Bastille on pushing the boundaries: “We’ve always done whatever the fuck we want”
The London band are back with album four, a cinematic odyssey through technological anxiety that sees them seek hope in escapism and emerge “more liberated than ever”, as they tell Rhian Daly
Main image credit: Sarah Louise Bennett
“Never in my life did I think I’d be really excited to see a Fly By Nite,” Dan Smith laughs, looking out the window of Bastille’s tour bus, provided by the company in question. Beyond the glass, festival crew move through the backstage area and the muffled sound of Kaiser Chiefs‘ main stage set just about filters through the pane.
It’s hours before Bastille, who have a fourth album in the can, ready for release, are due to headline the final day of Latitude 2021 – their second festival headline set of the weekend following a Friday night performance at Standon Calling.
The band have brought their ‘ReOrchestrated’ project to the weekenders, which sees them recreate songs from across their back catalogue – from the iconic, bonafide anthem ‘Pompeii’ to last year’s Graham Coxon-featuring indie banger ‘What You Gonna Do?’ – with the help of an orchestra, gospel choir and arranger Jonny Abraham. Bringing back the special show for their first gigs back feels like they’re picking up exactly where they left off before the pandemic.
“It’s just such a nice way to come back and bizarrely, for us, it’s totally bookended lockdowns,” Smith explains. Bastille’s last show before everything came to a halt was a ReOrchestrated gig at London’s Palladium in February 2020. “Now here we are, on the other side of it. It’s mad.”
Where festivals usually provide us with a weekend-long portal out of real life and into a fantastical new realm where the only things that matter are music, mates and having the most fun possible, this weekend feels a little different in some ways. On one hand, the celebratory escapism feels even more heightened than usual, a giddy joy sweeping over you at the sight of things you previously wouldn’t have thought twice about. On the other, “it also flies in the face of everything that we’ve been thinking and the ways we’ve been living for the last 18 months”, as Smith puts it.
For artists and their touring teams, the euphoria of festivals’ return is intensified by the fact that whole working lives have been hanging in the balance over this period. “The live music industry has been so fucked over and unsupported by our awful, awful Government and our crew – or our friends who are musicians or roadies – have been completely left behind for such a long time,” Smith says. “So there’s a real, surreal celebratory atmosphere [here] because of that as well.”
Until last March, Bastille had barely been off the road since the release of their humongous debut album ‘Bad Blood’ in 2013. Although the London band had planned to finally take a break from touring in 2020, they had always “just assumed” that regular gigging would “always be that way” for them. “We were on this annual cycle of touring for the first half of the year, then festivals over the summer and then touring towards the end of the year,” Smith says and, pre-pandemic, it never felt like there would a reason for that to change.
Despite not having spent months on a tourbus like the one we’re sat on now, Bastille’s creative leader says he’s been busier than ever. “I’m sure it’s a way to keep distracted,” he reasons. As well as working on a new Bastille album – more on which later – he’s also been working with other artists, such as Griff, who joins the band on stage at both of their headline sets this weekend. The BRITs Rising Star winner is one of a number of new talent who you can trace Bastille’s influence to – a creator of pop music that’s filled with big hooks that jump out of the radio (or your streaming playlist) at you, but is also subtly filled with weirder, more off-kilter strands.
“We ended up doing some writing together and she’s amazing,” he says of teaming up with her. “She’s such a chilled, together, old head on young shoulders. She’s wicked, I can’t wait to see what she does. Her voice is insane.” Later, Griff joins the band onstage for versions of ‘Happier’ and ‘Of The Night’, adding to the set’s jubilant feeling like an old master, despite these only being her first festival dates of her career.
For Bastille, the surrealism of being in a band in 2021 doesn’t end at Latitude. Nearly a month later, they’re getting ready to play two gigs in the courtyard at Hampton Court Palace, performing over cobbles that have been trodden by some of the most notable names in British history. Their dressing room is located in the old barracks, built by William III and used to house his troop of bodyguards – not quite the same grey arenas the band usually frequent on tour.
We’re here to talk about that fourth album – due later this year, its title under wraps for now – a sci-fi, escapist wonderland that taps into the last 18 months of our collective longing to be anywhere but stuck in our rooms. It’s a dazzling new entry to Bastille’s canon – full of gleaming pop songs that take the four-piece to the heart of the dancefloor, determined for the most part to get lost in another dimension.
Strangely, given the record’s zeitgeisty theme, it began life before “coronavirus” was a word in our everyday vocabularies. The album’s genesis came from a show Smith saw about maladaptive daydreaming – intense daydreams that interfere with day-to-day life – at Edinburgh Festival 2019. “This comedian was talking about childhood trauma really openly – it was basically about abuse,” he explains. “He was talking about maladaptive daydreaming, which is something that I’d never heard of, but the way he dealt with his trauma was by essentially living a parallel life in his daydreams for hours and hours per day.”
The idea struck a chord with something the musician had been thinking about – the many ways we escape in our own heads – and felt like an intriguing framework for an album: “I thought it’d be a really interesting scaffolding to have this ability to go anywhere within the songs and to jump to any time, any place and be anybody, but ultimately have the arc of hopefully finding some stability and happiness in the real world.”
You can hear hints of where the album will take us on ‘survivin’’, from last year’s bitesize-but-brilliant ‘Goosebumps’ EP. “Tryna stream my way to a better life / But I daydream crash like Vanilla Sky,” Smith sings on the track, introducing us to this notion of immersing ourselves in entertainment or our imaginations instead of acknowledging our realities.
Escapism isn’t a new theme in Bastille’s work, of course. Their 2019 album ‘Doom Days’ was set over one big night out, hedonism taking place behind closed curtains while the apocalypse raged outside. “It’s not like anything within the world has got any better – if anything, things have got more amplified and more extreme,” Smith says, referencing that record’s nods to “anxiety-provoking politics and world events.” He adds: “I was wanting to find a way to frame things more positively or shift perspectives a little bit.”
“Twitter hasn’t had the most positive effect on the public conversation” – Will Farquarson
The new record does that by exploring different ways into new orbits. On the metallic rush of the retro-futuristic, Daft Punk-leaning ‘Distorted Lightbeam’, that comes in the form of gaming references (“Levelling up, in here I’m winning / Defeat the big boss”) and an embrace of the limitless possibilities of our digital worlds (“Delete my history / Choose how you see me”). The ‘80s synth-pop of ‘Thelma + Louise’ uses the classic film of the same name, which coincidentally celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, to jump in the metaphorical car, hit the road and never look back.
“It’s got the ultimate image of these two friends,” Smith says of the movie. “They kiss, they hold hands and they drive off a cliff with an army of male police officers in pursuit. It’s just a fucking brilliant image of liberation and independence.” That the film ends on a freeze-frame of Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon’s titular characters zooming over the edge of the Grand Canyon in their Ford Thunderbird made it the perfect jump-off point for another narrative arc: “With anything in entertainment or news, the idea of pausing it before something awful happens is really interesting. We can sit with the good bit and just pretend the bad bit wasn’t about to happen.”
‘Give Me The Future’, the only other song to have been released from the upcoming album so far, strikes a more melancholy tone, hinting at the addictive nature of being able to take yourself out of anything boring or bad and live in a fictional paradise in your head. “I tasted endless love that takes control,” Smith sings. “Endless love and I wanted more / Why would we leave? / Miles and miles of fake beauty.”
Being glued to our screens is something Bastille touched upon on the gloomy title track of ‘Doom Days’ (“Think I’m addicted to my phone / My scrolling horror show/ I’m livestreaming the final days of Rome”), but like all of us have seen their relationships with the technology they sing about change over the last 18 months. Although Smith notes he still has “a horrible phone addiction problem”, he points to guitarist Will Farquarson as someone who uses tech “in a really positive way”.
“I’m not really on social media other than to share band stuff nowadays because that was quite toxic,” the guitarist says, explaining his bandmate’s point. “Twitter hasn’t had the most positive effect on the public conversation but, at the same time, it’s really easy to overlook the things that are just now fundamentally part of our existence and taking those for granted. I was thinking recently, ‘Imagine having to learn a language using a book’. Everything’s just in your pocket now.”
As well as within the songs themselves, technology is a big part of the new album’s world thanks to the fictional corporation the band have created called Future Inc. The tech giant is behind a device called FutureScape that lets users live out their dreams virtually, much like Distorted Lightbeam’s chorus line suggests: “When I’m dreaming tonight I can go anywhere”.
“It’s poking fun at the idea of any tech or new idea that seems to be totally optimistic and shiny and benevolent, and the ease and speed by which those things can be corrupted by people and how awful we are,” Smith explains with a laugh. “We thought if this album is about escaping into this dream world, let’s put a name to it for the sake of the album and give us a fun, weird, conceptual world to live in.”
This isn’t the first time Bastille have attempted to extend the universe of a record beyond what they’ve committed to tape. On 2016’s ‘Wild World’, they created a sinister front called WW Comms led by a politician/newsreader narrating dystopian tales. “We’re lucky that our fans previously have really bought into stuff like that,” drummer Chris ‘Woody’ Wood notes. “It makes it more immersive and more fun really.”
“We’re really happy and proud of this album” – Kyle Simmons
“Even taking away all the ideas that link with the album, just having a fun way to share our music is something we’ve always loved to do and that our fans really engage with,” adds keyboardist Kyle Simmons. “We’re really happy and proud of this album but just to be able to frame it in something we find interesting and that comments on what’s happening everywhere is great.”
While their fourth album has all the hallmarks of classic Bastille – dystopian ideals creeping into big pop songs, inventive ways to make you think about the world around you – it also presents something of a new frontier. The band’s creative circle has always been pretty close-knit, few coming into it except the four members and longtime producer Mark Crew. But on this record, they’ve teamed up with a host of other producers, writers and artists, including songwriter Rami Yacoub (who’s worked with Britney Spears and Lady Gaga) and super-producer Ryan Tedder (Adele and Beyoncé).
“It was really helpful having someone who lives in a totally different world to us and exists in a totally different musical space to give us feedback on what we’d put together,” Smith says of the latter. “He’s an incredibly prolific writer and it felt like it would be a wasted opportunity to not write something with him.”
Now that Bastille’s first trilogy of albums is done and dusted, Smith sees himself at least trying to “chill out a bit” about being so protective over the band’s output. Instead, he wants to find the balance between “giving a bit less of a fuck while still caring so much”.
He adds: “I don’t know how good it’s been for my head to go down the rabbit hole of this band so wholeheartedly for the last decade. We’ve always done whatever the fuck we want around mixtapes and ReOrchestrated, collaborating with whoever and not listening to people who are trying to give us advice. But now, I guess, I feel more liberated than ever.”
If their upcoming album is proof of where that relaxation of control will take Bastille, the band’s next chapter should be even more magnificent – and boundary-pushing – than their first.
– Bastille’s new album is out later this year via EMI Records