Hiking some 4000-metres up a volcano is one way of escaping your reality, so Bastille’s Dan Smith tells me. Although, apparently, up there is no place to escape your own music. It is a difficult thing to know how to escape - and the best way Dan knows how after seven years in the industry is to avoid the subject altogether in conversation. It’s an approach that makes sense for someone who fame and frontman-ship are simply by-products of doing what he loves: music, song-writing and creative collaboration. With a voice and discography that has reached most corners of the earth, garnering 10 million record sales and 1.5 billion video streams, it is both surprising and yet somehow perfectly logical that, like many creatives, Dan describes himself as awkward or self-conscious. Although first impressions prove otherwise. Open, friendly, and extremely down to earth, it is clear that Dan has been in the game long enough to know which are the lines that cross his comfort zone - being the centre of attention is one of them.
After a period off touring - nearly the first break since 2013’s Bad Blood debut - Bastille are back. Dan explains the band are approaching this next phase as if from scratch, and the intention is in the sound. Recent singles survivin’ and WHAT YOU GONNA DO??? are defiant new collaborations that reveal a decided move away from self-consciousness towards self-awareness, a shift that coincides with the times.
Photographer Gigi Umbrasaite photographs Dan for the day, a welcome opportunity for us to step inside Bastille’s world and finally acquaint ourselves with the musician, human, and “awkward songwriter bloke”. Stylist Joanne Kennedy selects classic, simple comforts to match the tempo of the type of guy who might climb a volcano in trackies and a pair of Vans.
An hour flows fast in our conversation. There is much that we cover and more that we could have, had the clock permitted it. We endeavour to make a dent in the journey, though, and there is plenty to discover.
Thoughts on the last nine months?
That’s a bit of a massive question to start with isn’t it? For our band, we’d planned to take the year off from touring, apart from a few Orchestral gigs over the summer, and just work on music. So unlike friends of ours and peers who had their whole year ripped from underneath them, that wasn't as much of a thing for us. But, you know, initially, it was mad and confusing. Luckily, in our house, people could work from home - one of my friends was furloughed - so it wasn't awful. Between my close friends and family, everyone's been okay. I'm one of those people who has been left feeling very lucky. At the beginning of lockdown, I started working a few days a week at two food banks locally and I really enjoyed feeling vaguely useful on a micro level. It was really eye-opening. I guess you can live in London, in your bubble of friends or family or work, and not necessarily come into contact with that many new people. I’m loving working in these totally different environments and trying to be useful at the same time.
That's something positive out of the situation, then.
Well, it’s work that I’d like to hope I’d have done more of if we’d been around and had more time. The last seven years, we've just been touring non-stop, so anything like that has been quite hard to do it on a regular day-by-day level. The second we had more time, it was great to do it. I think there was a real thought process in a lot of people when this all started, and it's a real natural human thing of wanting to be useful when you're sitting on your hands and stuck at home. That's why the NHS volunteering scheme was so brilliant. Suddenly a lot of people's lives shrunk, and I think it gave them a kick up the arse to know and learn a little bit more about their community and where they live.
Yes - and also how you spend your time. That's something I wanted to touch on, because as a band you have used your music and put your name to important causes - Radio 1’s Live Lounge AllStars cover Times Like These, Band Aid 30 and Artists for Grenfell.
In terms of supporting causes as a band, it's just really important now more than ever to talk about things that aren't okay, and to lend your voice to those things. We're seeing this in a really different way at the moment with the government's complete dismissal, but as someone who has a job that is creative, there's so many people in these industries that are A - vital, B - hugely important to the economy, and C - just the work that creatives do… Even if people shrug it off as being unimportant, which, let's face it, it really fucking isn't - what are the things that got people through each and every day during lockdown? It's reading books, watching films, listening to music. Those things aren't to be dismissed, just because they're not necessarily old school “hearty” jobs. There's a weird disconnect in people's heads. These industries are real, they affect a shitload of people. They support a lot of families and they prop up the economy, so to be dismissed by a load of incredibly privileged politicians who themselves probably don't pay that much tax... It's just fucking galling. When we first started out, I guess I was always quite shy about wanting to talk about things in public. I think there's a real cliché of male lead singers doing charity work, or talking about things that music fans don't want to hear about. Maybe it's a British thing, but the perception of that is a bit exhausting.
Do you think so?
I don’t know, maybe. What do you think?
No, I don't.
It's certainly something that I was aware of. But I think now people just want to talk about what's fucked up and address it.
As someone who never really wanted to be particularly known, I definitely shied away from being outspoken in public, or lending my voice to many things. I love making music and videos, I love the creative side of things. But I felt like, Who the fuck am I to say these things when there are people who are way more intelligent and more qualified to speak on them than me? But I guess part of growing up and growing into what we do is realising that, the most important thing is lending your voice to something that you believe in, because there's always going to be a very loud opposing chorus - particularly living today where opinions are so wildly opposed. People are realising that it’s not enough to just think and believe something, you have to say it out loud. There are so many voices shouting horrible negative, divisive shit incredibly loudly, so it’s important to counter that and to lend your voice to the chorus of anything that can stand in opposition to all of that.
I think an easier way for musicians or artists to lend their voices to things is to participate in those type of songs, because they're put together by people who have thought really carefully about how a song or music can financially help with a specific cause. Particularly with the song for Grenfell, maybe it's a British cynicism, but there's always a little backlash of, Do we need to hear from a load of privileged musicians? Do we need their take on this? But I think regardless of that, if songs like that can raise a significant chunk of money which can support victims or their families, then that completely shits all over any kind of cynicism or criticism that may come out of it. In life it's so much easier to sit on the sidelines being cynical. That's such a big part of what can be really problematic with social media: it's much easier to sit back, do nothing, and roll your eyes or scoff at people who are at least trying.
I agree. However, in my opinion, there's a difference between, the Artists for Grenfell, where you are raising money and providing tangible support, versus a group of celebrities singing Imagine by John Lennon into the camera like the video that went viral at the beginning of lockdown.
It was interesting because when Radio 1 put together the live lounge, they were really aware of that - we all were. What this year has shown us is how different everyone's lives are, which I know is a really obvious point, but the inequality everywhere is just incomprehensible. People just didn't want to see famous people having an amazing time. The whole idea of how people present themselves online - showing the highlights of their lives - can be great; it can be escapist. But I think this year reached a point of exhaustion for a lot of people.
As you just said, there are so many voices, and the online world is heavily saturated now. How, firstly, how do you manage your time online? And do you have any thoughts on how we can make our time spent online more meaningful?
I'm not very good at organising or managing my time online at all. I'm pretty addicted to my phone, like I think a lot of people are. Particularly being away loads like we used to be, for me it was this amazing tool to keep in touch with people at home. WhatsApp was definitely my gateway drug. I'm horrible at managing my time because I want to be in touch and feel included. But my relationship with social media as such has generally been via the band, so I've always had a level of distance from it. It's been interesting to see how it’s changed and twisted since we started putting music out. And become more corrupted. If there was this idea at the beginning with any of these platforms for them be a positive way to communicate and be inclusive, they are now driven by profit which has naturally fucked them. But I'm definitely not someone to speak to about good phone habits, because I'm fucking terrible. Don't most of us now live a huge chunk of our lives online anyway? Particularly this year, everyone has spent so much time in one place, it's been vital. I think, for all of their awfulness and corruptibility, there are amazing benefits to those platforms. They’ve just become really problematic.
WHAT YOU GONNA DO??? speaks to today's attention economy and how we navigate the online world. I interview a lot of Gen Z-ers and I'm interested to know if that message was aimed any one group in particular?
I wanted it to be a general ‘eyerolling-throwing-your-hands-up-in-exasperation-at-anyone-and-anything’, because I think it's applicable to so many things. Anyone that's recently seen The Social Dilemma knows that in the world of social media and tech, our time and our attention is the product of these companies, and the customer is the advertiser. And so it's not news that a lot of people in all walks of life are constantly vying for our attention. It’s really weird saying this out loud - it sounds slightly paranoid - but that is the state of reality now. I guess the point of the song was to be like, ‘Well, that's real life. I'm not coming from a position of judgement because, obviously, I'm on my phone all the fucking time, but if people are going to vie for our attention, at least try and do something decent with it’. Try and use it for something not sinister or at the very, very least, make it entertaining.
I want to pick up on your self-consciousness about ‘being a frontman who has opinions’. Speaking of your recent single survivin’, you previously mentioned that you were very self-conscious that the track reflected the times without intending to - because you initially wrote it about your personal journey with Bastille. Why is that something that would make you feel self-conscious?
That's a really good point, and actually, is something that pretty much everyone that I know and worked with has said as well. I think it was just because in the moment, when lockdown began and people were understanding the gravitas of the situation, we had just finished the song. And I loved it. We’d been planning to put it out, but it just felt so on-the-nose that I didn't want it to feel exploitive of the situation, because that wasn't the intention. I'd never want to appear to be somebody that was like, 'oh, a pandemic just happened. Let's just piggyback on that with a single about how life is these days', and that's just who I am. I always overthink everything, which is I'm sure is a frustration to everyone that knows me.
But then by speaking to people and playing it to friends; seeing that to some people it was kind of cathartic or somehow unintentionally articulated something they've been feeling, that wore me down in a nice way. I don't know. That's definitely my issue… Lots of people strive to write songs that speak to the times. For me, our music has always been quite escapist and allows us to live in other worlds and unreal situation. So to put something out that’s quite opaquely confrontational of reality is vaguely new. Though it's not the first time that we've put out a really frank, honest song, by any means.
And how long has this new chapter been in the making?
I guess we've been thinking about wanting to change things up since we finished our third album. I always thought our first three albums would be a bit of a trilogy, and there are themes that run through all three of them - links in the artwork and titles. It's always been really important to me to preserve our process. When we made our first album I wrote some songs, worked with my friends in the band, co-produced with my other friend, and we made the record before we signed a record deal - so it was all quite independently done. I designed the logo and we used to make the videos. We used to tour up and down the country and everything off our own backs, and I loved the independence of that. Then when the first album went on to do really well, I wasn't expecting that - I don’t think any of us were. The scale of it was really surprising and unexpected. I'm not someone that spent my teenage years dreaming of being in a band or wanting to be a singer. It was a bit of a surprise - some of it great, some of it fucking weird, some of it pretty shit, you know? As I'm sure it is for lots of people, but… I just completely lost my train of thought. What was your question?
Erm… How long is this new chapter in the making?
Oh, yeah. Sorry. God, fucking hell. "I was born on....". Anyway. When our first album did what it did, only quite a while after did I realise that having an album, made by a tiny handful of people, manage to reach so many others around the world is really rare. I wrote all of the songs on the first album by myself, and I didn't realise that that wasn't completely normal. I just naively walked into the music industry thinking that was the case. And that was the one thing in the first album campaign that I clung to and was really proud of. So the first three albums were about us keeping our process. We worked with our producer, Mark, on every track, on every album, on every mixtape. Then we'd bring in friends if we wanted other musicians or whatever. Despite a bit of pressure, we didn't want to go off and work with loads of other writers or producers, not because those people aren't amazing, but just because, for me, what made Bastille at the beginning what it was, was that.
Coming to the end of however many years and albums and touring, we came to the conclusion that it would be fun and interesting and challenging to just relax a bit and bring other people in. I realised, in and amongst the more stressful parts of the last seven years, that in trying to do everything yourself, you also kind of shoulder quite a lot of stress and pressure. But there's nothing more satisfying than collaborating with someone and getting to enjoy it as a group. I've been doing quite a lot of song-writing with other people and really loving that. I felt like it was a good time to chill out and let other creatives come into our world. So it's been bubbling in the back of our minds for a while.
Graham Coxon features on WHAT YOU GONNA DO??? How did this collaboration come about?
We're just massive fans and I wanted to make a song that sounded loud and surprising to people. I wanted people to push play on all of the new tunes and be like, Oh, who's this? and be surprised when my voice came in. I'm massive fan of Blur. I was thinking about that song when we were making WHAT YOU GONNA DO???, and Graham had always been on this list of people that we wanted to reach out to. We sent him the song and he loved it and sent some guitars back. It was a real lockdown collaboration. But it's always fucking intimidating sending something you've made to someone that you slightly idolise, because he could so easily just turn around and be like, “No, I'm busy”. I guess the thing that was really exposing with the lockdown is that you knew people were free!
But I guess the whole process of creativity, not just in music, has been completely sort of thrown up in the air. And yeah, it's been interesting to see where it all lands, working over Zoom. It's really forced people to adapt in sometimes brilliant ways. Sometimes very frustrating ways.
Obviously, you have the mixtape series and studio albums, and the reorchestrated stuff, and now the collaborations. Do you have a preferred mode of storytelling?
No. I think I just love being able to do more than one thing. There are so many artists who are at their happiest when using writing as a cathartic release for something that's happened in their lives. For them, album-making is a kind of diary experience, and I'm not one of those people. There's definitely a lot of my life and personal elements threaded through the songs, but it's not therapy for me in the same way. I just love being busily involved in a bunch of different stuff. That's why I've loved the little label that we set up, and I really love writing with and for other people. That's why our collaborations with orchestras have been really fun. Because even though those shows are based around our songs, there's something about being on stage and being one of 70 others. I feel like I can slip into the background and allow these other incredibly talented musicians to take the forefront.
I guess I'm trying to experiment with the projects that we're working on at the moment. Sorry to be evasive! It's been about trying to tell stories in different ways. I'm loving it, because it's forcing me to try and adapt. I think there's quite a lot of diversity in our sound, but often the songs that have been pushed maybe don't show that yet as much, and that's always been slightly frustrating. I guess our mantra going forward is to hopefully surprise everyone with each different track. We still feel so lucky that we are able to keep releasing music.
The mixtapes and the covers that we do are all just like a love letter to pop culture. They’re about throwing any ideas of snobbishness or pretension when it comes to music culture out the window. Obviously everybody has taste, but the idea that something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can feel so ridiculous sometimes. Why shouldn't we combine a massive 90's rave tune with a film that we love? Perhaps to some people that would be sacrilege, but for us it's about being a fanboy. Particularly with pop music, it's so amazingly affecting. I think to a lot of people, pop music seems like it might be easy to make, but there's something about having to exist within so many rules that means when it's done well, it's kind of rare. But that's why I like the covers and mixtapes - that whole side of things is about taking other people's songs that we love or respect and just trying to flip them on their heads and play with the malleability of pop music. Covers are most affecting when someone really puts their own stamp on it. Someone posted a clip of Prince singing Nothing Compares 2 U the other night, and I ended up going down a rabbit hole of watching footage of that verses Sinéad O’Connor’s version. He was really someone for who it was never enough just doing his own thing. He always had to write for other people - so many people don't even realise that he wrote it or that it's a cover, which is really cool. That's kind of how it should be. I think as a songwriter, it's just nice if your song resonates with another bunch of people, even if it's sung by someone else.
Going back to what you said earlier about how the success and scale of Bad Blood took you all by surprise. How did you navigate that transition?
I guess it's a real cliché to say this, but there was just so much happening. That wave that we rode took years, so we were able to just lose ourselves in it all.
In a good way?
Yeah, I think so. I don't know. We've just sort of never stopped until this year. It's quite easy to always obsess about the next thing you’re putting out or the next video you're shooting. We've always really obsessed about getting home as much as we can - seeing our friends, families, not going up our own arses. We're all so cynical and I'm such a fucking eternal pessimist that, if anyone's having too good a time, I'll always be there to drag them back down!
It was a bit of a headfuck to navigate, because it's not something that I really knew that much about. I didn't know what to expect; I didn't have a version of what it would be in my head, so there were so many new experiences happening at the same time, coupled with lots of performances and all the anxieties that come with those. All these weird little things where you're way outside your comfort zone, being at a photoshoot or being on a TV show. To someone that's maybe a bit self-conscious or has imposter syndrome, doing those things is kind of mad. And I think, like with a lot of people on their first album, if you're suddenly touring the world, and playing shows, and doing loads of promo, on one level it's amazing. But it's just really fucking surreal. If one of those things - like playing live on a big TV show or at an award show, these things you only ever saw famous bands doing - happened to you in a year, it would normally have been really big deal. The maddest thing to happen to you all year. So to suddenly be doing a lot of it in quick succession… it’s a huge privilege but also a bit of a headfuck. It's such a cliché to call those things a whirlwind, but it can really feel like that. That's why people take time off and decompress.
How did you stay grounded throughout that?
I think we stay grounded by consciously choosing to never want to be celebrities, basically. I remember right at the beginning, suddenly we went from driving ourselves up and down the country in a splitter van, to having songs in the charts. But we just turned everything down. We didn't do any panel shows or TV shows; offers to be judges on talent shows; all those kinds of things that I never would have imagined and never particularly wanted to do. We quite consciously chose not to really go to events unless we were playing them. A big part of why our music is escapist and why we make weird cinematic videos is because it's about wanting to make stuff that we think is interesting, and yeah, despite me having spoken at you for a very long time, I don't particularly love the sound of my own voice. At the beginning, I think maybe a part of why I wasn't so outspoken was because I just didn't want to be someone that people came to for a quote. I didn't want to get any more attention than we had, because I was so self-conscious about suddenly getting loads of attention. I slightly wanted to melt away into the background.
And we were lucky for a moment - our music was everywhere but we weren't. We're not on the cover of the albums, we're sometimes in the videos, but often we're not. And often we're not the focus. That was really intentional. Now, I look at someone like Sia and her songs are everywhere. She's a respected songwriter and she does lots of things for other people, and she's got this super-potent image, but it's not her face. And that's really cool.
Do you think that, seven years down the line looking back, you've successfully retained that anonymity?
Yeah, I do. I mean, I had a really weird, surreal experience. Previously when we'd be touring heavily and we'd have two or three-week gaps, I'd go backpacking with some mates because it's always really fun to travel, and I'm basically a perpetual student anyway. It's the antithesis to touring, despite the fact that you're travelling - it's the best way to escape your reality and get to see other cultures. Last year, I went to Guatemala with some friends, which was amazing. We did this two-day hike up a volcano, you're in a group of about 10 other backpackers. And I would never assume that anyone knew who I was or even knew who the band was, because, obviously, shit loads of people don't know or care about Bastille, that's fucking obvious! So in situations like doing a six hour hike up a volcano with a load of strangers from around the world, I always just avoid mentioning what my job is because if it comes up, it often dominates the conversation... And I completely get it. Obviously, I'm not an idiot. If someone else told me that was their job, I'd want to know about it. You were asking what we do stay grounded, and I think the most important thing for us was to not pursue fame but to pursue music. And also, to come back home as much as possible to be with our friends and family, and kind of shake off whatever comes with being in a band; whatever comes with touring in an environment where, despite trying to make it as normal as possible, you're still getting on stage every night and playing to a load of people and that is weird. To our friends, our jobs are a curiosity, but they're not the defining thing in our lives, and that's so important. It's been really key to us trying to stay sane in quite a weird environment.
So we're going up this volcano. I was with two friends, but one of my friends was really not up for it so just had a podcast in the whole time. My other friend was a bit further back. So obviously, I was just chatting away to everyone and finding out about their lives. At the end of the first day, everyone has dinner and goes to bed really early, because you have to get up at 3 am to climb up to the summit. We've got to the top, and there was this one guy from Israel who was on his honeymoon and there was another guy from the Netherlands, and the guide who lived up the mountain. The three of them decided that evening when they got to the top to do an extra hour and a half to the summit, to see the lava in real life. Bearing in mind, I'm a very disorganised person and probably the worst backpacker you can imagine - I was in Vans and some tracksuit bottoms. But they asked if I wanted to come, and I was like, 'yeah, fuck it. I'll never be hear again'. I had to borrow someone's head torch and we do this night trek, just scrambling over rocks. It's fucking terrifying. It's very cold. We got to the top where we thought we'd see the lava and you can hear it crashing, but this really thick mist descended. So we're sitting, thinking, Oh, okay I guess we'll just wait for the mist to go. 10 minutes turns to half an hour, which turns to an hour. You could hear the lava moving and rolling, but we just couldn't fucking see anything! It was so annoying. Anyway. 10 hours of walking up a big volcano is like small talk-central. But I'd sort of avoided saying what I did. I think I had mentioned that I did something to do with music. Eventually, one of the guys was like, "I just don't understand how you seem to travel a fair bit and you play in a band, but how does that work? Because most of the bands that I know, it's not like a proper job". So I said through gritted teeth, 'yeah, we've had some songs on the radio'. He was like, "Oh! Okay, anything I would have heard of?". I said, 'um. We had a song called Pompeii?', and the Israeli guy goes, "Fuck off. We had that song at our wedding two weeks ago. That's not you!", and then he started playing it out his phone. The other guy, who didn't speak any English was, like, "Ahh! That song", and starts singing along... I literally wanted to fucking throw myself in the volcano. I was so embarrassed!
If you only you could see the lava...
Yeah, haha where to aim?! The Dutch guy then asked me why that wasn't the first thing I said about myself, and it just made me realise how grateful I am for the fact that we have some songs that are famous, but we're not famous people. We're obviously quite big in the Netherlands, so the Dutch guy knew all our stuff but just didn't know what I looked like, and that's fucking perfect.
I know it sounds really trite, but I just really love getting to write songs, and the band has almost been like a vehicle for me to get to write, and for us to be able to make videos and do weird conceptual things. Touring is hugely dominant but it's never been my passion to get up on stage in front of a lot of people. I'm quite an anxious, shy guy. It's something that, obviously, I have tried to grow into and there are moments where it's incredible. It's hugely gratifying having a room full of people or a field full of people singing songs that you wrote back at you, and there are moments where I love it. But I do also find it quite hard sometimes, and I often come offstage feeling pretty shit about myself. I think there are some people who just live for that attention and I'm someone who more lives for writing songs and making things. But it's interesting that in the last seven years, touring has come to dominate most things, so we just had to adapt. We had to write on the road, and take a little portable studio and set it up backstage or on the bus.
Have you had any doubts along the way?
Massively, yeah. I guess a lot of people talk about imposter syndrome; I have it all the time. I can go from feeling like I love being a frontman and singing to absolutely hating it and feeling like I'm terrible at it.
How did you deal with that?
Badly. We're lucky to tour with a bunch of people who've been there from the beginning. We're all quite close, and that's great. So there's a kind of 'home' on tour, and there's a home at home and everyone's pretty down to earth. I probably haven't dealt with it that well, but I think, going forward, it'll be nice to just do things in moderation a bit more. I think this year is showing us all how much we do love what we do, even me who is probably the most nervous... Woody and Will grew up wanting to be in a band; Kyle and myself maybe less so. Obviously, we're hugely lucky to do it, but I think moderation is really important. It's such a privilege for us to be able to tour all over the world, but it also means that if you want to, there's always places to be playing. And for someone who's terrible at saying no to anything, that doesn't always mean that moderation is there.
You have experienced the highs and lows of the industry, and your music has reached heights that you could never have expected. Has your understanding or view of success changed since first starting out?
It has, definitely. We had a really warped perception of things, because our first proper single internationally was really big. And that's not normal. It's been an interesting road to realising the different challenges that exist; how nuanced success is. It can be more than just 'writing good songs'. But I think also, since we released our first album, the way that people release and listen to music has changed. When our first album came out, we were the most streamed artist on Spotify that year. But that said more about how early it was for Spotify, not necessarily for the scale of what we were doing. But I think as time has gone on, I've just learned that it's more important to enjoy the process of making it and just be happy and proud and excited by it.
My perception of success has changed, but I think also the world has changed. Someone at the label asked us what we wanted from the new songs. And, really, I don’t know. These are just bits of music that I love and I am so proud of the videos that we’ve made. It sounds so cheesy, but I guess we were just really excited about them being out there. Nowadays, you just hope that people discover what you're doing. Part of this new phase is almost like starting from scratch, as if we were a new band, because you can never assume that anyone knows what you're up to. There's so much stuff happening all the time. The difference between when we started and now is that, now, we all can just curate what we want to listen to all the time. I guess, it's just about making stuff that we're proud of, and that we hope cuts through and resonates with people, but we'll see, who the fuck knows!
Who is Dan in your eyes?
A random guy that sings in a band… Awkward songwriter bloke. And there's a whole lot of other shit that he doesn't talk about.