“F**king Relentless”: An Interview With Yak

Julian Marszalek met Oli Burslem, frontman of frenetic London trio Yak, to talk about their debut single Hungry Heart, and ended up discussing 99p eBay organs, the "modest" Dandy Warhols and why psychedelia means more than just wearing colourful trousers in Wolverhampton

"I’m sorry I’m late," says Oli Burslem as he rolls into an East End boozer, his long overcoat flapping behind him. Sitting himself down with a pint of Guinness, his voice drops a few decibels and his sparkling blues eyes dart about conspiratorially as he adds: "I’ve been moving house today but I haven’t actually told my flatmate that I’m moving out." He pauses to consider what he’s just said, takes a sip of his drink and then laughs. "I suppose he’ll find out soon enough!"

To meet the 27-year-old Yak frontman and guitarist is to be confronted by a genuine force of nature. Fuelled by an almost nervous energy, Burslem is continually sweeping away his long hair from his eyes and his smile is a permanent fixture on a face that suggests he could be the long-lost lovechild of Mick Jagger. Possessed of a mischievous nature and attitude, it’s damn near impossible to dislike the man. Though he likes to give the impression of someone who doesn’t take life too seriously, he’s rightfully proud of the music he makes with Yak as he bounces around from one topic to the next with the minimum of prompting.

And what music it is. Debut single, ‘Hungry Heart’, is a 100-mph collision of rock & roll ramalama and twisted psychedelic wonder that burrows its way through your head like a psychotic worm before living in your head with nary a thought for coughing up some rent. Alongside Burslem in the band is bassist Andy Jones, his childhood friend from Wolverhampton and the singer’s first port of call after he decided to swap running a stall in Spitalfields market for rock & roll, and Elliot Rawson, enlisted, says Burslem, "fresh off the boat from New Zealand". "He goes, ‘Do you need a drummer?’ and me and Andy said, ‘No, not unless you’re any good’ and he goes, ‘Well, I am good. What sort of style are you into?’ so I just said, ‘Really tasteless cock rock and the rehearsal’s on Tuesday’ so he came along and that was it," explains Burslem. Together, they forge thoroughly demented stuff thanks to this driving and naggingly insistent rhythm section, allowing Burslem to deploy salvo after salvo of disconcerting but never less than thrilling effects and aural shards tossed around with the devastating force of randomly-hurled stun grenades. More importantly, Yak is one of those bands that restore your faith in rock & roll as they apply a defibrillator powered by the national grid to the form’s chest.

In their wake they’ve left behind any number of smashed instruments that they’ve somehow managed to replace from unlikely sources. Oli pulls out his phone to show the Quietus his latest emergency purchase. "There’s the new organ," he says. "We went to Glasgow to play a gig and I got a bit carried away and smashed the organ up so we looked on eBay and there was one for 99p so went to Banbury to get that on the way down to here."

So is smashing your gear up characteristic behaviour?

Oli Burslem: Not really. I was talking to John Coxon from Spiritualized the other day. He’s a friend of mine and he’s helped us out. I was trying to move my stuff out today and I realised that everything is broken. But anyway, I’d like to do something more considered musically. But like not like that singer-songwriter stuff where they go on, ‘Oh, you need to listen to me, you need to invest your time in me’. I hate that. What we do is more like, ‘Aaaargh!’

So what is Yak about?

OB: Me! It’s all about me! Nah, not really. Umm… do I like our songs? Yes, I do like our songs. I’ve being doing guitar and stuff since I was like about ten. I tried everything else – literally everything else – and it all lasted about two weeks. But with the music, I kind of thought the other day: ‘Fuck! I don’t wanna do this! Maybe I’m no fucking good at it. What’s the fucking point?’ But it’s like every other job where I go, ‘Oh fuck this! I’ll do something else’ but then you think, hang on, this is the one thing I love in life so I won’t jump off a bridge. I could say: ‘Oh, it doesn’t really matter’ but it does. It’s three people playing music that, sadly and unfortunately, does really matter. If the music doesn’t matter then nothing else matters. But it does seem stupid. But if there was no music then I’m sure I’d do something. Well, for two weeks!

You know, people ask me what my biggest inspiration is to me and the answer is seeing someone doing it really badly. It’s like, woah, I could do that but much better! And there’s a lot of that about. But then you think I hope I don’t become that. That would be fucking dreadful. Someone goes: ‘Do you wanna do this advert for some trainers?’ and I’m like, ‘no’. ‘But it’s like ten grand’ and I’m going, ‘No, I’m not interested. I’m not gonna do that shit’. I mean, we had this meeting with a guy the other day and he looked like some Boogie Nights character and everything was just money-orientated. He was like, ‘See, if you write this song for Kylie you’ll get all this money and then how will you split that money?’ and it’s all bullshit. This is really easy music to write so I don’t deserve anything, really. And he was like: ‘No, man! It’s all about the money!’ I mean, if you’re getting into music, how greedy would you have to be to want all that? Who needs all that? It’s all bizarre, really, but maybe I’ll get into blowing cocaine up prostitutes’ arseholes but I should imagine that’s quite expensive.

As exemplified by ‘Hungry Heart’, Yak makes a thoroughly obnoxious noise in the best possible way. How would you describe it?

OB: I think back to when I wrote it and it’s just a really direct and simple two notes. I like the idea of people going, ‘wow! That’s so stripped back’ and of course it’s not. It’s got a bit of a Suicide thing going on but it’s played on guitar, bass and drums so it becomes its own thing. Umm… it’s psychedelic. But then, I don’t know what psychedelic means anymore. I used to walk around Wolverhampton with red trousers on thinking I was Syd Barrett and that was psychedelia to me. It’s really direct but I feel so sorry for a lot of the bands who think they’re psychedelic because they try so hard to be stylistic but ultimately they’re nothing. It’s incredible, isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong; I like a lot of that stuff, but we’re much more direct and coming at you. We’re having a really good bash at it.

But one of the influences on the record is this guy Levi who used to come into my shop. We hit it off and he’s this really interesting person. He kept giving me all these bits and pieces and records to listen to and he’s an absolute genius. He’s about 70 and he makes our amps for us as well as making a really mean roast dinner. We did some recording over at his place the other day and it’s a great place to hang out. He used to record all the bands at Eric’s in Liverpool like Joy Division and all that stuff but he never kept any of it.

I understand that Thurston Moore and Jason Pierce were customers of yours at your shop…

OB: Yeah, Thurston came over when he moved to London. The reality of it is that he’s had some kind of mid-life crisis and he was in the shop and he was like, ‘Oh my god! This stuff is so great and so underground. You are so on the edge! I’d love to do an exhibition in here!’ and I’m just thinking, ‘Mate, this is a shop.’ But you know, I see him the street and we say ‘hello’. And I send him my music and of course I get no reply!

Jason’s a legend. He’s wicked. And he’s always been really supportive and John Coxon helped out on some early demos.

And you’re about to go on the road with Palma Violet.

OB: Yeah, and we’re gonna blow ’em off the stage! Posh bastards, although apparently they’re quite nice. And they’ve got a good audience to steal – young and impressionable. Nah… we’re nice people and we’re going to have a very jolly time.

What do you think is the enduring appeal of psychedelic music?

OB: Nobody knows what it is. If you put a phaser on a vocal then some people think that’s psychedelic, or maybe if the lyrics are a bit abstract but there are loads of different elements to it. People see a band with guitar, bass and drums and they go, ‘oh, that’s been done before’ so the idea is to not make it sound like guitar, bass and drums and to make the ears prick up with something a bit more exciting, so I guess we use a lot of techniques that are psych-based. You get a lot of this vivid psychedelia so it’s nice when you get something more direct instead. It’s escapism for a broken Britain! But then again, what is psychedelia? Ali Farka Touré is psychedelic to me but he gets tarnished with the ‘world music’ tag.

I was once in a car with Courtney Taylor from The Dandy Warhols in Portland. He was there driving with his missus and he passed me a bong and I hadn’t done a bong in ages and he’s like: ‘Do the fucking bong!’ He goes, ‘We’ve got a baby, right? And this baby is so fat! How fat is our baby? I’ve got so much money that we bought a nanny to pick up our fat baby. It’s bigger than any other baby!’ and this went on and on and on all night and him telling me that he’s a fucking genius and I’m like, ‘Yeah, alright…’ We ended up in this bar and the bar’s closing and the bar staff are like, ‘Sorry, we’re closing up. You can’t drink here’ and Courtney goes, ‘What do you mean, I can’t drink here? If it wasn’t for the fucking Dandy Warhols blah blah blah…’ I mean, he was fucking relentless all night but you’ve got to hand it to him. In the end I had to go. I said: ‘This has been amazing. You’ve been a beautiful host, you’ve achieved a lot and I respect that and you’ve got an amazing catalogue of music but above all, I love your modesty. See you later!’ And later on, a friend of his said, ‘Oh my God! Courtney loves you because you confronted him. He loves it when people challenge him.’ Fucking hell! Mind you, he’s got a really nice place, though.

Hungry Heart is out on February 24 on Fat Possum. Yak play the following dates:


Thu 19 – Start The Bus, Bristol

Sat 21 – Academy 3, Leicester

Thu 26 – Hare And Hounds, Birmingham

Fri 27 – Bleach, Brighton

Sat 28 – Lennons, Southampton


Mon 2 – The Waiting Room, London

Thu 5 – Cluny, Newcastle w/ Peace

Fri 6 – Cluny, Newcastle w/ Peace

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