Dan Smith of Bastille: ‘I sound like a nervous wreck who hates doing this’

Their track Pompeii was one of the biggest hits of the decade but the Londoners still think they look like ‘competition winners’ when they hit the red carpet. Will their new album Wild World change that?

Dan Smith and I have been talking in the corner of a hotel bar for 10 minutes when a middle-aged man walks over and asks: “Are you Dan from Bastille?” Smith is whisked away to have his photograph taken with the man’s daughter, and returns to his seat looking embarrassed and somewhat alarmed.

Doesn’t this happen a lot? “Never,” he says, then grins. “I paid him, obviously.”

You would think that, by now, this would not be an uncommon occurrence. Bastille’s debut album, Bad Blood, was Britain’s biggest-selling digital album of 2013. Their colossally catchy single Pompeii was the kind of ubiquitous, multi-platinum hit that you have probably heard without realising it. At one point, it was the most streamed song of all time in the UK and spent a staggering 92 weeks in the Billboard Hot 100, a feat only equalled by Pharrell’s Happy. This summer, the band have been in the upper echelons of festival bills prior to the release of their second album, Wild World, and an arena tour. So it is safe to say Bastille’s music is quite famous. It is just that Smith and his three bandmates are not. “Whenever we’re on the red carpet, we look like competition winners,” he concedes. “It’s a joke.”

Interviewing Smith is more like talking to a friend of a friend than a frontman. He is earnest and self-deprecating, happiest when he’s talking about things other than himself (Stanley Kubrick, Regina Spektor, the podcast Serial), and prone to repudiating what he has just said if it sounds at all pretentious or self-regarding. The hotel has provided trays of pastries but he confines himself to a banana he brought from home – home being a five-person houseshare in London. Frankly, pop stars are not meant to bring their own breakfast to interviews, but then Smith doesn’t consider himself a pop star. Matty Healy of the 1975 or Christine and the Queens, he says, are proper pop stars. “I’m someone who makes songs and has had to retrospectively get my head around all the other stuff. Nobody talked us through what would happen.”

When he formed Bastille in 2010, Smith wanted to conceal himself as much as possible. The first time he posted Bastille songs on Soundcloud, the only image was a shot of the back of his head. The band still don’t appear on their record sleeves. He prefers to write songs about things he finds interesting than about himself. To Smith, making and presenting music is about fantasy, not autobiography.

“It’s hard to let the songs and videos exist in their own little world if you keep popping up in them,” he says. Songs such as Pompeii, therefore, have less in common with the self-mythologising narcissism of modern pop than with 80s oddities such as OMD’s Enola Gay or Ultravox’s Vienna. Smith loves the fact that Pompeii, one of the biggest songs of the decade, is “an imagined conversation between the remains of two people after a volcanic catastrophe”.

The approach also gave him something to hide behind in interviews, which used to be militantly unrevealing. “Suddenly, being in this mainstream space that we never imagined we would be in was quite surreal,” he says. (“Surreal” and “weird” are his go-to adjectives.) “I was really guarded and quite unprepared. I was definitely playing myself down and wanting to deflect attention. It was handy having songs about Pompeii and Icarus and Laura Palmer. Talking about yourself is not that interesting.”

Smith literally wouldn’t exist without music. His parents, both lawyers and South African immigrants, met at university when his father was promoting a folk concert and his mother was performing in it. As a teenager in south London, he wrote and arranged songs on a 12-track recorder, but didn’t play them to anybody (he aspired to be a film journalist) until he was studying English literature at Leeds University and was persuaded to enter a talent contest. He played his first show at the age of 19, trying to recreate his bedroom experiments with a cheap loop pedal. “I had to drink quite a bit to get up on stage,” he says. “There must have been some weird inner ambition. I was a bundle of nerves and anxiety, but I still did it.”

After university, he moved to London, met the rest of Bastille – Chris Wood, Will Farquarson and Kyle Simmons – and wrote songs for Bad Blood after work. He had a string of “dogsbody” jobs, including a runner at an entertainment company. “There was one guy whose wife’s sex toy broke and I had to get it fixed,” he says. “I said: ‘You’re going to have to tell me where to go.’”

Bastille built a loyal fanbase through online releases and steady touring, convinced that each new venue was as big as it was going to get. During their early shows, Smith would hide behind his piano at the back of the stage. “It was a great crutch,” he says. “I could look down and not have to face the crowd.” These days, he ventures into the audience, climbs the speakers and “dances terribly”: anything to distract himself from his nerves. “I feel like it’s almost Russian roulette, going out on stage,” he says. “I can’t predict if it’s going to be one I enjoy.”

Three days before we meet, Bastille played the Sziget festival in Hungary. The sunset was exquisite, the crowd were waving flags, the atmosphere was wonderful, and yet … “I just wasn’t able to enjoy it,” Smith says, glumly. “It was almost an out-of-body experience: ‘This feels like a proper band at a proper festival. I wish I was enjoying it a bit more.’” He laughs awkwardly. “I’m aware that I sound like a complete nervous wreck who hates it, but I enjoy a lot of it.”

He knows it sounds absurd for a platinum-selling band on a major label but, to Smith, Bastille still feels like an intimate operation. Like its predecessor, Wild World was recorded in a windowless basement studio below an industrial estate in Battersea, a location that surprised the likes of Haim and Angel Haze when they came to record guest vocals on Bastille’s playful series of online mixtapes, Other People’s Heartache.

“Seeing people’s faces when they walk in is always quite special,” Smith says. “‘Because our music comes from my laptop, from bedrooms, from the studio – all quite normal and modest – it’s always been about using your imagination. The fantasy element makes it sound bigger than its origins.”

Where Bad Blood relied on Greek myths and Roman disasters for inspiration, Wild World addresses very modern anxieties. It’s a series of muscular, consoling anthems about living in troubling times. “Tell me, did you see the news last night?” Smith cries on Warmth. “It’s very strange singing these new songs this summer,” he says. “They feel very relevant.”

We talk about 2016’s cavalcade of misery: on his 30th birthday, France’s Bastille Day, a truck ploughed into a crowd of revellers in Nice. “A few weeks ago the regularity with which these awful incidents were happening was quite surreal,” he says. “It almost felt like, OK, this is just the norm now. And that’s horrendous.”

Events have forced Smith to be less reticent about discussing politics. He discovered the result of Britain’s EU referendum when he woke up early at Glastonbury that Friday and felt his stomach flip. He tweaked the lyrics to Pompeii during a BBC session (“The walls kept tumbling down” became “The pound kept tumbling down”) and spent the afternoon agonising over whether to say anything on stage. One new song, The Currents, is about people who abuse their podium to bludgeon people with their opinions, and he didn’t want to be one of them. “How do you react?” he says. “Do you talk about it? Do you put it to one side? I’m very wary about talking about politics because we’re just four pricks in a band, but it’s hard to avoid. So I tried to say something positive.”

Smith reminds me a little of a young Chris Martin, another neurotic Englishman with a gift for anthemic earworms. He has an enviable job that he is not quite built to savour. At least, not yet.

“There are moments, when you’re playing your songs to thousands of people, which are amazingly satisfying,” he says. “I’m very self-critical so I find it hard to go along with moments like that. At any point where I feel like we’re just a cliche, I stop and step back and think: ‘Oh no, we’re a fucking band, aren’t we?’”

As soon as the interview ends, Smith can relax and talk about other things as he walks down the road to have his photograph taken at the Guardian offices. No doubt to his relief, nobody recognises him.


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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