The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

A Quietus Interview

From A Distance: LYR Interviewed
Duncan Seaman , June 29th, 2020 10:29

Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, one of Yorkshire’s most feted writers, has formed a band with musicians Richard Walters and Patrick Pearson. Words: Duncan Seaman

LYR portraits by Steve Gullick

There are leaden skies across the Holme Valley, Hampshire and Dartmoor as Simon Armitage, Richard Walters and Patrick Pearson gather via Zoom to discuss Call In The Crash Team, the debut album by their band, Land Yacht Regatta.

Yet the mood is convivial, with Walters and Pearson’s observations complementing the insights of Armitage, whose poetry they have set to vivid musical soundscapes.

“Are you riding a horse, Pat?” 56-year-old Armitage enquires jokingly of the windswept Pearson, who has just been caught in a sudden rainstorm while out in the Devon countryside.

“It’s a horse called bike, Simon,” chuckles the 33-year-old producer and multi-instrumentalist. “This is my steed. I went for a bike ride and forgot I wasn’t going to be back in time. I thought I’d jazz yet another Zoom meeting up by being outside.”

Pearson says he’s been “surprisingly indifferent” to the experience of three months of Covid-19 lockdown. “Apart from not being able to travel and play shows, I’ve been in the studio. I guess there are things, like not being able to see friends and family, although I’m seeing a few people now that we can, but apart from that it’s been more creative than ever perhaps.”

Armitage says he’s spoken to a lot of writers “who’ve all said they’ve struggled a little bit” and adds: “I think because they’ve had spare time there’s an expectation that they’ll be making things, but there’s this backdrop of anxiety and sadness which is not helping with the focus. I’ve probably done a lot more work that I would’ve done normally in three months but given that I’ve had three months at home, I’ve not done as much work as I thought I would do.”

“I think I’ve had a similar experience,” agrees singer-songwriter Walters, 37. “I put a lot of pressure on myself at the beginning, and was quite excited to have the time, it’s so unique for the world to be on pause I thought I was going to write not just one album but we were going to write ten LYR records as well as my autobiography and an opera, probably. Actually that went after ten days and it’s just been lethargy. It’s like an endless Sunday. I remember talking to Simon about it and he said it feels like you’re walking through treacle. Not seeing the end in sight is something I’ve found frustrating, but lots of positives as well, getting to spend time with the family.”

In May the trio released a charity single, which set Armitage’s newest poem 'Lockdown' to music, and featured guest appearances by Little Women star Florence Pugh and saxophonist Pete Wareham, of Melt Yourself Down. Armitage says he has found himself in a lot of contemplative moments in recent weeks. “It’s been a very introspective period. I’ve caught myself staring out of windows for long periods, and I think one of the difficulties is the sense of the indefinite, the horizon’s blurry and I think as somebody who makes things it’s disturbed the idea of what you’re making them for.

“For me with the poetry, giving readings and events are very much a part of that, and being out in the world and encounters with other people, and none of that seems available at the moment and you can’t quite tell when it’s going to be, so even the act of composition and producing something, it doesn’t have the normal co-ordinates to aim for. On the other hand it’s given me chance to work and work and work at material, so that 'Lockdown' poem was probably written over a two-week period to begin with and almost continuously, which isn’t something that I’d usually do on a poem. I think it just sprang from recollections of school history lessons about Eyam (the Derbyshire village famed for a 17th century outbreak of the Black Death). Because it was relatively local, it was a story that we all knew and in fact probably went there on a school trip to see the Boundary Stone and put vinegar coins in the holes."

Pugh is a friend of Walters’. “She’s an amazing actor, she’s so talented and she’s got such a voice and following and she’s a real activist,” he says. “When I spoke to her about it she really loved the poem and was really sold by this idea of us raising money for Refuge (the domestic abuse charity), which is perhaps an overlooked cause during this whole thing. Florence brings a lot of intelligence and spark to every role she plays and she did the same with that reading as well."

Pearson was excited that Wareham had been involved in jazz projects such as Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear, which he’d been a “big fan of” at university. “It was a real treat to have him feature on the track also.”
Just days before the Government imposed lockdown, LYR played their first gigs. The show at Leeds’s Brudenell Social Club was the band’s “maiden voyage”, Armitage says. “It was amazing to start there because it’s got such a reputation as a gig venue and then we played the following night in London. It was very rock & roll, we went from Leeds down to London in a van and stopped at a motorway service station. They went really well, we put a lot of practice in over the previous week to try to figure out a way of presenting in the best way possible the album and give a good live show. We had two other musicians with us as well. They’re not huge venues, they’re quite intimate spaces. Pat and Rich are very familiar with that environment, me less so, so I think it was more for me to learn about perhaps what my role was, which turned out to be just standing there and saying things which I’m very comfortable with.”

“I think it was a mixture perhaps of nerve-racking excitement and post euphoria as well,” ventures Pearson. “I’d personally been thinking about what would happen for about a year and a half, mulling it over in my head how it would never work, but it came together incredibly effortlessly. It was lovely to be able to have played two shows before we couldn’t. It would’ve been nice to have done more.”

“They were literally the last social occasions of my life,” Walters says. “I put them on a very high pedestal, in my mind they were like the Oscars, but it seems too long ago since they happened. The really exciting thing about those shows was that the songs took on a completely new life to what they have on the record. A song like 'Great Coat' became slightly post-punky, really energetic, it had a different energy about it. I can’t wait to get back to playing and explore that more. It’s definitely a different beast live to the record."

LYR first grew from Walters’ idea of setting one of Armitage’s poems to music. “That was 2012, a long time ago, it grew very slowly,” Walters explains. “Singing the words is so different to hearing them spoken. We did start talking about how we could work more together, and then I was working with Pat anyway so this seemed a perfect match.”

“Richard was basically stalking me,” quips Armitage, whose previous musical experience extended to a band a decade ago called The Scaremongers who the Marsden-born poet’s father joked should have been called Midlife Crisis. “We met at a reading, we got on, we had shared interests and we had this idea that eventually we would do something bigger than me writing something and Rich recording it but we weren’t quite sure what that would be or how it would be. Pat was the missing piece of the jigsaw. As soon as we started working together the three of us then it started to make a lot of sense.

From what was a very slow beginning, a kind of standing start, there was very quickly a lot of excitement and energy. I think we were all maybe surprised by what we were making. It felt different. We didn’t quite know there was a model for this. Obviously there’s been spoken word and music before but not quite like this, it’s often coming out of rap or hip hop or dub, so we were slightly making the rules up as we went along, but there was a lot of momentum and that momentum was increased when we signed up to the label and people seemed to be saying that they were enjoying what we were making, which gave us more confidence.”

For the majority of the album the three worked in isolation. “It was just the only path that seemed to be able to work because of the distance, because of our other lives,” says Pearson. “Luckily we weren’t held back by the fact that we were doing these things remotely. I guess it meant that we had to be more vocal about how we felt about things and make sure that we were in communication quite a lot over these ideas that were happening. However I think it also made a lot of the record, just by the fact that happened, and I think maybe it was quite an important template within the process of us being able to go back and forth and sit on ideas and have perspective on ideas within that, rather than in the heat of the moment within the room, and the tension builds. It could’ve got ugly, but luckily it didn’t.”

“I think it can be a misunderstanding sometimes about collaboration that the best way of collaborating is everybody being in the same room at the same time,” says Armitage. “That can work but some of the best projects that I’ve been involved in corroboratively have been when people have made their own things to the best of their ability and then brought those products together, so what you’re offering is the best that you can do in terms of the field that you specialise in. That said, we did have a couple of periods together in the studio which I think we had to be together for finally just to negotiate the last bits and pieces around the mixes, picking up odd bits of recording that we needed. 
 “I don’t think it would’ve felt right if we’d have just signed off on a project with me in Yorkshire, Richard in Hampshire, Pat down in Devon because I think one of the pleasures of this for me anyway is I like these two people, I like spending time with them. I think a lot of the work comes out of a celebration of that camaraderie, which you don’t often get as a writer, well not as a poet. It tends to be more solitary, lonely.”

The album’s recurring theme of characters undergoing personal crises only “became apparent retrospectively”, says Armitage.

“When we sat down to look at what we’d made and the lyrics we’d used and how we’d used them I think that emerged at that point, just the idea that there were a lot of people here speaking monologues or soliloquies from the point of view of a crisis in their life or a lack of confidence. I think maybe from my point of view that chimes with a lot of the work I’ve been doing since 2008, particularly with this notion that we’re supposed to be more connected now, we’re supposed to be communicating more but actually my experience of this is that people are living in a lot more marginalised situations and are left with their own thoughts and their communities have become this kind of [virtual] community. From a writing point of view, I think it’s an extension of those ideas.

By some very unfortunate coincidence I think we’ve ended up writing an album about lockdown, even though that was never the intention.”

The poem that Walters and Pearson first latched onto was '33 1/3', in which Armitage reflects on the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, and the album that was playing on his record player when he was found dead. The poet has been a fan of the Manchester band since he was a teenager, but he feels his appreciation of them has grown over the years. “I listened to Unknown Pleasures again the other day and I just thought ‘this is a masterpiece, irrespective of all the mythology and the narrative that’s grown up around it’. I lived through that era so that was very raw to me at the time and I can’t divest myself of the memories of when all that happened, but even trying to look at it coldly those two Joy Division albums still send a shiver up my spine. They still seem not just contemporary, the seem futuristic.”

“It’s hard to believe they’re 40 years old,” adds Walters. “I was listening to Closer recently because it has the song 'Isolation' it – probably a bad one to listen to during lockdown, but I couldn’t believe he was 21 or 22 when he was writing those lyrics, they’re so incredible. What would he have done if he’d carried on? I don’t know, but if you leave behind two records like that, that’s quite a legacy.”

Pearson says it’s encouraged him to delve into new musical discoveries. “I was obviously aware of Joy Division and Ian Curtis yet I never grew up in those times. The records that shaped my musical path weren’t those records, although the music that I listened to was shaped by those records. I think it’s a really interesting journey that we’re now embarking on because we have many records from throughout the history of music that are giving us musical inspiration. That is incredibly exciting.

"There are some crossovers but moving forwards now I’m being given more material to exercise and then to translate into what is going to be hopefully more work. That becomes another exciting twist to the musical journey.”

'Great Coat', the last single to be lifted from the album, is told from the point of view of someone remembering an oppressive family relationship. It’s one of many lyrics on the album that build from small details. Armitage says he often finds he’s often inspired by humble objects. “I’m obsessed with finding miracle in the mundane and the mystical nature of commonplace things,” he says. “I’ve always said that as a writer you don’t need to have had incredibly exotic experiences, in fact I’ve got a sort of manifesto poem about that called 'It Ain’t What You Do, It’s What It Does To You' which catalogues a whole series of adventures that I’ve never undertaken and it eventually arrives at a small moment of everyday life and tries to explore the mystery and the joy. There’s sometimes a sacrament of everyday ritual. 
“That piece is interesting because somewhere in the back of my mind it came out of an experience when I was working as a probation officer in Manchester, so there is probably somebody’s story at a very vague level at that song. But yes, the details are what is important to me, and the names for those details which find their way into the songs. 
“What I found really interesting in working with Richard and Pat is that what I present – hands up – in the lyrics are quite dark but quite often the soundscapes that they’ve been put against are quite euphoric and that brings this surprise element to the song that you can’t quite explain. I always knew that those lyrics were waiting for another element but I didn’t really know what it was. But the fact that they pull in slightly different directions I think is what gives these tracks their energy."

From a musical standpoint, Walters and Pearson say they felt at liberty to experiment without rigid song structures. “Going back to '33 1/3', which is the first one that we tackled, we chose that because Simon had read it to the inner groove of the record,” says Pearson. “That was already not just words but the sound of something else. I think it just ended up being a template. 
“If you really dissect a lot of the tracks there is something that goes through the whole thing, much like a drone would in drone music. That really helped give the piece an instant structure or shape; I guess it also brought in the idea of found sounds quite a lot. There are quite a lot of field recordings. In fact in 'Great Coat' I found a kora in my friend’s bedroom and just my phone next to it and started playing and that found its way onto the record. I am a big fan of sound and what that does to music, within combination, because atmosphere is all too often overlooked perhaps."

Armitage’s 20-year-old daughter Emmeline is an award-winning slam poet; her father, however, says he has always written with the page in mind, rather than the stage. “I probably grew up as a poet with a fairly purist idea of how poetry should be encountered, in that it lived on a page and readings were just excursions and days out,” he says. “But over the last 15 years or so the definition of what poetry is has really broadened and it now incorporates fully spoken word and performances poetry, it’s just a much more diverse artform than it was when I first entered it. I think one area of its shades into music and that’s the area that I’m interested in exploring because I’ve always been interested in music anyway but I’ve never really found a comfortable way of trying to bridge the two things, and singing wasn’t one of those things, but speaking with music seems to be the right thing.

"I guess over the years doing the readings I’ve become more and more comfortable standing on a stage in front of people and I now accept that is part of the task of being a poet. Having said that, what I do with LYR and what I do as a writer by and large are kind of separate. There’s sort of an overlap but in my head they’re different projects.”

As to why he thinks so many people turn to poetry in times of happiness and sadness, Armitage thinks the same also applies to music. “Richard and Pat might tell me if they have a different idea but I think both are fairly democratic artforms that you can turn to almost immediately. In the case of poetry, you can just pick up a pen or tap away at a keyboard. We’ve all got a basic understanding of the alphabet so we can express ourselves relatively easily, it’s a very available artform even if we’re not experts or specialists. I guess to some extent that’s also true about music.”

“I think so,” Walters agrees. “You don’t need acquired knowledge to understand or be moved by music or poetry. Words we use them every day and music... I played this record to my four-year-old daughter and she loves it. She’s got no idea what’s going on but she knows how it makes her feel and she’s taking something away from it, or certain words jump out at her. She occasionally does an impression of Simon, it’s quite weird seeing a four-year-old do an impression of Simon Armitage.”

“I think also just to mention that both music and writing are perhaps more mono-sensory than, say, film, which is visual and audio. When you read poetry you have your own personal image in your head or when you listen to music you’re not seeing, but the combination of those two works incredibly well together. I think we’ve found that. Putting the two together was more effortless than I ever thought it would be; it’s almost like they were supposed to go together.”

“I think for me as a music and a poetry fan this is a record that was missing in my collection, so that’s why we made it,” says Walters.

“You self-serving bastard,” Armitage interjects, wryly.

"I just think it works and it gives it a different life as well,” Walters says. “I’m really proud of it.”

Call In The Crash Team is out now Mercury KX