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Yard Act 44
Nine Songs
Yard Act

Taking in growing up, moving on from grief, marriage and the birth of his son, Yard Act’s James Smith talks Lana Williams through the songs that soundtracked his life.

16 February 2024, 08:00 | Words by Lana Williams

“We are buffoons that have landed on our feet” is the phrase James Smith uses to describe the success of Yard Act.

The quartet - composed of Smith, bassist Ryan Needham, guitarist Sam Shipstone and drummer Jay Russell - don’t take anything seriously, apart from their love of music, and that transcends entirely into their ever-growing popularity.

Their debut album The Overload was met with critical acclaim, and with the release of its follow up Where’s My Utopia? peering over the horizon, I meet Smith, donning a barber-fresh haircut, ready to delve into his deepest musical memories and spill all things new music.

Stylistically, Where’s My Utopia? stands out as The Overload’s jazzier, more confident older brother which Smith credits to their growing belief as a band. “There was a little bit of second guessing ourselves on The Overload and that's maybe why we played it a little bit safer musically, because we weren't really sure of who we were at that point, we weren't really a band. But this one was written as the four of us”.

Moving away from the societal commentary that built the foundations of The Overload, on Where’s My Utopia?, Yard Act take a step back, putting quiet observations on the backburner, and turning their focus onto simply having fun. “The subject matter is quite different to album one, but that's largely because I'm not the same person I was before, and the only thing I could really write about from the last two years was my own experiences”, Smith tells me.

“The key take-away was that I was so happy making it. It was fun being with Sam, Ryan and Jay the whole time, just being silly and making these silly songs”.

Yard Act

Yard Act’s music doesn’t shy away from the keystones of what’s shaped them into the band they are today, and that includes the city of Leeds. With handfuls of references to Nathan’s house (aka Brudenell Social Club) dotted throughout their discography, “We Make Hits” from Where’s My Utopia? doffs a hat to the cities’ 90’s alt-rock outfit Grammatics, the lead singer of who (Aaron Birley), offered Needham a place to stay when he first moved to the city. “Leeds is a beautiful, beautiful place to create and form bands and so that's a tip to our roots”.

As well as being grounded to their roots, Yard Act have also crossed over into the world of celebrity connections, with Smith having pancake breakfasts interrupted by Elton John calling for a quick catch-up, and Cillian Murphy labelling himself a fan, and recently interviewing Smith about his role as an extra on Peaky Blinders.

Someone in particular that Smith has a soft spot for is the actor David Thewlis, whose most recent acting endeavour has seen him reciting Macbeth in the video for “When The Laughter Stops”, a collaboration with Katy J Pearson. Having already featured in “100% Endurance” – the song that also caught the ear of Elton John – Smith’s admiration of Thewlis is endearing.

“99% of people are normal down-to-Earth people, he didn't give a fuck that he was in Harry Potter, he's a guy that loves acting, loves music and loves art - he's brilliant!”

But that doesn’t mean he’s quite used to socialising with ‘real’ celebrities - “We are definitely not meant to be rubbing shoulders with people like Elton John and they treat us for some reason as their equals. So, a part of me has slowly grown more confident with the idea that I'm allowed to be in this world and that my work is valid and respected and that's nice, but there's another part of me that is always just this dickhead from Leeds. No one's going to get an ego in this band - it won't happen.”

The blending of genres on Where’s My Utopia? comes from their varying musical influences, with Needham listening to Korn, Shipstone going through a Glen Campbell phase, and Smith spinning Caribou and Andre 3000 - “It was from all over the shop” - but he cites Where’s My Utopia?’s main touchpoints as The Specials, New Order, Talking heads. Despite the fluctuation of genres present throughout Where’s My Utopia?, The Overload was very firmly placed in terms of musical category – but what that category was precisely, stumped journalists and fans alike.

“I'd just call them both pop music, but I don't mind that people call The Overload a post-punk album, and it doesn't bother me that post-punk is the tangible reference point for people. I know it's not influenced solely by that. I know it's bigger than the restrictive ideas of what people see that genre as now”, Smith explains, “But I'm fine with it, because if somebody wanted to find our record in the shop and they went and looked in punk and it was there, it would make sense as, opposed to being in the classical section or the reggae section.”

Smith cites his music taste as something his dad is almost entirely responsible for, whether it was blasting The Lightning Seeds on the way home from football practice or dropping him off at university to a Frank Black song, the songs he grew up with, shaped who he is today. Picking through key moments, Smith’s Nine Songs take us on a journey through pivotal moments in his life, almost right from his first steps to that of his son’s, a death of a close friend and a duet with his wife at their wedding party.

“They’re not all to do with how they influenced me as a musician, they're not all to do with how they changed my life, it's to do with the soundtrack that was there when my life was changing”.

“Sugar Coated Iceberg” by The Lightning Seeds

I absolutely love The Lighting Seeds and I think Ian Broudie's an incredible songwriter. You can get overshadowed by “Three Lions”, I'm not really a football fan, but every time the World Cup is on, and you hear that song blasting, it's a beautiful, beautiful, communal thing. It's absolutely incredible that they wrote a song that unifying and powerful, but to me that’s not what The Lightning Seeds are – they are their singles and albums. There’s a lot more to them than “Three Lions”.

I remember being in the van listening to them, probably on the way to and from football practice with my dad funnily enough, considering I don't give a fuck about football. But that’s where we would’ve been going in the ‘90s and I have a really strong memory of this song playing in a pub.

Charlie Chalk was a kid's show and they had Charlie Chalk soft play areas in pubs, you could get Charlie Chalk Coca-Cola as well. I remember drinking a Charlie Chalk Coca-Cola, eating a bag of Seabrook salt and vinegar and crisps, and then running off and playing in this soft play area whilst The Lightning Seeds were playing in the pub. I vividly remember that, but whether it happened or not, I don’t know.

But it’s those songs, Ian Broudie's songs are synonymous with a very joyful childhood for me, and it's funny, because there's almost a foreshadowing in that. There are songs which are very uplifting, beautiful, exciting, pop songs, but the lyrics are actually quite melancholy, and that came later in my life - “That sugar coated iceberg tastes so sweet / Until you tumble.” I definitely didn't process the lyrics when I was a kid.

I think when you're a kid you hear music that sounds good, and music shapes you in ways you don’t realise. The songs you grew up listening to definitely influence what you listen to when you're older.

“Clint Eastwood” by Gorillaz

This is actually the song on this list that I credit with basically being the reason I am where I am now, the light bulb moment in my life with music was “Clint Eastwood” by Gorillaz. Up until that point, music had been on in the background, I loved The Lightning Seeds, but I had no aspirations to be a musician and I had no aspirations to write my own songs. I didn't think about being in band or anything like that.

Music was just this thing that was around that I liked, but I wasn't invested in. The thing I was into was cartoons and drawing cartoons, whether it was Disney characters, South Park or The Simpsons - that's what I spent all my time doing.

The first time I saw Gorillaz I was at a kid in my year's birthday party. It was a nice sunny day and I'd taken my drawing stuff around to his house. All the other kids went outside to play football and I stayed inside and took requests for drawing. The Box, the music channel, was in the corner on the TV, I was ignoring it and drawing Scooby Doo and stuff.

Then Gorillaz came on. I looked up, saw it was a cartoon and I was fixated on it. From that moment forward, I was obsessed with starting a band that was a cartoon band. I drew me and all my friends as cartoons and that got me into music. Then I bought the album and I found it amazing. I listened to it God knows how many times on repeat, I used to have the ‘repeat all’ button on my CD player.

It was an absolute treasure trove for a 10, 11-year-old kid to be listening to something that varied, and I credit Gorillaz for that.

“The World is Yours” by Nas

I was getting into Dre, Eminem, Snoop, and I loved all that music. I still love that music, but hip hop was the dominant force around then. I was listening to Gorillaz, but on top of that it was largely a lot of hip hop, and a lot of nu metal and pop punk as well at this age, Blink 182 and Limp Bizkit were knocking around. But the hip hop route was the route I really went down.

I didn't know what the East Coast was at the time, I didn't know what the West Coast was, America was America. But I remember “The World is Yours” by NAS was on a Tony Hawk game, and I think that will have been how I got into that, because I'd got into De La Soul and Wu-Tang Clan, and then got into the older stuff.

I remember hearing “The World is Yours” and I'd ever heard anything so effortlessly cool, and usually I don't listen to effortlessly cool music. I bought that NAS album from The Music Zone in Warrington and from start to finish it was a perfect album, it felt like it was a young man's life.

I don’t know if I knew this at the time - I'm talking about this retrospectively - but something resonated within me with his words and those beats. It had been distilled to its purest form of everything this guy wanted to say about growing up in Queens. Again, I had no idea what Queens was, a suburban white kid can't relate to an inner city, young black man on a street level, but it was compelling.

It felt like he was watching the world, and I suppose that's something I ended up doing a lot myself - I'm just coming to this conclusion now.

There's not a note, not a word wasted, it’s a perfect album. A lot of albums at the time were throwaway, and so to hear a pure piece of art in Illmatic, I think it's one of the greatest albums of all time.

“Bill McCai” by The Coral

It wasn't one of their biggest songs, and I don't really know how it made its way into our repertoire, but it was a song that our group of friends were really drawn to. We loved the Deltasonic stuff, but The Coral especially, they felt like scruffy stoner lads from the suburbs and that's what we were.

I remember going to see them once, we all got the train to Liverpool the day before Christmas Eve when they did a homecoming show at Liverpool Academy, it was a brilliant show. The support act was The Rascals, which was Miles Kane's old band and that was really exciting. I met the guy from The Zutons at the bar and that was really funny. I was really stoned the whole time as well, because you could still smoke indoors. Everyone lit up when The Coral played.

The song is quite bleak. It’s about this guy that's basically bored of his monotonous life and then he kills himself. It's delivered in this quite quirky, scouse folk tune, and I have really fond memories of us playing it as a group of friends. It's not even particularly that we were a band, it was more there were a couple of bands, and we'd occasionally have jams. And when we had jams, this seemed to be song that everyone could play.

I think very fondly about my teenage years a lot more now than I ever had in my entire adult life. I think it's probably from having a son, I look back and I go, ‘Oh God, what you didn't know then’. The naivety and the innocence is beautiful, and I think a lot of The Coral's music has that.

“A Certain Romance” by Artic Monkeys

I think “A Certain Romance” is the best track on that album. I absolutely love the sentiment of it. It sounds like my teenage years, and it really reminds me of that time, which was when that album came out. It felt like the tribalism of high school really did start to fade - the idea of moshers, indie kids and that - everyone started to go to the same parties and became friends.

I remember that the division did seem to fade as we became adults, and that's what the song's about. I think in my bones I knew I was coming to the end of that part of my life, and I probably wouldn't see a lot of these people again. I was soon enough going to be somewhere else, doing something else.

I'm quite nostalgic. I don't want to go back to the past, but I like to look back on it, think about it and analyse it in a way that's quite interesting. And he's almost singing like he's an old man when he’s 20, looking at his school days. He is an old soul and I do feel a kinship with that.

It was everything about them and that whole album really, but that's the song that I always think about. Actually, that song and “Riot Van” - the way he writes about running from the police through the park drunk is very astute writing, but “A Certain Romance” is the one that brings it all together for me.

Much like the Yard Act albums, they're all working up to that song and the rest of it's fun. I think ours does that with “100% Endurance”, and “A Vineyard for the North” and “Blackpool Illuminations” on the new album, so I think I took a leaf from his book when organising the new album.

“Song of the Shrimp” by Frank Black

I remember my dad playing this song to me as he dropped me off at university. I love the Frank Black album Honeycomb, there’s some great songs on it, and this is actually a cover of an Elvis Presley tune, but the Frank Black version is the one my dad really loves. He's still saved in my phone as Papa Shrimp, which is cute. And I call him Papa S sometimes, or Mr. Shrimp.

I didn't think of university as a significant thing at the time. I was so eager to get out of my mum's house, to give her some space and just go and be, I was ready for something new. I didn't get a lot out of it at the start, but I felt on my own - which was important - and I wanted to face that. I always knew that once I left the house, I wasn't going to go back to my mum's. I knew I wouldn't go back to my dad's. I knew I was out on my own and that I was going to find my own feet.

I then worked for 10 years and my degree didn't help me in any way, but I always did bands on the side. I remember one of the assignments we had to do was a five-year plan for when we finished uni, and what we were going to do with our degrees. It was like a business music module, and everyone was just saying daft stuff, like they were going to borrow some money and build a studio.

I did a budgeted breakdown of how much toilet rolls cost, and said I was going to work in a shop and do music for fun on the side. I failed the module, but I'm glad I stuck to my guns and told the truth.

I probably would've done that if was it was between that and not graduating. I probably would've put some effort in. It was a good course. I met and had some great lecturers there, I met some great people there, but it wasn't university that shaped me, it was everything else after that and the people I met after that.

The lyrics of “Song of the Shrimp” are quite dark. It’s about a little shrimp getting caught to be eaten and that's quite a poignant metaphor for letting go of your childhood completely, which is what I did. I embraced Leeds, I embraced the music scene, and I became really happy. It was when I left uni that I finally felt like I was part of something, and then I was really out on my own.

That was important for me. I was out in the wide world.

“People Who Died” by The Jim Carroll Band / Patti Smith

It was Patti Smith covering this song when I first heard it, and I don't actually know if there's a version of it available. This links back to “Bill McCai.” My old friend Joe, who I was in a band with, and we went to see The Coral together, sadly died when he was 19. At his funeral a gang of us played “Bill McCai”, “Clint Eastwood” and “Crazy Rap” by Afroman – it’s a good job camera phones didn’t exist.

Joe died and then I went to uni feeling I was leaving everything behind, I carried this with me and I thought about him a lot. But at the time, I swore I was never going to be in a band again, which was overly dramatic of a 19-year-old that's just been through something quite hard. I was going to make beats on my computer basically, that's where I thought my life was going.

Then we went to Roskilde Festival, me and a lad called Luke I'd met at uni in first year and my mate Dan from back home. We went because Pavement were playing, and we used our student loan right at the start of the year to buy the tickets. I saw Prince that weekend, which was fucking wild.

I watched Patti Smith, she did this song and said it was dedicated to anyone who'd ever lost anyone they loved. In that moment I thought about Joe, it was probably about a year on from his death and it was one of those very, ‘the earth stood still’ moments, everyone around me seemed to not exist. I was completely focused on Patti Smith delivering this song with such passion as she always does - I don't think anyone covers a song like Patti Smith.

Ever since I've always thought about that song, because it does that thing where it belittles death almost entirely, it reduces death to ‘people die, then they're gone, and they just go’. But the spirit of it is remembering them, and I think the duality of those two things, the lack of sentimentality combined with the fact that it's clearly so heartfelt is really important to me. I've never forgotten that performance. I can see it; it's playing in front of my eyes right now in my head.

I felt like that moment felt like closure. I didn't think about him very much after that for a long time because life started happening, he would crop up but the further away you get from something, it exists differently. You learn to live your grief in a different way I suppose.

Since having my son, I've thought about Joe a lot more. I keep projecting my own son onto my childhood. I keep remembering all these pieces of my past with me in the scenario, but instead of my face, it's my 2-year-old boy's face, which is quite a strange image, but I keep putting him into situations I was in. I think that's all to do with coming to terms with slowly letting go of him already. But yes, that song is beautiful. The original's great as well.

“When You're Gone” by Bryan Adams and Melanie C

I've always loved that song, it’s easily up there with The Lightning Seeds as a song that I remember vividly from my youth. It's an absolutely amazing, middle-of-the-road rock number, with a great delivery from Mel C.

It has dual harmonies the whole way through, which you don't hear very often. I think the lyrics are really funny as well. When he says, “Even food don't taste that good”, I always think, ‘What have you been eating?’

I absolutely adore “When You’re Gone” to the point where my old band had a song that was basically a direct rip off. We didn't even bother to change it because everything we wrote to try and change it sounded less good.

Me and my wife didn't have a big wedding or anything, we got married on the sly in New York and then a year later we threw a party at The Brudenell. Nathan gave us the main room, we bought a couple of boxes of Aldi Prosecco and had a karaoke machine on the stage. Basically, that was our first song, instead of a first dance.

“This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” by Talking Heads

We knew when our son was going to be born, it was a planned caesarean, and it was between this and “Into My Arms” by Nick Cave. He took a few minutes longer to get out, so he ended up being born to Talking Heads.

That song is my mantra for life anyway, I like the way David Byrne writes, I suppose he's a spiritual atheist. It’s the idea of not believing in anything higher but putting your entire being into the existence you have while you have it and celebrating that. That song encapsulates life and love for me, and the pointlessness at celebrating the pointlessness of life, and putting importance on pointlessness in a way.

So, the fact that's the first music my son heard probably, I hope it gives him some sort of guidance in his time here. It's funny, I feel like if he'd been born to “Into My Arms”, he would've been a very different person.

Where's My Utopia? is released 1 March via Island Records, and is available to pre-order now.

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