“He’s just like a baby that drinks a bit more beer,” said James Smith, the lead singer of Yard Act and a new father, joining me on Zoom from his home in England. He was actually talking about the band’s bassist Ryan Needham. When Smith tilted the webcam toward his band mate, Needham could be seen sitting on the floor with Smith’s young son. Smith explained that Needham lived with him and his wife before the baby was born, and laughed that their cohabitation made for good practice in child-rearing.
This good-natured playfulness continued throughout our chat, and Smith’s friendly demeanor belies the assumption that Yard Act — a Leeds-based quartet thus far branded by brash, anti-capitalist rants featuring f-bombs aplenty — is out to eviscerate anything and anyone in its path.
That path seems headed straight for the top, given the enormous hype around Yard Act’s debut LP, The Overload. On it, Smith and Co. certainly have shit to say: about economic inequality, about the racism we’re conditioned to “humour,” about growing up and being let down. The 11 songs on The Overload are individual stories, but their connective tissue is clear early on, with the opening and title track sprinting off the blocks to identify “the overload of discontent, the constant burden of making sense.“
The follow-up “Dead Horse” laments the state of their country and its entrenched bigotry:
England, my heart bleeds.“Dead Horse”
Why’d you abandon me?
Yes, I abandoned you too, but we both know
I wasn’t the one lied to.
And I’m not scared of people
Who don’t look like me, unlike you.
In the process of composing a few new tunes (“Dead Horse,” “Rich,” “The Incident,” “Land of the Blind” and “Tall Poppies”) this time last year, when Yard Act released its celebrated Dark Days EP, the band recognized a through-line in the forthcoming full-length album: as Smith puts it, commentary on “money, struggling and corruption…and acceptance of being a hypocrite, really.” Smith, Needham, guitarist Sam Shjipstone and drummer Jay Russell wrote the remaining six songs to fit that theme, alternating tempos throughout the record, but prioritizing slick basslines, clever percussion and crisp vocal delivery more akin to hip-hop than the post-punk contemporaries they’re often compared with (such as Sleaford Mods, Shame, Kaiser Chiefs).
Side A features blistering attacks on the government (from “Payday”: “What constitutes a ghetto fetish? Is it growing your own lettuce but not filling in the pot holes?”), greedy commoners (“Rich”) and white collar criminals (“The Incident”).
Through continued reward for skilled labor in the private sector“Rich”
And a genuine lack of interest in expensive things
It appears I have become rich.
And since I have become rich
I’ve been constantly living in fear of losing everything.
The second half of the record finds Yard Act swinging from a straightforward punk tune under 90 seconds (“Can I Get a Witness?”), to a Gorillaz-esq head-bopper with guitar riffs high up on the neck (“Land of the Blind”), to a dark-disco track reminiscent of Talking Heads (“Quarantine the Sticks”). A triumph in storytelling, “Tall Poppies” is an almost Americana biography of a small town hero that stays put, a song that tops six minutes and is charmingly self-referential:
A plaque bears his full name on a bench by the water’s edge“Tall Poppies”
The dates he came and went
And a quote about life and death from a song he never heard,
‘Cause he wasn’t too fond of long songs with lots of words.
What’s surprising and soothing after a thrilling half-hour of The Overload is the hopeful tone that closes the record in “100% Endurance”:
Death is coming for us all but not today.“100% Endurance”
Today you’re living it, hey you’re really feeling it.
Give it everything you got knowing you can’t take it with you
And all you ever needed to exist has always been within you.
Give me some of that good stuff, that human spirit.
Cut it with 100% endurance.
The sentiments aren’t snarky; they’re sincere. “I am an optimist, even though it doesn’t always come across,” said Smith, who shared that his caregiver and companion work for many years alongside a young man with cerebral palsy had “softened his worldview.” The music Yard Act makes is like sharp spikes around a tender, beating heart.
On “Dead Horse,” Smith remarks with disappointment that England’s “last bastion of hope…was good music but we didn’t nurture it, instead choosing to ignore it.” And yet, with a British band like Yard Act exporting dance-rock so highly infectious, smart and poignant, I think that’s Fake News. “It’s Fake News, mate.”
On the Record: A Q&A With Yard Act
Celia Gregory: I think I hear a little one, James, is that right?
James Smith: Yes, I’ve got Ryan [Needham, bass player] from the band here, If you’ve got any questions, he is currently on babysitting duty.
Ryan Needham (off camera): I’ve got puke on me!
JS: Yeah, my little boy immediately vomited all over Ryan as soon as he held him, which I think bonds them. They’re bound now.
CG: Well, I’m glad you have family time and band time.
JS: Ryan was kind of like a practice run before me and my wife had a kid because he was living here. We had to let him out when we had the baby, but he’s kind of quite similar to a baby. He’s just like a baby that drinks a bit more beer.
CS: Here it’s been about a year since you gave us some nibbles on the Dark Days EP and then now all these new tracks released on your debut full-length The Overload. How’s this last year been treating you as you prepared to release the full length?
JS: We were kind of writing the album just as the Dark Days EP came out and started to record it, still not really knowing when stuff was going to happen, but we were ready to go. Everything about this band has been about adapting to the moment and accepting that things out of our control might change our course. We just got our heads down, and we spent the last year working on the album, and then when the gigs happened, a lot of it became quite real for us. Because up until that point we’d just been in an internet band, really. And that’s alright, it’s good fun. It’s nice to read nice tweets about yourself. But playing in front of an audience is a lot better and we had a lot of fun.
We had a really good summer, just playing in the UK, and then we got outside to the rest of Europe a little bit later in the year. Oh and we met Tony Visconti. That was pretty cool! He gave us an award in Hamburg. [Acclaimed American producer Visconti, who’s worked with artists such as David Bowie and T. Rex, delivered the Anchor 2021 Newcomer Award to Yard Act at the Reeperbahn Festival in September.]
CG: Tell me about the arc of this album — it includes very poignant lyrics, but in a way that is fun and dance-y. Did you set out to make a concept or statement record or did you find that the through-line thematically made it work like that when you went to arrange the tracks?
JS: A little bit of both, really. We were kind of just writing, and without much thought, just getting everything down, and we had about five or six tracks that we realized kind of had a through-line running through them, and they were “Dead Horse,” “Rich,” “The Incident,” “Land of the Blind” and “Tall Poppies.” And then we wrote the rest around them, to make the album sort of have an arc. We realized it was about money, struggling and corruption and an acceptance of being a hypocrite, really. And that’s what the album was about.
CG: There’s some grace shown to all of us, as flawed as we are, right? You can call out the people in power for not showing responsibility, but when it comes to personal responsibility, we’re all flawed, we’re all messing up.
JS: Yeah, we’re flawed. People are really flawed and you try and remain humble and understand that you don’t know everyone else’s circumstances and how they’ve ended up where they are. And that’s the start of the conversation is trying to be non-judgmental.
CG: So sonically, you guys have been playing together for not that long, the four of you. Where does your Venn diagram intersect as far as influences? Because I hear a lot of “post-punk” as folks want to label it. But I also know you love hip-hop. I think we shared one of our favorite records of last year, Little Simz [Sometimes I Might Be Introvert].
JS: Love that record.
CG: Yeah. So where do you guys exist as a band? Like, when you’re touring, what’s on in the van? What’s something that you can all agree upon?
JS: Everyone listens to everyone else’s choices. Everyone’s pretty diverse and pretty eclectic. And “post-punk” is pretty much a term that the press has decided for us. And it’s not really, as a genre, one we to listen to, especially with the modern bands that we get thrown in with — those are the last kind of bands we look to for inspiration. It’s hip-hop, a lot of Americana and alt-country. Ryan’s really big into his ’80s No Wave, New York dance. What’s your favorite band Ryan?
RN: Gang of Four.
JS: Well, Ryan’s just listing loads of post-punk bands after all. Ha. Sam basically listens to Marc Ribot and loads of film soundtracks. He’s always listening to like a Puerto Rican film soundtrack and trying to learn how to play that. Jay’s got a black metal background, and he listens to a lot of drum and bass, hip-hop and electronic music. And yeah, we’re all just interested in sound and songwriting and it just happens to come together in the form of a pretty straight-up post-punk sounding band, but dig deep and you can find the influences, I think.
CG: I heard on this record Gorillaz on “Land of the Blind,” I heard early Strokes, even Talking Heads on “Quarantine the Sticks.” The percussion and the bass is absolutely essential to the sound, so I can’t wait to see the songs come to life. I know you spoke a little bit to touring, but as you think about the probability that you could make it rich, ironically with this anti-capitalist rant, what’s your frame of mind as you’re expanding touring this year and releasing this full slate of songs?
JS: I think the thing that I’m most interested in, off the back of the kind of exposure and possible subsequent success that we might have financially and otherwise as a band that’s kind of getting a bit of attention, is the creative opportunities it brings. If we happen to have money, I think we just pump it back into creative projects. We don’t have expensive tastes, really. You know, maybe we’ll all start wearing really expensive designer suits. You don’t know, maybe we’ll get corrupted!
When we found out Elton John liked us — I spoke to Elton John on Friday, which was one of the funniest, weirdest things. He rang me to tell he liked something that we’d done. I just think life’s really short and to be a part of the conversation and to be able to get stuck into to creating stuff for a living is just, you know, amazing. That’s all I’m excited about and be able to share that on tour is really important. I just feel like we’ve got ideas and we’ve got places we want to go as a band and I’m excited. I’m just basically thinking about album two now, that’s all that’s on my mind. I just love being given the opportunity to create.
CG: Will you be able to write even more on the road, do you think?
JS: Yeah, we’ve written about 20 songs, but I think probably about five of them will make the record. And we’ll continue writing on the road. And then, you know, I’ve already put some breaks in the calendar at the back of the year. We’re going to go to a barn in the middle of nowhere for a week and write some songs like I’m kind of thinking about that now. Just to be able to do it for a job is — I’ve wanted it for a long time and finally got to quit the job and and be able to think about writing songs and writing words full-time and it was just an absolute treat. I’m not bored, I’ve got loads of stuff to do and I’ve got the time to do it.
CG: Including parenting now.
JS: I mean, that takes up most of the time at the moment. Actually, it’s quite exhausting. I’d be struggling if I had a job as well as a baby.
CG: Did you have any jobs even recently that were really formative in sort of your worldview that went into some of these lyrics? Like, have you worked in service industry or what did you do before before you were able to do this full-time?
JS: No, I did a lot of those jobs when I was younger. I had a job that I loved until [Yard Act] went full time. I was a support worker and working with a guy who’s 18 now. I’ve known since he was nine, so known him half his life and am really close to him and his family. I kind of sort of supported and cared for him. That’s a strange position to be in because you’re grateful that you’ve got a job that can be really challenging and really hard work, but you know that you enjoy doing it and you do get something out of it.
But I think, yeah, that probably softened my worldview, working with him for so many years. It probably made me try and give more time to people and understanding them and trying to understand people different from yourself in any way. He’s still my friend and I miss that job, but also I knew that I had pursue Yard Act. I’d wanted to have a creative career for as long as I’ve lived, at least since I bought that first Gorillaz album, which was the first record I bought with my own money.
CG: Hopefully, the next random and beautiful phone call you get is not from somebody like me, but from Damon Albarn, you know, get on the horn with him.
JS: That would be cool. I would be into a Gorillaz collaboration.
CG: With some of these lyrics, I’m already like, I need this on a T-shirt. If you guys don’t crank out the merch with lyrics on it, then I will. The album does end on a really hopeful note in “100% Endurance”: “Today you’re living it. Hey, you’re really feeling it. Give me some of that good stuff. That human spirit, and cut it with 100% endurance.” I mean, words to live by for all of us struggling right now, whether you get to be creative full-time or have to fit it in elsewhere. But thank you for what’s an overall optimistic ending to an album.
JS: I am an optimist, even though it doesn’t always come across. But I think maybe that back end of the album hopefully reveals that. And if you want to put it on a T-shirt and sell it and make some money, I’m not bothered, you can do it. I personally won’t sue. I don’t believe in capitalism. And so if someone wants to make money off my words, they can. I don’t know if our publishers or Universal Music will come after you. But I’m not getting involved. I’m not Eric Clapton.