With debut album ‘Bad Blood’ Bastille quietly became one of the biggest – but most anonymous – indie bands on the planet. But as Dan Stubbs meets them, in the week their new album is announced and the UK’s wheels fall off, it seems singer Dan Smith has found his voice.
Dan Smith from Bastille is just like you, really. He lives in a house share. He listens to Serial. He can’t wait for the new Frank Ocean album. He enjoys nothing more than hanging out with his mates. But Dan has found a doorway into a parallel world – one of BRIT Awards, Grammy ceremonies and arena tours, one where your idol, director David Lynch, calls you up for a remix (2013’s ‘Are You Sure’), and where a fan who works at NASA invites you to a space launch (“F**king awesome, because we’re all minor space geeks,” says Dan).
Formed as Smith’s solo project in 2010 and fleshed out to a full band by the time of 2013 debut album ‘Bad Blood’, Bastille styled themselves as the guitar band who don’t play guitars. At a time when guitar bands were less fashionable than ever, their bombastic aural onslaught and OTT pop tunes proved to be a winning formula. In the UK, ‘Bad Blood’ was the fastest selling digital album of that year. In the US, where the ubiquitous single ‘Pompeii’ was a surprise hit, they sold more than five million records by the end of 2014. Since then, the London-based group’s ascent up festival bills has been inexorable, and their effect on the shifting tide of popular music palpable. Tellingly, when out-in-the-cold indie bands Embrace and The Wombats made their respective 2014 and 2015 comeback albums (‘Embrace’ and ‘Glitterbug’) it was with a sound lifted wholesale from Bastille’s dynamic of booming choruses and euphoric rushes. Not that Dan would admit it – he’s full of humility at the mere suggestion. “I don’t think we’re arrogant enough to ever assume that we have influence,” he mumbles. “I guess we’re not quite fully engaged with the impact that our first album had, if any…”
Poised to release their second album in September, Dan Smith and his three mates – drummer Woody, bassist Kyle Simmons and keyboard player Will Farquarson – find themselves among the world’s biggest acts, whether they admit it or not. What’s more, alongside The 1975, Bastille are the leaders of a new generation rewriting the rules of what it means to be a band; not the bravado, machismo and excess of the ’90s lot; not the studied cool of the 2000s group, but something more human. Noel Gallagher has said that he’d have “eaten Bastille alive – one interview, destroyed, gone”. More than anything, it highlights a generational difference: “destroying” rivals in interviews is of no interest to Bastille’s generation. Smith ponders the quote. “I think that’s just old-fashioned clickbait, isn’t it?”
We meet the band today in a photo studio in North London. Bastille are in their usual sombre uniform of black clothing with the odd splash of white, but the mood is jubilant. The photo shoot is timed so Will and Woody can disappear off to the pub to watch England win 2-1 against Wales, and Dan will soon head off on a mini-tour of radio stations to debut the band’s long-awaited new track ‘Good Grief’ to the group’s baying fans. “I can’t wait,” he says. “The best thing is for people to hear it.”
As comeback singles go, ‘Good Grief’ is an odd one: a cheerful, brass-infused, art-pop song about coping with loss. “I guess we’re always drawn to the darker side of the human psyche, and we straddle this line between euphoria and introspection and self-doubt,” says Dan. “I wanted to write about how bizarre grief and loss are – the layers of depression, shock and euphoria, how mad that process can be. I hope it will make people feel good.”
For someone who’s historically avoided all appearances in videos and artwork, this promo – which has Dan as a disembodied, singing head – is unusual too. “Lip synching in a video is usually my idea of hell,” he says. It taps into some of the unwillingness to play along with pop clichés that provides much of Bastille’s tension. “I’ve never been interested in diarising my life through song,” he’ll later say. “So much stuff has been done before. So many people have brilliantly articulated the pain of heartbreak or the joy of love or whatever. Those elements exist in our music but I guess I strive to write about unconventional things instead.”
‘Good Grief’ is the first official single from ‘Wild World’, the group’s second album, and one that looks set to consolidate two strands to their career. Parallel to the group’s official albums and singles, Bastille have, since their early days, been releasing a series of mixtapes titled ‘Other People’s Heartache’ which now stretches to three volumes. Inspired by Dan’s love of hip-hop culture, they include guests (Haim, Kate Tempest, Angel Haze), samples, covers and mash-ups, like their hit single ‘Of The Night’, which splices Corona’s ‘Rhythm Of The Night’ with Snap’s ‘Rhythm Is A Dancer’. “The mixtapes are for, like, meshing together music and films we love, just these sort of mind melts,” explains Dan.
This time, ‘Wild World’ tries to find the middle ground between those mixtapes and their original work, which presented its own problems. “When we started making mixtapes, we were just ripping stuff off YouTube and DVDs, naïvely thinking that because we were putting it up for free it was gonna be fine. And then after the seventh legal threat we were like, ‘F***, this is getting tricky.’” Doing things the legit way has led to some interesting hook-ups: ‘Good Grief’ samples actress Kelly Le Brock in ’80s teen movie Weird Science; when they tracked her down, she offered to appear on stage with them in future. “She was like, ‘I’ll be there at the drop of a hat,’” says Dan. “And we were like, ‘What?!’ Um, so yeah, I mean, that might happen…”
‘Bad Blood’ often rooted its lyrics in fiction, ‘Pompeii’ imagining what it would be like in the Roman city while Mount Vesuvius exploded, ‘Laura Palmer’ taking inspiration from the cult TV series Twin Peaks, ‘Icarus’ recalling the Greek myth. ‘Wild World’ still sees the band picking from a lofty range of cultural influences (the track ‘Send Them Off’ is described by Dan as being “about irrational jealousy in a relationship but filtered through Desdemona and Othello and The Exorcist imagery,” obviously) – but it also sees them connecting more with harsh reality, and specifically the fallout from social media and 24-hour rolling news coverage. As Dan explains about the song ‘Warmth’: “It’s about that feeling of panic and of helplessness and how that’s now part of everyday life. As a human being, how do you react to that? Do you try to engage with it? Do you bury your head in the sand? Do you go get drunk? And, in the context of all of that, I think the things that make life generally awesome are other people and our relationships and humour.”
There is, of course, plenty of news. Two days ago, Bastille played an event hosted by the model, actress and activist Lily Cole aimed at encouraging young people to vote in the upcoming EU referendum, which takes place a week after our first meeting. The event is a good-natured affair, not telling people to vote a particular way.
So why sit on the fence?
“I know it frustrates people but we’ll never get drawn on putting our opinions out there because, you know, we love making music and weird little things,” says Dan. “We obviously have views on everything – politics and everything in between – but there can be something really embarrassing about musicians being overtly political, particularly if they don’t know what they’re talking about.” “I feel so fraudulent trying to make people go to vote because I’m just a dick in a band,” says Kyle.
Eight days later, the group are singing from a different hymn sheet. It’s Friday June 24, and Glastonbury festival has awoken to a murky day and a weird new Britain. The results of yesterday’s referendum are in: we’re leaving the EU.
Dan, who is staying on-site with his housemates, one of whom campaigned for Remain, awoke to the sound of a friend crying over the news. Dan’s “gutted and shocked,” he says. Within a few hours, the band make an appearance on the BBC, during which he changes the lyrics of ‘Pompeii’ to, “The pound kept tumbling down on the weekend that we love.” “It’s so small and insignificant us doing that, but we couldn’t not react. It’s the only thing anyone wants to talk about today,” says Dan. “I was hoping to be on stage and be like, ‘We’re still part of Europe!’ But that daydream is over.”
While he wasn’t going to mention it before, Dan now reveals there’s a song on the new album, ‘The Currents’, inspired by the rise of maddening populists like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. “It’s about hearing people using the platform they have to say something you find abhorrent, and just wanting to escape,” he says. “The song uses the imagery of wanting to come up for air to get away from it.”
Brexit is a dark cloud hanging over what should be a celebratory occasion for the band. To say Bastille love Glastonbury is an understatement. The band have taken the weekend off so they can party with impunity once they’ve played their set, and as we speak, Dan is itching to get off to see Parisian art-poppers Christine And The Queens. You can’t tell if he’s more excited about playing at Glastonbury or just being here. “Just coming in on a tour bus this year was weird, because I associate coming to Glastonbury with being in a rammed car with my friends and schlepping stuff miles across the field. So it was nice,” he says.
Eight hours later, behind the scenes at The Other Stage where Bastille are about to play the penultimate slot, all focus is on the job at hand. We see them backstage, huddled together, bouncing with nervous energy. The show is a triumph, the kind of sundown Glastonbury set that cements a band’s place in Pilton legend – even if, as Dan tells us after, he suffered an anxiety attack halfway through that, while undetectable from the crowd, was difficult to wrestle under control. It’s something he’d spoken about back in London. “I’m definitely not as crippled with anxiety and nerves as I was at the beginning, but if you’re not an extrovert and you’re not someone that just desperately wants attention, being up on stage in front of people that you don’t know – and doing something as ridiculous as singing f**king songs – there’s something really, like, anxiety-provoking about that.”
We bump into Dan a final time 32 hours later. It’s 5am on Sunday, he’s wearing thick-rimmed glasses, the sculptural fringe has wilted and there’s glitter on his face. He’s surrounded by friends, he looks like he hasn’t been to bed since Friday and he’s blissfully happy. Dan Smith, then – just like you, in lots of ways.