Given that Yard Act stormed the airwaves in the summer of 2021, a time when we could barely leave the house, let alone the country, it’s surreal to meet the Leeds band finally in the midst of a sold-out run of European shows. When we scoot over to Paris to greet them in November, it’s a bitter late afternoon; a sense of cautious optimism hangs in the air of the Bastille area as friends huddle around bistro tables and lovers canoodle with a carafe of red wine.
On a day when their first NME cover shoot collides with a sold-out Saturday night show in the French capital – their first here – the Leeds gang are finally seeing their dreams play out. Fighting the chill in his signature trench coat, frontman James Smith is eager to get celebrations underway as he soaks in the sights over the Canal Saint-Martin: “What are the rules on street drinking here?” We’ll take our chances – you’ve earned it, lads.
Beers are procured and a nearby backroad is chosen for a few snaps as the golden hue mellows and night draws in. The band – completed by Ryan Needham (bass), Sam Shjipstone (guitar) and Jay Russell (drums) – contort themselves into a grand doorway, drawing bemused and disapproving looks from passing locals. “Can we get a bigger grin, James?” NME’s photographer asks. “Erm, we’re actually post-punk – we don’t smile,” he cracks back.
Anyone who heard Yard Act’s summer 2020 banger ‘Fixer Upper’ will know his response comes with a healthy dollop of irony. Anything but another drop in the sea of post-punk, the lockdown anthem had us in hysterics as protagonist Graham spouted his ‘University Of Life’ learnings against a pulsing bassline. You can feel the spit hit the playground as he rants about “pointless media degrees” and boasts about off-street parking for his Rover and dodgy renovation plans: “Alright mate, sorry about the commotion yesterday / The bloody builders are refusing to finish the job until I pay ’em / But I told ’em, no one pulls a fast one on Graham!”
Could they have imagined it would seal them as one of the year’s most thrilling forces? “Definitely not – it was written without thought and that’s why it’s pure,” says Smith, now tucked in a corner of a bistro next to Supersonic, the 300 capacity venue they’ll headline later this evening, for a one-on-one chat. “It was just a story of a knobhead neighbour that seemed to resonate. We had no idea people were going to connect with it in that way – it’s kept expanding.”
“Alex Turner’s lyrics about social observation helped me to grow” – James Smith
It’s easy to see why Yard Act’s sound has struck such an instant chord. Their debut album, ‘The Overload’, released next week (January 21) is packed with a ruthlessness that lives up to the promise of their breakthrough early releases. Smith is at the heart of it all with his impulsive delivery, exploding with witty one-liners and snapshots of society that paint a much wider picture of the times we live in. He’s spurred on by a rousing blend of post-punk and hip-hop, brimming with enough catchy grooves to ensure they’ll continue dominating playlists for years to come.
The hallmarks of the scene’s greats appeared across their debut EP ‘Dark Days’ – released in February 2021 – from the bruised basslines of The Fall to the barbed guitars of Gang Of Four. Their follow-up single ‘The Trapper’s Pelts’ took a fuzzy swipe at capitalism, while the title track offered a blast of pop perfection to laugh us through the shit-storm of recent years: “I’ll embrace all my mistakes / As I descend into the bowels of hell / With a shit-eating grin on my face.” Smith cuts equal parts comic as frontman, coming over more Jarvis Cocker than Mark E. Smith: charming and witty as opposed to sardonic and snarling.
Despite the reaction to ‘Fixer Upper’, they never wanted to end up chasing its tail. Being stuck indoors as their profile soared forced the band to push themselves further across that debut EP. “It was out of our hands; you can’t plan for that,” he says. “We just adapted. We knew things were lined up, that gave us the hope that didn’t crush us.
“We knew we were in that situation and there was nothing we could do to change it, so we spent the time crafting our songwriting and making sure we had something to follow it. What followed was the bizarre and brilliant single ‘Peanuts’ (November 2020), the spoken word track centred around a woman murdering her imaginary husband with a “pinch of dry roasted dust”. “We chose that because it was a complete outlier,” says Smith, “We did it for ourselves to remind us that we were in control.”
The sense of liberation was also driven by the band’s origins. Smith and co-founder Ryan had been around the block with their past projects: the former fronted the brooding Post War Glamour Girls; the latter was one half of lo-fi psych duo Menace Beach. Though they’d rubbed shoulders in the past, it took a classic bit of local scene shit-stirring to pull them together.
“Someone told Ryan that I said that his band was just a flash in the pan” laughs Smith, sipping his beer. “I don’t think I said it, but maybe I did.” It was at a party in 2018 where the two properly hit it off. “We were the last two there in the garden drinking cans and talking about our favourite records. That’s when I realised I really loved Ryan and he was a really nice guy.”
It wasn’t long before the pair started working off an old laptop and bass and they knew quickly that it was different from previous projects. “There was no pretence in what we were doing; we were comfortable trying our own ideas. When you’ve done it before you learn from your mistakes.”
Yard Act dared to embrace a level of humour and irony they hadn’t allowed in previously. “We were feeding off the fact that we saw a lot of bands taking themselves very seriously. I’ve known bands who are fucking goofballs offstage and they go on and it’s like that” – he pulls a dead-pan gaze. “I guess that’s safe because it looks cool with the smoke and lights, but that was never going to be us. Jay just knocked three pint glasses off the table in the cafe before with his bag, we’re just fucking idiots and you’ve got to poke fun at it.”
At 31, Smith might be older than most of the acts they’re sharing festival lineups with, but he doesn’t feel alienated from the wider scene. “I’ve only ever judged people based on whether they’re cool or not. I’ve never been bound by age,” he says. “My wife and Ryan are 10 years older than me. I’ve always felt older than I am anyway. I always get on with people if they’ve got something about them. A lot of bands doing alright are older than you think they are because they fucking know the ropes.”
‘The Overload’ sees Yard Act, seasoned social observers, introduce all kinds of characters, from dicey pound shop illusionists to the bloke you’d meet down the boozer offering career advice on gritty title track: “If you wanna make some decent money from it / You’re better off kicking that dickhead singer you’ve got out the band / And getting yourself a gig down The Grand.”
The four-piece are masters of celebrating such colourful personalities – the type you bump into on a daily basis – with both humour and, sometimes, compassion: “I knew those people growing up in a large village, the local pubs, distant family members – they’re all there,” Smith says. ‘Fixer Upper’ doesn’t appear on the album, but Graham, who kick-started it all, makes a cameo during closing track ‘100% Endurance’, slurring: “I’ve fought more wars than I’ve had hot dinners.”
How would the reluctant protagonist act if he was here with us in the City of Love, though? You can see the cogs whirring behind Smith’s thick-framed glasses as he cracks up at the thought. “I think he’d frogmarch his wife around the tourist spots, complaining about how dirty it was.” He bursts into laughter and continues to think, refusing to let the idea pass. It’s a glimpse of the natural comic within that makes his creations so real and familiar.
When the band dig deeper into the essence of humanity – and with some sentimentality – they show a well-rounded side. ‘Tall Poppies’, the album’s highlight, is a six-minute tale of a small-town hero who dared to dream big: “He played football / Boy, could he play / A scout from Crewe Alexandra came to watch him once and they said they were gonna be in touch.”
“It’s a statement on how people are told to be fully formed by 16,” says Smith. “You’re meant to know how your life’s gonna play out. These landmarks are put in place for us by society and we’re judged if we don’t meet them. For a lot of people from working-class backgrounds, football trials are a way out of the mundane. It’s a really ruthless system; it gets kids’ hopes up and then spits them out. I went to school with kids who were drafted into major teams and then a couple of bad games, [and] they’re working on a building site by the time they’re 20.
“People are told to be fully formed by 16. You’re meant to know how your life’s gonna play out” – James Smith
“I’m not interested in politics as much as I’m interested in people,” he explains. “It’s all social; it’s all human nature. It’s looking at what divides us to figure out what connects us, and realising how alienated everyone is. The loudest, most confident voices in the room are usually the most frightened – that’s the Grahams of the world.”
Smith takes on an impassioned, almost angry tone: “You have the ability to reframe your perspective and try to find empathy. If you can’t, then you can still decide whether there’s a better avenue to go down than shoot people down to make yourself higher up. I have a chance to communicate with the culprits of bad behaviour in this world. It’s not my role to appeal to everyone and look woke. It’s my role to try and explain that people could look at things from another angle.”
Given these elements of warmth and humour, which are often omitted in post-punk, it’s perhaps unfair that Yard Act get lumped in a crowd that often favours darker, denser topics. Though it’s something of a catch-all term for British guitar music, the genre’s revival has seen bands like IDLES and Shame move into a mainstream space. Has the tag helped or hindered Yard Act’s journey? “I think it helps people get into it,” Smith says. “We’ll outgrow it like every other band worth their salt will. It really helps here on the mainland. It helps people understand there’s a British guitar movement coming through to get excited about.”
Have audiences moved on from being shouted at from a political pedestal, though, as they were in punk’s heyday? “That’s for audiences to decide,” he says. “The last thing I would want from music is to have what I already believe repeated back to me because it’s just back-patting. It’s self-congratulatory and it achieves nothing, except perhaps comfort.” He pauses and reconsiders the standpoint: “It’s a tough world and if you find solace in a band telling you what you believe in then, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
The hope has always been that Yard Act provide something different to bald political hectoring: “I believe life is a really fucking messy thing with no real right answers. I don’t believe in right or wrong; we’re all just fucking about on the spectrum trying to get through it, that’s why you should try and see it from other people’s perspectives because you never know what their story is.”
A month on from their Parisian triumph, Smith and Needham Zoom NME from their Leeds base. Guitars are strewn around the back-drop, offering insight to their humble bedroom beginnings. Both are allowing themselves to be swept up in the excitement as we head towards the album’s release. Having signed to Island Records in September 2021, home to the likes of The Killers and Easy Life, the band exist solely as musicians – the first time in their lives they could say this. But it was far from an easy decision to step into a bigger machine.
“It was a complete headfuck,” says Needham, but the appeal of reaching wider audiences was a big factor in them taking the plunge. “There are loads of people who don’t find artists through BBC 6 Music and you can’t reach beyond that without the money and the team. If you’re only making the music you want to make, why wouldn’t you want as many people to hear it as possible?”
Staying true to their independent roots, the band are releasing through Island in tandem with their own imprint Zen F.C – the label through which they put out early singles, all of which disappeared before you could think about hitting the ‘Add to basket’ button.
With the added support, though, the band are daring to dream big for the record – especially as last year saw Island labelmates The Lathums take the Number One slot in the UK, alongside Inhaler and Sam Fender. When we ask if they’ve got a chart position in mind, Smith insists there’s no place for modesty: “I hate that shit, man, it’s for fucking children that pretend they’re not interested in success. Be true to yourself and be what you are but also accept that those things benefit you and make everything else easier.
“You’ve got to stare your career head-on and be real about why you’re doing it. As long as you’re not starting to change the songs you make because of it then it’s alright. We’re making music that’s made a connection. It’s off the beaten track, but it fits in with the world of pop music. It’s on the radio and it’s got choruses, so why shouldn’t you try for [chart success]?”
“It took me ages to get used to being in front of an audience who are belly-laughing” – Ryan Needham
Needham weighs in on the meaning of a chart position: “It’s one of those trinkets that I collect for family weddings and stuff. It’s nice when a second uncle goes, ‘My mate will sort you out if you’re still doing gigs mate – do you do covers and that?’.” He lets out a middle finger of a laugh as he relays the reply: “‘Nah – we’re on … Jools Holland and signed to Island.’ It’s a Pandora’s bracelet for showing off.”
Perhaps the biggest weapon to drop on unsuspecting uncles would be Elton John’s glowing praise for the band. In last year’s Big Read, the legend described the band’s vocal approach as a different ballgame: “I can’t do it but I love it and I wonder how they do it.”
It’s unsurprising that Smith isn’t about to play down the praise. “It was mind-blowing, I fucking love Elton John; I want to write some lyrics for him. I’m hoping we’ll bump into him at some point. We’re doing a live cover of ‘Tiny Dancer’ to get his attention to pique his interest. It could go completely wrong, but you’re better off giving something a go. People are so fucking precious and judgemental: do something rather than nothing; we’re all gonna be dead soon.”
So they’re up for a collaboration? “A hundred per cent! Can you imagine a band meeting where someone flagged they didn’t want to work with Elton John? They’d be booted instantly. I’d fucking love to work with him! We’d do a drive-in rock’n’roll song. I’d write some words for him to sing and then I’d join in on the chorus. It would be well good, like ‘Crocodile Rock Part Two’.”
“I’m not interested in politics as much as people. It’s all social; it’s all human nature” – James Smith
It’s this sense of creative abandon and humility that’s made Yard Act such a vital and fresh presence. Their debut album is always ready to transcend genres and throw in surprises – take the banging climax of playful ‘Payday’, which sounds like a LCD Soundsystem remix of ‘Three Blind Mice’. Though they’re willing to throw themselves into everything, they never lose sight of who they are, something that was instilled in Smith during his teenage years when he watched Yorkshire heroes Arctic Monkeys explode onto the scene.
“The way Alex Turner wrote lyrics around social observation definitely helped me grow in confidence,” he says. “To go into that amount of detail on specific objects, to make them seem poignant and profound was really cool. Before that, the music I was listening to wasn’t doing that. I never got into the poetry of The Libertines – that always felt too flowery – and with The Strokes, you could assume everything was set in a dive bar in New York.
Yard Act have all the wit and the hooks of their own, it’s also their northern humour and realness that’s helped them cut through. “In Leeds, if you were some ‘art school New York’ band you wouldn’t be championed in the same way. We’ve all got that kind of mundane normalness about us that people up north latch onto because it all is a little bit fucking bread-and-butter.”
In drilling so deep on themselves, the band have created a formula that even they’re daunted by at times. “It’s such a new thing. It took me fucking ages to get used to being in front of an audience who are belly-laughing,” says Needham. “That used to mean something had gone wrong.”
Smith sums up the challenge they’ve both created and cracked: “There’s a way of doing it without being the butt of the joke, to express yourself as you are in your day-to-day life, embracing the things that make you who you are. It takes a while to get comfortable in your own skin. It’s a long learning curve. I’m 31 now and I know what I’m about: I’m always growing, I’m always learning. For the first time in my life, I’m really sure of who I am.”
Yard Act’s ‘The Overload’ is out January 21