Not dancing but drowning
The future is unwritten. This bittersweet fact leaves us living in fear, leading us to close in on all that we know for that anchoring of familiarity. Just look at the political climate – it's a push and pull between those aching for change, and those yearning for the 'good old days' to return.
But as each day brings new surprises – be they joyous or turbulent – some people seem to be able to determine their narrative without allowing any nonsense to get in the way. Bastille fall firmly into this category.
Having appeared out of the blue in 2013 with their thunderous anthem “Pompeii”, it seems that – in the time between now and then – a lot has most certainly changed. "I remember when our first album (Bad Blood) came out," frontman Dan Smith recalls. "I can't remember the statistic because obviously, it's boring as shit, but it's something about it being the first album that was at number one that had a bigger share of iTunes album sales than it did of physical … or an equal share? Six years later…iTunes has just shut itself down." He says. "It doesn't exist anymore! That's so mad."
Today I've met with Smith in one of the meeting-cum-break-out rooms of the band's label near Kings Cross. Out of the window behind him, London bustles about in the summer rain, attacking the paved streets below.
Musings on his band's place in both industry and the world at large seem to roll naturally from Smith's tongue. We're here to discuss Bastille's upcoming third album, Doom Days, a confident step forward in both sound and execution for the four-piece. On their second album 2016's Wild World, the band got political, though not with any explicit intention. Self-describing it as "sprawling and expansive, and also open-ended", the album came to be as the world began a series of self-implosions, bending reality into a warped new timeline that continues to send shockwaves around Western society. This discourse even tried to attach itself onto my chat with Smith today: en route to the interview, the band's PR emails to tell me their schedule of promo has been thrown into chaos thanks to Trump's state visit.
Fortunately, they ended up running on time, but there's something oddly bittersweet, yet perfectly fitting, about the interruption: these issues form one of the many facets of the seemingly self-effacing arc flowing throughout Doom Days.
"I wanted to look inwards and make something that felt, and is, real to us" Smith muses. "To make something honest, and use ourselves as a springboard to talk about bigger things... but I think it's hard to talk about big, sweeping topics and societal issues without sounding…” Not for the first time, he pauses to consider his answer.
“I don't know…it's a complicated place to venture into, so I thought the aim was to make an album that worked on a personal, broader generational level. But also on a much wider, macro-international level, but grounding it in the reality of a night out."
This reality that Bastille have created basks in the culture that they're deeply grounded in. Things like "breakups and one night stands," find themselves situated next to "Uber rides and stupid, fucked-up party chat." Doom Days is also supremely introspective for Smith, whether he's self-observing as the guy “that wants the night to continue forever" or "who basically has [their phone] surgically attached to their hand at all times."
Nine years down the line from their breakout, the ideas are running wilder and wilder – with an album release performance planned that takes its cues from an immersive theatre piece Smith saw entitled You Me Bum Bum Train, something he says "totally removes you from reality for forty-five mins." On Bastille's comeback single "Quarter Past Midnight", the first line of the chorus see's Smith urging "We keep on running/running through the red lights", a subconscious nod to their bouldering imagination. Indeed, the music, on the surface, may not challenge you, until you dig below and into Smith's lyrics: Bastille have always managed to execute a depth within their songs that's hidden neatly amongst the bushels of poppy flourishes and culture-driven allegory.
Smith is the first to bring a balance to the idea. "I'm not saying we're pioneering or anything, but we've never followed the convention of what a band should be expected to do." He says. "I've always really wanted to have fun with what we do and create little worlds [for] the music."
With good reason, Bastille can flow between any form, only sticking true to what they know and love. The real basis for Bastille and their success is the ideas. From the very beginning, before the runaway success of “Pompeii”, they released a video for the single “Bad Blood” alongside "a sort of odd and mysterious, kind of Lynchian video" to "enhance the world, and created a mystery newspaper sort of deep dive thing to be solved for our fans."
Even when Doom Days' arrival was delayed last year, the band saw this as an opportunity, announcing a series of shows with their songs reimagined with an orchestra and choir. "Nobody in the world was sitting around, 'I hope Bastille will interpret their songs with an orchestra and a gospel choir!'" Smith bursts into a laugh. "No one apart from us was thinking that was a good idea!"
Late last year, chances are if you were listening to any mainstream radio station, or walking past a television, you would've found yourself hearing Smith atop an even more Radio 1-friendly beat: Bastille's collaboration with helmet-clad producer Marshmello. It was another burst of success that stoked the band's publicity fire while Doom Days was going through the motions.
"Being able to have a song that's huge in the charts worldwide…is very odd and surreal," Smith recalls. "But it's nice to have that happening in the background while you're doubling down on an album that's almost the opposite of that."
Bastille are finding themselves climbing a rock face through pop culture: "Pompeii" was and still is inescapable. "Happier" was the summer wind-down anthem for 2018, while the year before, another collaboration with Craig David –"I Know You" – would have fitted quite comfortably in the realm of Doom Days' night out escapades. It feels like Bastille haven't been away.
"I'm not remotely saying we've had moments that matter in culture, but we've had moments where it's reached a very wide audience. Those people will take that one three minute thing you've done at face value, and of course, they're never going to know or give a fuck about all the ins and outs," he reasons. "But I think the way that we've forged ahead... whether or not it's the right thing to do or if it'll be good and bad for us – whatever that means – is just to try and stay true to what we want to do."
There's a seeming connection between Bastille forging this culture-driven path and the references that form hook points of allegory throughout both Doom Days and their career. "Quarter Past Midnight" refers to "Love Will Tear Us Apart" as an ironic twin, while further in the album there are scatterings of literature, film and musical references, including "Groundhog evening/dancing on the ceiling /Kubrick's Hollywood" on "Bad Decisions". Much like the meticulously stacked bookshelves behind us in our secluded room, there's a point everyone can jump on as one of relation or familiarity.
"When we started, we put out two mixtapes that were inspired by Frank Ocean, and The Weeknd and hip-hop artists as well," he says of this influence. "Those artists were ripping quotes and samples from film soundtracks and all genres of music, and we've sort of been waving the flag from day one of not giving a fuck about genre, and looking to how people release music.”
“The Weeknd and Frank Ocean and that whole Odd Future scene – they were releasing albums for free in a time when people still did download things. That was revolutionary and amazing. Look at Odd Future, building their whole career around this pop-ups and merch, because selling music is irrelevant today."
The musical element of Bastille is one that can go down many corridors, such is their fluid nature. It seems to adapt to this new world – a world that, by any previous decades' or centuries' standards, is burning itself brighter and faster than any other.
More importantly, however, Bastille offer a commentary on a society that is increasingly more and more hypocritical due to the fear of an unknown future. "These are interesting, bizarre times where it's impossible not to be a hypocrite…if we're constantly curating a version of ourselves online and holding people up to very high expectations, but then also being probably more open and honest about things like mental health or things we've done in the past... it's a strange time of reckoning." Smith ponders.
"It's looking to America and the world of politics, seeing these people stand up on a pedestal and writing off huge sections of society, or being hugely judgemental. It's always those who are the most judgemental that have the darkest secrets. That's such a depressingly true cliche, and that's fascinating. I think the point is that these are oddly polarised times that people can only take on one extreme or the other, which makes it very hard to have a conversation. Nothing's that black and white. Everything's nuanced, and there's a real complication there that people are allowed to be more complex than ever on one hand, but on the other, you have to be one something."
With the nature of life moulding itself more and more to new technologies, one key aspect is the immediate availability of gratification. Any throwaway post by an influencer can fetch thousands upon thousands of likes, generating actual income. Bastille were one of the first to truly capitalise on this ("The genesis of our band was such a huge flux and in a constantly changing world"), using the internet more than they did conventional press ("It was word of mouth and people sharing, that was what made it really authentic…and I'm so grateful for it").
That doesn't mean they were ready for its addictive nature, nor that adapting came naturally. "I'm sure for everyone now... it's everything all the time,” says Smith. “It's information all the time, it's like your phone could buzz and you don't know if you've got a text from your mate taking the piss out of you, or a fucking horrendous incident has happened somewhere in the world…or your Amazon package has arrived!"
What is that gratification like when you're in such a widely-watched band with a dedicated fan base?
"Here's where I'm about to sound like an absolute twat in a band," he laughs. "Because my perception of social media and Instagram, for example, has always been via the band. When we put a photo up, and it gets like twenty... thirty... forty thousand likes, that's been my perception of it. But when my nephews were born, I got a personal Instagram so I could post things about them, [because] my life is my life and totally separate, and now if I got forty likes, I'm like,"– clapping his hands – "'WOAH YEAH!" and I know it sounds fucking ridiculous, but that gratification exists on such different levels. It's complicated. It's very Black Mirror."
Doom Days started life as Smith attempting to focus upon the idea of nineties hedonism: a time that he was merely a child, looking back with the yearning only children who missed out can. Stepping back, and "freaking out that so many people who are much more articulate than me have written incredible historical novels and so on", it was scrapped in favour of the more focused arc of a night out. The line of correlation between gratification and hedonism, however, has become blurred in an age where we refresh our phone screens with the vigour and urgency of a drug addict seeking their next hit. “That's why we wanted to make an album around [the arc of a night out], nodding to all those things,” Smith says.
The purest example of this comes on "Million Pieces" where Smith sings breathlessly above fantastical '90s dance beats: "We're too far gone / Nothing I say will mean anything / Just drink, fuck, dance through disaster." "That's why the album has an arc,” Smith explains. “It's from the sort of widescreen expanse of the first song and throwing yourself into the night – and the goings on and the problems with hedonism. It's constant zooming in until it's just two people in a bed together, and then it's one person on the floor. It zooms in from the expanse of the city and zooms right into the mind of one person. I guess if anything, it's about looking to other people and company and to human contact in whatever form as a kind of solace and redemption."
The truth of the matter is that no matter what's happening outside, no matter how big the politics get, it boils down to you. As nights out begin at their staggered time zones, people wake up on the other side of the globe, and the first person they're greeted by is themselves. Smith notes the importance of self care: "I'm learning contrast and balance: I always do have a lot of plates spinning. [But] there's nothing like the satisfaction of getting to make something that will exist – getting to make an album. This one was so satisfying and so much fun because it had a concept, and a thread that ran through it…and we so wanted to say these things."
"I have got an ongoing side project that I'm working on with my friend. Every month, it grows into something a bit bigger and a bit weirder, and that's exciting." He alludes. "Our band is such a nice outlet for us to make albums and to tour and to try and be as creative as possible with touring and the campaigns around the album, and next week we're doing this immersive experimental theatre piece…around the launch of the album which is something I never thought I'd say out loud or in my head. I feel fortunate to be in a position where we're surrounded by people who would help us come up with something like that."
Deep within the industry, there's no doubt Bastille have a solid backbench supporting their boundary-pushing ideas, but Smith's real people have been there from the beginning: before the volcanic eruption of fame, chart-topping songs and albums, world tours and collaborations with superstar producers. It's these people that are engrained in the DNA of Doom Days.
"We have this slightly weird double life, where we're on tour with our band and crew. It's this slightly weird fantasy world. When we're at home, we're with our mates, none of whom have anything to do with entertainment whatsoever – that's our real life. I imagine [Doom Days] like charging through London, not quite knowing where we're going, but everybody has decided to head on to somebody's house in the back of an Uber – there are lots of nights like that, and those are the kind of…" He pauses, the flicker of reminiscence in his eyes.
"In the years when our band was growing all over the world, we suddenly went from being present in our lives to being absent all the time. I guess I slightly idealised those nights out with my friends. Those are the nights that I'd hold up on a pedestal. [The album's] a fuzzy amalgamation of those. I love my friends... I'm really lucky to have them. They're an odd cast of characters from all over the country, from all different walks of life, and different jobs which makes big nights out with them pretty nuanced and interesting." He says with a smile.
"It's the waviness of the conversation, the people coming and going…and the slow reduction of numbers as people peel away. We spent three and a half months in London making this album last year, and that was the longest we'd been anywhere for, like, five years…so that was really amazing, getting to spend time in my house! For a while, it became the almost inevitable final destination of every evening, which was awesome."
As our time comes to an end, Smith finishes his reminiscing and pulls out his phone. We begin to talk about the imminent 5pm release of the band's next video, “These Nights”, as he flicks through a set of photos – in one, Smith sits on a couch surrounded by a veritable pile of artfully placed seemingly-naked people. I suddenly realise what he's waiting on. "It's that gratification thing! I'll be sat there watching the numbers," he smirks.
As people eagerly waited for Doom Days to appear on their streaming services, on their mobile devices, at midnight Thursday 14 July, the future was always going to be uncertain. But, with their newest LP, Bastille may offer us a way to understand that future, by piecing together the muddle of modern ephemera.