> Yard Act's Sam Shipstone discusses The Mercury Prize awards, crazy horses and playing with Elton John - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Yard Act’s Sam Shipstone discusses The Mercury Prize awards, crazy horses and playing with Elton John

‘The overload of discontent, the constant burden of making sense.’ If any line summed up the sprawling mass of 2022, it was contained in the opening track of Yard Act’s debut album, The Overload. The word ‘meteoric’ barely does justice to the band’s growth since they burst onto the scene. 

With one final lap of their successful debut cycle giving way to the second album promotional run, SNACK caught up with guitarist Sam Shipstone to discuss crazy horses, blinkers, Elton John, and why so few bands remain post-punk forever.

How are you doing?

I’m doing fine, thank you. I’m a bit of a pessimist, so I’m sometimes quite frank with that question! How are you doing?

I’m surviving. I try not to get too up or down! 

In Glasgow terms, in just over a year you have gone from playing in Mono to headlining the Barrowlands. That’s mad: how has the year been in the eye of the storm?

I know. At the outset of this ride, to protect my psychology, I got into tunnel vision and did not take in or mark down these crazy things. Of course, in interviews you’re forced to look back behind you, whereas I just want to look ahead. It’s psychological protection, but it stops you from sitting back and appreciating what you should appreciate. I’ve played music for 15 years, and this is bizarre. It’s definitely good. I’m scared my brain won’t take it in and it will damage the future, so I just think about the future.

I read a short piece by David Foster Wallace, the American author, about how tennis biographies are so bad. They [the players] lack the self-reflection that creates good literature and he makes a great twist where he says that if you’re in that high-pressure environment and doing remarkable things, it’s important to have psychological blinkers on, and that’s why they write so badly. There’s a lot of truth in that and that’s the mental state I’ve been emulating this year.

You played in Scotland a lot in 2022 do you notice any difference to gigs down south?

I love playing in Scotland. This is a trite thing to say but with the Brexit thing going on, it was relieving in a way to play in Scotland. A lot of liberal types around me fantasised about moving to Scotland, and I’m sure some have, and it feels like this place has got it right. A city like Glasgow has a tremendous cultural history, and it’s always great to play there.

A particular highlight for me of your Doune The Rabbit Hole set was James [Smith, singer] baiting people from Edinburgh as the guitarist, are there ever moments you worry about people not getting his sense of humour?

Along this ride, I’ve learned to trust him. If you’re a neurotic person like me, you worry about things. Sometimes in the past the audience got it wrong [about on-stage jokes and sarcastic or ironic remarks, such as goading people to buy tickets for the (at the time) upcoming Edinburgh show] and that felt worrying but no, that’s fine, even if the audience doesn’t get it, it’s a unique thing. I bloody love it.

He did this shtick in ‘Land of the Blind’, where he asked the audience for money, and he just walked off with it. [The last line of the song is ‘I’m going to make me and this fifty pence piece disappear’, serving as a classic punchline associated with someone taking money]. Some people in the audience reacted badly – they’ve not understood what that was about – but I love that.

On tour last year, you covered ‘Crazy Horses’ by The Osmonds. How did that come about?

A lot of the ideas in this band come up, and if we laugh at them, we pursue them. We’ve often talked about songs we could cover, and that one seemed so ridiculous. It’s an amazing song, and lyrically it’s so good. Politically, it’s got a good message. It is a silly thing to cover: when we realised we were getting Chris Duffin [sax and synth] in and he could do the sound in it perfectly, we were like, okay, let’s do it.

It’s a meaty song: it’s very riffy, you don’t expect that band to make a song like that. Also, we didn’t tell the crowd it was a cover and we suspect some people in the audience didn’t know it wasn’t our song, which is a bit cringe!

When you play it, it feels like a Black Sabbath song apart from the weird bridge part, which we argued about whether we wanted to play as it’s pop and cheesy, but the verses and chorus are very riffy. It’s a pleasure, actually.

How was working with Elton John?

Again, I put the blinkers on when it came to working with him. There was about 10 minutes of dead time before he arrived and that was the time my brain started going, ‘this is bloody weird, he’s going to arrive in a bit and play piano for us, this is bizarre.’

One of the things that was really beautiful and refreshing was he literally came and said, ‘What do you want me to do? I’ll take that direction.’ A man like that should have more of an ego at this point; it was surprising to see he could give that up for a debut rock band like us. It was beautiful.

He was known for having quite an ego, so he has possibly moved beyond that?

Yes. When we remarked on it, he said he used to do session work and he gets into a session work mindset, and I can see that. He’s a big fan of music: he wouldn’t shut up about his recommendations. Some of them were quite funny. He loves The Chats, the Australian garage rock band – he was telling us they have a new record out, and I hadn’t heard that by that point. It was a good ride.

How were The Mercury Prize Awards?

We were nominated once but did the ceremony twice [the ceremony was postponed in September 2022]. We did the dress rehearsal three times. My impostor syndrome kicked in and you think it’s weird, why has this album been nominated for this award? It didn’t make sense, but you try to enjoy the ride.

All of us were in agreement that Little Simz and Self-Esteem were the clear winners, and that’s what it came down to, so that was lovely to see. It was all right – a good experience.

You flew back from an American tour for the rescheduled event, didn’t you? That’s rock ‘n’ roll!

In the first ceremony, we immediately flew out to Spain, then they drop them in and you do it. We had a lot of jet lag on the second one. Jet lag and a couple of drinks makes you very light-headed. Well cheap!

This tour is shaping up as a lap of honour for the first album but then you’re near enough rolling straight into summer festivals. Is it exciting or worrying seeing your schedule laid out in front of you?

It’s funny you should say that: I’m learning more and more to hold my tongue on my true feelings. People want to hear you’re having an amazing time but it does fill me with dread a little bit, looking at the dates. It is brilliant once you start doing it. We’re going to about 14 countries: some of the festivals, I can’t wait [for] – they’re so cool to play. And we’re going to Japan for the first time.

The residency in Leeds: what is the thinking behind having comedians as support?

Quite early on in the band this idea was floated, and you can see it working as there is humour in this band. With all the bands we were in, in the past, it would never have worked. We did a test run in America and it was lovely: a comedian opened for us, and it worked very well.

You used to get mixed bills with people like John Cooper Clarke and Stewart Lee supporting bands, so it’s reviving that tradition, as I see it. We made connections with a couple of comedians and we thought we might as well ask some others, and they all said yes. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a non-musical act on a big musical bill.

I’m looking forward to it. As it’s at the Brudenell [Social Club – Leeds music venue], the audience will be especially receptive. It’s not a massive venue. There’s a uniqueness about being close to TV comedians. I hope people enjoy it.

What’s the state of play with the second album?

Pretty much done. We’ve got the tracklist down, it’s all written and recorded, but we’ve gone back and need to tweak things. We’re all quite happy about it; like a lot of bands who have been given the post-punk label, we’ve gone and done something different. Shame did it; The Murder Capital did it.  It makes me laugh that virtually every band who gets this label tried to reinvent themselves. You have Squid, and let’s see what Wet Leg’s second album will be like, and if they try to reinvent themselves.

Even before The Overload was released, I knew there was more in this band than the sound we created. We were always going to do a second album that was different. It wasn’t conscious at all – we just have different influences and we’re not in lockdown, so we can meet and play. When I listen to it, the sound is quite a change, but it has James’ voice at the front, which is the thread that will keep it Yard Act.

The world, and the band’s world, has changed significantly between the recording phases for the first and second albums. Have you prepared differently or do you have different expectations?

Yes: one of the first expectations was about being a four-piece band. We recorded The Overload as a three-piece, now we have Jay [Russell] on drums and we’ve played so many live shows, we assumed we would meet up and play and write there, creating a more meaty or rocky sound, as opposed to the drum machine-led stuff.

Through the writing process, it’s sort of gone back to the old ways a little bit. The Overload was written with a drum and bass loop and James would write vocals over the top, and by then we would know if there was something worth pursuing, and we’d flesh it out. That’s sort of how most of the songs on the second record have started, with electronic drums and a bass loop. It’s interesting to see us fall back to the ways lockdown forced us into, and it’s the natural way this band will write in the future, probably.

You just write a set of demos, some of them stick and you work out which ones have the best ideas, and then you look back and reflect on what the sound is. The sound itself isn’t a conscious thing: we never sat and said, ‘we want to make a record that sounds like this.’ Music is quite an emotional thing; your mindset and situation change the kind of music you write. I think this album reflects that quite a bit.

Do you find yourself responding to James’ lyrics in what you play, or is the focus solely on making the best music? 

When I write guitar parts, I need to make space for the vocals. If I had my way, I’d do prominent guitar riffs, but you realise they don’t work, so you step back. Most often, my guitar riffs are quite complicated and get simplified as time goes on; it works better. Nearly every riff I’ve written goes that way.

That must give you a chance to expand the songs live.

Absolutely, yeah. The live sound of The Overload is way more rock than the recorded sound is and I expect it’ll be the same with this record. A lot of the songs we play off The Overload are significant reinterpretations, they’re not carbon copies in any way. Seeing how some of the songs on the second record are, we aren’t going to be able to perform them as a live band: we’ll need to reinterpret them. We’ve got no fear of that in this band. Ee’re happy to almost do cover versions of our songs, and we don’t have to imitate what was good in the recorded music.

That must help in making touring more interesting for the band.

Yeah, definitely for James. I realise different musicians have different personalities. He’s someone who needs to be constantly moving, and that’s what makes him quite energetic. I’m one of the people who would be very happy doing the same thing over and over. That doesn’t bother me; I feel like I approach perfection that way. It’s great in all human societies to have people of different mindsets as you produce things that are better, but yes, it makes it fresher.

You are a massive White Stripes fan. What’s your take on the recent Twitter storm regarding criticism of Meg White’s drumming ability?

Noooo, oh my gosh. I don’t use Twitter as it stresses me out. Tell me more! 

[After a quick run-through of the story] I remember at the time when they were blowing up, and that was thrown at her, and them, all the time. There are a few things: the fact she is a woman is almost certainly a huge part of this, and a female drummer in rock. The thing is, what makes a good musician in modern rock music? Technical ability isn’t what we are after any more – it’s not the prog of the 70s or the refinement of classical music. It’s something else that creates brilliant performers. She absolutely has it. She has got such a unique, distinct style; it’s irreplicable. Even though the basic parts are simple, the way she plays is unique, and people know that. I don’t get why people throw this at her.

How was the Hammersmith show supporting Jack White last year, for you?

It was lovely. We always joke that we feel like we skipped a stage because of the lockdown. The first act we supported was Foals, and then it was Jack White: it was a pleasure. There is such a focus on the theatrics for him – all of the crew dress in uniform and everything is so considered, beyond the music. The whole presentation is amazing to see in action; it’s not a normal rock show.

Can you even begin to expect or predict what will happen with the second album cycle?

No, and I’m happy we haven’t approached it with fear. It sort of doesn’t matter what happens. This was a strong and bright moment, and if that fades, we can continue. We are proud of this record and we hope it lands in the way it landed for us, but it doesn’t matter. People can easily put a lot of pressure on themselves in a situation like this. But so far, we just do the thing, and who knows what will happen.

Finally, are you looking forward to the Barrowlands and what comes next?

We’re hoping to be a five-piece for these shows, not a four-piece, so we’re expanding our sound a little. We’re going to play some new songs too – we’ll see how many we can incorporate. I can’t wait.

There’s a single coming soon – I can’t remember when – but it’s definitely soon!

Yard Act play Glasgow Barrowlands on 28th April

Pictures by Phoebe Fox

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