As tight as you can make it: a conversation with Yak

There’s something disturbingly pleasant about a warm, sunny February day in the city. Even if the weather is infinitely more inviting to wander around doing nothing, nose in the (very polluted) air, it all comes down to experiencing a weird, almost diseased atmosphere that keeps you on edge due to its fascinating out-of-place uncanniness.

Funnily enough, this unsettlement is also very present in Yak, one of the most exciting acts around both on stage and on record. And what is addictive about their music is exactly this unexplainable pull towards a sort of insalubrious decadence — some call it rock’n’roll — a feeling of always expecting the unexpected only to eventually find out the unexpected was actually what deep down inside you knew was coming all along. So it kind of made sense that I got together with the three Yak members in a February afternoon like this in the courtyard of La Maroquinerie, a couple of hours prior to their Paris show. We talked a bit about their new album Pursuit of Momentary Happiness, the process that led to it, and other stuff that happened to pop up in conversation. I meant to ask Oli Burslem for his birth chart but I eventually forgot; I bet he’s either an Aquarius or a Scorpio rising though.


Oliver: Well, Elliott’s from New Zealand. So he went back after we finished the first record and Andy, who used to play bass, was moving to Melbourne — so it kind of made sense really, to come and meet him. And it made sense to go to Japan, I have a friend of mine there and I could live there for free for a month, and it was kind of half way there.

Oliver: We didn’t even think… we weren’t too sure if we’d carry on, because the elephant in the room was that Andy, when we started it we always knew he was going to get married and move; but then we kind of tried to stumble along as we did, tried to make it work. But you can’t just…

Elliott: It’s a bit of a commute, isn’t it.

Oliver: But we thought, if we can get to Melbourne we can record quickly in ten days, ten days rehearsals and recordings. And that would probably get us a chance to keep it going, but that wasn’t the case.

Oliver: Well, there was a long period when we weren’t doing a lot, we didn’t have a deal, and we didn’t have any songs, and we were trying to stumble by doing some gigs. And then, we knew Vinnie before from playing together, we bumped into each other, and we talked about doing some music together which seemed like a good idea. Then the three of us playing, it was the first time we felt that there was a possibility of us, you know, it was the catalyst of getting the whole thing going again.

Oliver: [laughs] Last Friday, when it came out!

Oliver: Well, after the first one nobody would touch us with a bargepole in England, so…

Oliver: Our first single [‘Hungry Heart’] came out through Fat Possum in America really, and Third Man helped us doing the EP after that [No], which then gave us momentum in order for someone to be stupid enough to give us money to do an album. And for the second one we got Virgin/EMI who seemed to be interested; we met them once, they gave us money, and we just said “we do our own music and we don’t compromise or anything”, and they were all good with that. And we recorded it, they didn’t even hear any songs, we just finished it and gave them the album.

Oliver: No.

Oliver: Listening to the album now, with fresh ears and all, I think that a lot of the songs we wrote — we didn’t have a deal, so you just bring them to the table -, I was kind of embarrassed because a lot of them were a bit too personal, and playing them out those seemed to be the best ones, they were a bit heavier and all. We were listening to a lot of soul music and a lot of heavy music, obviously this is kind of John Lennon in the way that there seems to be some truth there and a bit of ‘Mustang Sally’.

Vincent: Plastic Ono’s pretty good.

Oliver: The thing is all his records are documents of a time, even his — I mean, I know it’s not his best one, when he splits with Yoko and goes have his Lost Weekend and there are songs about trying to get back with her, I suppose. Even the guitar he did, very distorted, it’s my favourite guitar playing. Maybe he’s emulating Yoko’s shrieks, that primal kind of stuff, but I like his guitar playing in things like that.

Oliver: I mean, when you listen to a lot of music like we do — we’re influenced by everything, our surroundings, our situation, and I think the record is a document of when it was made, it’s so broad, even when sometimes you’re very conscious of something — a sound, like Annette Peacock singing through a Moog, when you really want to get that sound. And we were listening to a lot of Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized, things like that.

Elliott: A lot of stuff really, I make little playlists for myself and-

Oliver: What was that classical stuff you were just playing? He just played something good in the van.

Elliott: ‘Clair de Lune’ by Debussy [laughs].

Oliver: There’s this band called Lifetones, which I’d been listening to-

Elliott: And Alice Coltrane.

Oliver: The Necessaries, which is Arthur Russell’s; and R. Stevie Moore, who recorded all his albums in his bedroom, he has this song called ‘There is No God In America’ which is really good.

Oliver: We’re gonna get to America in a couple of weeks, and I think there’s a chance we might record down in Nashville, and it’d be quite lo-fi. I think everything we recorded for this album was quite bombastic and large and that was a conscious decision, so I think everything comes as a reaction of what you just did — so when we record again in a couple of weeks it will probably be more stripped back and basic.

Oliver: Well, we sort most of the tracks live, that’s probably one of our main things. When we went to the studio, we’d done some demos before and it was so varied, from ballads to rock’n’roll, so one way we made the album a cohesive piece of work was by recording a track of everything, in a studio, as a band. And obviously there’s overdubs, but the thing that kind of makes it more coherent is that.

Oliver: We didn’t have an option, really. The business is structured in some kind of archaic idea that they give you the money, and the money is divided so you get that much for recording, that much for this… so apart from your living costs this is the great opportunity, everybody wants to be able to express themselves through music, so we just wanted to… well, make the most of the opportunity, really.

Elliott: You do have those days haven’t you? But it’s fleeting, you just have those moments when it’s like “are we ever gonna get to the end of the songs or will we fuck it up in some way”. But… not really.

Oliver: I think that was because, as we didn’t have a record deal, it was unsure if we’d be able to do it. By the time someone had given us money to do it we had no excuses left, we had the studio time booked, we had the songs, it HAD to work. So you have to put everything into it and do the best you can and then leave it. And that’s what it is.

Oliver: If it feels good, and we enjoy each other’s company and we enjoy playing together, and it’s been so nice after not doing it for a long time. Last week we did loads of in-store stuff, meeting actual people who liked the band and listened to it and that’s pretty amazing, and it makes you wanna try and do some more. And to get this momentum, and for it not to stop — but let’s see what happens.

Elliott: I don’t know, I mean… we might have to get visas to play in France, in Europe. That’ll be one thing that will affect us as a band financially, because we already have our financial struggles — so that’s another thing to think about. And they’ll probably tax merch, and that’s a little bit of money on the side that helps us to survive. I don’t know what it means for me, as a New Zealander, no idea. I don’t know if it’ll mean better relationships between New Zealand and England -

Oliver: It’s a weird because I suppose if you have capital, if you have money or something, it probably does matter, all these policy changes will probably affect how much money you’ll have. I’m not saying we don’t have anything, but we don’t have a lot. So it doesn’t keep me awake at night. It probably goes down to why people voted like that, it’s a bad idea, but they probably were like “fuck it, we don’t have much anyway now”.

Vincent: That’s a personal question. I voted to remain.

Oliver: I did as well, yeah. If I’m to be really honest, I thought — I mean, we travel around a lot and for example France has been really great to us, and I remember sitting around a couple of days before and I was like “that’s never gonna happen in our lifetime, no one votes for something they don’t understand the consequences of”. I was really shocked and it made me think, not being part of any political thing or giving a shit about that kind of stuff-

Oliver: Right, and I was quite surprised but-

Elliott: It kind of makes you more political because that’s all you read about for the last two, three years, but at the same time there’s so much stuff about it that’s gone full circle. We’re gonna be coming out of the country the first few days after it happens, we’ll probably figure out what happens right there at the border.

Oliver: I think History shows that people, in diverse situations — hopefully I mean — good prevails usually, and it will work itself out. It’s always been times of change and hopefully not everyone completely loses their shit, which is something that seems to be happening for the last few years.

Originally published at

Paris-based trilingual music journalist. fingers in other pies include film, psychology, history, politics, social dynamics, gender issues, tarot and astrology.