Dan Smith, leader and main songwriter of the British-born band Bastille, had an image in mind: someone is sitting on the sofa. The room is dark. This person wears a virtual reality helmet and, with it, in his head, he flies over the whole world doing what he wants. Smith knows how beautiful it is. What a release for the wearer of technology. But with this view comes the question: how much of this is healthy?
When Smith ponders this idea, he does so with a sense of openness and nuance. It’s not a perspective that people shouldn’t use virtual reality or look into their cell phones. In fact, Smith loves the idea of escapism – it’s a common theme in her life and work. However, he also knows it’s fair to ask, as we head into our tech-driven future, what’s worth paying attention to?
These questions and many more arise on Bastille’s latest album, the 13 tracks Give me the future, which fell in the first week of February. The epic LP, which delves deep into questions of time, technology and the value of human relationships, offers its listeners as many questions as answers, while countless vocal tracks, big beats and driving melodies play with your ears.
“We live in complicated and interesting times,” Smith says. “We are constantly faced with different versions of what the future could be, both on a personal level and on a macro level. That’s a lot of stuff to get your teeth into. »
Living today, Smith says, can feel like residing in science fiction predictions made by literature and movies of the past. Technology is sewn into every corner or almost everything we do day to day. So discussing this in song becomes endlessly fertile and fascinating for 35-year-old London-born Smith. The artist began writing and assembling the new album before the pandemic hit, he says, but the COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent reliance on things like Zoom piqued his interest to the nth degree.
“We didn’t make the album about the pandemic,” Smith says. “A lot of the themes were reinforced by the fact that we’re more reliant on technology. I’m not saying phones are bad – I’m massively addicted to phones. But it’s also helpful to hold a mirror up to that.
Smith says the new record is about escapism and the dualistic reality the word calls for. Flying like a superhero over, say, a city like Paris is fun. But how long should we spend time there, in that helmet? No one knows for sure, Smith says. The truth is that it largely depends on the individual. But even that is not certain. The inquiry reaches its connecting point when considering the idea of love. Thousands, if not millions, of people are finding love through technology these days. Some even marry others without ever meeting them in person. The bastille song “Stay Awake” touches on this tenuous reality. The track, which begins with a computerized voice asking for confidence, wonders later in the chorus, Why should I stay awake?
“How have digital friendships and digital romantic relationships changed the way we meet and see people? There are so many stories of people who have changed their appearance so much on dating apps that they are too shy to meet people [they are matched with] in real life,” Smith says.
But at the same time, without these technologies, these people might never have felt the sense of appreciation that comes from the love of another. On the song “Plug In…,” Smith dives into these themes. He sings about airbrushing and pornography. They are means to an end. But do they bring us tenderness? This song is followed by a guest song, “Promises”, by Riz Ahmed, which talks about the cold and difficult outside world and the repercussions of an industrial world. But it culminates in the idea that lying in bed, belly to belly, with a lover might be the only thing that really matters. It may be the truth. And while Bastille’s latest album, which was put together with the help of hit producer Ryan Tedder, and several of Smith’s peers, explores all of that, it’s not a boring theoretical text either. The album is a fun and energetic pop record that is sure to shake a myriad of speakers.
“There’s so much going on on the album,” Smith says.
Smith’s musical journey began with his parents. Both were from South Africa. When they moved to the UK they had Smith and his sister. In college, Smith’s mother played folk concerts to help pay for law school. Growing up, she would often sing or hum around the house or in the car. Smith’s parents were “obsessed” with music. His sister introduced him to hip-hop, and Smith remembers falling in love with the album Fugees, The score. He was fascinated by Lauryn Hill. He also enjoyed Paul Simon and the folk artists his mother had on the speakers. Then, in adolescence, songwriting became a means of entertainment as well as a form of escape. But it wasn’t until he fell in love with movies and storytelling that songs also took over his daily life.
“The world of fiction, film and literature,” Smith says. “That’s where I imagined my life, hopefully back then. I wanted to be a journalist and write about movies.
But it was at university, while studying English literature, that he met friends who were passionate about music. They heard the little bits of song recordings he was preparing and encouraged him to continue. Soon Smith found he could put his storytelling and love of stage and film into his music. At first he worked as a writer, solo and behind closed doors. Later, he started gambling (what he now jokingly calls a “necessary evil”). Smith says it took a while to write “proper songs”. Today, he works with and even composes for many artists.
“For me, as a writer,” Smith says, “I was always nervous, I guess, about how weird my voice sounded. I sang with a British accent, with a rather distinct voice.
At first, inspired by artists like Regina Spektor and Elton John, Smith wrote narrative songs that meandered (perhaps a little too much). He used looper pedals, lots of vocal layers and instruments. But as he worked, he found more people to collaborate with. His songs got tighter; he found a sonic purpose. He also learned a lot. In 2013, Bastille released their first album, Bad blood. The band has followed up with a new studio album every three years since. Early hits include songs like “Laura Palmer” and “Pompeii”, both of which were part of the band’s debut. Now the group has earned a string of accolades and awards, appearances on MTV unplugged and Saturday Night Live, and probably several billion streams. (And the new album will add to all that.)
“It’s amazing to have that early success,” Smith says. “But it was a bit overwhelming. Nobody really tells you what to expect because nobody knows. It was totally surreal – it takes over your life for a few years.
Smith expresses his gratitude for all the winnings, of course. He and his bandmates have traveled the world many times, performing in front of thousands of people. Still, it’s a strange life for anyone. With such success as Bastille had in the early 2010s, they were achieving seemingly daily life goals. As such, Smith and co. had to do a good job of not getting carried away with it, while enjoying it as much as possible in a healthy way. Yet knowing that any success like this is fleeting by definition. For Smith, who says he lives and breathes music 24/7 (he’s the type to insert a voice recording into his mid-dinner phone conversation), he knows that hard work and dedication are the keys to prosperity. As such, with every song, album, or video, he aims to make it sound like a Event. The bigger the window, the easier the escape, after all.
“I can waste an entire day working on a song and forget to eat,” Smith says.
When we look at, listen to, interact with, or experience a work of art, a lot is going on without our even realizing it. Something cellular happens first. Our very body reacts to the music before we understand exactly what is going on. Our brain also spins. We recognize aspects of the song, play, painting, or film before we can consciously review it. One of these mental reflexes is to feel how much time has been spent on a given job. If there is a lot of detail, surprise and depth. And listening to Bastille Give me the futureone thing is certain: Smith cares deeply about the time he spends on anything.
“Music is my passion,” Smith says. “Whenever I have free time, I always write or record. It’s awkward, I’ll sneak around to sing something into my phone. I want to write every day. It’s the idea of going in with nothing and coming out at the end of the day with a song that might be something in your head for a few weeks or might change your life – you just don’t know.
Photo by Sarah Louise Bennett