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An Interview With Bastille’s Dan Smith

Article Ref: #BastilleInterview

Ines Punessen - 14th June 2012

The Pro Audio Web Blog

The ground on the fifth floor of London's Scala is shaking. Short confusion – then the realisation, it is the Tube running between Kings Cross and Angel. Dan Smith, mastermind of Bastille, who is late putting the guest list together for their sold-out Scala show turns to me and says with a grin: "It is quite disconcerting that we notice this up here, especially when I look at those porous walls. Don't inspect that any closer." Bastille is regarded as one of the most promising new EMI acts, playing electro pop. No, please try not to roll your eyes at the prospect at yet another Two Door Cinema Club incarnation. The quartet differs from other bands´ light-heartedness, is it due to the complexly placed tempo changes or Dan's authentic, melancholic voice, giving his songs depth and maturity.

The release of their debut album is planned for the end of this year or early 2013. Until then, appearances are lined up for various festivals, including Reading and Leeds Festival, as well as some European shows. Dan's foible for David Lynch is clearly displayed on his ‘chest’, wearing a 'Lost Highway' T-shirt. Sitting on an uncomfortably looking office chair he appears to be nervous, attentive and incredibly modest. A trait the record label people will be amazed by at the aftershow party.

TPAWB: Your gig at Scala tonight is your biggest headliner show to date. How are you feeling about that?

Dan: I am feeling completely baffled that that many people bought tickets to come and see us. I think it is completely crazy. I am really nervous. I always get really nervous and obviously there's a little bit of excitement in there as well. My head is a bit all over the place to be honest.

TPAWB: What are you doing against your nervousness?

Dan: For me the worst time before a gig is between the sound check and the gig. It is the waiting around when I get really, really nervous. So I am just doing as much stuff to distract myself as possible. As we all live in London we've got lots of friends coming, so I'm just gonna go and try to distract myself by hanging out with my friends.

TPAWB: Where is the rest of the band? Did they just leave you on your own being a nervous wreck?

Dan: *laughs* They are all downstairs. I think we've all got our families coming tonight, so everyone's got people to entertain and look after.

TPAWB: Did I pronounce your band name correctly?

Dan: In French it´s like 'Bastiii' but we pronounce it Bastille because we're English and I think it would be a bit embarrassing if we tried to speak French... Badly.

TPAWB: It might be quite difficult to get the crowd used to the French pronunciation as well.

Dan: Yeah. 'Bastiiiii' (exaggerating the French accent)... What?

TPAWB: You were born on Bastille Day, consequently the name of the band. Other than that, I was wondering whether you might have a special connection to Paris or France in general?

Dan: It's more that as someone who doesn't really have a connection to France, to have had this all my life, especially when I was much younger at school and learning French, every time you'd say your birthday and the teacher would always go: “Ah Bastille, Bastille!” I never knew what it meant until I was a bit older. For me, it's the lack of a connection but the fact that this day exists and obviously, no one that I know celebrating Bastille Day – hopefully people who I know are celebrating my birthday (laughs). I don´t really have a connection to France but Bastille Day is something which a lot of English people don't even know what it is, but has always been very fleetingly there in my life just because of its connection to my birthday in a weird, egotistical way.

TPAWB: So how was it then to finally be in Paris, supporting Keane?

Dan: It was wicked. It was really fun. I made our tour manager drive us to the Place de Bastille, where the Bastille used to be. I dragged all the guys in the band out and made us have photos taken in front of the underground station and all the signs. Basically everywhere there was a sign that said Bastille I was like: “Stop, we have to do a photo!” They were all very embarrassed of me but I didn't care because the novelty of being there was awesome. We had a really fun gig there supporting Keane. I think probably quite a lot more people came down to see us than probably would have just because of the name. I reckon that name sparked a lot of French people's curiosity. It is really disappointing that we're not French and that we don't have a French connection. The best question that I ever got was: “In calling yourself Bastille, is that a comment on the fact that you're hoping to revolutionise the state of the music industry and music in general?” No, it's just my birthday, sorry.

TPAWB: It's so cute that someone thinks that far.

The Pro Audio Web BlogDan: No, it's awesome. I wish I was that thoughtful.

TPAWB: What response have you received from the French with regards to your band name?

Dan: When we played in Paris I was really paranoid about saying Bastille in an English accent because I thought they'd laugh me off the stage.

TPAWB: Did you pronounce it in French then?

Dan: No, I pronounced it in English. I was getting out of it in the last minute. I was gonna say “Bastiiii”, then I was like, it probably sounds worse trying to put on a French accent then just holding your hands up and admitting to be very English. I can't really tell what their reaction of the name was but they seem to like the music which was good.

TPAWB: So you haven't talked to any French people at all?

Dan: I suppose everyone is just curious as to why we're called Bastille when we're not French. No one shouted at us yet. “Why are you taking our national holiday in vain?” (imitates an angry tone) No, we haven't had that yet – luckily.

TPAWB: Are there any character traits you have never lost since you were a child? Any flaws?

Smith: I don't know (thinks about it for a moment). I'm quite awkward in the way that I am probably quite self-conscious as I think a lot of people are. Especially when it comes to my music. I've always made songs by myself and written by myself because I'd always be worried about what other people would think.

TPAWB: I read that you studied at Leeds University. What course did you study there?The Pro Audio Web Blog

Dan: English literature.

TPAWB: What was the aim of studying that?

Dan: I wanted to be a journalist − a film critic and write about films. I really wanted to write for a film magazine. I did English at school and really enjoyed it and wanted to do a degree in something that wasn't vocational. Yes, it was English and I really enjoyed it.

TPAWB: How come you didn't pursue it after your graduation?

Dan: When I left university I was just starting to play music publicly and I moved back to London. I was working, doing a bunch of pretty rubbish jobs to earn money and was applying for courses. I got onto a couple of Masters courses in journalism and I was doing music, and I think music just grabbed my attention a little bit more. Things started to happen with music and I realised it's a lot of work to be a journalist. (Lifts his voice) It wasn't either or but I think if I had pursued journalism I definitely wouldn't have enough time or energy to put into music. I think (pauses), I'm hopefully a better musician than I would have been a journalist. But I've got no idea (giggles a bit).

TPAWB: Can you tell me a bit about your remix album Other People's Heartache and why you have settled on those songs?

Dan: I made it with Mark, the guy that I've co-produced the album with. In the middle of making our album this year I got glandular fever, I got a bit ill so I had to take a few weeks off. I can´t remember where it came from really but I think I became a bit worried about how long it would be before the album would get released and how long it had been since we put new music out. I just really wanted to do something for fun, with no pressure and so we picked a whole lot of songs that I kind of remembered fondly. (Lifts his voice) Some songs that I thought people would recognise, that would be in their sub conscience but that they wouldn't ever think of on a day to day basis. There are slightly more bizarre, older songs which also were just in my mind really good songs, regardless of how cheesy they were. They had big choruses, good hooks and all that kind of stuff. We just picked those songs and then didn't listen to them at all and tried to produce them as if they were one of my songs from scratch. So they are not particularly faithful to the originals. We just did it for fun really and wanted to throw everything at it. All the films that I love, music that I love and don´t necessarily like but I think we could do justice to. It was an opportunity to collaborate with lots of my friends in other bands and people that I'd worked with. I had such a good time making it. We did it in about a week and it was just a kind of mini labour of love to get us back into the recording process.

TPAWB: So how did this work with regards to lisencing? Do you need to get clearance for this sort of stuff?

Dan: I think it's horribly illegal (lowers his voice) which is why we put it up for free online.

TPAWB: Is that alright then?

Dan: That's what I think. I am not sure. When we made it we were worried it was illegal. I'm sure it probably is a little bit illegal but I think we haven't made any money out of it. We didn't want to make any money out of it. We just wanted to do it for fun and for free and put it out and for people to have it. What we hope is that it's something that is always there and if anyone stumbles upon us as a band, sees us live or hears one of our songs and if they get into our music there's gonna be this thing that exists. This album that they hopefully find at some point and then it's just like a nice surprise.

TPAWB: You wanted Bastille to appear as far as possible from being regarded as a singer songwriter project. How come?

Dan: I wanted Bastille to be a bit of a project. I wanted it to be something where I can really experiment with different sounds. I think I didn´t want it to be strictly a band because I like the freedom that working on your own allows you. I can do a really electronic song and then a song which is very bandy with massive string arrangements and then one which is just me and the piano, and I like the freedom that this gives you. But then, there are elements of being in a band that are brilliant. When we play live I completely see us as a band and we tour as a band and it's very democratic. I guess I just want to have my cake and eat it a little bit. I quite like having quite a lot of control over the music.

TPAWB: So why do you want to avoid the singer songwriter association? Do you feel uncomfortable with the attention?

Dan: Yea, I wanted to take away as much of the focus from me as possible because I don't particularly like attention in that way. Also, I think with both singer songwriters and bands, I think in other people's minds they'll hear one song and think:” Right, that´s their sound and they're gotta stick to that and it can be quite restrictive. I just wanted to give this whole project or band or whatever it is as much freedom to move from one way to the other. The sound of the mix tape that we made is quite far from some of our songs and I like that we're able to do that. I like that we have the freedom to do pretty much whatever we want.

TPAWB: You said in an interview that you wanted to create music with integrity which wasn't just disposable. In what way is your music different to other stuff that is around?

Dan: For me, it's hard to answer that question because I am so involved in it and therefore to see it objectively. But what I hope people get from our album or our music is a whole lot of songs that are hopefully sonically quite different. Like from song to song, I try and do something different on each – production wise or whatever. But at hopefully the core of all that are, what I hope, good songs that people can get into and that are memorable and that are essentially pop music and pop songs because that is what I think can really draw you in. Like I said I think people perceive pop to be something that is disposable and doesn't have any thought put into it because there is a lot of that. And I just hope that in the songwriting, there are songs that people can get into and that they don't isolate or challenge you too much but at the same time there's depth in them lyrically and complexity in them in terms of the production.

TPAWB: It seems you are very interested in and inspired by films. Where can this be traced back to?

Dan: When I was a kid I really wanted to be a film director and I was always obsessed with films when I was growing up. When I was a teenager I really loved the films of David Lynch, I loved Mulholland Drive, I loved the TV show Twin Peaks, Lost Highway is brilliant, The Elephant Man. All of his films, I think they are amazing. I really like the film Requiem for a Dream which was really dark and directed by Darren Aronofsky. He also directed a film called Pi. I've never really had a favourite film but have always been into like interesting cinema.

The Pro Audio Web BlogTPAWB: In what way has David Lynch influenced Bastille musically and visually?

Dan: What I think a lot of people really appreciate in David Lynch is his ability to project potentially everyday situations but subvert them with an underlying darkness and to make you feel a bit uncomfortable. I don't know if there's necessarily Lynch traits running through our music but I think I am influenced by him visually. I think his visuals are amazing, just that whole sense of there being a slightly darker side, a slight unease. Hopefully those are the things that I have taken from him. (Pause) I just love his stuff (laughs) and want to find ways to clumsily signpost how much I love it.

TPAWB: I got the impression that you have you drawn on that mystical component often associated with David Lynch's work in your music.

Dan: With the songs, I like to think of each individually and I guess when I'm writing them maybe each one is its own little world and I suppose I probably write in my head quite cinematically. In terms of hopefully creating these weird, slightly separate environments, maybe in that way I take inspiration from him.

TPAWB: How did the Yeasayer remix of ‘Overjoyed’ come about?

Dan: That's the one I am really happy to be signed to a label. I am a huge, huge Yeasayer fan and I just asked someone at the label: “Do you think there's any chance Yeasayer might want to do it?” My manager just emailed them and they were up for doing it. I loooove Yeasayer; they are so good.

TPAWB: I love them too.

Dan: (Getting excited) Just imagine how mental it was for me to have one of my favourite bands remixing one of my songs. My manager just phoned and said: “It's happening!”

TPAWB: What do you think of the result then?

Dan: I thought it had some interesting ideas. It maybe wasn't what I was expecting but I really like it.

TPAWB: I expected some funky, Indian elements, something really upbeat.

Dan: It was a lot more down than I was expecting it. Our song ‘Overjoyed’ is quite down, so I was hoping that they'd sort of inject some mental, trippy danciness into it which they didn't. There definitely are ideas and elements in it which I think are brilliant.

TPAWB: Have you noticed any samples they might have used in the remix?

Dan: Not that I can hear from having listened to it. It would have been nice if they did (laughs).

TPAWB: You mentioned earlier that your friend Mark is involved in the production process of the upcoming album. Who is he?​

Dan: He is called Mark Crew and he is a friend of mine and we are co-producing the whole album together.

TPAWB: Is he also involved in the songwriting?

Dan: No, not at all. I basically take the songs to him almost fully formed and then we record stuff and bounce ideas off each other and that's where the songs come from really. I met him through music, he went to uni with Woody who plays drums in the band.

TPAWB: And that was in Guildford?

Dan: Check you out. Yea, so I met him through Woody and we started working together and I haven't really ever worked with anyone else since. I get on with him really well, he's really easy to work with and he's very, very talented at what he does. I'm working with him on Bastille, I'm doing the hip hop stuff with him as well and me and Ralph who is the singer of To Kill A King who are also playing tonight, we've got another band which we'The Pro Audio Web Blogd started a little while ago. We're gonna record the album with Mark in September. I can't really imagine not working with Mark. He very much is the fifth member of Bastille. He's here today but he wouldn't want to come on tour with us. I don't blame him for that either.

TPAWB: Are you too mental on tour?

Dan: No, but I'm sure we would piss him off. Obviously, when making the album, it's just me and him in a room quite solidly and it has been like this for three months. I probably spent more time with him than anyone else for a while. So I guess it's good to have a break from people. Go off on tour and hang out with some other people for a while.

TPAWB: Are you still planning to name your album Bad Blood?

Dan: I think so. Our next single is called ‘Bad Blood’.

TPAWB: What does it sound like?

Dan: It's quite dark, it's got a big children's choir singing and backing vocals. It's the last song that I wrote, it's the most recent song that I wrote so it's quite satisfying to have written a song and then (snaps his fingers) releasing it straight away. I was determined for the album to be called Bad Blood but because the next single is called ‘Bad Blood’ I now feel a bit weird, I feel like maybe I should come up with a new name for it.

TPAWB: Bad Blood could be understood as an ode to Yeasayer's Odd Blood, couldn't it?

Dan: That's the other reason. Some people at our record label were worried that it sounded like I was just copying Yeasayer (laughs).

TPAWB: It's such a good album you might as well…

Dan: Call it Odd Blood.

TPAWB: We don't want to push it too far.

Dan: Or do a covers album of all of Odd Blood.

Ines Punessen

End Of Interview

Photography: © 2012 Katie Sara Anderson - Vanilla Collective