In late 2019, in James Smith’s house in Leeds, a world was manifesting. Within those four walls – along with bassist Ryan Needham who had recently moved in – Yard Act was being born. And soon to follow were certain characters who would wear the reality of, well, reality staggeringly well.
Much like life itself, the web Yard Act weave is as beautifully complex as you dare make it. The upswing in 2020 felt immediate. It would seem the release of their early singles – all immortalised on last year’s Dark Days EP – including “Fixer Upper” and “Peanuts”, found an itch being scratched.
On a bitterly cold December day, within the icy depths of House of Vans London where the band are playing tonight, Yard Act and I have inadvertently formed a circle around a pile of magazines they adorn. If this is any measure to go by, then Yard Act are about to be a whole lot of everywhere - even more so than they are already.
It doesn’t take long for Smith to extend the warmest Northern greetings to me. Aside from the cavernous and chilly space, there’s a distinctly homely feeling here. It’s even hard to discern just where the interview begins since the band, with a friendly local attitude, are constantly a buzz and talking. But that’s exactly what makes Yard Act so special.
It could be said that we’ve all lived a lifetime over the last couple of years. It’s been a helluva ride. For better or worse, our lives have changed, coming out of the other side of it (if we can say that yet). For four people in particular, the other side is indeed looking to be a lot brighter.
Yard Act are one of those bands that found success amongst the worldwide stagnancy. Their sharp-edged, observational wit backed by a fluid no-wave sound (though they’re oft tarnished with a post-punk / The Fall “angular” brush) is perfect for an age where the local Facebook group bloomed from the occasional chuckle on a scrolling spree, into a tangled web of drama cooked up by curtain-twitchers bored of their four walls while waiting for the next Thursday clap-along.
Similarly, in every nondescript town up and down this fair country is a drinking establishment that is equal parts homely and terrifying. Within the walls of this joint are characters that lead separate lives but who come together in the name of socialising and intoxication. There’s sometimes an edge to this pub, blistering when the time is right.
Yard Act’s debut album The Overload is a series of vignettes of a reality that doesn’t exist but also is right outside of everyone’s front door – much like this bustling allegorical public house. Characters stumble in and out, individually living interesting – if questionable – lives, but when they interact, the smell of fading ‘70s wallpaper cuts through. A thick musk, smoke-stained, sticky floors, beer-soaked wood, and enough stories and disappearing lives to fill all six-thousand-plus episodes of Eastenders.
There's as much rhythm and melody in speech as there is in music. Maybe it's just a subconscious yearning that people want a conversation. - James Smith
Portraying the ins and outs of us humans through well-crafted stories that puncture the inanity and give it a kick up its arse for a few minutes, this construction of theirs isn’t made to cut down any social class or people in particular. It’s an observational looking-glass, bereft of opinion and instead, cerebral. Though there’s always a little side-eye glance, a fourth-wall-breaking camera shot, “Even Louis Theroux gives a little wink and a nod,” Needham says. “You know his beliefs and morals, you can tell, it doesn't have to be explicit. He's not making fun of those people. He's just showing them to everyone."
“[What] he's great at is being able to expose and reveal a lot about people by simply asking unintrusive questions, basically just asks ‘Why?’ and gets people to reveal their true character,” Smith adds.
“There is also, a lot of the time, genuine curiosity…he does keep his personal judgments to the side. That’s why he can go and see a Neo-Nazi family in America, and treat them as humans despite the fact that, you know, they're asking if he’s Jewish and he can’t reveal that - that takes a lot out of a person to remove their ego from that situation. To get through to why people think a certain way.”
To a degree, that’s something the band have had to do. Though, less ego and more ‘just don’t be a dick about it’. “There are a few times on the album where I do kick people in the ribs a little bit, [those people] I disagree with - I think you're entitled to that now and then,” Smith shrugs. “For the most part, I think that's not what I'm trying to do with this, you know, we're not a band that is hell-bent on shifting our agenda.”
Continuing his exploration of the Yard Act mindset, Smith mentions he’s been watching Channel 4’s First Dates (“I think the show is amazing”). There is an underlying aspect within the reality shows we all happily binge - a loose, sparkly exterior covering up the makings of social experiments to reveal our real deepest natures.
“I know that it's heavily edited, but it just reveals that you know, you see two absolutely raging Tories go on it, and they’re all just looking…every human just wants companionship and love. We all want the same things.”
This is the DNA of what Yard Act are doing. They’re entwining characters of varying social classes and putting them in such understandings. No matter who or what you are, you just want to know there’s someone out there for you, and perhaps, what this whole thing is about. Something we don’t half make hard for ourselves.
“Society decides what is morally acceptable,” Smith says, scratching his chin, soaking into his sofa. “How shit’s happening is so interesting. It feels like people are trying to make things finite. A lot more than they ever were in the past.”
What helps us with these great understandings is music. The great portrayer of sense and meaning, it’s also a friend when we need it. Post-punk’s direct cut-the-nonsense way of lifting the rug to see what’s kicking about, and being able to describe it with more authenticity plays into the nitty-gritty quite well. “There's as much rhythm and melody in speech as there is in music. Maybe it's just a subconscious yearning that people want a conversation and it's close to that. I think a lot of people probably feel quite trapped like they're not having a conversation,” Smith ponders.
“Especially stuff like Twitter – it removes the human element of conversation, of speech. When you read something written, it's not the same as when you hear someone say it and so I think we've become quite isolated. Probably because of the pandemics, everyone was isolated so maybe people are finding comfort in something as simple as someone talking because it's human. Singing's human (too) obviously.”
“I think the actual lyrical content would sound ridiculous [sung],” Needham says, with a beat before the band cracks up at the realisation, and a brief sing-along from Smith of Dry Cleaning’s “Scratchcard Lanyard” commences. “I love them,” Needham adds “[But] I think the actual lyrical content would sound ridiculous…it’s the best delivery for interesting lyrics.”
At play within Yard Act’s journey lies another question - just what constitutes a ‘New Band’? For all the burgeoning-act awards they’re nominated for, and all the playlists for ‘new’ bands they find their way onto, every member of Yard Act – completed by guitarist Sam Shjipstone and drummer Jay Russell – has had their fair share of musical endeavours. Years and years of them. Smith casually mentions that before this - their debut album - he’s previously written “four or five albums”. But with the horizon being so local, while such endless journeys would see people fall off the musical wagon, it’s always only been about the love of the game for the four-piece.
“We probably would be doing this anyway even if it wasn't going well,” Russell says. “[Even] individually, if we weren’t in this band we’d be doing something anyway.” Smith affirms: “If you get past twenty-six and you’re still making music and not successful, you're never going to stop.”
Speaking on the awakening that came from a previous band of his, he reveals: “I was about 27 when I realised nothing was happening. There was no buzz or interest in us and I was just like, ‘I'm just gonna carry on doing this forever!’ - I can just keep writing albums with these guys. And then that came to an end, and then this started, and it changed everything. [But] the buzz of writing a song, playing it live in a room of people, it's just 50 times better than anything else.”
Determination and grit, as well as not taking any of it too seriously, is the Yard Act way. Having explored projects to varying successes, this brings up the point of being a ‘hype’ band. “It's not the same like in America where you get kudos for being a haggard indie band who’ve been playing for years, and on album three or four, you start to get picked up. And it's like, ‘These guys. They've been working on it.’ In the UK, it's like your fucked if you don't get buzzy in the first few years, a lot of the time,” Smith quite rightly reckons.
With his opinion of this weird industry that’s called music, Needham interjects: “Who are you gonna champion, this seventeen-year-old kid who’s been playing drums for a year or…” “These haggard veterans!” Smith guffaws. “If you're gonna get some windows fitted you wouldn't get a child to do your windows!” Needham tacks on. “It's about energy versus wisdom, though,” Smith counters. “Yeah, you're getting older, there's merits to both. We can't have that explosive energy of teenagers that just capture that thing. Like when The Strokes came out, or you know, when Arctic Monkeys came out. There's that youthful energy that was combined with the fact that they were both really young. But we have experience under our belt.”
While their journey is still in its infancy stages, the idea that a band can appear from nowhere, speaking a truth we all need to hear, satiating our deepest appetite is comforting. What this means for them is still to be written, but whatever happens is going to keep on happening through hell and high-water whether they like it or not.
You see, Yard Act are the kind of band that keeps finding themselves in places they’d never have considered before. Even today, they end up rolling around tonight’s venue’s enormous skating bowl; trench coats and boots opposing the demanded effortlessness of skate culture. But that’s the Yard Act story.
A month before my meeting the band, their record label conducted an evening of two industry showcase gigs in a small London pub. While the band – for the first set I witnessed anyway – (Smith reliably informs me: “I don't remember the second one. Ryan said at one point I sat on the floor for a bit”), were on fine form, the static nature of such an industry event faltered against the more embracing nature of their live rapport. “I don’t even want to be here”, Smith says at one point, side-eye smirk and shit-eating grin cutting through the compact room.
They’re a band neither seeking attention – but being a dab hand at grabbing it – nor their placings on award lists, including BBC’s Sound Of 2022 poll or Germany’s Reeperbahn Festival’s Anchor Award. Cracking up amongst themselves remembering the latter’s ceremony after not only getting through to the shortlist, but also winning it after the deliberation of a jury including esteemed producer Tony Visconti, musicians Tom Odell and Emilie Sande, and singer-songwriter Tayla Parx.
Submitting themselves because, why not, and also “basically it just means that they pay for hotels. ‘Sweet we're not going to lose money, let’s go!’” Smith exclaims. “We did a gig in a cafe with all the other acts,” Needham adds, with Smith giggling, “I tried to recite parts of the Peanuts poem in German.”
I was never interested in working harder so I could go and travel and see places. In the back of my head, I was always like, ‘Yeah, one day, I'll be in a band that would take me around the world – James Smith
This expansion of their universe is all circumstantial. Yard Act was not born out of grand ideas. There are no disillusioned forays into the overwhelmingly gauche. This is a band fumbling and stumbling with only the purest of intentions and focusing on ideas. There’s even talk of their central character “Fixer Upper”’s Graham (spoiler alert: Smith in a moustache) conducting his own Christmas speech in a couple of weeks (though sadly an idea not coming to fruition).
Their videos are becoming a tapestry of these characters immortalised in time. After the video for “The Overload” – where actual car boot punters were roped into playing various characters – the scenes began to grow much larger. There’s even a nod to “Fixer Upper”’s Dr J Konopinski as a “pointless media degree” news reporter in the recent video “Rich”. Much like a soap opera, they all reside in this realm. “I used to be an extra on Emmerdale,” Smith pipes up. “I used to do that for a bit of extra money for years. I used to just sit in the Woolpack.”
Taking a nod from the minds of The League of Gentlemen, particularly co-writers Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s world-building, including their dark-anthology series Inside No. 9 (“Yeah, a big influence,” Smith nods). The twisted humour, while not quite at the same spine-crumbling turns as the aforementioned, Yard Act do enjoy dwelling on the reality distorting lens they create.
There’s a book in the works too. Taking place in the gritty Dark Days environment, it’s the world before the world - the Old Testament, if you will. “It's got Graham in it,” Smith adds. “And it's got Grace from ‘Peanuts'. But the idea is that it's the story that predates it [the album] because I felt like there was stuff going on between those songs. They felt like standalone things, but I kind of saw stuff connected.”
There’s a beautiful irony in Yard Act creating their characters, breathing life into their lungs - only to finish their album with the gracefully nihilistic and beautiful optimistic “100% Endurance”. Finding its crescendo relishing in the idea that after we’re all dead and gone, there will always be someone else to carry on. Though in that cheeky Yard Act way, there’s a sense of questioning leveed against the statement through Smith’s tone by the final ringing note.
Though, in his instance, it's true. Having welcomed his first child into the world, things haven’t changed too much for him, but there is that added new person to consider – especially when navigating this lusty beast of an industry.
“That's definitely changed me and I think that'll come into play more on album two – it instantly makes something more important than yourself. It's funny how your view changes when you're not the most important person in your own life anymore,” he chuckles. But playing into the bigger picture, where music has always been a calling for Yard Act, and with Smith in particular now having a family, the balance is key.
“You can't go out and get leathered as much, and you do have more responsibilities, but ultimately you don't have to become this weird, dry husk that only cares about a child, who doesn't do fun things and have a life. It’s a compromise and it gets harder. It’s quite sad that after practice I don't get to go to the pub with Ryan and Jay for a pint but equally, I get to go home and see my kid. Stuff just changes. But the music,that’s always the most exciting…apart from the child, obviously.” A guilty smirk breaking out across Smith’s face.
Having done their time with day jobs, where hours take away from an understood true calling, they know just how precious this time is. “I was self-employed,” Smith continues. “I was a support worker and I was teaching music. I just did the bare minimum so that I would have as many free hours of the day to sit writing songs. I could have worked a lot harder and made a lot more money but I was never interested in those things.
“I was never interested in working harder so I could go and travel and see places. In the back of my head, I was always like, ‘Yeah, one day, I'll be in a band that would take me around the world’. I always had that. There was definitely a part of me that has never given up on the ideal dream of what being a band is like.” It’s at this point he’s distracted by the arrival of crisps.
Adding his own take, Needham says: “It just felt like I don't understand why I can't do that [music] as a job and why do I have to do something shit…you make it sound like you were lazy, but it's not that it’s just, ‘I want to do this, I want to do it’.”
And that’s what Yard Act is. It’s the motions of knowing there’s more to life than four walls and a local pub - maybe even more to life than death. Who knows? But that’s all part of the journey. And maybe, just maybe, the answer is to simply enjoy it because even after the final note has finished ringing, be it a bandmate or soul mate, all we have is each other.