Over the past decade, Bastille have established themselves as one of the biggest bands, but with new album ‘Give Me The Future’ they’re refusing to focus on the past.
Words: Martyn Young.
Photography: Sarah Louise Bennett.
Photography Assistant: Carla Mundy.
Stylist: Brigitte Kovats.
Styling Assistant: Valeriane Venance.
Grooming: Tom Gilling.
Grooming Assistant: Ben Grace.
“I’m not very good at self-analysing,” jokes Dan Smith as he reflects on Bastille’s near ten years at the summit of mount pop as they have quietly and unassumingly become one of the absolute top tier bands in the UK, Europe, the world, the universe and the entire cosmos. They’ve done it by being resolutely Bastille. Constantly innovating and progressing their sound and approach, Bastille have always had the gift for those special little touches and flourishes that take pop to the next transcendent level. Indeed, if they hadn’t already spent the last decade casually luxuriating in mount pop’s rarified air, then they’d soon get there judging by one of Dan’s myriad of newfound obsessions discovered during pandemic downtime. “I watched 14 Peaks [the scary insane mountain climbing documentary], and now I’m determined to become a fucking mountain climber,” says Dan. “Not in the indoor climbing way. I want to strap on the spiky boots and get up K2 before I die.” Like everything Bastille does, Dan is all in headfirst.
Like all of us, Bastille have had a lot of time to reflect in the past two years. The period surrounding their second album, ‘Doom Days’, was one of frenzied activity and heightened emotions as they dealt with big issues and big themes on their Brexit-busting, political call to arms channelled through the experience of one mind-altering night out. “We were all living through a strange time that felt apocalyptic both politically and socially,” explains Dan. “We were also living on tour, which is this weird, suspended way of living. You’re in a bit of a bubble travelling around the world, playing songs everywhere. It’s like being in this house party and avoiding reality while the world outside is crumbling.”
In many ways, the image of the apocalypse as one nihilistic night out conjured up the feeling of no future, or a future not worth living which brings us to their new album ‘Give Me The Future’, where Bastille do an about-turn that’s less apocalyptic dread than electronic dreamscape fantasy where anything is possible. Politics, social constructs, perceived ideals – throw them all out the window because in Bastille’s future paradise, anything goes, and there are no rules. Well, almost. Like all of Bastille’s music so far, this album is framed and perfectly pitched with an innovative and thoughtful concept that defines the music. Similarly, Bastille know that a good concept is no good without some good tunes, and here they deliver their most engaging, vital and flat out brilliantly fun record.
“It was really fun to fall down a science fiction black hole”Dan Smith
There was a lot of world-building going on as they pondered Bastille’s creative future during the pandemic, but it all came back to one overriding principle. “There was a lot to explore and think about before remembering that we’re making a pop album, and during a pandemic. I just wanted to make an album of fucking great songs that you could dance to and forget about that stuff,” says Dan, before adding with a laugh in that self-deprecatingly endearing style: “Annoyingly, because we are us, I find it really hard to switch off the bit of my brain where I’m like, ‘Just make it fun! And about dancing!’ I just can’t do that, so we ended up making these futuristic dance tunes about wanting to correct the wrongs of society.”
So, what does Bastille’s vision of the future look like? The future imagined in the sprawling epics of Dan’s beloved science fiction films like 1982’s legendary Blade Runner has already been and gone. We have surpassed almost every conceivable innovation and great leap forward. Although annoyingly still no one has invented teleportation. Longtime Bastille lovers will know Dan is a massive film fan. Film permeates almost all his work in some way. He really knows his stuff and how to tie it into a musically interesting concept. ‘Give Me The Future’ is perhaps the ultimate realisation of his cinematic vision. “Once we decided it was science fiction, it allowed everything to click into place, lyrically, sonically, mentally,” says Dan of the album’s eureka moment. “It’s just really fun. The film geek in me gets to imagine creating a film universe. We lean into that. It helps all the people that we collaborate with get their head into what we’re trying to do and hopefully bring some different perspectives and angles on it.”
The album’s genesis, though, was different to the multi-layered concept it became. “I would be lying if I said we set out to make this album,” explains Dan. “We started making quite a different record; a much more sprawling album that was all about escapism. We’ve always been interested in escapism from the beginning, having songs like ‘Icarus’ ‘Laura Palmer’ and ‘Pompeii’ on our first album, which we made in a windowless basement where it was all about imagining yourself into real or fictional universes. I was really interested in the psychology of escaping and the lives we can live within our heads, and the different versions of reality that can exist. The fact that we can daydream our way out of a situation.”
Dan’s curiosity about the power of the mind to wander was further inspired by a stand-up comedy show he happened to chance upon in Edinburgh. “It was all about this particular comedian’s coping mechanism for childhood trauma using a thing called maladaptive daydreaming, which was a thing I hadn’t heard of properly. I read about it and was really interested in the human mind’s ability to cope or not cope and avoid certain things that are happening now or happened in the past by taking us to other places,” says Dan.
From that spark, he knew they were onto something. “That was where the idea for the album started, and it became this big sprawling thing,” he says excitedly. The album certainly goes deep into a lot of very modern malaises or inspirations, depending on your perspective. “Some of it was about technology, and some of it was about the human mind, and it was jumping back and forward in time,” explains Dan. “It was only really going down the line with it and realising that it was definitely not just one body of work that we gravitated towards these futuristic songs. That was at the beginning of the pandemic, and we were living through lockdowns. Even though there’s a bunch of stuff there about our relationship with technology, obviously our relationship with technology on a day to day and minute to minute level has totally heightened in every way. That increased our interest.”
For a self-confessed sci-fi geek like Dan, creating this record’s world was like having Christmas every day. He revelled in immersing himself in it. “It was really fun to fall down a science fiction black hole,” he says. “I watched loads of sci-fi. I thought about what sci-fi is trying to do historically. The idea of people creating new fictional versions of the future that are trying to tell us something about our present is really fascinating. It’s an interesting genre where there are all of these different versions of the future that exist. Loads of them that we’ve surpassed both in terms of time, we’ve lived beyond these almost imaginable versions of the future and loads of the tech we have now is way more advanced than technology in science fiction films of the past which in itself is interesting. We live in a time when the future seems slightly bleak and uncertain. There are quite a lot of people loudly voicing their desire for change and the fact that the future that we’re on course to hit is not okay.”
“I’m fascinated by the image of a person at home in their pants on the sofa with a VR headset on, and in their headset, they are a fucking space exploring superhero”Dan Smith
A key point of the album is that it deals with themes like the increasing power and influence of technology in a sympathetic and non-judgemental way. It’s undeniable that there is joy to be found in losing yourself in an online world for many people. It’s something Dan can very much relate to. “What we’ve tried to talk about is that people spend hours and hours of their day on their phones or playing video games because not only do people want a reason to be distracted, but because they’re really fucking fun and really great,” he says enthusiastically. “It can be totally nourishing, it can be communal, it can bring people together, it can be madly educational. It can be such a great beneficial experience on so many levels. Obviously, with anything that’s really fun, you can take it too far where these things become completely intoxicating and addictive,”
Escapism in the form of the everyday is the theme here rather than the wild abandon of the previous album. “The idea of escaping reality can be healthy, up to a point. Like on ‘Doom Days’, it was looking at that on a micro-level when it comes to hedonism and drinking ourselves out of our brains. On this album, it’s looking at this other thing that’s much more applicable to nearly everybody. I think about the idea that most of us have our phones very close to hand at all times. I’m fascinated by the image of a person at home in their pants on the sofa with a VR headset on, and in their headset, they are a fucking space exploring superhero. It’s an obvious image, but it speaks to all of us.”
There are songs on the album like ‘Distorted Light Beam’ and ‘Give Me The Future’ that are about the idea of plugging in, and that could be literal or metaphorical,” he continues. “We wouldn’t fucking do it if it wasn’t really fun and exhilarating and a bit addictive. We wouldn’t spend hours and hours doing that stuff if it wasn’t pretty amazing at points. It’s about looking at ways of being and expressing yourself and asking why they are so tempting and so addictive and bad. I think about people that just want to sit with the headset on playing video games and chatting to their mates all the time. It’s the modern-day equivalent of going to the park or something. Who’s to say that’s not anymore valid as a way of speaking to someone? Maybe that level of removal would allow loads of people who find it hard to express what they want. It’s all very complex and nuanced, but I think that’s the world that we live in, and it’s really interesting.”
Obviously, the internet and the online world are now inescapable, and today’s kids are super smart and immersed in all manner of creative and exhilarating online subcultures. Dan himself is constantly inspired by Bastille’s creative young fans, and he wonders if he would be any different if he came of cultural age in today’s online social generation. “Maybe I’d be more of a nerd with access to all of the weird cinema of the world. I’d probably be even stranger, and I’d probably have an annoying podcast,” he laughs.
He ponders how the cultural environment Bastille find themselves in is vastly different from when they started in a distinctly positive way. “People now don’t care about what’s new; it’s about what’s new to them. We live in a time when monoculture has almost entirely disappeared. When something genuinely cuts through, it’s Squid Game or Billie Eilish or whatever. It’s just harder to reach everybody, even though it’s technically easier than ever to reach everyone. We all curate what we want to watch and listen to at any one time. All the old guard of radio stations that we’d all listen to or TV shows that would hit anyone across the country, there are still a couple of them, but generally, they’ve gone away. That’s interesting and really challenging,” he says thoughtfully.
In the early days of Bastille, they were regularly dogged by the last tedious knockings of the ingrained monoculture that’s now being swept away. “When we started as a band, I remember butting heads with a bunch of journalists who were pissed off at us for not defining ourselves as indie or pop or rock,” he says. “At the time, we’d made an album that had all different kinds of production styles, and sonics and our music taste was all over the place, and I think you can hear that in the album, particularly if you take my voice off it. At the time, it annoyed people. Why are four guys from London making music that’s different from song to song and doing things in a really DIY indie way, but it sounds like pop, so we can’t trust them as having integrity, but at the same time, we know they wrote and produced everything themselves, and then they’re making mixtapes which is weird because that’s not what indie bands from London do? Most genre boundaries have now been knocked down.”
He cites new artists like Dork fave Griff as emblematic of a new generation of artists with different values and exciting fresh perspectives. “I look to someone like Griff who is just wildly impressive,” he says. “She is obviously insanely talented, but also her ability to do everything by herself is really inspiring. I love the idea of someone existing in the upper echelons of pop who is like, ‘actually fuck this, I’m going to go off and do this by myself because I can. I’m good enough, and I don’t need to rely on other people’. I think that’s brilliant. She’s interesting and thoughtful and smart, and whenever I’ve met her or worked with her, I feel younger than her, and obviously, I’m a good 10 years older. There’s a generation of pop stars who have grown up with the idea of living online. They know the importance of honesty and being open. That’s amazing. People are talking about what matters to them and allowing people to feel represented and seen via whatever they’re going through. That’s an amazing step forward. Shifting the idea of what a pop star should look like or sound like is mega important as well.”
“Shifting the idea of what a pop star should look like or sound like is mega important”Dan Smith
These values that Dan admires in new artists are shared in some of the methods that have kept Bastille enduring. They’ve been a big deal almost from the word go, but they’ve managed to stay fresh and exciting. Whether it’s collaborations, mixtapes, interesting visual concepts, or grand schemes like their ambitious Re-Orchestrated project, Bastille really know how to amplify their music and songs on a grand stage. “What keeps things interesting is the idea that there’s obviously a lot of autobiography stitched into the songs, but our music has never relied on the happenings of our lives,” explains Dan when he looks for a reason why they have remained so successful. “That’s all in there, sometimes quite subtly and sometimes very obviously, but we’ve never relied on a cult of personality. We’ve never relied on our own egos or the idea of fame and us being characters that have an arc. We live our lives, and the music we create and the world we try to create around the albums has more to do with what’s fascinating to us at the moment.”
What’s really engaging the band right now is the overarching concept that ties together everything within the ‘Give Me The Future’ era. Taking some cues from their previous clever hype tactics, the band conceptually stepped things up a notch. “We’ve always enjoyed when the music is done, extending the world both for ourselves and trying to create something interesting for people to hear the songs in context,” says Dan. “We did it with our second album when we made a big fictional dystopian media conglomerate to announce and surround everything around the songs and the tour. Living through the weird post-2016 times it was a way to let off steam and try and minimise through taking the piss out of the mad changing climate of the world and the news.
“With this album, in relating to technology and how it’s such a huge part of everyone’s lives for better or worse, we thought it would be interesting to create a big tech company called Future Inc. It has this amazing new immersive technology called Futurescape which you put on your head, and it’s basically the next logical step from VR, and it allows you to go into the inner verse within your brain and go anywhere, be anyone or do anything.”
Either worryingly or excitingly, the band’s vision is eerily close to what potentially might happen in actual real life. “It’s a hybridised version of VR and video games and your imagination and allowing for limitless possibilities which, to be honest, we don’t feel that far from at the moment,” reflects Dan.
So, is the fictional Bastille tech overlords of Future Inc a benevolent socially conscious force for good, or are they an evil global empire? “No one will ever really know the true history or intentions of the big tech companies,” answers Dan. “I cling on to the idea that maybe as well as just rampant capitalism, there was some kind of positive social intent in their aims and also probably quite a healthy dose of not having a fucking idea of what’s happening or what’s going on. We’re all living through the consequences of that, so the idea with Futurescape was to nod to that and to have an arc throughout this campaign that jumped around in time. It started with this tech company that seemed to be very commercially driven but a quite positive escapist mechanism that allowed for distraction and communication. Over the course of the music videos, like we do in the ‘Distorted Light Beam’ video, we see how that taken on through time periods could become really destructive. The idea was, let’s jump to way in the future to a time when people are so addicted to being in the innerverse because it’s way more exciting and fun than real life because reality has been entirely neglected.”
Of course, all this conceptual, thought-provoking, and often playful and clever stuff would look rather silly if the music didn’t cut the mustard. As ever, Bastille have got your back, though. This album has bangers. Perhaps the biggest Bastille bangers yet. More overtly electronic and dancefloor centric than their previous albums, it’s a headlong fevered rush through a vivid fantasy world. “There are so many versions of the future that exist in the history of film and literature that we can dip, pick and choose and make our own version of that,” says Dan exuberantly. “That’s what we wanted to use it to explore. It’s a tool to escape.”
On tracks like single ‘Thelma & Louise’, you’re wonderfully swept up by the carefree escapist abandon of the two characters based on the famous 80s film while ‘Club 57’ sees the band imagining they could time travel to the club scene of 80s New York and party all night. Limitless futuristic possibilities in action. This song also notably contains the best example of whistling on record in the last 40 years. “I whistled on the demo, and then our friend Jack who works at the studio and is really good friends with Kyle is famed in the friendship group for being a top-notch whistler,” laughs Dan. Shouts to the whistling maestro Jack.
Elsewhere though, the band bring it down a touch for a heartbreaking moment that exemplifies the beautifully balanced emotional push and pull of the album from possibility to despair. ‘No Bad Days’ is about Dan’s aunt in Australia, who was one of the first people in the state to make the brave choice of choosing the recently legalised option of assisted dying. It’s a real goosebumps moment that marks a creative peak for the band.
As the band embrace their own future and move into 2022, Bastille have made some subtle but important changes. No longer working solely on their own, Dan brought some other people into the mix like top-notch songwriter Ryan Tedder, amazing vocalist Bim and actor and rapper Riz Ahmed who all contributed to the album. “It turned out to be the most collaborative album we’ve ever made,” says Dan. “I wanted it to be a really communal record. We had set the challenge for me to let go a bit and enjoy bringing other people into the process in terms of co-writing and production. I think it’s all the better for that. It’s still very much us, and we made it predominantly at our place. I’ve thought and overthought every detail and every little bit. It was different, but that’s what we set out to do: to do things differently and push ourselves to develop through throwing out our old ways of working as much as possible. That was the aim.”
‘Give Me The Future’ represents something of a creative rebirth for Bastille, newly energised and ultra-vivid. They’re a band who can do it all. They can make niche cult mixtapes, they can experiment with filmmakers, they can top the charts, and they can headline festivals. They do it all with an infectious passion and enthusiasm, constantly driving forward and constantly searching for a better future.
Taken from the February 2022 edition of Dork, out now. Bastille’s album ‘Give Me The Future’ is out 4th February.