"It Can't All Be Doom And Gloom!" Yard Act Interviewed

"It Can't All Be Doom And Gloom!" Yard Act Interviewed

Singer James Smith on the metaverse, his upbeat new tunes and getting beaten up by Cillian Murphy...

When I finally get around to chatting with James Smith, the mouthy one off Yard Act, it’s December 20th and the country is braced for an ugly festive wave of Omicron. I myself have tested positive, indeed. But thanks to the magic of Zoom I needn’t to worry about infecting the man of the moment. Which is cool.

"I have a little baby here, a product of lockdown one and all that time we had on our hands," Smith shares with a note of pride, which is also cool.  

"We just hung out and drank Aperol Spritz. You sort of adapt, don’t you? I quite like hiding in the house."

Anyway, lucky old me, I’ve had a few early spins on Yard Act's devastatingly brilliant debut album, am happy to report that the Leeds four-piece deserve all the hype currently swirling around them.

Here’s what we nattered about…

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You’ve written a stone-cold-classic state-of-the-nation record. Do you reckon Britain is especially ripe for a savage piss-take right now?

Snarky is my default. My defence mechanism. I’m quite good at making fun of things when there’s a microphone in front of me. But making the album we realised doing eleven tracks of pure sarcasm would probably end up too bleak, too grim.

So we made an effort to make it turn and flip, into this sort of cosmic hippie ending. I tried to look beyond Britain and write something a little more optimistic and positive. For the first time ever I felt comfortable being a bit more human, sharing another element of my core beliefs.

There’s so much anger out there right now – Tory Christmas parties are the current bugbear. Does all that rage, helpfully for you, create a fertile soil for Yard Act?

One of my favourite bands is The Specials. What they did so well is comment on what was happening socially around them, but at the same time they kept that anger just below the surface. 'Ghost Town' is bleak as hell, but it’s also a fun song. Same with The Smiths – what made them so appealing is that contrast between these miserable lyrics about frustrating subjects, up against incredibly upbeat music. It can’t all be doom and gloom.

That’s why I always try to inject some humour into proceedings. It's how I cope. Things might be shite, but we’re all going through it, aren’t we, so let’s at least poke fun at it together.

Must be very strange for you, being this huge exciting new band but never knowing what shows will go ahead or what might be cancelled at the drop of a hat.

Well, I’ve never been in this position before. But I don’t think anybody else has either. A breakout act in a time when you couldn't really tour. Coping and managing through a global pandemic that’s rumbling on for years, by the looks of it. But it’s still fun, and it still feels like it’s going somewhere. I’m excited to see what people make of the album.

Why don’t you just become one of those Metaverse bands that only gigs in Fortnite or whatever?

Right now that’s only a gimmick isn’t it? Although I try my hardest to embrace new things. Think about what iPods used to be like, compared with Spotify now. Maybe the metaverse is the next logical step of civilisation. But I’d rather gig in the real world. The danger of the real world is what makes it exciting.

You’re a supremely British band, in your lyrics and references. How does that go over with foreign crowds?

Honestly, I didn’t think it was going to translate. I thought whenever we played in countries where English isn’t the first language, it would be the band’s job to carry our message. I’d basically just be another instrument on the top.

But no – everybody’s really gone for it. Particularly in France, and Belgium. Also Oslo. People crowd surfing, singing along. Once, after I did the poem off Peanuts, in Belgium, I had to ask somebody ‘did you understand?’ and he was like, not really. So I asked ‘did anybody understand?’

And he was like, no, most people did not understand. But somehow they got the joke. Conversation is a very musical thing. You can tell a lot about what a person is trying to get across, from their flow, where they go up or down, where they tilt their head. People understand the gist, even if they don’t get every word. Weird isn’t it?

You’re a great lyricist. What’s your process? I can’t be alone in thinking you utterly nailed it with ‘Graham’ – because of course that’s what the dude in Fixer Upper is called.

He’s only called Graham because 'Graham' rhymes with ‘pay-'em’. Wordplay comes first for me. I just pour it all out as a stream of consciousness, just to get it down. The rhymes sort of connect themselves. Then I leave it a week, come back, tweak it a bit. I find if I try to write the story first I get bogged down in the mechanics of a narrative. And that’s the boring part. Narratives are very formulaic, but we need them don’t we, to understand what’s going on.

You’re clearly very fond of writing ‘character songs’, in the grand tradition of bands like The Kinks, or Blur.

It’s a good way to put myself in somebody else’s shoes. Even if that somebody else is just a figment of my imagination – by putting myself in their shoes it humanises them. When I write purely from my own perspective, my own biases always come into play.

Doing characters is also a comfort blanket. 'Stage James’ – the belligerent sarcastic frontman – is not the real me. Whenever I put on that trench coat lately I feel like I’m sort of inhabiting a character. It’s an act.

A ‘Yard Act’, amirite? Did I read somewhere that you once harboured ambitions to tread the boards?

I did a little bit of extras work, I was on TV. Peaky Blinders. I wouldn’t call myself an actor.

Didn’t Cillian Murphy rough you up a bit on set?

There was this one scene where he was supervising a bunch of guys walking through a doorway. I guess he was method acting, really getting into character counting these scabs and being annoyed. I was the last extra to walk through, so he gave me an almighty hard shove on the left shoulder.

Sir Elton John has singled out Yard Act as one of his new faves – do you feel like a collab might be on the horizon?

There’s no way I’d ever turn that down. It’d be hilarious. And an honour. I could pull that out forever, couldn’t I? Even if Yard Act totally flop next year and we never do anything else, I’d always have my collaboration with Sir Elton to fall back on.

After that, maybe a turn on Strictly?

Absolutely. That’s definitely the end-game. A couple of albums worth of credible indie rock, then dancing with the stars. Nothing wrong with delving into light entertainment is there? Cheering the people up in these dark, dark times.

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'The Overload' is out on January 21st.

Words: Andy Hill
Photo Credit: James Brown

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