Though you may not be acutely aware of them, London-based trio YAK are one of the few groups in Britain today capable of justifying their own press hype.
“It seems now that we’re almost definitely in a situation where we can do ourselves proud and put out a really good record,” says lead singer and guitarist Oli Burslem, with the air of a man who knows the tipping point between confidence and arrogance. If the quality of the group’s output so far is anything to go by, then the group’s success seems almost certain. To date, Yak have released a series of singles and an excellent EP (Plastic People) on two of the UK’s finest independent labels, which points to a validation of sorts of what Burslem claims. “Our first [single] was put out by Fat Possum, which is a bit of a curveball, but everything else is Rough Trade.”
The group’s sound can be described as an eclectic mix of the very best psych, krautrock and garage rock, but their range of influences spans far beyond that. “Me and Andy have been playing since we were quite young and I remember my first obsession in music was Elvis!” laughs Burslem. “I mean, it probably sounds quite cool now, but at the time I think people were puzzled as to why this 6-year-old had a quiff and was singing Elvis songs… Bands like the Cramps, the Birthday Party and the Gun Club we picked up along the way, but you get to the point where you don’t consciously think of any of them… I just get the guitar and write a song, which is what I prefer, really.”
What separates Yak from a lot of their peers is their urge to experiment instead of sticking to tired psych and garage-rock traits. “The EP Plastic People I pretty much just wrote at home and then when we got to the studio the guys put their input in,” Burslem explains, with disarming easiness. “The song Distortion was actually the last notes of a song we demoed… I went home from the studio and I couldn’t get to sleep one night so I looped the last five seconds of this guitar and organ riff, which was much better than the rest of the demo of the song. I put it through a reel to reel: I sped it up, slowed it down and tuned it to different notes, took it back to the computer and made a song out of a drone being sped up or slowed down.” The group have a clear “anything-goes” approach to songwriting, as they are keen not to restrict themselves by their abilities as musicians. “The hardest thing is working out what you’re good at and not so good at,” Burslem continues. “When you’re really passionate about music you think you can do it all, but you can’t really. That’s why I think we sound the way we do. It’s why we never play a song the same twice! We keep it quite loose because we get restless and quite bored easily. I’ve actually written two songs today… one of them sounds alright actually, so that’s not bad!”
It was this restlessness that resulted in the band’s formation in the first place, as well as Burslem’s own desire to fly the nest. “I didn’t want to stay in Wolverhampton, where I’m from. I really like London but I don’t have any money. So I was working on a building site, as a handyman, on the market selling furniture, Stringfellow’s strip bar – just to sustain the music! It just proved harder and harder to balance the two, really. Now we’ve sold everything we own just to keep going! I still don’t have my own guitar! A friend had to loan one to me.” The band’s limited recording budget has become one of their defining traits, and they are all the stronger for it, and their bizarre idiosyncrasies are perhaps partly inspired by Burslem’s days working on a market stall in London dealing in antiques. “I used to buy and sell shit, really. I would usually go to one of those weekly auctions with a van and come back with some bits and pieces to sell in London,” he says. This occupation has proved useful for the band as a means of acquiring recording equipment and instruments, not least a new organ after destroying one at a show in Glasgow. “There was once this organ with a big fish on it which was about five quid and I thought was amazing, so I had to have it. The organ ended up back in the shop and people would come in and play it. There was one kid who would come in and we would sit him on this organ and he would play it for hours; it was complete noise! He would just completely empty the shop but he really, really enjoyed it so we didn’t want to sell it… I don’t have a shop anymore and that’s probably why.” The band still has the fish organ to this day, as well as a synthesiser that they only kept because its dire condition rendered it unsellable.
Burslem was keen to express his love for the North West’s music and culture, stating that he thinks “Liverpool easily has as good a scene [as Manchester] but people just don’t tend to go on about it as much.” Interestingly, Yak as a group claim that they wouldn’t be where they are today if it wasn’t for the help of a Scouse pal of theirs, Levi: “He’s the person who built our amplifiers, some of our pedals, and did some of our recordings and just got us going really… He’s into his amateur radio stuff and uses this big antenna to pick up truckers in America on it! A sample from it is actually on the last song on the EP… He used to work at Eric’s too!” Despite his love for the city, Burslem’s band have never played a show here, which makes Sound City the group’s Liverpool debut. “We’re really looking forward to it. We really wanna see Iceage, and we’ve never seen Swans before so we’re really excited for that too… really brutal. Look out for a man in a stupid hat that looks a bit like me!”
Interestingly, Yak have developed a relationship with John Coxon from legendary space rockers Spiritualized. “We first met when I was working on the market in Spitalfields a long time ago, it must have been six years now,” Burslem remembers. “I had a mixtape in my van that had old electronic stuff on it like the early Human League and that got us chatting and we ended up down the pub together. He’s been a great help for the band, and through him I’ve met Jason [Pierce]; they’ve both been very supportive… Knowing people who do music or have done it is quite inspiring in itself because when you’re stuck somewhere it does seem like possibility of actually doing it is just not believable.”
Thankfully, more people are catching up with Burslem’s belief in his band, and the future does indeed look bright for Yak. Be sure to catch them here, as it can only be a matter of time before Yak are recognised as one of the leading lights of alternative music in Britain today.