LYR: ‘By some unfortunate coincidence I think we’ve ended up writing an album about lockdown’
There are leaden skies across the Holme Valley, Hampshire and Dartmoor as Simon Armitage, Richard Walters and Patrick Pearson gather via Zoom to discuss Call in the Crash Team, the debut album by their band, Land Yacht Regatta.
Yet the mood is convivial, with Walters and Pearson’s observations complementing the insights of Armitage, whose poetry they have set to vivid musical soundscapes.
Pearson, a 33-year-old producer and multi-instrumentalist, says he’s been “surprisingly indifferent” to the experience of three months of Covid-19 lockdown. “Apart from not being able to travel and play shows, I’ve been in the studio. I guess there are things, like not being able to see friends and family...but apart from that it’s been more creative than ever.”
Armitage, 56, has spoken to a lot of writers “who’ve all said they’ve struggled a little bit”. “I think because they’ve had spare time there’s an expectation that they’ll be making things, but there’s this backdrop of anxiety and sadness which is not helping with the focus. I’ve probably done a lot more work that I would’ve done normally in three months but given that I’ve had three months at home, I’ve not done as much work as I thought I would do.”
“I think I’ve found similarly,” agrees singer-songwriter Walters, 37. “I put a lot of pressure on myself at the beginning, and was quite excited to have the time, it’s so unique for the world to be on pause. I thought I was going to write not just one album but we were going to write ten LYR records as well as my autobiography and an opera, probably. Actually that went after ten days and it’s just been lethargy. It’s like an endless Sunday.”
In May the trio released a charity single, which set Armitage’s newest poem Lockdown to music, and featured guest appearances by Little Women star Florence Pugh and saxophonist Pete Wareham, of Melt Yourself Down. Armitage says he has found himself in a lot of contemplative moments in recent weeks. “It’s been a very introspective period. I’ve caught myself staring out of windows for long periods, and I think one of the difficulties is the sense of the indefinite, the horizon’s blurry, and I think as somebody who makes things it’s disturbed the idea of what you’re making them for. For me with the poetry, giving readings and events are very much a part of that, and being out in the world and encounters with other people, and none of that seems available at the moment and you can’t quite tell when it’s going to be, so even the act of composition and producing something, it doesn’t have the normal co-ordinates to aim for.
“On the other hand it’s given me chance to work and work and work at material, so that Lockdown poem was probably written over a two-week period to begin with and almost continuously, which isn’t something that I’d usually do on a poem. I think it just sprang from recollections of school history lessons about Eyam (the Derbyshire village famed for a 17th century outbreak of the Black Death). Because it was relatively local, it was a story that we all knew and in fact probably went there on a school trip to see the Boundary Stone and put vinegar coins in the holes.”
Pugh is a friend of Walters’. “She’s an amazing actor, she’s so talented and she’s got such a voice and following and she’s a real activist,” he says. “When I spoke to her about it she really loved the poem and was really sold by this idea of us raising money for Refuge (the domestic abuse charity).”
Just days before the Government imposed lockdown, LYR played their first gigs. The show at Leeds’s Brudenell Social Club was the band’s “maiden voyage”, Armitage says. “It was amazing to start there because it’s got such a reputation as a gig venue and then we played the following night in London.” Both shows “went really well”, he says. “Pat and Rich are very familiar with that environment, me less so, so I think it was more for me to learn about perhaps what my role was, which turned out to be just standing there and saying things which I’m very comfortable with.”
“They were literally the last social occasions of my life,” Walters says. “I put them on a very high pedestal, in my mind they were like the Oscars, but it seems to long ago since they happened. The really exciting thing about those shows was that the songs took on a completely new life to what they have on the record. A song like Great Coat became slightly post-punky, really energetic.”
LYR expanded from Walters’ idea of setting one of Armitage’s poems to music. “That was 2012, a long time ago, it grew very slowly,” Walters explains. “Singing the words is so different to hearing them spoken. We did start talking about how we could work more together, and then I was working with Pat anyway so this seemed a perfect match.”
Armitage, whose previous musical experience extended to a band a decade ago called The Scaremongers who the Marsden-born poet’s father joked should have been called Midlife Crisis, says: “We met at a reading, we got on, we had shared interests and we had this idea that eventually we would do something bigger than me writing something and Rich recording it but we weren’t quite sure what that would be or how it would be. Pat was the missing piece of the jigsaw. As soon as we started working together the three of us then it started to make a lot of sense.
“From what was a very slow beginning, a kind of standing start, there was very quickly a lot of excitement and energy. I think we were all maybe surprised by what we were making. It felt different. We didn’t quite know there was a model for this. Obviously there’s been spoken word and music before but not quite like this, it’s often coming out of rap or hip-hop or dub, so we were slightly making the rules up as we went along, but there was a lot of momentum.”
For the majority of the album the three worked in isolation. “It was just the only path that seemed to be able to work because of the distance, because of our other lives,” says Pearson.
The album’s recurring theme of characters undergoing personal crises only “became apparent retrospectively”, says Armitage. “When we sat down to look at what we’d made ...I think that emerged at that point, just the idea that there were a lot of people here speaking monologues or soliloquies from the point of view of a crisis in their life or a lack of confidence. I think maybe from my point of view that chimes with a lot of the work I’ve been doing since 2008, particularly with this notion that we’re supposed to be more connected now, we’re supposed to be communicating more, but actually my experience of this is that people are living in a lot more marginalised situations and are left with their own thoughts and their communities have become this kind of [virtual] community. I think it’s an extension of those ideas.
“By some very unfortunate coincidence I think we’ve ended up writing an album about lockdown, even though that was never the intention.”
Great Coat, the band’s current single, is told from the perspective of someone remembering an oppressive family relationship. It’s one of many lyrics on the album that build from small details.
Armitage says: “I’m obsessed with finding miracle in the mundane and the mystical nature of commonplace things. I’ve always said that as a writer you don’t need to have had incredibly exotic experiences, in fact I’ve got a sort of manifesto poem about that called It Ain’t What You Do It’s What It Does To You which catalogues a whole series of adventures that I’ve never undertaken and it eventually arrives at a small moment of everyday life and tries to explore the mystery and the joy. There’s sometimes a sacrament of everyday ritual.”
Call in the Crash Team is out today on Mercury KX. www.lyrband.com