|photo: Wolf James|
Where: Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, Empire Polo Grounds, Indio, CA
When: April 15+22
Tickets: Sold out, but try to obtain through brokers or remaining Outstanding in the Field gourmet dinner packages
Three years ago, “Pompeii,” the infectious, chant-happy tune by London pop/rock band Bastille, was ubiquitous anywhere that played music. The multi-format hit topped the alternative and rock radio charts, reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was certified five times platinum here. Back home, the track was the most streamed song in the UK that year (the current Spotify count is nearly 425 million).
Initially started in 2010 as a solo project by singer Dan Smith, Bastille was named after the French holiday, which is also Smith’s birthday. Successful debut album Bad Blood came out in ‘13 and eventually spawned several top 30 hits on both sides of the Atlantic.
Other People’s Heartache, a popular series of mixtape releases, have featured various covers, remixes and guests like Haim, Skunk Anansie and Rag’n’Bone Man (who is signed to Best Laid Plans, the UK label co-founded by Smith).
Bastille’s latest studio effort, 2016’s impressive Wild World, saw the band deftly utilize a wide range of samples (including Kelly Le Brock in Weird Science) and guitar for the first time.
I caught up with Bastille guitarist/bassist Will Farquarson the day after the 2017 BRIT Awards, where the foursome was nominated for Best British Group (they lost to The 1975).
A: Not really. We always tend to manage our expectations and would genuinely really not expect to win at all. The 1975, who did win our category, are very good friends of ours. So it’s always nice to see your mates do well. Also, not having the pressure to having to perform or worrying about making a speech just means you can enjoy the alcohol more freely.
Q: On the North American tour, the band is playing slightly larger venues in some cities than you did late last year. What can fans look forward to seeing?
A: We have got a whole load of new production to fit the venue size. The content is based more on a narrative now and perhaps our ambition was that it would be a bit of an experiential thing, rather than just going to a gig and seeing some lights and hearing some music. There’s now a lot of video content and from the moment you walk in, there’s video content and sort of a train of thought and a narrative that runs through the whole show from start to finish. Hopefully it’s a bit different than what we’ve done before. Also, we’ll be there playing some songs, so even if you’re not interested in our pretentious narrative, you can still see men with guitars and keyboards which is fun too.
Q: Which songs from ‘Wild World’ have been getting the best reception live lately?
A: With a record, you like every song equally because they’re like our children. “Lethargy” always seems to get people jumping. Obviously “Good Grief.” A lot of people have been asking for “Anchor” which is on the extended version of the album. They’ve been tweeting us about that. It’s always very interesting actually – once you release an album and then you start touring to see what connects. There’s no way of predicting it. I think there are songs we thought, ‘oh, people are gonna love it’ and then people have seemed not to connect with as well as others that we didn’t predict would do so well [live].
Q: Last time I saw Bastille live was April 2014 when you played Coachella Festival 2. It was a hot early evening on a Friday in the Mohave Tent.
A: I remember the actual performance was brilliant. Weirdly in the performance, this is kind of weird and not actually relating to the performance itself, but usually when you’re doing a gig, there’s a sea of people and you won’t recognize anyone. There’s a bit where Dan says, ‘everybody get down’ and everybody did. Then there’s this one woman who didn’t and I was a bit annoyed. I realized it was my girlfriend stood about halfway down. I thought, ‘why?’ That’s literally the only time where I’ve done a show other than the tiny shows, where I’ve seen someone I’ve known from the crowd. It’s my girlfriend! She should really join with the crowd and not stand there.
Q: Are you looking forward to returning to Coachella this spring?
A: Absolutely. It’s one of the most fun festivals. Also, anything in California in the sun is always fun. Often doing festivals around Europe, you’re at the mercy of the gods when it comes to weather. Whereas in California, it’s generally probably going to be sunny at Coachella, which makes all the difference. Because you can’t really not have a fun time when you’re drunk and watching girls when it’s sunny. So I’m really excited about going back.
Q: During the band’s earliest gigs, Dan tended to hide in the back while you were front and center onstage. Are you proud to see how much he’s progressed as the lead singer? He’s very energetic now and often climbs on the speakers.
A: It’s actually quite amazing. He’s one of those people who obviously doesn’t think about it because it’s a gradual thing and all. But I sometimes forget that he used to be so shy. You’d have to give him a half spot of wine, really sit down and have a talking to just to get him onto a stage. Now he’s boundless in his energy. I’m quite grateful. I’ve adopted the opposite approach – this sort of sultry, moody rock star cool. Which means when I’m hungover, I still can look exactly the same without doing anything. Whereas with Dan, he has to jump and stay fit. I’m also amazed that he’s never out of breath! If I walk up a flight of stairs and try to have a conversation, I have to have a sit down and I can’t speak. He jumps around and sings for two hours every night and is never gets out of breath. Remarkable.
Q: Turning to ‘Wild World,’ are you satisfied with how it turned out and has been received?
A: Yeah. It’s quite an interesting point, actually. When you make an album, I think creatively and artistically we were always totally proud of it. Obviously, there’s a lot of pressure from the fact we experienced considerable success on the first one. I don’t think that will have tempered how we feel about the music and the art. Artistically how we feel about it. From an artistic standpoint, I’m hugely proud of it. I think everyone in the band is in agreement that we like it more than the first one. It’s more diverse, it’s more effective on how broad our music tastes are. The fact that it did well and everyone loved it is an added bonus. Gives it an extra, makes the whole thing a little more special. Even if it completely tanked, I think we’d all still be proud of it. It’s something we really invested in and are really happy with ourselves.
Q: How do the fact that the latest album was more of a collaborative effort than the first one effect the music?
A: Some songs, definitely, because the way we recorded the first album. Although we all played on the record, it was very much [Dan’s] studio project. This one, there were certain songs we’d been touring [around], like ‘Blame,’ our current single, we’d been touring for maybe 2 ½ years before we recorded it. It one of the first songs Dan wrote. It hugely changed in that time. Then we recorded it as a band sort of in the old traditional way, we tracked the bass and drums and then the guitars. That song in particular was a very different process and heavily influenced by the fact we did it that way round. Then on the record there were other songs we did the same way as the first album, like “Four Walls,” which that was a studio song. We didn’t play it [live] at all until after we recorded it. I think the process was different and as a result, the record has a more live or band air to it.
Q: When it comes to the samples used on ‘Wild World,’ how did that process work. Did all of you throw out ideas?
A: We’d write a song and feel we needed a sample to fit. Our friend Tom, who’s our videographer [did a lot]. That process, I didn’t have a lot to do with. Once I play my guitar, I’m going home because I’ve got television to watch. It was Tom was given the brief, ‘here’s a song about such and such, see if you can find a cool quote.’ Then we all would have a listen and approve it. He did the legwork. In addition to being a videographer, he’s really knowledgeable about film. A lot of them were quite obscure and some of them we couldn’t get cleared. Some of them were from movies that were so obscure we couldn’t find the people to ask for the rights. If we used a quote from a huge blockbuster, it would be really expensive, so we went with indie films. The opposite problem was they were too obscure. Some of them, we re-recorded ourselves. Used the original ideas but changed the words a bit and got an actress to record them. Some were from documentaries. It was cool. What was nice about the quotes was we tried to keep the content of them to match the lyrical content of the song. Even knowing that, it’s just a beautiful musical color that it brings. Having that other voice evokes a nostalgic sense for me. In hip-hop, you’ll often hear these voice samples and it can be quite immersive when you hear live human voices out of that context. Ignoring the content is cool in of itself.
Q: Dan really expanded his worldview with the lyrics on this album. What did you think when you first heard them?
A: Obviously we speak about this a lot and I’m not sure it’s ever a conscious thing. I think we now live in a world in which we’re seeing huge amounts of turbulence and change, socially, culturally and geopolitically obviously with things that have happened recently in your country and in mine. I think it’s just inevitable that those things will feed back into your art. Art will generally reflect the cultural and political circumstances in which it’s created. It was never a thing of ‘oh I’m going to make a real political record.’ In fact, Dan, more than the rest of us, will generally shy away from being overtly political. He feels it’s not his position as a songwriter to impose his ideals on people. We’re generally quite politically aware as a band and talk about it a lot. He actually is slightly reticent to take ownership of that. He turned to me the other day when had done an interview and we’d talked about Brexit and Trump and said, ‘we’ve become a political band now.’ He’s a bit reluctant to go down that path, whereas for me, I think it would be silly to exist in a world where you’re making art which has the power to be a social commentary and not commenting on the situation that we’re in at the minute globally.
Q: Two of the standout tracks on ‘Wild World’ - “Blame” and “Two Evils” – allow you to spread your wings on guitar. Were you excited to be able to increase your musical role on those?
A: I’ve been lobbying for guitar rights for a while. Primarily, I’m a bass guitar player, but I’ve played guitar almost as long. So to me, there’s not much of a distinction between the two in terms of which one I prefer. One the first album, it was never like, ‘we’re not going to use guitar.’ But we got about halfway through and there was no guitar, so that became a little thing. I kept in my box. The second I got to do it, it was all very [great]. The reason I think those songs are quite different from our first album is, because we decided to use guitars, it seemed wasteful or pointless to suddenly use guitars if we’re just going to do a bit of rhythm guitar in the background of some song. “Blame” was the first one we recorded with guitar. It was like, ‘let’s try to make the guitar on this huge and the main thing.’ I was listening to the Raconteurs and Jack White at the time. So we tried to get this really synthy horrible guitar sound. For “Two Evils,” I thought that was a nice departure. When Dan suggested it, he said he had this cool song he’d written on piano and thought we should do this Nancy Sinatra-esque guitar thing. Having never used guitar, it would be good to come back with something so different. We’d never even done a piano ballad. Personally, I’m really proud of those two songs. Risking sounding slightly egotistical, it is quite nice just to know a little part of me exists now in those two things.
Q: Were you surprised that “Pompeii” was so successful in America, not to mention around the world, being you were a young act with a debut album?
A: We’re constantly surprised about everything. In music, you generally don’t expect anything because it’s so uncertain. With that song in particular, we recorded it and thought it should be a single. But in England, it was not the lead single. We released it and thought, ‘I hope that does ok.’ Then the midweek [chart placings] came in and we thought, ‘that’s just incredible’ and it started to do well everywhere we released it. There was no expectation. It would pop up in the most random place. I remember the first time we went to South Africa, where Dan’s parents are from, it had been a huge hit there and we had no idea. It kept growing and growing and took off in America and crossed over to pop. To hear that you’ve got an alternative record on the radio in America is amazing. Then it climbed the charts and got on a couple hundred pop stations. It’s just one of those surreal things that we’re just chasing around and trying to keep up. At the same time, there wasn’t any time to stop and take stock of it and to appreciate how amazing this whirlwind two years was, running around the world chasing “Pompeii.”
Q: Are any new mixtape releases planned after you finish touring for this album?
A: We were just talking about that. We’d love to do another one. We have to try and figure out scheduling because we’re so busy. And we want to try and think of a cool concept because we don’t to just do it for the sake of it. They’re really fun because you get to cover another artist and push the boundaries. They’re nothing like Bastille songs. We try to make them completely in a different world from Bastille. They’re really fun in that respect because if we want to do a hip-hop song, we can use a rapper and maybe Dan sings a bit. I think that’s a lovely freedom to have. I’m quite a fan of old blues guitarists, Hendrix, Clapton, people like that. Even going way back to Blind Willie McTell. 1920s guitar. That’s not made it onto any mixtape. Every time I suggest solo guitar, they go, ‘we don’t want to go that far into your world.’ Maybe the next one could be a solo jazz guitar mixtape.
Q: ‘Of the Night’ from one of the mixtapes, is your second most successful single. So maybe you’ll come up with another left field choice that is a hit…I noticed from looking at your Twitter feed that you speak French. Is all the band fluent?
A: I’m fairly conversational. I started learning French a year ago because my girlfriend used to live in France as a kid. From Africa originally before she came to England. Her dad still lives in France, so obviously I have to go see him. I think it’s impolite not to try to learn what is his first language. It’s coming on. Dan speaks a little bit and Woody’s learning German. Dan and Kyle are learning sign language which is really remarkable. Touring, there’s a lot of free time and collectively, we made the decision – instead of staring at Twitter or playing games on your phone, why don’t we all learn something interesting. It’s fun and an opportunity to better expand your mind.
For complete list of tour dates, go to bastillebastille.com