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The Escape Artists: Bastille on abandoning reality for their future-gazing fourth album

For their forthcoming album, Bastille want to transport their fans to a different, futuristic world. Read their Rolling Stone UK cover story in full

By Elizabeth Aubrey

Bastille's Rolling Stone cover shoot (Picture: Rolling Stone UK/Danny Kasirye)

Bastille are attempting to fit onto a small black couch in a studio in east London. They’re struggling to get their faces into full view on the laptop screen and so squeeze up some more. Bass player Kyle Simmons perches on the left arm of the sofa next to frontman Dan Smith, who he asks to “budge up”. Drummer Chris “Woody” Wood sits snugly next to Dan and guitarist Will Farquarson bookends the quartet, all four squashed together and sinking awkwardly into the sofa until they find their balance.

“We’ve not done this for a while,” Smith laughs as all four wave enthusiastically, their beaming smiles lighting up the screen. The group are still acclimatising to life back together after an 18-month period which largely involved them creating and communicating at a distance through technology, thanks to the pandemic. Apart from that, for the past 11 years, the London electropop group have rarely spent more than a few weeks apart.

Formed back in 2010, Bastille released Twin Peaks-inspired EP ‘Laura Palmer’ independently before signing a record deal soon afterwards. That EP, like the trilogy of critically acclaimed albums which followed it: 2013’s Bad Blood – which went straight to number one and was Britain’s biggest selling digital album that year; 2016’s Wild World and 2019’s Doom Days,combined Smith’s love of film and music. Before being in a band, he dreamed of being a film journalist or a filmmaker. Indeed, Smith puts his cinematic skills into action today, tweaking the camera until it’s just right and all four are in full view.

The band have recently found themselves performing together on stage for the first time in more than a year, headlining Standon Calling and Latitude Festival with Re-Orchestrated – a pre-pandemic project which saw the group re-imagine their songs with a full live orchestra. Getting back on stage felt strange, they say, especially as the detrimental effects of the pandemic on the music industry are still painfully apparent.

“There was a really tough, weird moment recently,” says Simmons, talking about the band’s pre-gigs rehearsals. Usually, he explains, they struggle to find a venue that’s free to practise in. Now, crushingly, there were more than ever. “We practised in Brixton Academy, which was the weirdest feeling. Going to rehearsals in this venue that we have grown up with, been to see shows in for years and played a bunch of times ourselves… to go in there and see a venue that we have so much love for be free for us to rehearse in, it was crazy and quite sad,” he sighs.

The others nod in agreement. “It was so surreal,” Smith adds. “We were so lucky when we came up as a band. We played all the small venues, all the pubs and clubs, slept on floors, crashed at mates’ houses, drove up and down the country a million times and we worked up to play venues like Brixton. Seeing it empty like that…” he trails off and shakes his head. “It was a strange, horrible feeling.”

Wood says it was “maddening” how long it took for Government help to come for small, grassroots venues, something he describes as “frank incompetence”. He continues: “The entire thing was so short-sighted. You’ve got certain politicians banging on about Global Britain and how we are the ‘best’ and all this sort of thing, but they don’t understand how it works. It’s all a pyramid. Without the grassroots venues that everyone talks about, without the base, there is no through route for bands to develop and grow and become genuinely world-class performers and exports. They’re not taking care of the foundations of the whole thing.”

Smith helped to co-found record label, Best Laid Plans, with Mark Crew and Dan Piddy in 2014 and he’s seen first-hand the damaging effects of the past year on young artists who rely on income from live gigs. Coupled with the effects of Brexit on touring in Europe (few UK artists can afford the cost of travel visas needed to tour there now), Smith says a whole generation of artists are going to miss out unless change comes.

“Having worked a bit recently too with people like Griff and Holly Humberstone, I’ve heard about how strange it is to have this ascent from your bedroom without live music or Europe. It must be so surreal. It’s heartbreaking for young artists to not get to experience Europe, to not have that freedom of movement we did. From our perspective, we’ll do everything we can to take a bunch of bands on the road with us when we go to Europe and try to give that opportunity to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

“As a band who were lucky enough to start out at a time where those things were possible and were lucky to have had a bit of success, I think it’s our responsibility to do everything we can to help to lend a voice to this campaign. But you’ve also got Elton John screaming about it in the mainstream press and it still isn’t being listened to, which feels kind of paralysing. You’ve got to hope that some sense is seen and there’s a way around it.”

Bastille pose for Rolling Stone UK
Bastille pose for Rolling Stone UK (Picture: Danny Kasirye/Rolling Stone UK)

Bastille’s last album, Doom Days, was a riposte to the UK’s dire political situation post Brexit. Structured around a single night out, it saw friends sheltering from the bleakness of the world outside, instead getting lost on the dance floor. Well be the proud Remainers / Here till the morning breaks us”, Smith growled on 90s-inspired dance-track ‘Bad Decisions’ where music became an escape to a post-Brexit Britain marked by division. Little did they know when they started thinking about the idea for album four in 2019, just how much worse things would get.

“It’s literally been the stuff of movies, albeit apocalyptic movies,” Smith says, reflecting on the challenges of the past year. The only way he coped, he says, was through keeping frantically busy.

“I realised recently that I never actually stopped over lockdown,” he says, in response to his “pandemic anxiety”. He adds: “I was just, like, ‘Right, I’ve got to stay busy. I made so much music, I was writing every day, I even ran this film club online when everyone got bored of fucking quizzes. My way of dealing with all this,” he says, making a vast globe shape with his hands, “was, like, ‘Right, you’ve got to just keep going, keep going,” he says. He even spent half his week volunteering at a food bank in between online sessions writing music with the band.

He’d chanced on an idea for the group’s next album prior to lockdown at an Edinburgh Fringe Festival show in 2019 which, once the pandemic hit, became eerily prescient. “I saw a comedy show [starring comedian Jonny Pelham] that dealt with the idea of something called maladaptive daydreaming,” Smith explains. He’d never heard of the concept before but was so fascinated by it that he went off to immediately find out more. “It’s a condition that some people have. They’re able to live in a parallel life for almost half the day in these daydreams that they can control.”

The comedian, he recalls, used it as a way of coping with childhood trauma. “He was living as a pirate – a captain of a ship for half his life,” he laughs. “It was brilliant, funny, incredibly dark and complicated and I got interested in making a record around the idea that you could use the power of your mind to go anywhere and do whatever you want,” he says, explaining that he envisaged it as a means for people to build worlds with their imaginations in a bid to escape the everyday.

Pre-Covid, that might have been people wanting to escape political division, but when the pandemic hit at a time when everyone was trapped inside, the idea of escaping to another world, Inception-like, became an attractive concept for the album – whose title is yet to be released. The group took the idea and invented Futurescape, a device which allows users to live out their dreams in virtual reality. Listeners journey via Futurescape into worlds within worlds, dreamlike alternative realities (Janelle Monáe’s sci-fi opus The ArchAndroid was a conceptual touchstone) with vast electronic soundscapes and lush synth harmonies soundtracking the journey.

Smith cites Blade Runner, Total Recall and The Matrix as influences for the dystopian idea of why people want to escape realities, but also films like Thelma & Louise and Back To The Future for the escapist part – both of the films are used as song titles on the album. “I started writing all these songs inspired by film worlds that I’d want to go and be in as well as fictional narratives that I’d want to escape to,” Smith explains. The album’s first single, ‘Distorted Light Beam’, encapsulates this concept well.

Bastille's Dan Smith poses for Rolling Stone UK
Bastille’s Dan Smith poses for Rolling Stone UK (Picture: Rolling Stone UK/ Danny Kasirye)

“‘Distorted Light Beam’ sets up the idea that you can go anywhere and do anything, this ability to go through space and time and travel into fiction,” reveals Smith. “The first stop then on that tour is [recent single] ‘Thelma + Louise’. Why wouldn’t you want to be transporting yourself into an early-90s American desert as part of a ridiculously feminist iconic masterpiece? Why wouldn’t you want to be driving through the desert, running away from the police, shooting off a cliff? Isn’t it just a brilliant classic image of escapism at its purest?’” he says, laughing.

Smith sounds eager to escape the real world through his imagination. Does he feel like that often? He says he thinks we all do. “We live in incredibly fucked up, complicated times where politically the world is all over the place and that’s often really confusing,” he says, talking about the current political landscape and especially the last year.

“We’ve all had to face a lot of challenges [in recent years], be it, like, things happening to ourselves, our families, our minds, or whatever circumstance life throws at you. But I think there are moments in all our lives where you want to maybe not be yourself or be a different version of yourself or be out of the circumstances that you’re in because you might feel a bit trapped in them.”

Speaking to Smith alone later after the band’s Rolling Stone UK cover shoot, he is shy, self-effacing and nervous. “I’m rambling, aren’t I?” he says often; “Does that make sense?” is another go-to. In Bastille’s early days at the height of their fame, you’d struggle to see Smith front and centre at all – be it in a video, on stage or doing much album promotion. He’s a reluctant frontman, someone who prefers privacy and who suffers from, in his words, “imposter syndrome” – despite the huge success Bastille has garnered.

“I guess getting in front of the camera to do a lot of the things you do in a band has often felt odd and unnatural to me,” he explains. “When Bastille first started, I was very keen for it to be this project where people didn’t really know who it was and what it was about. I had this probably quite naïve notion that the music could exist and there’d be these songs that people loved and they wouldn’t want to know or care about who they came from.”

Offers to do major television appearances flew in, but Smith turned them down. “We didn’t do any television ever,” he says, shrugging. “I was turning down a lot of interviews and panel shows, being a judge on The X Factor and all these things that I just didn’t want to do,” he says. Other opportunities included invites to go on Saturday Night Live with Leonardo DiCaprio, or shows like Letterman, Conan OBrien, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

“They were all amazing offers, but it wasn’t what I ever wanted out of all this. The fame side of it at the beginning really freaked me out, and I think, much to the frustration of the rest of the band, our managers and the label, I was just, like: ‘Can we turn everything down?’”Although he managed to avoid putting himself front and centre in the UK, when the band went across to America for a year early on in their career, it was a different prospect altogether. “Here, that idea just didn’t fly,” Smith laughs. “People were much less sympathetic. They were, like, Shut the fuck up. Go do that television show right now and do that red carpet,’” he recalls, recounting the imperatives that were thrown at him and the band daily.

“There was a disconnect, for me, between being someone who loves and watches music, film, comedy and culture and then suddenly being in that actual situation and expected to be a pro and really confident and slick,” he says. “No one teaches you how to do it. There were no kind of advice-giving figures in my life, and we didn’t know any other people in the music industry coming up and through at the same time… I guess none of us knew what to expect.”

Behind the scenes, Smith was in fact suffering from crippling anxiety. At that point in the music industry, conversations about mental health were almost non-existent and in especially male-dominated environments, speaking about emotions and feelings was often discouraged. One way it manifested itself and got worse, Smith says, was when he went on stage.

“There are so many wonderful positive things about playing shows, but me as a person, I’m maybe not suited to being up on stage,” he says, opening up more about the struggles he’s faced performing live over the years. “It’s strange because a lot of people who’ve seen us play assume I’m really confident and I’m not. I get really nervous and a good 40 or 50 per cent of gigs for me is like a mild or intense state of panic.”

Getting into music happened while Smith was studying English Literature at Leeds University. He was happily creating music alone in his bedroom when his friends encouraged him to enter a talent contest. Back in 2016, he spoke about how he “had to drink quite a bit to get up on stage” at that same talent show, to quell his nerves.

“One of the last things I could ever have imagined wanting to do would have been standing up on stage in front of lots of people that I don’t know and embarrassing myself by trying to sing. I guess there’s always been a real sort of dissonance there. I love writing songs and making music, but having to do it in front of other people has always felt a bit unnatural to me, which is mad because there are so many people who dream of being the centre of attention and who thrive from that. I just happened to not be one of those people… The reality is that, even after ten years of playing gigs, I’m still never totally comfortable with doing them.

“It wasn’t even really a thing I’ve had to battle. Getting up on stage in front of people – as nerve-wracking as I might find it, and always have found it – it’s just a part of being in a band, obviously. For all the battles I’ve had with it in my head, it’s never stopped me from doing it. I don’t know what that says about me.”

He continues: “I think it comes back to me feeling I’ve always had imposter syndrome in a big way. I’m someone that always wanted to write about a film, who always wanted to be a journalist, so I maybe come at things from a slightly cynical perspective – I’m a really cynical fucker” he says, before adding, vulnerably. “I think I’m my worst critic, my biggest critic and our [the group’s] worst critic as well, so that’s a weird, slightly unhealthy narrative that’s always running through my head.”

Asking Smith where he thinks his anxiety and self-confidence issues come from, he says he’s ready to speak more about that now, too. Throughout the album are hints that the process of maladaptive daydreaming, the process of becoming other characters or inhabiting other worlds, has perhaps made that possible for him. It’s a big deal for Smith talking about this, too: ten years ago, he’d struggle to speak at all in interviews – “I’ve always battled with not wanting to be a public voice and not really wanting to draw any more attention than is required to [myself]” – he says. But after a couple of deep breaths and time to think, he explains.

“I think I was a pretty shy teenager, and I was a pretty heavy kid, too,” Smith says, referring to his weight when he was younger. “When I was in the summer of my third year of university, I ended up unintentionally losing a load of weight. I think I went from about 17 stone to 11 stone over a really short period of time, which was a pretty massive physical transformation. I’d always been a large kid and then a larger young adult, so that was stitched into my identity and how I saw myself. In a weird way, it’s still how I see myself, because those were my formative years. So even after losing a lot of weight, I’ve always been self-conscious and awkward around how I look.”

Smith has gone a lifetime without assigning a label to what he had, but now he thinks he can. “I’ve not ever articulated this publicly and I think I’ve just carried that kind of self-consciousness with me. I guess I probably have a level of body dysmorphia,” he says, explaining that he can still feel a significant disconnect between how he looks now and how he did in the past. “It’s interesting chatting to other people who lost a load of weight for whatever reason. In the same way that we carry loads of stuff around from our teenage years or our early adult life through the rest of our life, I guess you carry this, too.”

Understanding more about where his anxiety came from has been life-changing, he says, after years of it being something he hadn’t “pathologised or diagnosed”. He’s gone from being unable to speak about it, to doing so candidly, verbosely and with care. The magnitude of that for Smith feels huge, especially when he says that for years, he couldn’t even think about it.

“Stupidly, I didn’t get any help for a really long time. I always just saw it as ‘nerves’ and I think I was quite quick to dismiss it as ‘Well, everyone gets nervous and it’s strange to get up in front of people [on stage].’ Over the past eight to ten years, I definitely didn’t take good care of myself in that regard. I’ve started to address it much more in the past few years and it’s been helpful to label and normalise it.”

What’s helped him, too, he says, is the shifting conversation on mental health in the music industry. He breathes a heavy sigh of relief talking about it today and beams. “I think it’s brilliant,” he says. “There’s been this massive shift generally in how people talk about their lived experience in a much more open way. It feels like there is so much more openness now around mental health and struggles and hopefully a bigger understanding and empathy for the huge range of things that other people have to go through. Ultimately, despite how together a lot of people look, everyone’s going through shit in their heads. Regardless of what you do and what your life is, that’s just the reality.”

The impact of technology on mental health is something the album explores in detail. Their ‘Futurescape’ VR has been created by a fictional company they invented called ‘Future Inc’ who serve as a device to explore nefarious big-giant technology companies and their motives. As well as the negative effects of technology on mental health, its positives are also addressed, something Smith says was inverted thanks to the pandemic when we all relied on technology to keep us together – and in the case of Bastille, keep them making music.

“We looked at these songs in the context of the pandemic and how our admittedly already rather fucked-up relationship with technology went fully up its own arse and Inception-ed itself because of these two years we’ve all had, missing each other and being locked inside.

“I guess a desire to escape, a desire to be somewhere else, a desire to distract yourself and our relationship to technology, these all collided with each other and became this album. It really plays with ideas of what it is to be human, what it is to have an identity and your sense of self in a time where it’s so easy to manipulate that online and choose who you want to be, choose if you want to spend your time living in a video game as an avatar or just losing yourself in other worlds, in fiction.”

The album’s accompanying videos and artwork expand into what Smith describes as “a whole world”, in a move that embraced his inner-film geek and wannabe David Lynch (Bastille’s songs are peppered throughout with references to him and his works). Videos for the new album blur the lines between AI and real life more and they’ve even teamed up with technology companies to explore this further. Is the next logical step for a frontman who shies away from the limelight to go full-on AI?

“We are working with these engineers who are trying to create an AI that can spit out a new Bastille song,” Smith reveals, laughing. Farquarson chimes in at this point. “Give it five weeks and we won’t have a job any more,” he smiles, the group laughing some more, as they re-join Smith on the sofa. “I think for a lot of people, like Dan,” he deadpans, “the idea of AI making music is horrifying. For us, we very much feel like you’ll always need people and the soul of a person to make a song that will resonate. But this technology is happening, it exists. Why not, if we can engage with it, why don’t we see how it works, what it looks like?”

“I think the anxious wreck in me early on, when our music was successful and I didn’t want to be famous and I really didn’t want to be in the spotlight, I realised the joys of having a song called ‘Laura Palmer’ [a Twin Peaks character] and all these other film references in our music meant that it just allowed me to talk about things… other than me. Having this ‘Futurescape’ world is actually quite liberating because it allows us to step back, and the world can do the talking for the album in quite a nice way.”

Right now, Smith is channelling his inner Lynch and directing an upcoming video for the band for the first time on his own. A few years ago, he even got the chance to work with his hero, writing a song for Lynch and heading over to his house for a cup of coffee. “Hearing the words ‘coffee come out of David Lynch’s mouth as a Twin Peaks fan was just triggering in the most wonderful way,” he laughs. “The coffee was like fucking rocket fuel!” Lynch opened the door to Smith covered in paint from a project he was working on in his studio and welcomed him inside.

They bonded over Shepherd Bush Empire (Lynch shot scenes for The Elephant Man there, while Smith spent his youth there at gigs) and a love of film and music. “I remember it so vividly. I was sitting there sweating, a massive smile on my face. I had to stop myself from asking him the nerdiest questions because I get really star-struck by people that I admire. It took a lot of concentration to play it cool!”

After that, the group are looking forward to touring again. “We all care about each other and look out for each other,” Simmons says, with Wood and Farquarson agreeing in unison when it comes to that, seemingly knowing just how tough it’s been at times for Smith. “It’s a weird life, but I think we’ve always tried to find normality within it,” Smith says. “We’ve also totally changed our live set-up,” he beams, sounding content rather than nervous now. 

“We basically made everything as electronic as possible. We’ve got a few interesting developments and surprises in that respect that we are quite excited about. The visuals are hugely important to us, too, so when we go out to tour next year, hopefully, the show will live up visually to people’s expectations. We’re going to use technology and collaborate with people in a way that will be fun and interesting and very new for us. It’s brought us so much freedom.”

One of the album’s lead songs, ‘Give Me The Future’, captures the contentment Smith and the band feel after years of work. I got two open eyes, now Im on the other side… I could be anything… so give me the future, its golden and bright.” As the best and most surprising album of their career to date, it feels like Bastille are ready to embrace the future, in whatever form should it take, through reality or through the glorious filter of their vivid imaginations.