Wolverhampton's Oli Burslem reveals personal struggles to get his band YAK's new album out
Wolverhampton's Oli Burslem will be over the moon that his band YAK have just got their second record - Pursuit Of Momentary Happiness - out to the world.
For few albums would have seen its creator’s obsession veer so close to self-destruction in the process of crafting it exactly as he wanted people to hear it.
For singer, guitarist and driving force Burslem, making this album became about pursuing his artistic vision at the expense of all else, including his own financial security and mental health. He invested every single penny into recording to the point where he became homeless and had to sleep in the back of a Citroën estate.
But from adversity eventually blossomed success. And Pursuit Of Momentary Happiness is now out via Jack White's label Third Man Records.
“I don’t want it to be a boo-hoo story,” Burslem said. “It was fun doing it. It’s nice to push yourself to the limit, and I can say now that I don’t give a s*** what anyone thinks because it’s a document of that time. It’s honest and open, and I couldn’t have done or given much more, which is a great feeling.”
The story began after Yak had completed their debut campaign - 2016 record Alas Salvation followed by a bevvy of tour dates and festivals.
After getting snapped up by Rough Trade Management and cutting one of several early EPs for Third Man Records before the album three years ago, Burslem, bassist Andy Jones - Oli’s childhood friend from Wolverhampton - and drummer Elliot Rawson looked to be on an upwards trajectory. But for Oli, the 2016-ending career-high show at London’s Scala felt like an endgame, rather than an achievement to build upon.
“Andy and I had been friends since we were three years old,” he says, “and he was always gonna get married and move away at some point. We didn’t particularly think the band had a future, but then it took off, and it was ace. And after the Scala, there was an opportunity, and some money, to do another record and I really wanted to give it a go.”
Jones did as Burslem said and upped sticks for Melbourne for married life, but after a chance meeting in a pub in Dalston with Jay Watson from Tame Impala’s touring band, Burslem hatched a hare-brained scheme. he planned to convene in Melbourne to rehearse together for 10 days, then move across Australia to lay down album two, on Watson’s invitation, at Tame mainman Kevin Parker’s place in Perth.
“I thought recording would take 10 days,” says Oli, “but it didn’t quite work out that way.”
Things started going off the rails before Burslem and Rawson even got to Australia. Oli decided to go to Tokyo for a month beforehand “for the isolation, to do all the writing”. The first two or three weeks went by in a drunken blur with very little written. And when he reached Oz, things got worse.
“It had become pretty apparent that the three of us in a room bashing chords out, wasn’t really turning me on,” he admits. “That was just going to sound like the first record. It was an eye-opener, like, what are we going to do?”
On the plane back, Burslem ate and drank to excess knowing that when he touched down he had no money, no home, and, worryingly, no album. On arrival, he reduced his possessions down to two hold-alls, and “moved into” his old Citroën, which had no MOT. “It wasn’t ideal,” he admits.
That was February 2017, and he says he has only the sketchiest memories of the next 18 months. Some of the time, fellow musicians would let him crash at their place, like Martin Slattery, once of Joe Strummer’s Mescaleros, and Spiritualized guitarist John Coxon.
Then, after blagging his way into Glastonbury, he found a new bassist in Vinny Davies. They partied for two days straight, then back in London rehearsed together with Rawson for a few weeks, and “things started to get more focussed".
They booked a cheap demo studio, and while in a pub with Coxon, Burslem got chatting to Spiritualized chief Jason Pierce.
“He was like, 'how’s your record?' And I was like, 'it’s non-existent'. I told him we were demoing around the corner, and he was like, 'Oh, I’d love to come and help you out'. I was like, 'Okay!' thinking he wasn’t going to turn up.”
On day two, Pierce proved him wrong and had them rattle through all the band’s songs.
“He was really supportive," Oli said. "I’d been thinking, 'no-one will like this', but he was like, 'No, you’ve got something good here – you should try and record them properly'.”
Burslem was casting around for small change for a tube fare and seeing Oli’s woeful circumstances, Pierce urged him to get a record deal. YAK duly landed up with mighty Virgin-EMI.
“Then it became, 'Right, I can’t f*** this up now'." Oli recalls. "I could’ve tried to house myself, but instead we put it all into recording, and getting a brass section. Then afterwards, I can sort my personal situation out. I probably took on a bit too much.”
Another chance meeting at a party brought Burslem together with Marta Salogni, an Italian producer now based in the UK at RAK Studios in central London.
“We wanted to capture a live element, and in my head, RAK is the best studio to do that," Oli continues. "Let’s just do 10 days there, and get some really good performances of us three playing together.”
In those 10 days, YAK recorded 29 songs, of which 11 ended up on the record. “The songs that went on are the ones I thought fitted together as a consistent story," he says. "Doing the writing, I couldn’t see further than the next day or two, so all the joyous and happier things were momentary, whether it be going out, getting drunk, whatever – no plan of any longevity, so all the songs have that destructive bent. They’re on the edge.”
After the RAK sessions, Burslem withdrew to a small home studio with Pierce to apply some different vocals, and piece the album together. Pierce also added slide guitar and his own vocals.
Burslem believed the album needed a full-scale remix. Everyone involved was advising him to quit while he was ahead, but he flew to New York to mix it. “I just wanted a record with depth, as a piece of audio,” he says, “where you’ll still be finding new bits in 20 years’ time."
Job done, Burslem’s mindset was such that he duly got smashed with a fellow homeless person and, doing a runner from his hotel, jetted home, pockets totally empty.
A few weeks further on, he says he’s happy the album is now done. And as for his personal situated? is it "sorted out"?
“That’d be nice,” he jokes, before adding of his living arrangements: “Only for two weeks. I got told yesterday, I’ve got to move out of my current place.
“I’ll find somewhere…”
YAK's Pursuit of Momentary Happiness is out now via Third Man Recordings. Their latest tour is coming to Birmingham's Castle & Falcon on March 29. For tickets, click here.
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