Bastille: ‘It’s good you can have a number one single that says ‘F**k the government and f**k Boris’
As Bastille headline Mitchelstown this summer, Dan Smith talks politics
“The idea was to create something finite and ephemeral that could exist and be a shared experience.”
The artistic response to the divided times in which we’ve found ourselves has been nothing if not varied. Slow-mo enough to reflect and respond as it’s happening, the turbulence has resulted in – to pick an illustrative three from the barrage of examples around – Anish Kapoor’s foo-foo-resembling Britain (a piece more officially known as A Brexit, A Broxit, We All Fall Down), the provocative This is America from Childish Gambino, and Ed Sheeran’s hands-in-the-air anthem of togetherness and love, What Do I Know.
“And I like that grime is at the forefront of music in Britain,” says Dan Smith, singer of Bastille, picking up the subject. “Grime has always been lyrically honest. It’s good that you can have a number one single that says ‘F*** the Government and f*** Boris’ [as Stormzy just had with Vossi Bop]. That’s really interesting. With so many countries being polarised, people rightfully see the importance of saying what you think to dilute the negative voices and balance the conversation.”
In keeping with this wave, Bastille’s second album Wild Wood, released in 2016, was the sound of the London act aghast. Completed by long-time friends and bandmates Kyle Simmons, Will Farquarson and Chris Wood, their accompanying festivals came with ticker tape dystopian messages running across their backdrop as visuals. But on reflection, it might have been a downer during raucous weekenders.
“I stand by it, but it was probably quite heavy at points, with the 30ft screens with these 1984-style images and a Theresa May in drag coming on stage for Fake It. it was enough to make you think, oh gosh, it’s not what you need at a festival. Yes, music should talk to the times, but it’s also a form of escapism.”
That led to the concept of their newie, Doom Days. It may not sound much more cheery, but lyrically, it keeps the end-of-days feeling just about repressed as it documents the arc of a wild night out. Staying true to Bastille’s sound first showcased with Pompeii and Things We Lost in the Fire, it leans heavily on structure and simplicity, with electro beats veering them away from the territory of yer average indie pop band.
“The album was originally going to be like a 90s-style rave record about pure, complete hedonism and escapism. I spent time just re-reading and re-watching old films and books that brilliantly represented hedonism. like The Picture of Dorian Gray, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Eyes Wide Shut – there’s a rich history of art that brilliantly represents the excesses of people in various eras,” says Smith, whose first love is cinema to the extent that his English degree at Leeds University focused on screenwriting. “We went down the hedonism route and had lots of fun with that – Nocturnal Creatures was one of the first songs that come out – and we thought it would be interesting to do something about the course of a night out.
“Then the pure escapism started to feel a bit hollow, I guess like with real life. Darker stuff started to trickle in, but what better way to focus on the strange, ever-changing times that we live in than giving it a personal narrative?”
Quarter Past Midnight, a rousing, buzzy opener, introduces the night and the album, and it’s closed by the happy wreck of Joy at the end. “It’s a fucked up journey through the album. It’s pretty complicated, it’s not perfect, but we wanted it to have a happy ending,” Smith says.
Throughout the course of the night, listen out for moments of light and darkness, the abstract and literal, and sometimes both at once. In the title track, the lyric “We’ll be the proud remainers/here ‘til the morning breaks us” carries a double meaning in this specific context. “Part of making a concept album with a story is to write the personal story then hopefully speak to a slightly wider group, and then also allow those stories to be metaphors for bigger things,” he explains.
All signs suggest it could be successful enough to deliver their third UK number one album; our chat comes during a busy few days for Smith that includes a BBC radio promo and a slot on The Graham Norton Show, alongside luminaires like Stephen Fry and Andrew Scott (“Moriarty in Sherlock was such a terrifying nut job that it was weird to meet him in real life, but he’s a really nice guy,” Smith says).
The idea has life outside the album too. Concept albums often lend themselves to other artistic accompaniments – Bat for Lashes’s The Bride came with a photographic collaboration with Neil Krug; Green Day’s American Idiot is now a musical – and sure enough, Doom Days is following suit. For the album launch taking place tonight, the group worked with writer Charlotte Bogard Macleod to create Still Avoiding Tomorrow, a special theatrical experience at the 9294 Studio in Hackney, London.
“I’ve always wanted to do something immersive,” Smith says. “I’m not a theatre obsessive, but I went to one immersive experience called You Me Bum Bum Train, which sounds a joke, but in terms of all artistry from film to art and music, it’s probably the most incredible thing I’ve experienced. You go through it by yourself for that hour. You’re not supposed to talk about it, but it’s basically the closest you can come to in real life to seeing a dream sequence, and it’s unbelievable. That made me think it would be amazing see some sort of physical response to our music.
“So we met Charlotte, and she had this brilliant idea of doing three stories throughout the night. Audience members have headphones and can choose who to follow, kind of like a silent disco. It goes from her interpretation of the story of the album, into another room in which we’re going to play the album live from start to finish. We’re doing an early show and a late show in the one evening.”
Is there a plan to take it beyond the one night?
“We definitely talked about it. It would be a shame to put in all this work and only exist that day. But equally it wouldn’t – the idea was to create something finite and ephemeral that could exist and be a shared experience, that maybe just goes away,” says Smith.
In any case, Bastille have a summer of less-heavy festival shows planned, including a headliner at Indie19 in Cork. It comes after their introductory tour at the start of the year, which should have kicked off in Dublin if the stormy Irish Sea didn’t have other plans. “We were so gutted,” says Smith, recalling it. “It was supposed to be the first night of our tour, we’d been rehearsing for weeks and getting everything together, and then all the ferries were delayed, so we wouldn’t have made it in time.
“But it meant we rescheduled it for the very end of the tour, so we were much better by then,” he laughs. “We played that tour for two months, and what better a place to end up. That night, we lived out the story of this album. In full.”
Saved by the bell, he’s called away for the next stage of his whirlwind promo day before we can get the salacious gossip. But we can guess the soundtrack to the night, at least.
Doom Days is out now. Bastille headline Indie19 in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, on August 2nd to 4th.