In 2014, “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. The project’s successful debut album Bad Blood came out in 2013 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 BRIT Awards, where the foursome was nominated for Best British Group (they lost to The 1975).
Rock Cellar Magazine: On the upcoming North American tour, the band will be playing larger places than you did late last year. What can fans look forward to seeing?
Will Farquarson: We’ve got a new production to fit the venue size. The content is based more on a narrative. Our ambition was that it would be an experiential thing, rather than just going to a gig and seeing some lights and hearing music. From the moment you walk in, there’s a lot of video content and a train of thought that runs through the whole show from start to finish.
This spring, you’ll be returning to play the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. What do you recall about your first time there in 2014?
Will Farquarson: The actual performance was brilliant. Usually when you’re doing a gig, there’s a sea of people and you won’t recognize anyone. When Dan says ‘everybody get down,’ they did, but one woman didn’t and I was a bit annoyed. Then I realized it was my girlfriend stood about halfway down! I thought, ‘why?’ She should really join the crowd and not stand there.
It’s one of the most fun festivals. Doing festivals around Europe, you’re at the mercy of the gods when it comes to weather. Whereas in California, it’s probably going to be sunny, which makes all the difference. You can’t really not have a fun time when you’re drunk and watching girls in the sun. I’m really excited about going back.
During the band’s early gigs, Dan tended to hide in the back, while you were front and center onstage. These days, he’s very energetic and often climbs speakers. How do you feel about his progression as lead singer?
Will Farquarson: It’s quite amazing. I sometimes forget that he used to be so shy. You’d have to give him a half spot of wine, 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 – sultry, moody rock star cool. Which means when I’m hungover, I still can look exactly the same without doing anything. Dan 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 sit down and I can’t speak.
Turning to Wild World, are you satisfied with how it turned out and has been received so far?
Will Farquarson: Yeah. Obviously, there was a lot of pressure because we experienced considerable success on the first one. I don’t think that tempered how we feel about the music and the art. From an artistic standpoint, I’m hugely proud of it. I think everyone in the band likes it more than the first one. It’s more diverse and shows how broad our music tastes are. The fact that it did well and everyone loved it is an added bonus. Makes the whole thing a little more special.
This one was more of a collaborative effort. How did that impact the music?
Will Farquarson: Although we all played on the first record, it was very much Dan’s studio project. This one, there were certain songs like “Blame,” our current single, that we’d been playing on tour for maybe 2 ½ years before we recorded it. It one of the first songs Dan wrote.
Then other songs like “Four Walls” we didn’t play live at all until after we recorded it. The process was different and as a result the record has a more live air to it.
When it came to all the samples used on Wild World, did all of you throw out ideas?
Will Farquarson: We’d write a song and feel we needed a sample to fit. I didn’t have a lot to do with that process. Once I play my guitar, I’m going home because I’ve got television to watch. Our videographer Tom was given the brief: ‘Here’s a song about this, 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. 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. On others, we re-recorded ourselves – used the original idea, but changed the words a bit and got an actress to record them. Some were from documentaries.
It just brings a beautiful musical color. Having that other voice evokes a nostalgic sense for me. In hip-hop, you’ll often have these voice samples and it can be quite immersive when you hear live human voices out of that context.
Dan really expanded his worldview with the lyrics on this album such as “did you see the news last night” on “Warmth” or “The Currents,” about the rise of political leaders like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. What did you think when you first Dan’s words?
Will Farquarson: I’m not sure it’s a conscious thing. We 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 inevitable that those things will feed back into your art. Art will generally reflect the cultural and political circumstances in which it’s created.
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 quite politically aware as a band and talk about it a lot.
The other day, we did an interview where we talked about Brexit and Trump and he 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 social commentary, and not comment on the situation that we’re in at the minute globally.
Two of the standout tracks on Wild World – “Blame” and “Two Evils” – allow you to spread your wings on guitar. Were you glad to be able to increase your musical role on those?
Will Farquarson: 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. To me, there’s not much 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.’ We got halfway through and there was no guitar, so that was it. I kept in my box. The second I got to do it, it was great. Those songs are quite different from our first album because when we decided to use guitars, it seemed pointless to suddenly use them only for a bit of rhythm in the background. “Blame” was the first one we recorded with guitar and it was like, ‘let’s try to make the guitar huge.’
I was listening to The Raconteurs and Jack White at the time. So we tried to get this really synthy horrible guitar sound. I thought “Two Evils” was a nice departure. Dan had this cool song he’d written on piano and thought we should do a Nancy Sinatra-esque guitar thing. Having never used guitar, it was 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.
Being you were a new band with a debut album, were you surprised that “Pompeii” was so successful in America, not to mention around the world?
Will Farquarson: Yeah. 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 it was just incredible. It started to do well everywhere we released it. There was no expectation. It would pop up in the most random place. 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. There wasn’t any time to stop, take stock of it and appreciate how amazing this whirlwind two years was, running around the world chasing “Pompeii.”
Are any new mixtape releases planned after you finish touring for this album?
Will Farquarson: 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. We want to try and think of a cool concept because we don’t want to just do it for the sake of it. They’re really fun, because you get to cover another artist and push the boundaries. We try to make them completely in a different world from Bastille. 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 guitarists – Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, even going way back to Blind Willie McTell and 1920s guitarists. That’s not made it onto any mixtape yet. Every time I suggest a 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.
Looking at your Twitter feed, I noticed you often write in French. Is all the band fluent in the language?
Will Farquarson: I’m fairly conversational. I started learning French a year ago, because my girlfriend used to live in France as a kid. Her dad still lives there, so obviously I have to go see him. I think it’s impolite not to try to learn his first language. Dan speaks it a little and [drummer] Woody is learning German. Dan and [keyboardist] Kyle are learning sign language, which is really remarkable. There’s a lot of free time while touring 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.
Bastille – North American Tour Dates
March 24 Air Canada Centre – Toronto, Canada
March 26 Bell Centre – Montreal, Canada
March 27 Agganis Arena – Boston, Massachusetts
March 28 Eagle Bank Arena – Fairfax, Virginia
March 30 Barclays Center – Brooklyn, New York
March 31 Mohegan Sun – Uncasville, Connecticut
April 2 Elliott Hall of Music at Purdue University – Lafayette, Indiana
April 3 Aragon Ballroom – Chicago, Illinois
April 4 Bradley University – Peoria, Illinois
April 6 Smart Financial Center – Sugarland, Texas
April 7 Bold Sphere Music at Championship Square – New Orleans, Louisiana
April 8 Maverick Festival – San Antonio, Texas
April 9 Verizon Theatre – Grand Prairie, Texas
April 11 Comerica Theatre – Phoenix, Arizona
April 13 UCCU Center – Salt Lake City, Utah
April 14 The Chelsea at the Cosmopolitan – Las Vegas, Nevada
April 15 Coachella Festival – Indio, California
April 16 The Novo by Microsoft – Los Angeles, California
April 22 Coachella Festival – Indio, California
April 23 Greek Theatre – Berkeley, California
April 25 Keller Auditorium – Portland, Oregon
April 26 Wamu Theatre – Seattle, Washington
April 27 UBC Thunderbird Arena – Vancouver, BC Canada
April 29 Taco Bell Arena – Boise, Idaho
April 30 Theatre at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse – Bozeman, Montana
May 2 Orpheum Theatre – Omaha, Nebraska
May 3 7 Flags Events Center – Des Moines, Iowa
May 5 Ascend Amphitheatre – Nashville, TN
May 6 Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre – Charlotte, North Carolina
May 7 St. Augustine Amphitheatre – St. Augustine, Florida
May 9 Orlando Amphitheatre – Orlando, Florida
May 10 Fox Theater – Atlanta, Georgia
May 12 Red Hat Amphitheatre – Raleigh, North Carolina
May 13 BBT Pavilion – Camden, New Jersey