You definitely know somebody like Graeme, the smug, never-been-wrong, university-of-life type that is the lead character of ‘Fixer Upper’, the breakout single from Leeds band Yard Act. Graeme lives in a world of “Prosecco O’Clock posters”, boasts of being a “two home owner” and thinks that “pointless media degrees” are where the new generation went wrong. Yeah, that guy.
He is a composite character from the streets of Yard Act singer James Smith’s childhood in Cheshire, albeit infused with the nuance-free certitude that has done so much damage to modern political discourse.
“By embodying that character and actually just saying exactly what he does believe, it became really funny and made him look completely stupid,” Smith tells NME about writing the dialogue for his leading man. “The only way I felt I could make a statement about it was to take the piss entirely.”
The single, released this month on the band’s own label Zen F.C., perfectly encapsulates the band’s burgeoning sound: bassist Ryan Needham and drummer George Townend’s tight and angular rhythms set the framework, while Sammy Robinson’s wiry guitar adds tone rather than melody. It is an intentionally minimal end product, influenced by the taut and danceable economic production of No Wave bands like ESG and Liquid Liquid.
Smith’s vocal and lyrical style was honed by his experiences giving spoken word performances around Leeds and also eschews melody in favour of mood. “I’m interested in pushing it as far as you can in terms of how much you can cram into a song,” he says.
“I like it when the hook doesn’t come from the chorus. You hear it in early ‘90s rap like with A Tribe Called Quest. I like creating hooks that don’t repeat themselves. ‘In Da Club’ by 50 Cent is a good example of a song that has one different hook after another.”
Smith and Needham are old friends from their days on the road together with their respective bands, Post War Glamour Girls and Menace Beach, who decided to finally follow through on drunken promises to one day start a band together when Needham moved in with Smith last September. Within weeks they had a bundle of demos recorded and by January, they were working with Bill Ryder-Jones on their first single, the spiky ‘The Trapper’s Pelts’.
If ‘Fixer Upper’ seems like a shot fired across the class war bows, then Smith is self-aware about it. “In the music industry, it’s become a race to the bottom to be the most authentic working class musician,” he says. “But it feels really, really rife in music, especially in post-punk at the moment, that everyone is being political and has got a thing to say and I think that is ace.”
“Working class musicians used to cut through a lot more because of the dole and being afforded the time to not have to have a job,” he continues. “I think the dole is one of the most beautiful things that could happen to young people. Having that time to do fuck all is so important for making stuff. I spent a year on it after uni until they forced me to get a job in a call centre, and I tried so hard to fail the interview and they still gave me the fucking job. Having to work full time for barely any money means you can’t think, you get home and you’re tired and you go to the pub and you drink until you forget. How are you meant to be creative against those odds?”
Smith ended up working as a self-employed music teacher and support worker, but he is clear that the disparities in society are now starker than ever, between rich and poor as well as between opposing ideologies. “I grew up on a council estate that was at the time transitioning, because of Right To Buy, into people buying their houses,” he says, when reflecting on his mindset during the writing of ‘Fixer Upper’.
“So it was a mix of council tenants and people who had bought their terraced house because of Thatcher’s rules. That was when there was a real mix of people living alongside each other. Still no-one was rich, but all the kids played together and it felt completely normal. The divide does seem greater now.”
Yard Act is such a new entity that they only managed three gigs before the COVID shutters came down – ‘Fixer Upper’ hasn’t even had its live debut yet. They have been putting the time to good use, however, with some 40 demos coming into existence during lockdown. Smith says that the musical emphasis has moved increasingly away from the original “scrappy post-punk” idea, with the newest material having a “dancier edge”. They intend to record their next single with the acclaimed producer Ross Orton (Arctic Monkeys, M.I.A.) later this year, before eventually working again with Ryder-Jones. “I want the album to be totally classic,” proclaims Smith. It’s early days, but do you want to bet against it?
Yard Act’s new single ‘Fixer Upper’ is out now