Storming the Bastille
Take one shy college boy, add a spiky hairdo and a smash hit single and before you know it, Bastille are taking over the charts
You are inclined to believe Dan Smith when he says he doesn't care what people think of him or his music. He's especially dismissive of journalists who, to make a sweeping generalisation, have had daggers drawn since his band, Bastille, released their soft rock blockbuster Pompeii (you know the song – of course you do, it's been inescapable for the past six months).
Smith still hasn't forgiven the reviewer who said he looked like Justin Bieber and cracked wise about the way his hair stands on end, as if he'd inserted his finger into a socket.
"There are lots of individuals out there who take cheap shots. As a musician, you aren't in a position to respond. If you are going to comment on someone's haircut . . . I mean come on. I don't give a fuck. It's funny.
"I don't worry about our image. I worry about the stuff we have creative control over – the record sleeves, the videos."
Initially the deluge of negativity – the two- star reviews, the lame hair gags – hurt. A film studies graduate, the Londoner grew up reading right-on British newspapers such as The Guardian and The Independent. To have them turn on Bastille, an anthemic outfit in the proudest tradition of Coldplay and Snow Patrol, was not fun. But Smith has left all of that behind. He had to. He's on the way to becoming a rock star and rock stars don't fret about little things or little people.
"Comparisons will always be made," he says of the Bieber jibe. "Some fairly, some unfairly. We are getting on with it. I probably cared for about a week. We are so busy gigging every night. Our profile has grown and grown. So I stopped bothering very quickly."
As he says, he has other matters to worry about. In particular the challenges of burgeoning fame. Smith started out writing material literally in his bedroom.
Too shy to perform in public, he had to be cajoled into entering a university song contest by friends.
One hit album later, he remains a tentative frontman. In a few hours he will sing to a 40,000 strong audience at the Benicassim festival in Spain and, while he will enjoy the experience, it will nonetheless strike Smith as deeply odd. He is about as distant from a natural born showman as you can get and his lyrics are sluiced in an ambivalence about whether he wants anyone to actually pay attention to Bastille.
"There is always room to be pessimistic," Smith chuckles. "There is always the next disaster to envisage daily. All the stuff that has happened to us in the last six months – it is one massive surprise building upon another. I don't think any of us expected it to escalate so rapidly. We continue to adjust."
Nobody involved with Bastille thought Pompeii would take off to the extent it has.
When he was invited to audition for a record contract, it wasn't even one of the songs Smith performed (Bastille was initially a solo project and, in terms of creative control, remains one). It was the third single from their LP, Bad Blood, and the belief was that it would pick up airplay, then quietly disappear. Instead, it is an international smash.
"It was just another tune from our album that we liked," he says. "Now it has assumed a life of its own. It took us all by surprise. It's funny because we'd played it live for a year up to putting it out. We didn't have any inkling what it was about to do. It's rippled out across the world. It is still rippling. It's a hit in countries we've never even visited. We are playing catchup, chasing it around the globe."
His route to the top has been idiosyncratic to say the least. After graduating from college, a collection of Smith's demos did the rounds in London, leading to a solo deal with Elton John's management company.
This precipitated a call from Elton himself, who praised Smith's writing and intimated that he had a bright future in mass-market pop. However, Smith wasn't thrilled at the prospect of a standalone career and had already started on another batch of songs, which he envisaged being played by a band. He recruited some friends, told Elton's team thanks but no thanks. Bastille was born.
Smith is looking forward to returning to Ireland over the August Bank Holiday weekend for a date at Indiependence in Cork.
Bastille have an especially fervent following here. They headlined a festival for the first time at the Sea Sessions in Bundoran in June and, prior to that, were a highlight of the Trinity Ball (gamely going on at four in the morning). Just the other week they were back in the capital, where they hung out with local artists.
"In a slightly cheesy way the hope is that we may be inspired by meeting them," says Smith. "At the moment we are so busy that we don't see much of the cities we pass through. It is literally from the venue straight to the airport.
"With this project we've gone to Barcelona, Naples and Dublin, interacting with creative individuals there. We're very grateful for the opportunity."
Rock stars will always tell you they hate the trappings of success. Fame in particular. Smith sounds like he might really mean it.
He certainly does not strike you as a natural born preener. Having headlined the John Peel tent at the UK's Glastonbury festival, drawing the largest ever audience to the stage, he bedded down with friends in the public camping area. Kicking back with Mick Jagger in a blinged-out yurt would have gone against everything he believes in.
"I've attended Glastonbury for the last six years. I didn't think we'd play at it, so I bought my ticket, queued up online from eight in the morning like everyone else. It was a nice surprise that we got booked. Afterwards, I spent the rest of the weekend hanging out with my mates. It was wicked."
Some of his friends feared his man-of-the-people routine would be more trouble than it was worth. "One said, 'you're not camping with us – everyone will recognise you and they'll stampede my tent'. I find that stuff to be complete bullshit. However, bowing to pressure, I wore a hat. It was surprisingly effective.
"I felt like Clark Kent. I'd put it on and nobody would know who I was. I remember watching Arctic Monkeys and it was warm, so I took the hat off. Suddenly a whole load of strangers ran up. I put it on again and it was like they melted away. It was a funny experience."
He is resigned to performing Pompeii for the rest of his life. Musicians often develop ambivalent feelings about their biggest hits. Smith, for all his much-noted gloominess, seems upbeat about having a 'til-death-do us part' relationship with his.
"I suppose we will have to play it throughout our career – however long or short that is. Every single band in the world has to play material off their first album.
"I don't see it as a complicated thing. What happens if other songs from the record take off in the way Pompeii has? It will be interesting to see what occurs next. I mean, honestly – who the hell knows?"
Bastille headline Indiependence, Mitchelstown, on Sunday, August 4. The band was in Dublin as part of the Beefeater Alchemy Project, see www.beefeateralchemyproject.com
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