“You have to look elsewhere these days forhope,” Dan Smith ponders. The lead singer of British band Bastille is known for his existential musical musings and had previously described their upcoming third album as an “apocalyptic party record” that serves as an antidote to their last. “We wanted to look at escapism,” he explains when quizzed about the phrase. “The album represents shutting the curtains on the apocalypse happening outside. It’s the understanding that it’s not necessarily helpful but distraction is a brilliant tonic.”
The band had been keeping quiet about the highly anticipated Doom Days – until now. “I’m wary of talking about the album too much but I keep chatting about it…” Dan tails off, grinning sheepishly, before diving into an explanation of the record. “It’s quite a personal album. It’s a snapshot of a night but it’s also meant to be about everything at the moment. It’s a natural extension from our last album where it’s reacting to the mad changes in the world and figuring out how to get your head through it. This album’s about a few years later, everything is even more fucked up and strange. It’s about escapism and it’s about trying to lose yourself in the people around you in the night and acknowledging that escapism can be healthy to a point, but it can also be destructive.”
So what’s changed in the two years sinceWild World was released to change the band’s outlook? “There came a point two years in, playing a headlining slot at a festival with this quite intense 1984-esque news media, paranoid production behind us. I just remember standing there with Theresa May in drag mouthing along to a song called ‘Fake It’ and was just like…’fuck,’” Dan recalls, chuckling at the memory. “People come to festivals to have a good time. You want to be engaged but you also want to disconnect for a bit.”
“We also spent the last two and a half years touring an album that was all doom and gloom,” Bastille’s drummer, Chris (Woody) Wood adds. “Now I think we owe everyone a bit of escapism.”
“There’s euphoria on the album but it’s quite a dark record as well. It’s quite nihilistic,” Dan continues. “When I say party – a party for us, because we’re British it’s not champagne popping, it’s house parties, bars, our tour bus, hanging out with our mates and staying up all night. It’s that kind of album. There’s a song called ‘4am’ which is a love letter to your friends and the people around you when you’re off on another planet. You feel so earnestly connected to the people around you, it’s a funny but quite wonderfully naive and ironically pure feeling.”
It’s clear from talking to Dan and Woody from their airport hotel in Philadelphia – it’s not all glamour–that while the band has had so much commercial success (a BRIT award, Grammy, AMA and MTV nominations, four UK Top 5 singles, 15M single sales and 6M album sales worldwide) that creating music is still about having fun. Their most recent mixtape, Other People’s Heartbreak Pt.4, is one of their ways of doing just that. These mixtapes, Dan says, are “a place to experiment with production and nod towards the music that we loved.”
The band sees their albums and mixtapes being split into “two lanes.” “I guess it was a license to do things production-wise or sound wise that you wouldn’t dream of doing in an actual Bastille song,” Woody reveals. “It’s such a fun outlet to have something that has a lot less pressure on it,” Dan adds.
Endearingly, Dan cringes when he’s asked which song on the mixtape is his favorite. “This is probably really embarrassing because I sing most of it,” he begins, “but I really like the cover of ‘Wild World’ because that song for me is so nostalgic. My parents used to listen to Cat Stevens when I was a kid That song for me is almost like a lullaby. It took us covering it for me to really engage with the lyrics. It’s such a beautiful song.”
“It’s ‘Don’t Let Go’ for me,” Woody shares. “I will never not smile about having Craig David on a song that we’re involved with.”
While the majority of the songs on the Other People’s Heartbreak Pt.4 mixtape are captivating covers and vocal-led tracks, “Grip,” featuring Seeb, is a climbing, endlessly-replayable number with an EDM chorus. “This is a theme that runs through all the mixtapes,” Dan explains. “There’s this window of pop music that sounds really upbeat and euphoric but has really sad narratives.”
While this particular track is a lot more dance-focused than we’re used to hearing from Bastille, surprising and delighting their fans is just what they want to achieve. “We want our fans to come with us and enjoy us experimenting and trying different things,” Dan says. “There’s some people who think of us as mixtape makers and some who think of us for our albums. I guess we just embrace that.”
Other People’s Heartbreak Pt.4 features a mixture of collaborations with high profile artists such as Craig David and EUPHORIA. alumnus James Arthur, as well as up-and-comers like Lily Moore. Unlike some artists, who collab based purely on reputation, Dan is keen to assure us that all the collaborations on the mixtape came about “totally organically.”
Bastille originally met Craig – the “nicest dude you’ll ever meet” – at a festival a few years ago. Their remix of En Vogue’s song, “Don’t Let Go” is the second time they’ve teamed up, after Bastille wrote and featured on Craig’s single “I Know You” last year. James’ guest vocals came via a connection with Bastille’s producer, Mark Crew. Music newbie Kianja – who features on three out of seven tracks on the mixtape – was sharing their studio space, and Rationale is on Dan’s record label, Best Laid Plans.
“It’s been really fun working alongside people we really admire and who are amazing, no matterwhether they’re really famous or not,” Dan tells us. “That’s not the point. There’s an element of planning and then the element of whatever the fuck happens.”
Besides his own music creation, Dan is keen to champion the talents of other artists in his spare time. “That’s where the idea for the label came from,” he says. “To encourage and support people we think are amazing. Give them space to record and the facilities to write with other people if they want to, or the ability to put stuff out and give it a bit of a push.”
Assigning Bastille to a certain genre has always been a bit of a struggle for many. One journalist, for example, who interviewed the band when they were first starting out, became so infuriated by Dan refusing to categorize their sound that he proceeded to take a few “verbal swipes” at them.
“That’s the whole point of doing the mixtapes,” Dan says. “Just when people thought we were trying to be an indie band we were like, no. I love The Weeknd, I love House of Balloons and I love Frank Ocean releasing Nostalgia Ultra. Fuck it, we’ll do the same thing. We’ll do it in our own way. It’s grown a life of its own. Going forward, I think Other People’s Heartache will turn into its own artist so it can turn away from Bastille even further.”
It seems that Bastille is most comfortable being undefinable. “Most new artists that come through now don’t seem to give a shit about genre,” Dan continues. “In America, we get played on alternative radio. In some countries, we’re seen as straight-up pop and in others, we’re seen as a rock band. I quite like that we straddle that. I like that we got to put out a depressing acoustic guitar string song for a film in December last year and also a trap song.”
Said trap song is the international hit, “Happier” that Bastille created with EDM superstar Marshmello that almost didn’t happen. Dan revealed that the song, which has over 336M streams on Spotify alone, was originally written for someone else. Luckily, Bastille’s team knew they were onto a winner and didn’t want to let the song go. It was shared with Marshmello, who Dan previously said “managed to find joy in the melancholy,” and after six months of “batting it back and forth,” one of the biggest dance tracks of this year was born.
Bastille is still surprised by the song’s unexpected success today, however, rather than bask in the glow of success, they each used the opportunity to take some much needed time off. Dan traveled India with friends, keyboardist Kyle Simmons explored California, bassist and guitarist Will Farquarson produced a play, and drummer Woody relaxed at home with his family.
“It’s really surreal to be involved in something that’s that big,” Dan marvels. “It’s probably what it feels like to be a proper pop star.” It’s slightly bewildering yet endlessly refreshing to hear that the band don’t see themselves in the same light the rest of the world does. “When people recognize me on the tube in London I probably get about as excited as they do!” Dan laughs. “Things like awards feel like a very surreal thing that happens to other people. We rarely go to award shows but when we do, they feel kinda ridiculous. You just have to enjoy them for what they are.” Dan reveals that he still gets starstruck and “should never be allowed near famous people.” Woody tells a story of how the pair of them ended up “giggling like schoolgirls” when they met actor Steve Coogan and “fucked up the chance to be friends.” But surely they have loads of famous mates? Dan has almost 1.5M followers on Twitter alone. “I don’t have any famous friends!” he exclaims incredulously.
Perhaps it’s the band’s humble beginnings that have kept their feet firmly on the ground throughout their five-year journey. “We went from being a DIY band, literally sleeping on floors and playing shows, which were kinda selling out but we weren’t making anything,” Dan remembers. The band made their first album after work, at the weekends, and through the night, all while holding down different jobs and touring as much as they could. Then, when their album Bad Blood unexpectedly went to number one, it totally changed their lives. Nevertheless, Bastille made a concerted effort to spend time at home whenever they could and stayed out of the spotlight wherever possible in order to retain a sense of normality.
“We turned down judging on talent shows and going to stuff where we’d become those people,” Dan explains. “Not because there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just not what we wanted. So that’s allowed us to have this mad experience of getting to tour the world and having songs on the radio. Then we just go home and do what we want. The fame stuff is not something we care about or think about. As long as we’re lucky enough to make music and people wanna listen to it and we get to tour, that’s all that really matters.”
Besides their burning passion and ever-growing talent, it’s the band’s sweet, humble nature that attracts such a loyal fanbase. This character is reflected perfectly in the pair’s answers when they’re asked what’s the most significant thing they’ve learned so far. “Don’t be a dickhead,” Woody says matter-of-factly. “If you’re a dickhead, you get found out really quickly. There’s a lot of people who haven’t achieved much success but carry themselves as the biggest thing since sliced bread. This industry’s like a giant knitting circle because everyone gossips.”
“It’s not worth being an arsehole,” Dan affirms. “I know it sounds like the most obvious thing but just be nice to everyone. You never know when you’re gonna meet again, who you’re gonna work with them, bump into… It’s not cool to be a prick, it’s just not.” Woody adds, “There are so many bands we’ve met who we looked up to when we were younger like Incubus and Muse, and they’re just so nice. That’s why they’re probably still going.”
Although Dan feels being in a band is a “fucking weird life,” we can’t agree more when he says, “why would you not want to make it as nice an experience as possible?”
Bastille’s latest mixtape Other People’s Heartache Pt.4 is now available. Keep an eye out, their junior album Doom Days due out late Spring 2019.
Article initially published in print, December 2018