It’s a wonderful thing, chatting to artists about what got them into music and how other people’s music has influenced the way they make theirs. You quickly realise that at heart, they are just music obsessives like you and me, with the only difference being that they’ve got more talent for making music and performing than you and have done something about it!
I’ve always been fascinated by those artists that embrace a wide range of different types of music, either through their songs, their playlists, or in other forms, so I thought I’d approach a few and find out what made them tick. Seeing as Yak were the inspiration behind this blog and given that his playlist tastes seem wide and varied, lead singer and guitarist Oli Burslem seemed a natural choice to start with. Since the band became dormant late last year, Oli has retreated to a chicken shed in the wilds of the West Midlands, near to where he grew up. The decision to put the band on hold came from a lack of impetus to write anything else, and he felt as though he had started to repeat himself.
We began our conversation with Oli mentioning that this break period had allowed him to start writing again, and reinforced the enjoyment of doing it, so whilst there are no immediate plans for a return, you get the feeling that a third album may well just happen.
Having established the state of the band, we go on to the topic of how he got into music:
Early on I was pretty useless at school. My brother played music and music was always around the house and as I was kind of useless at everything else, I found great comfort in music. Since the age of 5 I’ve been obsessed with it. I even dressed up as Elvis at an early age, 5 or 6. My sister is older than me, and she went off to university and left me a load of house music, because she thought I might get bullied, because all I was listening to 50s music! Locally, I’d go down the pub and there would always be musicians there, and they’d give me tapes of their recordings. I was mad into Dr John - my uncle had all his records. He was probably more into the New Orleans traditional stuff whereas I liked all the trippier stuff, and I’ve been obsessed with Dr John ever since.
How did you get into playing?
Just going down the local pub. There was always drums around the house, and my brother played guitar so I got into playing that and going down to the local jam night on a Monday, which I think was encouraged because I was so useless at everything else, and music was the one thing that I had a great passion for and still do. I found great solace in music – I’d always have my music on.
What was the first gig you went to?
I went to a load of gigs that my brother played in, bikers bashes and down the pub. But I remember the first one I went to was at Wolverhampton Civic, my local venue, which was Hot Chocolate with my mum. It was the ‘Full Monty’ boom and funnily enough we recorded our last record at Micky Most’s RAK Studios (where Hot Chocolate recorded). I was listening to a Hot Chocolate song the other day, ‘Man to Man’ and it’s so good, sounds like David Bowie. I’d always go to Wolverhampton Civic Hall to see the bands that were coming through, so I’d see anyone that was coming. I saw the White Stripes play there for their White Blood Cells album which got to number one, so there was real good hysteria around the venue. That got me on to a load of those Detroit bands, who would come to Birmingham. Those Detroit bands and their connections with Birmingham – I always kind of romantically thought that a lot of rock n roll I like, like the Stooges was born out of the suburbs of post-industrial decline so I thought there was a connection between Detroit and Birmingham.
What was the first record you bought?
A Shaggy single – I had the choice between that, and Oasis and I preferred Shaggy, still do!
How have you discovered different genres?
Just searching for the truth in the music. Maybe the words, the lyrics or in the composition or putting yourself in a dream state. I’ve never really found I’ve been into one thing, and that’s maybe been in detriment to the band to not follow a clear narrative, and even when we have got into one, we’ve switched it up a bit. I think most bands, to have some success have to be consistent, within yourself or musically, and to sell themselves as one thing. With all the different music I like you can always find some truth in it, and that’s what I like and that always resonates with me, rather than a simple narrative. The last one for us was ‘lives in car’
I just found I love so much, not just music. I like everything, taking pictures and videos and doing up my car, I just love finding the beauty in something that no-one else can see. That feels quite personal. I did think this analogy once – my relationship with music is quite intense I suppose, our live performance is quite intense, and I think that’s because my relationship with music from the get-go was quite intense. Maybe not really figuring out what I wanted as a kid, my relationship with music seemed to make sense. Me being involved in music slightly later has always made me think ‘do I deserve this?’ I don’t know, but if I make it genuine and real and still have the relationship that I did with music then it makes me feel better about making stuff and feeling self-indulged. The more you put yourself into something, the more you get out of it and that goes beyond music.
At this stage I asked Oli about ‘A Rainbow in the Curved Air’ by Terry Riley (the song that Yak always use to take to the stage), and about how he came across other similarly experimental artists like Steve Reich, who have appeared in the band’s playlists.
I remember the Terry Riley one - I was just in a really lucky situation when I listened to it. We were all coming down off a binge in the van driving up to Glasgow, and it came on the radio. We were driving through hills and it just fit the situation and we went ‘wow’. And from that stemmed lots of finding out lots more about that kind of music. I think now, over the last ten years people start to listen to music differently. People have playlists now, and have music to wash up to, to drive to, people listen to music in slightly different ways and there isn’t one clear narrative, one clear scene.
Another area of interest to me is how people consume music. I wanted to know whether Oli binged on types of music (as I do) with me citing James Brown, the JB’s and that whole 60s/early 70s funk era as a binge-worthy example.
Depending on what I’m doing. James Brown ‘Live at the Apollo’ is wicked. We used to listen to that a lot in the van, it’s just beautiful ‘tonight we’ll play like this’ and they do a big melody at the end. But then I’ve been working on building sites and that’s just Gold FM and Absolute 70s and about having a good laugh listening to all sorts. And listening to more expansive stuff too. Just all sorts. There are some correlations, like I might listen to old blues like Mississippi John Hurt, and then in the same breath I’ll listen to Mali/African things because I think there’s a lot of similarities between that music. Or more expansive music, and then driving fast and listening to the Stooges.
Do you have certain musical icons / pin ups?
The first one would have been Elvis, and I think that was because the movies were always on in the house around Christmas time, and I couldn’t figure out whether he was real, or whether he was fake, and then the live comeback thing came – it was all mysterious – was he black, was he white, was I supposed to be attracted to him or was I not? Is he male is he female? I wanted to dress like Elvis, curl my lip and all that.
Then there was obviously Bowie, ACDC/Angus Young, then lots of classic rock, because it’s a very rock neighbourhood round here, Robert Plant lives up the road and all that. There wasn’t much you could get into in the old days – if you had a record player you had your Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, you wouldn’t need that many records. With the internet now there’s shit loads, more people are into more stuff and now more and more people are exploring different things I suppose.
Have you modelled yourself on any of your heroes?
Probably. I guess because the band came along later in my 20’s I think I’d probably tried everything and failed, and then there was only thing and that was to try and be as truthful unto myself as possible. But I’m sure there were lots and lots of ones there.
If there was one song you could have written, what would it be?
(Ponders this question) Well there’s the more expressive songs that players like Hendrix which are a document of a time so you couldn’t do that, and then there’s classic songs that encapsulate anything, like Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World. Some of these classics are lost because they are so etched in your mind, they’re like buildings that have been there for years, you just kind of walk past them every day. They have no relevance because you’ve just taken them for granted, they’re just there, and sometimes you revisit them and go ‘fuck – that’s pretty good!’. Like ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon is a song that I’d probably never listen to, but when you think of the sentiment to it you think wow, that’s pretty all-encompassing, so probably something like that.
Is there anyone alive or dead that you’d like to meet so you could find out more about them?
Dr John would have been one – although I’d always say it’s a bit tricky meeting people you idolise as it can be a bit weird. I loved working with Jason from Spiritualised because I was a big fan of Spaceman Three and Spiritualised. There’s lots of people I’d like to meet because I think it would be quite amusing. I’d like to go to the Wolves with Robert Plant, that would be amusing just to listen to funny stories. He talked the other day about playing with Bobby Bland’s band and those kinds of funny stories.
Ronny O’Sullivan, I’d like to have a pint with him. Maybe a superstar - I have been around certain people that are of a superstar / rock star people – but when you meet them in certain situations it’s like ‘god, he walks and he talks’ I’m not really bothered about meeting people.
We concluded our chat with me saying that I hope Oli returns to music, how the band have a real difference for me, and about the warmth felt by a lot people toward Yak. Reinforcing his earlier sentiments, he concluded:
You just have to get rid of some of things that frustrate you, and the only way to do that is to isolate, turn off from everything, write some songs, come back and do it more independently, so that’s the plan. I’ll be back with a vengeance, the third record’s always a good one!