INTERVIEW: Yard Act
Following an unlikely breakthrough at the height of lockdown and subsequent release of their debut album The Overload, Leeds-based post-punkers Yard Act have finally been able to unleash their live act on a more than game public. We caught up with members Ryan Needham (bass), Sam Shipstone (guitar) and Jay Russell (drums) to talk lockdowns, album two and… dinosaurs!
Fresh(ish) from soundcheck on the day that Leeds United secured their Premier League survival (a fact they claim not to be interested in, but we could hear the intermittent shouts of delight from the adjoining dressing room), Yard Act’s rhythm section and guitarist saunter into the tiny dressing room in the bowels of the Foundry.
Following the initial pleasantries, Sam settles in to restring his guitar while Ryan and Jay get cosy on the sofa, before Ryan looks at me and pipes up, ‘Hey, don’t I know you?’ I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t clocked it, but I definitely should recognise him. Ryan has been prolific on the Leeds music scene for years, and over a decade ago was bassist for Leeds outfit Komakino, who my band of the time [Harrisons] crossed paths with numerous times along the way.
Thankfully, Ryan’s memory is way better than mine, so we swap a few stories and with the ice firmly broken, we settle in for a chat about the merits of ‘breaking out’ during a global pandemic.
There surely can’t be too many bands that can claim to have only really started playing live shows a year after releasing their breakout single – a debut that was pieced together from a laptop demo in the middle of a national lockdown, no less – but, then again, there aren’t too many bands like Yard Act right now, either.
Obviously, the enforced delay to live performances was far from expected and not what they would have chosen, but the band admit that it allowed a sound to develop that might not otherwise have emerged.
“If we’d been in a practice room, I think it would have been a little a bit different,” explains Ryan.
“The process became more me and James sat around a computer, usually late at night. It forced us to work in a different way. We did maybe two or three shows before the lockdown. We hadn’t even put anything out at that point, then, when we did start releasing stuff, the thing just caught on and we came straight out of lockdown into headline shows that were sold out.”
“It feels like we skipped a couple of steps, which I was grateful for because I’ve done those steps in like ten different bands and I’ve definitely paid my fucking dues!” Ryan breaks off to look towards most recent member and drummer, Jay, and with a glint in his eye says, “You fucking haven’t though, have ya?”
Sam looks up from his now stringless guitar and adds, “It’s funny thinking that our first support gig was with Foals at Empress Ballroom, and our next was with Jack White! It’s insane, really.”
Ryan adds, “We’re doing it backwards. Now, all we’ve got to do is navigate the decline!”
Based on the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the album and live shows, the decline (if it comes) is some way off. Last night they were in Manchester and Leeds before that. The closer proximity to their hometown comes as a relief and the prospect of a 40-min journey up the road after tonight’s show is clearly preferable to the sometimes ten-hour journeys across the US.
Ryan says: “Manchester was great. It was a bit more subdued than other shows in Manchester, which I think was because it was early. It was more controlled, in a good way, because it sometimes felt a bit fucking dangerous. It’s been a bit too gnarly.”
“The night before was Leeds Irish Centre, which is the biggest hometown show we’ve done and that went off. They’ve all been great, though, and they’re all within about 60 miles of our house, which has been welcome.”
“Everything’s been great since the start of the year, luckily. The travelling and the waiting around is bullshit, but it’s absolutely worth it.”
it’s funny thinking that our first support gig was with foals at empress ballroom, and our next
“I’ve noticed in other bands, like when we toured with The Cribs, it was very much like a football crowd. And it’s like, you are not getting what these people are about. I mean, it should be for everyone but, for us, it’s been a hugely mixed crowd.”
Jay adds: “It feels quite balanced now. I suppose it depends where you go; you’ll have some shows where there’s maybe more of a certain demographic than others but, from playing gigs all over now, it feels quite balanced. There are slightly older people who might be with their kids, there are tonnes more young women, and everything in between. It’s a really good balance and everyone’s relatively respectful.”
If, like me, your first introduction to the band was their summer 2020 banger ‘Fixer Upper’, you’ll know there’s more to the band than their post-punk tag, and while they’re not daft enough to dismiss its merits and the help it’s provided them in terms of a platform, in reality, they are more than just another speck of post-punk dust waiting to be blown away for the next passing scene.
Sam says: “Sometimes, artists resist labels and I find it really tedious because that’s just your own private battle in your head. It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t restrict you in any way.”
Ryan adds: “I think it’s wrong, but I don’t care in the slightest. It’s fine. When people say it sounds like Idles, I think, are you listening to the same record? I like Idles, but it’s definitely not a reference or an influence.”
Jay chips in, “I suppose it’s how tuned in you are on with your knowledge, maybe people see a shouty angry man and make the connection.”
Musically, it’s hard to argue that they sound too much like the current crop of post-punk contemporaries, but the groove-led backing tracks aren’t what set them apart completely: that honour falls to the wit bursting out of the lyrical content created by the afore mentioned angry, shouty man, Mr James Smith. I mean, everyone knows a Graham, right?
“I was surprised by the reviews, to be honest, I thought it’d be a bit more marmite, this type of sound and because of the slightly grating singer,” says Sam with his tongue firmly in cheek. “He sings in quite an upfront way, but it’s all been really positively received and I was like, ok, that’s weird, but fair enough.”
Ryan adds: “Along the same lines, the lyrical content is very English, and very regionally English. But then we got good reviews in France, Belgium, and like, Norway, and I was like, are they gonna get the references? You know – pound shop terracotta frogs!”
“I thought about it, and I kind of liken it to hip hop-in the 90s. I didn’t know anything about the Bronx, but you know what the fucking gist is, don’t you? I think it’s maybe just that, and the energy carries it. I guess the topics are universally known about.”
Despite the commonality of the characters and lyrics, the process of creating the record was anything but common. Far from just being a logistical problem, these were, of course, unprecedented (yes, that word) times, full of uncertainty and introspection for everyone, not least the band.
“I went west with it in my head,” says Sam. “I was obeying the rules to the letter and more, so I did it all [the recording] completely online. I really struggled. It was all quite remote. My brother and his partner saw us yesterday, and they had never seen us live and didn’t know what was involved. They were like, ‘this is really different to record.’ And I was thinking yeah, it’s because of the circumstances of how we made it. It’s not a live band at all. It was built up like an electronic record.”
Ryan adds: “We were just passing stuff around. And then, when you were allowed to meet up for work, we weren’t sure if it was work because we weren’t signed at the time. It was all very weird.
“Even when we had signed a deal, we didn’t all go to the studio at the same time. It was just me and James and then people came when they needed to, so the first time playing everything together was for live shows.
“We had to almost relearn it for live. Stuff like Dead Horse, that was a bassline that I did to a drum thing, on my own, once, drunk. I just chopped it up, tidied it up and never played it again for like two years! In hindsight, that was pretty stupid thing to do because I should have anticipated that I would have to play it live, but it was all a bit backwards.”
I was surprised by the reviews, to be honest, I thought it’d be a bit more marmite, this type of sound and because of the slightly
I mention that this system of layering up tracks, through recording and passing on the files, reminds me of mid-00s supergroup The Postal Service, who operated in a similar style due to conflicting schedules.
“Yeah, but there was no universal tragedy back then,” says Ryan, “Well, there probably was, there’s always one, isn’t there? It probably would have been swine flu!
“What’s that game called that you play at Christmas, where you fold the paper, draw the legs and then you pass it on and someone draws the body, and then the head and it makes a weird thing? It was like that, anyway.”
For the record, the game is (weirdly) called Consequences and the obvious consequence of this method of album making for Yard Act has been a lot of success, so will they continue to adapt the same approach for the second album?
“It’ll be a bit of the same system going on, yeah. It sort of works,” says Ryan, “A couple of us have started doing ideas. The three of us have been having a couple of little jams, just dicking around in sound checks.
“James likes to move very quickly, and never repeat himself, but I think he is very aware the system works, and he does like constructing things as well. There’ll obviously be a bit more live stuff.”
“James has got a couple of good ideas for themes. I would imagine it’s going to be another concept, with an overarching theme. He’s just finessing that at the minute.
Sam adds: “He thinks it’s going to be about fatherhood and absent fathers. James has just had a kid, so I think it’s on his mind.”
And speaking of kids, in playing the record at home, my kids have got very into it, so I crowdsourced a question from them and, from their keen journalistic minds, they fashioned this corker: “What, Yard Act, is your favourite dinosaur?”
Jay is straight in there: “Diplodocus.”
Ryan is quick to pull Jay up: “It doesn’t exist. It was false. It turns out it was bullshit and they made a mistake.”
“But it was in in the Natural History Museum,” Jay hits back.
“Yeah, but they retracted it. It was like, you know when they declassified Pluto as a planet? When they were like, no, you’re a shit planet!” clarifies Ryan.
“Well, I like the legacy of the Diplodocus,” concedes Jay.
It turns out, on relaying their response to my youngest, that the Diplodocus did in fact exist, but was removed from the Natural History Museum as the skeleton was a fake, which is probably what’s causing the confusion.
Either way, our time is up, and that seems like a good place to leave it before we get onto the veracity of Jurassic Park!
Later that evening, the gig at The Foundry is everything that the lads have come to expect from the fervent crowds at their live shows, with James playing puppet master. He’s a funny bloke, as his lyrics attest, and closing the set with a localised version of Jonathan Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’ was a real touch. Your humble reporter even got a shoutout when someone from the crowd asked who their favourite Sheffield band is? Ryan suddenly remembered, probably still thinking of dinosaurs, “I met one of the Harrisons earlier, he was alright!”
High praise. They’re pretty alright, too.
Yard Act plays The Leadmill Stage at Tramlines on Sunday 24th July