Bastille's Dan Smith Gives Insights for All Artists

Originally the solo project of singer-songwriter Dan Smith, later including keyboardist Kyle Simmons, bassist and guitarist Will Farquarson and drummer Chris “Woody” Wood, London-based quartet Bastille have rapidly become a household name in the alternative rock and pop world. After a trial and error period of independently releasing music, the band’s breakthrough came with their first studio album, Bad Blood, in 2013 through Virgin Records. It debuted at #1 on the UK albums chart and charted on the US Billboard 200. Consequently, the single “Pompeii” reached #2 on the UK charts and #5 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart.

Over the years, Bastille has experimented with a slew of high-profile projects that have expanded their success even further. Their mixtape series called Other People’s Heartache has included heavy hitting acts including Haim, Lizzo and Rag’n’Bone Man. They’ve also contributed to a pair of soundtracks including a cover of Green Day’s “Basket Case” for the television series The Tick and the single “World Gone Mad” for the Will Smith film Bright.

And Smith, himself, has gained attention thanks to his prolific collaborations. He and producer Mark Crew worked on Tears for Fears’ comeback single, “I Love You But I’m Lost, While I Know You.” He has also collaborated with British singer Craig Davis on the song “I Know You” and his pop songwriting resulted in the colossal Marshmello feature “Happier,” which reached #2 on both the UK Singles Chart and the Billboard Hot 100 and currently holds the record for most weeks spent at #1 on the US Dance/Electronic Songs chart. Plus, P!nk invited Smith to perform a duet during her Lifetime Achievement set at this year’s Brit Awards.

For this Q&A with Music Connection, Smith discusses Bastille’s long-waited third studio album, Doom Days, his songwriting process and more.

Music Connection: Bastille’s third album Dooms Days is finally out, how’s the reception been?
Dan Smith: It’s insane. It’s been great, our fans seem to really love it. It’s been really satisfying, doing it exactly how we wanted to do it on our terms. Making loads of songs that we love and an album allows us to experiment a bit and try to give a snapshot of life in 2019 from our perspective. We’re super proud of it and we’re just as excited to go on tour and play these songs live. It’s still quite surreal that the album is out there and people have heard it now.

MC: Is it a huge relief to have the album out or are you still in working mode?
Smith: Yeah, it’s a huge relief to have it out. I think these are the times where people care less about bodies of work, and it’s very important to us that we made an album that says something and is cohesive. We try to create a little world and we wanted to be as creative as possible with that and all the things that go around it. The launch events that we’ve done, the production on the tour that we’re doing, the artwork and all the videos. I think we just feel insanely lucky to just be doing this—be able to make music and do all those things that come along with that. We just want to make a life out of it.
It’s interesting now thinking about what songs to release next and if we do different versions of songs to release. That’s quite fun to think about, expanding the world of the album. And we’re always working on new music anyways, so there is always brand new stuff on the go. A lot of exciting things in the pipeline, I can’t wait to get out there.

MC: What inspired the title Doom Days?
Smith: It’s kind of a joke on doom days and on how apolitical things can feel when you switch on the news or when you go through a break-up. We wanted it to seem quite dramatic and be kind of tongue-in-cheek. Throughout the album, there is this apocalypse happening outside and it’s up to the listener to decide what the apocalypse means. It can mean different things to different people and we just wanted to poke fun at how serious people think we are. Sometimes when you switch on the news these days, it kind of feels like we’re living in the apocalypse and I think that can be completely consuming. But it’s also important to not get too bogged down from it , ‘cause you’ll drive yourself mad.

But equally, it’s a kind of pun on a Tuesday after a big weekend, it can feel pretty apocalyptic as a result of your actions. There is a whole load of reasons why it’s called that and it felt kind of appropriate.

MC: Last year, you reworked Bastille’s hits with a live orchestra and choir for the ReOrchestrated Tour. Did that influence the new album? The lead single off the album, “Joy,” has a great gospel vibe.
Smith: It had a huge influence on it. We had finished a version of the album before we went on the ReOrchestrated Tour and then spending two weeks on a bus with a load of classical and gospel musicians made us rethink the album a bit. We became so obsessed with the voices of the gospel choir and the tone that they brought to our music. It felt really important to ask them to be on the record, so we’ve weaved their voices throughout the album.

Also, since the album is a story about a night, we wanted the night to be populated with lots of different characters. We wanted it to feel like a community vibe across the album and use the presence of other voices. Also, there is a bunch of improvised saxophone that runs through a couple of the tracks. There is a saxophone that runs through “4AM” and “Those Nights.” And that saxophone player, Rittipo, was part of the brass section on the ReOrchestrated Tour. It had a big influence.

I feel like in the work that we do, we have our album that’s in one lane, then we have our mixtapes that’s in another lane and then we have our ReOrchestrated stuff that is now in another lane as well. And it’s quite nice to be able to separate all the things that we put out, but also when we want to we can draw them into one another and cross those paths a bit.

MC: Majority of the songs were recorded in your newly owned studio in South London called One Eyed Jack’s. Did the studio help speed along the recording process and inspiration?
Smith: We found an old empty space in London and converted it into a studio. We wanted a place that’s a musical home for the band and also for Best Laid Plans, which is the record label that I run with my friend, and a studio for other artists to work on their stuff as well. It’s turned out really nicely in terms of being a bit of a community. Any day you go in, there are at least two or three different sessions going on in different rooms. There is not a huge amount of that in London.
London is amazing but it’s very spread out, and because everyone records in their own studio, sometimes it can kind of miss that community aspect. It’s been really nice to set that up and see it become a reality. For us to have somewhere that’s ours, where we can just go every day for three months in London was awesome. It was really fun and it was a change from how we ever made albums before. Our first album was made in the evenings and weekends, after work, after college and at home in our bedrooms. Then the second album we made on the road, so it’s the first time we’ve ever stopped and made one album in one time.

MC: What kind of gear set up do you have at the studio?
Smith: Good question, quite a lot of stuff. The control room has a bank of keyboards, like all different kinds of knobs and rods, synthesizers and loads of different stuff. We have a live room where we have a drum kit and loads of guitars. There is another edit suite where we got an OP-1 keyboard, smaller older analog synths and little vintage keyboards. We made the vocal booth as nice as possible cause you know that’s quite an important part. We use Logic for most things to record, a lot of programming in that. So it’s kind of a huge mix of stuff.

MC: How much pre-production do you and the band do before actually beginning to record?
Smith: A lot of the times, the songs start life on my laptop. I’ll start writing and producing sort of at the same time, so a lot of the musical parts and the meat of the idea I’ll program as I’m writing the tune. Sometimes the production process and the writing process are kind of aligned and alongside each other. So it’s rare when I’ll just bring a finished song and we’ll produce it from scratch. It’s a much more organic patchwork from that. Which I think can probably be a confusing process to some people. But for us, it’s how we’ve always done it.

For me, I’ve sorta seen the songs as an entire thing. It’s not like “here’s some chords and a melody, let’s produce it.” It’s the opposite, it all comes together at the same time. The chords, the beats, the melodies and the harmonies all kind of interweave and come together. That comes initially from being a bedroom artist and not having much equipment. It comes from sorta working as you go.

MC: You’re the sole songwriter credited for the album and you recently hit #1 on Billboard’s Rock Songwriters chart. Does that inspire you to keep writing?
Smith: I know I saw that––that was crazy. You know, with the first three Bastille albums I’ve kind of written by myself, predominantly, and produced them with Mark (Crew) and obviously, played on them alongside the other guys from Bastille.

Writing by myself has kind of come naturally. I feel like in order for us to grow and develop, it’s important to sorta break that mold. I feel like now that we’ve done these three albums in that way, I’m excited about mixing things up a little bit. When we released our first record and I’ve written the album 100% myself, I just assumed that’s how everybody did it. I was so naive, I didn’t realize that it was quite unusual. So that was really awesome being up on that Billboard thing.

Any free time I have where I’m not working on our new stuff, I’m just meeting new songwriters and meeting different artists, producers and just trying to see how they do it and work with them and learn and have fun writing songs. Writing tunes is one of my favorite things to do. Just today I was in the studio with different songwriters working on stuff for other people and yesterday was another batch of people. It’s what I love to do.

MC: Any people, in particular, you would love to work with?
Smith: Oh my god, there’s a million people. Yeah, there are so many people that I want to work with. There is an incredible number of songwriters out there who are just nailing it and doing different things. I think the only reason I would want to work with someone is if they do something really different and unique. It’s about pushing what I do in a different direction and then experimenting a bit. There are so many people out there.

MC: You touched on the subject a bit earlier, you’ve also co-founded the independent label Best Laid Plans. What made you decide to start the label?
Smith: Yeah, it’s just a small independent record label. We launched it to help develop and release music from Rag’n’Bone Man. It was really exciting to be involved in his album and the process of releasing it. He’s a really good friend and it’s been amazing seeing him have lots of success all over the world. It’s really fun for our little label to suddenly have this big thing.
But it’s also a place where we could release EP’s and singles of brand new artists. Just to give them a home to experiment and release music. It’s really fun, I love the process of making songs and recording them but I also do love everything that comes with putting music out—helping put a strategy together, making videos and artwork. And I guess because Bastille kind of started as a DIY thing, I’ve always loved the details of all the different parts.

So that’s why it’s really fun to be part of the label. As much as I can, I’m around chipping in and giving an opinion. If people want my opinion that’s awesome, if they want to tell me to fuck off that’s completely fine.
I like having a lot of things going on and I like the contrast between Bastille, our mixtapes, label, writing for other people and working on five projects and all these different things. I still feel lucky for doing what we’re doing so I just want to be experimenting with a lot of things as possible.

MC: Are there other artists signed to the label that you are excited about?
Smith: Rag’n’Bone is the main thing. There’s also this guy called Rationale, he’s one of the best songwriters and producers I know. I think he deserves a lot more attention, it’s been really fun to be working with him.
There’s also this artist called the Dawn of May who lives in New York but is from Australia, and she just has one of the most powerful and unique voices I’ve heard in years. I’m so excited to see what she does next and hopefully play a very small part in the success she’ll have. I think she’s amazing.

MC: Bastille has released some wickedly trippy music videos. Is that something you think about as you write the album? Where do those ideas come from?
Smith: I’ve always had visuals in my head when I’m writing songs, they’re quite visual to me. I think it’s always fun making a video, trying to do something that you wouldn’t expect and bringing a completely different angle to the song. We always use that as an excuse to work with interesting directors. Just sort of push the boundaries a bit and make people feel a little bit uncomfortable or do something a bit darker, a bit weirder.
I’m a massive film nerd and to me, getting to make videos is a way to scratch that film-fan itch and be involved in these mad little movies that we try and make.

MC: On those rare days, what do you do on your time off?
Smith: I love coming back to London and just hanging out with my friends, seeing my family, catching up on all the movies that I’ve missed and going traveling, I always go traveling on my free time. Last year, I went to India for a few weeks with some friends. Then this year I’m going to go to Guatemala for a few weeks.
I feel very lucky to live in London; there is so much art and so much music here, so much interesting stuff to see and do. I like to be busy and not very good at staying still. Also earlier this year, I ran a marathon. I wanted to raise money for a breast cancer charity so that took up quite a lot of the first quarter of my year.

MC: The band is preparing to tour the US in support of the new album. Any surprises the fans can expect?
Smith: I’m really excited about the US tour. Spending two months traveling around North America, I can’t wait to see more of the country and play loads of shows and bring the new album to the stage. I try to spend a lot of time backstage writing songs as well. It should be fun, I’m looking forward to it. We’ve put together a whole new show with visuals. I’m excited to bring it back.

MC: Bastille always creates interesting activities for fans including pop up shops, interactive websites and the Doom Days Society forum. What do you want your fans to get out of that?
Smith: Like I was saying earlier, I think we are just fortunate to have the opportunity to release music. I think now more than ever you want to make multi-dimensional experiences that’s also fun and interesting. I think we’re lucky to have fans who are super smart and have a lot to say.

And for things like the Doom Days Society, we wanted to create a space online where it was a kind of a positive and inclusive forum to chat in and, hopefully, have conversations where people are allowed to disagree with each other. As long as they aren’t screaming obscenities across the internet, I think it’s healthy. That was a bit of an experiment to make this thing and see what grew out of it. As we go on the next stage of the album, I want to relaunch it and give it another push. We’ve done a load of work on it behind the scenes.

MC: Since the band is always on the go, what’s next for you guys?
Smith: Figuring out what our next tour is and potentially working with a few other people. We just want to surprise people with our next song. It’s been really fun with the album out, getting back in the studio and trying to finish things that we’ve started. For us right now it’s festival season.

My favorite thing about festivals is when we’re not playing we’re just running around trying to see as many different shows as possible and catching up on all the people you haven’t seen live yet. It’s such a privilege to see that much live music. We’re pretty much playing festivals every weekend until we head to the States.

Contact erin.cooney2@umusic.com