Photo: Mercedes-Benz USA

“This Awesome, Uncontrollable Surprise”: An Interview with Bastille

Mercedes-Benz has been curating a five-month, five-stop tour to try and target millennials, with Bastille as one hell of a headliner. For Bastille, it's just "exciting to have a whole new set of songs to play."

The members of Bastille are lying to me.

Now why would the beloved, twice Grammy-nominated U.K. pop-rock export be lying to me? Perhaps they’re appearing to be humble, because as we’re speaking, we’re backstage at the impressive Aon Ballroom on the very tip of Chicago’s historic Navy Pier, which overlooks the waters from three sides, and serves as a two-story, largely glass-walled venue that can house more than 2500 guests rather comfortably. The band, consisting of drummer Chris Wood (a.k.a. “Woody”), singer Dan Smith, and multi-instrumentalists Kyle Simmons and Will Farquarson, have sold millions of albums, but are now telling me that they normally wouldn’t get to play venues such as this. Given their global profile and the high level of anticipation surrounding their long-in-the-works second album, that statement is hard to swallow, as they seem like the kind of group that could walk into just about any venue and demand a night on stage with little quarrel (doubly so given they’re not much of the quarreling type).

Yet the very reason they’re in Chicago now is part of the intrigue: they’re taking part of a much larger corporate event sponsored by Mercedes-Benz called the Evolution Tour, which isn’t so much a tour as it is five separate dates in five major markets over the span of five months, with Bastille and Passion Pit trading off headline dates just as fans, using the power of social media, are able to get in for free, experiencing custom T-shirt making, body art, displays by the likes of Gregory Siff and Zio Ziegler, and, of course, lots and lots of free booze.

For Mercedes-Benz, the aim is to create positive brand impressions with millennials, honing in on the one thing they unquestionably like (free stuff), and realizing that while the target demographic may not be able to purchase a car right now, those open bars and take-home branded items will perhaps turn them in to a customer down the line. As such, they had to place themselves in the tricky situation of invariably coming off as unironically “cool,” and to their credit, the Aon Ballroom truly did feel like one of those “OMG I can’t believe this is happening!” kind of commercials that are all the rage these days, with the line for the T-shirt presses soon growing so long that it eventually arced, perfectly mimicking the curved face of the venue, the evening eventually ending with people joyously still singing the final notes of “Pompeii” well after the band had left the stage, empty Heineken bottles being jostled around as people quietly shuffled out of the Aon into the brisk Chicago midnight.

But all of this begs the question: why would such a beloved band, who are laying out the groundwork for a Coldplay-styled pop takeover, want to participate in such a notably branded event? “We’re kind of between albums at the moment,” Smith tells me, “so it’s given us a really nice opportunity to come out and play these shows that are really fun, and play for the fans.” Although fans are encouraged use Twitter and Instagram (and, of course, applicable hashtags) to broadcast all of the goings-on at the event, Woody in particular liked that entry into it was free, allowing “some kids who wouldn’t normally have the means to come to a show.”

Even more than that, it gave the group a chance to field-test new material to see how it works. Of the new material they played, there were, as to be expected, several wordless “whoa-oh” vocal hooks that fans could sing along to, but Will’s guitar work in particular appeared more prominent, their new songs unabashedly poppy but mixed with a little bit of grit, sometimes coming across as sinewy in the places where their first album sometimes felt more broadly optimistic. Of course, having the crowd sing along to their reinterpretation of “No Scrubs” proved an easy highlight, but going for the unexpected, what with their mixtapes and ready sense of humor, is what the group is all about, and in talking with PopMatters, they detail the extensive roadmap to their second album (“we fucking smashed it”) and discuss their current relationship with that global smash that is “Pompeii”.

* * *

When you guys started out, just like any band, you did a lot of club shows and festivals. These days, you care the burden of being headliners. You have an almost two-hour set to fill …

[band gives a doubting laugh]

And while you have the one album, real fans know you have so much more, including the EPs and the mixtapes. So, for you guys, what have been the challenges in transitioning from smaller, tighter setlists like that to being the all-important headliners doing a full show?

Dan: I think it’s interesting. Most bands on their first album, they have a 40-minute disc. Suddenly, you get to a certain point where you have to play these sets that are an hour, an hour-and-a-half.

“Here’s some covers!”

Dan: Yeah! We were lucky. We got to re-release our album with another album at the end, and we’ve also done three mixtapes, so we essentially have four albums of material. That’s not saying that anyone who comes will have heard all that stuff, [but] I think in that sense we’re kind of lucky: we quite like being constantly creative and constantly making new tunes as a band, and releasing music that we hope is good enough.

Woody: You’ve also got to tailor your fests to the different audiences. At a festival, you may not play your deepest, slow cuts.

Dan: So to answer your question: we have no fucking idea why we’re allowed to play at all, let alone for an hour and a half.

Of course you guys also have a lot of collaborations and remixes out there as well on these mixtapes: something most bands generally don’t do. What kind of challenges do you run into in trying to adapt some of these more elaborate cuts out on the stage?

Dan: Well you might notice we don’t play many of the collaborations. I mean, we toured with Angel Haze so that’s how that track came about. In the States, whenever you overlap [with another artist], well that’s the way to do it. There’s a track on the mixtape called “The Driver” which we could just do by ourselves, but I suppose a lot of the artists that are on that our friends of ours or people who really admire or tour with, so at a festival, we could play that there.

The band (L-R: Woody, Will, Kyle, Dan) in the midst of being interviewed by PopMatters (Photo: Taran O’Reilly)

Now for the bold question: how’s album number two coming?

Dan: It’s fucking amazing.

Woody: I won’t lie: we fucking smashed it.

Dan: We were gonna put it out this year but pushed it back a little bit and I think that was a really good decision. We’ve been making a lot of music [and] we’ve had a few sessions and have been having a lot of fun with it, but we were rushing to get it finished this year, and we took the decision to give ourselves a couple of months and that just made the whole process loads more chilled. I think if we worked right up to the deadline and put it out, I’m sure we would’ve been happy with it but we’ve actually had time now to play lots of shows over the summer and play some songs live. We could step back from the whole album and look at it and really figure out [if] maybe a couple more songs will come, or maybe we’ll reproduce things slightly, but we’re all quite excited by it. Part of it is just being exciting to have a whole new set of songs to play. It’s also allowed us, apart from this tour and some festivals, have a bit of a break, sort of recharge a bit before the next touring cycle.

Of course, the success of “Pompeii” is ubiquitous and unanimous. As you develop new material, there is that worry of being “haunted” by such a massive hit. I’ve interviewed some artists who kind of shy away from such a calling card, others who really embrace it, thrilled by getting the chance to play songs every night even if it’s a defining aspect for some groups. What’s your relationship with the song now?

Woody: I love it still. People ask me if I get bored playing the same song again and again, but it’s literally the best job in the world. It’s not a job. If the hardest part of that is to play a song that you’ve done tons of times before, then so be it.

Dan: Also, despite the fact that you’ve said we’ve been around for five years, we still feel pretty new, ya know? Although we toured the first album for quite awhile, in the grand scheme of things we’re quite a new band, and if we were completely bored with it now, that’s only because we’ve been going for a long long time. I think it depends on who you are and how you identify as a band.

When we get to that point where we play “Pompeii”, especially at a festival, you just see the mood [change]. There’s something about hearing a song that you know, and the one thing that everyone in that field [will know]. There’s gonna be people that know just the singles and people that know the whole album and people who know all the B-sides, but the one thing I can pretty much guarantee what everyone in the field knows is “Pompeii”. There’s something really special about that, and maybe if you ask me two years time I’ll say the opposite, but there’s a part of playing a gig in which is about you enjoying yourself and another part which is doing it for the people ‘cos you want them to have a good time and you get to feed off that.

Kyle: Half the experience is actually playing the song, the other half is where you are and who you’re playing it to. Like, I wouldn’t go home to my room and play it to me, but you play to different crowds who are going crazy all day or [it’s] a night show or whatever, and that adds to the experience of that song. People sort of seem to forget that, saying “Oh, you must go crazy playing it 100 times!” and I say “Yeah, but that’s only half the experience.”

Dan: Well we didn’t try to write a “hit”, so for us, it’s been this awesome, uncontrollable surprise we didn’t expect, and this whole thing has spiraled out of control in front of us, and we just feel grateful. There have been times where you almost feel like you’re chasing this song all over the world and I’m sure there are people who would complain about it, but for us, we just feel really lucky that this is an insane thing we’re able to do.

Woody: So in summary: “Pompeii” = yay.

Looking back on everything you’ve done during this journey so far, what for you has been your biggest regret, and, conversely what do you feel has been your proudest accomplishment?

Dan: For me personally, for some reason this just popped in my head as a regret, but being persuaded to be in the video for “Pompeii”. [pretends to be someone watching it:] “Why is that guy trying to run when he can’t even coordinate himself into a straight line?” [band laughs] This is one of those videos where I was helping plan it out and got swept up in it thinking “Ah, cool, alien invasion story!” while completely blanking on the fact that I had to be in all of it by myself. You’ll notice that after that, we’re not in a lot of them.

Kyle: Don’t have a lot of regrets, really, but eating seafood at a restaurant in Boston which nearly killed me.

Dan: That was so bad!

Will: Smoking a cigar.

Woody: I’m really proud that we’re still doing this five years later on.

Kyle: Five years down the line.

Woody: If we can keep doing this for another five years, that’d also be really good.

Will: Proud that we hoodwinked enough people into liking our music.