Interview with Bastille
My eyes are fixed to the time. The clock rolls from 12:58, 12:59 and onto 1:00pm. My phone rattles on the desk. It’s Bastille’s press agent Jenny calling, less than two seconds off schedule. In a few minutes, she’ll connect me to their lead member Dan Smith. It’s all handled very clinically; just before I’m put on hold to wait for him, examination-style instructions inform me I’ll be allowed “exactly 20 minutes”.
The announcement that Bastille would be supporting stadium sell-out artist Emeli Sandé on her 2013 tour was a turning point. It was a moment that marked the beginning of Bastille’s ascent to huge commercial success; one that began with an aspiring Smith, progressed with the addition of his band and culminated in the present with their songs exposed to the masses through mediums from the FIFA 13 soundtrack to Hollyoaks. The release of their debut album ‘Bad Blood’ is set for March.
1:03pm and Jenny’s back on the line, robotically apologising and asking if I’ll wait a little longer. As soon as she beeps off the line I play “Forever Ever” featuring Kate Tempest from their latest freely released EP. As the hook bridges between Tempest’s hair-prickling bars and Smith’s chorus, his voice carries a dignity that seems too refined to have been set to one of Made in Chelsea’s multiple melodramas.
My phone picks up a crackle. I flap around to turn the song off, embarrassed that he might’ve heard it. His measured voice starts to stream down the phone line and I’m set at ease. As the mood is broken, small talk reveals that he and the band have been rehearsing for their 2013 tour in my hometown. He talks just like like your average guy and so I plunge in and ask how it feels to be suddenly facing the next year. “To be honest, I’d never really thought about giving music a go myself”. He’s frank about it; “I really wanted to work in film at a point, either shooting or editing.”
He sounds much like myself or any other directionless humanities student. As I tell him his references to images of clouds rolling over hills in “Pompeii” led me to believe he might’ve studied English, he dryly laughs. “I studied English Lit at Leeds. I’ve never been massively into poetry” he says with a half-assed-undergrad’s bluntness, “but always liked novels and short stories”. It’s the response I expected. Each track of his is almost like a short story in itself, lyrically setting the landscape around characters who vary to such an extent that you can’t imagine Smith has met them all at only 26. And he hasn’t: “I try not to write too autobiographically. I like to think of each song as its own self-contained little thing. I’d say that other people’s stories have always been a huge influence for my music.”
I’d suspected this philosophy to have been the premise behind his two, free-release EPs, appropriately titled ‘Other People’s Heartache’. Iconic pop songs of the last twenty years including Turner’s “Private Dancer” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” are rendered nearly unrecognisable as they are overlaid with samples from films and other tracks, and seamlessly blended through to one another. Each track is like an edited chapter within a kind of Bastille compilation novel.
“I put the mixtapes out there as a way of trying out new stuff that I wouldn’t have done on the album and giving people some free material to listen to. I wanted to use it as a space to gesture towards the films I really like and create a fun collage of music across different periods and films”.
With samples from some of the greatest cult films of our generation including Donnie Darko and American Beauty, all of the tracks on the EPs carry a relatable resonance. A notable gem on Pt. 2 titled “No Angels” merges the lyrics of TLC’s “No Scrubs” with the chords of The xx’s “Angels”, climaxing with a dialectic sing-off between Smith himself and the featured Ella. We talk about the samples from Psycho and how they reinscribe the disturbing mother-son relationship onto TLC’s otherwise harmless, ‘I don’t need no man’ lyrics: “If you live at home with your Mamma…I’m talking to you”.
I feel as though I can hear him speaking through a smile as he gets into the discussion. “I’ll find myself watching films and inspired by a scene, moment or conversation. I suppose I use it to try and help get a point across.” He pauses tentatively. “Then again, the whole process is wrapped up together. I mean I’d already started writing “Laura Palmer” when I decided to call it that and make it about the character. Initially the song was just going to have been about things I was thinking at the time.”
Found ‘dead, wrapped in plastic’ at the opening, Laura Palmer’s murder is the centre of David Lynch’s mystery series Twin Peaks. It turns out he’s been watching it again recently. The videos for both “What Would You Do?” and “Requiem for Blue Jeans” were filmed by Smith himself from the passenger seat of a car; camera glued to his hand and Lynch stuck on the brain.
“When I was younger I really wanted to work in film and I really wanted to be an editor. I shot a lot of stuff and just edited it together for the videos. I love the eeriness of the road at night. In Lost Highway, the lines and the light look amazing. I tried to recreate that whilst getting the mood of the song across”.
The same kind of visuals are used to accompany his cover of Del Rey’s “Blue Jeans”; a track which once again strips the song back to its lyrics, placing them to the piano part of “Requiem for a Dream”. “It just fitted” he says effortlessly; he “found the writing for some of Lana’s tracks really evocative and noticed that “Blue Jeans” was written in the same key as Requiem.”
With the product successfully revamping an already epidemic pop song, I wonder whether the mixtapes are also a means of tapping into the existing fan-bases of other artists. Considering my suggestion, Smith refers to another of their covers of City High’s 90s hit “What Would You Do?”. “I remember hearing it when I was a kid and it was a massive pop song” he tells me wistfully. “We started playing it live as a bit of a joke for the crowd because it’s one of those songs that everyone seems to know from somewhere. Then we recorded it and realised it was actually quite depressing behind its sugary, hip-hop framing. The lyrics are really dark and quite incongruous with us as band, so it was a nice scene in itself just trying it out.”
It can’t be denied that this is something Bastille is known for – delving into influences from nearly every genre and somehow managing to make them work as his own. Hints of dubstep, trap, hip-hop and rap creep in, mixing up the known cliches of the very conventional indie. But “it’s not calculated at all” he insists; “The mixtapes have allowed us to try different stuff out and different production techniques. We just want to try stuff out and have a good time bringing in influences from everything that we like”.
Being so accessible can be as much a vice as it is a virtue. The Guardian dubbed Bastille as the band most likely to be ruined by Radio 1. It’s a title which carries the minor, back-handed compliment of predicting their success. But that seems a little out-weighed by the direct insult of casting them right in the middle-of-the-road, into the line of oncoming traffic. I come out and ask him whether this is something that worries them.
“To be honest, wanting to try out loads of different sounds comes out of pleasing myself and not other people.” He seems pretty accepting of whatever a breed of critical music journalists has to throw at him. “I’ve never wanted Bastille to be one genre or one particular kind of band. If being that way makes us Radio 1 material then so be it. We’re just doing it the way we want.”
Just before his sentence trails off, I hear a beep on the line again signifying Jenny’s return. I look at the time and see I only have a minute left on her allowance. She chips in, asks us to wrap it up and disappears with another ‘beep’. Smith sheepishly apologises for the time constraints.
I tell him I was curious to know who used the triangle symbol first, them or ALT-J. He humours my question with another laugh, this time its sounds a little more nervous. “I think we did it first”, he says, quieter, as though somebody’s watching. “We met them at a festival in Hong-Kong recently and joked about it. It emerged that we kind of got there first but there weren’t any hard feelings over it”.
As Jenny tells us that time’s up, I hear Smith fall silent. She beeps off the line once more, leaving me time to ask how he felt about hearing “Flaws” on Made in Chelsea. He beeping hates it.