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May 2019
Feature

Oli Burslem pulled himself back from the brink for Yak's second album: "I couldn't see any future"

"There'll always be chaos," he explains.
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Published: 10:43 am, February 11, 2019Words: Martyn Young.
Oli Burslem pulled himself back from the brink for Yak's second album: "I couldn't see any future"

Yak thrive on chaos and disruption. Ever since they emerged with their 2016 debut ‘Alas Salvation’, Oli Burslem and co. have made a career of living on the edge. As they came to make their second album though, the band threatened to spiral out of control. Remarkably they channelled their upheaval into one all-or-nothing document of two years of calamity and have ended up with an album that is pure Yak in sound, spirit and attitude.

“We probably did lose control,” admits a reflective Oli as he looks back on the creation of ‘Pursuit Of Momentary Happiness'. Despite everything that was going on, it gave the frontman a feeling of clarity as he had no option but to just write songs. “It’s quite honest and open. It came to a point where I was like, fuck it. Just say it how it is."

In many ways, it’s a miracle that Yak are still here. The story of the album's genesis is one of confusion, mishap and flying by the seat of their pants. It was recorded and written in fits and starts across the world as Oli flitted from idea to idea ultimately ending up back here, homeless, broke and in need of salvation.

That divine inspiration arrived in the form of a chance meeting with Spiritualized’s legendary leader Jason Pierce who became something of a guiding light for the album. From there, Yak could finally see a way forward.

Perhaps the catalyst for the band’s flux was the departure of Oli’s childhood friend and bassist Andy Jones, who decided to move to Melbourne, Australia after the first album.

“After we finished the first record I went off to Japan and then went to Australia and did some recording there,” says Oli. "We were just trying to keep everything together. By the time I got back to the UK, I was completely broke. I was like, oh shit. I had no house, two bags and a £205 car.”

"Whatever people think, I definitely couldn't have done any more"
Oli Burslem

A trip to Perth to record at Jay Watson of Tame Impala’s studio crystallised in Oli’s mind that things weren't quite right for the band. Despite being in the throes of despair back home, at least he had a vision.

“We went there for ten days to bash out some three-piece rock'n'roll stuff,” explains Oli. “We did do that, but it dawned on me that I didn’t want to make a record like that. There are lots of intricate little pieces in recording that I wanted to involve. Maybe the first record was louder or heavier sonically, but I wanted to test myself a bit more and make it sound quieter in a way that was more courageous and heavier than just banging out rock songs.”

Oli put every ounce of effort he had into creating this record. “When we were doing it I wasn’t living at a fixed abode and couldn’t see any future,” he confesses. Did he ever wonder whether it was worth it?

“It’s hard to say because it wasn't a choice; it just had to happen,” he answers firmly. “I thought maybe I should do something else, but then you realise I can’t do anything else. I’ve been doing this since I was 12. All my eggs are in the one basket.”

If Yak were entirely comfortable and living a life of luxury, it’s hard to fathom how they would have made an album as compelling as this one. Filled with a primal intensity and a live-by-the-sword attitude, it’s the sound of a band forcing themselves to the next level.

“It helped the situation in the way that there was one goal,” says Oli. “Because my whole existence was around this one thing. My whole ridiculous existence was 45 minutes of music.”

Despite talking about two years of trauma, the frontman shrugs it off with customary insouciance. Chaos is all he’s ever known really: “It is what it is."

Oli puts down some of Yak’s death or glory attitude that you can hear on the album to their famed live shows.

“When we play live a lot of it is just questioning yourself, is this good or not?” begins the singer. “It gets to a point when we’re like, well, we’re here now, so you’ve just got to give it your all.

“There are many times live when we’ll smash something up and go, fuck this, this is a pain in the arse. It’s a great gig, but I have that feeling to smash it up, and you’re like, well, that’s it done, let’s move on. Give it a month when you get the engineer trying to glue the guitar back together you feel different. That’s just the way it is, I suppose.”

Despite all the hardships Oli and the band experienced during the making of the album, there’s no sense of pity from the singer or a feeling that it was a depressing period.

“I was pretty out of it for most of it, so it wasn’t all doom and gloom. I was raving and partying and not thinking too much about it. If I were thinking too much about it, I probably would have just stopped, but I was in the moment.”

The Citroen estate car that was the measure of Oli’s existence for a period provides a helpful metaphor for the frontman’s entire ethos.

“I drive my car, but I always seem to drive with the fuel light on,” he laughs. “It doesn't feel like I’m motoring unless the fuel gauge is on, and I think it’s the same with the band.”

He needs some sort of adversity and constant challenge to stimulate himself.

“I could help myself, but I’ve always been like that,” he admits. “Especially when someone says you can’t do something. That spurs me on. I have ideas like I want to record it myself, I want to go to New York. People said, but you’ve got no money, so I borrowed some money, and I’m in New York with my backpack going, fuck!

"After putting so much into it, I can now sit back and say whatever people think I definitely couldn't have done any more.”

“There’s a lot of dark humour in it; for those two years, I was pretty off my head”
Oli Burslem

As the band slowly pieced things back together and got a foothold on the album, they needed one final piece of inspiration to take it to the next level. They found that with Jason Pierce.

“I was in a pub during the period when it was a bit all over the shop, and we booked two days to demo songs in the studio,” begins Oli. “J Spaceman came in and was like; I’ll pop down. On the second day, he came in and was in the control room and said, y’know, they’re great.

"I was a bit in disbelief, so that was a turning point. I’m a big fan of Spiritualized and Spacemen 3, so it was nice to talk to someone who’s been through the same process. When you realise you’re not on your own.”

Oli made a strong connection with the enigmatic Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized leader that you can hear throughout the album and its bruised tenderness.

“When you speak with these people about how they made these great records it’s not about chord sequences, it’s the feelings and belief that go with it,” explains Oli. “If you’re going to do something as regressive as play rock music you should put as much heart into it as possible.”

The album’s epic closing track, ‘This House Has No Living Room’ is perhaps Yak’s finest moment yet and the culmination of their time with Jason Pierce, helped as well by esteemed Italian producer Marta Salogni.

“I wrote that quite a while ago, but we hadn’t figured out how to do it,” says Oli. “We did it with some keys, playing the guitar and done loads of versions that didn’t quite work. When we were in RAK Studios, we had a bit of spare time. Marta [Salogni] who produced it had a drum machine so we went in and got the organ and I just mapped it out in my head. I wanted salvation brass on it, and I wanted Jason to sing on it. One of my best friends' dad passed away on the same day we did that song, and maybe it added a bit more heart to it.

“It’s really hard to write about a subject that says what is this all about, so I was most proud of that one. It’s about mortality and your whole existence. So much went into that song. It all clicked into place.”

Looking back on an album that at one point they couldn’t foresee making, Oli and the band are left with a feeling of baffled pride. What just happened and how did we get here?

“All you can hope for is for something special to happen when you record it,” says Oli. When you finish it, you want to surprise yourself and sit back and think, how the fuck did we do that? It’s an honest document of those two years. There’s a lot of dark humour in it; for those two years, I was pretty off my head. All those songs are linked to a specific time but could be about anything, so it’s become a complete mystery to me. I just hope that people get something out of it.”

For now, Yak are newly signed to Virgin Records and have a firm line up with the addition of new bassist Vinny Davies. As ever though, you never know what’s going to happen. They definitely aren’t settling for a quiet life.

“There’ll always be chaos,” admits Oli. “We tried not to have any on the last tour, but it ended in debauched fucking nonsense. As much as we try not to do that it can unravel pretty quickly.”

The two years that comprised the making of 'Pursuit Of Momentary Happiness' were the weirdest and most challenging of the band's career, yet Yak have emerged from the other side stronger than ever.

“The attitude is still the same. There’s still an intensity. I like the idea of chaos and being up against it.”

Taken from the February issue of Dork. Yak's album 'Pursuit Of Momentary Happiness' is out now.

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