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Cover Story: Bastille

| August 1, 2016 | 0 Comments

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It was a summer ritual that British musician Dan Smith eagerly awaited every year – the Glastonbury Festival, a weekend in late June where he and his friends piled into a minivan and camped out on-site for three days of musical mayhem. And he was just as excited this year, even though he arrived in a tour bus with his bandmates in the multiplatinum-selling alternative outfit he fronts, Bastille, and was promptly guided to the exclusive artist-only parking lot backstage. The group had an agenda, with new songs from its upcoming sophomore release Wild World to introduce to the massive crowd – like an undulating “Send Them Off!,” the jittery, synth-cascaded “Fake It,” a funereal homage to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood called “Four Walls (The Ballad of Perry Smith),” the grinding, guitar-spiked “Blame,” and its current single, a conversely finger-popping treatise on death dubbed “Good Grief.” And the whole annual experience was nearly ruined by a single news bulletin.

That Friday, June 24, as Glasto was revving its mighty multiple-performer engine, Smith – along with the rest of his countrymen – awoke to learn that a fearful, xenophobic England had voted in the hotly contested Brexit referendum to leave the European Union. It would lead to the abrupt resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron (who had urged his constituency to remain), the rise of former House Secretary Theresa May to the position, after she herself had overseen immigration policies like what were sneeringly dubbed Go Home vans – vehicles that traveled the United Kingdom urging illegal immigrants to self-deport. “And to wake up with this shitty news? It was quite incomprehensible for a lot of British people,” sighs Smith, who had played an EU-referendum event a few days before, hosted by actress/activist Lily Cole.

Then Smith, 30, had a revelation. The shock of the Brexit outcome – which many had simply assumed was too implausible to pass, akin to an actual Donald Trump presidency taking place in America – was a wake-up call to a magical, ephemeral essence that he’d nearly forgotten in the three years it took to carefully construct Wild World. “It was a timely reminder of how things like music and festivals – amongst the many other reasons why they’re amazing – can also just be quite a wonderful escape,” he says. “And a distraction from stuff like (Brexit), which we all have to confront heavily, head on. So we were like, ‘Oh, my God! This is completely unbelievable, totally mental!’ But for the rest of the weekend, we thought, ‘Fuck! We’re at Glastonbury! We’ll deal with it on Monday!’”

It’s no secret that Mike Judge’s dark comedy Idiocracy is actually ironically coming true, 490 years before he predicted it would, 500 years in the future. The film was gut-bustingly hilarious, initially, with its depiction of ignorant people breeding like rabbits, while smart couples decided that now wasn’t such a good time to bring a kid into the world. The result? When star Luke Wilson, playing a man of average intelligence from our era, awakens from cryogenic slumber, everyone is watching a Tosh.O–ish TV show called Ow! My Balls! (wherein a guy keeps getting racked in the nuts, over and over again) from their combination La-Z-Boy recliner/toilets. Disputes are settled via Monster truck battles, the POTUS is a gold-toothed hip-hopper (played to outrageous – but still believable effect – by Terry Crews), and everything is controlled by fast food chains, who decide if you’re a worthy parent or not. And Wilson – now the smartest man in the world, by a long shot – promptly takes advantage of his newfound position to lead the bovine masses. Now? The movie feels more uncomfortable than funny, as humanity hurtles toward its own self-facilitated extinction. And under such dire circumstances – as people around the world repeatedly vote against their own self-interests – a crucial question arises: Is the creation of music, and art in general, simply more fiddling while our metaphorical Rome is burning? Or is it the last bastion of comfort and catharsis that humanity has left, something that can – at least momentarily – elevate us to a higher, wiser plane? Or maybe even provide some insight or ultimate answers?

The deep-thinking Smith is fascinated with that conundrum. A huge film fan, he has, of course, seen Idiocracy several times, and believes wholeheartedly that its preposterous scenario is rapidly coming to pass. But he votes for catharsis over cataclysm. “I think with the music that I love, and songs that I love, the ones that really mean something to me, if somebody else articulates something, or does something in music that you hadn’t quite thought of putting that way before? That’s the thing that’s just amazing,” he sighs, momentarily pacified. “It is that rare comfort, that distraction, and being able to lose yourself in something else.” He pauses. “Well, even though it may seem like you’re playing the fiddle at first.”

And these are the bigger questions that Smith seeks to address on Wild World, he declares, defiantly. “It’s just about reacting in a quite human way to everything that’s going on, things that you see on the news every day and in everyday life. I think it’s hard to ignore the times that we live in, and I guess there’s always crazy shit happening in the world. But at the moment, it seems so relentless, and it can be totally hard to wrap your head around everything. And the album offers no answers,” he cautions. “It’s just a series of little stories and human reactions, and ways to try and navigate through the confusion.” Lofty goals for a recording artist these days, when pre-fab, emotionless hits are churned out in Sweden for optimum chart-climbing effect. But Smith is no ordinary chap.

The idea that Smith thought and wrote visually was fairly obvious on Bastille’s dazzling 2013 debut Bad Blood – which reprised a man-running-in-car-headlights shot, a la David Lynch’s Lost Highway, on its faux-movie-poster cover art, and featured tub-thumping, but decidedly cinematic hits like the Lynch-inspired “Laura Palmer,” “Things We Lost In the Fire” (rooted in the Suzanne Bier flick of the same name), and the tribal stomper “Pompeii,” which reimagined the culture-obliterating eruption of Vesuvius – certainly one of the most unusual, even erudite subjects for a breakthrough worldwide smash. Smith says he’s always instinctively responded to images, ever since he was 11, and first discovered the moviemaking realm through an odd portal – the camp horror classic Scream, about a masked ghoul breaking into houses, which he, unfortunately, happened to see while – gulp! – spending the spooky night at a friend’s family abode. It really left a mark on his imaginative young mind.

“So my route into film was by horror,” the auteur admits, chortling. “There was something about the nature of watching something that was totally inappropriate for me at that time that led me into reading loads about it. So that fueled my fire, and led me to the genre of horror itself, then back through mainstream horror and all the historic franchises. And then that led me to Japanese horror, and to Dario Argento – I got really obsessed with Giallo film, and (Argento’s) Suspiria is just so fucked up. And that was my route into being interested in film, in general, and exploring that as a teenager, in that way of – when you’re a teenager and you suddenly find an interest – you want to know everything about it.” That opened the door for him on art house and indie cinema, he adds, which finally brought him to one of his idols, David Lynch, who eventually allowed him to remix one of his own texturally-dense songs and even gave Smith samples of his private coffee blend when the two finally met in Lynch’s native Los Angeles. “And film is such a vibrant medium, isn’t it?” the singer asks, rhetorically. “It goes from the most commercial through to the most pretentious and challenging. And I think someone like Lynch really encapsulates that – few people I know have watched his Inland Empire more than once, or even once, really. But at the same time, he did something like The Elephant Man, which managed to be so poignant, and quite an accessible movie. And Blue Velvet is just definitive — there are so many iconic moments within that, that just echo throughout culture.”

Naturally, Smith envisioned a career in film for himself, too. Attempting to study it in college, however, opened his eyes to the fact that he basically lacked the organizational skills necessary to see a movie through to post-production. So he majored in English instead, which only whetted his cinematic appetite further. After reading certain novels, he grew interested in their corresponding movie adaptations, he says, and the sometimes subtle, often glaring changes made during the book’s transformation to a more concise script. “And I studied every aspect of that, from The Shining to American Psycho,” he recalls. “ Films that were judged at the time for the editorial decisions that were made. So I really loved the idea that people are hearing the same thing, but that it’s completely filtered in their mind. We’re all hearing the exact same description, but we’re seeing something very different as individuals. And that has just been fascinating to me.”

The concept hasn’t always panned out for the vocalist. Utilizing piano and the recording capabilities of his laptop computer, he started Bastille as a one-man band in his London bedroom, and – as his originals began piling up – gradually expanded his vision to include current members Kyle Simmons on guitar and keyboards, Will Farquarson on guitar, bass and keys, and his longtime chum Chris ‘Woody’ Wood on percussion and programming. But Smith learned his lesson about proprietary rights. Bastille had no money in the beginning, so for one early video, he freely incorporated clips from Terrence Malick’s classic movie Badlands, and proudly posted it. He thought it worked quite well. Malick, sadly, did not agree, and the band received the first in a long line of cease-and-desist letters, which their liberally sampled series of mix tapes also incurred. “A lot of our mix tapes were about celebrating films or older songs that maybe weren’t seen as classics, or were slightly looked down [on],” sighs Smith, who thought he was doing the composers/directors a huge favor. “But you just can’t always make mix tapes and put things out there for free and not expect a cease-and-desist. So it was very surreal, having to go down the legal route of getting things cleared this time with Wild World. But going down the official route was a very interesting process for me, seeing the boring intricacies of how that would work.”

Smith had no idea that his vision for Bad Blood would hit such a responsive chord with listeners, to the tune of nearly eight million records sold, worldwide. Bastille – so-named because his birthday falls on July 14, France’s annual celebration of Bastille Day – was also nominated for a Grammy, and four 2014 Brit Awards, of which it won one for Best British Breakthrough Act. Naturally, its panoramic material soon began popping up in film and television soundtracks, like Teen Wolf, Made In Chelsea, The Vampire Diaries, even the animated Mr. Peabody and Sherman. And the band has a playful sense of humor about projects that it chooses – for the soundtrack to last year’s Kill Your Friends (director Owen Harris’ black-humored adaptation of John Niven’s eponymous music-industry-skewering novel), they chose to cover The Sugababes frothy first single “Overload.” Which might be Smith’s greatest attribute – he simply refuses to take himself too seriously.
Ergo, he happily went down the legal rabbit hole for the Wild World album opener “Good Grief,” he laughs, which crackles to life with Kelly LeBrock’s archly intoned line from Weird Science: “So – what would you little maniacs like to do first?” First, there was lots of red tape to sort through. “And it all boiled down to finally getting an e-mail from Kelly herself, saying, ‘Yeah, I love this song. Cool – let’s do it! And if you ever need me to come and play live with you, I’m available!’” Smith says. “And we were like ‘Whaaaat?!’ People could be quite confused, thinking, ‘Is this some sort of performance piece?’ We’re not going to turn up – we’ll just send Kelly LeBrock out onstage to do the gig for us!”

The bottom line, Smith adds, “Is that I’m just generally a huge and massive fan. And I just don’t believe in snobbery at all, in music or in film. And everything’s subjective, of course. And while art is there to challenge, also – to a lot of people – it’s there as entertainment. And as a band, it’s interesting – I definitely have the most pretentious taste in film. But it’s nice to offset that with other stuff that’s just really enjoyable.” Sometimes, he’s hit an aesthetic cul de sac. For the 1970s-era dialogue sample on “Send Them Off!,” Smith searched in vain through Italian sci-fi movie archives for the original print – or any information about it – which he’d first heard dubbed in stilted English. No such luck. So – rather than take any licensing chances – he decided to revise it and retool it to what it is now, the cryptic muttering “It was a slight on my honor. So he deserved it.”

Working with co-producer Mark Crew again, Bastille added more jagged guitars to their usually fluid synthesizer centered mix, as on the riff-happy “Blame,” which lyrically sketches a standoff between two gangsters. And they added plush strings to cloak the grim truths of “The Currents,” a study of dangerous demagogues, loosely inspired by Trump and Conservative British Brexit agitator Nigel Farage. And Smith loves the contrast of “Good Grief,” whose video boasts his disembodied head crooning moribund lyrics to an irresistibly bouncy melody. “I’ve lost all my grandparents and various other people in my life,” he sighs. “And funerals are such an odd situation, because they’re like this coping mechanism and a celebration of someone’s life. But meanwhile, you’re battling with these quiet, confused feelings and trying to get your head around someone not being there anymore. So I tried to capture the frenetic, mad drama that situation entails.”

The Wild World cover photograph follows Bad Blood suit. Resembling a film poster billed as a presentation from Bad Steel, it features two people perched precariously on a skyscraper ledge, a cityscape framed beautifully – perhaps ominously — in the background. Look at it long enough, and you’ll get a dizzying case of vertigo. “We’re really happy with that shot,” Smith enthuses. “It’s a visual version of what the album is about. And the whole point of the image is to present something that you can’t not try to write a narrative into, because you’re thrown into this situation, this moment. And it’s entirely up to the listener to write the story of how they got up there, and what happens next. For me, it’s quite a nice, simple visual of two friends just sitting there, in the context of this mad, wide world, and surveying their [place] in the city, and in the wider madness of all this stuff that we’ve created.”

With perhaps one grumbling to the other, “You forgot the fucking sandwiches? Again?” Smith guffaws. Maybe, he says. “Or like, ‘Dude! Where’s your camera? You seriously didn’t bring it?’”

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