LYR: 'We understand each other’s creative body language now'

Seated at home in Marsden in a room crammed with records and CDs, Poet Laureate Simon Armitage is pondering the musical advances that his band LYR have made in the past three years.
LYR, from left, Simon Armitage, Richard Walters and Patrick Pearson. Picture: Katie SilvesterLYR, from left, Simon Armitage, Richard Walters and Patrick Pearson. Picture: Katie Silvester
LYR, from left, Simon Armitage, Richard Walters and Patrick Pearson. Picture: Katie Silvester

Behind him a black tote bag dangles from the door, bearing the message ‘Scared to dance’.

“I think this album’s a lot more coherent, partly for the reason we’ve just been able to spend a lot more time with each other in the studio,” he says of their new record, The Ultraviolet Age. “If there is more harmony in it that was something that we were always striving for anyway and it probably reflects the idea that there is more harmony between the three of us. We’ve just had that opportunity to make work together, rather than in a more fragmentary way.”

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Also present for the video call is Patrick Pearson, the band’s producer and creator of the electronic soundscapes that frame 60-year-old poet Armitage’s sprechgesang reflections on life, death, love, tyranny, the Covid pandemic and the climate crisis that threatens to engulf us all. Absent today is Richard Walters, singer, songwriter and guitarist whose plangent harmonies form a distinctive part of their sound, but he adds contributions later by email.

“We knew how we wanted to present ourselves more because we’d been playing live,” Pearson says. “We’d gone through the process of releasing a record, we knew that the formula worked, we each had our own individual contributions, so I think it was just refining that a little bit. We’d learnt a lot from all of this. Presenting this record seems like a natural step up.”

Walters adds: “We were almost strangers when we made the first album, separated geographically and still finding our was a bit of an experiment, I suppose. And the outcome was good! We’ve grown as a band over the last three years, we understand each other’s creative body language now and the sound we want to make.”

Armitage admits he’d initially been “reluctant and nervous” about playing live but found himself “after the course of three or four shows thinking this really worked, there’s something proper here that we can offer people”. Today, he says, they feel more like a real band. “In terms of us working together, I think we’ve felt that more and more, especially when we’ve been in the studio to actually compose work. A lot of the tracks on the album we might start in an isolated way, I don’t think that’s unusual for any band these days, but a couple of times recently we’ve had a couple of days in the studio and we’ve written five or six songs on each occasion, and I think we’ve been very surprised and pleased with what happens, the kind of alchemy of the three of us being together. There’s probably some of that reflected in this album as well.”

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Playing live has helped to breed confidence, Armitage feels. He cites a memorable commission for last year’s Durham Brass festival which LYR performed in the city’s cathedral. “That event was almost overwhelming, really, playing in the cathedral,” he says. “I think we all came off stage that night thinking that was a very rare thing, I don’t know how often that thing happens in life. So I think we took some of that confidence and pride back into the production of finishing the album off.”

LYR. Picture: Katie SilvesterLYR. Picture: Katie Silvester
LYR. Picture: Katie Silvester

Walters says: “Those first gigs after lockdown were euphoric for me, almost spiritual moments – those little glimpses of life were a definite factor in the band leaping forward. We wanted to match that feeling, that wonder of being together onstage.”

Armitage might write most of the lyrics on his own, but there’s now more tweaking going on in the studio. “I don’t think we edit the words but we do move them around structurally,” he explains. “And also both Pat and Richard contribute lyrically.” He brandishes the inner sleeve of The Ultraviolet Age CD, showing that there is a key included so you can see who has written which bit. “I thought it was important that everybody was acknowledged for their contributions,” he says.

Sometimes songs start as one of Pearson’s compositions or Walters’ melodies before they add words. “We occasionally nip and tuck to fit things but by and large the lyrics stay intact,” Armitage says. “But we’re at liberty to restructure and move things around and repeat and so on and so forth.”

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A significant improvement from a production point of view, Pearson says, is that they’re now able to re-record Armitage’s vocal, whereas before they’d had to make do with him “reading outside the track”. “We kind of realised – and this happened through the live version, when the words and music happened together, Simon’s reaction and reading emphasis on certain lines, different tones, were very apparent and that was important to try and capture on the second record.

“So what we did was Simon would record a voice recording on his phone and send it to me so we could work with it, and I would try and find bits where the line would work best throughout the track, sometimes repeating lines and then we got together, Simon came down (to Devon) and we tracked all of these performances. We hadn’t done that before and I had the opportunity there to say to him ’can we do this one a little bit differently?’ and get to produce that a bit more and try to find a little bit of nuance that suits the track... And just a better quality recording made a difference this time around.”

Armitage cites the novelist Margaret Atwood’s dictum about poetry and prose coming out of “different hemispheres of the brain”. He finds the same is true of the lyrics he writes for songs and poems written ostensibly for the page. “I think I feel more relaxed now about using some of those tried and tested techniques – rhyme, repetition, alliteration, metre,” he says. “I tend not to write in a completely formal way, but I feel as if working on song lyrics with the band has reconnected me with some of the origins of poetry as an artform.

“I noticed I was reading a lot of the lyrics at poetry readings and not having to explain them or to make a distinction with them and they seemed to work very well in that environment, so I think I feel kind of emboldened by the practice, really.”

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There was, he says, little discussion between the three of them about the themes they wanted to explore in the songs. “I would compare it to writing a book of poetry – see what you’ve got and decide at that point what it is that you’ve written about,” he says. “From a retrospective position, I think we noticed that there was a lot about the environment in here, there was a lot about social media, a lot about identity and eventually we found this phrase, the ultraviolet age, as being one that could accommodate a lot of those issues about overexposure, whether that be rays from the sun or the glare of a camera or having an Instagram presence.

“I think it’s an album that represents a lot of our hopes and fears but I don’t think it’s a concept album, as such. I just think there are recurring subtexts all the way through it.”

Walters says: “I think we slowly saw a pattern emerge in the themes. It’s inescapable that the way the world has been over the last three years, the disorder and the confusion, seeps into creative pursuits.”

Musically, Pearson says, his reaction when they first started was to “try and be as rich as possible or try and throw everything at tracks like The National Trust Range of Paints Colour Card with just a wealth of every single chord that I could possibly do and every single musical sound that I could find and time signature thrown in all at once”. By album number two, he says he had “learned that less is more” and they would “love to delve even more into that world” in future. “I know that Presidentially Yours is very rich, it’s got a lot going on, but Heart For Sale, for instance, I thought big at first but then took it right back down and realised that actually it doesn’t need much more than what it actually ended up with.”

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One of the album’s most poignant moments, The Song Thrush and the Mountain Ash, began life as a pandemic commission for Huddersfield Choral Society. “During lockdown they asked me to write a couple of lyrics to be set to music by contemporary classical composers and they recorded it remotely and individually and then spliced all the voices together to make a choral piece,” explains Armitage. “That was a very moving project but I think I always knew that I wanted to try this out with LYR as well to see what we could make of it musically.

“I think it is a folk song...I had Thomas Hardy in mind and his poem lyrics, his story poems, his scene poems. That idea of writing at a time of trauma and trying to capture that through a little story. We’ve noticed that when we play it, it has a very visceral response, I think because most people either experienced something like that or witnessed it every day on the news. There was a lot of feedback from that track and I think it probably is the vulnerable, emotional heart of the album.”

Walters adds: “For my part, that song spoke to me on a very personal and private level, when I sing ‘will we ever be the same again?’ I’m thinking of my family, my children, the scars of that time that seem to become more pronounced the more I look back. I don’t think we can comprehend yet the damage that’s been done on an emotional level, we all went through some kind of hell.”

The most overtly political song, Presidentially Yours, seems to have become more pertinent with recent events. Armitage says it was inspired by “what seems to be going on all over the world, everywhere you look there is a lunatic in charge and it’s terrifying”.

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“There seems to be a surge towards tyranny from both ends of the political spectrum in a lot of very powerful countries,” he adds. “Even though some of the details in that lyric point in a very particular direction (towards the USA), I think it’s more of a reflection of what’s going on globally, and Pat really found both the pomposity and the menace in that lyric. I was bowled over when it came back. I didn’t know how we would deal with it; it’s quite an aggressive, arrogant piece, made peculiar by Richard singing against the narrative as well.”

“We hadn’t done a track that had complete contrast in the arrangement side of things,” says Pearson. “Just going from something that’s dronal and biting, very aggressive, to something that’s sweet, broad and cinematic and something that’s as long as it is as well. The track comes in at over five minutes and we were very happy with that, we wanted it to be a real journey and as it fades off into the distance to come back with a vengeance, which I think was one of Si’s ideas.”

“It keep re-electing itself,” Armitage says drily.

Elsewhere there are flashes of humour in songs such as Paradise Lost, Living Legend and To The Fashion Industry in Crisis. Armitage says: “I always like what (Philip) Larkin said. I think he was talking about how to structure the poems through a book and he said, ’Make them laugh, make cry, bring on the dancing horses’, but I think that’s true within a piece as well. You’ve got to keep changing the gear. We played at a place called Stapleford Granary in Cambridgeshire last weekend, it was a really beautiful space and a great crowd there, but I remember saying a line (’A bike got nicked so we nicked one back’) and hearing people laugh, but because it was very quiet, and quite a sophisticated, intelligent audience, and I did hear people laughing now and again at the ironies in some of the lines and I really enjoyed that.”

“It’s something that we are playing on, maybe a little bit more, are those lines,” says Pearson. “We were talking about the line ‘FYI it’s LYR’, written in mostly because people keep pronouncing it wrong, we thought if we put it in the track and we’ll print it on T-shirts and then it can’t go wrong, it’s there in plain sight. But I think the humour influences the music a little bit as well. Going back to having shades of tracks, some slower, emotive ones and some bigger tracks and I think without the humour you might not get the emotion as much. It certainly concentrates into those brackets and you get to have the reflection of both elements.”

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Walters appreciates the Aremitage’s multi-layered approach to lyric-writing. “That’s the wonder of Simon’s words for me – he makes you cry, he makes you laugh, and sometimes all at the same time!” he says.

The Ultraviolet Age is being released by EMI North’s partnership with Leeds-based Clue Records. Armitage sees the development as a significant one for the music industry. “Clive Cawley at EMI, it was his idea,” he says. “I think they recognised that so much of what they did was all within the M25, and as well as signing and working with bands from the north, why shouldn’t there be an office and people working there? We’re not wholly a northern band – I am a northerner, Pat’s got associations with Leeds and Richard’s (from) Oxford – but we’re really proud to be part of what they’re trying to do. It fed into a performance that we were part of at Headingley Stadium for Leeds 2023, we wrote a track for that and performed it that night. We’re very happy to operate under that flag. I think we’re the first band that they’ve signed and it feels like there’s good energy around it.”

“I think the northern music scene does have an influence on us as a band,” acknowledges Pearson. “We seem to have our roots, not just Simon’s, but it feels like there is music that has an identity to the north as well. I’m very happy that’s the case. I know we’re all from different parts of the country...but we’ve had some incredible shows up there and it’s been so welcoming.”

Having played at the curtain raiser for Leeds’s year of culture, Armitage says he is interested in doing something else to bookend the year. “I think they’re thinking on their feet at Leeds 2023; I don’t know if they’ve got to the end of (programming for) the year yet,” he says. “Our show at the Howard Assembly Room (in Leeds in September) is at least partly connected to Leeds 2023 and Contains Strong Language festival. It would be good to get that track out again and I think we should probably play it at the Howard Assembly Room.”

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Having a larger songbook means LYR can “tailor tracks to the specific place we’re playing”, says Pearson. “Once we’ve written a few for Margate and Exeter we’ll be able to have our own set for each place.”

“We have a track called Redwings which at three places within the song namechecks Stockholm and Oslo and then on the third occasion usually try to throw in the name of whatever place we’re playing at, but it’s got to have two syllables to work properly within the strophic nature of the piece," says Armitage. "I was going to do it for Stapleford but I thought it would sound like a Carry On moment, so I fell back on some Scandinavian location.”

Walters is similarly looking forward to the autumn tour. “I think so, we’re drawing from two albums and several EPs. We know ourselves better than ever before and how to move our audience. We’re very excited.”

The Ultraviolet Age is out now. LYR play at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on September 23.

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