Interview: Bastille’s Dan Smith on Inviting New Collaborators

In September 2019 British pop-rock band Bastille, composed of singer-songwriter Dan Smith, keyboardist Kyle Simmons, bassist and guitarist Will Farquarson and drummer Chris “Woody” Wood, first graced the covers of Music Connection Magazine to discuss the songwriting process of their third album Doom Days. Fast-forward three years later, the band is now set to release their most ambitious and collaborative project to date with Give Me The Future, out February 4. Through the months, Bastille has given fans a taste of the album's retro-futuristic sound with singles and music videos including the Ryan Tedder-produced “Distorted Light Beam,” infectiously fun “Thelma + Louise,” the poignant “No Bad Days and melodic “Shut Off the Lights.” The band also has a busy year ahead as they just announced their return to US venues for their Give Me The Future tour. MC sat down with frontman Dan Smith once again to discuss why the band invited other collaborators into their world and much more.


MC: Last time Music Connection interviewed you, you were promoting your third album Doom Days. Now you’re back with your fourth album Give Me The Future, can you tell us about the new project?

Smith: It’s been one of the things we’ve been working on for the last couple of years and it’s been a really fun way to explore lots of topics that I think are really interesting and our relationship with technology. How it’s seeped into every corner of our lives, and our relationships with ourselves and relationships with each other.

It feels fitting when we look back at this album to know that we made this in a time when everybody had to adapt their ways of living and ways of working. It feels like a fitting album to make at this point. I’m fascinated by the idea of science fiction and different versions of the future and how it looks through different people’s eyes. How it’s used to sort of criticize and provide commentary to the world we are living in. That’s why it’s such an interesting genre. There is so much to draw on in that respect.


MC: What kind of style would describe this album as? It’s a lot different from the other albums, it sounds more pop-heavy.

Smith: We sort of have always experimented a lot in our mixtapes. I fucking love pop music and we have always made pop music, I think and have always had electronic elements to our music. It was more the retro-futurism in this album that’s what we really wanted to lean into. If we're making an album that is about technology and the future, why not lean into using way more electronic drums and exploring new modern plug-ins and vocal processing. But also old retro synth sounds that at the time were super futuristic and are now kind of a huge part of the music we all listen to. We just wanted to have fun and experiment with that.


MC: The entire album has such an interesting and cohesive story being told. How was the creating process?

Smith: I think you always want there to be an arc with an album — to kind of take you on a bit of a journey. Our last two albums have been loosely concept albums so with this one the arc really is you start with plugging in, you put the headset on with “Distorted Light Beam '' and it opens to this world that exists online or in your dreams through a VR headset. You can go anywhere and do anything, be anyone, there are limitless possibilities. And that is where you go from there. It throws up the complexities of what it would mean to escape real life and live as somebody else online or in a video game. How does that affect your sense of self and how you see yourself? How does that affect your relationship with other people?

There are moments in the album halfway through with “Shut Off The Lights” where it’s basically about the person lying next to you trying to pull you out of your own head and saying come on, be present, be here with me. But then inevitably the character goes back into their head again. The last song on the album is “Future Holds” which is again that person grounding you back to earth. Despite having spent half an hour over the course of this album thinking about or worrying about versions of the future, just stop it for now. Just snap out of it and enjoy real life, in this moment. You gotta enjoy what you have and not waste your life obsessing over the next thing. And that’s a message to myself more than anything. I also thought it would be funny to kind of subvert everything the album is about in the last song, kind of undermine it. I don’t think our music takes itself too seriously, it’s not intended to take itself too seriously, I guess everything has an ironic wink to it.

MC: This album features a lot of new collaborations, how was it working with everyone?

Smith: It was a really collaborative album. For the first time, I brought other people into our world. It was about inviting other collaborators into our process and opening up a little bit more. I wanted the album to feel kind of new and different for us and a lot of that came down to me chilling out a little bit.

The first three albums I wrote them all and co-produced with Mark [Crew], and made them with the other guys from the band. It’s always been a pretty intimate close-knit set of people who work on all of our music. It felt right for us to leave the first set of trilogies of albums behind us and try something new and different. One of the big important factors in that was bringing other people in. To push us and challenge us to do things differently.

We did a little bit of work with Ryan Tedder who definitely pushed the song “Distorted Light Beam” into a much more electronic and futuristic direction. And I worked with Rami Yacoub, an amazing songwriter who I love. I guess my wanting to write with him comes from the fact that I’m pretty self-sufficient as a songwriter, I will quite happily write and produce by myself but if I want to write with someone I want them to challenge me and push me to write differently and to write better. Rami is someone who is overflowing with melodies and ideas, so it was really nice to write with him. It was a kind of mix of a new and old process as well. I think it was just helpful for me to not feel like I had to write everything myself. I was very liberated. There are moments in the album I’m really proud of because they come from someone else and I’m proud of them as a friend and a collaborator.


MC: This album also features new voices, could you tell more about those features?

Smith: There is a poem in the album by Riz Ahmed, an amazing actor, rapper, activist and writer. I sent him the album and I think he was drawn to the fact that it was pop music but talking in quite a lot of depth about topics that aren’t just about breakups. I asked him to listen to what we talked about and respond to it and that’s what poured out of him. Which was exciting because you never know what’s going to come back. He generously took the time to write it, record it and send it back to us. I feel like he just adds a different perspective. I really wanted a different voice on the album, not just mine. He’s on there and BIM is also featured who is this amazing singer we’ve worked with. I’m constantly awed by how fucking amazing her voice is. And all the different instrumentations, all the singing, and the production from Mark, and all the stuff I was lucky to do as well. It’s a real group labor of love. It’s kind of ironic that it’s such a collaborative village that it took to make it in a time where no one could fucking see each other.


MC: This album has so many cool sounds like the door closing in “Give Me The Future.” Do you guys ever hide sounds like Easter eggs?

Smith: We go down such a rabbit hole when it comes to production, we use loads of ambient noise, loads of found sounds. I always record stuff on my phone and I constantly use it to make beats or noise in the background. That’s what we’ve done forever in our music. I think it’s quite nice to use that sort of stuff. There is a lot that’s hidden. We spend months and months working on this stuff and inevitably there are things in there that we know and love but no one else is going to fucking hear unless they get their hands on the stems. But yeah that’s definitely something that we have a lot of fun with, these sort of easter eggs that only we will ever know about.


MC: Any interesting ones you can tell me about?

Smith: There is a song on our second album called “Oil On Water,” it’s about a friend of mine who used to have a blog about one-night stands she would have. I actually asked her to record some kind of, let's say, joyful noises and we chopped them up and used them in the beat of the song. The song was inspired by her and her life and I wanted to stitch the sounds of her identity into this song. That’s one moment.


MC: Which song was the easiest and hardest to write?

Smith: The three I did with Rami, “Thema + Louise,” “Stay Awake” and “Back To The Future, '' kinda popped out in a night but we spent months and months working and changing them. Sometimes what starts really easily can take a while to sort of finish off. “Plug In…” was the last song I wrote for the album and I sorta knew I wanted to say a lot in a very short song. Because I spent so much time living in these ideas of the album it was kind of the final song that I wrote and it had to say a lot. It was really hard to pick which verses to use because I wrote about 100.

The song “No Bad Days” I wrote really quickly with a few friends. I had gone to Australia with my sister to say goodbye to my aunt who was really ill and dying. In the state that she lived in, they’d just legalized assisted dying and she was one of the first people in the country to opt into which was amazing because it allowed her to have some power in a situation that had been taken away because of her illness. As a family, we were all in awe of the decision she made. I came back to the UK after that, I was writing songs in the studio and that one kind of fell out. So I guess that was a really difficult and sad topic to think about, in my life and in my family, but in terms of the song I think sometimes if it’s real and genuine you don’t think about it too much. It can come quite easily.


MC: That’s also the first music video you’ve directed?

Smith: I directed. I think with our videos, our artwork, and some concepts around our albums we always try to think about taking the idea of the song and adding to it. That song is obviously about loss, it’s about someone’s lack of the future. With the video, I wanted to think about the intersection of technology and grief — how now we can amass so much in terms of photography, video, voice notes and recording, and messaging. If you lose someone at the end of a relationship or through loss, you still have this incredibly detailed record of who they are and who they’ve been. Which is a real modern phenomenon that can be amazingly helpful if you are grieving. It's also quite complicated, it can mean it’s even harder to let someone go.


MC: Last time I interviewed you, I asked if you would ever direct a music video. You hesitated and said no because you were too busy at the time. What made you change your mind about that, was it the lockdown?

Smith: I’ve always loved making videos and being really involved in them, but I didn’t feel able to take the reins because generally when we are making videos we’re touring and traveling, and doing loads of things. I wanted to really concentrate on it and do it properly and I guess that’s one of the things the last couple of years allowed. We’ve been super busy making music and making lots of different things, but touring has obviously gone away in a big way temporarily. It allowed the time to do that, I’m really excited to properly get my teeth stuck into it.

I co-directed it with a friend [Trash Factory] and I said to him and our producer Vanessa [Mc Donnell], I would love it if you guys throw me in the deep end. Don’t shelter me from anything. I wanna know everything that is going wrong, anything that can’t happen. I want to be in the planning conversations, budgetary conversations, like everything. Don’t hide anything from me. And they didn’t. Fucking hell, it was so stressful but it was also amazing to be that involved. I think when you are making a video you come up with an idea in your head, and then you have a couple of weeks to take it from a concept and turn it into a real thing that exists on screen. The part from there to there can be really complicated because there are so many logistical things that can’t happen. It’s a real eye-opener. Looking back now, I’m really proud of what we made and I’m really happy how it turned out.


MC: The band looks to be pretty busy this year. What stands out the most for you?

Smith: We got an arena tour in the UK coming up, it’s going to be really fun putting together a big show that hopefully incorporates all the themes of the album. It’s really exciting to think about playing in venues again and being in physical spaces with real people. We got the US tour coming up as well. We’re working on new music, I’m working on a whole load of other projects – I’m writing a lot for other people which I love. We did this MTV Unplugged gig at the end of last year, so that’s going to come out as an album later in the year as well. That gig was one of my favorite shows I've ever done. We recorded an hour-and-a-half worth of music and they can only show 45 minutes on TV so there are loads of songs that people haven’t heard yet.

I’m working on a couple of projects with some friends that are more kind of visual leaning as well. I also wrote a song for this film called From Devil’s Breath which is a really beautiful and short documentary by a director called Orlando von Einsiedel. It’s produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and it’s about climate change and the effects on certain environments and wildfires. It’s potentially one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. It sounds very very different from this album, so I’m really excited for people to hear it at some point.

I think it’s going to be quite a busy year, between touring and releasing this album. We also held quite a lot of music for this album back, so as the year goes on we will be dropping more and more tracks from this world.


For more information on Bastille and their upcoming US tour visit, bastillebastille.com.

Photos courtesy of Sarah Louise Bennett