Simon Armitage, centre, with fellow LYR band members Richard Walters and Patrick Pearson
It may seem an odd thing to have asked the holder of a prestigious royal office stretching all the way back to Ben Johnson in 1616; but, in Armitage’s case, with his floppy fringe, hoop earring and long association with music via regular radio stints over the years, it’s surely not unreasonable.
He is speaking to me today in his other official capacity – as the frontman of the arty three-piece ambient-rock outfit LYR.
“I had fantasies about being in bands because, when I was younger, that meant everything,” Simon explains. “It was the tribe that you belong to, the code you spoke in, and it’s never really changed in the sense that music is so important to me.
“I’ve never been apologetic about that. I feel very comfortable in that area.
“The history of poetry is very integrated with the history of music. They probably share the same roots, but lots of poets I know either perform with musicians or are musicians who write song lyrics. I don’t see them as being separate in any way.”
LYR – an acronym for Land Yacht Regatta – are 59-year-old Armitage on spoken-word poetry, producer and multi-instrumentalist Patrick J Pearson, and singer Richard Walters.
The bizarre name came about, “because we all live in three different places in the UK,” he says. “Land Yacht Regatta seemed like an interesting three-way contradiction, a bit like Sheffield Ski Village.”
He framed his own work early on as “no brow”, and there has always been a rhythmic musicality about Armitage’s best poetry, internal half-rhymes on subjects as outside the poetical norm as Poundland, goalkeepers smoking cigarettes and the clitoris.
Simon, who quit his job as a probation officer at 30 to become a full-time poet, grew up in the village of Marsden, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where his family still live.
His favourite band were The Smiths and he first came to the attention of music fans via regular appearances in the 90s on the popular late-night Radio 1 show Mark & Lard.
Since then, he has become festooned in awards and accolades elected Oxford Professor of Poetry in 2015 the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2018 He took over the 10-year laureate “gig” from Dame Carol Ann Dufy in 2019.
None of the honorary degrees, a CBE, a Novello, and of course a great many books, translations, TV and radio scripts, have tempted Armitage to relocate to an ivory tower, however.
He’s one of the few poets whose work appeals equally to scholars and those who rarely read.
He has taken his words into factories, schools, prisons and hospices.
He’s also the first poet laureate to moonlight as a DJ. “I’ve never been satisfied with the idea that poetry just lives in books,” he says.
So, when he put LYR together three years ago, it wasn’t as if Sir John Betjeman had suddenly turned up on one in the techno tent at Glastonbury. Simon Armitage has always had a rock’n’roll heart.
The latest LYR EP – Firm As A Rock We Stand – is out now. There is also a documentary: Firm as A Rock We Stand: A Commemoration and Celebration of County Durham’s Category D Villages – based on the true story of how, in 1951, local authorities decided that 121 out of 357 towns and villages in County Durham did not have an economically viable future, so should be starved of further public funding.
Bitter, decades-long battles ensued as villages were labelled slums and neighbourhoods wiped from the map.
“As soon as I was told the story, I knew that was what I wanted to write about. I was born and grew up in a village, I still live in one, so it spoke to me very strongly.”
The work is the result of a commission from Durham Brass Festival to write a suite of music to be performed as part of the festival on Friday.
It included a request to weave the use of traditional brass band music into the mix.
Simon says: “Growing up, brass bands were really important. They’d been a soundtrack in my life along with choirs and male voice choirs.
“The challenge was how to transform something potentially quite nostalgic and occasionally a bit syrupy sometimes and find the best of that and combine it with what we do musically.”
In collaboration with Simon Dobson – “high up in the brass world and a good friend” – the results are exceedingly moving; particularly the brass – exhumed from the past and made alive again.
First, though, came the words. Armitage did his first degree in Geography. Sense of place and real people define his best work. So he and the guys went on a reccy, driving to the few remaining villages. “I was able to speak to people who lived in Category D villages, which was absolutely vital.
“I heard lots of different stories about the way that, since they were categorised, their village had struggled to escape that identity.”
The music features recordings made as local people showed them around, including a moving moment where a woman from Grange Villa tells them: “It’s worse now than what it was when it was Category D.”
Marsden and Addison, which they also visited, had been completely demolished – inspiring some of the bleakest moments of an album of cold black clouds coming down.
“There are definitely elements of elegy and commemoration in there,” Armitage agrees.
“Some of the atmospheres of the songs have a melancholy about them. The brass band brings that with it. But they’re celebratory as well, when a couple of the tracks rev up and the bass kicks in.
“We’re trying to invoke sonic and verbal aspects of pride because one of the reasons why most of these communities managed to continue existing was just through bloody-mindedness.
“People don’t like being told to move on.”
“Aside from the politics of the era, it’s a universal constant that we form very strong attachments to do with upbringing, and the memories that we have there, and people are rightly resistant to having them bulldozed away.
“We all recognise what it is to be from a small town or village, which has various institutions at its heart like a brass band or a library and – is on.
“It wasn’t a difficult subject for us to sympathise with at all. The really interesting thing about the brass bands is that they are so often in the centre of these communities, playing instruments handed down for generations, and people will be self-taught. And that strikes me as something to be cherished, because the bands in the villages that were bulldozed, they disappeared as well.
“I like the word you used – ‘exhumed’ – because one of our songs Alchemy is about transforming archaeology and geology back into a metal – brass – that then makes a sound, which comes out of somebody’s breath.”
He goes on: “Those values of community are always worth reinforcing. We’re living in a very fast-changing world, and I’m interested in change. I’m not comfortable with the idea that we just sit still. But there are
H certain values that should be taken on however much the world changes. We are trying to put a bit of a stake in the ground with these songs in a context when everything seems so volatile.”
The festival appearance in Durham Cathedral features the three LYR members, plus additional players and the Durham Brass band.
“We’ve never done this in a cathedral let alone with a brass band,” says Armitage. “We’re aiming for it to be as spectacular as it possibly can. I want to wear one of those brass band costumes.” I think he means uniforms. Still no groupies then.
- LYR’s EP – Firm As A Rock We Stand – is out now. The band will be performing at Durham Cathedral on Friday as part of Durham Brass Festival. More information here: brassfestival.co.uk