In The Studio: Yard Act

Interview In The Studio: Yard Act

Following the whirlwind success of debut ‘The Overload’, Yard Act are peeling back the layers and looking within on its successor.

If there’s a succinct anecdote to sum up the rise and rise of Yard Act over the past 18 months, perhaps it’s the fact that, in DIY’s Class of 2022 cover feature, the Leeds quartet were spitballing about their ultimate pie-in-the-sky ambitions; “I’ve had an idea that Elton gives Bernie [Taupin] the week off and I send him some of my lyrics to see what he does with them,” joked frontman James Smith. Within the year, they’d made it a reality, the Glastonbury-headlining legend joining them for a rework of debut album closer ‘100% Endurance’. From ludicrous pipe dream to premiere in seven months; it’s a trajectory that happens to few.

Zooming in from his Yorkshire living room on a rare break between relentless tours (they’ll be off to Japan later in the week), Smith is finally starting to take it all in. “I feel incredibly emotional all the time at the moment,” he begins. “I keep welling up with tears every time I see the boys because I’m so proud of them as well, and the fact that we’ve been on this journey together. There’s a very strong foundation between the four of us; I feel very in love with them all.”

Where many bands require a mental detox from the people they spend their lives crammed into a tour bus with, Smith, bassist Ryan Needham, guitarist Sam Shipstone and drummer Jay Russell have still been spending their down time together, hanging out, shooting the shit. When standalone single ‘The Trench Coat Museum’ landed last month - a bold, eight-minute expedition into previously-uncharted waters, with a ravey, ‘Screamadelica’-esque climax - the band ended up in their local, “sat in the corner for five hours just being friends - not to celebrate the release, just because the four of us were free”.

It’s a wholesome picture of harmonious band life he paints; one where egos remain impressively low and nothing much really has changed. Except, of course, everything has changed for Yard Act. And, preparing to follow up the observational storytelling and idiosyncratic narratives of Number Two-charting debut ‘The Overload’ with a second record that flips the script, taking the hard-won lessons from the maddest two years of their lives and laying them out over an album that turns the lens inwards, James might be the same, down-to-earth guy in conversation, but creatively he’s clearly in a very different space.

“There’s a very strong foundation between the four of us in the band; I feel very in love with them all.”

— James Smith

Shirking the analogies and curious character studies of old in favour of getting right into the nitty gritty of it all, Album Two, says James, addresses the feeling of “getting pulled under and into a world that I felt like I had no idea how to navigate, where I felt very far away from the shore of the life I’d always known.” Though it won’t feature on the record itself, ‘Trench Coat...’ acts as a transition between the two releases, exploring ideas of legacy and of the self, of why we care so much about what other people think and what’s left when you stop, but with a healthy splash of Yard Act-ian humour soused liberally over the top.

“A museum is basically where we go to learn about the mistakes of our past, so that felt quite comical to me but also symbolic of where I’m at,” he notes. “I think it looks at the mistakes I’ve made in my train of thought about what’s important, and where my brain has focused its energy for so long. The museum is putting definitive notions of right and wrong in glass cases and saying, ‘This is how I used to perceive the world’ and trying to move on to something that’s not as grounded in your own patterns of thought.” He pauses. “Do I sound like a space cadet?”

He sounds, across today’s lengthy conversation into the more philosophical avenues his lyrical pen has been wandering down, more like he’s done a shit-load of therapy, we suggest. “Maybe I have with this album; maybe this album’s my therapy session,” he muses in response. “I’ve learnt a lot from making this album, it’s revealed a lot to me over time. I think the character’s dropped a lot more. There’s still an element of it in places; I’ve not been able to let go of the sarcasm and the facade in all senses, but I’m getting better at becoming more transparent and honest.

“The album is a love letter to my son and a message to myself to instill hope in him and to question everything and to be open,” he continues. “No matter how deep I spiral into these fears and these intrusive thoughts; no matter how far off I wander down these roads of meaning, I always find myself back at a point of believing in life and finding hope in the world. It’s a letter of reassurance. The album’s a message to me to keep going, and a message to him to keep going.”

In The Studio: Yard Act In The Studio: Yard Act

“The character’s dropped a lot more. I’m getting better at becoming more transparent and honest.”

— James Smith

If all of that sounds like a potentially heavy listen, then don’t worry: Album Two should still maintain the cheeky wink that’s been at Yard Act’s humorous core from the beginning. “Is it still funny?” Smith guffaws in mock indignation at the question. “Course it is, it’s me! I’m hilarious! I can’t help but poke fun at myself. I still find hippies hilarious even though some of what they say rings true.”

Even on the road to the record’s deeper revelations, there’s been ridiculousness. “At the beginning, I started writing this whole concept about a roadie for U2,” he begins. Right… “One of the songs which might make it as a B-side is a three-and-a-half minute narrative story where technically it’s about a kid meeting his dad who he’s not seen for years. Technically it was great, but emotionally it wasn’t doing anything for me, so we stripped that narrative from it and suddenly it became about me being on tour and being away from my son rather than having to put up the fucking story about a roadie. It was me all along - as if nobody saw that coming!”

Let’s all pour one out for the Bono-based concept album that could have been, but perhaps this story of peeling back the layers and the jokes to find the core within is one that best represents the route to LP2 as a whole. “The entire journey of Yard Act, from ‘The Trapper’s Pelts’ which is dripping in barriers and layers of sarcasm and a sardonic approach to life which prevents anyone from seeing any of me in it, all the way up to ‘100% Endurance’ with Elton John, which felt like an accentuated version of the album track and leaned even heavier into empathy - it’s all led slowly to the point where it’s all fallen down,” summarises the frontman.

Musically, meanwhile, the band have been going wider than ever. On their newest, you’ll find kids’ choirs and string sections; describing the sonic outlook of the record, James mentions everything from “a song that’s basically just a Chicago house track”, to one with “a real Nine Inch Nails feel to it”, to another where “the beat is just basically Wu-Tang…” Music obsessives through and through, their “magpie” policy of letting anything through the door that might excite them is out in full force - aided by Gorillaz producer Remi Kabaka Jnr and the not-inconsequential help of a major label budget (“You can make art with whatever resources are available to you, but if you have ideas that require more and you have access to the utilities that will bring those ideas to life, you entirely should do it,” he shrugs).

It’s also, following their debut’s unassuming beginnings as a remote record, put together during lockdown by James and Ryan with little expectation of where it might take them, the first time the band have sat down in the studio and realised exactly what they can do as a sturdy, four-piece unit. Unsurprisingly for a group as tightly-bonded as Yard Act, the answer is a follow-up that channels this rapport into something they’re confident will justify the reception to their debut and underline that they’re a band in it for the long haul.

“I’m self-deprecating in so many areas of my life all the time, but I believe in the music we’re making and where we’re going,” says Smith. “It makes it much easier to see [everything that’s happened] and go, ‘It could have happened to anyone else, and it should have happened to other people, but we deserve that it’s happened to us’.”

Tags: Yard Act, Features, Interviews

As featured in the August 2023 issue of DIY, out now.

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