No up-and-coming band doesn’t want a celebrity fan—especially when that celebrity fan is the notorious music-head and Golden Globe Award-nominated actor Cillian Murphy. After spending his early years touring as the frontman of an experimental rock outfit called The Sons of Mr. Green Jeans, Murphy left the mic behind to pursue a career in TV and film, a trajectory which put the Irish-born actor onto a collision course with with the Leeds-based band Yard Act. James Smith, the post-punk outfit’s lead singer, first crossed paths with Murphy while working as an extra on the third season of Peaky Blinders. In the mayhem between takes, the two interacted, and the experience—unbeknownst to Murphy—has stuck with Smith ever since.
Formed in early 2020, just as the pandemic wiped all possibility of touring off the table, Yard Act—consisting of Smith (vocals), Sam Shjipstone (guitar), Ryan Needham (bass), and Jay Russell (drums)—has nevertheless built an avid following (diehards include Murphy and Elton John) that has eagerly awaited the return of live performances. Last week, the band released its debut LP The Overload—a collection of 11 witty, political, and yet exceedingly danceable tracks—which shot straight to the top of the U.K. charts. Though Murphy no longer performs, the Irish-born actor regularly hosts radio hours on BBC Radio 6 and hosts a podcast about his favorite bands. In the years since his fateful run-in with Smith, Yard Act has made its way onto Murphy’s list. Since neither the actor nor the band appears to be going anywhere, we got Smith and Murphy on the phone to clear the air.
CILLIAN MURPHY: Hi, James!
JAMES SMITH: Cillian! How are you?
MURPHY: That depends. Are we gonna finish this once and for all?
SMITH: Yeah, let’s start with the drama. We can resolve it during this interview. Everyone gets a happy ending. [Laughs.]
MURPHY: You’re gonna have to give me the details of the beef, so that I can see if I can recall it and defend myself.
SMITH: Basically, you pushed me over. It’s not like I went flying—You gave me a good shove though. Let’s just say you were in character. You were Shelby-ing it up. It was a Peaky Blinders scene in an old car factory, and you were letting us workers in the doors. I was the last one that got through, you let one rip pretty hard on my left shoulder. I tumbled headfirst into the factory.
MURPHY: So we have met before, then. We can count that as a first meeting.
SMITH: Is that how you greet all your fans?
MURPHY: I can’t remember it. But I apologize.
SMITH: Oh no, it’s fine. No apology necessary.
MURPHY: How long ago was that? It’s gotta be like, three or four years ago now. Was the band going at this stage? What were you doing then?
SMITH: I was in another band at the time called Post-War Glamour Girls. I was doing lots of extra work in TV, because it paid well.
MURPHY: What other shows might we have seen you in?
SMITH: Forgive me for the ass-kissing, but this is testament to how big a fan of you was. The extras agent always used to send me tons of series opportunities on location, and I never did any of it because I had no interest in traveling. But when the Peaky Blinders opening came up, I had to do it.
MURPHY: Were you well treated? I always worry about the background actors…
SMITH: It was great. And it was just being on a set, that’s big. It’s a world I’d watched unfold for two seasons. I was a fan of the show, so it’s just fun to be on it. You just wrapped up season six, right?
MURPHY: We finished six last June. It should be out some time next month. That’s the final season. Where are you now? Are you guys touring?
SMITH: The album’s out now, so we’re kicking into gear. We’ve gotta postpone all the Europe dates, unfortunately, since moving between countries isn’t really an option. It’s sad, but we’ve got loads of U.K. dates coming up. Then we’ve got North America—the East Coast and SXSW in March. Then the West Coast in April. It’s a pretty busy year.
MURPHY: I had tickets to see you at The Button Factory. I was really looking forward to that gig, but fucking Covid. What’s it been like to get out there and actually play again?
SMITH: It was a massive rush. We began releasing music during the lockdowns, and getting attention on the internet, but we didn’t know if it was real or not. It was getting to the point where we were like, “Yeah, maybe this is just a bedroom project.” We played to empty rooms for years before we started Yard Act, and we’ve been in a pandemic since then. The truth is, when you’ve done that hard slog of playing back to back shows to disinterested crowds, you’re not that excited to get back to it. We had the reverse experience last summer, where we’d somehow built a fan base without having to tour.
MURPHY: Just on the internet?
SMITH: Yeah, yeah, yeah!
SMITH: Last summer’s shows were unbelievable. There’s something about knowing a big crowd is on your side. We stepped out to festivals last summer and there were tents full of people that knew who we were. I mean, they knew half the set! I’m trying to do everything in my power to make sure we don’t go stale performing live, which gets harder and harder. Have you heard the record? Has anyone got it to you?
MURPHY: Not yet, but I’ll buy it on vinyl. I always buy vinyl.
SMITH: It’s nice to know that it’s going to be in your collection. I hope you like it. I’m proud of it. We kind of tried to tell a story on it, from start to finish. I’m looking forward to playing it live.
MURPHY: When did you record it? How did it come together?
SMITH: Early last year. We recorded in Bristol with Ali Chant, who worked with PJ Harvey and Aldous Harding. I had a great relationship with music and with records during the pandemic—I was listening to loads of stuff way more intensely than I had in a few years. Every time I heard something I liked—like Gruff Rhys’ record, Babelsburg—I’d turn it over and see Ali Chant’s name on the back of the record.
MURPHY: Yeah! Love that record. And now you’re signed to Island Records…Holy shit man, no pressure.
SMITH: I mean, it’s not where we thought we’d end up. They got that we were like, “We don’t want to be this ‘post-punk band.’ We don’t want to be boxed in, we’re going to outgrow that label fast.” We said no a few times, and they kept coming back. Eventually we were like, “Let’s roll the dice and see what happens.” So far, it’s been loads of fun. Even little things, like having a budget to make a music video.
MURPHY: They’ve got a pretty incredible roster.
SMITH: Who’s your favorite?
MURPHY: Well, from back in the day, U2. I listened to The Joshua Tree on cassette over and over again growing up. When I put it on now, it still gives me chills. That’s them at their best. That tune, “Bullet The Blue Sky,” freaked me out. Bono has a real character in that song, and it was unlike anything I’d heard before. You guys do that character building so well. I’m sure you’ve heard this question a million times, so forgive me, but what is your process? How long have you been writing lyrics like that? Because they’re brilliantly unique.
SMITH: The process is, I write in a flurry, and then leave it. When I come back, I reshape it, and then the characters form. A lot of the time they come from just goofing around together. Everything I’ve done so far just been about chance. I genuinely feel like I’m getting away with taking the piss.
MURPHY: Can I ask you a question about my favorite song, “Peanuts”? I don’t know if that character is you, or if it’s fictional, but I identify with him strongly.
SMITH: Go on, tell me what you’re identifying with.
MURPHY: I guess it’s about people who use negativity to define themselves. The song got at that idea in an amazingly incisive and funny way. I fucking love it, I love it so much.
SMITH: Thank you. There’s a little bit of me in every song. The fact is, every single one of us has to battle the world inside our own heads. It can feel like a competition sometimes, to have the most problems. That’s something that I wanted to address with that song.
MURPHY: It’s about neurosis a little bit, but it’s done in such a way that it feels quite tolerant. It gives me relief every time I listen to it.
SMITH: I’m really glad that was your favorite. It’s kind of the underdog on the LP in a lot of ways.
MURPHY: The spoken word pieces in those songs…it’s very bold, but it works.
SMITH: It’s my calling card. What are you working on at the moment?
MURPHY: I am prepping a film called Oppenheimer, a Chris Nolan picture. It’s about Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. I’m playing him, so it’s kind of a biopic. So we start that soon. Right now, I’m in the middle of trying to understand quantum mechanics. [Laughs]
SMITH: And how do you feel about quantum mechanics?
MURPHY: Piece of piss.
SMITH: Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s easy isn’t it?
MURPHY: Well, we settled our celebrity beef. I hope to get to see you play live, whenever that will be.
SMITH: All the beef is squashed. I look forward to the next time we bump into each other, Cillian.