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“Reality Is A Fucking Bizarre Place. It Always Has Been”: Bastille’s Dan Smith On Escapism & Pop Music

Every new album cycle feels like another leap forward into the great unknown, but right now English pop-rock explorers Bastille are on the precipice of easily their greatest.

They know nothing of the world that awaits them after the release of their (now out) fourth album Give Me the Future – fitting, really, what with the title and all. They have plans, certainly – but if the last two years have shown us anything, the best-laid plans of mice and men yadda yadda yadda. All Bastille know for absolutely certain is that their new album is out.

It’s good, too – potentially the band’s best since their multi-platinum 2013 debut Bad Blood. It’s a focused, confident collection of songs – which is a curious contrast, considering its lyrical and conceptual core centres on dystopia, both real and imagined.

Then again, that’s always been the art of what Bastille does – and in order to understand said art, it’s helpful to have said artist on hand. Shortly before beginning filming the music video for the album’s most recent single ‘Shut Off the Lights’, the band’s lead singer and chief songwriter Dan Smith took a rapid-fire set of questions on ’80s cinema, big-shot songwriters and the curious technicality of being a two-hit wonder.

Music Feeds: You’re on set for the ‘Shut Off the Lights’ video right now – what’s the treatment? “Band looks cool while playing instruments,” perhaps?

Dan Smith: [laughs] Oh goodness, no! I don’t think Bastille has ever made one of those sorts of music videos. It’s really never been our thing! For me, our music videos are an excuse for me to get away with making weird little films. Some of them can be pretty abstract and uncomfortable, but the one we’re about to make is a little more jokey and a little more fun. Basically, the premise of the video is imagining what would happen if the internet broke. [laughs] It’ll make sense when you see it, I promise!

MF: The internet and technology are some of the broader topics covered on Give Me the Future – which, from all reports, is not what you originally planned to centre the record on. Can you speak a little on the conceptual evolution of the record from pre-pandemic through to the final mix and master?

DS: This album definitely started as a much more optimistic, hopeful, almost naive album. It was an album about different versions of escapism. As the past two years progressed, and we all found ourselves via screens, whatever relationships we’d had with technology became increasingly heightened. That all very much seeped into the album, of course. I’m just really interested in the fact that real-life felt like a dystopian science fiction film. Our relationship with technology and everything we see in the news every day and language like “lockdown” and “pandemic” and “quarantine”… it all became normalised. Like, there was even another space race in that time, but it just happened to be tech billionaires this time around. The strangeness of reality is wilder than many of the science fiction works of the past. That, to me, was really interesting.

At the same time, I kept coming back to that idea of escapism even as the album was changing. I think escapism in this time has become more vital than ever – the things that we rely on to get out of our own heads. Our imaginations, our video games, our VR, watching films, reading books. All of these things that we need and love have become so much more important. I guess that was the backdrop of sorts–wanting to talk about all these things and have those conversations, whilst also making a sort of big, weird pop album.

MF: How does that weirdness maintain when you’re working with a writer and producer like Ryan Tedder, then? That’s a guy you pin down if you want yourself a certified smash hit single – he has the track record to prove it, after all. How exactly did you two cross paths?

DS: We were introduced, and he was keen to work on some stuff with me. We wrote ‘Distorted Light Beam’ together, and we produced it together. It was an interesting contrast, working together – like, he’s the most upbeat, enthusiastic, energetic LA man in the entire world. It was funny… on one side of Zoom was the sunshine in LA, and the other side were these miserable Brits in a dark studio in London. [laughs] It was quite an interesting collision of different creative visions. For that track, he really pushed for this kind of French dance feel, and it brought a whole different vision of futuristic sounds to the opening of the album. It was really interesting to work with him.

MF: Rami Yacoub was a pretty wild name to see in the album credits, too.

DS: He’s an amazing pop writer. Like, of course, he is – he wrote ‘…Baby One More Time’, produced it and wrote a lot of that first Britney [Spears] album too. That’s real pop credentials, man. I think it was really fun for me to work with these guys not just because of the differences, but our similarities. I write really quickly, for example, and so does Rami. We wrote the bones of three of the songs on the album within a couple of hours on Zoom. He was so encouraging, he’d really allow us as a band to explore what these songs could be.

I think that’s where a lot of the darkness seeped in on the album – when I was working on the songs away from Ryan or Rami or whomever else. It’s just in my nature of writing pop music to want to do that Trojan horse thing of presenting something that feels kind of shiny and optimistic. As soon as you actually get into lyrics, though, you’re like, “What the fuck is going on here? This isn’t what it seemed like on the outside.” I did a lot of rewriting, actually – particularly towards the end of the album, having realised what the themes were that we wanted to talk about. It was good to really dig in like that.

Maybe, in the world of pop, the people I worked with might not have 100% approved of all the lyrics that I wrote. [laughs] But that’s what we’ve always tried to do: make interesting, challenging pop music. We wanted to make an album that was a fun distraction for us; one that made us want to dance around the studio, and pretend that we were back living life that was a bit more normal, whatever that may have been. Reality is a fucking bizarre place. It always has been, but it continues to be, and it felt kind of important to reflect that.

MF: What was behind naming several songs on the album directly after movies and films? Did that relay back to examining forms of escapism?

DS: Yeah, totally! I was like, if you want pure escapism then what better way to make that point by referencing flying down the highway as ‘Thelma and Louise’? Roof down, hair flying, driving off a cliff… it’s such an iconic, feminist, empowering image. I guess that’s where my head went – the visuals of it. The same goes for ‘Club 57’ which is about Keith Haring and the ’80s New York art scene. If you wanted to go somewhere for a fun night, that sure would have been a fucking great place to go. Then, you’ve got ‘Back to the Future’. I mean, that song is pretty dark lyrically, but I think we just tried to twist it into something that feels sort of positive.

MF: That makes sense when your most famous song is about a historical tragedy.

DS: [laughs] There’s always a strange irony standing on the stage in front of thousands of people, all of whom are having such a good time singing a song about the aftermath of a volcano. That is not remotely lost on me.

MF: Let’s touch on ‘Pompeii’ for a moment. To the casual observer, you’ll always be the “ey ey oh ey oh” band – for better and for worse. Is it difficult to reckon with a song you’ve probably played over a thousand times over the last decade? Is the thrill gone at all?

DS: I mean, what that song did for us was, take an odd, DIY indie-pop band from London to the world. Before that song, our aspirations were like, “if we can play a theatre with 2000 people in it, that is fucking insane.” To us, that would have been the absolute peak. That’s literally as far as our sights were set. We weren’t even looking to tour internationally or anything like that. The fact that that song that I made by myself in my bedroom, that’s, like you said, about a tragedy, became a worldwide hit… it was totally wild and absurd to us.

It’s a hell of a way to set your stall out. We are so grateful to that song, and I love it so much. Getting to play shows and still have people singing it as loudly as they were eight years ago, that’s amazing to us. People feel the same about [Marshmello collaboration] ‘Happier’, which is kinda interesting as well. I guess we realised that trying to recreate that would have been a kind of impossible task. We just continue to try and make pop music that we think is interesting and it’s all an experiment. Part of having these moments that are really mainstream is obviously having people think that’s all that you are and all that you do. We’ve worked really hard to prove to ourselves, and anyone who gives a fuck enough to listen beyond that has been given so much. Our albums, our mixtapes, all the collaborations that we’ve done, the ReOrchestrated project, writing for films, writing for other people… I feel like having those two hits, funnily enough, definitely motivated us to be as diverse as possible within what we do.

MF: Of course, following the release of Give Me the Future there’ll be the Give Me the Future tour. There’s some huge dates on this run – including one at Graceland, of all places…

DS: Dude! We all went to Graceland – like, just as fans! We were playing a show nearby a few years ago, and so we went in beforehand. It was wild to us – to go and see the house and see the planes and all that sort of stuff. We couldn’t believe our luck. This whole US tour is coming up fast, which is surreal. We’ve got stuff booked for the UK, of course, and various other places as well – we’re going to Brazil later in the year!

MF: “Come to Brazil”?

DS: “Come to Brazil”! It’s almost unimaginable, the idea of getting on a plane and being in another country playing shows. I’m the first to admit I think we’ve booked it all pretty optimistically, with our fingers crossed and hoping it can happen. It’s just… it’s gonna be strange because this album is so linked and associated with the last two years. We’ve been locked down for so long, with the lack of physical contact and that longing for live music. If all goes to plan, it will be hopefully an amazing release and really cathartic to get to play the songs in a room with real people. That’s truly all we want.

‘Give Me The Future’ is out now.

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