Yard Act: Dark Days Are Over

Ahead of the release of their debut album The Overload, M Magazine caught up with Yard Act frontman James Smith to find out what it's like to be caught up in the whirlwind.

Jamie MacMillan
  • By Jamie MacMillan
  • 4 Jan 2022
  • min read

For most artists, coming out of lockdown was a careful exercise in rebuilding momentum. This was not the case for Leeds band Yard Act, who came out of the gates like a rocket — shooting off in an increasingly vertical direction from there. For a band who only released their first single in 2020, it already feels like they’ve been here forever.  

Yard Act have been here before, of course, except they weren’t Yard Act at the time. The four-piece is comprised of musicians who have achieved varying levels of success with bands such as Menace Beach, Hookworms and — in Smith’s case — Post War Glamour Girls. 

Having met bassist Ryan Needham on the local gig circuit, there was an air of inevitability around the formation of Yard Act when Ryan moved into James’ spare room in 2019. Joined by guitarist Sam Shipstone and later drummer Jay Russell, they’ve left the success of their previous bands in the slipstream.   

‘You know when it’s going well,’ grins James. ‘We’ve done alright in the past and we’ve had good experiences, but we sensed from Fixer Upper onwards that this was a completely different reaction to what we had in previous bands.’   

The band skipped through the traditional markers of indie life at breakneck speed — emerging at first into the ever-crowded post-punk landscape and skipping straight up the 6 Music playlist, before the spotlight of introductory features and interviews began to mark them out as something special.   

'I want a long career with lots of hurdles and lots of falls. That’s what I’m excited about, being kicked down a peg or two.’ 

‘But then it went up another level,’ he explains, ‘and we knew that we’d done something here, which was funny.’ Having gone through it all before, the band were determined to make the most of it this time round. ‘We just didn’t want to waste it,’ he says, ‘which is why we made sure we kept proactively releasing tunes and really took the time to discuss what the band was and where we wanted to go. There were a few early songs that were slated to be singles, and we vetoed them because we were like, ‘We can do better than this.’   

The one single benefit of being a band in its infancy during lockdown was that it afforded them the space required to grow and develop away from the eyes of the world. ‘We felt very sheltered from it all,’ he nods, ‘We were only seeing the band grow through the internet and you don’t really know how real it is, so you take it with a pinch of salt. People say nice things and you’re getting played on the radio, but it doesn’t really connect in the same way. For a long time in the middle of it, we were just thinking, "Maybe this is what we are, we’re just a studio band that are never gonna play live." But that would soon change. ‘As soon as we played live, we thought "Yeah, this is what it’s all about." From the middle of summer onwards, Yard Act seemed to play every festival going — slowly turning the online buzz into real-life excitement, even taking a motorcycle accident that injured Sam and having to play one set without their drummer into account.  

With much of their setlist taken from the Dark Days EP, crowds were fully on-board before they’d even seen them. ‘It was really weird and bizarre to see people singing along to songs,’ he smiles now. ‘We kind of had this oven-ready crowd which you don’t get as a new bandband — we are a new band, even a year down the line. But we got to step into shows with part of the set known by the audience already’. In many ways, it was almost like the pre-internet days when a cult band would come over from the States — with all the excitement that seeing them for the first time provides. For James and the band, it was a welcome position to find themselves in. ‘You can play along to that and it gives you a confidence boost,’ he admits. ‘You don’t even have to doubt yourself before you start, it was peculiar.’   

This may be vastly different to the normal story of a band’s life as they skip the empty rooms and disinterested crowds stage — almost part of the natural evolution — but he doesn’t dismiss the chances that they’ll still face them at some point. ‘Yeah, maybe. We might end up in Russia!’ he laughs. ‘There’s still new land left to be conquered for Yard Act, beyond this isle. But that’s good because it brings you down, you know — variation’s good.’ He pauses for a millisecond, ‘Just playing stadiums would get really exhausting, wouldn’t it? I want a long career with lots of hurdles and lots of falls. That’s what I’m excited about, being kicked down a peg or two.’  

Anyone who has caught a Yard Act festival show will know that James loves that battle of converting the undecided — mainly through a very dry, caustic sarcasm (always delivered with half a wink) that often leaves his bandmates laughing quietly to themselves as he rails about how far he’s had to travel for such a pitiful reception. ‘End Of The Road was like that,’ he agrees, ‘A third of the crowd were there for us and two thirds were like, ‘Right, we’ve been hearing about you all summer so show us what you’ve got.’ It was notably muted compared to other shows, so we had to work for it. I had to really engage the crowd and the band were going for it much harder. Those things are good though. We were maybe a little bit comfortable and a little bit cocky going into it. You don’t want to get complacent.’  

‘We just wanted to not become obsessed with trying to write other singles, but instead explore other avenues.'

Now, with festival season behind them, the band are finally full-time musicians after quitting their jobs to concentrate on Yard Act. But with an excellent — and at times surprising — debut album out in January, it’s perfect timing. Anybody expecting a dozen slightly different versions of Fixer Upper will be in for a shock — the track doesn’t even make the record. Instead, they’ll find a loose-limbed new wave-tinged record that brushes off those early tired comparisons to The Fall and leaves them in the dust. ‘Those comparisons are really offensive to The Fall and they’re really offensive to us,’ says James, ‘because it shows that you don’t understand either of the bands. Our writing styles are completely different — Sam has never even listened to them. Mark E. Smith would fucking hate Sam’s guitar-playing because it fucking rips!’  

Moving on with a grin, talk turns instead to the album highlights. Tracks like Tall Poppies and 100% Endurance are moments that show an entirely different side to Yard Act and share a storytelling element with bands like Pulp at their wonderfully meandering and minutiae-observing best. ‘Wow, yeah, I’ll take that,’ laughs James at that comparison before explaining why tracks like Fixer Upper don’t make the cut these days. ‘We knew that we didn’t want to replicate that when we put Peanuts out,’ he says. ‘We just wanted to not become obsessed with trying to write other singles, but instead explore other avenues. I think the album does that, and I don’t think the singles reveal the full extent of it.’  

In a world where it’s often easiest to play it safe on a debut, it’s a suitably bold decision from a band who know they’re in for a big year. With UK and US tours in the diary already, work has already slowly begun on album two. ‘You have to play the game and ride the wave a bit,’ he explains, ‘If we’re completely hot this time next year and can’t stop, we need something else to keep us going. You don’t want to stall at a hurdle, you know?'

The Overload is out tomorrow (21 January 2022) via Island/Zen F.C. 

This feature originally appeared in M Magazine's End of Year Special. Read it in full on Issuu.