Bastille frontman Dan Smith on how insomnia can lead to great things

Bastille frontman Dan Smith on how insomnia can lead to great things
Dan Smith of Bastille: “I think as a band we’ve never wanted to be anything in particular.” Picture: Getty Images

In advance of his Indiependence appearance, Bastille frontman Dan Smith tells Don O’Mahony about the upside to insomnia, and his group’s focus on making music they like

As a musician, performer and interviewee, Dan Smith gives the air of someone with a voracious appetite for new experiences and ideas. If the end of the world were to happen tomorrow morning you know the Bastille linchpin would not waste a second of his time left on earth. In fact, he’s already given a pretty good account of that eventuality on the London indie pop outfit’s newly released third long player Doom Days, a concept album detailing a night of hedonism set against a possible apocalypse.

If, in real life, Smith refuses to let the relatively small matter of insomnia bother him then why needlessly waste time worrying about the end of days.

“Obviously sleep is kinda great and helpful,” he proffers at one point, “and I’d rather sleep as much as possible. But it does mean I listen to a lot of podcasts and audio books that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

The topic of insomnia was prompted by Smith’s reflections on sharing a couch recently with Stephen Fry when Bastille appeared on The Graham Norton Show.

“Obviously he’s like a living legend so that was pretty surreal. He reads loads of audiobooks and sometimes when I can’t sleep I listen to him to try to get me to sleep so it was kinda weird hearing him talk not in the context of insomnia,” Smith recalls.

Sometimes that state of insomnia can be helpful in other ways, as Smith found when it came to putting the finishing touches on Doom Days, a fevered process revolving around writing and recording the title track, a pivotal moment on the record.

“When we were making the song ‘Doom Days’ off this album we were travelling to Australia and we had three days there doing three gigs in three days,” he outlines.

“And I couldn’t sleep the entire time because we were trying to finish the song ‘Doom Days’. We had the weekend to finish it and hand it in for the album to get mastered and it was a slightly surreal few days. I wrote about 30 or 40 verses for this song that only needed eight. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I couldn’t sleep at all.

“It was a slightly weird three days but what came out of it was this song that I’m really proud of. And it was the last thing we made for the album and I think it’s a really important track for the record and what it’s trying to say. So sometimes insomnia can lead to good things, you know,” he points out in chirpy tones.

But with its allusion to a Joker character wanting to watch the world burn it’s fair to say the track Doom Days sounds pretty wired.

“Exactly,” Smith cackles in a conspiratorial manner. “Kinda like method songwriting.”

The impact of that track stems from its brevity and it required sound judgment to trim those dozens of verses. “It was a song where I had the chorus and I really loved it but I wanted to use the verses and almost treat it like a rap or like a flow and just have a constant barrage of stream of consciousness kind of thoughts. It was always intended to be a sort of small interlude and it kept expanding and expanding. I wanted it to be very concise but very to the point and to pack a lot into that time and I’m quite happy with how it came out. It was helpful to nod towards loads of pop culture references and contemporary things and social and political stuff just to make it feel very relevant to right now at this very minute.

“You know if the album is about the search for escapism I felt like it was kind of important to gesture towards what it is that someone in 2019 would be wanting to escape. So hopefully we’ve achieved that slightly in the track,” he adds.

Since the release of their breakthrough smash single ‘Pompeii’ in 2013, Bastille has enjoyed the luxury of mixing urban and pop influenced grooves with dark lyrical content. In recent years the band have been able to marry their particular gothic soul music sound to such mainstream figures as Craig David on 2017’s

‘I Know You’ and 2018’s EDM chart smash with Marshmello. Sunny and upbeat of appearance they may be, they are still not removed from the darker spaces Bastille enjoy.

“I think as a band we’ve never wanted to be anything in particular,” considers Smith.

“For us, we just made the music that we wanted to and I guess when it came to the collaborations they came about quite naturally. We didn’t really think about them that much but it didn’t feel like too much of a stretch.” Despite their huge success, Smith treasures Bastille’s place as outsiders infiltrating the mainstream.

“I think for some people who don’t look below the surface of what we do these are just pop songs they occasionally hear on the radio but we’ve always tried to make things a bit weird and play to the things that we like. You know I love David Lynch and I love how subversive his work is and I think pop music is such a fun malleable medium. Be it the videos or the lyrics or what the songs are about we always want to have fun with that,” he declares.

Bastille play Indiependence Music and Arts Festival, Mitchelstown, on Friday, August 2

Highlights at the Indiependence festival

  • Biffy Clyro: Like fellow Indie headliners Bastille, Biffy Clyro have also enjoyed surprise mainstream success, thanks to X Factor winner Matt Cardle’s cover of ‘Many of Horror’. It put a spotlight on the band’s ability to write widescreen melodic rock, a knack they’ve had since their early post hardcore days.
  • The Undertones: Having already hosted such Northern Ireland musical legends in headlining spots as Ash and Therapy? It seems rude to ignore Derry’s evergreen godfathers of hook-laden pop punk. A band who set the standard of being played twice in a row on BBC Radio 1 long before Biffy Clyro.
  • Gavin James: His only date in Ireland before he headlines the 3Arena next February, the affable singer-songwriter (below) will no doubt prompt many mobile phone light aloft moments thanks to plaintive anthems such as ‘For You’, ‘Nervous’ and the ubiquitous ‘Always’.
  • All Tvvins: Emerging confidently from Ireland’s Ireland’s DIY rock scene, All Tvvins’ early singles ‘Thank You’ and ‘Darkest Ocean’ were urgent bursts of stratosphere scraping electro pop. Since the release of 2016’s llVV the duo have mutated smoothly into a soulful neo blues outfit with an eye on the dancefloor. How they’ll realise the songs from sophomore album Just to Exist in a festival setting will be interesting.

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