Bastille turned into a bunch of screaming fangirls
From scratching a living to headlining summer festivals, Belfast-bound rockers Bastille still can’t quite believe how far they’ve come in such a short time, they tell Chris Jones.
Bastille’s rise to stardom has been nothing short of extraordinary — from virtual nobodies to having one of the biggest hits of 2013 with the ubiquitous Pompeii (even if you don’t think you know it, you do), the London quartet spent 2014 touring the world, doing the US talk show circuit, even being nominated for a Grammy.
And now they’re getting ready for their fourth headline show in Belfast as they play the Belsonic festival on August 25.
Drummer Chris ‘Woody’ Wood has fond memories of Belfast, and he remembers their first headline show here, in the cosy surroundings of the Oh Yeah Music Centre on Gordon Street. “It was 2012, I think,” he recalls correctly.
“We actually played there about a year before that as well, for a Strummerville charity gig. That was just me and Dan (Smith) — no one knew who the hell we were so there were a lot of quizzical looks, but the second time round it was a lot more intense and everyone was into it. I remember having a great time and that ferry ride back was an absolute killer. I cannot believe it takes eight hours!”
It does if you sail to Liverpool, Woody. Schoolboy error. Since that first visit the band have packed out the Mandela Hall and the Ulster Hall, and this time they’re taking another step up in capacity at Custom House Square in Belfast. Playing ever-bigger venues must be the norm for Bastille, but the drummer isn’t getting carried away.
“It’s about remembering where you were previously,” he says. “It only takes one massive mistake and you end up going backwards a bit. I’ve been playing with Dan for seven years now, the band’s been going for five, and we just keep our heads down and keep playing because we really enjoy it.”
The band still haven’t headlined many festivals, and the last time they did, it went wrong.
“We were supposed to headline Boardmasters last year in Cornwall, the area I’m from, but a hurricane blew in overnight and wiped out the entire festival so it was cancelled! We’re going back to do it this year — hurricanes permitting.”
And that’s not the only mishap that Woody has suffered on the road. The day before our interview, he tweeted a picture of himself strapped to an ambulance bed following an accident at a gig in Poland. And it wasn’t even their own gig. “It’s one of the most stupid things I’ve done,” he says ruefully.
“We know the Muse boys from touring with them a couple of years ago, and their tour manager asked if I fancied helping lob some massive balloons into the crowd. So after a couple of jars I thought that was a great idea, and turned my ankle on some really uneven ground. But thankfully I’ve only sprained a ligament. I didn’t quite do the full Dave Grohl damage!”
The last three years of Bastille’s career reads like something from a childhood fantasy, and it was the stunning success of Pompeii that started it all.
It’s a catchy number for sure, but it’s hard to tell exactly why it ended up dominating the radio in the way that it did. Reassuringly, Woody seems none the wiser too.
“There was maybe one person at the label who could lay any sort of claim to having that magic vision,” he admits. “Everyone else was absolutely convinced that Flaws was going to be our biggest song. They didn’t really pay much heed to Pompeii at all — it caught everyone unawares, really.” He’s even able to pinpoint the exact moment he realised he wasn’t in Kansas any more. “The moment I always go back to, which is before Pompeii came out bizarrely, is Leeds (Festival) in 2012.
“We were playing a tent that holds 5,000 or 6,000 people, and it was rammed right to the back. It was the first time that we’d ever had a crowd fully screaming the lyrics back at us. That made me think, ‘Okay, something is going on here’.”
The numbers attached to the song are mind-boggling — 230m views on YouTube, 280m plays on Spotify. That must be a head-scratcher, even now … “It is. I don’t think I’ve quite had my mum and dad hitting refresh all that number of times!” he jokes. “You can’t really get your head around it, to be honest. I've wanted to be in a band and tour and do all that sort of stuff since I was 12 years old, so the fact that this has happened ... the whole project has exceeded all our expectations by a billion miles. You kind of have to laugh, I suppose."
Woody is an affable lad in his late 20s with a strong West Country accent (he says he gets recognised at Plymouth Argyle games, not so much in London) so there's a kind of everyman quality to him that makes his band's adventures seem all the more surprising. Such as when they performed on Saturday Night Live when they were in the States. "Trust me, that is actually live - it's the most terrifying thing you'll ever do, in front of however many million people," he says.
Then there's the time they met their biggest comedy hero on American TV… "We did the Conan O'Brien show and Ben Stiller was there, and ordinarily you'd be like, 'Oh my god, Ben Stiller, one of the biggest guys in Hollywood, I can't believe it', except Steve Coogan was there too, so we all turned into a bunch of screaming little fangirls," he laughs. "We absolutely lost our minds!"
And they're absolutely not above acting like, as he puts it, "awful English tourists" in LA. "This sounds so cliched," he says slightly sheepishly. "We rented a muscle car and drove out to Malibu, pretended that we were a big deal. And we went on one of those massively cringe-worthy bus tours, going around celebs' homes."
And yet it's not so long ago that the band were scraping together a living. "We jacked in our jobs when we got signed, so that was Christmas 2011. But for the first year or so we actually made less money doing the band than our actual jobs previously. I was teaching drums and playing for other people to pay the bills, and all of us had quite a hand-to-mouth existence. By the time we got signed, I was certainly in debt. They said, 'Could you go on tour for three weeks', but you don't actually get paid, and obviously you've got bills to pay and rent and all that sort of thing. It was a little bit hairy. Fun though.
"The entire process was so, so gradual. I used to think that a band headlining the Shepherd's Bush Empire - which holds about 2,000 - would be absolutely coining it, but I think we might actually have made a loss on that show.
"But that's the grim reality of music these days, what with downloading and everything else.
"Pink Floyd used to buy mansions in Surrey and tour twice a year but that's not really possible any more."
And there's the normal rock star gripe of spending time away from family and friends, particularly as Woody got married to wife Chrissy last year. But this is a man who knows damn well how lucky he is. "Being away from the wife is quite tough," he says, "and obviously being away from family and friends. Last year I think I was in the country for a total of 10 weeks. We did six months in America in total last year, and then there were European tours, Australia, Japan everywhere else in between.
"But it's a really small price to pay. Our job is not a real job at all. You get to travel around the world with your mates, playing music and hanging out with cool people. I couldn't think of a better job."
- Bastille play Belsonic in Custom House Square, Belfast on August 25