BASTILLE frontman Dan Smith’s hair is standing on end. This is no surprise. It’s his usual ‘spiked mullet’. What is unexpected is his agitation. He is upset.
“A journalist reviewed our album and made a comment about my haircut,” he says. “I mean, are you really, in a broadsheet newspaper, making a comment about my hair? In an album review? How is that relevant?”
A question about Bastille’s testy relationship with the British media has prompted a rant. With a number-one album, Bad Blood, and a radio hit in single ‘Pompeii’, Smith should be beyond caring what critics think.
“I’ve tried not to read it,” he says of the criticism. “We have received some horrible shit. We, as a band, never received any support from the press as we were coming up. So, it may seem to a lot of people that we had a number-one album out of nowhere. It’s just so depressingly predictable that the broadsheet press would kick back with some very personal responses. It sucks, to be honest.”
Smith is disdained by the very publications he once admired. As a film student in Leeds, he read Britain’s ‘quality press’. His ambition was to be a journalist. With those same titles now gleefully ‘beating up’ on him, he is at a loss at to how to respond.
“Speaking as someone who reads those papers, it annoys me. Of course, I know that, as a musician, you can’t make any kind of response. I’m doing that right now and I might end up looking stupid. You come across as bitter and open yourself to more ridicule.”
He shouldn’t be so glum. Their detractors may disagree, but Bastille’s debut, Bad Blood, is a fine mainstream rock record, full of the irresistible melodies and killer choruses that turned Coldplay into an arena act. You can imagine Londoners Bastille soon performing before equally vast venues. Among the year’s new bands, they seem most likely to reach the top and stay there.
“We slightly underestimated our fan-base,” says Smith, who, rant over, is amiable and self-deprecating. “We were talking to a guy from our label and he told us that, in four weeks, we sold the number of albums they had expected for the entire life cycle of the record. So we beat their projections, too. It caught a lot of people by surprise.”
A self-proclaimed pessimist, Smith refuses to be carried away. He never wanted to be famous. Now he’s topping the charts, the 26-year-old is taking nothing for granted. “I wrote songs for myself,” he says. “I started in my bedroom. I used to record stuff and lay out my vocals. I never played them to anyone.
“One of my friends heard what I was doing and entered me in a competition. I won. And I was forced by winning it to play a gig. That was the first I thought about it. It took over my life, in terms of something I wanted to devote myself to. All along, I had aspired to be a film journalist.”
His misanthropy gets the better of him, as he laughingly says: “I’m consistently expecting it to all go wrong. Like, we’ll be playing a sold-out venue and I’ll be going to the rest of the band ‘will anyone turn up, do you think?’ And they’ll be like, ‘you idiot, the show is sold-out’.”
But he says his success is built on solid ground. Bastille were never one of those ‘buzz’ outfits in which the UK specialise. The media is not in their corner. What journalists think can be irrelevant. You can’t have a backlash if there never was any hype.
“We have so much fun and really enjoy ourselves,” says Smith. “We are aware how insanely fickle everything is. We have never been particularly hyped. We have always just got on with it. Everything good that has happened has taken us by surprise. And it’s a really pleasant surprise. We are lucky to have a loyal fanbase that seems to have grown, mainly by word-of-mouth.”
Smith put together Bastille after realising he’d like company on stage. “It got a bit silly. I had other musicians playing with me and we’d rock out and, at the end, I’d say, ‘thanks for coming to see us’. It didn’t make any sense for me to be a solo artist.”
Eighteen months ago, Smith came to the attention of Elton John’s management. He received a call from Elton and was snapped up by the company, which saw him as a confessional writer in the making.
“It got to the point where I was writing songs for Bastille as a band,” he says of his decision to walk away from the deal. “Elton John’s management are a massive company and great at what they do. But, ultimately, I was keen for us to build this group from scratch. I wanted to challenge myself to begin something new.”
An introvert, Smith was terrified of performing live. He’d get the shakes in his dressing room, or spend much of the concert glaring at his shoes.
“I’ve grown more comfortable,” he says. “Just through gigging and gigging and gigging. We don’t have big egos in this band. I was doing a radio interview recently and the DJ said, ‘you guys are the least arrogant rock group I’ve ever met’. My expectations are low. The other week, we were in a chart battle with One Direction and Justin Timberlake. Simply saying those words out loud is absurd. We feel like perpetual competition winners. No matter what happens, we will never take anything for granted.”
* Bad Blood is out now. Bastille headline Indiependence Festival, Mitchelstown, Cork, Aug 2-4.