On paper, band LYR are something of a motley crew, formed of poet laureate Simon Armitage, multi-instrumentalist and producer Patrick J Pearson and singer Richard Walters. But this eclectic meeting of minds results in an innovative hybrid of poetry and music, blending thought-provoking spoken word, soaring vocals and ambient electronica in the realm of Radiohead and Sigur Ros.
Critically-acclaimed debut album Call in the Crash Team took works of Armitage that had yet to find a home and set them to music, plunging the listener into a collection of perspectives from ten fictional characters suffering personal crises. Now comes new single Winter Solstice, inspired by Prefab Sprout’s track pondering unrequited love Desire As, plus new alt-folk track Redwings, referencing the birds that fly to the UK during cold Scandinavian winters.
Championed by the likes of Radio 6 Music and Jo Whiley, the group had already found an audience pre-lockdown, and have continued to thrive, helped by the fact the trio already work remotely from different corners of the UK, sending tape recordings to and fro. LYR is set for an exciting year spent reconnecting with their growing fan base, with a date at London’s Jazz Cafe and an autumn tour already in the diary.
Speaking to us from his studio in rainy Devon, Pearson told us about how LYR came to be, the ongoing search to find their sound and how they hope to be “match fit” in time for their tour after months of lockdown. He also shared his influences from Talk Talk to Bon Iver to Ben Howard, and why LYR prefer not to overthink things.
Could you kick off with an introduction to LYR: how did this meeting of minds come together and what’s your mission the group?
It’s a good question! We were talking about it for so long. Richard, I’d been working with for a while with some separate projects. And I’d met him through some friends and we were working in a band and he kind of – just on the side, at Reading Festival actually – went, “Oh by the way, I’ve got this kind of like this idea with Simon Armitage. Would you like to produce it?”, and I thought, “That would be fantastic, I would love to do that,” and then heard nothing for maybe another year. And then he was like, “I think we should get that project on the go,” and we met Simon in London, I think very briefly – that was the first time that I met him – and we kind of just kept correspondence really. And then it wasn’t until we sent a tape recorder up to him, another year passed and it came back with some poetry. And then we started putting it together, I’d just moved studios, I was still working full-time in other jobs at that point. So it was just as-and-when really, remotely. And here we are now! And I think that the LYR vision is still very young, so it’s hard to say. We just are “being” at the moment.
These last 15 months have been turbulent and challenging for everyone, but particularly for musicians. Have you been feeling creative? What has this period been like for you as a group?
I mean for us as a group I think we’ve been able to still work. We do well remotely. We do well because the nature of the whole project has been remote working anyway, just because we live in three separate parts of the UK. And luckily I have studios as well, so we’ve been able to keep an output; we’ve been able to keep creative I guess. There’s been ups and downs, but I guess that’s just been with the flow of the whole year. The biggest point has been the fact that we’ve not been able to tour the record – but I guess everybody’s in the same boat. So we’re just really lucky to have been able to work, and I think some people found themselves in a more difficult situation. But yeah, apart from the touring, we managed to keep writing. Quite hard actually! We’ve written a lot, so we’ve kept those musical burners on.
That’s impressive! Can you tell us a bit about the genre your output might fit into? Is it complicated to navigate moving from classical and jazz through to sung poetry? How does that all come together for you?
I think where we’re sitting seems like where we’d always aimed to be. I mean… we’ve had an incredible response at Radio 6 Music and and Radio 2’s Jo Wiley’s been really singing our praises individually, as well as LYR as a band. So I think in terms of radio, that was where we’d have loved to have been. I think it suits our sound, perhaps our integrity, creatively. I guess to put us into brackets, I’d like to think that the fact that we are all three different generations of members – like, we didn’t grow up together, you know, we’ve all listened to separate different music – and so I think that maybe our challenge is to actually just find that happy medium within it. And it’s nice to see other spoken word records coming through and flying a flag for more of that. I know that Dry Cleaning have had a really wonderful uptake in that world of more spoken word artistry. Kate Tempest, as well, has done incredibly well with words being the forefront of the music. I think Simon is slightly different for us, and Simon has come from a reputation of words and not necessarily music. And I think we just pieced together how we were always going to work – we didn’t overthink things. But we did try very hard to create each piece having its own voice for the moment. We have ideas about how an album should sound and how it should look. But I think, when each piece is so individual within its own language, it needs its own treatment, and maybe if that’s like sort of strange jazz-esque tones coming in, or more folk elements – things like that. I guess you can’t help but go with the words, especially on the first record. I think we’ve been writing new material knowing what the project is now, and knowing what the project is means that we can play around with the way that we work remotely. So we can send things to Simon for instance and he writes into that, or I message him and say, “Look, I’ve got this idea for a piece, what do you think?”, and then he writes something, and vice versa. So it’s not all just come from him and then we’ve put music to it – it’s a lot more back-and-forth now. I guess to answer the question, I’d like to think that we’re a mixture of post-rock and definitely a band. I think, first and foremost, we want to be playing live, and we want to be a band, and Simon wants to get up and be the voice of the band – and that’s about as far as it goes at the moment.
And he’s the current poet laureate – how does this sit alongside the other stuff he does?
I mean he’s incredibly busy. I think what’s been really apparent is people are realising that he’s now a part of a band. So we’ve been asked to do quite a lot of things regarding us as a band but that come through his sort of prestige as a poet and being poet laureate. So I think people are realising that the world of poetry can feed into the music side of things. We’re being asked to do some really interesting artistic curated festivals, rather than just the bog-standard music festivals. There’s some arts-based things that we’re being asked to do, and some commission work that is floating around. So there’s lots of ideas that I think he’s bringing to the table through his world, but also we’re opening up opportunities for him as well. I guess touring’s always going to be a bit difficult because he’s also got to do a lot of work separately to us. But, I mean, he’s always said that he’s dedicated to the band. So yeah, we’re definitely going to be making lots more records. We’re definitely in agreement on that.
Your debut album, Call in the Crash Team – could you speak a little bit about that title and the meaning behind the album?
Yes, love to. So I guess the title – we felt that each piece was maybe a voice to a certain character being in a moment of crisis at a certain point; whether that’s a childhood romance or whether it’s a loss of someone or it’s psychological or physical, there’s an element of like crises around these around each piece, kind of unintentionally, because of the nature of how that record was made. We were just given these poems and there were a lot of poems that Simon hadn’t found homes for especially. He had them always in the back of his mind, thinking that they would translate quite well to music. So I guess they were kind of hand-picked lyrical ideas that Simon had given us. So Call in the Crash Team was a line taken from Zodiac T-shirt, and we felt that it kind of represented the record. We really liked the idea of using a line from one of the pieces, and that one just seemed to sum up not just the language in it but the point where – certainly we had no idea that there was going to be a global pandemic when writing that – but it seemed to be a reflection of the point when it was released, which was in July last year. So I think it may well have struck some chords with other people within the very nature of that and the time of its release really.
One of your new tracks, Winter Solstice, was actually inspired by another track, Desire As. Could you tell us about that? Does it quite often happen that other tracks will inspire or provide the first spark of an idea for your own records?
That one was interesting because Simon offered up this piece, made a little voice recording of it and said, “Look, I’ve written this.” It was probably one of the first pieces that he’d written for the band, rather than as a poem and then offered it up, so I think that was really quite special. And he lifted this line from Prefab Sprout – and was very open about that – and that’s how Wendy Smith from Prefab came on board. We needed to make sure that it was okay for us to use the line and they felt that it was an homage to the work that they’d done, which is amazing! Like, they were really, really into it. So we had the poetry piece and then I had this old demo that I’d written a long, long time ago. I think it was when Richard and I were working remotely and we had this idea of writing that guitar line, and I put it down and forgot about it for years, and then kind of rekindled it and put Simon’s piece to it. And it just seemed to work instantaneously. And then we sent it to Richard and he just put that phenomenal chorus onto it and sent it back and it was like, “That’s great! Yeah, we’ll keep that!”. So I guess it was quite quick to put together, really, to be honest. Recording took longer – mixing took quite a long time – but I think it was just the nature of the situation at that point. But yeah, we’re really, really happy about that track, and I think it was the first release where we feel that we’ve really understood what the band is capable of doing and where we want to be.
Can you also tell us a bit about the genesis of Red Wings, your other new single?
Sure. So we had some limited studio time, we just knew that we wanted to get another track together. Red Wings was a piece that Simon had read. Before lockdown, we were in the the Mercury KX offices and they asked him to do a reading, and he read this piece and we thought, “It’s such a beautiful piece, perhaps we could put into the live set, just as a brand new thing to keep us on our toes and we’ll just make some music around it.” So we played two versions of it, both completely different because we were essentially just experimenting around this piece live, which was great and we really loved how that worked. And so we tried to recreate what we’d done on stage in the studio – so it’s kind of a backwards way of doing things. I guess most of the time you probably do something in the studio and go out and do it live, but we did it the other way around. And we wrote a bit more, but we didn’t want to write too much. We wanted to leave it quite open. So Mike, the drummer, was in one room, we were in another room, and we didn’t have a click track or anything – we just let it go. We’re very inspired by the Talk Talk records Laughing Stock and Spirit of Eden. They really inspired us to want to explore that track. It’s very different from Winter Solstice, but I think that that’s okay.
And talking about playing live, you’ve got this gig coming up at the jazz cafe. An actual live gig! How does the prospect of that feel to you right now?
Er… nervous excitement! I think, like everybody. I think we’re all gonna feel like that, right? So I think it’s going to be incredible. Not just because it’ll be the first time that we’ll be in a room for a whole year just as a band, but the whole audience as well! I think it’s going to be incredibly emotional for everybody and I think I’m just trying to get myself prepared for that. And also I guess the fact that we haven’t been able to do any of these songs live for a year now – I really hope that we can kind of dust ourselves off and get back into match-fit mode. But I can’t wait really. I’m just excited to see what people’s response is to the album. We have no idea how it’s translated to other people, and that’s probably the most excitement that I could possibly ask for. We’ll see.
Have you found that people have really connected from home to the kind of music you make? It’s quite transcendent – do you think it might be different being at home, listening to it on headphones, to actually being in the room with you performing live?
I think they’re two quite unique experiences. It’s hard for me to say, I mean personally I’m just concentrating on making sure I’m playing the best that I could possibly play. There’s a lot of things going on that I’m trying to pull out live to try and recreate the record. But I don’t think you can ever get close to the energy that you’ll find live. If you’re listening on headphones, it’s one experience; I think the live experience – we’re understanding that – we’ve only done two shows, but we managed to do some socially distanced live versions of the songs in the summer, and we just realised how energetic some of these tracks are, and how they can really translate in a live sense more than we ever realised they could until we played them live. So I hope that people get that when they see it live – it’s not just a sit-down gig. It’s not full jazz! I think there’s some get-up and there’s a bit of movement. I hope.
In terms of your own influences, which artists you might pick out? Are there other artists around at the moment who you think are doing something particularly innovative?
I mean, like I said, Talk Talk records, and Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine – there’s a world there that we can all find our own tastes overlap, shall we say, in that realm of music. Personally, for me, though, the last record I fell in love with was with Nicholas Jar as a producer – like that electronics manipulation – it might not be apparent on the record, but it was a massive influence for me. And the Bon Iver records. And then, recently, I mean – I’m a Devon boy, so I’m gonna go with Ben Howard’s latest record. It’s just utterly sublime, and his last one was as well. I just think the fact that he’s just left the world where he started and where he is now – I’m in awe. A lot of friends I know are playing his band, and I just think that what he’s doing is incredible. So yeah he’s a massive influence. I think just creating new worlds for songs – but that’s me, personally. I know Simon’s a bit more into The Fall and stuff like that – you know, cooler than me, but that’s what my influences are!
What does the rest of the year look like for you guys and for you personally? Have you got other projects ongoing? Are there going to be more shows?
Absolutely, yeah. So we’re releasing Red Wings today [14th May]; we’ve got some singles out, which is amazing; we have a tour coming up in October, which we’re incredibly excited about as well. It’s going to be really lovely to actually be on the road and playing some shows back-to-back, actually. So that happens in October. Hopefully there’ll be more happening. I guess there’s a lot floating about, but it’s really hard to get any confirmations quite yet. Things like festivals – we have a couple confirmed and we’ll probably be announcing them quite soon. However, personally, for me, I think we’ve got plenty of work to be getting on with for the next releases. I’m also really, really busy down in the studios – because if people can’t tour, they just want to be in the studios recording records. So I’m running studios here and I’m a producer of some stuff as well, so it’s really busy. I’m overwhelmed, but hopefully I can get out and see how the veggies are doing in the garden, and do some walking and hopefully see my family as well – you know, that’d be nice!
And, in general, are you feeling pretty optimistic about the industry?
Yeah, I think I’m just an optimist in general anyway, so I don’t think music’s going to disappear. I think we’re going have to find innovative new ways of being able to do these things – like recording remotely has become such a norm, and I do Zoom writing sessions and stuff. But I think like there’ve been some people really hard hit… like in the touring world, there were like, you know, technicians, venue promoters and all the people working backstage, I think have found it incredibly difficult. We missed our team and we’re really looking forward to having them back on the road and be playing some shows with them, because it’s family. We’ve only done a couple of shows but the people that I’ve worked with, I’ve worked with for a long time, so it’s important to make sure that we are bouncing back and we are getting the shows in. I think it will happen, I’m fully optimistic!
By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on 28th May 2021.
For further information about LYR and future events visit here.