Image Credit: Daniel Broadley
LYR is an interesting musical proposition. Made up of poet laureate Simon Armitage, guitarist/ backing vocalist Richard Walters, and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Pearson, their 2020 debut album, Call In The Crash Team, was recorded during lockdown and used recordings of Armitage reciting poetry into a dictaphone kept on his desk as its starting point. Whilst many similar projects have centred around setting a poet’s work to music, it is clear from LYR’s 27th October show at Omeara that this is something different; a real band, not an art project, which happens to have the current poet laureate as its frontman.
This is not to suggest that LYR is a straight-up rock act, however. Whilst not providing a ‘soundscape’ in which Armitage’s words sit passively, on record there is a definite sense of that kind of approach being fashioned into the song-like, verse-chorus-verse structure. Live, however, their music really comes together; the more expansive, ambient quality of their work is given far more edge and bite, as well as added volume, by what Walters called in my interview with him the ‘five very tired people’ in the van. There was a noticeable contrast between these two sides of the band. The extensive visuals on stage, which were incredibly effective against the stark, brick backdrop of Omeara, and Armitage’s music stand gave a somewhat performance art air to the proceedings, but this was balanced out by the on-stage demeanour of the band. It’s not every day you see the poet laureate drinking a can of Guinness and making jokes about how, if they were playing the gig in Huddersfield (where Armitage is from), there would be a chorus of police sirens accompanying them. Yet the projections behind the band stood in for these noises of chaos and potential trauma, reinforcing Armitage’s lyrics about lost love and boredom in post-industrial Britain, providing further visual cues to match the already evocative music and lyrics. Whilst one might argue that LYR is a vehicle for Armitage’s adolescent dreams of being Mark E. Smith, with the song ‘33 1/3’ being a love letter to the idea of the vinyl record which could only have been written by someone who grew up in the 1970s, these reflections on growing old do not sound like those of a man who is either bitter about the present or overly obsessed with a supposedly glorious past. Instead, LYR presents detailed and engaging vignettes of a past life which musically look forward. Walters’ assertion that LYR intends to exist as a real band, not just a musical outlet for an already established poet, was evident from their live performance. I sat down to interview band member Richard Walters a few days before the gig.
How did this record come together? Obviously, this was a lockdown recording. How did that work?
We were always doing things remotely, because of where everyone is at. Pat is down in Devon, I live in Hampshire, and Simon is up in Yorkshire. It always had to be done back-and-forth. Luckily, with studio technology, you can get away with that. But recently, especially touring at the moment, we have been working on the second album—it's much nicer to be doing that in the same room together. It's been a project that was almost made for lockdown because we were so separated.
How has it been touring this material, since you made it in lockdown but you can now play it to people?
It’s amazing. It feels like we've been waiting for that since the band formed. Prior to the tour, we had only done a handful of festivals because of the lockdown restrictions. You're probably going to see five very tired people. We've really worked on how it looks live and kind of having visuals that feel quite immersive. We want it to have a life beyond just the music. So on this tour, we've been working on visuals and lighting. I think you're going to love it. It's much heavier than it is on record as well. It's got a bit more edge to it.
Did you have the words first and then put the music to the words?
With the first record, we had recordings of Simon speaking, and then we worked around it. But as we move on, we're mixing it up—sometimes Pat and I write music together, sometimes I write a song using words that Simon sends us. It's been great fun trying different approaches.
When you were putting it together. did you take inspiration from similar albums? I’m thinking of the early John Cooper Clarke albums or even something like The Fall. You've got someone who's not necessarily a musician who's providing the words.
You know, when I see it more and more—now that we're doing live shows—Simon, and the way he delivers it, has a bit of a Mark E Smith thing., It's got that kind of passion. I think when we started it, what was happening musically was just being driven by the words we were hearing, and we weren't looking to many other records at the time. We're all big Fall fans, so that's definitely one.
What I noticed about the record was that it's very consistent in terms of the kind of soundscape, was that a conscious decision? The recording process to this project in particular has been to chuck a lot of things into the mix and then to strip it back and find what makes it really sing. There's always a bit. There's a point where you're mixing and you realise that you probably don't need the gospel choir and the kora and stuff like that. It's a fun process to build it and then smash it down.
A more specific question about the music: was there a specific thing that you were going for with the drum tracks?
The interesting thing about the drums is that a lot of those are made by Pat who is not a drummer. So maybe it’s that he's technically having to find himself a bit.
Were you ever given lyrics where thought: ‘I don't really think we should do this,’ or ‘I like this but could we use this other part?’
The diplomatic answer is that we've got a lot of stuff. We've got the kind of A team and then the B team in the car park. Naturally, you start to favour certain things. When Simon sends us something new you kind of know immediately if it's going to be an LYR song. There's one lyric he sent us about clowns which I think everyone is a bit scared of, so that will probably go no further.
Can you explain the name ‘LYR?’
We've been up in Lancashire and Yorkshire the last few days, and LYR up here means Lancashire and Yorkshire railway. So people think that's what we're named after. The whole kind of ’Land Yacht Regatta’ is just kind of how absurd it was. It's a boat with some wheels. It just sounds so ridiculous, and I think if you try to explain the band to somebody on paper, you wouldn't think it would work. Simon came up with it and it stuck. You don't argue with Simon—scary guy.
Is there anything musically that influenced how you approached this record? Specifically, music that you kept coming back to?
Especially on the new stuff, there's a bit of a shoegazy feel to it—Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine—so it's that more swampy washed-out sound. And then the first record, I think is a mishmash of things really. There's a bit of John Hopkins in there and more post-punk stuff. I can definitely see a direction that we're heading in for the next album when we finish that.
So this is definitely a band now and not a one-off project?
Yes, this is a band, we're going to be touring a lot more, we're going to be doing a couple more records unless something goes horribly wrong. We finished writing the second album and it's partly recorded and just needs to be mixed so I think we've got long-term ambition with the band to keep producing music.
Edited by Josh Aberman, Music Editor