2013 has been a remarkable year for Bastille. The band’s full-length debut, Bad Blood, went straight to the top of the album charts when it was released in the U.K. in March. The Haunt EP, which introduced Bastille to U.S. audiences, entered Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart at No. 1 in June. “Pompeii” – included on both Haunt and Bad Blood – has become one of the standout tracks of the year, with over half a million downloads sold thus far. And the “Pompeii” video, directed by Jesse John Jenkins (The Vaccines, Peace), has racked up more than 36 million views.
Dan Smith, the founder of Bastille, envisioned the “Pompeii” clip as the novel I Am Legend if it were shot by the director of Drive, which hints at how inextricably intertwined music, film and literature are in his creative process. His earliest ambition was, quite simply, to be a storyteller; that music would be his métier was a realization he came to years later.
Smith’s precocious love of horror movies as a child led to an appreciation of Dario Argento and esoteric European cinema. Later, Mulholland Drive pulled him into the world of David Lynch, whose work has proved highly influential on Smith. The song “Laura Palmer” uses the story of the mysterious murder victim from “Twin Peaks,” and for a while Dan even wore his hair in an Eraserhead cut as a nod to Lynch. Smith created a three-minute edit of the classic Terrence Malick film Badlands to serve as the video for his first indie single, 2011’s “Flaws”/”Icarus.” Visual elements are so integral to Bastille’s approach that the band launched a special website, Cinema Pompeii (http://www.cinemapompeii.com/), which features a handcrafted selection of videos and performances.
Although Smith is the driving force behind Bastille, writing and initially recording all of the songs in his bedroom, his music is ultimately collaborative. The rest of the band – bassist Will Farquarson, keyboard player Kyle Simmons and drummer Chris “Woody” Wood – appear on Bad Blood in varying capacities. The four musicians have been playing and touring together for more than two years – and all the midnight practices in dingy rehearsals studios, convened after they had finished work at their respective day jobs, have paid off. Together they exhibit an uncommon unity. While each has his main role in Bastille, they effortlessly trade places on vocals, keyboards and percussion, creating a musical tapestry interlaced with texture and experimentation.
The band’s spring 2013 U.K. headline tour sold out immediately, with all 44,000 tickets gone in a day, while the summer found Bastille on the bill at major festivals in the U.K. (including Glastonbury), Europe and Japan and selling out its first-ever U.S. shows.
Producer Mark Crew, the band’s “fifth member,” also plays a crucial role in Bastille. Smith and Crew’s relationship goes back to the beginning of Bastille and though the music they record together sounds lush and expensive, Bad Blood was actually recorded in a tiny room on limited equipment – apart from a day spent recording strings in the legendary Abbey Road Studios.
“We basically made the album in a studio the size of a cupboard, so it was one extreme to the other,” recalls Smith. “Producing the record, I wanted to offset epic sounding instrumentation with lyrics that combine intimate stories or conversation. The contrast was something that appealed to me.”
With Bad Blood, Smith aimed to approach each song differently. “I wanted each to be its own story with its own atmosphere which brings in different sounds and elements of production, incorporating aspects of the different genres and styles that I love: hip hop, indie, pop and folk,” he explains. “Film soundtracks can be broad and varied, but tied together by the film itself. I hope the album will be something like that, but held together by my voice and my songwriting, each song a scene or part of a bigger picture.”
Some of the songs on Bad Blood use historical and mythological characters as a starting point. Opening track and lead single “Pompeii” is one such epic in miniature, a conversation between two charred bodies, frozen in time, caught in the ash that engulfed the Roman city of sin.
“It’s a moment of reflection and introspection, but they’re trapped in time so it’s a moment that’ll go on forever,” observes Smith.
Other songs touch on the changing dynamics of relationships. “Bad Blood,” a story about losing an old friend through a falling out, suggests that despite the physical and emotional distance, the two are still intrinsically linked by their common past. “Things We Lost in Fire,” inspired by a friend whose family’s house burned down, tells of a couple who watch the metaphor of their relationship burn down and pick through the ashes.
“Weight of Living Pt II” concerns the realization that life has run away with you and that you’ve lost control. “It’s a terrifying thing to feel, but I wanted to make light of it by framing it in a really upbeat track, I didn’t want it to take itself too seriously,” says Dan. Finally, “Get Home” – in part a nod to Bret Easton Ellis’ stories of young people lost in hedonism – captures the feeling of being directionless and at a point of uncertainty, as the song’s out-of-it narrator wanders home after a night out. These themes were not intentional, but became apparent once Bad Blood was finished.
“Some of the album is about stepping back and looking at what kind of person you’ve become,” notes Smith. “It’s that dawning realization that everything has piled up on top of you and it’s up to you, as an adult, to sort yourself out.”
In a weird way, thanks to Bastille, Smith is doing exactly what he always intended: not only is he now making films for his songs (and reluctantly appearing in them, too), more importantly, he’s telling stories.
“I just somehow landed in a really lucky position where I’m able to bring together all these things that interest me,” says Smith. “Playing to thousands of people on our U.K. tour, selling out our very first shows in the States – it’s undeniably completely nuts. It’s been an amazing experience for us, but the goalposts always seem to change and widen. There’s always the next thing to think about…”
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