Oli Burslem - Yak
Oli Burslem - Yak

In Conversation with Oli Burslem. (Yak)

Now that we’ve gotten so used to the once great Holy roman-rock’n’roll-empire being stagnant, reduced to pretending Jockstraps brilliant new releases are close enough to a new Black Country, New Road track, like a heroin addict on methadone. It’s no surprise that when someone arises from the muck the scene tends to blow so much smoke up their arse that they believe they really are the second coming of Christ; or at least Mark E. Smith. Visions are conjured of coked up BRIT school graduates peering down their noses at any band that even dares to write a song that has a hint of accessibility. BUT HEAR ME NOW, IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS! Perhaps all it takes is the lack of a trust fund or maybe just a head not filled to the brim with Ritalin. Whatever it is I wasn’t surprised to find out that Oli Burslem, frontman of Yak, has it. Opening the interview with a tinge of disappointment because he didn’t have any facts about the city I was calling him from (Chichester, I don’t blame him) (8th tallest cathedral in England, there’s a free one) we soon got over it and the conversation quickly turned to the only thing any conversation does nowadays. 

“Um I suppose in relation to Covid, well we played our last gig in Yak in November, December so as a direct response to that there hasn’t been much. I feel quite a fortunate position that we weren’t putting loads of money into a record where we would’ve been completely screwed. Luckily, we just tied up everything quite nicely at the beginning of this year. I went back to the midlands, where I’m from and luckily my brother works doing building work and stuff so I just helped him and it was amazing for me, I’ve been sat in a van for five years just procrastinating and enjoying life and getting a bit… not wrecked but you know enjoying life so to be doing something physical and doing labour and earning a bit of cash in like a building site environment was amazing. I felt great so I kind of switched off from the news and found like an old shed where I grew up in the midlands and someone asked me to do some music and my brothers a drummer so he left a drum kit and some cymbals and I just started making music for myself which I didn’t think I would do again and it was just a great way to fill the time really.” 

“Was that music just for your SoundCloud?” (OH! BURSLEM)

“I think it’s just for my health to be honest with you um I know it sounds quite dramatic but the biggest thing I missed when I was in a band was just having somewhere to live and time to be able to make music and just being in a situation where I had a bit of structure, even somewhere I was gonna sleep every night and a bit of time made me have something to do which was make music and it just made me feel great to be able to do that.”

“I know you spent some time in the chicken shed, was that the first time you started recording music again after your time off?”

Yeah, not intentionally, I went because I was just doing up my car and my parents rented this little place on a farm yard and those sheds had just been empty for ages. I was walking past one afternoon and my phone battery had died, I put my charger in the electric there and it worked, I never knew all the time, I mean I lived there until I left at 17 but I never thought of it when I was a kid to just sort of go there and then I went up and just tried to make music and was like I wonder if I can just record some guitar and then found an old microphone, then without much I was just surprised at how much I could do. I got an old piano for £10 which was out of tune and then I really wanted to make music with the out of tune piano. I was listening to a lot of records that had out of tune piano stuff so just like on a completely solo mission just to entertain myself really and to also just be in a sort of dream world.

“Would you ever consider taking the music you made there further than SoundCloud? You know like maybe putting it on Spotify or producing it a bit more?”

“Yeah, I think so I mean I’ve been writing songs every day here and the more I’ve written the more I notice common themes and stuff like that. I suppose I get a sort of like, not excited about the idea of how to present it, like before it was always a band thing and presenting in that way. Like the idea of music videos I’ve always hated, kind of selling yourself in that way it’s always boring like “Man who sleeps in car” or whatever i was, that kind of was a bit boring and um I think to be successful in a commercial sense you have to have kind of one clear idea to sell, like if you’re a deck chair you have to be comfortable and packable, and if you do aggressive rock music now it seems to have to have a clear objective, to be like “Racism is bad. Also be careful of your health” everything has to be so kind of… blunt and to the point and I think we’ll look back in ten years time at this point and they’re all good causes and good stuff but the grey areas gone missing in the music in some elements of it and I think we’ll look back at this point. Unfortunately, you’re always at the book end of the history and you don’t learn the right history but you learn certain values in life. At the moment especially, the London Olympics I feel like was a pivotal point. That was a big celebration of some sort but now especially in the UK we’re back to fundamental ideas and fundamental questions about a lot of stuff, they need to be spoke about but I find them quite reductive I suppose.”

What part did you have in MILK, what was that?

“Oh, hang about, that was Yannis from Foals? Ahh right ok yeah, he just invited me to play some live stuff. I think they’re just recordings of a jam yeah, I haven’t listened to them.”
Was it just one gig you played then?

“I think we did two, I can’t remember much about them.”

And that was last year?

“Maybe two years ago, I remember them being good nights. I remember being in the pub beforehand and just being like, ‘Yannis, what the fuck are we doing’ and him just being like  ‘well we’ll just do this riff and then we’ll see where it goes’. I remember them being good occasions. It’s always nice to play with people in bands especially if you’re that kind of band where you’re grafting and doing the same thing and being consistent I think that’s the big thing with the success of a band so just to have the free reign to be a musician I think was quite liberating.”

Did you enjoy having a more understated role in that as a pose to being the frontman of yak?

“Yeah, I just rocked up and played. There’s something much cooler about just standing there and just cracking on with what your role is, with yak I suppose you have to make the most of the situation and you feel a responsibility. I always think about myself in Wolverhampton seeing all these gigs and you see these bands come, they’d play to 5 people and you could tell they probably played Manchester or London the night before, they didn’t give it their all so you always feel a responsibility to play the gig like it’s your last gig you ever play. It’s quite exhausting but it feels like even if it’s not a success you’ve given everything of yourself in that moment which I think is important.”

Moving onto yak then has there been any plans or anything have you talked to Elliot or Vincent?
“No, not really. There was always a clear idea to a certain extent as to what we wanted to do and that record was a complete sabotage record in the sense that I knew that was gonna be it and I didn’t want to carry on doing it really. I’d like to do something again but if we were to do something it would have to be just a good 8 tracks of just solid rock and roll., just like the music that I fell in love with to begin with you know like early Stooges or that kind of ilk of music which I’m still madly in love with and have been since I was like 10. It would be nice to do something consistent and just really noisy and not song based just a raucous kind of thing cos I think for me that’s when that band was at its best really, even though I think are records are great, well I like them, but it would be nice to do something like that. And I’ve always thought three in the band, three letters in the name, three records, a trilogy it would be nice to tie it up at one point but now I couldn’t think of anything worse. Hahaha.”

Do you not think yak are unsustainable during this pandemic then?

“Well to be honest with you, for me this pandemic has been fine. I mean with the band we’ve never had any kind of structure, we’ve never had any particular kind of cash flow, never had a place to live or direction where we were going. I found with the pandemic I feel like I’ve been in training for it cause everything’s sort of still at sea really. It’d be nice to do something again but it’s nice at the moment just to fall back in love with what I enjoy doing really and I think that I’ve always been very uncomfortable about my role, kind of being at the front and doing all that kind of stuff I’ve always felt slightly embarrassed really.”

Do you think part of why you’re enjoying it now is that you got to break the traditional cycle of touring and recording?

“I just feel more relaxed, before it was always just about trying to prove someone wrong. The band was always quite aggressive and aggressive in how we toured. We’d play everywhere and be like ‘fuck it, we don’t care for anyone’, especially when it was just me and Andy who I’d been friends with since we were 5 years old. We didn’t have any big ideas about the band so when it started doing stuff, we were really surprised but we still had that attitude. It was like, same objective, same enemy. I know it sounds sort of petty but you kind of have that bullish idea of ‘get out of my way’ which I’m not really like naturally but in that kind of sense we didn’t want to be friends with anyone particularly. We just wanted to do exactly what we wanted to do, but then you just put it to bed and you move on.”

Have you missed performing live?

“Yeah to a certain extent, it would be nice to play again that’s for sure, yeah I have missed that. I mean the thing is with me that was the biggest dream, the band started, I was 26 and I’d been doing it since I was 12 so for me and Andy who grew up together we were like if we ever got to play a gig were it wouldn’t just be our friends that would be great, would we ever play Glastonbury which we both went to at 16? Would we ever put a record out? All those things were just a huge deal for us and it felt like a massive box was ticked for us when we did it and not only did it but did it how we wanted to do it and for it to be received as well as it was and to be liked by our peers and people we respected, that was just a huge thing. I mean Andy left and he carried on with his existence and I think in a weird I don’t really feel career minded in that regard.”

Does being in a band matter much to you anymore or are you just content with doing recordings yourself in a home studio setting?

“Yeah, um, it sounds cheesy but just sort of eat well, sleep well, dream well, do the simple things really well and part of that whole thing is to be able to make music really. I always liked the idea of making records that you can’t even imagine yourself and just being in a situation, I mean I’ve written loads of stuff that I’m really happy with and maybe it will be released in some way but I’m not really going for that. I’m not going to bed thinking ‘Oh I can’t wait till someone does this or that’ I’m just enjoying it really and it’d be lovely to share it, that’d be great and it will happen I’m sure but I think it’s quite a nice place to be. 

Also, another huge thing about this is for a long period of time to not be self-sufficient, as in somewhere to live, somewhere to eat, to be on your own clock, the real basics which have been gone while we were trying to get the band going. You know that band was the main thing and to not have that and to sleep somewhere and to not drink too much and not get fucked up you know, the simple things, it just made me so much happier and I think that’s much more important than um anything else really.”

I was listening to an interview you did last year and you said that in 2020 you wanted to get back to selling some furniture, get a van and travel did those things ever materialise?

“Well I did start; I couldn’t afford a van so a bought a car and then I started doing markets and stuff. Then the pandemic hit and when I stopped doing it for 5 months, I forgot I was supposed to be doing it. In my head it was just ‘music, music, music, listening to music, oh how can I write that song, music, music, how can I make that tin can sound like this.’ I completely forgot about the idea of this furniture thing, the problem with that is I don’t like receiving a certain level of service and I don’t like giving a certain level of service so I don’t wanna dress anything up. If I can just do music and travel that’s the main thing, I’m writing music for other people, I’m writing music for more commercial stuff which gives me money to have my car and put petrol in it, travel around and meet people, keep writing and taking pictures and just keep making a record of where I’m at really. It sounds so self-indulgent but you know. I think if I can just get by playing music and I don’t need a place. I’d like to stay here in Europe, I’ve got some good friends here, I’ve just rented this place for two months in the middle of the country side in France with a friend who’s doing lots of amazing drawing. We’ve just been quite good cos we’re being very disciplined; waking up, having breakfast together, going on a walk and then we do nine hours a day of writing and he does his drawing, coming up with ideas, listening to music all the time, eating well and just being really serious and focussing on making stuff.”

Do you find that helps creativity, when you’ve got that 9-5 work structure?
“Yeah I think so, cos it gives you the time and space to think about it. I do feel very fortunate I mean, I worked with my brother a lot to save some money to do it and I’ve managed to sell some music along the way so I do feel very lucky to be able to do it, to be in a space where I wake up and just try to surprise myself to do some more music and to write some more stuff. I’ve got a really good idea about what I want to do next. I’ve got like 4 records I’m working on at the same time.”

So, what’s coming next for you?

“Well the 4 things that I want to do; I’m writing for a friend of mine which I’m really excited about its real stripped back and simple. I’m doing some more of my own stuff which is a bit more lyrical and a bit more out there. I’m also doing music which is more experimental I’ve been going around and recording in all the churches I’ve been seeing and then on the side just the more rock and roll stuff which would go towards a Yak record so just sort of separating all those things up really. I’m so excited about all the stuff, yesterday for the first time I got a friend and I sent him something and he was like ‘Ok Oli, this is good I think you’re onto something now you need to keep going and then by next year we should talk and sit down and have a thing.’ There’s no point me sitting down now I just need to keep writing and make something I’m really proud of really and maybe hopefully someone might listen to it but I don’t know.”