Top image: Yak / photography by Zackery Michael
Most people would struggle to find a sense of calm in chaos, but that’s exactly where Yak frontman and guitarist Oli Burslem found purpose and the drive for album cycle two. That’s not to romanticise Oli’s bedlam, but it says a lot about his nature, his approach, and the foundation for Yak’s new material.
Sans philosophy or an overtly positive outlook, a certain modesty runs through everything Yak does; every opportunity they’re presented or offer they take seemingly spurred from chance encounters and bar chat, yet to see such things through takes resolve, strong ideas and conviction. This is something the three-piece aren’t short of, with the follow-up to 2016’s debut album Alas Salvation born during a time of flux, after original member and friend Andy Jones moved to Melbourne, and Vinny Davies was recruited on bass, joining Elliot Rawson once again on drums.
From ten days in Australia to ten days in RAK Studios to ten days in New York, their sophomore record The Pursuit of Momentary Happiness was Oli’s statement of some eighteen-months spent living out of his car and the band putting literally everything into their music. Songs even more forthright and sonically magnified by strings, a brass section, and even recordings of birds, they worked with producer Marta Salogni [Bjork’s Utopia] and Jason Pierce [Spiritualized, Spacemen 3] – who features on one of the tracks – to collate the chaos into a full-length that’s bursting with attitude. Yak’s second offering delivers a band on the edge… which is precisely where they thrive.
Clementine Zawadzki: Your new album had a few false starts, am I right?
Oli Burslem: Well, the end of the record happened and then there was this kind of elephant in the room, which was me and my best mate Andy – classic best mates, brothers – not really coming to terms with the idea that he was going to be living in Melbourne, so I was just trying to keep everything together. It somehow worked out that I was going to live in Japan for a month, writing in isolation, and then moving on to Melbourne to meet Andy and Elliot, and then go to Perth and record for ten days and album done… but it didn’t quite happen like that.
CZ: Was there just too much catching up to do?
OB: We all got on and had a right giggle, it was really wicked. We were pretty skint when we got there I was like, “Fuck, I’ve spent all my money,” so we went shopping and got these horrific barbeque sausage packs, what looked like 400 sausages and were slowly just eating sausages, and Nick [Allbrook] came and brought up a bag of fruit and did a little shop, which is really sweet because he didn’t have to do that. By the end of that trip I was like, “Okay, well Andy’s not coming back, we haven’t done an album so that was a complete failure,” you know how everything happens at once? So it was just me on a beach in Perth with no money like, “Oh god, that didn’t really work out,” so a friend of mine booked me a flight for £400 first class because he works for an airline, so I just got on this plane with champagne, leather seat – first time I’d ever done it – knowing by the time I got to the other side I was just going to be on my uppers. But it’s exciting, isn’t it?
CZ: You don’t strike me as someone who does things by halves. Do you think that’s a good thing?
OB: I suppose that most people in life don’t get opportunities, especially if you play in a band it’s quite a luxury I think. Privileged, rich arseholes seem to have more opportunity, so I think when you do get it you want to make the most of it, and then when it is over – because eventually everything is – you can just look back and know you did everything possible to make good music and something that’s honest and real. Just try to be inspired by what you love, whether it’s straightforward like John Lennon or Nina Simone, or classical composers, people who put everything on the line and are doing it for all the right reasons. The band being kind of ambitious in things like meeting Jay [Watson from Tame Impala, Pond] in Perth when he invited us, it’s like, “Yeah, let’s try to make that happen.” Trying to make the whole thing an adventure, because it won’t last forever and you’re down to a boring existence on the planet… maybe.
CZ: That same school of thought is also notable in the variety of artists you’ve worked with over the years, people like Jason Pierce. It seems a lot happens by chance or spur-of-the-moment?
OB: We are quite self-sufficient. There’s the three of us in the band and we all do what we want to do, but we do meet people, like with Jay and going to Australia, or Jason helping out on the record, it was just friends having a chat, like maybe it will happen, it’ll be cool if it does. Jason was a good one because I’m a big Spiritualized fan. We were hanging out and he was like, “What are you doing?” and I was like, “Not too sure, band’s a bit of a disaster kind of thing, but we’re going to go record some demos at the weekend I think,” and he said he’d come down. I thought that’d be great, but at the same time thinking he probably won’t, but he called me up and came down. You’ve just got to put yourself out there.
CZ: Is it true that during Alas Salvation you couldn’t really see past it to the point of making a second record?
OB: I think it’s really daunting, because I remember my friend saying when we first got signed, “Well, most bands don’t even get to do their first record and even if you do get to do your first record the likelihood is that most people’s first record is shit.” It’s all these little steps isn’t it? But I’m really proud of the first one and it’s an accurate document, there’s loads of stuff in there I’m happy about, but with the second one, my personal situation just seemed to disintegrate, and I was wondering what I was left with? The carcass of a band really, who were more successful than I ever thought, you know, I’m used to playing to two people, and then we got a deal so I thought let’s just chuck everything at the wall and really go for it. I wrote loads of songs – and it’s not a concept record – but I suppose the whole record has this kind of theme of ‘enjoying the moment’ and the immediate things around you.
CZ: You had 29 songs by the end of that process. How did you whittle it down to just eleven?
OB: We didn’t want to put any barriers on anything, so everything has different time signatures and lengths and styles, and then when we started listening back to them, the ones we put together seemed like they had a consistent theme I suppose. Vinny, our bass player – who’s also been an amazing person to get us back on track, really – he was like, “I think that one’s got one too many emotions,” because everything was a little all over the shop. I think lots of good music or art comes from the completely desperate… wanting to be desperately successful or desperate situations, and the core of the record has a bit of that image, which I find amusing.
CZ: You lived out of your car for eighteen months while making this record…
OB: It’s still kind of happening now, but it’s okay. I woke up this morning and I was staying in a house which is being built, but it’s getting rented tomorrow and someone came in and was like, “Get out!” and I was like, “Fuck…” I only got to sleep at like 5am [laughs]. I used to sell furniture and I used to have loads of bits, but just doing music and going on tour, you get used to that kind of lifestyle.
“I think lots of good music or art comes from the completely desperate…”
CZ: What affect did that have on making this record?
OB: It was awful, it really pissed me off. It’s hard enough making a record as it is, like, “Just give me a house” [laughs]. I used to spend hours at home making music on my computer and stuff, and with the second album there’s not so much of it because I had nowhere to do it. I had a guitar, so a lot of the songs are, you know, quieter ones, or dare I say ‘ballad’ maybe, but that’s only because I was in the car, so I’d throw a few chords together on a guitar. It’s all good. It’s a choice as well, isn’t it? I could just get a real job and re-join society, but for now I’m doing the record and sorting myself out.
CZ: Does this make the industry side of music seem a little absurd?
OB: The music business is funny because nobody makes money, so the whole thing is a bit ridiculous isn’t it? I’m really grateful for the opportunity and I don’t have any disdain towards it and we believe in it, but it doesn’t really occupy a lot of my thinking. I wish I could be a grime artist and just do videos on my iPhone and sell trainers on Instagram and sing about more relevant, modernistic things, and not be in a three-piece rock band, but I am who I am.
CZ: Would you say these songs are more considered?
OB: I think I’ll feel more confident by putting them out there. The first one came out and I was like, “Oh god, is that my voice? That guys not me. He sounds really pissed off. I bet when he goes home he just shouts at people and throws plates around.” I’ve come to terms with that more and will be more confident in being as honest as possible, because it’s not that easy. I like the last song a lot, The House Has No Living Room, Jason sings on it, and John [Coxon] as well, he’s a good friend and he’s playing harp.
“I like seeing stuff. I don’t really want to sit at home and watch EastEnders.”
CZ: Did the set up at RAK change things at all?
OB: It was quite a traditional way of recording actually. It’s an old studio, it’s really expensive, it’s going to swallow up all my money, but I’d never been to a really fancy studio and you never know if it’s going to happen again. Ultimately at the end of it, all of the performances and everything was done in RAK, so it gave us a bit of consistency because the songs were all a bit different. But then we went to Jason’s house to do some recording, some vocals, recorded some birds in the garden…
CZ: And then it was mixed in New York . . .
OB: I went to mix the record in New York with Claudius [Mittendorfer] who’s a bloody legend. I just basically gave him loads of data and he made it sound like the record, he’s amazing. You know what, I spent ten days there as well. I don’t know what it is with me and ten days. Once again, I had no money, backpacked, blah de blah. I remember as a kid my brother going away (he played drums in a band in New York) and he was telling me about this hotel where every room has a different theme and there’s just loads of artsy kind of people, and I just said to the guy, “Have you got any kind of room?” and I explained the situation, and I said, “Also, I think my brother stayed here. He was in a band in the late 90s, early noughties,” and he remembered and sorted me out and gave me a room.
CZ: It’s like a string of happy accidents resulted in a lot of deliberate, purposeful moments for the band.
OB: Well it was weird because that was the first time I really ever got into music. They went to New York and just left all their band gear around the house in this room and as a kid – I must’ve been about seven or something – I was really bored and would start plugging in all these amps.
CZ: You’re off on tour soon. The band draws so much attention from its live shows, is that really the driving force behind it?
OB: I love it all! I played a gig last night with loads of improv musicians and they’re all maybe in their 50s and 60s, and we were just saying how much of a privilege it is to play. The live shows are really when it kicks off and it goes mental. I love the idea of York on a Wednesday night and there’s like 40 people, and just using everything and trying to do as much as you can with what’s around. I like bars, which are kind of harder to find now, which have carpet beer mats and sandwiches behind the bar.
CZ: How are you feeling about playing these new songs?
OB: In terms of reviews it’d be nice if they were favourable, but at the end of the day they are autopsies, and the thing that’s in question is dead to me, it’s done, so it’s not going to help me in making more music, which is what I want to do.
CZ: Is your live show as raucous as ever?
OB: It’s full tilt. I’d party every day of the week if I could. Or every hour. I like going out and meeting people. I met a great Nigerian bouncer last night in this gay bar and we were dancing talking about Fela Kuti and we were just having a great conversation. I like seeing stuff. I don’t really want to sit at home and watch EastEnders.
Yak play at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club on 7th November.