Yak Interview: Why Oli Burslem Would Be ‘Relieved’ If His Fast-Rising Band Imploded

In the dingy, cave-like surroundings of Austin, Texas’ Beerland, something powerful is happening on stage. London-based trio Yak are laying waste to the venue, frontman Oli Burslem snarling his way through their devastating punk songs and throwing himself recklessly into the curious crowd in front of him, dragging his mic stand around with wild abandon. There are all manner of technical difficulties, but that only serves to rile him up more, each song growing ever more furious until the end of the set, when he chucks his guitar on the floor and stomps off stage.

Crammed into Yak’s hire car afterwards, drummer Elliot Rawson beside him, temporary bassist Leo Kurunis up front and all their gear stuffed in between, Burslem rests his head against the driver’s seat and sighs. “If this ends tomorrow, I’d be slightly relieved.”

It’s not what you’d expect to hear from the frontman of one of Britain’s most exciting new bands, and one with a reputation for the outlandish and extreme, but this isn’t Burslem’s first time at the rodeo. Having tried the band thing for years, the 27-year-old packed it all in when none of his previous groups really took off and embarked on a string of eclectic jobs, from antiques seller to handyman to builder to roadie, that failed to keep his interest.

“To get the opportunity [to do this] when I thought my chance was over, to do it, feels good,” he continues. “If the carpet gets pulled from beneath me – maybe it’s a Midlands thing, but I always think it will – I know that every gig I’ve sweated my arse off and have done everything I could possibly do. Everything I’ve done with this band to the most extreme, even to make myself ill or sing something that’s maybe not that comfortable to sing. It feels like a real sacrifice.”

A sort of last ditch attempt to make Burslem’s musical ambitions come good, Yak formed in 2014 with Rawson, Burslem and his childhood friend Andy Jones on bass (Jones took a brief sabbatical from the band earlier this year, but has now returned) and almost immediately started becoming renowned for their unpredictable live shows – Burslem, in particular, was fond of destroying his synthesiser on stage.

They might have something of an appetite for destruction, but there’s more to them than mere ruination. They’ve shown hints of a more introspective, deeper side on their EPs – the ‘Plastic People’ EP closed on the swollen, fragile beauty of ‘Distortion’, while the ‘No’ EP bowed out on ‘Out On A Limb”s stripped-down waltz – and debut album ‘Alas Salvation’ brings that side of them even more to life. ‘Roll Another’ is the record’s first true sombre moment, Burslem sighing “Everything you once believed in you don’t believe in anymore” over lilting guitars and distant whistles and screeches.

Recorded with Pulp’s Steve Mackay, it’s one of the year’s best debuts – a full-throttle assault of battering ram punk riffs, Burslem’s barked lyrical riddles and moments of crystalline beauty. It’s the kind of album that makes clear there isn’t really another band quite like Yak around right now, it being brilliantly unique and uniquely bonkers.

Take ‘DooWah’, one of the album’s finest glories. It’s probably Yak’s most pop moment yet, but still manages to instill the wobbly experimentalism of John Cale into things. “I was listening to loads of doo-wop songs and I thought it would be good to write something with a pop structure and make it really standard,” the frontman explains down the phone from LA a few days after their taste of Texas. “Then I was listening to John Cale and this guy called Tony Conrad. He had this album called ‘Inside The Dream Syndicate’ and it’s basically about two hours. It’s just drones, but it’s beautiful and I love it. I rang up Steve like, ‘I want to record seven drones of hurdy-gurdy and then put them over a perfectly constructed pop song’.”

Regardless of his earlier admissions to not being all that bothered how long Yak lasts for, there’s no denying this experience has been an important and positive one for their frontman. He even goes so far as to compare the act of recording and completing his songs to that of taking drugs. “When you’ve been in a studio and done it, having thought about it for so long, it’s the best feeling,” he reasons. “It makes me feel actually physically high. You listen to it so much that you think ‘I can do it better, I want to do it again now’. It’s a never-ending horizon.”

The record hits shelves until this week (May 13), and it’s already been attracting the right kind of attention for the band. In April, they were invited to support The Last Shadow Puppets on their tour after Alex Turner and Miles Kane were drawn into their madcap world. “I think they got hold of the album and were into it, so they invited us to play,” Burslem explains. “Like we’ve said from the start – whoever will have us. A lot of people won’t.”

This summer, they’ll rejoin the duo for more dates across Europe and the UK, including two nights at Alexandra Palace. “I don’t think that’ll ever happen to us,” he says of his own band one day emulating Turner and Kane’s headline stature, but don’t take that to mean Yak aren’t ambitious. Burslem has plenty of wild ideas to stretch and challenge him and his bandmates, it’s just none of them particularly revolve around fame and fortune. “I might try and get a load of friends to do the album as it is,” he says excitedly, referring to its layers of drones, white noise and intricate ideas. “I was on the plane the other day and everyone was like ‘what are you writing?’ I was doing a stage plan and it was like we’d come on as us three and then I had loads of notes about who’d come in when and what the music would be at each stage.”

Despite his modest thinking, the prospect of Yak taking over a stage as big as Ally Pally’s is still a thrilling one for Burslem. “I’m excited to see how loud my guitar can go,” he laughs. “It’ll be exciting. I feel like some drunk who’s been given a guitar and put on Wembley, so whatever they’d do we’ll probably do. That’s when we’re all gonna be in sequin gowns, we’ll be airlifted in and I’ll be doing star jumps with a Flying V.”

He’s joking, of course, but if there’s one thing to learn about Yak, it’s that you never quite know what they’re going to do next, on stage or off. That’s exactly why they’re one of the most refreshing, electrifying bands we’ve got.