For years, Paste has introduced exciting, up-and-coming artists to our readers. This is the return of The Best of What’s Next, a monthly profile column which highlights new acts with big potential—the artists you’ll want to tell your friends about the minute you first hear their music. Explore them all here.
Sloganeering can do more harm than good when there are nuanced problems to be addressed through artistic expression. We’ve seen that tragically play out in political theater time and time again. In some cases, when well-intentioned artists try to shout from the rafters about cataclysmic threats to our ways of life—like in Adam McKay’s anything-but-subtle satire Don’t Look Up—it can provoke agitation, rather than critical thought, amongst those who need converting. James Smith, vocalist and lyricist of the young Leeds post-punk band Yard Act, can see this delicate balancing act for what it is. While some of the other prominent bands of their ilk draw out their messaging in a similar way to McKay’s grand-scale “Things are fucked and now I’m going to tell you why!” megaphone blitzkrieg, Smith’s approach is a little more understated. If we’re going to keep up the film analogy, you could compare the world he creates on Yard Act’s thrilling Island Records debut The Overload to working-class British filmmakers Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. It’s all about addressing the decisions made at the top by showing their impact on the ground level.
“There’s a lot of ‘you’re with us or you’re not,’ and that’s not what I’m about,” says Smith as he and Yard Act bassist Ryan Needham discuss their plan of attack over Zoom. The way Smith sees it, his densely written character studies—delivered at the rapid pace of a printing press—are exercises in understanding the people around him and how the situations in which they find themselves are all connected in some way. With so many of the trusted political class and news outlets trying to stoke fear rather than foster unity, Smith says that he writes as therapeutic cleansing practice.
He also understands that if you are going to write about humanity in 2022 with any kind of success, it’s important to address the political divisions that hold it back. “You only know what’s in front of you,” Smith explains, “But over here [in the U.K.], It’s so overwhelming, what’s going on with the Conservative Party and the changes they’re making and the refugee crisis. It’s impossible for that not to feed into any song you’re writing in 2022 that’s about something other than your own feelings. If you’re writing outwardly, that’s gonna seep in, in some form.”
It’s this kind of respect for their listeners—and share in their outrage—that has already made Yard Act such a huge success in the U.K. in the short time they’ve been making music together. After a run of one-off singles including the bitingly hilarious “Fixer Upper,” the band collected these songs and released them as their debut EP Dark Days in 2021. Releasing it independently, the band was able to quickly move 3,000 copies of the EP through word of mouth. Their slinky, danceable approach to the early Rough Trade Records sound, mixed with Smith’s commanding joke-a-minute lyrical style, rushed them into the limelight with a coveted slot at last year’s Reading Festival and a performance on Later… with Jools Holland. And the title track on the new record, “The Overload,” is included on the FIFA ‘22 soundtrack. Yard Act’s rise to becoming the toast of the town has certainly seemed meteoric.
But it’s not like both Smith and Needham haven’t been on the post-punk grind for sometime. Smith was previously the guitarist and co-vocalist for the group Post War Glamour Girls and Needham played in Menace Beach. It was only recently when the two got together to bounce around ideas on Smith’s four-track recorder that they landed on the modus operandi of the new group. “We’re going to use my four-track to be Leeds’ answer to Guided by Voices,” laughs Smith, who cites mimicking Robert Pollard’s free-associative poetry on the Bee Thousand classic “Hot Freaks’’ as an “a-ha” moment for the recipe they use today. Rather than leaning into the lo-fi pop of bands like GBV, or adding to the future landfill of talk-singing Mark E. Smith disciples of tomorrow, Yard Act’s ace in the hole is the influence of hip-hop, which not only informs Smith’s delivery, but also the way he and Needham build their compositions before presenting them to their bandmates, drummer Jay Russell and guitarist Sam Shjipstone.
Since Yard Act largely formed during the pandemic, Smith not having the luxury of exploring his vocal range in a practice room or a studio also helped him to develop and gain confidence in his fiery spoken-word delivery. Needham would send Smith tracks to add vocals to, which he would do late at night after his wife had gone to sleep. “I think that’s where the spoken element came from, more so than me yelling in a practice room. I was in my spare bedroom and my wife was asleep upstairs. So I wasn’t going to start screaming. I was just talking away to myself, having a conversation with myself.”
According to Needham, any time he presents Smith with a bed of music for him to add a vocal to, chances are it’s either struck down, or mutated from its original form to accommodate Smith’s flow or narrative. Sections are treated like samples, leaving songs to take numerous stylistic shapes in short spurts. It’s an engaging process that made recording The Overload an exciting and unpredictable experience for the group, and for their producer Ali Chant. “The reason we went with Ali Chant as the producer was we were chatting to a few people and he just got back to us and was like, ‘I want to make a Public Enemy record.’ We were like ‘fucking hell, finally someone gets it,’” says Needham.
When you listen to Smith’s lyrical placement on the funky screed against the brainless decline of post-Brexit England “Dead Horse,” his attention to—and not indifference to—the beat propels the band forward in a way similar to Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods. He piles up rhymes like a flurry of jabs from a fighter punching above their weight class, or a hungry emcee trying to out-flow the odds stacked against them. “I do have bars, actually,” says Smith with a sense of pride. “I’m glad you’ve noticed that!”
In fact, hip-hop was Smith’s first musical love before entering the world of DIY punk. First listening to Eminem and then going back and becoming enamored with classic emcees from the East Coast’s golden era, particularly Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan. Those go-for-broke hip-hop records that focused on poetic world-building ignited a curiosity in Smith that he still feels whenever he sits down to write. “It’s massively important to me. I still think it’s the most important movement in music that’s ever happened. Don’t tell jazz,” Smith says of his love of hip-hop. “When an emcee builds a world, I take influence from that and I guess that I’m building my world, which is completely unrelated to a lot of rappers. But it’s my turn. It’s my take on it.”
Smith succeeds on that front time and time again on The Overload. On single “Payday,” listeners are presented with three questions: what constitutes actually living in a “ghetto,” what does it mean to have a “ghetto fetish,” and how much spine does it take to enact “real change”? After depicting everyday people in squalor, growing “lettuce in potholes in the road,” he takes aim at those who decide to not look back once they find themselves rolling in it. “What constitutes real change? Are we even vaguely aware of when we’ll terminate the muse?” he posits, adding, “If all offers are final / Then how is it even possible / For you to be both flush and completely principled?” It’s this kind of 360-degree lens that Smith is able to use as a keen observer that is equal parts Illmatic and Gang of Four.
After applying their DIY gumption and persistence for so long, signing a lucrative deal with Island Records has allowed the members of Yard Act to quit their day jobs to focus on making music full-time. Growing up working-class through and through, it’s a surreal feeling for Smith and Needham as their musical careers have finally taken off. Smith previously worked as a one-to-one support worker and a music teacher, and Needham found various jobs, such as screenprinting and working in restaurants, to help facilitate his various bands over the years. Both found ways to pay the bills, but never had the evil corporation that they could take pleasure in telling off when it was time.
“Neither of us got to have that great throwing a uniform in the fucking bin and walking out [experience] because we both had odd jobs,” jokes Needham.
“None of us none of us had a boss to tell to fuck off. Did we?” adds Smith with a laugh in return.
Being able to spend a whole day in their practice room without scheduling around each member’s nine-to-fives has been a luxury. Fucking around on ideas that could just be silly exercises that might never be recorded is a dream for any blue-collar musician. But that’s not to say the band will not be busy this year. As of right now, they have a loaded touring schedule, with a largely sold-out U.K. tour and a massive tour of the States that will culminate in a slot at this year’s Coachella festival. Aside from a couple of visits that included getting married to his wife at New York’s City Hall and one strange trip to Florida, Smith has never had the chance to explore the States. It’s an adventure that both Smith and Needham are excited and slightly nervous about.
“America’s kind of famous amongst U.K. bands,” explains Needham, “U.K. bands that are doing relatively alright and think they’re the shit go to America, and then no one gives a fuck. It happened to people like Oasis. So hopefully our spirits won’t be crushed!”
Yard Act certainly are a band of this moment, as it seems like there is a major-label feeding frenzy on bands of their same style and region, similar to the post-Nirvana grunge phenomenon. But listening to an album as overflowing with ideas as the aptly titled The Overload, you get the sense that Smith and Needham’s creative partnership is nothing but genuine and curious. Once the musical palette fills by the end of the record on the jubilant and sprawling “100% Endurance,” it’s hard to pinpoint where influences find their way in and by then, you could give a shit.
This sense of adventure is what Smith knows will be Yard Act’s key to artistic success. “I see ourselves in the future, rather than in the now, and I kind of know where I want to go with it,” he assures. “You can’t go beyond the moment. People only know of us what they already know. They don’t know what I know in my head about five years from now.”
Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.