[Originally written for the Trinity Ball Guide]
In the wake of their incredibly successful, chart-topping debut album, Bad Blood, it seems difficult to fathom the fact that up until just three years ago Bastille’s musical oeuvre consisted of the solo bedroom recordings of Londoner Dan Smith. “I basically started making songs in my bedroom,” Smith concedes when he speaks of those early days, “But I’d always wanted Bastille to be a band – we started rehearsing as a four piece at around the same time I was writing all the songs”. The three members who were recruited were Smith’s friends Chris Wood, Will Farquarson and Kyle Simmons; from that point, it seems fair to say that Bastille haven’t looked back.
After a couple of years of building themselves up in the indie circuit, 2013 has seen Bastille rise to the fore – but even with that said, battling it out with the likes of Justin Timberlake for the number one spot on the UK singles chart is possibly not something that they anticipated during their formative years. “It was very weird”, Smith says of that week where their single ‘Pompeii’ was contending with Timberlake’s ‘Mirrors’, “But we were (and still are) away on tour, so felt quite removed from it all. It very much felt like it was happening to someone else and we were just watching on.”
In which case their debut album taking the number one spot in both the UK and Irish charts must have felt very surreal indeed? “Yeah it is completely surreal”, Smith confesses, “We all feel a bit detached from it as well. It wasn’t something we ever really aimed for or even thought about so it’s taken us massively by surprise.” Then again, is chart success something that they’ve been aspiring to, or does Smith define success in a different way? “I’ve never really thought about how I’d define success, I guess we’d always just hoped we’ll be in a position to keep doing music full time. Here’s hoping that happens.”
Given the public reaction to their eclectic brand of intelligent, electro-tinged indie pop music, it certainly doesn’t seem as though they’ll have too much to worry about on that front. When asked to describe the album in question and what it means to them, Smith says, “It’s a bunch of songs that we’ve been working on over the last few years. Now that the extended version of the album and all our EPs and mix tapes are out, everything we’ve ever done for Bastille is now available. That’s quite a good feeling I guess.”
Looking at their output so far, there does seem to be something of a similarity in all of Smith’s lyricism in that his songs seem to tell stories rather than personal experiences. “I try not to write too autobiographically and I try to write about situations that interest me, or to use characters that interest me as a way into a song… if that makes sense.” That would explain the existence of songs such as ‘Icarus’. “I’m not massively interested in myself, so I’d rather imagine someone reacting to another situation.”
Continuing on the subject of his song writing, Smith brushes off the idea that he might have been aiming for a particular, distinct sound with Bastille’s music, “There wasn’t really a conscious effort to aim for a particular sound. I’d wanted to try different things from song to song and bring in different sounds that interested me, so there are loads of strings and big epic drums on the album, but also loads of electronics and harmonies.”
This inclination towards electronics and harmonies is certainly apparent on the mix tapes that Bastille have released as, I note, they seem to display a particular interest in slickly-produced early 2000s R&B with covers such as TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’ and City High’s ‘What Would You Do?’. “Those are songs that I heard when I was a kid, so in some ways they are burned into the back of my mind.”
Smith tells me, “I was looking for songs, particularly with City High, that people would know and find themselves singing along to, but have no idea who they were actually by or how they knew them. I also wanted to take songs from hugely different contexts and then produce them as if they were our own songs. Making the mix tapes was just quite a fun way to mess around with production.”
Aside from the R&B of his youth, then, what other music would Smith say has influenced Bastille’s sound? “I have no idea”, he admits, before tentatively going on to describe a rather impressive range of artists, “Everything from Antony & The Johnsons to Simon & Garfunkel and Yeasayer.”
And, more generally, whose music has he been listening to lately? “At the moment I’m listening to the new James Blake songs that are emerging from his second album (which I can’t wait for). I loved the Everything Everything album as well, and To Kill A King’s record Cannibals With Cutlery is brilliant.”
I tell Smith that I’ve read elsewhere that Bastille are looking to improve the visuals of their live set and ask what exactly that’s entailed and how it might affect their performance at the ball. “We’ve got a new lighting set up that is a lot of fun to play with. Unfortunately we’re not able to take the cinema screen we sometimes use round with us everywhere we go, but hopefully further down the line we will be able to. I really like incorporating visuals into the show – anything to distract from us is always a plus.”
Bastille will be playing at Trinity Ball for the first time this year, but it won’t be their first time playing on the Emerald Isle and so I take the opportunity to ask for Smith’s thoughts on how Dublin crowds weigh-up against other audiences in the world. “The last gig we had in Dublin was loads of fun, the stage was low so it felt like we were in the crowd and everyone was jumping around. It was definitely one of the livelier gigs we’ve done.”
One suspects that ‘lively’ might end up being something of an understatement when it comes to the crowd at Trinity Ball and, though they might still be humble and surprised by all the attention, it seems fair to predict that whatever tent Bastille are playing in this April 5th is going to be jammed.