Any artist proudly patting themselves on the back for what they accomplished during our constrictive coronavirus lockdown—like writing the next great American novel, composing the perfect coda to that unfinished symphony, or even just putting some cathartic paint to several beckoning canvases—should compare notes with Bastille bandleader Dan Smith sometime. This British Renaissance man stayed so whirling-dervish busy, even the most ambitious achievements of other folks pale in comparison. And where some saw darkness, he saw nothing but the light of constant inspiration. “So it was a really nice time for me, in a way, despite the bizarreness of everything,” recalls the singer, still amazed that his flurry of activity led straight to his band’s most thoughtful, fully realized new concept album, Give Me the Future. “It was good to have some time back, away from touring, and even though we were locked in our homes and everything was terrifying and completely fucked up, it did buy back some time and allow me to make loads of music. We made this album, we made an EP [2020’s Goosebumps, featuring Graham Coxon], we made a documentary [ReOrchestrated] and I made other albums, as well, wrote a couple of other projects, and did a lot of writing for other people. So I got to spend all of my time creating, which was just amazing.”
Guns ’N Roses once ironically warn-welcomed us to “the jungle.” Times have changed. Tapping into prophetic prose from George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Philp K. Dick, Bastille now employ a 13-song cautionary tale to welcome humanity to the metaverse, which isn’t necessarily an abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here proposition, but it’s damned close. There’s a synth-rippling, almost New Wave undercurrent that’s conversely joyous and optimistic, from the twinkling thumper “Distorted Light Beam,” a bass-bopping “Thelma & Louise” (an homage to the classic flick on its 20th anniversary) and a bubbling “Back to the Future” to a stomping, vocoder-enhanced “Plug In,” a Riz Ahmed spoken-word piece called “Promises,” and the whirring, clanking title track, which—like many Bastille classics—uses a rhythmic layer of backing vocals that’s close to tribal in complexity. Smith and company (drummer Chris “Woody” Wood, keyboardist Kyle Simmons, bassist/guitarist Will Farquarson) even conjured up a dystopian company called Future Inc. and a pleasure-promising VR program dubbed FutureScape, where avatars reign supreme over humdrum, hive-thinking reality.
And if it all feels slightly German-Expressionist cinematic, it’s worth noting that Smith, ever since Bastille’s flickering 2013 debut, Bad Blood, has always been a huge film geek who—in the truest sense of the old showbiz saying—one day hopes to direct. Which leads to the other pursuit that took up every spare minute of his pandemic time: A weekly Bastille film club that started on Instagram, but soon moved to YouTube, wherein a movie screening was complemented by live interviews with said film’s director, star or cinematographer. It kicked off with a showing of a horror-comedy classic all the members agreed on, Shaun of the Dead, with Simon Pegg himself answering questions from film club members. “Who were basically just Bastille fans,” says Smith, who got ahold of Taiki Waititi for a viewing of his Hunt For the Wilderpeople and Tom Tykwer to discuss Run Lola Run. “It forced me to become a live host and a journalist, as well, every week going through hundreds, thousands of questions and thoughts [from viewers], and seeing themes that would come up in the things that people were interested in. And a lot of those films that we featured kind of fed into the album that we ended up making.” And this human dynamo shows no signs of slowing down—Bastille are heading back out on a sprawling spring tour, if Omicron allows it. And if not? Smith knows what to do with any future down time now. It’s just the future itself that he finds so puzzling.
Paste: What other movies got you through lockdown? One of my go-to ones was Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. It still holds up after over a dozen hilarious viewings.
Dan Smith: Dude! That’s so weird! We had people over for dinner last night, and someone put that soundtrack on! And I hadn’t thought about that film in a while, but I fucking loved it. And I think that through the pandemic, we just wanted distraction, didn’t we? The film club I ran was about traveling from country to country, week by week. I was just watching all the Scream films last week, getting ready to watch Scream 5, and I love re-watching films like Groundhog Day—it never gets old. It just takes you somewhere else, and it’s a real distraction. And I think it’s interesting how Groundhog Day has now become a genre of its own—there are so many movies that play around with repeating time loops, like Palm Springs, Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2 U, and hats off to them—they actually did a good job on the Death Day sequel.
Paste: But have you seen Adam McKay’s brilliant, painfully spot-on extinction satire Don’t Look Up on Netflix? I’ve seen it eight times now, and it just gets better with every viewing.
Smith: Yes, I do have Netflix, and I have seen it. But it’s interesting—it got kind of a mixed reaction here, because I think people were maybe not loving the bluntness of the message. But I think that’s the fucking point. It’s a very timely film, and quite hilarious, as well.
Don’t Look Up—spoiler alert—kind of posits that humanity has no future. So what’s your take on the future? And did you grow up reading science fiction as a kid?
Smith: I was always interested in science fiction, I think. I was never a massive sci-fi nerd, but I loved it. I remember reading 1984, and I loved loads of Margaret Atwood’s books. She played with different dystopias, like in The Blind Assassin, and I like the way she played with pulp sci-fi and popular science fiction. And I think obviously, as a genre, it’s always been really interesting, because it allows us to talk about the society that we live in and the politics of the world, and imagine different versions of the world that we should probably try to avoid. And I think, living in 2022, a lot of the sci-fi of the past? We’ve kind of surpassed it in loads of ways. And some of it we’ve manifested, some of it we’ve proven wrong. So it’s always interesting to see what the creators of the past envisioned now to look like.
And this is a weird example, but I think of Minority Report, and I remember seeing driverless cars and targeted advertising, and touch screens, and they seemed quite far off at the time. But it’s not been that long ago and we made all those things come true, and more. So I dunno. When I was a kid, yeah, it was fascinating to me. And now it’s kind of creepy and surreal to see these different versions of reality, and obviously it can exist in so many different forms. But we just thought that, with the album, it would be interesting to try to think about ways of escaping, and I thought that our current … I dunno. I feel like real life now feels like some kind of bygone science fiction, in a lot of ways, in how intermeshed technology is, pretty much in every corner of life. And in some ways, that’s amazing, but in some ways, it’s fucking terrible. But it’s not enough just to say, “You should spend less time on your phone.” Because that’s unrealistic, and I’d be a hypocrite to say that—it’s about the amazing connective community opportunities that are enabled [by it], but also the horrible device corrupting all of it—it’s both at the same time, and it’s complicated. And also, we’re constantly confronted by the future everyday—we’re watching climate change happen in communities all over the world, and it’s something that we’re forced to think about all the time. And for every negative, we can point to the Gretas of the world [Greta Thunberg, outspoken teen climate change activist] who are working night and day to try and steer things in a slightly less bleak direction. So that’s just the environment in which we made the album, but we also wanted to make a fun, escapist pop record. So we really tried to do a lot.
Paste: Is it scripted like a stage play from track one to 13? Or was it sequenced more playfully?
Smith: I’d be lying if I said we mapped it out and wrote it chronologically, because I 100% didn’t. But I do quite a lot of mapping out of albums, and there are so many things I wanted to say. And I do quite a lot of rewriting, so a lot of the songs go through loads of different incarnations. So I will often just completely throw out all of the lyrics to a song and start again. And so yeah, I guess that’s kind of scripted, in a way. But in my head, it’s quite a clear journey. So putting the headset on and going back in and going forward and back in time, and in and out of reality. And I guess for me, the arc is … the endless possibilities of plugging in, while realizing he complications and addictive qualities of it, and how it can have a really colossal effect on your relationships, and who you are and your sense of self, and how you perceive yourself, and how you perceive the truth. And then there are those moments, halfway through, with “Promises” and “Shut Off the Light,” and then at the end with “Future Hours,” where the person that you’re with pulls you back into the physical world, and I guess implores you to try and worry less about the things you can’t change and be less anxious about the future and the state of the world. And to just kind of enjoy physical reality and intimacy, before … you know. Enjoy it while you’ve got it. So it’s about going slightly mad, crazy, with all these incomprehensibly big ideas, and then undermining them and undercutting them with these moments of reality and pedestrian normality. So yeah, I thought it would be kind of funny to spend the entire album worrying about the future, and then subvert it entirely at the end by being like, “Hey, stop it. Stop freaking out about the future! And try and enjoy whatever you have, because you could be dead tomorrow.” And obviously, that’s something that a lot of people already think, a lot of the time. But I just thought that might be a funny way of undercutting all those things that we’d started exploring.
Paste: And along the way, there are some sly lyrical references to Orwell, Huxley, and Philip K. Dick, circa Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Blade Runner.
Smith: Yes. And Philip K. Dick stories have kind of echoed through popular culture, and there’s a reason that these stories keep recurring and recurring in different forms. In everything from the short stories of Philip K. Dick to Black Mirror, to The Matrix, Brazil, 2001, The Handmaid’s Tale, Spielberg and Kubrick’s A.I., and Gattaca, there are so many interesting versions of different futures that could exist that are there to draw upon and nod to, because they’re so provocative and so transportive, in and of themselves. But they’ve become part of the language of the album, and they’ve become ways of trying to get the listener into a certain headspace and take them to another place.
Paste: From Natalie Wood’s last film Brainstorm to a surreal recent episode of Black Mirror where two VR gaming avatars unexpectedly fall in lust with each other, it seems like virtual sex is already here, too.
Smith: Yeah. And I think of that film Her, which is fascinating, and a very near-future kind of sci-fi. I’m not much of a gamer, not really anymore, but loads of my friends are, and they are so happily content spending huge chunks of their lives living in these virtual worlds by living as someone else. And that can be really empowering for some people—I think of loads of kids who maybe struggle to have conversations in real life but can sit on Fortnite with a headset on and chat with their mates really openly for hours on end. And that can be vital for some people. It’s weird. I don’t have an Oculus, but I’ve got friends that do, and they’ve all got friends of a friend who watch VR porn on Oculus, and I’m like, “Yeah, right, I’m sure that’s your friend of a friend, mate!” But that’s our reality now. And you’ll see these mad articles about sex robots that actually exist, and the cultures that welcome them, and I think it’s fascinating. And the song on the album “Plug In” was trying to be a big, rambling rant about this almost unbelievable reality we live in now, from robot sex to virtual porn, to our ability to completely change how we look and the person w are and the truth that we can choose to either believe or not believe, to the billionaire space race. There are these bizarre realities of our life now that feel like they came out of some author’s brain. And I know that the phrase “stranger than fiction” is seen as some overused cliche, but there is so much of that, so much truth to that, in a lot of the world that we live in. And living through the time of the Internet world spilling out into real life, it’s affected everything, from politics to society to how we meet each other and how we talk to each other.
Paste: And how we hear the truth, or simple scientific fact.
Smith: Oh yeah, totally. And what’s also come at the same time is the fact that we now curate the versions of what we want to see, in the feeds that we subscribe to online and in the news that we want to read, and that’s the version of reality that we’re going to pick. I mean, we entirely curate the TV shows we watch and the music that we listen to, and all of the old models of monoculture have kind of started dissipating, so we’re living through the aftermath of that. And it’s simultaneously fascinating and fucking terrifying. And it speaks to so much about what we want to hear, and what we don’t want to hear, and how much of the truth we can handle. We’re now at a weird point in society and culture, where—if you don’t like the truth—a lot of people can just make up another one, or choose which version of the so-called “truth” they want to believe. It’s fucking insane. “Alternative facts” are not facts. It’s just so bizarre.
Paste: What’s your take on A.I. with, or without, Kurzweil’s predicted Singularity, when machine basically becomes SkyNet clever, and smarter than mankind?
Smith: I think A.I. is way more slipped into so much of the technology we use than maybe people are aware of. Even in music software, there’s A.I., monitoring and helping to edit and change things. It’s in so many of the plug-ins that we use, but it’s not necessarily A.I. that’s like a cyborg, something living like a human being. It’s way more specific and microcosmic than that. I mean, over here, most of the supermarkets and grocery stores that you go into have their own little self-service checkout, and it’s kind of interesting—a lot of places in society where you would normally have face to face contact with a person have been replaced by some form of A.I., however advanced or primitive it may be. We’re living through that reality, and over the last few years, it’s forced us all to spend so much more time online. And what’s weird is that loads of reality now just sounds like a conspiracy theory, and obviously, it’s important to care about these things. But you could also drive yourself completely mad, and some people do. Which is why we live in such a heightened reality, where people are so … I dunno. These are really divided times, where people pick their cause, and they care so passionately about very, very different things. A nice weird sort of topic try and make a little half-hour album into!
Paste: Vocally and tonally, Give Me the Future hearkens back to E.L.O., and their futuristic concept record Time.
Smith: Yeah. I guess a bunch of music on the album is nodding towards the ‘80s. And in the vocal sounds and the vocal productions, E.L.O. wasn’t a conscious touchstone, but fucking hell—the conceptual element of [Time] was fucking amazing. You have inspired me to go back and listen to that even more. But with time swelling and compressing as it has for a lot of us over the past year, we went into a lot of detail on the songs on this album. I mean, we got to mix it in spatial audio, which was a really interesting experience. We’d just finished the album, and then I got to stand in a room for three days and hear all of the stems, moving in 3-D around us. And I’m so used to stereo that to mix it in 3-D was so bizarre. But it was also a mind-bending experience, so that was a lot of fun. But as our albums have progressed, I’ve always tried to think a bit more narrowly and more conceptually, so this album very much has a beginning, a middle, and and for me.
Paste: And then again, The Sex Pistols warned us that we had “no future.” We should have paid more attention to the Situationists.
Smith: Yeah, totally. But what do you think of Riz Ahmed’s poem [the spoken-word “Promises,”] on the album?
Paste: It perfectly bisects the record in two. But he wrote it as a response after you let him hear the entire album?
Smith: Yeah> When we did our second mixtape, I worked with Kae Tempest and I played them “Bad Blood,” and they basically reacted to it and spat out this amazing poem that re-articulated what I’d said in a much more beautiful, perfect way. And I loved that experience so much that when I started thinking about this album, and all of its complicated, overarching themes, I thought how important it felt to me to have somebody else’s voice and somebody else’s brain on the record. And I love Riz Ahmed’s albums—as a rapper, I think he’s brilliant, and obviously, he’s a very thoughtful guy and has an interesting view on the world, and an interesting perspective. So I sent him the album, or most of it, about nine tracks, and he digested it and said he really liked what we were doing, and how we were trying to subvert pop music and talk about uncomfortable topics in these songs. And he really liked what we were getting at. And he just came back with this poem that I think beautifully and colloquially says what it means to be a person, a physical being, in the context of all the technology that’s the surreal reality of now. I love that track so much, and for me it’s a bridge from “Plug In,” which is almost hyper-anxious and gets huge in scale and quite ridiculous, into “Shut Off the Lights.” He dials it back down into reality, into the corporeal and the real, in a song about being in bed with someone and them telling you to get out of your head and back into the sheets. It quite perfectly takes you between those two points in the story.
Paste: In the next number, “Stay Awake,” you counter the Biblical meek-shall-inherit-the-Earth adage by swearing that it belongs to the “freaks and geeks” now.
Smith: Yeah. I just thought about where the power lies now, as in, who are the most powerful people in the world? And we have these so-called “Freaks and Geeks” who are more powerful than most nations, and have more influence and more money than the old guard, as well as the ability to manipulate elections and change the version of the world that we see. And who would have ever thought that? It’s amazing.
Paste: If we accept the axiom that mankind in its arrogance in thinking it’s the end product of evolution has summarily doomed itself to extinction, you could probably add the corollary that whatever species comes next will see all our scattered 12 Monkeys-era devices and go, “look at how busy they all were!”
Smith: I know, I know. There are so many shiny things to distract us. And it’s hard, because sometimes those distractions can be so gloriously addictive and delicious, and they can make you feel fucking amazing. But then you might miss what’s really happening. What’s happening when you look the other way? That’s what’s really scary …
Revisit Bastille’s 2012 Daytrotter session below.