I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a van, less than three hours into my road trip from Sydney to Melbourne. The light is dimming and my heart is racing at the prospect of speaking to Dan Smith on the phone.
One does not simply telephone interview the lead singer of Bastille on a motorway.
Quite literally one does not, because the external wind was so loud as to be internal, and the reception so poor the call was cut out about three times prior to starting. Humiliated and flustered, Dan calls me back calm and nonchalantly charming.
He calls me Dude and apologises for making me pull over. I like him already. His voice is warm and inviting; it has a friendly tone that carries no ego or assumed hierarchy. He makes me feel like I’m chatting to a friend, not the Grammy award-winning musician of a band who has sold over 8 million records worldwide. He is eloquent, but not rehearsed.
I know that the tour for Wild World has already begun and that he must be exhausted, doubtlessly bored by the line-up of telephone interviews he has both before and after me. However, he is relaxed and chatty, and makes me feel like I have all the time in the world.
I’m just trying not to hyperventilate.
Where did the title ‘Wild World’ originate?
“I wrote the song, ‘Warmth’, at the end of last year and it has this lyric in it about Wild World that just felt right. The song comes from watching the news and not knowing how to react because it can be quite overwhelming at the moment, and everything can seem quite bleak and fucked up. I guess it came as an immediate reaction to that.”
“There is no right way to react to anything, like sometimes I’m like: fuck, I need to run myself into the person that is the best distraction and just lose myself in them. Some of the songs look at responding to the world on a human level.”
“The song kind of pulled the whole album together in my head because up until then we’d just been experimenting and working on a lot of different songs and that just kind of summed up the whole album for me.”
Would you say that naming an album is like naming a novel? Does it have a kind of thematic relevance to all the songs or chapters within it? Does the naming come at the beginning or end?
“That’s a good question and I don’t really have an answer to it. Everyone makes music differently! I think with us, it came halfway through the process, both times actually. I want our albums to be like film titles from old nostalgic movies; I like to imagine it like we’re creating this box set of movies.”
“What I like about the title is that it’s in this dramatic cinematic parallel universe in which our songs exist in my mind, but it is also firmly rooted in reality, and in the world and how it is at the moment. Because it came halfway through it informed some of the writing but it was also a reaction to what came before.”
“We realise that we don’t really care about genre, or having a particular sound and that was quite liberating.”
Have you found writing songs is harder now that you have such a huge following and success because there is more external pressure?
“I guess it’s quite nice knowing that there are all these people that will at least listen to it, whether or not they like it is a different question. In terms of pressure, we just wanted to write stuff that we had fun making. We realise that we don’t really care about genre, or having a particular sound and that was quite liberating. We went off on a rock tangent and played lots of heavy guitar, then off on an R and B tangent and loved that and then came back round to writing big cinematic tunes again.”
“The album definitely wasn’t made to appease anyone, from my perspective if we were trying to be commercial we wouldn’t be writing songs about grief and other weird subject matters. If we were just trying to appease people that liked the first album we wouldn’t have introduced heavy guitars or a lot of the sounds that are on it. It’s like a reflection of where our heads have gone off to, and we can just hope that the people that liked our first album will follow us there.”
How do you write music? Does it come to you in sounds or in lyrics? Do you write on paper or in your phone?
“It is all very random! I guess it depends what you’re up to in your life. We’re touring a lot and sometimes I have to like, sing ideas into my phone before I forget them! It comes in weird waves. Sometimes I have loads of ideas and I cant stop putting stuff down and sometimes you go through periods of having no ideas and that sometimes freaks me out a bit! But, the ideas always come back again, and leave again.”
“I need headspace to be able to go back and pick out the bits that I like and want to develop. The production comes really early on – I quite enjoy that. I’ll often have a half finished idea and leave it and come back to it – sometimes its really obvious what its about to me and sometimes I’m still trying to figure it out. Sometimes they come in half an hour, sometimes I’ll be working on them for a few months.”
Does the rock star life get to you ever? Do you ever struggle with motivation and not having a routine? Not having a 9-5 means you don’t have a specific work frame, but it also means you are never NOT working! So how do you keep pushing through?
“That’s a really good question. [We both laugh]. No, but genuinely! That’s a really good question. It’s interesting, I work really hard and I love working and it’s weird to call it work because a lot of it isn’t. Just travelling around and touring and playing songs takes up like ALL of your time, but then I love writing and I love producing and I love writing for other people… but it ‘s kind of like, I want to have a life. You know? When you’re really busy it can be quite hard. I know it sounds ridiculous but just travelling takes up so much time!”
“I’ve found myself in the peak of busiest times… it takes up a lot of thought and care and energy, it doesn’t just happen. Well sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
“At the moment were about to release a new album, so its kind of accepted that were really busy, that were going to have to talk about the album a lot and be in five places at once and all that kind of stuff which is, you know, awesome; but I’m kind of resigned to the idea that for the next few months I’m probably not going to be able to get to the studio and make new songs. But you know this is all really new to us, so I guess its just about trying to find ways to fit it all in.”
“And you’re right, there are points where we’ll be touring and travelling so much that I just do not have the headspace to do it. I guess what motivates me is making songs. That’s what I love the most. I’ve found myself in the peak of busiest times still working on a song through the middle of the night and it sounds cheesy but because I always did it for fun anyway – that’s the bit I really like – but it’s important to make the space for it. Because it takes up a lot of thought and care and energy, it doesn’t just happen. Well sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
“But I’ve got another band I’m in, I help run an indie label, I’m heavily involved in every little decision we make as a band – from artwork to videos to everything. We are so spoilt to have this job! There are quite a lot of bands where you write an album, you tour it, and then you let other people take over and do your artwork and your videos. But I think we’ve found ourselves in this bizarre thing where we get to make videos and work with other artists and sometimes in my head its hard to kind of manage doing it all at the same time, but I want to be involved in it all, I don’t want to just sit back and let other people take over!”
I like that you said this album is about “not giving a fuck about genre”. But in ways I still feel like genre needs to exist so that we can keep breaking it? Do you think that your ability to reject rigid genre boundaries has come from experience or success even? That because you have a confirmed following, you are able to take more risks?
“That makes complete sense! But I don’t think people really care about genre anymore. Everyone is incorporating anything and everything into their music at the moment. There are always going to be things that are popular and in the forefront of people’s minds but I think that people these days will just listen to the songs and artists that they love.”
“When done right, that can be amazing. The first XX album is so distinct – their sonic palette is so marked out, it’s amazing. But it’s also because the songs within that are fucking brilliant as well! I’m not remotely saying that people that do that across an album are not good, it can be done brilliantly, but for us it’s never been that.”
“For us, we make music with our laptops in a tiny basement studio of our friends flat, using our imagination and thinking outwards. There’s an imaginary fantasy element to it all: thinking in terms of big sweeping sounds.”
I’m now told that we have to wrap up, I begin my thank you’s but Dan interrupts me:
“No don’t worry! Did you have one more question for me?”
Dan’s lack of ego is inspiring.
Okay well just quickly – where do you feel most comfortable? In the studio or performing on stage?
“The thing that comes naturally to me is writing and being in the studio. That’s not in a grand music industry studio, I literally mean, in my friends basement. But playing gigs and festivals is something that came second. It is undeniably fucking awesome to stand on stage and perform to tens of thousands of people who know your songs; it’s so surreal. It is so fucking weird! But I also still get really anxious and nervous, and that’s not really a place where I am naturally at ease. It’s taken me a while to get to the point where I really enjoy it, and I really do. But I guess if it was up to me I’d much rather be working on new stuff!”
We say our thank you’s and goodbye’s, and I’m very suddenly back in the van in a service station.
In a similar way to how Dan described Wild World, my experience was surreal and yet firmly rooted in reality. That reality being that Dan Smith is genuinely a real lovely person; one who has sky rocketed to fame and yet whose head remains very much rooted to earth; humble, open and frankly honest. Bastille’s frontman sets up a new paradigm for the celebrity: one who is just like us, but makes really good music.
Wild World is out now via Virgin Records/EMI.