If you were to manifest the world of Yard Act, you’d almost certainly end up with a scene like the one we arrived to on the penultimate night of their Leeds Brudenell Social Club residency.
Outside, fans line up and sip on ale as they take snaps of a battered 1994 Gold Rover 400 – as depicted in their snarky track ‘Fixer Upper’, ribbing those Brexit Britain dwellers clawing to be part of Middle England. Inside, some well-wishers blow up balloons and fix bunting as a toddler is being chased around by British comedians Phil Jupitus and Harry Hill. “Don’t mind my lad,” smiles frontman James Smith at the totally mental sight of his young son giggling along with bona fide comedy icons.
This five night homecoming residency with Leeds’ finest trench coat exporters – supported by the likes of Jupitus, Hill, Ghosts star Lolly Adefope and former Mash Report host Nish Kumar – was designed as an end to the chapter of their Mercury-nominated debut album ‘The Overload’. It works: the shabby social club chic, the easy sense of community, the 40 minute warm-up of of Hill’s surrealist madness mocking the “6 Music dads” of the audience and even the band themselves with a cuttingly perfect impression of Smith (“Oooh err, I’m ever so sensitive – I think I’ve got a poem coming on,” he drawls with a mock Yorkshire accent in a mop-top wig).
He’s certainly not here for the money. “I would have broken even if I hadn’t lost a 20ft long sock,” Hill tells NME after the show. But while it makes sense on paper, how would he describe the point in the venn diagram where he and Yard Act meet? “I just like to be surprised, really,” Hill replies. “There’s a lot of humour in what they do. James is very funny and I wonder if he’s ever tried stand-up… hardest job in the world.”
With a setlist chosen by a fan-spun wheel of fortune and a banterous flow throughout, Yard Act’s performance has the right variety show flex to match Hill’s. We’re half expecting them to break out into a meat raffle, but let’s not get too carried away. The music keeps it all grounded with a biting dose of reality – not least in the pummelling LCD Soundsystem-esque sleazy dance rock of upcoming single ‘Trench Coat Museum’.
We caught up with the band backstage to talk about having a laugh, keeping it real, and what’s coming next.
Hello Yard Act. So why did you decide to cap off this era like this?
James Smith, frontman: “We knew that this was going to be fun, and we were absolutely buzzing when it all came together – but it surpassed all of our expectations. I think we all agree now that we’re never taking another band on tour ever again; only comics and poets.”
Who’s the bigger diva: indie bands or comedians?
Smith: “All comics want to be musicians, so they’re all kind of in awe of you slightly, which gives you the upper hand. Then also, they’re all just way nicer and funnier. It’s just a better vibe than with bands.”
And why here?
Smith: “The Brudenell Social Club is where Yard Act played their first ever gig, but it was also a training ground for us in previous bands. It’s been integral to what we do. It’s mentioned on the album, when we talk about “Nathan’s house” on ‘100% Endurance’, that’s The Brudenell. It’s our spiritual home, it’s nurtured us and it just made sense to come back here.”
Why these comedians in particular?
Ryan Needham, bass: “Each comedian has had a very different approach each night, but the outcome has been the same: a room full of people pissing themselves and having fun. That’s what our shows are like anyway, so it just made sense. It’s just a very literal interpretation of our approach – to take disparate styles, chuck it all together and hope for the best. I’ve been on the merch stall all week and I’ve noticed that all pretence has gone from the room.”
Smith: “It’s funny what it does to a crowd. It’s weird that music sidelines a sense of humour when it’s actually something that pretty much everyone has and engages with at all times. It’s really weird to go to a gig and then people be like, ‘No, this is serious’. It can be both! That’s the challenge. It’s not aimless laughs. It’s incredibly well-structured, clever humour that is full of heart and serious subject matter.
“If you can marry those things in comedy then you should be able to marry those things in music. It’s evident that they’re all huge music-lovers too. It’s weird that there’s not more crossover, apart from musical comedy which we all agree is the worst type of music and the worst type of comdey.”
What did it mean for you guys to host Phil Jupitus’ last ever stand-up set?
Smith: “In his time, Phil has opened for a lot of bands. He’s a comic but his poetry is the vehicle for that. The reason that he didn’t want to be announced is because he hasn’t performed for years and this was going to be his last show. He didn’t want to put any pressure on himself or have any expectation for it. Phil’s just become a good mate. He did his final art project on us and he’s been here for the week. He’s gone above and beyond and done it all off his own back. He’s just incredibly passionate about music, art, comedy, poetry, theatre and whatever else.”
How did you meet Harry Hill?
Smith: “He Instagrammed us saying that he was in Leeds if the Yardies wanted guestlist. Comics and writers seem to like us. It’s hardly surprising I guess, because we’re so funny! Because we started out properly in the pandemic, we weren’t meeting anyone face-to-face. A lot of the time you’d just get a mad message or a DM in your inbox from someone you really admire.”
a @cmatbaby, @MrNishKumar, @YardActBand and phil jupitus walk into a bar… what happens? a cover of chumbawumba tubthumping obviously pic.twitter.com/U2kTrRylnw
— emily pilbeam (@empilbeam) May 10, 2023
You’ve been playing a cover of Chumbawamba each night. Reckon you’ll ever release it?
Smith: “Maybe for charity. When Bob Geldof gets his arse in gear and does the next Live Aid, we’ll put our arses in gear and release ‘Tubthumping’. I know they’ll be really happy about that as well. We’ve been doing it every night with all the comedians. I’ve just heard Harry Hill practising in the corridor, just chanting, ‘Danny boy Danny boy’ over and over.”
What can you tell us about the new song you’ve been playing recently – ‘Trench Coat Museum’?
Smith: “That’s going to be the next single. It’s out in a few weeks. It’s a stand-alone single and not on the next record. It sets up the second album; it just didn’t fit correctly on it. The narrative and the flow of an album is so important. It’s really important to me that the story makes sense. I see it as an advert or a trailer for album two. It touches on the same themes.”
Is it a song that’s putting the trench coat to bed, or further reclaiming it as part of your image?
Smith: “It’s basically about ego, perception, ownership and recognition. I started writing it when I realised what the trench coat had come to symbolise. There were multiple people who had gone to fancy dress parties as me, wearing just a trench coat and glasses. That’s funny itself, but I realised how much I loved it but that it had become a cloak to protect me so that I could be this amplified and more obscene version of myself for performance. I’d take the trench coat off and just go back to being me.
“The first trench coat I wore belonged to Ryan and I took it off the coat rack before the first gig we played. He was like, ‘Are you wearing my coat?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, it’s funny isn’t it?’ It was a joke and a trope of what post-punk is. I loved it and felt more confident.
“I was also thinking a lot about why I was obsessed with my own image. I was looking at pictures of myself and seeing what other people see. They see this character and cartoon that I leant into. When you do, you get more out of it. That’s the thing about pop culture: oversized characters get more attention. I was ready to step away from that because I didn’t want to be trapped by it. We have a lot more to give than we’ve given so far.”
So this is very much a new beginning for you and Yard Act?
Smith: “It feels like quite a transitional track in that sense. The last thing that it takes in is that after I had come to terms with who I was and what I’d be remembered for, that wasn’t really important and that was just my ego coming into play. I realised that the only person where it matters what they think of me is my son.
“That’s what the end of the song is about – me putting an image of myself in a glass case and framing my child. The only thing left of me that will matter is my blood and what I pass on. Anything beyond that is just fucking window dressing.”
So what can you tell us about the ‘narrative’ of your next album?
Smith: “It’s an album about getting everything you ever wanted and realising that the misery and problems still exist all the same. It’s an album about being away from my family and being in a professional band for a job – which sounds like really boring subject matter, doesn’t it?”
Needham: “It’s a funny version of that though, isn’t it? Our take on a classic!”
Smith: “Oh, that dreaded second album of writing about being in a van for 18 months? That’s not what we’ve done.”
Where are we headed musically?
Needham: “It does feel like a large stride for us, musically. After doing remixes for other bands and dipping our toes into other genres, we realised the music can do anything. James’ voice and lyrics stamp it as a Yard Act album, but we’re pretty free beyond that.”
Smith: “I feel like our confidence has grown massively. The label have been nothing but supportive of what we want to do and – while I know it sounds schmaltzy – we’ve got a fanbase who understand that we’re not a post-punk band. They’re invested in that. It’s got so much room to grow away from where we’ve started.”
“Part of the first album’s charm is that we didn’t overthink any of it. I’d put effort into everything my entire creative life and yielded poor results, so for the first time I just didn’t expect anything from this or put much into it, and it turned out to be ace. I didn’t want to repeat the formula of that, so this time it’s a much more crafted and meticulous piece. Everyone has worked equally on it. It’s been the most fruitful and enjoyable thing I’ve done creatively.”
Yard Act are set to release ‘Trench Coat Museum’ in the coming weeks, before a summer of UK festival dates. Visit here for tickets and more information.