Bastille’s Wild World Knows What Year It Is
story / Erica Hawkins
photos / Annalise Kaylor
The song “Two Evils” is the seventh track off of British indie pop band Bastille’s sophomore album, Wild World. Lead singer Dan Smith and guitarist Will Farquarson play an acoustic version of the song during their live set, usually setting up in the back of the venue, illuminated by a single spotlight. Two Evils is also the name of a not so real coffee company created by ex-barista and current Bastille touring guitarist Charlie and the band’s merch guy and coffee enthusiast, Bryan. So, if the band can’t find a good cup of brew nearby during tour stops, they set up shop at the merch table.
I became privy to this while sitting across from Smith backstage of Atlanta’s Fox Theatre. The topic of nitro brew came up before we delved into the road to the band’s Wild, Wild World tour. These types of juxtapositions (i.e. fun coffee brand but also a serious intimate song) seem to be an ongoing theme with Bastille. The band has been known for writing depressing pop songs that are hard to not dance to.
Speaking of caffeine-induced energy, Dan Smith, the founder, singer-songwriter, and self-proclaimed maniac dancer of Bastille is very much like the music he creates; energetic, agreeable, and acutely aware.
We ate venue catering during the interview so he’d have time to digest before going on stage. Apparently, the same rules apply that apply to not eating right before you swim because of the aforementioned maniac dancing. He’s asked me twice if I’ve gotten enough food, I assure him I did.
He’d been this way the whole day. First making sure our photographer’s gotten enough portraits then pushing back time so she could grab more. He offered outfit ideas, asked if we needed help carrying equipment, all while talking about how beautiful the venue was. He had just left a tour of the theater with fans and had retained everything he learned. There was lots of talking, hand motions and run on sentences punctuated with good-natured expletives. Someone mentioned a Trump rally that took place at the venue, he immediately stopped his brows furrowed, he listened attentively.
Smith may just be the poster child of approachable; just your average everyday friendly grammy-nominated rock star who wants to make sure everyone’s had enough to eat, gotten enough photos, has enough to write about. In between bites of pot roast, I asked him if he ever thought Bastille was going to become the band, it is today.
“No, not at all. When I was growing up I didn’t even think about being in a band. I started making songs as a teenager but it was just for fun. It was a private thing and actually, the thought of playing it for anyone would’ve mortified me at the time.”
I was visibly taken aback by this. I let out a “really?” the likes of only a southern girl could muster. I’d seen Bastille live before and this guy treats the stage like a jungle gym.
“But yeah, totally. When I went to college, a lot of the people I lived with were people who became my best friends and were in bands. Me and all my friends would go and watch them play in pubs and I think eventually on a drunken night someone heard one of my songs then encouraged me to do more with it. One of my friends entered me into a competition that was run by the university that I ended up winning without knowing.” Winning the competition meant that Smith would get his first foray into public performance.
“One of the things it forced you to do was do a day at the studio, do a photoshoot, do an interview, and then do a gig. On like a really local level but it was the first time I’d done all those things and I’ve always been sort of super cynical and very kind of wary. I’m that kind of annoying guy who’s in a situation analyzing it as it’s happening,” he laughs, “I’m that annoying dick. It was hard but it made me do my first gig and it made me take the music out of my bedroom and figure out how to play it live with a loop pedal which was good and the process was sort of terrifying. But the fact that I kept doing shows after that even though I found them really nerve-racking meant that something was there, or that I had some sort of vague belief in what I was doing.”
Smith’s solo project was joined by keyboardist Kyle Simmons, guitarist and bassist Will Farquarson, and drummer Chris Wood, and that vague belief led to the band we hear today. Smith named the band after Bastille Day which coincides with his birthday. Their first album Bad Blood, sold more than four million copies worldwide, propelled by the single “Pompeii” which went five times platinum. But before being crowned “Brit pop’s new princes” it was all organic fan growth and putting music out into the world.
“It was that thing of starting out from scratch and putting great music out online to nobody. In the beginning, we were quite vague about it. I didn’t want people to think it was a band or not, I didn’t want people to know or care what it was. I made the logo in Microsoft paint and I just put up the logo and a shot of the back of somebody’s head and these songs and put them out. It’s one of those strange things, it sort of grew a life of its own and people started gravitating towards the songs which was kind of crazy. Then we started gigging. So we had these weird parallel parts where the songs are sort of growing and getting a life on the internet and I guess getting an audience, and then also gigging loads and so building up a bit of a live following in quite an old school way.
It was super DIY and really organic. It meant that things kind of grew but then they’d start to overlap. So we’d be in the north of England playing a show and it would be really busy then half of the people would know the words to songs we put online and you’d be like ‘fuck the dots start to connect.’ From quite early on it was this weird feeling of, ‘fuck, people actually like this.’”
Even though they saw a great deal of success with their debut, according to Smith they still wanted to experiment on the second album. As he puts it, they decided to “fuck around with guitars” and “go way harder on the beats.” I asked if they’d been nervous about how fans would react to this switch in sound? “As long as I’m singing over it and they’re playing on it,” he laughed, “I think as soon as you hear my annoying voice you’re like, oh it’s Bastille.” He also acknowledged the strange element of near self-sabotage that comes with following up a successful debut.
“Inevitably because we had that success we reacted against it a little bit. You want to react against that, push against it. You hear that sometimes I think in people’s second records. Because we spent so much time touring that first album we were making music and we made another mixtape and we did lots of other things. It kind of allowed us to go through all the different phases of that, in one go. So we made much heavier songs that never saw the light of day we made a lot of super slow nighttime RB stuff with really dark lyrics and I think you can kind of hear elements of those things on the record.”
The Wild, Wild World tour is a dystopian themed concept show that runs from the moment you walk in until the last song plays. Screens, equipment, and crew jackets are all emblazoned with the WWCOMMS (‘Wild World Communications’) logo, a sinister news organization the band created for this record campaign. The organization’s spokesperson is a big brother-esque character who plays the role of newscaster and politician. He introduces the band and opening acts while also narrating some of the show.
Through the spokesperson and videos the show highlights themes of reporting, protesting, and political tension. Much like the album, the show isn’t completely political in message but it is also very rooted in now, both sonically and in the ideas it represents.
“In terms of loads of acts of terrorism and political shifts around the world, all of this is unavoidable to everybody. If you’re someone who is even remotely aware of the news. And I definitely don’t count myself as someone who has any particular depth of knowledge on those subjects but as someone who reads the news on my phone and has the TV on.
There was a particular event that happened and I ended up writing a song called “Warmth” that is basically about seeing a really fucked up thing on the news and turning the TV off and trying to figure out in your own head, ‘how am I meant to react to this?’ Obviously, there’s no answer but in this particular song, the character kind of just goes for a nighttime walk through the city and finds themselves at the door of the person they want to lose themselves with. It’s the perfect distraction for the night.
The idea of a show with a narrative arch around current issues while still creating an enjoyable night for fans was something the band was intentional about. One of the tracks on the album that exemplifies that experience is “The Currents”. In it, Smith sings “How can you think you’re serious? / Do you even know what year it is?/ I can’t believe the scary points you make/ Still living in the currents you create / Still sinking in the pool of your mistakes/ Won’t you stop firing up the crazies?”
“[The Currents] kind of looked at, at the time, the kind of bubbling American election and the idea of Brexit in the UK and all these new political figures around the world who were coming out with these really opinionated voices that kind of mirror on a big scale the guy you hear down at the pub who is mouthing off about something you think is really unacceptable.
That song is about trying to articulate that feeling of hearing someone say those things regardless of where it is. Whether it is in a bar or on a TV and being like ‘oh my God I can’t comprehend that you actually think this in 2017.’”
As Smith said earlier that night, “2015 and 2016 were just fucking crazy years.” While it can be argued that music is the perfect form of escapism, especially in times like these, Wild World attempts to acknowledge the uncertainty and craziness of the world we currently exist in. Though the film clips, hip-hop style production, and guitar solos of Wild World may lead you to distraction, it’s not the same as avoidance. It’s indie pop music for 2017, a little something for the self-care avoiders and the acutely aware. Much like the phrase that filled the production screen in huge san serif font during the show alluded to, with Wild World Bastille seems to be “here for you, wherever you are.”
Bastille will be back this fall with additional US tour dates, see ticket info here.