Yard Act’s Sam Shipstone on disturbing the hornets’ nest and his love of Leo Fender’s MFD pickups

The guitarist tells us about stepping out of his comfort zone, finding his musical space, and the band’s upcoming album

Yard Act photographed against an orange background

Yard Act

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Yard Act were once a hidden gem of the Leeds scene. Now a national name following the release of their debut album, The Overload in 2022, the band’s sophomore album couldn’t come soon enough.

“I’ve never been in a band like this,” says guitarist Sam Shipstone. “It was quite rapid, quite quick. I think it was a product of the pandemic – the way people were consuming music meant something about this band just hit in the right place at the right time.”

The four-piece have always moved to the beat of their own drum, from writing a song about a woman who may or may not have killed her husband with a handful of peanuts to recording a version of track 100% Endurance with Sir Elton John. It’s difficult to know what to expect from Yard Act next.

Since their seated shows at Leeds’ famous Brudenell Social Club, the band have reached No.2 in the UK album charts and received numerous accolades, from five-star reviews to award nominations.

Did this make the release of their second record, Where’s My Utopia?, even more daunting, especially given their decision to change tack musically?

Yard Act photographed against greenery with a fake skeleton
Yard Act

Pursuing your own desires

“When you see other bands changing their sound quite, you think, what was the plan behind that? But I swear to God, most of the time that isn’t a plan,” says Shipstone.

“You’re just in your own hole pursuing your own desires. And then when it starts to be released into the world, you’re like, ‘Oh fuck, maybe this is like going to alienate a lot of people’.”

Following the post-punk of The Overload, which Shipstone says reflected the “true influences” of the band, Where’s My Utopia? is more cinematic. The band’s second album is an ode to dance-punk, a subgenre with roots in 1970s funk and disco but best known as the territory of artists like The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem.

Whether the vibe shift was intentional, though, is up for debate. “You know, you don’t really consider it,” says Shipstone. “You just play. And if something works, it works.

Sam Shipstone of Yard Act performing onstage
Sam Shipstone of Yard Act performing onstage

“There are going to be times in this band where I feel outside my comfort zone, and most artists will be faced with not wanting to disturb the hornets’ nest. But in the writing of this record, it all came quite naturally.”

Written by frontman James Smith, Yard Act’s tracks are known for their sarcastic lyrics that poke fun at British society. The lyrical wit is teamed with heavy guitar riffs and the kind of rolling pace that makes it incapable to keep your feet on the floor.

Despite the shift in style, Yard Act’s second album retains the qualities that helped the band become so beloved so quickly: the outlandish spoken-word lyrics that fight against the seriousness of the older generation of post-punk outfits, the wiry rhythms and the catchy grooves.

But Where’s My Utopia? also feels raw and packed with emotion and meaning. It feels reflective of their journey from a local name to a national success. On this record, they’re searching for something unattainable while supposedly living the dream.

“I think a lot of people have this experience even if they’re not in music,” says Shipstone. “You really want something and have dreamed of something, and then you get it and realise that, even though it’s wonderful, it’s not quite the thing you thought it was.”

Yard Act photographed in black and white
Yard Act

Finding musical space

Yard Act was founded by vocalist and frontman Smith and bassist Ryan Needham. The band began as a “project in waiting”. That was, until the pandemic was over.

When it came to the guitar and its relationship to the rest of the band instrumentally, it was very much up to Shipstone – who joined a few months later – to decide when it was appropriate to push to the front and when it was necessary to sit in the background.

“There are moments on The Overload where it’s very obviously guitar,” he says. “There are less moments on this record. I absolutely see that. It’s just about what the song needs. If the song can be sung, if the riff of this in the song suits it, then it needs to be. And if it’s not that, then it shouldn’t be, and I’m fine with that. You’ve just got to find a musical space.”

Whether it’s channelling Glen Campbell’s Lineman during the writing of An Illusion, or Cowtown’s Ski School for the track Dream Job, Shipstone made a conscious effort to impart his own style and preferences onto Yard Act.

The Leeds band clearly thrives off letting its members do their own thing, from Smith’s love of R&B and Needham’s indie roots to Shipstones’ own “big, bombastic guitar music”.

Armed with a G&L ASAT, which Shipstone describes as the Telecaster Leo Fender made after selling his name, the guitarist seems admirably comfortable doing his own thing, and finding his own place rather than fighting the need to sit at the front of the pack.

“I remember putting MFD pickups in it,” he says. “They’re not good high-end pickups, as they’re quite hot, quite unusual. So when you distort, it sounds so good.”

MFD (magnetic-field design) pickups were one of Leo Fender’s final innovations before his death in 1991. They offer lots of clarity and frequency thanks to the transfer of the magnetic field to the top of the pickup rather than the middle.

Yard Act photographed against an orange background
Yard Act

Shipstone’s sound is defined by the simplicity of his gear. He sticks to the basics of his “little bit harsh, little bit bright, little bit nasty” Fender Blues Deville amp, coupled with an Electro-Harmonix Memory Boy reverb.

“I quite like the nakedness that you get from a guitar that’s not fully distorted. It’s really as simple as that. We don’t spend a whole lot of time on the sounds of any individual thing, so we didn’t double-track the guitars or agonise a huge amount about how to play them. We just play them in and if they sound good, they sound good.

“Actually that’s one thing that’s really weird about this for me. A lot of the demos we did were just directly into a computer. Obviously, I thought, ‘I’m going to re-record those parts because we need to record them through an amp’. However, for some of the solos on this record, we just kept them as is. The busy Fizzy Fish solo and the Grifter’s Grief solo, weren’t amped at all. It just sounded a lot better somehow. It just sounded a lot more present.”

On the rest of the album, you’ll hear new member, saxophonist Chris Duffin, as well as an orchestra and a choir. “When you’re a child, you think, ‘If I had £1bn, what obscene things would I do?’ says Shipstone. “One of them would be hiring a string section to play music I’d written – and it happened!”

Arranging his guitar parts to sit among these new sonic textures, though, meant that realising his childhood dream took a little more work than expected.

“Sometimes people creatively get ahead of themselves and think, ‘Oh yeah, we want to make this really big and bombastic’, and you go down silly expensive angles that aren’t artistically amazing. So hopefully the strings and choir on this are subtle enough to keep the core of who we are.”

Yard Act photographed through a fisheye lens
Yard Act

Adapting to the live stage

With such complex and intricate new sounds courtesy of the band’s “different attitude” on this album, transposing the record to the stage is going to be something of a challenge too.

“In the old days, you would probably sit in a room and jam together, or somebody would come with some completed chords, lyrics and melody, and you’d try and build it up and you’d basically record the band. But this is not that,” says Shipstone.

“We recorded into a computer, never having played this together. Now we know that we’re going to have to play these songs live, and now it’s about trying to work out how we do it.”

One of the songs that might cause a problem is Blackpool Illuminations. The seven-minute epic details the angst felt by the band towards achieving their dreams but not feeling satisfied. Translating it to the live arena will require a lot of interpretation.

“But it’s just another act of creativity,” says Shipstone. “You’ve got the structure and the lyrics and the melody, and you have just got to reorganise the instrumentation in a way that’s commanding and makes the changes worthwhile.”

Yard Act’s Where’s My Utopia? is out 1 March via Island

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