James Smith explains why his band of four boys fooling around became one of the biggest acts of the year and why he’s already moved away from writing political music
Yard Act, one of only two bands to make the BBC Sound of 2022 longlist, are the latest act to continue the fight. They formed a little over two years ago. “It was just meant as an excuse to record some lo-fi indie songs and have a few pints in between,” says frontman James Smith (below, second from right), 30, originally from Warrington.
There’s been a lot to frustrate over the past few years, so it’s no surprise that anxious, edgy guitar music has been making a comeback. 2018 the debut of Shame hymns and idle Joy as an act of resistance opened the door for Goat Girl, Fontaines DC and The Murder Capital. Raw, rowdy and fueled by a sense of community, this music seems to be the soundtrack for a resistance to Brexit, political corruption and social media fatigue.
He has been in bands for most of his life and still remembers his first covers gig at a local pub aged 14. The other members of Yard Act have similar musical backgrounds and met while playing in different bands in the lively Leeds music scene.
When Smith started playing alongside bassist Ryan Needham in September 2019, he wanted to do more of the same. “I just assumed that the music I made would not be accepted by anyone,” explains Smith. “I was perfectly happy with that, but I didn’t want to stop.”
Now a foursome with Smith and Needham, augmented by drummer Jay Russell and guitarist Sam Shipstone, Yard Act quickly outgrew those ambitions. “Up until ‘Fixer Upper,’ it was just a little fun,” says Smith of her snazzy disco smasher, which was released in July 2020. “Then we got pretty serious, pretty quickly. We realized we had an opportunity and we didn’t want to waste it.”
The guitar-driven anthem quickly became a mainstay of both radio one and BBC 6 music, while the menacing title track of their debut was featured on the soundtrack of Fifa 2022, the best-selling video game of 2021. In October, Elton John named Yard Act one of his new favorite bands (he described their sound as “talking with the music behind it. I can’t do it, but I love it”). In their lyrics, the band takes aim at capitalism, xenophobia and the bleak beauty of everyday life, with all the relatable poetry of Arctic Monkeys’ 2006 debut Whatever people say I am, I’m not.
Twenty-four months after their formation, Smith quit his nine-year job mentoring a boy with an acquired brain injury and cerebral palsy to work full-time with the band. “It was hard to quit that job because I was really personally invested in it,” he said.
However, now he’s debating the possibility of Yard Act getting a #1 album. “I don’t know if we can beat Adele. It’s funny, I’ve never thought about getting an album on the charts and now I’m going to get annoyed if I don’t get to #1.”
They release this debut, The overload, this month. A brilliant, complex record that sounds deceptively simple, blending political anger with sarcasm, and ranging from sounds from ’90s hip-hop and American guitar bands like LCD Soundsystem to Britpop acts Blur, Pulp, Elastica and the Sample Culture Bands “ Gorillaz and Inspired is Beck. Smith hopes it will change the perception of Yard Act as a post-punk band. “People think we sit at home and listen to Gang of Four records so we can write Gang of Four songs, but that’s just not how we work. We are more open than that.”
Yard Act, he says, make “strange music”. I am inclined to agree. “Fixer Upper” was a critique of gentrification and xenophobia disguised as a boastful anthem about home improvement, while Smith herself said in a press release for her latest tongue-in-cheek anti-capitalist single “Rich”: “At worst it makes no sense, at best it seems pretentious.” In any case, it sounds wonderful.
And he really believes The overload could resonate with the mainstream. “People are willing to try new things. I mean having Elton John like you is cool. I hope he likes the album. Imagine if he took it all back in his next round of interviews – ‘No, they suck. I’m sick of these talking bands.’”
Smith describes The overload as “open annihilation” of the world. “It lets you blow off steam.” But the tracks are more nuanced than just raging at the machine or chanting “f*** the Tories.”
“A lot of post-punk music has become formulaic,” he begins, saying that writing angry political music is easy. “Anyone in their right mind knows the charlatans are in charge, we’ve been in this for 10 years now. I don’t need to reinforce my beliefs through simple music, and I don’t think our audiences need that either.”
He adds: “Maybe people just want some validation. People find solace in shared values, but I don’t know if that necessarily leads to progress.”
With The overload, he wanted to “immerse himself in human psychology and how it drives people to act a certain way, rather than people being good or bad because of the choices they make”. During our conversation, Smith vacillates between nihilism (“People don’t matter in the grand scheme of how long existence lasts”) and an unshakable hope for the future. “I have faith in the children. I think it’s her world. Once the dinosaurs die out, millennials like me need to pass the baton to young people and support them,” he offers, before grinning. “Am I not selfless?”
“I’m an optimist at my core,” he adds, which might explain why the album’s final three tracks shift from anxious, character-driven observations about the minute details of everyday survival to something universal. “These songs had to reflect my core beliefs,” says Smith.
“Besides what I think about anything that’s going on politically or socially, you never really know what someone else is going through. Life is about more than your political affiliations. It’s about more than the individual decisions you make.” Ultimately, he believes that “people are okay”.
“100% Endurance” (dreamy hip-hop), “Pour Another” (80s funk-pop) and “Tall Poppies” (country rock ‘n’ roll) also hint at where Yard Act will be headed next. “I feel ready to detach from social commentary,” says Smith, aware that the band will face a backlash if they change things up. “I’ve always been driven to move on to the next thing. I hope that over time our audience will understand that we’ve always been about evolution.” That’ll have to wait – the band plans to tour extensively with The Overload.
Smith doesn’t think what Yard Act is doing is vital, “but it’s important to me. And it would be nice if it changed some people’s perspectives.” As a straight, white guy, Smith believes Yard Act has the ability to “trojanize” himself into conversations with working-class men who don’t normally have the time for discussions about equality.
“If you’re exhausted from a full-time job, you probably don’t get a chance to read about police discrimination or the rise of far-right homophobic attacks,” he says. “If someone who isn’t white doesn’t have time for this tolerance that I’m trying to build, then I respect that. I’m on their side. But I believe my role is to make people more empathetic towards communities that are being discriminated against or oppressed.
“We learn more by trying to listen than by turning people off. That’s a lot of what being human is about: interacting and connecting with each other. It’s not always about writing the biggest chorus or the latest sound. It’s about giving people something to connect with.”
The overload will be released on January 21st