There aren’t many DIY rock bands who only begin playing live in earnest a year on from their breakout single – one that was cobbled together from a laptop demo, at that – but then there aren’t that many bands around right now like Leeds’ Yard Act.
“Yeah, none of us had a clue what was coming, did we?” recalls frontman James Smith of March 2020. “And then one Monday it was like, ‘Right, I’m gonna be in the house for three months then.’ We realised it was gonna be a long time before we could do anything, but having loads of time on our hands meant we were writing loads of demos, and it was a real rush.”
He freely admits that without that time to experiment and adapt to the new circumstances we’ve all come to know so well, the band may not have arrived at the sound that many listeners are finding so thrilling. It’s a distinctive blend: Smith’s sardonic vocals provide the focal point, around which a workmanlike rhythm section combines with nagging guitar lines to evoke The Fall at their very poppiest or Life Without Buildings at their most straightforward. Perhaps most striking are Smith’s lyrics, which eschew overt political statements in favour of specific, changeable detail, grandiosity making way for snatches of conversation and subtle character development.
“Homing in on the little things is important, because they go unnoticed but everyone is aware of them,” he says. “If you don’t look in depth at what we’re doing as a species on Earth, it can feel really harrowing and overwhelming because we seem so parasitic. It’s hard to see any good in the big picture. But if you look at the little details, you realise you can find a lot of amusement and wonder in the tiny things humans do. If we all just let our guard down a bit and look at each other properly, take into account where everyone kind of comes from and now they’ve ended up at the point that they are, that’s the way you undo this kind of tug-of-war that we’ve ended up in.”
Having refined this particular approach to songwriting during the early part of the pandemic, Yard Act began turning heads quickly as they released the fruits of that labour. ‘Fixer Upper’, their second single, was an unexpected hit, its sashaying groove and droll account of a gobshite neighbour fizzing with verve and personality (“I told ’em, I’m not made of money, you’re having a laugh / Two homes and a Rover comes from hard graft… I didn’t walk on gilded splinters to make the dent I did in a hundred a year”). ‘Dark Days’ followed suit, and work on an upcoming debut album has been completed.
For a brand-new band, the volume of press, radio play and online hype they received was enormous, with everyone from international broadsheets to Seattle’s KEXP radio singing their praises. Everybody was suddenly falling in love with Yard Act – but without seeing fans in person, the only way Smith could tell was by staring at his phone. “You definitely get sucked into it, he says. “When there was nothing else going on I was definitely looking at my phone more than I should, to see what people are saying, to see the stuff we’re getting tagged in.”
In the summer of 2021, it’s suddenly all becoming very real. With live music returning, Yard Act are having their first experiences of playing songs like ‘Fixer Upper’ to audiences who know and love them, who belt out the words and fill far larger rooms than the band were expecting. Smith is genuinely amazed at how the crowds have reacted to these initial sets.
“It’s really humbling. And I don’t say that lightly. I guess if you’re played on 6 Music every day for a month, people do hear it. It’s been a rush – people shouting ‘Alright, Graham!’ [the deadpan hook from ‘Fixer Upper’] and all that – and it’s dead nice, but it’s fucking stupid, because we never anticipated it with that song – it was kinda like a joke got out of hand. But it’s humbling, and we don’t take it for granted. Hopefully we’ll rock up to a festival on a farm somewhere and nobody will have heard of us, to give us a punch in the gut and remind us who we really are.”
Perhaps that’ll happen this weekend at Leeds Festival (you suspect it won’t). Taking to the BBC Introducing stage on Friday (with Reading on Sunday), Smith sounds guardedly excited about appearing at a festival he first attended as a kid – even if he’s astonished that they’re sharing that stage’s bill with acts like the Mercury-nominated Berwyn, who he sees as far bigger than Yard Act.
The festival has always attempted to maintain a relationship with its surrounding Yorkshire scene, but this year it feels more pronounced than ever. Leeds-based acts like Dinosaur Pile-Up and Prospa, along with other bands from elsewhere in Yorkshire like Hull garage-rockers Low Hummer and Bradford bassline kingpins Bad Boy Chiller Crew – not to mention Doncaster’s world-conquering Yungblud – are all appearing at Bramham Park over the weekend, maintaining some degree of local flavour at this globally-renowned and broadcast event.
“In our previous bands in the Leeds scene, the connection to the festival has probably not been as strong, so I don’t know how many people at that festival will know who we are. But nonetheless, it’s an essential festival and hopefully we will be able to make it into a homecoming in the long run if we foster a good relationship with the people that go there, and the people who make it happen, because it’s a rite of passage. I’m really excited to play and win some people over but I am going into that one thinking that very few people will know who we are. But I might be wrong. I always tend to have the underdog mindset.”
Yard Act perform at Reading + Leeds Festival this weekend (Aug 27-29)