Simon Armitage, center, with fellow LYR band members Richard Walters and Patrick Pearson
It may seem strange to have asked the holder of a prestigious royal office dating back to Ben Johnson in 1616; but, in Armitage’s case, with her floppy bangs, earring and long association with music via regular radio appearances over the years, it’s surely not unreasonable.
He speaks to me today in his other official role – as the frontman of the arty three-part ambient rock band LYR.
“I had fantasies about being in bands because when I was younger it meant everything,” says Simon. “It was the tribe you belonged to, the code you spoke in, and that never really changed in the sense that music is so important to me.
“I never apologized about it. I feel very comfortable in this area.
“The history of poetry is very much integrated into the history of music. They probably share the same roots, but a lot of poets I know perform with musicians or are musicians who write song lyrics. I don’t don’t see them as separate in any way.”
LYR – an acronym for Land Yacht Regatta – are Armitage, 59, spoken word specialist, producer and multi-instrumentalist Patrick J Pearson, and vocalist 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, much like Sheffield Ski Village.”
He early called his own work “frontless”, and there has always been rhythmic musicality in Armitage’s best poetry, internal half-rhymes on subjects as poetically outlandish as Poundland, goalkeepers smoking cigarettes and clitoris.
Poet Laureate Simon Armitage
Simon, who quit his job as a probation officer at 30 to become a full-time poet, grew up in the West Riding of Yorkshire village of Marsden, where his family still lives.
His favorite band was The Smiths and he first caught the attention of music fans via regular appearances in the 90s on Radio 1’s popular late night show Mark & Bacon.
Since then he has become festooned with 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-winning “concert” from Dame Carol Ann Dufy in 2019.
None of the honorary degrees, a CBE, a Novello, and of course a slew of books, translations, TV and radio scripts, yet tempted Armitage into an ivory tower.
He is one of the few poets whose work appeals as much to scholars as to those who rarely read.
He carried his word in factories, schools, prisons and hospices.
He is also the first Poet Laureate to moonlight as a DJ. “I’ve never been satisfied with the idea that poetry only lives in books,” he says.
So when he started LYR three years ago, it wasn’t as if Sir John Betjeman had suddenly discovered one in the Glastonbury techno tent. Simon Armitage has always had a rock’n’roll heart.
LYR’s latest 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 of 357 towns and County Durham villages do not have an economically viable future and should therefore be starved of further public funding.
Bitter decades-long battles ensued as villages were branded as slums and neighborhoods were wiped off the map.
“As soon as I was told the story, I knew it was what I wanted to write about. I was born and raised in a village, I still live there, so it appealed to me. talked a lot.”
The work is the result of a Durham Brass Festival commission to write a suite of music to be performed at the festival on Friday.
It included a request to incorporate the use of traditional marching band music into the mix.
Simon says: “Growing up, marching bands were really important. They had been a soundtrack in my life along with choirs and male choirs.
“The challenge was how to turn something potentially quite nostalgic and sometimes a little syrupy sometimes and find the best of that and combine it with what we do musically.”
In collaboration with Simon Dobson – “high in the brass world and a good friend” – the results are extremely moving; especially the brass – unearthed from the past and made alive again.
First, however, 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 scouted out, going to the few remaining villages. “I was able to talk to people who lived in category D villages, which was absolutely vital.
“I’ve heard a lot of different stories about how since they were categorized their village has struggled to escape that identity.”
The music features recordings made as locals showed them around, including a moving moment when a woman from Grange Villa told them, “It’s worse now than it was when it was category D.”
Marsden and Addison, which they also visited, had been completely demolished – inspiring some of the darkest moments in an album of dark, cold clouds descending.
“There are certainly elements of elegology and commemoration in there,” acknowledges Armitage.
“Some of the moods of the songs have a melancholy about them. The marching band brings that with it. But they’re also celebratory, when a few tracks get revved up and the bass kicks in.
“We try to invoke the sonic and verbal aspects of pride because one of the reasons most of these communities managed to continue to exist was simply because of the bloody spirit.
“People don’t like being told to move on.”
“Aside from the politics of the time, it’s a universal constant that we form very strong attachments to the upbringing and memories we have there, and people rightly resist what they are bulldozed.
“We all recognize what it’s like to be from a small town or a village, which has various institutions at its heart like a marching band or a library and – is on the move.
“It was not at all a difficult subject for us to sympathize with. The really interesting thing about brass bands is that they are so often at the center of these communities, playing instruments that have been passed down for generations, and people will be self – And that seems to me something to be cherished, because the gangs in the villages that were bulldozed, they’ve also disappeared.
“I like the word you used – ‘unearthed’ – because one of our songs, Alchemy, is about turning archeology and geology into a metal – brass – which then emits sound, which comes out of the someone’s breath.”
He continues, “These values of community are always worth reinforcing. We live in a world that is changing very quickly and I’m interested in change. I’m not comfortable with the idea of us sitting still. . are
H certain values that should be assumed whatever the evolution of the world. We’re trying to put some stake in the ground with these songs in a context where everything feels so volatile.”
The festival appearance in Durham Cathedral features all three members of LYR, along with additional players and the Durham Marching Band.
“We’ve never done this in a cathedral let alone with a marching band,” says Armitage. “We want it to be as spectacular as possible. I want to wear one of those marching 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 perform at Durham Cathedral on Friday as part of the Durham Brass Festival. More information here: brassfestival.co.uk