- 06 Apr 23
Ahead of Yard Act's eagerly awaited date at Vicar Street on April 26th, Hot Press caught up with James Smith, the witty, down-to-earth frontman that relentlessly won't start serious beef. We dissect the band's forthcoming second album, which was inspired by the concept of a U2 roadie naming his son Bono (it's really about fatherhood and ego), going to see cuddly animals in Australia with Grian Chatten and protecting Cillian Murphy on the mean streets of Dublin.
James ‘Jim’ Smith, of Yard Act frontman fame, has not arrived on the Zoom link. Just when I’ve accepted being stood up, he pops in from his home, highly apologetic. [Thanks for holding him up, Irish Independent. Consider this ‘beef’ initiation.]
The British rockers feature Smith on vocals, bassist Ryan Needham, guitarist Sam Shipstone and drummer Jay Russell. The quartet released their Mercury Prize-nominated debut album The Overload on January 21st last year, climbing to number 2 on the UK Albums Chart. The Leeds outfit were in hot pursuit of Years & Years, securing a runner-up result beyond expectations. Not to mention that The Overload is officially the fastest-selling debut on vinyl of any band this century.
Since then, it's been a whirlwind, to say the least. The outfit was created back in September 2019 when Needham found himself temporarily living in James Smith's spare bedroom. Settling into a system of programming, looping, and layering, the synergy between the two created a HQ from which to forge their soundscape and lyrical tales.
Later tapping Shipstone and Russell for the project, four independent singles were compiled onto Yard Act's debut EP, titled Dark Days, released in 2021. With narratives spanning capitalism, gentrification and social class, told using Smith's trademark dark humour and cynical storytelling with an empathetic feeling, it paved the way for The Overload to shine in 2022.
James is in good form when we get a hold of him (virtually). Yard Act are gearing up for their European and UK tour this month, which will see them perform at Dublin’s Vicar Street on April 26th for a highly-anticipated date. Has the songwriter ever been to Ireland’s capital city?
“Just once when we played Whelan’s last March, and I loved it," he tells me, down-to-earth. "It had a really good vibe. I mainly enjoyed the people, honestly. Great crowd, and then we ended up having a lock in after. I can’t really remember the concept of the conversations we were having but it was all in good spirit. It was wicked. I’m excited to come back.”
Apparently, Ed Sheeran went to see Damion Rice at Whelan’s, and was inspired to become a musician. That’s the old wives tale, at least.
“I would never put an Ed Sheeran record on, but I have absolutely no beef with him. I’m happy to go on the record and say that I think ‘Shape of You’ is a really good pop song. I will not argue with that. I’m not annoyed one bit that Whelan’s facilitated the career of Ed Sheeran,” James informs me, deadpan.
Would you ever start imaginary beef with anyone just because you’re in the industry just because you’re in a guitar band?
“It’s funny, I get the novelty of it. It’s fun. No one really takes it too seriously, but at the same time, I just can’t be arsed. It’s happened in recent years and no one comes off looking good in it. I’m not saying that I’m above it, I slag everyone off all the time, but I can refrain from doing it on the internet! That’s a skill I’ve learned in life; to not send stupid tweets. I’m not starting beef anytime soon.
“Everyone’s been nice to our faces!” Smith shrugs, smiling. “There’s a few people that slag us off with a tweet here and there that we’re aware of, but we just let them be. It’s quite funny. It says more about them than it says about us. Because we started in the lockdown, we basically stepped out into festival season. After listening to people's music over lockdown and then meeting the artists, you realise that most people are alright. When you bop with someone you really get along with, that's a really nice feeling. Putting a positive slab on this imaginary; we’ve met some really great bands. It’s good to have a support network and be able to talk to people about it, like Katie J. Pearson.
“She just became someone I could confide in. When we were on tour, we just talked to each other about stuff. We’re going to a New York band’s wedding later on after meeting them before. Then you meet a whole bunch of other people and you're like, ‘You’re quite boring’. There’s not much chat here. But yeah, that’s life isn’t it?”
It certainly is. Speaking of tour, James was asked late last year about Album Number Two, to which he responded: “It’s about a U2 roadie that has a son called Bono.” He probably thought that wouldn’t come back to haunt him. Enter Hot Press.
“I have to level with you Kate, it was serious," he grins. "It was all based around hearing ‘Beautiful Day’ under the influence of ecstasy and having a different opinion because of it. You can put as much of this in as you want. Basically, it had all stemmed from the fact that I had written this song and I couldn’t find a good name for the character and I put Bono in as a placeholder. That stuck for ages, but the actual song didn’t make the album.
“That whole phrase remains the template for album two. It was about someone being on tour. Basically, I didn’t have the heart to write that that was me. I didn’t have the guts, so I wrote about ‘U2 roadie has a son called Bono’. That has fallen away and given in to what I think is more personal and better song writing. The premise remains the same. I do give Bono credit for being the spark for album two.”
He could hear about it, given that The Edge is on our cover this month.
“We're on the same label so I’m going to reach out to him. At one point, we were going to get a U2 impersonator to sing a bit of ‘Beautiful Day’ on the album. We said we’ll just go directly to the source, but the problem is he’s probably going to want a writing credit!" the frontman jokes. "He’ll want all the money.”
“At the time we were writing demos, we were driving through the Joshua Tree and U2 kept cropping up and I was getting quite into him. I was like, ‘Fuck - this is great music. This is amazing’. Funny enough, when I was talking to Cillian Murphy, he said U2 were his favourite band. The Joshua Tree changed his life.”
The label he's referring to is Island Records, which made a chart impact in recent years with guitar acts Sports Team, Easy Life and The Lathums. Out of curiosity, how did Interview Magazine get Cillian Murphy to do that phone call?
“I think because he likes us? He’s a declared fan!”
Murphy no longer performs, but the Irish actor hosts radio hours on BBC Radio 6 and curates a podcast about his top bands. James first crossed paths with Murphy while working as an extra on the third season of Peaky Blinders. While in character as Tommy Shelby (we hope), the Oppenheimer star shoved Smith. ["It’s not like I went flying — You gave me a good shove though," he told Murphy. "Let’s just say you were in character. You were Shelby-ing it up. It was a Peaky Blinders scene in an old car factory, and you were letting us workers in the doors. I was the last one that got through, you let one rip pretty hard on my left shoulder. I tumbled headfirst into the factory.] Thus, imaginary roast beef was born.
“They asked if I wanted to talk to anyone in particular, but I just didn’t think anyone would want to talk to me!" James laughs, when I enquire. "Now, I do. Everyone wants to talk to me. But at the time, I would have never gone to get Cillian Murphy in there. They came back and said, ‘We have an idea that Cillian could do it’. That day, he said he was up for it. I couldn't believe it. We chatted for like an hour. We were meant to play at the Body & Soul Festival in Ireland, but we got trapped in Prague and had to play there. It was a shame, but maybe he’ll be at the Vicar Street show?”
He lives in Monkstown, so it’s not wildly far to go.
“He’s a dude. He’s like a porcelain doll - a precious man," he informs me. "You’ve got to look after him. Make sure you take care of him if you see him on the streets in Dublin again.”
I recall an incident with a friend of mine who said Cillian Murphy was looking good “for his age” on the West Pier in Dun Laoghaire, only for the man himself to pop up beside her.
“You would think it would be nice to be talked about, but it’s not," Smith replies, shrugging. "It’s just something that you have no control over. It’s a weird one. I would like to think I’d make light of it, but I probably wouldn’t. If someone was saying I was good looking full stop, I’d be fine with it. Regardless of whether it was about my age.”
The follow up to The Overload is eagerly awaited, but pressure always mounts when it comes to the sophomore project.
“It’s recorded in demo form. We need to put it in the shiny machine and make it sound like a big album," Smith posits, unassuming. "This one is largely first person rather than characters. Originally, it was going to be about the roadie and Bono and the roadie’s wife or partner, Sarah. Through encouragement of the band, and probably an audience willing to keep up with my bullshit…it’s about me. The characters and the politics are in the peripheries now and it’s largely a love letter to my son. I don’t need to tell anyone else that I love him. I do that already. It’s about the complexities. It’s an album about ego and the future.”
How do you go about that in a way that is true to your own feelings while remaining respectful to the subjects?
“I played the demos to my wife. Unfortunately my son is too young to have a say," James laughs. "If my wife said that she didn’t want anything in it, I’d remove it - but she loved the tracks. There’s no one else I need to consult on it. There’s a couple of reflective songs about childhood that reference incidents, but I’ve changed names. I wonder if those kids from school will ever clock in. I don’t even know if they’re aware that I’m in a band now. I haven’t spoken to them in 20-25 years. It’s funny when you write about your past and other people's experiences because you question whether they would remember it differently. Even though you’re changing the name, they’re in a song. There’s still something slightly mucky in taking somebody else and making it anonymous.”
Growing up in Lymm, near Warrington, Smith was a budding animator who later had his world expanded sonically by Gorillaz. The Damon Albarn outfit enlightened Smith to pop and led him towards his dad’s hip-hop records, the early 21st-century indie renaissance of the Strokes, LCD Soundsystem and Arctic Monkeys - plus Tom Waits. His dad is a former pawn shop manager-turned-bus driver, and passed a love of reading down to James - The Hobbit as a child and On The Road during his uni years.
Now that he's a dad himself, how has that changed his own artistry, and daily life?
“It’s the little things. This has influenced the album significantly, but I was on tour when he first walked, and first said ‘Dad. Seeing video footage of that when you’re sat in the back of a fucking van in Italy or wherever is weird," James nods, bluntly. "I’ve given up moments to do what I’m doing, but I also know that I’ve wanted to do this band for so long.
“The album also looks at the fact that what you can actually give to your child is very little beyond protecting them throughout infancy and childhood. You can’t impose anything on them. You being there makes all the difference to me, but it won’t to them because they won’t remember. It’s a funny one. We’re getting into a complex discussion here that I don’t have the answers for. But the album is about the conflicts of what it means to be away from my son. Being home at the moment for the last month and half, spending every day with him, is the best. He’s my best mate. He’s just this little weirdo that sits around, farts and does all sorts of odd stuff. He’s just cool. It’s just really amazing watching something that you made.”
“I sleep better on tour than I do at home. In terms of the fear of messing up, it’s weird how you just go into autopilot. There’s definitely just an internal thing.”
Both Smith and his wife come from backgrounds of working in social care and nursing. James himself worked as a support carer and music teacher.
“When I gave up my support care working job, I was working with one boy in particular for five years," he recalls, warmly. "We remained friends, I see the family regularly. They live just down the road. I struggle to say these things because I don’t want it to seem like I’m holier than thou, but I genuinely do think, spending that much time with someone who views the world in a completely different perspective and expresses themselves through different means, I do hope that it’s given me more empathy.
“I see what my wife’s going through at the moment as a mental health nurse for the NHS," Smith shakes his head. "It’s much easier for me to speak about what she’s gained versus what I’ve gained because I still struggle with that. I feel like I sound like a dick when I say it, which I know is bullshit because I’m only speaking from the heart. It makes me think about myself less, and a lot of this has been about battling my own ego. I play with that and I’m interested in whether I want to be on stage or not. I don’t really know if I want to be a performer. I happen to be alright at it.
“That resonated with people and now I have to do it to make money so I can write. If I had it my way, I’d probably just stay in the studio and write books and record music. Touring is different and being away from the family is hard but I definitely do try to approach the situation with a non-dick attitude, if that makes any sense. If you can exert a level of patience and empathy to get through that heat then it might make everything a bit easier for everyone. I try to apply that to my day to day life, but whether it works or not, I couldn’t tell you.”
At least Dublin isn't too far from Leeds, in the grand scheme of things. James also has some friends in high music places from the Dublin world.
“Grian [Chatten, Fontaines D.C. frontman] and I were in Australia at a festival together, and ended up going to an island to see koalas together in Perth. It’s the opposite of beef!" he laughs. "We went to see a bunch of cuddly animals on a boat together. They’re great. I love those guys - I think they’re a solid band. They’re really nice people. Sorry, that’s rubbish beef, isn't it? They’re all cunts! Carlos wasn’t there, actually. He was at the Brit Awards collecting their Best International Group statue on his own.”
Guitarist Carlos O'Connell was awaiting the birth of his first child at the time, which seems like a legit reason to miss a tour Down Under. What can we expect from Yard Act's Irish gig?
“Vicar Street - well, there’s going to be a couple of new tunes. Since the last time we were in Ireland, we’ve now got an extra live member, which has amped up the sound. We’re stepping into bigger venues and you have to step up with it as a band. Logistically, show-wise, it’s quite boring to explain it and put it in print but we’re making more of a show out of it. Because we’re so well rested and Dublin is one of the first shows, it’ll be a major one. I’m doing a sales pitch, but I can’t wait to get back.
"We had the best time at Whelan’s, so it’s time to connect with Dublin again," Smith grins. "I’m really fucking excited about it.”
Yard Act play Vicar Street on April 26th. Tickets on sale here.
Listen to The Overload below.