Discovery: Yak


With only three videos on YouTube, no ability to buy songs via iTunes, and no presence on Spotify, Yak’s music is a little hard to access with modern technology. The London-based trio, however, has no qualms with that, as they focus on the live element of music above all else. After gaining a strong reputation for raucous and noisy shows—in which organs, drums, guitars, et al. are frequently destroyed—the DIY punk band finally released their single “Hungry Heart” in February and the Plastic People EP in May (both via Fat Possum). Since then, Oliver Burslem, Andy Jones, and Elliot Rawson have continued touring, appearing for the first time ever in New York this week as part of CMJ, and recording their next EP, No, which will be released November 13 via Rough Trade.

“I had a few organs because the drum machines on organs remind me of early electronic music that I’m into, like Silver Apples or Suicide,” Burslem tells us. Aside from early electronic influences, though, Yak’s frontman also listens to Al Green’s gospel, Turkish psychedelia (“That sounds pompous”), and Nick Cave and Roland S. Howard circa their The Birthday Party days.

The three tracks on No, which only required eight hours in the studio, are guitar-heavy and filled with lyrical riddles. “I pour my head in them and what came out, came out,” Burslem remarks. “I need to do an autopsy on what that is—it’s kind of just like a mass vomit that came out in the studio.” Additionally, the group’s album and single artwork aesthetically translates the seemingly haphazard guitar music; vibrant scribbles that appear unintentional mimic Yak’s seemingly improvised sound, but clearly both require at least some thought.

Before Yak arrived in New York, we spoke with Burslem over the phone while he was in the studio in London.

NAMES: Oli Burslem, Andy Jones, Elliot Rawson

BASED: London

FROM: I was born in Wolverhampton, in the midlands near Birmingham, and then moved and lived on the outskirts and suburbs. It’s not a very glamorous place but it was nice. At 17, I jumped on the train and got down [to London]. I had never been out of the Hamptons, so to come down at that age and see London, this world city, it was completely alien. I grew up in a farm yard, so it was exciting to go somewhere completely different and go raving or to discos.

CHILDHOOD FRIENDS: I’ve known Andy since I was about five, so we’ve been friends for a while. Elliot is more recent. He was knocking around London—he’d been around America traveling from New Zealand and came here and we ended up with some mutual friends—he said he played drums. I thought if I was ever going to do songs, Andy would be the best to play. Then Elliot came into the frame and we just started playing, really. There was never a mission to be the greatest musicians or anything like that. It just somehow all happened with the right people in the right room at the right time, and now we’ve been given the opportunity to try and make a good record. People are starting to take an interest in what we do. We’re really excited about getting out there and doing it, but there’s not real plan of action.

PUB LIFE: I’ve always been into music. When I was really young, I was pretending I looked like Elvis Presley. I was obsessed—I think lots of kids were obsessed with Elvis Presley because he doesn’t seem real. When I was 10 or 12, I started playing music. I used to go down to a local pub in Wolverhampton with my dad and my brother and play. So I was just in the pubs on Monday night. All the adults would get pissed and I would try to get them to teach me how to play guitar. I would get to school smelling of fags [cigarettes] and beer the next day. They’d call social services to see if I was a 14 year-old boozing in the pub all day, but I was just listening to music.

I USED TO HAVE JOBS OF… All sorts—worked in a strip club, worked on a building site, worked in numerous bars, pool clubs… van man, DIY man… I had a market buying and selling antiques. Then I had a little shop selling bits of antiques and curiosities and loaning out money and sleeping in the van. It’s never been boring. Trying to stay away from having an actual career was the main objective.

When I was working at a shop there was a basement and all my music gear was in there. Loads of musicians would come to the shop and they’d go downstairs and we’d have sexual intercourse. [laughs] No, we’d play music. So we had loads of interesting people coming down to play. They’d have their proper bands and then we’d have a jammer—just have fun and have a few beers, a fag, or whatever you want to do. We’d just play some music in the basement. And then the idea formed that all these people that I was playing with were in bands and maybe I should be in a band as well.

SUPPORT SYSTEM: My parents were definitely supportive [of my music], yeah. But not the teachers. I got banned from music for three years. That was a strange thing, to be banned. You’d be put in isolation units. I was a pain in the ass… Nothing’s really changed. I just need to grow up and then I’ll be a contributing part of society. [laughs]

WRITING: I still haven’t written a song yet. When you’re young that was the worst thing because I didn’t understand the idea of writing songs; it was mostly the idea of being able to make a living doing music. I suppose you have to see some shit before you can apply that to some kind kind of writing—unless you don’t…I don’t know.

Sometimes lyrics or sometimes a phrase [come before the music]—someone says something, or maybe it’s music, or an idea in your head. It’s a stream of consciousness. I listen to doo-wop and then listen to John Cale’s violin sound and write a song that has that in it. Or maybe you want a song with a different time signature, or maybe I listen to Al Green live doing his preaching at night, or maybe it’s a Suicide song you like the synth on.

THE ARTWORK: A friend of mine, Nick Waplington, does them all. I don’t have any say. When it came to doing [the artwork], I asked him if he would do something, thinking we’d see what he’d send. He’s just done a thing in the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern; he’s just been to Nigeria and China; and he lives in New York half the time and L.A. So he’s known for his photography and he also draws, and we thought that’d be perfect. He’s really into DIY punk, growing up on punk music in the ’70s and ’80s, and those kind of DIY sleeves that we’d just bang together. I liked the idea of doing something that felt like it was done not by the band, but as a thing. It wasn’t really polished and clean, but trying to say we’ve arrived.

LIVE REPUTATION: Most people start at home on computers, but we made the conscious decision to make the live music the thing. [When we play] it’s noise, just a sea of white noise. The most exciting guitar music, for me I suppose, is stuff that has mistakes and isn’t too polished. We’re trying to let happy accidents happen. The characters of different takes, the live stuff, is what’s exciting about music.