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On my radar: James Smith of Yard Act’s cultural highlights

<span>‘The Zone of Interest is a masterclass in film-making’: James Smith, third from left, with Yard Act bandmates Jay Russell, Sam Shipstone and Ryan Needham.</span><span>Photograph: Phoebe Fox</span>
‘The Zone of Interest is a masterclass in film-making’: James Smith, third from left, with Yard Act bandmates Jay Russell, Sam Shipstone and Ryan Needham.Photograph: Phoebe Fox

The lead singer of post-punk quartet Yard Act, James Smith was born in 1990 and grew up outside Warrington. He moved to Leeds for university and plugged away on the local music scene for years, working as a music teacher and support carer. In 2019 he co-founded Yard Act with bassist Ryan Needham; the band became a lockdown sensation with early singles such as Fixer Upper. Their 2022 debut album, The Overload, nominated for a Mercury prize, was described by the Observer as “raucous and fun, incisive and… profoundly heartfelt”. The follow-up, Where’s My Utopia?, is released by Island Records on 1 March. Smith lives in Leeds with his wife and child.

1. Theatre

14% at Contact theatre, Manchester

This is a brilliant one-woman play set during the Women’s World Cup. For the first half, you’re in a train carriage listening to disembodied conversations about class, race and misogyny. In the second half, a mixed-race woman on the same train is having a conversation with her unborn baby. It was really well done. I don’t go to the theatre very often, but I absolutely loved this and I’ve made a pledge to go see more plays – I got a lot more out of this than most gigs I’ve been to in the past year.

2. Film

The Zone of Interest (dir Jonathan Glazer)

This was a life-changing film for me. It’s set in the house of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz. On the surface, it’s about a man dealing with his family and career – he talks with his wife about getting a promotion and how they’re going to be farmers when the war ends, while over the wall you hear a scream or see a plume of smoke. It makes you think about what humans are capable of and the insanity of how it was normalised. The whole thing felt like a masterclass in film-making. They should show it in schools – it’s more impactful than any stark fact could be.

3. Book

The Trespasser’s Companion by Nick Hayes

This is a companion to Hayes’s The Book of Trespass, which tells the history of how Britain lost most of its land to a small number of landowners. This book looks at ways in which we can push back – the first thing Hayes points out is that if you leave someone’s land when you’re asked to, then you can’t be arrested. It’s also got contributions from other people from different backgrounds – there’s a segment on black ramblers and racism in the countryside. Since reading it, I’ve noticed myself straying off the paths a bit more.

4. Album

Balming Tiger: January Never Dies

I heard a tune called Armadillo by this South Korean band last summer. They’re a collective of video directors and producers as well as vocalists and rappers, presented as a more liberated, artistic version of K-pop. I found their music really exciting. It’s a mishmash of genres, flipping between traditional Korean music, black metal and soulful hip-hop, often within the same track. It’s just a great record, and it’s not getting as much attention as it should. My plan for this year is to catch them live – they’re meant to be amazing.

5. TV

The Traitors (BBC One)

This is incredibly addictive telly. Twenty-two people get taken to a castle in the Scottish Highlands. Three are appointed Traitors and they go around “killing” people while trying to avoid being unmasked, which fuels so much paranoia and suspicion. It feels like a microcosm for politics and society in general, where the truth means very little and people are compelled by strong personalities. In the second series that’s just finished, the players were a lot wiser to the game because they’d all seen the first series – there was less naivety and more calculated ruthlessness. It’s really enjoyable.

6. Art

Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook: The Class at Mori Art Museum, Tokyo

I saw this video at a gallery in Tokyo when we were there in December. Rasdjarmrearnsook, a Thai artist, delivers a lecture on death to six unclaimed corpses from the local hospital and asks them questions. I found my head wandering to some really interesting places. Why were these bodies unclaimed? Was using them like this disrespectful? But then in western culture we don’t really deal with death very well, so maybe it’s better to do something like this than to conceal it. The video felt quite profound and unexpectedly funny.

7. Fashion

Aquascutum black trenchcoat

I’m not the fashion one in the band – that’s more Ryan’s thing. When Yard Act started, I borrowed one of his trench coats, an 80s Aquascutum coat with a chequered pattern on the inside. I ended up really liking it and basically didn’t take it off for two years. Recently Ryan clocked that the prices had started rising and he demanded it back, so I got this replacement off Vinted for £90. It’s just a really classic, well-made coat that keeps you warm and hangs nicely. I definitely carry myself differently in it.