Bastille interview: ‘We were as surprised as anybody when we were suddenly really successful’

Ahead of their third album, 'Doom Days', the band talk to Alexandra Pollard about the state of the world, their reputation – and why they have absolutely no desire to be famous

Thursday 13 June 2019 19:00
Bastille: 'There’s a real lack of a burning desire in us to be mega famous rock stars'
Bastille: 'There’s a real lack of a burning desire in us to be mega famous rock stars'

think people mistake the sound of my voice for over-earnestness,” says Bastille’s Dan Smith, running a hand across his newly shaved head. “To some people, anyone who doesn’t give a f**k and isn’t really concentrating, Bastille are just a couple of pop songs they’ve heard on the radio. But I mean, we sort of don’t really care.”

That nonchalant addendum is only half-convincing, given how much the indie-pop four-piece clearly care about everything they do. Bastille don’t just tour, they orchestrate immersive theatrical experiences. They don’t just make music videos, they make one-shot living tapestries. And they don’t just make albums, they make entirely self-written concept albums that grapple with heartbreak, nihilism and the state of the world, all in one breath. It’s understandable, in other words, that they would find it a little frustrating when “in a lot of situations, people are like, oh, you’re the guys that did ‘Pompeii’ or were involved in ‘Happier’”.

Which isn’t to say they’re not proud of their 2013 breakout single – a bright, bombastic pop song “about two ashy corpses who were really f**king bored”, which for a while was the UK’s most streamed song of all time – or of the multi-platinum-selling 2018 Marshmello collaboration they originally wrote for Justin Bieber. But, says multi-instrumentalist Kyle Simmons, “I feel like there’s a lot of depth that is missed. The content, the things that we sing and talk about, it’s not, I’m talking about my ex-girlfriend and we broke up because of this, it’s using interesting things to visualise that. And only a few people seek out the depth of the content.”

We’re backstage at Holland’s Pinkpop festival, a few hours before the band are due to play the main stage, and a week before the release of their third album Doom Days. Smith is proudly sporting a T-shirt he bought the previous day at Rock Am Ring festival, and shows off, with schoolboy glee, how close his band’s name is to Slipknot’s. He agrees with Simmons’ assessment. “I don’t wanna sound like a f**king cheerleader for our own band,” he says, sipping on a flask of tea, “but we were making mixtapes when it was completely unheard of for a band to be doing that”.

Bastille have been releasing mixtapes since the early days. The band formed in 2010, after Smith decided to expand his solo project into a band – recruiting Simmons, multi-instrumentalist Will Farquarson and drummer Chris “Woody” Wood. But it wasn’t until the release of “Pompeii” in 2013, which was soon followed by the equally successful Eurodance cover “Of the Night”, that Bastille abruptly, unexpectedly, became a household name.

“I think for a lot of people we suddenly were just in their faces with a couple of songs,” says Smith, laughing. “There was a bit of a kickback when we were suddenly really successful. We got a lot of people assuming it was really cynical and planned, and it wasn’t. No-one f**king knew. When we signed our record deal, in two weeks we sold more albums than they were expecting us to ever sell. We wandered into it as this DIY, slightly odd, pop band who’d always made our own s**t, and we were as surprised as anybody.”

“We weren’t really given the time to figure out how to be,” adds Simmons. “It was just like, ‘You’re here now.’”

One of the biggest frustrations, says Smith, was people’s attempt to define the band’s sound. Was it electro-pop? Rock? Synth-pop? “Sonically, we’ve never been one thing. That thread that goes through all our music I guess is the songwriting and my voice, which is my f**king voice, there’s not much I can do about it. I remember having a journalist shouting at me for not defining what genre we were. I was like, ‘Dude, I don’t give a f**k!’ And it’s quite nice, six years down the line, to see how f**king dinosaur-esque he was, to be trying to pigeonhole us. Now, the most interesting new bands that come through, you wouldn’t even dream of trying to put them in a box. It’s nice to see what we have always done become kind of normal.”

On their new album, Doom Days, which follows 2016’s Wild World, the band continue to play fast and loose with the rules of genre – though they have tried to make the lyrics more blatant. Taking place over the course of a single night out – starting at 12.15am, as told through the hedonistic euphoria of the opening track and lead single “Quarter Past Midnight”, and ending on the kitchen floor at the break of dawn – Doom Days revels in escapism, embracing one last hurrah before the sun rises and reality beckons. Loosely influenced by Nineties’ British dance music, it weaves delicate piano melodies with drops, breakbeats and distorted drum fills. And it is also their most explicitly political album to date.

“God knows what is real and what is fake,” Smith sings on the title track. “Last couple years have been a mad trip.” Later, he adds, “We'll be the proud remainers / Here till the morning breaks us.” The double entendre is hard to miss. “Perhaps in the past we’ve had songs that were political but slightly more ambiguous”, says Smith, “and it’s gone under the radar. So for this, we were like, ‘F**k it, let's put everything we think in “Doom Days” so we can put that song out and it says it all.’ It means there’s not much room for misinterpretation.”

Besides, the world is in such dire straits right now, it would be impossible for Smith to ignore it in his music. “It’s a really odd time where it feels like the world is constantly changing, and yet also kind of stagnant at the same time,” he explains. “All these situations seem to be churning and festering, rather than feeling like we’re actually going anywhere, which can feel quite disheartening. Particularly when we have these quite public opinions about which way you would vote, or, are you a remainer or a Brexiter? It allows us to write people off. I’m not saying that certain things aren’t inexcusable, but if that stops any kind of dialogue it’s a dead end, and where do you go from there? I think what we wanted to inject into the album was absolute pessimism, nihilism and also some optimism into it as well, so it’s not just completely lost and bleak.”

The “proud remainers” line, he adds, “obviously refers to Brexit, but also to just being those people that don’t want the night to end. If we’re making points that look to the times, I wanted to ground it in the dramas of the night and the personal stories and the mundanities of not wanting someone to leave in an Uber because you want them to hang out for the rest of the night, and of a one-night stand, and of a drunken break-up.”

Smith hopes the album can act as a form of catharsis for people – but the band don’t have any particular interest in how well it charts. “There’s a real lack of a burning desire in us to be these mega famous rock stars,” he says, though his performance later on – during which he leaps and bounds around the stage, and at one point collapses dramatically onto the floor with his head in his hands – is evidence that he easily could be. “We love making music, and my favourite thing out of all of this is getting to do the interesting creative stuff, but at no point are we thinking, right, how are we gonna be well known?”

When suddenly their music was everywhere, Bastille turned down pretty much every offer that came their way, “because we had absolutely no desire to be famous, and our music was doing really well without us having to really do much. We weren’t really on TV, we weren't in any magazines or newspapers, we turned down offers to be judges on shows and panel things and stuff. We were more than happy to be able to go on tour, play to people who knew our music, and then go home to London and just bumble around in our normal lives, and it's still pretty much the same.”

Earlier in the day, Smith wandered out into the festival and joined the crowd to watch The 1975 perform. People walked past him wearing Bastille T-shirts. Nobody recognised him. “Which is awesome!” he says. Simmons agrees. “I feel like we live a double life. That’s the perfect line for us, to see someone walking past in a Bastille T-shirt, know that they really like you, but they are just walking past you.” Are they never tempted to say something? “Oh my GOD,” says Smith, as if I have just suggested he punch someone in the face. “No way. ‘Is that our music I see on your iPod as I’m staring over your shoulder?’”

The glory of celebrity doesn't seem to matter to Smith. “I wasn’t a teenager dreaming of headlining festivals and being in a band. So we’re so lucky and grateful to be allowed to do this,” he says, gesturing around him. “But it’s not the fulfilment of something we fantasised about. It’s just this crazy by-product of the thing that we made.”

Doom Days is out on Friday

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