Bastille Frontman Dan Smith on Success, Wild Hair, and Meeting David Lynch
Over the past few years, alt rock band Bastille has become one of the biggest bands in Britain. They've topped the charts, won awards, headlined tours, and ushered in a new wave of do it yourself music. Their first album, Bad Blood, debuted at number one on the UK charts earlier this year, and their song "Pompeii" has over 35 million views on YouTube. I sat down with the lead singer of Bastille, Dan Smith, to discuss the band's success, our mutual love of David Lynch, and his unique brand of music. Here's what the nicest, most humble, and most British person I've ever interviewed had to say.
Evan Almeida: How did you get your start in music?
Dan Smith: I spent a lot of my teenage years writing music by myself, very much in my free time. I was kind of embarrassed by it, and it never occurred to me that I might play it for other people. I had always just done it for myself, all through my teenage years and into university. I became friends with lots of different people, and a lot of my friends and housemates were in bands and were doing music, and they kind of encouraged me to begin. After university, I moved back down to London and I met the guys [Chris ‘Woody’ Wood, Kyle Simmons, and Will Farquarson], and we kind of started the band, and that’s all there is, really. I’m very lucky to do something that I never thought that I would do with my life, it had just been something that I had always enjoyed doing for fun, and now it occupies most of my time, and I’m pretty lucky to be in that position.
EA: Bastille has blown up in popularity. How are you handling the success?
DS: We’ve just been constantly touring for the whole year, and because of that, we’re always surrounded by the same people, so things don’t feel unusual. Then we go back to London and live very normal lives, hang out with our friends. I think that denial is how we’re coping with the success. We just pretend that it didn’t happen, and occasionally we let ourselves enjoy it when there are nice milestones, like the album going platinum. We try to be realistic about most things, and we’re quite pessimistic, so whenever we get stuff done, it always comes as a surprise.
EA: Each of the songs on Bad Blood seems to have a distinct theme and story. Is that intentional, or is it something that happened organically? What's your thought process as you write a song, and what inspires you as you craft your music?
DS: For my own sense of personal satisfaction, I try to do something different in each song: different production, or sound, or instrumentation. I was quite nervous in putting together the album, because I thought that it might not fit together very well. In my head all of the songs were markedly different. I aspired to keep the same songwriter and the same vocals and that’s probably the thing that holds it together. That’s always been a preoccupation of mine, to have every song differ from the last, and to be as good as it can be by itself. We’re halfway through the second album, and it’s been really fun to keep that going, and to keep trying new things.
EA: Bastille's music videos are unique, and each really enhances and adds meaning to its song. Who conceives of your videos, and which is your personal favorite?
DS: Thanks, man! Well, the "Overjoyed" video I worked on with a friend, and it was the first one we did, but as we got busier and busier, we started to working with different directors. It was always a nice process, giving a sense of what I wanted in a video, and then seeing how different music video directors can work with a song and come up with a plot. Each video was very fun to make. I think my favorite at the moment is the “Things We Lost in the Fire” video. It hit upon the Lynch-ian visual references that I like. I also like the “Bad Blood” video, because I’m barely in it, and I think that it has an interesting and weird narrative. I like people’s reaction to it, too. I like the “Flaws” one as well, because it was fun to make, and I think that it just looks wicked. It’s hard to pick a favorite. Also, the “Laura Palmer” video was the first one that the band was around to shoot, so that made it a lot of fun, as well. That’s probably a terrible answer to the question, because I probably just listed them all.
EA: Speaking of "Laura Palmer," I’m a big fan of director David Lynch. When you released your first EP back in 2011, I thought that it was interesting that you named your most idiosyncratic song after a character in the most idiosyncratic show of all time. Are you a big Twin Peaks fan?
DS: Yeah, I love it! I watched it on DVD when it first came out, when I was quite young. But I loved it. It might be Lynch’s most accessible work, but I love how idiosyncratic it is, and how funny and dark and weird and complex it is, and how many convoluted, interesting characters he managed to create. I think that it’s brilliant, and completely unique, and I very much love it.
I was lucky enough to do a remix of one of the songs off of David Lynch’s new album, and as a result, I got to meet him in Los Angeles and hang out with him for about an hour at his studio, which was pretty insane. For me, being such a big fan, I was so very lucky to meet him, and he was super chilled out, and funny and incredibly friendly, and it was quite a nice experience.
EA: The song "Laura Palmer" really feels like an homage to Lynch's work.
DS: I got this image in my head of Laura Palmer running through the forest in the night, and I wanted to try and make this geeky love letter to the series, and the character, and [Lynch], in this sort of different and dramatic pop song. It’s my signpost of love for the television series and his work, and I’m glad that you think that it's a fitting tribute.
EA: You mentioned that, as a teenager, you were shy about performing music in front of other people. Does performing still make you nervous?
DS: Well, I get nervous, but with things you do every day, you sort of get used to them. Also, when I initially started performing, it was all by myself. Now that I’m part of a band, and there’s four of us, it’s more of a Shakespearean experience, and it makes it so much easier. I still get nervous, though. Being on a stage in front of a bunch of people I don’t know isn’t a place where I usually like to put myself, but getting a nice reaction and being in a room full of fans singing back every word of a song that I wrote in my bedroom is amazing. I think that you would have to be pretty sky-high not to be affected by that, and I’m lucky for my fans. I think that we’ve been lucky as a band, because from the very beginning, we’ve had people come to our gigs knowing the words to songs, and that’s really, really helped me perform. I definitely enjoy playing, and I think, in that respect, I’ve evolved as the band’s progressed.
At the first Bastille gig, I was hiding behind a piano at the side of the stage, and Will was playing bass front and center, and I was just staring at my hands, terrified, trying to ignore the fact that there was anyone else there. I’ve changed a lot since then, hopefully for the better.
EA: Before I let you go, I have to ask: is there a story behind the hairdo?
DS: Ha! I had always had crazy, wild hair and it’s only been reigned in over the past few years. I guess, at one point, I wanted to nod towards a Razorhead hairstyle, because people said that I always kind of looked like that, or like I’d just been electrocuted. As we’ve progressed over the past few years, it’s been massively reigned in, and I think it’s funny that it’s a talking point for some people, but I quite like the way it looks.