshire brogue, are central to the band’s signature sound. But more recently, all four members have undergone something of a reckoning, internally grappling with their perceptions of success whilst outwardly riding a career rollercoaster that accelerated in earnest almost exactly two years ago, with the release of their debut LP ‘The Overload’.

While the charts don’t have quite the same thrill as they once did (Rage Against The Machine’s X Factor-beating Christmas slamdunk aside), every once in a while there’s something to get your teeth into: a David vs Goliath battle that prompts press coverage, emergency campaign strategies, and more than a few last-minute, five quid iTunes downloads. Such was the case with ‘The Overload’ - an album that, although beaten to Number One by Years & Years’ ‘Night Call’, received rapturous critical and commercial acclaim, was shortlisted for the aforementioned 2022 Mercury Prize, and resulted in a collaboration with Elton John. Not bad for a first innings, huh?

“It’s weird, because I’m glad all those things happened and I’d rather that than not, but it didn’t change anything,” James says, joining bassist Ryan Needham and guitarist Sam Shipstone on Zoom a few weeks after 2023’s Iceland Airwaves, where the windswept photos to accompany today’s chat were taken. “Well, it did change everything,” he concedes after a second, “but it didn’t solve anything. I didn’t take any pride in achieving those things, and I thought I would. That’s not because I’m ashamed of them, obviously. And it’s not because I’m ungrateful for them. But I thought it would do something to my psyche, that it would shift something in me that I thought I needed. And it didn’t.”

James chooses his words carefully, with frequent caveats that they’re all hugely appreciative of everything ‘The Overload’ has allowed them to do. But fame is nothing if not fickle, and Yard Act have come to understand that the conventional trappings of industry success only mean so much. “[They] were sort of like winning an Employee of the Month award,” Ryan offers. “You have a little moment of going, ‘That’s a laugh’ and you get a gift voucher, but someone else wins it next month. Your job doesn’t really change.”

Away from the accolades and career milestones, for James, there is one thing which undoubtedly HAS changed the job: becoming a father. “That version of success didn’t actually result in any inner peace,” he explains. “Because to get to that point, we had to sacrifice a lot. I had to sacrifice time at home with my son to do that. So I had to reflect - why are you doing this? And who are you doing it for?” He pauses. “I think I realised that I am still doing it for my son. But I also have to admit that I’m doing it for myself too, because I’m not content simply being a father; I have to be my own person as well. And that, in a sense, is inherently selfish of me. So that was an interesting conclusion to come to - [that] I’m not that selfless.”

But, DIY posits, doing a different job may well have entailed sacrifices of a similar vein - except the band would have been creatively dissatisfied to boot. Ryan nods, suggesting that “working class guilt” breeds an insidious sort of shame around enjoying what you do to earn money. James agrees, explaining that his wife has helped assuage his self-reproach for having fun on tour. “That's been vital for my love of doing it,” he nods, “and I know when not to send her pictures of, say, the Tokyo skyline while she’s changing nappies…”

Yard Act on their second album 'Where's My Utopia?' for DIY In Deep Yard Act on their second album 'Where's My Utopia?' for DIY In Deep Yard Act on their second album 'Where's My Utopia?' for DIY In Deep
“[Getting a Mercury nomination] is sort of like winning an Employee of the Month award.” - Ryan Needham

It’s with clear heads, knotless backs, and a renewed sense of perspective, then, that Yard Act approached the notorious Album Two. Due to arrive on 1st March, ‘Where’s My Utopia?’ sees the band take the outward-facing social commentary of their debut and turn its astute lyrical gaze inward, while musically they eschew their post-punk pigeonholing in glorious fashion. ‘We Make Hits’ is tongue-in-cheek self-referentialism at its finest, while ‘Dream Job’ - the record’s lead single - embraces synthy ‘80s grooves for their catchiest hook to date. Of their reluctance to be ascribed to a single genre, James muses that “no matter how many nice things people say about you, you still fixate on that one thing someone says that you disagree with. Well, I do anyway - some people are more noble than me.” He pauses, grinning. “Ryan’s an L.A. monk; it might be water off a monk’s head to Ryan. And we just quite like writing pop songs, really.”

That’s not to say ‘...Utopia’ is a complete artistic overhaul; ‘The Overload’’s DNA can be heard in the brooding bassline of ‘Petroleum’, or in the monologic narrative of ‘Blackpool Illuminations’. Genetic modifications, however, also abound. Take ‘Down By The Stream’ - a reflective soliloquy that weighs up notions of youthful ignorance and retrospective shame, backed by a record-scratching instrumental recalling the ‘90s hip hop of House of Pain and Cypress Hill. Elsewhere, ‘The Undertow’ broods with the melodramatic strings and anguished swagger of Pulp in their prime (“What’s the guilt worth / If you do nothing with it?”), while beat-driven closer ‘A Vineyard For The North’ lands like a sermon of tentative, resilient hope preached from behind the DJ decks. It’s the sound of a band who are truly delighting in widening their scope - a band for whom nothing, it seems, is off the table.

Meanwhile, their character-packed visual world - affectionately termed The Yardiverse - is also expanding at an exponential rate. Each of the music videos for LP2 follow the story of The Visitor, a mysterious woman on the run who was introduced to us via the non-album, eight-minute epic single ‘The Trenchcoat Museum’. “I love doing the videos,” enthuses James, explaining that they’re part of a longer film centred around the character. Written by and starring Yard Act, the complete film - dubbed “Yorkshire Blade Runner'' by Ryan - is set to arrive in early 2025, with the finished product clocking in at roughly an hour.

Yard Act on their second album 'Where's My Utopia?' for DIY In Deep Yard Act on their second album 'Where's My Utopia?' for DIY In Deep Yard Act on their second album 'Where's My Utopia?' for DIY In Deep
“I find more of a kinship with comedians than musicians a lot of the time.” - James Smith

Having an open-door policy on external input not only speaks to the band’s utter lack of conceit, but is also in some ways a reaction to the pandemic-induced relative insularity of ‘The Overload’’s conception. “This was essentially Album One for us, as four people writing together from the start,” Ryan explains. “And I think because we knew that it was going so well, no one gave a fuck about lifting the barriers up and letting other people in. I think I personally used to be so precious about [the music], but then you become guarded and worried, and that’s just the fucking kryptonite of creativity.” “I didn’t think saying, ‘I’m Graham, by the way’ would start me on a fucking journey that’s culminated in where we’re at now,” affirms James. “If I’d been precious and cynical about what that was, none of this would have happened.”

Underneath the flippancy, however, there’s a tangible sense of freedom to the frontman’s words; having shrugged off all notions of what they ‘should’ do next, Yard Act are embracing the expectation-subverting, the expansive, and the downright silly (“So when we were done kissing / We finally formed this band / And we signed to a subsidiary of Universal Inc,” James intones on ‘We Make Hits’). “I think what we do next will be fucking ridiculous,” he smiles. “An army of kazoos, all played by members of, I don’t know… brass bands in Barnsley.” He pauses, speaking more earnestly now: “You have to be willing to fall on your face and get it wrong. That’s something that I don’t think artists are afforded in the same way as they used to be - the chance to fail.” Another pause. “Just think about something like ‘You Can Call Me Al’. What the fuck is that song? That’s STUPID, but it’s AMAZING.”

And herein lies the compelling duality of ‘Where’s My Utopia?’. For all its thematic preoccupation with weighty issues of disillusionment, guilt and climate change, it’s also a project born of humour, optimism, and a deep camaraderie. “It was a fucking joy to make,” James says simply. “It was everything making an album should be.”

Yard Act on their second album 'Where's My Utopia?' for DIY In Deep
“You have to be willing to fall on your face and get it wrong. Artists aren’t afforded the chance to fail in the same way they used to be.” - James Smith

What, then, does success now look like for Yard Act? For Ryan, “fulfilment is creativity and collaboration”. “It’s a cliché to say,” he adds, “but it is just to continue to make good art together. That’s my success.” James would still quite like the album to get a Mercury nod - “Mainly because I think it’s better than ‘The Overload’,” he grins - but affirms that “this playful nature of it is everything; as long as we’re having fun and we’re all happy with it, then just being able to do that again and again until it’s boring is the most important thing. And if creatively it starts to feel like we've hit a wall or we need a break, I hope that we won't just drive ourselves into the ground for the sake of making money, because it’s a job.”

If things do head south, the band can always fall back on a fool-proof Plan B - their alternative Dream Jobs. “Shippo would be working for the Citizens Advice Bureau as an assistant to the regional manager,” James muses as Sam laughs, while drummer Jay “would be buying two of everything and flipping the second one on Ebay for profit.” As for Ryan and James, the latter reckons that they’d be running a road-side shack, sharing a crop to sell wine and grape juice respectively. “And where’s this vineyard gonna be?” asks Ryan incredulously. “In the North,” comes the reply. “Obviously.”

‘Where’s My Utopia?’ is out 1st March via Island.

You can listen to James' episode of DIY's podcast Before They Knew Better here.

Tags: Yard Act, Features, In Deep