Serving satirical critique with post-punk musings, Yard Act are using their environment to realise a biting sound.
Yard Act wear their politics on their sleeve. Telling disparaging stories about exploitative grifters, and parodying politically ignorant middle-class men who revel in their inability to mispronounce foreign names, it's not difficult to guess where their political values lie. “I feel the lyrics are pretty obviously quite left-wing,” James Smith, the band’s lyricist and vocalist, tells me. “A lot of what I believe at the core is probably more extreme than most people would accept. Like my core value is that I'm completely anti-capitalist.”
But for a band with such a clear message, their formation owes more to happenstance than didactic ambition. Formed by Smith and bassist Ryan Needham in Leeds during September last year, Yard Act started as a project in waiting. “I’ve known Ryan for years and he ended up living in my house for a few months when he was between homes. That's when we started doing the band,” Smith says. While the two were already “pub associates”, living together for four months provided a “turbocharged bonding session” and the chance to finally start the band they’d spoken about for years.
The duo was soon joined by George Townend on drums and, after a brief stint with another guitarist who parted over disagreements with the group’s direction, recruited long-time friend Sam Shipstone to take over six-string duties. “He was in the band for about four months before we managed to practice with him because of lockdown, but we were like, ‘It's official you're in the band, you're in the band!’”
With Needham a member of Menace Beach and Smith previously fronting Post War Glamour Girls, Yard Act are entrenched in their local Leeds scene. “Secretly everyone's jealous when somebody else gets more successful, but overall it is really supportive,” Smith says about his locale. “It's always been a really good incubator for bands. I think maybe it's too good at doing that and then you get bands like mine that aren't very good at branching out of Leeds”.
The city has not only given Smith and his bandmates the space to connect, but also provided a drive for growth. “I always feel spurred on by watching live music. I think when it’s your peers and its people that you’re friends with and they do something good, there's a competitive element to it that I love. It’s like it's supportive. When I hear something really fucking good, I’m inspired to put my spin on it.”
In a combination of angular guitar licks, snarky lyricism, and subtly groovy drum grooves, that spin reflects the scrappy sound of the Hacienda, with the abrasion of Section 25 and Gang of Four bleeding through. Don’t jump to genre conclusions too quickly, though. Smith tells me they’re not really a post-punk band and jokes they’re “just pretending [they] are to get some attention”. Still finding their feet, he says it’s too early to say precisely what style Yard Act conforms to.
His avoidance of a discrete label is unsurprising given the band’s tonal shift from Smith and Needham’s initial “pub vision” for the project.
“Originally, I bought one of these,” Smith says, hauling a Tascam 246 cassette recorder up to the webcam. “I got it because Guided by Voices use it, and I found it on eBay for still more expensive than the money I had but cheaper than what they go for. And then I was like, ‘Oh, I've got this four track. Let's do this band where we just record albums in one go really fast and get really drunk’. The idea was that we would only ever distribute them on cassette tapes. It was a really dickhead idea,” grins Smith. “We’ll just make like 30 copies and give them to mates and that'll be the band. We’ll do a new album at every practice.”
This carelessness in their songwriting didn’t last long. Needham and Smith found themselves giving more serious attention to the band as they engrossed themselves in unexpected territory. “When it was the two of us, because all the beats were on drum machines, we clocked this sort of disco element coming in quite a lot. That started to shift the sound because we were totally locked in on loops and it didn't have that sort of garage-y, indie rock feel that we've been used to in the past. The drum machine really restricted us and then became a real guiding force.”
Short, repetitive loops form the foundations of their songwriting and pushed Smith to change his vocal style to suit. Placing more rhythmic than melodic focus on his lyrics, he inadvertently found himself pursuing a poetic form of wordplay and building free-flowing narratives over the songs’ beats. Lyric-writing is now smith’s main focus in the band and the novelty of their narrative vocals has become their prime appeal. Their breakout single, “Fixer Upper”, centres around a rambling stream of consciousness, while their latest song, “Peanuts”, sojourns into a mid-song monologue that sits closest to spoken-word poetry.
“I think it comes from lack of ability to edit myself,” says Smith candidly about his lyrical style. “I feel like I'm taking liberties now where I'm just going, ‘Oh yeah, the song should just stop for a bit so I can talk for 30 seconds,’ and the band have gone along with it. At one point I’m going to take it too far and everyone’s going to go, ‘you’re no longer allowed to pretend you’re a band. This is just a man talking with some music at the start and end.’”
But Smith shies away from explicitly identifying his lyrics as poetry. He recognises popular affection for the label but can’t square it with his self-perception.
“There's people like Sinead O'Brien doing really amazing stuff, but she classes herself as a poet and that's not something I would ever do,” Smith says, explaining his hesitation to embrace the label. “I can't figure out if it's reverse elitism or impostor syndrome as to why I don't want to be classed as that. I guess just because I've never really studied poetry. I guess that's just the stigma that I've had attached to it for so long, and feeling like I wasn't allowed to do it.”
Given the band’s prolific output, Smith may find it easier to embrace the label in the future. A fourth single has already been recorded, 50 new demos were written during lockdown, and Smith has started work on a novella that ties their existing tracks into a single narrative. With the band still in its early stages, Smith wants to use this momentum to try new ideas. “The style is really expanding,” he says. “I still don't know where it's going but there's a lot of scope.”
Yard Act sit in an exciting space of which any rising band would be envious. Through biting lyricism that so acutely reflects the anxieties of neoliberal England, they’ve fast found their groove, attracted national press off the back of only two singles, and are set to release an EP at the top of next year. With their energies now concentrated on honing their direction, their coming material is sure to be as compellingly cohesive as it is endearingly snarky.