A contemplation of success and the power of hope, Yard Act’s much-anticipated second album finds the innovative Leeds outfit in superlative form 

Yard Act frontman James Smith, as shall soon become clear, is not someone content to rest on his laurels. ‘The Overload’, his band’s phenomenally successful debut album of two years ago, hit Number Two (with a bullet) and received a further shot in the arm with a Mercury Prize nomination. 

Since then, Smith could have been excused for lapping up the increasingly prestigious festival slots, collaborating with the likes of Elton John, and just sitting back and reflecting on finally achieving his teenage dreams of musical stardom. Or he could have shrivelled under the weight of untold critical hosannas and exited stage left. He did neither. Instead, he just got back to work.

“I cannot do nothing,” the affable singer insists. “It bores me. I’ve got to do summat – that’s who I am. It’s annoying for you lot, when you’re all trying to sleep and I’m there plugging the microphone into the laptop.”

A case in point. Bassist Ryan Needham (he and Smith are Yard Act’s creative linchpin) brings up a time in the summer of 2022 when they were staying at a luxurious French chateau. Sandwiched between two weekends of European festival dates, the four-day sojourn was designed to give the band – which also includes guitarist Sam Shipstone and drummer Jay Russell – some much-needed rest and recuperation. Except the rundown Smith couldn’t settle.

“You were in a chateau in France,” says Needham, gesturing towards Smith. “You were ill and yet you still couldn’t relax.” 

Another more recent memory stirs Needham, after the band capped off 2023 with a string of triumphant dates in Japan.

“Can you remember when we were walking down the street in Japan the other week? You turned to me and said, ‘Do you think I’ll ever be able to relax?’”

“I know, but there were hornets in the chateau’s swimming pool,” replies Smith, smiling. “So I couldn’t go out there. It was hardly relaxing outside in the sun. I’m not an anxious person, or nervous or stressed. I don’t have insomnia – I go down, sleep eight hours, and then wake up. So I’m in control of that stuff. But I cannot do nothing.”

What he did do in the chateau was write the centrepiece of Yard Act’s fantastic new album, ‘Where’s My Utopia?’. The stirring seven-and-a-half-minute kitchen-sink opus ‘Blackpool Illuminations’ is to this record what the beautifully observed life story ‘Tall Poppies’ was to their debut, ‘The Overload’. 

Set to Sam Shipstone’s plaintive but oddly affecting guitar line and a wispy Afrobeat groove, ‘Blackpool Illuminations’ is a three-part, intergenerational confessional taking in Smith’s visits to the Vegas of the North, first as a rambunctious six-year-old in 1996 (where he splits both his lips, much to the chagrin of his parents), then a drug-fuelled teenage return (“A beautiful day / Suddenly blurred out over the PA”) and finally completing the circle by bringing his infant son to the place of so many of his formative memories, so starting the story all over again. 

An evocative tale, ‘Blackpool Illuminations’ is funny and tender and, at the same time, paranoid and fearful – competing traits common to new parents.

“I don’t know why it fell out like that,” reflects Smith. “Or what I was thinking about when I bust my lip. It all stemmed from that. I could remember it so vividly. Maybe it was because I was ill. Maybe it was injury and illness, I was connecting them and pining for some nurturing… I don’t know. This isn’t definitive, it’s just me musing.”

He does quite a lot of musing on ‘Where’s My Utopia?’. While ‘The Overload’ incorporated the thoughts of a litany of colourful characters, allowing Smith to explore the post-Brexit landscape of a Covid-ravaged Britain (“It’s called ‘The Overload’ because I was watching this overload of information come at me through a screen for two years, while I couldn’t move”), this time around he wanted to reveal a bit more of himself.

“I felt like I’d worked on characters a lot and I’d put this front up,” he explains. “And I think that front is important. That overtly sarcastic pointing at things and going [adopts sneering tone], ‘Oh, look at this, what’s going on here, then?’ – that’s a key component of my stage persona that has served me well. But once you have an audience, I think it’s your duty to take them along on the ride and reveal more of yourself.”

Write about what you know, they say. Only with this album, as Needham points out, they weren’t locked down, but “sort of locked out”. Away on tour for weeks and weeks on end, and allied to the birth of Smith’s son, ‘Where’s My Utopia?’ became a contemplation on success and what kind of world was being left for future generations, all served with a side dish pondering the reliability of memory and the power of hope and change.

“Which made everyone panic when they realised that’s what I’d decided to write an entire album about – how depressing it was to be in a successful band,” explains Smith, as Needham and Shipstone both chortle.

Thankfully, the reality is far from depressing. ‘Where’s My Utopia?’ retains the riotous exuberance of its acclaimed predecessor and artfully turns everything up to 11. 

Musically, the breadth is impressive. Because many reviews of ‘The Overload’ fixated on an admittedly fertile post-punk aesthetic at the expense of the hip hop storytelling – Smith coming on as much Mike Skinner as Alex Turner – and a subtly pleasing punk-funk groove, not least on the pivotal ‘100% Endurance’ (“That is the song where I do let my guard down”), the band were determined to push their ambition this time. And buoyed by the confidence of ‘The Overload’, that’s exactly what they’ve done.

“I was getting a bit annoyed that we kept being called a post-punk band over and over again,” explains Smith. “I didn’t hear it that way. I could hear all those other influences.”

So, alongside the “stand-offish, sarcastic, post-punk stylings” that Yard Act leaned heavily into on ‘The Overload’, ‘Where’s My Utopia?’ is suffused with a variety of influences. There’s hip hop (particularly in the way that samples are the bedrock of many tracks, most notably ‘Down By The Stream’), electronica, house, gospel, disco, indie rock and psychedelic jazz. 

It’s cheeky, knowing and understated – a sort of postmodern mid-90s album. The spirit of Beck is teasingly perceptive across tracks such as the Link Wray-meets-Spiritualized collage of ‘An Illusion’ and the rasping garage rock of ‘Petroleum’. ‘The Undertow’ recalls the similarly literate Pulp, ‘Fizzy Fish’ is a spunkier primetime Blur, and ‘When The Laughter Stops’ hints at what Blondie would have sounded like if they’d ever met Daft Punk. 

Add the exotic salsa funk of ‘Dream Job’, the propulsive indie-meets-futuristic jazz of ‘We Make Hits’ and the closing disco-funk of ‘A Vineyard For The North’, and it’s the sound of a band having the time of their lives. 

Whereas ‘The Overload’ was a record made by a band that weren’t really a band (it was essentially Smith and Needham’s record – Shipstone and Russell didn’t join until later), ‘Where’s My Utopia?’ is Yard Act in totality.

“The first album almost feels like it’s a collection of demos, really,” reflects Smith. “But this one feels like a proper record because we all made it together. We’ve been playing together so much and sharing so much music that it came quite naturally.”

“It feels like ‘album one’ because it’s the first time we’ve all worked together in this way,” adds Needham. “So, basically, number three is gonna be the shit one [laughs]. Sorry, I mean the hard one! For this, we’ve kind of had a free life.”

So, is this the real debut album? 

“Maybe,” says Smith, cagily. “We didn’t really know what Yard Act was. It was kind of me and Ryan writing a couple of tunes that got carried away with themselves, mainly because BBC 6 Music picked up on them during that time when everyone was listening to the radio all day, every day. 

“It was like, ‘Oh, shit, something is happening!’, but we didn’t have a band. And then Sam joined. By the time Jay came in, we didn’t know if we were ever going to tour again. And then – I have no shame in saying this – the band got really good. The live band is incredible. They can play so well. And I get to stand at the front and gob off. It’s brilliant. 

“They got so good that it was apparent we had something special this time. Obviously, we had something special the first time too, but it was different. This time, it really does feel like a band. It’s the first record that we’ve all played on and that’s really exciting.”

Such elation and assurance are clearly apparent in Smith’s iron-clad – and humorous – conviction that the band could do whatever they wanted. The coherence comes from the simple fact that it’s them.

“It doesn’t have to come from any previous formula that people think we’re trying to adhere to,” he laughs. “That was something I was keen to shake. I was determined to prove people wrong about us. 

“Even people who liked us because they loved post-punk – ‘Oh, they’re cool, they’re a post-punk band’ – I was like, ‘No! That’s not us’. That annoyed me more than people who said, ‘Oh, they’re shit, they’re just a post-punk band.’ 

“I was determined not to be pigeonholed, so in that sense, everyone was on the same wavelength. We were all thinking, ‘We can do what we want’. 

“And it’s nothing that outlandish. I’ve never heard a piece of music I found so outlandish that it baffled me, anyway. I think you can always trace people’s influences and what they like. It draws from a broad palette because we love loads of different stuff. That’s the joy of the album – the playfulness of it.”

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Tard Act must be one of British music’s most endearing success stories of recent times. Assembled from the detritus of various Yorkshire groups, these outward-looking 30/40-somethings have a refreshingly honest take on what this has meant to them.

“I’ve just realised that I’ve got a Chart Award here,” laughs Needham, as everyone zeroes in on said gong. “It’s probably not a good look!”

“Just to be completely transparent – in case this isn’t clear – I wanted to be successful since I was a teenager who loved bands,” says Smith. “I really wanted it, but I didn’t get it until my early 30s. I’ve experienced playing to empty rooms for years and years. It’s shit, but it didn’t mean I would give up on music because I didn’t have it.”

Smith happily admits he’s got success (“It’s way better than not having it”) but the calendar for 2024 is already filling up, and he’s wondering about when he’s going to have time to see his son. Still, it’s been worth the long wait.

“That’s what the album’s about, really,” he says. “Yeah, it was worth it. But it’s like anything – you don’t tick a box and get happiness, which I kind of knew. It’s great to know that your work has connected… well, it’s not even that, because that is out of your control. I don’t write songs for other people, even. I’ve not got some weird saviour narrative that it’s my job to affect people’s lives with my thoughts.”

“Stuff like awards is like getting ‘Employee Of The Month’ at work,” says Needham, chipping in. “You don’t really give a shit, but it’s kind of nice. It’s a laugh, and you can joke with your mates.”

“Some of the perks of the Mercury – that Kraken rum and… what else did we get?” asks Smith. “A top-up card for EE or summat. They were the incentives that were worthwhile! 

“I think the whole success thing is quite balanced, though. Inevitably, there will be a point, probably in the not too distant future, where people aren’t interested in what we do. We’ll have wilderness years and we won’t come back from them, but that’s just part of it. You ride the wave and you don’t think too much about it.”

“I haven’t got time for wilderness years!” shouts Needham. “I’m 43 – I can’t have any more wilderness years. There’s not enough time.”

“You can have a short wilderness year,” says Smith.

“I can have a wilderness month,” shoots back Needham.

The point being that change is the only constant – from the nature and sound of the band to the wider world – a fact that’s magnified by looking at things through a child’s eyes. Change not only helps make sense of the cataclysmic events of recent times, but it also offers some sort of succour and a bulwark against the ongoing follies. 

All this will pass. Yard Act will soundtrack some of these times. But they won’t be there for all of it. Change explains James Smith’s unending curiosity and his inability to switch off.

“It’s probably why I always want to do stuff because change is the only… change is momentum,” he concludes. “Staying stationary isn’t an option. Movement and momentum are everything. You can be static within the momentum and that’s important too. You just can’t be stagnant. 

“I would like to sit back and not have to change all the time. But change is cool, innit? That’s why you discover so much new stuff. I’m not ready to sit back and look at my album award and go, ‘Look what I did when I was 31, wasn’t that brilliant?’ I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to count my shiny things. I want to see what comes next.” 

‘Where’s My Utopia?’ is released by Island

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