Following the video’s premiere, frontman James Smith and director James Slater join Document to lift the curtain on its surrealist filter
Not all masks conceal faces. For Yard Act’s James Smith, it’s less explicit than that; his mask takes the form of a trench coat—a recurring staple on-stage which helps him step out of Everyday James and into Performing Artist James. The garment proved ripe for contending with those distinct selves, culminating in the band’s latest track, “The Trench Coat Museum.” The Leeds band’s fast-growing fanbase—of which Elton John and Cillian Murphy are ardent members—“left us open to security and disdain just as much as love and appreciation,” Smith said.
In its video version (there are, apparently, a few iterations), the song clocks in at eight minutes, resembling something more akin to a short film than a traditional music video. Director James Slater constructs the titular museum, following a visitor through an audio tour that eventually becomes a dance number. It’s literal and metaphoric, straightforward and surrealist, dotted with Easter eggs that Smith has no intention of spelling out.
For Document, the Jameses meet to unpack the making of “The Trench Coat Museum,” following yesterday’s video release. (Smith—according to his Zoom ID—sometimes goes by Jim. For clarity, we will refer to him in that colloquial manner. Slater will keep the name James.)
Megan Hullander: Where did the concept for the video first come about?
James Slater: [Jim] had created this sort of universe, and I’ve just set that to film, really. I think that you said to me that you thought the video should be like Blade Runner set in Yorkshire.
Jim [James] Smith: Blade Runner meets The League of Gentlemen.
When I originally brought the song to you, your first idea was that we actually build a trench coat museum that’s open to the public.
James: The idea was that it wouldn’t just be a music video—it would be an immersive experience that we’d recreate for the video.
In terms of the creative, it’s very on the nose, really: We built a museum, put the characters James references in the lyrics [inside], and got somebody to walk around it. And then, in the bits without lyrics, there’s dance.
Jim: That’s actually a recurring theme of your work, I think. You always put dancing in. I never considered dancing to be a key part of the visual aesthetic of Yard Act until James got involved. I think ‘Land of the Blind’ is the most obvious [example of that], in that it’s based around a hypnotist making a café of confused people do a dance. But I love the dance. And [‘The Trench Coat Museum’] is the first video where we’ve had professional dancers. Up until that point, we’d just fool people into having a dance— anyone on-set for a Yard Act video might be requested to dance.
Megan: There are ways that the lyrics obviously translate to the narrative of the video, but I wonder where it most departed from your picture of what it might look like when you were writing it.
Jim: On the first album, I had incredibly strong images of people that were reinforced by the videos, but with this, I think it’s lyrically more ambiguous—there’s less storytelling, which gave us a much bigger creative pot to pull from.
It’s centered around me and my own experiences, but it’s put through this sort of surrealist filter. The images were there, but I hadn’t imagined the people, and they all came to life far more vividly than I could have described them.
James: I think that’s quite nice though, isn’t it? Because you’ve got quite an enigmatic lyric, and then the video attempts to connect all of these elusive dots and draw straight lines with them.
Jim: [The video is] such a glorious tapestry of different characters, all unified by an item of clothing. That gets to the core of what the song is about—how we mask ourselves, and that what we choose to wear isn’t necessarily a singular representation of who we are as individuals. In my case, the trench coat has come to symbolize a sort of stage uniform for me to get into the character of James from Yard Act, rather than the James at home.
Megan: Are there ways that you think having that mask—or trench coat—frees you to be more honest or expressive than you might without it?
Jim: Absolutely. I think all great art goes through a filter—but that sounds like I just said it was great art…
I think when you’re aspiring to great art—everyone [who] makes stuff surely is—you can’t say what you’re going to write about or how you’re going to make people feel, because you have no control over that. I’ve reached a point where I can write without understanding [the concept] and process it later. That’s the filter, and that’s the most exciting part. Would you say it’s different with film, James?
James: I’ve done a lot of music videos in my career, and I have relationships where it feels more like I can express myself as an artist. But I’m also a director for hire. Sometimes, you have an instant response to a track or a brief. Other times, you have to sit with it—it’s more of a struggle. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the idea at the end is going to be any weaker. I almost feel a bit dumb for saying it, but for this one, I was like, Let’s just make a trench coat museum, and then worry about how to fill those eight minutes up.
Megan: Eight minutes—by modern standards of music video lengths and attention spans—is fairly long. How did your awareness of that length impact the narrative or concept?
James: Well, originally, it was supposed to be three-and-a-half minutes long. And then [Jim] sent me a really good eight-minute version, and he kept dropping little hints, like, Oh, it’s great.
It’s a proper banger of a song, and we ended up having this sort of warehouse rave at the end, which was a really happy accident.
Jim: Daisy really carries the back end of the song, after the lyrical narrative ends. She plays the lead character who ends up dancing with the models, and she choreographed that dance. I absolutely love what she’s done with it.
Megan: I do feel like, because it’s such a personal song, I would expect there to be a more literal interpretation of the main character as a reflection of you—if it wasn’t going to be you.
James: She was just a natural fit. To be honest with you, I was just out one night saying, ‘This is my idea.’ And she was like, ‘Oh, can I do that?’ Sometimes it’s just like that, isn’t it? You just go, That fits, without really understanding exactly what it was you were looking for. It’s the half-wrong, half-right that I think is really, really beautiful.