Yard Act: „People want their skins to touch, and that’s beautiful“

I made a prediction towards the end of last year, and I am relying heavily on it coming true: Yard Act are going to be a big thing in 2024. The band from Leeds has entered my orbit a couple of times in the past two years, in quite peculiar places, which makes their frontman James Smith shout out „Jesus, Gabi, you do get around!“ at some point during our zoom. These places range from a sweaty club in Berlin to the vastness of the fields of Leeds Festival, to opening for Jack White in London at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2022. At this same venue, less than two years on, Yard Act will soon play their own headline show. I’ve always felt that there is something special, which is hard to describe, about the four-piece from Leeds. The lyrics are so on point and witty (and there are so many of them!), the melodies are extremely catchy for a band whose debut falls more into the category of Post Punk, and James Smith (who likes to describe his frontman attitude as one of a „whiny brat“) really knows how to work a crowd, wearing a trench coat best in a room far too hot to wear a trench coat. 

So now, in 2024, Yard Act have released their second album „Where’s My Utopia?“ It’s a lot poppier, funkier even, than their debut „The Overload“. It merges the communal spirit of dance music with the storytelling of punk, it is utterly catchy and funny and sophisticated and serious. So my personal utopia is already in the process of coming true: Yard Act are one of the most interesting bands around these days. 

„As people we want to express our individuality, don’t we?“

I remember when I first saw you live back in 2022. That still felt so close to the pandemic. 

Yeah, we had to move that original tour, because it was meant to be in February and I think we ended up doing it in June, with the restrictions still being on. I remember that summer, having to do Covid tests at every airport, for each flight. Germany had an app, you had to have your certificate on it, they scanned it in bars… no one really knew what was going on, did they? Everyone was sort of navigating and finding a way through it. 

I was so desperate for shows back then. I put on a t-shirt and sweatpants and went there to just dance for an hour or so. It was the perfect show for that. I remember it was so hot, people were screaming at you to take off your coat. 

(laughs) Yeah, I remember! There were some crowdsurfers and stuff. I loved that show. I felt really great. And Berlin is one of my favourite cities in the world. To play that show and feel that sort of welcome in a city you already love, it gave me a deep connection with it. I can’t wait to come back. Let’s hope people will show up again.

Oh, I’m sure they will. I am counting on you to make my predictions come true, because at the end of last year I said: Yard Act are going to be the thing in 2024. (Jack laughs) No, seriously, I feel like as a band you are opening up a niche I don’t really see occupied yet. And with the new album, I think you are going to open yourself up to even more people, because the sound is more diverse. And you are embracing the catchiness with this one!

Yeah, definitely. We wanted to write some pop songs. 

I love a good punk spirit merging with the boldness of catchy songwriting.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot. I mean dance culture ultimately is communal. Whereas when you’re working in quite a lyrical, punk format, I think you’re kind of leaning into individualism and sort of championing the opinion of the individual, despite trying to find some sort of community within it. As people we want to express our individuality, don’t we? We want our voice to be heard, whatever it is. But that doesn’t mean you want to stand alone from the crowd, and I think that’s where dance culture comes in, because it unites everyone. That’s probably what we are trying to do: we’re trying to express ourselves, whilst connecting to everyone else. 

„That human need to physically connect is manifested in more raucous and rowdy but ultimately more caring moshpits.“

It’s so interesting that you say that. I’ve been to a lot of dance shows and events since the pandemic came to an end, and I’ve seen people hugging each other and crying and dancing at the same time, it felt so united. 

I’m glad that’s back. I’ve caught a lot of DJ sets at festivals over the last few years, and I think with DJ sets you often notice that people aren’t looking at the stage. They are looking at each other, and that’s amazing. I mean, obviously there is a time and a place to put on a show and to be looking at a stage, and especially with what we are doing with this album two tour, I do hope people are looking at us a bit (laughs). But I’ve noticed in our shows, when the moshpit goes off, the crowd aren’t facing the stage. They’re circling each other and they run into each other – it’s love! I remember when I was growing up, I started going to concerts when I was 11, 12… I went to see a couple of those pop-punk bands and ska bands. I remember the moshpit was terrifying: you wouldn’t go anywhere near it at that age. It felt quite aggressive. But when I look out and see the kids in our crowds, there is a lot of love there. And I think that has intensified since the pandemic actually. That human need to physically connect is manifested in more raucous and rowdy but ultimately more caring moshpits. People want their skins to touch, and that’s beautiful. 

I was there when you played your secret set at Leeds Festival last year, and I loved how everyone started picking up the moves the dancers on stage repeated. And suddenly half the crowd at least was dancing in sync. That was beautiful!

We’re bringing the dancers back for the next tour! Not all of them – we can’t afford to take six dancers around the world. But Daisy and Lauren – two of the dancers – are coming to the tour with us, so we’re gonna be leaning into that a lot more. Because it feels communal just having them around! It’s kinda nice, expanding the family. I think the best thing about doing this for a job is the amazing creative people you get to meet doing it. They change your life. When people have that same sort of energy for just doing something, just making something happen, it’s really inspiring. Having the dancers at Reading and Leeds was just something new. I think it’s important to me to try new stuff. I’d struggle if we always did the same thing. And I think that rubs off on the audience. 

I feel like audiences have become a bit braver in embracing unexpected stuff from their favourite band. The culture of trying something new, instead of attending to what is being expected from you, is a bit more vivid these days.

Yeah, I would agree. I think tribalism within music has faded away, for the most part. People’s listening habits are a lot more eclectic, particularly with younger people. But in the same sense, fandom – which I’m not sure is the right word, but it is a word that correlates with what I’m trying to say – has intensified. I think people’s loyalty to and investment in something they like has maybe intensified. And I think that’s maybe why we see changes in direction supported a little bit more. And I think that if you find that loyal core that doesn’t go away, bands realise that they can sustain themselves. If the press decided to stop writing about a band… if the NME decided to stop writing about a band in the UK or pan an album, that would be the end of that band in the nineties, they would be gone. Now, if that happens, you can still directly connect with that core of your fans that will follow what you do regardless, which means that bands can sustain a living, which I think is why you see bands being more creatively adventurous, because they’re less afraid about the consequences (laughs). I don’t know. I never know how long we’ve got left until we go back to our day jobs. But I have to take those risks in life. Which is the reason why our second album doesn’t sound like our first. I couldn’t live with myself… okay, it wouldn’t be the end of my life. But I wouldn’t be comfortable carrying on doing it, if I was creatively unfulfilled. 

The interesting thing is that to me, Yard Act is so significant in its core. The lyrics, your voice, the way you tell your stories. So maybe – and beware, now it gets spiritual – knowing exactly who you are as an artist, as a band, as a collective, gives you more freedom to expand and explore around that. 

Maybe, selfishly at its core, Yard Act is… I mean, it is a few things, but I think on one level it is me trying to understand myself. And that can be outward or inward. That can be on the merits of society like it did on album one, or it can be looking inward as it does on album two. But ultimately it’s always me trying to process who I am and access where I’m at at that moment in time. I think lyrically it always comes down to that. But then again that’s probably the individualism in it, the army of one standing on top of the hill saying: „Look at me, this is what I’ve got to say.“ The counterpoint to that is that musically the band is a completely socialist movement of four people sharing equally in a joyous act of creation that they all hold dear. And as long as I’ve got something to write about and something to scrutinise within myself, and as long as the band are enjoying being together, I think it can come in any shape or form and we’ll continue. I think if those things fall away, that would be when it would be cynical to continue Yard Act, because it’s a job. Luckily we’re not there yet and I hope we never get there. You never know when these things might happen, but I definitely don’t think it will happen by the next album, because I think we’re in full throttle and the creative juices are really flowing. We’re really excited about where to go next already. I guess I just get scared of getting bored by it. Because I’d have to stop. And that would be a jolt to the system, because we’ve only just got used to doing it. 

„Is it Hippie bullshit?“

I mean, I always marvel at the act of being creative. When I got your album lyrics, I went through the pages and I was like: that’s so many words! (James laughs) Like, how do you even find the time and the headspace and the creativity to come up with all that? I’m reading the book that Rick Rubin wrote…

„The Creative Act?“ I love that, I read that last year.

I think he breaks it down so well, the part that is the work, the techniques that can assist you in being creative, and at the same time marvels at the almost spiritual side of it. 

Absolutely, yeah. That book was brilliant. It gave me a lot of confidence. I realised that I was doing a lot of what he said in the book already, but it really reassured me and there were a lot of new things that I found in it as well. There’s a lot of reassurance in that book about ignoring outside influences, which I found really important. Just the idea that so much is out of your control, that to try and predict what a piece of art will do in the world is beyond your comprehension and control. I like the way he talks about the magic of it, I really resonated with that. With our song „100% Endurance“, what that song has gone on to do, the places that song seems to end up and the people it seems to connect with and the messages we get about it… sometimes I get stopped in the street about that song. I had no idea it was going to do that when I wrote it and I had no expectations with that song. It’s kind of proved that there is some sort of cosmic magic to these ideas you put out. You just fling them out into the ether and then they’re no longer yours. Again Rick Rubin talks about this and part of me goes like: „Is it Hippie bullshit?“ But I don’t feel like they are my songs. I feel like they are just ideas that fell out of me and got given away. I always say I’ll still take the songwriting royalties though (laughs). It’ll still be my name on the cheque. But other than that, it’s just out of your control. 

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