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'Some people have heard of us but they don't know what we look like... we had no interest in being famous faces'

Bastille's breakthrough came in 2013 with the release of Pompeii, but, ever since, they have worked hard to confound expectations. The indie rock group's frontman Dan Smith talks to Alex Green about the concept behind their new album and the perils of being pigeonholed

Christmas feeling: Bastille recorded this year’s John Lewis ad song
Christmas feeling: Bastille recorded this year’s John Lewis ad song

By Alex Green

There was a silent gasp of surprise across the country when Dan Smith was chosen to sing on 2019's John Lewis Christmas advert.

His band Bastille had been singled out to provide a cover for that hallowed totem of British festive culture - an honour bestowed upon the likes of Lily Allen and Ellie Goulding.

That song, a cover of REO Speedwagon's Can't Fight This Feeling, appears on the new 22-track edition of their most recent album, Doom Days.

"It's not something we thought we would ever be involved in," Smith explains earnestly.

"But it has been such a light end to such a dizzy and turbulent year."

2019 has certainly been a whirlwind for the four-piece.

Doom Days, their third album, reached the top five in the UK and US, and on tour they supported themselves as their alter-ego Chaos Planet.

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It's a concept album about a night out, a metaphor for "choosing to escape everything for one night" - and that includes politics.

"We released our second album as Brexit was happening and Donald Trump was being elected," the 33-year-old from London recalls of their 2016 record Wild World.

"There are explicitly political songs on that.

"When we released it, I was very conscious of holding back - not wanting to be known.

"Unlike other bands, I didn't sit there telling people we were saying profound things.

"We didn't say we were making a political record. We just wanted the music to speak for itself. But it was there on the second record."

"With this album, we literally set out to make an album that was about a night out," he adds matter-of-factly.

"If our second album was about the world, then this was about choosing the opposite - choosing ignorance, choosing to escape everything for one night."

While Bastille itself has become increasingly famous, the band's four members have tried to protect themselves from the glare of celebrity.

Smith, keyboardist Kyle Simmons, bassist and guitarist Will Farquarson and drummer Chris Wood remain inconspicuous. It's all part of their plan.

"We have always done our best not be famous as people," Smith continues. "We have been lucky enough to have our music known by a bunch of people.

"But we intentionally aren't in a lot of our music videos and we are never on the album covers.

"We put more emphasis on the visuals we create rather than ourselves.

"It has always been a priority for us. On the first album, I held back a lot in interviews because I didn't want to become someone who people would come to for a quote. We never went to things that would raise our profile.

"We had no interest in being famous. As a result we are a slightly strange band that sometimes have songs that cross over into the pop world but sometimes don't. Some people have heard of us but don't know what we look like."

"I couldn't wish for anything better than that," he says with a chuckle.

"We have a good time. We are in a band. We love a night out," he continues.

"I'm sure we live more of a rock and roll cliche than we care to admit - but we don't bang on about it.

"I'm much more interested in writing stories that are about other things we think are fascinating."

The band's approach to the limelight means they can still enjoy nights out in public without being swarmed by overzealous fans.

Indeed, Smith's idea of a night on the town sounds fairly run of the mill.

"That could be hanging with friends, maybe going to a pub and going out afterwards, maybe going back to someone's house," he suggests.

"The lives that we lead aren't particularly flashy or starry."

What's more surprising is that, unprompted, Smith explains how he still finds playing shows to vast crowds "very surreal".

Given Bastille have been a household name for nearly seven years, this is a surprising statement.

Contemporaries like Foals or The 1975 would struggle to go out in public. But Bastille have worked hard to avoid being identified and pigeonholed - actively seeking out sounds and collaborators that take them outside of their comfort zone.

Lately they have collaborated with rockers Skunk Anansie, US indie darlings Haim and pop soulstress Lizzo, to name a few.

While this is in part an attempt to keep fans fixated on their music, not on their faces, Smith says the variety is also down to them feeling comfortable.

"I guess it is unusual for a band to make a concept album with a really strong narrative and a timeline running through it," he says after a pause.

"But I guess we feel really comfortable with who we are.

"When we started out people really pushed for us to be one thing or another in terms of genre, and it p***** off a bunch of people that we weren't just pop, we weren't just indie.

"We wanted to be lots of things and we wanted to be all of those things.

"We wanted to make mix-tapes, we wanted to do big weird pop records, we wanted to do odd left-field records.

"We wanted to collaborate and work with other singers and rappers, then go away and make records entirely by ourselves."

Smith's unique voice - earnest-sounding, soulful and deeply British - is the lynchpin that holds their sound together.

He argues this is why Bastille's fans are willing to venture into the unknown.

"Sometimes I like my voice, sometimes I hate it," he says.

"But anyone who sings has that relationship. You are born with the voice you are born with.

"I am aware it is quite distinctive and that I sing with a British accent.

"It gives us freedom to change everything else about what we do - apart from my voice.

"It's the bridge."

Doom Days: This Got Out Of Hand is out now

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