Yak is a difficult band to describe faithfully. Their performances, and even conversations with the band, are kind of like watching the big bang happen—a tiny, tense mass of energy that begins to explode, and then grows exponentially. I still have glass in the treads of my shoes from their Wednesday show at Berlin NYC.
Earlier that night, ATYPICAL SOUNDS sat down with Oli Burslem (vocals/guitar), Leo Kurunis (bass), and Elliot Rawson (drums) to talk sense and nonsense.
You played last night at Saint Vitus, the metal bar.
OB: It was greeeat.
LK: I liked it. It was a bit of a scuzzy rock venue.
Is this your first time in New York?
You just came from SXSW, as well. How many shows did you do?
ER: Six, I think. Six in two days?
OB: I would say “half a baker’s dozen”.
Six? Seven? Six-and-a-half?
OB: You know what? Six-and-a-half, that’s good, because one of them wasn’t at a venue. Cause we did one on a balcony.
LK: Or, we did one song on one stage and then moved our gear to another stage and did a set. So I think it’s definitely half a gig on that one.
OB: Lots of people said it was going to be really hard or whatever, but it was such a great, carnal, atmosphere. And we don’t have much gear, keyboard went out the window…
OB: Yeah, sure. It was clammy, it was sweaty. It was so good, it was hot. It was saucy.
Also, a concentrated area of people, I’m not a big fan of musicians to be honest with you, or people in the music business, so you think it was going to be a horrible time. But everyone behaved themselves.
Outside of the industry people, who probably don’t want to be there anyway, it’s people who love music.
OB: I don’t dislike them, but it’s a different vibe. If you get a load of industry people, it’s like “Ok, let’s check these guys out,” and you’ve got a lot of chin-stroking. When I started playing music, it was down at a pub on a Monday night. And that’s the kind of music I like playing. It’s just like people and low-grade budget entertainment. But I really enjoyed it, and Austin was great.
Did you see any bands there you liked?
OB: Thee Oh Sees I’ve wanted to check out for a long time. So that was good, and we wanted to go see stuff, but we hit a bar afterwards, and you meet some guys, locals. And we were just having a good time. So we probably could’ve seen Iggy and everyone we wanted to see, but I was talking to a guy, and he said he had a gun, so I was trying to get him to shoot. I said “Can you shoot me?” but he didn’t have the gun.
You just released your video for “Harbour The Feeling” as well. Was it your idea to do a music video?
OB: Everyone was on a hiatus, and I was the only one left in London. And we released some live videos, but we got bored of that. So we sat around at a pub with my mate who shot it, Ben [Crook], who’s a wicked guy, and we were there for like three hours. And we got to the part where we went “Oh, we could drive a car through a desert”. So we got all these things, and we got to the end and it was like, “We shouldn’t do a video”, it’s a waste of money, and we don’t have an idea, and no band members.
And then a few days later, we were like “Bucking yak! That’s hilarious.” And then we built the Yak [sign]. We got up at five in the morning, drove to south London to find the bulbs, and then I couldn’t find the thing, so I went to north London. I spent the whole day driving around, I was like “Wow, this is being in a band. Finding bulbs.” And then we spent a whole day wiring it up with our friend Levi who built all the pedals. And it took a day to do it all. But it was like the best feeling ever. We just plugged in and turned on, and it was like “Ahh.” This is what it feels like to be a functioning human being. Being in a band is like…sometimes it’s great, I’m not complaining, but you’re not directly helping anyone.
You are, though.
OB: You maybe are, it’s just like…
ER: He wants to be a nurse.
OB: I want to be a nurse, yeah. Just something that makes me feel good.
You go to a town, you get pissed, you feel guilty about it, you go to a museum, you relieve the guilt, you go to a bar. You go to the bar, you wake up feeling really bad, you go see the Statue of Liberty, you go to a museum, you feel better. That’s why in Amsterdam, that’s why the Van Gogh museum is always packed, full of like people eating mushrooms.
Is it a lot of tourists?
OB: It’s people with a lot of guilt inside them. They need to relieve it and then get back to the bar.
So art is something you do to relieve guilt?
OB: Yep. And being generous as well. I’m only being facetious. I don’t really believe that.
I’ve read two of you were selling curiosities before you were in the band [Oli gestures to himself and Leo]. Where were you finding that stuff?
[A/N: I realized after this interview that it was actually Oli and original bassist Andy Jones who were the curiosities dealers. So Oli and Leo could’ve been fucking with me.]
OB: That would be giving away trade secrets.
LK: We’re not really allowed to say.
Are you going through the garbage at weird, old mansions?
OB: Anywhere you feel, really.
LK: My mother does it for a living, and she has her own shop. You had your own shop as well, didn’t you?
OB: Not technically.
LK: You didn’t, did you?
ER: You don’t know who’s listening.
OB: Basically, I had loads of jobs, then I was lucky enough to get a van. So I started going to auctions and buying stuff, and then selling it. A glorified van man. But I enjoyed it, I like that.
LK: There’s a good buzz to it.
OB: It’s not even a money thing sometimes. It’s just like, I had a space and every week I’d change it into something else. And I liked that. It’s just like music. If you walk down the street, and you see people walking slightly different, it’s the same with this kind of stuff. You can dress it differently.
We went to a museum yesterday in Philadelphia.
OB: Yeah, and everyone’s body language was like this [he mimes someone looking guarded, hands folded over his chest]. Cause everyone was so uncomfortable. I was more interested in the people that were alive, to be honest, than the ones who were dead.
If you’re working in antiques, some of that stuff is probably really dirty.
LK: It’s a nice trade, it’s a good trade to be in, and how many people you meet in it as well. There’s some really funny characters, they’re so far out of society, some of them. Lots of funny people with lots of different histories.
OB: There could be a man and his wife, and they could be millionaires, but they’d also be homeless. It’s a big hustle. I like the sales that aren’t on the internet. Like someone would be deceased, and all of their belongings would be at an estate sale. So you’d be looking through loads of books and then you get a book and you go “Ah, hang on, that’s an interesting book to have”, and then I’d go to the auctioneer and ask which furniture the [deceased] guy had. And then I’d buy like books, and books, and books, and everything I was obsessed with if the guy seemed cool. So I’d just buy all of it, and I’d sit until four in the morning, just going through it all. Just going, “Oh wow, he was Jewish, he was a doctor, and he was into industrial furniture.” And in my head I was picturing this guy. I don’t know it sounds mental.
Do you prefer photo albums over other kinds of books?
OB: I’m pretty illiterate, so…well I’m not illiterate, but…I, uh, yeah.
ER: It’s just another gig, really.
OB: [Speaking in a robotic voice] It’s a great gig, and we’re really honored, and pleasured, and in such awe to be able to have the opportunity, and we’re really happy to do that.To be in front of all the people who have gone to see a great band as The Last Shadow Puppets.
Is there a band you dream about being able to tour with?
OB: Well, if it isn’t The Last Shadow Puppets, it would probably be the Arctic Monkeys.
Did you have a falling out with Alex [Turner]?
OB: I actually had a nice night with Alex, and he was a gentleman. He invited us around to his house, and he was a pleasure, he gave me a drink, and we had a good chat. And he’s a talented man. There’s not that many rock stars that can exist anymore, people come and they go, and there’s this level at the top, and he’s managed to secure himself there. And rightly so, I think. His lyrics are good, and he’s got money and he’s doing it and doing the rock star thing. And why not?
And I can’t wait to get out there and play some shows, and I hope we do them proud.
Your first album is coming out in May as well. Is there anything you’d like people to know before they listen to it?
OB: It’s probably the most important album of the last ten years, guitar-music wise, from England. It’s the most important album to come out of the suburbs of Wolverhampton for the last five years.
What other bands are from Wolverhampton?
OB: Slade, Babylon Zoo, Robert Plant, Killing Joke‘s bass player [Paul] Raven. There’s quite a lot. I feel quite proud of being from the Midlands. I mean, I was born in Wolverhampton, and have family from there, but I lived in the suburbs seven miles out. There’s something quite nice about being from there, I’m quite proud of it. But I don’t really belong anywhere, really. Like everyone else.
I’m from the suburbs of New York, but I couldn’t wait to get out. I found it suffocating.
OB: I think it’s just a part of growing up.
ER: When you’re growing up in New York City, you’re just thinking you want to get out of New York City. I’m the same, from New Zealand. Everyone’s like “Oh, New Zealand’s beautiful.” Yeah, fucking beautiful, but look at me. Look at me. Have you seen me play? Look at me. LOOK AT ME.
Sorry, I’m losing the plot here. [Pause] Imagine if I had no face.
That would be scary. Like that woman that got her face ripped off by a chimp.
You’re all based in London now, right?
OB: It’s great. It’s great for modeling.
Do you model?
OB: Yeah, I can’t wait to do more. I know Elliot’s really keen on me doing it. You know what, what’s the point? What’s the fucking point?
Of modeling? Of anything?
OB: There’s no romance, we are shit, and it’s all a fucking joke. [He giggles]
You’re doing pretty well.
OB: It’s bullshit, and we won’t be long in this house. I cannot stand being in a band with him [gestures towards Leo] and him [gestures towards Elliot].
How long have you been on the road so far?
OB: Two weeks [they all laugh uproariously]. I just wanna get naked. Not physically. Mentally. You know what? I don’t even know why we are doing this. We’re not getting paid.
I’m not getting paid.
OB: And I don’t love it [they continue to laugh]. Nah, I do. I don’t know. I think I’m just tired.
A friend and I are going to be in London in July. What should we do while we’re there?
OB: Come visit us.
LK: We’re going to interview you.
I’m not that interesting.
LK: You are, Sasha. Everybody’s interesting. Everyone’s got something to say.
Actually, after this, I want to go talk to that other Sasha I met earlier. I don’t meet other Sashas too often.
ER: He’s a nice guy. I’ve known him from New Zealand for 15 years.
He’s from New Zealand too?
ER: Yeah, he’s a good dude.
Did you hear Flight of the Conchords are coming here? They’re doing two dates. The first one sold out as soon as the tickets went on sale.
ER: Americans love Flight of the Conchords. It was always on American TV, wasn’t it?
ER: They were a proper band, like a comedy band, for years before their TV show.
And Bret was in that ukulele orchestra, as well.
ER: They’re both really good musicians. They really cashed in on the TV thing.
Do you guys have any songs you look forward to performing the most?
OB: The idea of the set is pretty loose, so we kind of do a different version of a song every night. I look forward to playing them all, and sometimes we’ll do something we haven’t done before, and that’s the bits where it really gets me excited about wanting to do music.
LK: Making it changeable.
OB: That’s probably the reason why we do it.
You must need to work pretty closely to improvise like that.
OB: It’s quite a boring genre, rock and roll is not complicated. No one can really explain it, because it’s so simple.
What is your average number of chords used per song?
OB: More than three. I like it simple, but there’s a thing about guitar, bass, drums, and we’ve been on all the records. Disregarded all of them, disregarded the drum kit on the recording, just played the shells, disregarded the bass in one song and just did feedback, disregarded the guitar and just hit it. It’s about energy, I think. All these things we can flip so it’ll be a new song.
Does that go along with your feeling that art produces relief?
OB: I don’t think our band has anything to do with art. I think music is quite low-grade, it’s like beans.
You’d be amazed at what passes for art.
OB: I know, but when bands get into that territory, it makes me feel…I like the bands that are like, “Let’s get the denim on. Let’s get out there and play some gigs.” And it’s just entertainment. People go to the cinema, the casino, the pub, or they could see a band. And that’s the level we’re working at. I don’t think there will ever be a band again that will work like the Beatles, changing society. It’s like a carwash, cleans your car; a band should make you feel excited and on edge.
When you first got into playing music, was there a musician or band you really wanted to be like?
OB: Start at the top. And I thought when I was six, I would be like Elvis but bigger. And then I thought the Beatles. And then it just goes down and down, and you end up at the bottom. And then you work yourself back up. “I’m just gonna be a cool band in London.” I’m not even that cool. And then you drop. And you put Fun House by The Stooges on and you go “Well that’s just fucking good, isn’t it? Why don’t I just do that?”. I listened to that when I was 14 and then you go up. I don’t know where I’m at now.
I think it’s also hard to be creative in London because it’s such an expensive city to be in.
OB: I got there when I was 17, so that’s quite a long time ago. And I was doing loads of jobs, but it’s character building and I couldn’t write the songs I did then, now. I was just hungry to be in a band, I didn’t know why. But now, it feels like an expression of that struggle. And we’ve had a lot of help along the way from people in bands. We’ve had a lot of help, and this hasn’t just come about by us being a good band.
Is there anything you do to prepare for life on the road? Is touring hard for you?
ER: It’s fucking easy. Not easy, but we’ve all worked jobs that sucked.
LK: I’m sick of working jobs for people that I hate.
ER: But we’ve all had shit jobs.
LK: We absolutely love this. I don’t care about sleepless nights, we’d still get up and do it and play.
ER: It’s not going to last forever. When the wheels fall off, they fall off, and we’ll go back to doing other jobs.
OB: The only thing we could do with our skillset would be coffin bearers. We could carry stuff, and we’re emotionally discharged. So we could be hauling out corpses.
LK: I bet you can’t name a good, simple, rock and roll band that’s not outstayed their welcome. It’s the careerists that get it wrong. My idea is that we go hit it hard as we can, and then retire and be happy people and not have anything to do with this. I don’t want to be famous or anything like that. And all the bands that we like, I think, have a good period of intensity. And that feeling, I think, bands miss it.
What if you get to the point where you are famous and you try to go somewhere and people are freaking out?
OB: It doesn’t happen. See this is a myth that everyone always talks about. The bands will never be like that again.
The 1975 has kind of turned into that.
OB: Yeah, but he has to look himself in the mirror every day. He’s gonna have depression. I hope he’s got a lot of money, because he’ll need a lot of counseling.
Do you guys have any last words before you perform tonight?
[Their tour manager walks over]
Tour Manager: Hey, sorry, it’s time.
ER: America’s been great, we’re really happy to be here, we want to come back.
LK: We love it, and we love you, and…
OB: It’s been brilliant. It’s…just music.