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Cover Story: Bastille

| October 1, 2019

Dan Smith can’t help it. He’s one contemporary music artist that always finds himself thinking visually, like a Barry Sonnenfeld-edgy cinematographer, giddily filling every frame with kinetic action. So his British band Bastille isn’t just one-dimensional — it can be appreciated on multiple sensory levels, all the way down to its carefully-situated album cover photos that always resemble movie posters. It started in 2013 with Bad Blood, Bastille’s smash debut that featured a terrified man running in car headlights – a la David Lynch’s Lost Highway – with film-inspired tracks like “Laura Palmer” and “Things We Lost in the Fire” alongside the signature breakthrough hit “Pompeii.” The frontispiece of the new third effort Doom Days is less specific — showing a tangle of young limbs on a blanketed motel room bed around dawn. Or dusk, given that it’s a concept album a la Scorsese’s After Hours, concerning the protagonist’s wild adventures one London night. And, of course, everything he sees.

But it’s complicated, says Smith, who intended the first three records to stand as a tangible trilogy. “So I wanted this latest cover to almost feel like a classic painting with a modern twist, something that was suggestive enough for people to impose their own story onto it,” he says. “There are three people, two men, and a woman, on the bed, and they could be partied out, or it could be the end of a sexual encounter, or it could dissolve into whatever you want it to be. But they’re choosing to have an escapist night while the world is burning, all the way through to the end of the night. The album is a version of that old story.” Can’t picture what Smith is talking about, visually? Don’t worry. Like any good movie director, he’s happy to stop and explain his work. (See below).

Naturally, Bastille began as a one-man band, with Smith adding members (Kyle Simmons, Will Farquarson, Chris “Woody” Wood) to taste as his sound expanded. By 2014, thanks to the tribal Top 10 UK hit “Pompeii,” the group had opened for stadium superstars Muse, reissued by popular demand its debut in a bonus-track edition as All This Bad Blood, and won a Brit Award for Best Breakthrough Act.

On Doom Days, Smith ups the ante, creating a symphonic piece that feels like one, although it’s subdivided into compact anthems that tell the night-on-the-town tale, from the opening chimer — and party launcher — “Quarter Past Midnight.” The set soon swerves into a sinister “Bad Decisions,” then to darker anthems “4 A.M.,” “Nocturnal Creatures,” and the forlorn title cut. A fizzy feel-good ballad “Joy” closes the record gradually and leaves you wanting more. More bouncy synth rhythms. More literate, thought-provoking lyrics. And more of Smith’s war-wondrous warble, which is genuinely idiosyncratic, almost to a Bryan Ferry degree.

ILLINOIS ENTERTAINER:  Springsteen just released his latest Western Stars album, but surprisingly, there are not a mention of Trump, just subtly symphonic Laurel Canyon-y ballads that feel like the perfect panacea for today’s politically grim times. Doom Days is kind of the same.

DAN SMITH:  I guess there’s one direct reference, but even that is relatively ambiguous. I wanted the album to feel very much a part of 2019, and of this moment in the world. But I wanted it to be a quite personal story, stitched together with the language of today, like rioting and Brexit so that the personal turmoil can reach you on a few levels — through the literal story of the night, or as a slightly broader generational thing. And as a Brit who’s lived through what this country’s experienced over the last three years, it would be weird to not talk about Brexit, but we also wanted the album to tap into other famous, hedonistic pop-cultural narratives, as well, because we wanted the album to fundamentally be this quite intimate, personal escapist record. But it sort of morphed into something else over a couple of years. Initially, it was going to be like this rave record, about total abandon. But then other languages trickled in.

IE:  What was going on in your personal life then? A breakup?

DS:  Yeah… My girlfriend and I broke up. It was after a long bit of touring, and we finally made it back to London afterward, and it was the first time we’d been in one place for about five years. So I’d kind of planned ahead for this time at home, and I had this version in my head about what it would be like, and obviously, it’s so brilliant that we get to travel, but we also missed home, as well. So it was quite interesting to me — the imagined home and then the reality of it after we got back. So I was going out all the time or having people over to the house. It was a really fun period, and I started thinking about escapism and hedonism in my life, as well, and thinking about the end of relationships and this breakup, too, until I started getting comfortable talking about it. And that’s where we were, at that point. And I had in my head that we would finish the record and get it out really quickly. But it ended up being a record that was more labored over than we expected. But I’m so glad that it happened that way.

IE:  Matthew Murphy from The Wombats says you’ve been recording with him for his new Love Fame Tragedy solo project.

DS: Yes. We became mates because we share a producer. So I’ve done some writing with him, and he’s fucking hilarious.

IE: Have you finally started writing your own scripts now?

DS: Umm…I have another project happening on the go, with one of my best mates who’s in another band. I can’t really talk about it yet, but it’s a real multi-media thing wherein we’re telling the same story across a variety of mediums. It’s very visual, and I’m really excited about it. But it’s been a longtime labor of love, but the very nature of it just takes ages. I would love to tell you more about it, but I just can’t.

IE:  It’s an old showbiz cliche — ‘But what I really want to do is direct.’ But you really want to, right?

DS:  I would, I really would. But I actually feel quite comfortable making music. So it would be quite the jump. But hopefully, this new project I’m working on at the moment will sort of halfway allow me to make that jump. We’ll see what happens.

IE:  Without a sense of humor to ground it, intellect is useless, I’ve always felt. So there seems to be a bit of Dude, Where’s My Car? on Doom, as well.

DS:  Dude! I haven’t seen that film in so long! But the hazy morning-after? Totally. And one of the things we’re constantly dealing with is that my voice just sounds so serious all the time. So everything sounds way more devastating than it actually is to me, just because of the tone of my voice. And I wanted to play with that sense of doom and despair like it can be all-encompassing, or it can be ridiculous, like when you’re feeling completely fucked, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But then you get a stupid text from your friend with news of some horrific event on the other side of the world, and that negatively affects every aspect of your life. And it’s a massive cliche, but you just have to laugh. Otherwise, you might go completely insane.

Bastille appears at The Chicago Theater on Wednesday, October 2.

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