Bastille began as an alternative identity for Dan Smith, a vehicle for his numerous ideas. Why Bastille? You could say Dan chose it because it connotes revolution and change, but really it's just because his birthday falls on Bastille Day and he wanted something neutral yet evocative enough to describe his rhythmically and melodically inventive indie-R&B-pop. As he says, "It's anonymous and it allows me the freedom to do what I want." Oh, and because he didn't want to trade as Dan Smith: troubadour.
Dan put the first Bastille songs online in autumn 2010, but it was when he uploaded a video for his song Flaws at the start of 2011, which he had cut together with footage from Terence Mallick’s Badlands, that he noticed a real reaction. It garnered over 250,000 views on Youtube and, more to Dan’s surprise, has been treated to scores of covers by performers around the world. “I nearly fell off my chair when I saw the first cover” Dan says. “To this day it is still incredibly surreal to see so many complete strangers on the other side of the world singing songs that I made in my room”. Bastille’s online success continued throughout 2011, and autumn saw their dark and moody cover of City High’s 2000s classic What Would You Do fly straight to the top of both We are Hunted and the prestigious Hype Machine chart.
“I’m inspired by a lot of music, but I particularly respect interesting singer-songwriters who explore and try new things. People like Antony Hegarty, Regina Spektor, Kate Bush, Bon Iver and Bjork".
His songs clearly have wide-ranging appeal. "They draw on pop culture and literature to a degree," he says. "Mainly, though, they touch on that feeling of being at the end of your teens and start of your twenties, and the worries you have as a young adult. It's quite an odd existence… They're songs about trying to grow up, looking back to the past and forwards to the future."
When asked to judge the songs he has written so far, the David Lynch fan describes Laura Palmer as “an out-and-out pop song that centers on a dark theme” while the glitchy, skippy noir ballad Overjoyed - due for release as a single in April 2012 - is minimal, stripped-back and hauntingly rhythmic. Other Bastille gems meriting scrutiny include Things We Lost In The Fire, which has an epic quality and lush, sweeping strings that bring the chorus into widescreen focus. Pompeii is an infectious crowd-pleaser with Beach Boys harmonies, while SleepSong is atmospheric yet anthemic - a difficult trick to pull off.
Dan enjoys the liberty that Bastille brings, with its fluid set-up: “I don’t want a rigid sound and I want to be able to try different things from song to song. All the songs are recorded either in my bedroom, or with my mate in his little windowless studio in Battersea,” It is in the latter that Dan is recording and co-producing Bastille’s debut album. Having already worked on remixes for the likes of Emeli Sande and Fenech Soler (who also personally invited Bastille to support them), he is currently working on a mixtape, Other People’s Heartache, due for release as a free download in February. It will comprise solely of cover versions, everything from 90s Eurodance hit Haddaway’s What Is Love to Rose Royce’s 1978 soul ballad Love Don’t Live Here Anymore. Because Dan is, as he readily admits, “obsessed with film”, the mixtape will also incorporate soundtrack themes into the songs themselves as well as classical music snippets and plenty of David Lynch atmospherica. There will even be an opportunity for fans to choose the last cover on the mixtape on the Bastille website.
He wants his as-yet-untitled debut album proper to reflect the music he loved when he was growing up, the records played to him by his South African parents. It was a musical upbringing, what with his mum being a folk singer. “I have memories of being in the car with my mum and dad, driving around being played Graceland, Pet Sounds, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Simon & Garfunkel,” he says, adding: “That might explain my obsession with harmonies and melodies that you can really grip on to.” He's always trying to come up with new songs and new sounds - he’s just written a track called These Streets featuring marimba and his own vocal multitracked and effected until it sounds like a “weird and warped choir”.
Dan assembled Bastille as a four piece live outfit - Kyle on keyboards, Will on bass and Chris on drums - ahead of a run of sold-out shows in 2011, at London’s Barfly, 93 Feet East and Underbelly, the latter a launch party for their first single, Flaws/Icarus, which sold out on pre-order. At each gig, Dan was stunned by the audience’s reaction. He enjoyed the touring experience, as he and the band piled into the people carrier they borrowed from a friend’s mum, although he could have done without it breaking down on the M1 on the way to a support slot with Fenech-Soler.
He’d like Bastille’s debut to seem like a compilation of peak moments, of all their best songs to date. He wants to make an album where "each song is totally memorable and sonically stands out”. The album will comprise, he says, personal songs that are melancholic yet euphoric. “When pop music gets it right,” he contends, “what is being said has the potential to be devastating even when the music is totally uplifting.”
It will, he anticipates, be an album that you can dance to and think to, with powerful vocals and mammoth hooks. Or, as one magazine so succinctly put it, “Bastille seem to have mastered the craft of perfect pop music.”