Dan Smith, frontman and principal songwriter for the British-born band Bastille, had an image in his mind—someone is sitting on the sofa. The room is dark. This person is wearing a virtual reality headset and, with it, in their mind, they are soaring over the whole world doing whatever they please. Smith knows how beautiful this is. How freeing for the person wearing the technology. But with this vision comes the question: how much of this is healthy?
When Smith wonders about this idea, he does so with a sense of openness and nuance. His is not a perspective decreeing that people should not use virtual reality or stare into their cellphones. In fact, Smith loves the idea of escapism—it’s a common theme in his life and work. However, he also knows that it’s fair to wonder, as we barrel toward our technology-laced futures, what is worth paying attention to?
These questions and more arise on Bastille’s latest album, the 13-track Give Me the Future, which dropped in the first week of February. The epic LP, which dives deep into questions of time, technology, and the value of human relationships, offers its listeners as many questions as it does answers, all while myriad voice tracks, big rhythms, and catchy melodies toy with your ears.
“We live in complicated, interesting times,” Smith says. “We’re constantly confronted by different versions of what the future might be, both on a personal level and a macro level. It’s a lot to get your head around.”
Living today, Smith says, can feel like we’re residing in the science-fiction predictions made by the literature and movies of the past. Technology is stitched into every corner or nearly everything we do on a day-to-day basis. So, discussing this in song becomes endlessly fertile and fascinating for the 35-year-old London-born Smith. The artist began writing and putting together the new pre-pandemic album, he says, but the COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent reliance on things like Zoom piqued his interests to the Nth degree.
“We didn’t make the album about the pandemic,” Smith says. “Just a lot of themes were heightened by how much more we relied on technology. I’m not saying phones are bad—I’m massively phone addicted. But it’s also helpful to hold a mirror up to that.”
Smith says the new record is about escapism and the dualistic reality that the word summons. Flying like a superhero over, say, a city like Paris is fun. But how long should we be spending time there, in that headset? No one knows for sure, Smith says. The truth is that it’s largely up to the individual. But even that isn’t certain. The investigation achieves its nexus point when considering the idea of love. Thousands, if not millions of people, find love via technology these days. Some even marry others without ever meeting them in person. The Bastille song “Stay Awake” touches on this tenuous reality. The track, which begins with a computerized voice asking for confidence, wonders later in the chorus, Why should I stay awake?
“How have digital friendships and digital romantic relationships changed the way we meet and see people? There are so many stories of people who changed their appearance so much on dating apps that they’re too shy to meet the people [they are matched with] in real life,” Smith says.
But at the same time, without these technologies, maybe those people would have never experienced the sense of appreciation that love from another affords. On the song “Plug In…” Smith dives into these themes. He sings about airbrushing and pornography. These are means to an end. But do they bring us tenderness? That song is followed by a guest song, “Promises,” by Riz Ahmed, which talks about the cold, difficult world outside and the repercussions of an industrial world. But it climaxes with the idea that to lie in bed, stomach to stomach, with a lover is maybe the only thing that really matters. Maybe that’s the truth. And while Bastille’s latest album, which was put together with the help of the successful producer Ryan Tedder, and several of Smith’s peers, explores all this, it’s also not some boring theoretical text. The album is a fun, energetic pop record that will assuredly shake myriad speakers.
“There’s so much going on on the album,” Smith says.
Smith’s musical journey first began with his parents. Both were originally from South Africa. When they moved to the UK they had Smith and his sister. In college, Smith’s mother played folk gigs to help pay her way through law school. Growing up, she was often singing or humming around the house or in the car. Smith’s parents were “obsessed” with music. His sister introduced him to hip-hop and Smith remembers falling in love with the Fugees album, The Score. He was fascinated by Lauryn Hill. He also enjoyed Paul Simon and the folk artists his mother would have on the speakers. Then, as a teenager, songwriting became a way to entertain himself as well as a form of escape. But it wasn’t until he fell in love with movies and storytelling that songs also took hold of his day-to-day.
“The world of fiction, film, and literature,” Smith says. “That was where I imagined my life going hopefully at the time. I wanted to be a journalist and write about films.”
But it was in college, as he was studying English literature, where he met friends who were into music. They heard the little bits of song recordings he was putting together and encouraged him to pursue it. Soon, Smith found he could pour his storytelling and his love of scenes and films into his music. At first, he worked as a writer, solo and behind closed doors. Later, he began to perform (what he calls jokingly today a “necessary evil”). Smith says it took a while to write “proper songs.” Now he works with and even composes for many artists.
“For me as a writer,” Smith says, “I was always I guess nervous about how weird my voice was. I sang in a British accent, with quite a distinct voice.”
At first, inspired by artists like Regina Spektor and Elton John, Smith wrote narrative songs that would meander (perhaps a bit too much). He utilized looper pedals, a great deal of vocal and instrument layering. But as he worked, he found more people to collaborate with. His songs got tighter; he found sonic purpose. He learned quite a bit as well. In 2013, Bastille released its first record, Bad Blood. The band has followed that up with a new studio album every three years since. Early breakout hits include songs like “Laura Palmer” and “Pompeii,” both of which were on the band’s debut. Now, the group has earned a swatch of accolades and awards, appearances on MTV Unplugged and Saturday Night Live, and probably many billions of streams. (And the new album will add to all that.)
“It’s amazing to have that success at the beginning,” Smith says. “But it was kind of overwhelming. No one really tells you what to expect because no one knows. It was totally surreal—it takes over your life for a couple of years.”
Smith expresses gratitude at all the payoff, of course. He and his bandmates have traveled the world many times over, performing for thousands. Still, it’s an odd life for anyone. With such success as Bastille had in the early 2010s, they were achieving life goals seemingly daily. As such, Smith and co. had to do a fair amount of work to not let themselves get carried away by it, while also enjoying it as much as possible in a healthy way. Yet, all the while knowing any success like this is fleeting by definition. For Smith, who says he lives and breathes music 24/7 (he’s the type to squeeze in a vocal recording on his phone mid-dinner conversation), he knows hard work and dedication are the keys to prosperity. As such, with every song, album, or video, he aims to make it seem like an event. The bigger the window, the easier the escape, after all.
“I can lose a whole day working on a song and forget to eat,” Smith says.
When we look at, listen to, engage with or experience a piece of art, a lot happens without our even realizing it. Something cellular occurs first. Our very body reacts to the music before we figure out exactly what’s going on. Our brains rev, too. We recognize aspects of the song or play or painting or film before we can consciously take stock of them. One of those mental reflexes is sensing how much time has been poured into any given work. If there is abundant detail, surprise, and depth present. And when listening to Bastille’s Give Me the Futureone thing is certain: Smith cares deeply about the time he spends on anything.
“Music is my passion,” Smith says. “Whenever I have free time, I’m always writing or recording. It’s embarrassing—I’ll go and sneak into the corner to sing something into my phone. I want to be writing every day. It’s the idea of going in with nothing and coming out at the end of the day with a song that could be something in your head for a few weeks or it could change your life—you just don’t know.”
Photo by Sarah Louise Bennett