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Bastille “Man on Fire” Cover Story

Often epic, sometimes incendiary, always brilliant: BASTILLE have conquered our charts and our hearts. Alex Lee Thomson has closely followed their rise, starting from a little canal boat tour up the Regents Canal three years ago all the way to Dan Smith and his band’s chart-topping success. 

 

WORDS / Alex Lee Thomson
PHOTOGRAPHY / James Moriarty
ART DIRECTION / Hidden Agency
STYLING / Sabina Emrit
GROOMING / Stephanie Stokkvik using Mac and Bumble & Bumble
STYLING ASSISTANT / Kharishma Ballucksingh

 

Three summers ago, on some other boat that rocked, I first saw Bastille live. It was the River Rat Pack, a floating tour where Mumford & Sons had previously made a mark not long before divine intervention saw them reach international stardom. At the time, as much as anybody would have denied it, there was a sense of wanting to evoke that Mumford magic on the voyage. It was never about finding the next playlist fodder as much as the experience of having four acts on the road, or river, together – writing, developing as artists, boozing and staying up way past their bedtime in a very old school approach to touring. There was still a smear on the yardstick though, and watching Dan Smith perform songs that had up until that point only existed on his computer as bedroom demos, now done with a full band, the immediate impact of the material was arresting, and there was felt a sense of the success that could be heading their way, even if it did go unsaid.

‘Flaws’ especially felt like a big song, especially back then on a barge bopping along the Thames, the melody and hook double-whammy with Dan’s heartrending vocal and a clenched-fist passion were striking. Cut to early 2013 and they announce their first ever festival headline show at Blissfields, followed barely weeks later by the debut album, Bad Blood, landing at number 1 in the charts while single ‘Pompeii’ enjoyed a lengthy stay on the top ten singles list, as well as being the most played song on Spotify in 24 hours in the time BDP (Before Daft Punk). They’ve undeniably become one of the year’s biggest bands, BRIT Award-bound and on the verge of celebrity amid appearances on Jonathan Ross and Sunday Brunch.

Dan’s mentality, and humility, between the River Rat Pack and now though is unwavering. It’s a truly outstanding thing to see somebody have such love for their music, have it feel so personal, that when others interact with it he’s knocked off balance a bit. He’s somebody who still jokes about “when it’s all over”, relishing the moment rather than accepting his inevitable fate as a pop star, somewhat modestly and honest. This is a fickle music world, and Dan would make no claims to having conquered any of it yet despite critical and public adoration. I ran into him recently at The Great Escape where a humble horde of knicker-chewing teenage girls mobbed him as they would have done George and Ringo in 1963, yet he remains a down to earth and approachable man, happy that his music is being enjoyed by so many people and still slightly baffled by crowd and media attention and photo shoots.

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In my opinion it’s that welcoming attitude and open-mindedness which has landed Bastille so much attention from the public – songs aside, and we’ll get to those soon. At the risk of making a comparison again to Mumford & Sons, Bastille were also a band that spent years working hard live. After the River Rat Pack they performed on the opening night of Blissfields amid the new and local bands on the second stage as part of their debut summer of touring. That year would see them play to various small audiences in tents, proving themselves each and every time, and doing it without demand. No ego or sense of privilege, just playing their songs with as much rage and beauty each time as the last. They did what Blur do live, and that’s push their audience until they know a fucking connection has been made, and when you’re playing to just 50 strangers that takes some bollocks.

They toured constantly while Dan’s writing led the music to exciting places. Introducing a new song as “the one with the Lion King bit”, what was to become ‘Pompeii’ had already been adopted as a live highlight by the band’s return to Blissfields in 2012. Then on the main stage but still without much fuss nationally, they delivered again proving a real feature of the festival’s bill as they would do elsewhere across the UK. Compared to those bands that are suddenly ejaculated onto radio playlists and magazine covers, whether intentionally or not Bastille had taken a softer live approach with word of mouth emanating from Camden hotspot The Flowerpot outwards into an underground frenzy that was ready to combust at the slightest torch.

By that summer they’d reached a tipping point live, where their set had become so impressive that anybody who stood before it were hailing them as the next big guitar band, despite the fact guitars aren’t actually at the center of their music of course – they favor keys and drums at any opportunity. Stood in the Blissfields sun watching Dan bent over double, clutching the microphone throughout ‘Icarus’ there was no doubt the band, charismatic but still small and independently-minded, was soon to rise through Dan Smith’s ability to convert a nation with his fiery Lynchian hymns.

 

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When I landed in Texas for SXSW in March the first person I quietly ran into on the street was Dan. While waiting at Philadelphia airport I’d already checked the album chart and couldn’t wait to lavish him with a high-five. It would seem that a minor Hell, let’s call it a Hull, had broken loose and Bad Blood sat happily at number one, and no sooner had the word “congratulations” escaped me that it was met with his usual “I simply can not believe this is happening” response. What had been slowly cooking in his head for three years was now the main course on Radio 1 and supermarket shelves, but if you didn’t know it he certainly wouldn’t have let on.

Although by time it was released Bad Blood’s content was quite familiar to me, the finished collection has not been off my Spotify since, enjoying an almost daily play. Songs that hadn’t connected before, like ‘The Weight Of Living’, became vital to my listening.  ‘These Streets’ didn’t strike me live but on record had its own aura and story to tell. Dan’s ability to hide an incredible journey behind a nice pop song can mean you don’t always notice the magnificence of his words, which gives the whole album a second, hidden being. It’s like watching Arrested Development, first enjoying the jarring experience of the narrative, then watching it again and again to pick up on yarns you missed.

That’s part of what assures me that Bastille will do well in the long game. This isn’t a façade of trendy noise propped up by one song with an album wheezing around it; Bad Blood demonstrates every core value and component of a great record. You can merrily flick on any song and have a wonderful time, or fixate on a verse or line, let it bug you, dissolving the lyrics on your eardrums. Dan has already received acclaim internationally for his lyrics, but the fact that material is also landing on the public’s pop consciousness is a perfect storm in a Glee cup not seen in a while. Anybody doubting Bastille’s future as an important British act simply hasn’t listened properly to the album, as this is indie crossover of the decade territory.

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Their story and Blissfields Festival is a nice fit as well. In 2008 Dan Smith was a solo performer struggling for acknowledgment while Blissfields, following an award for Best Small Festival in 2007, was unfortunately cancelled. But by 2011 the festival had already been fighting back for a few summers and Bastille were poised to take Smith’s new songs forward, and by this Spring were ready to be a British breakthrough success story as Blissfields were possibly the first independent small festival to announce a sell-out of tickets. It’s fitting that Blissfields, and it’s little sister The River Rat Pack, had been among the first to champion Bastille, resulting in the band headlining it’s 2013 event which will ultimately be a success thanks in part to their appearance. It’s just… such a pleasing story, and an organic way for both to scratch a next chapter.

As with that festival’s other headline act Mystery Jets, the key to the rise is a phenomenal and infectious live mentality that gives fans ownership, from all those who saw them play small venues and festivals for years. It’s an ownership that people felt towards Mumford & Sons and comes from having a grassroots association with a band who would never let you forget it. It’s almost a retro idea now – being a fan – a proper fan I mean. As the internet churns out 3 minutes here and there to immediate, swamping reaction, followed by rushed albums of little substance, there doesn’t feel much room for bands like this any more: those that take time to discover, to get to know, but will in turn repay that dedication with quality and endurance and a fiery burning pride and passion that can’t be created nor sustained in the fait accompli rise of modern glossy stars. At the very least, for this sort of band to be doing so well, it feels like a win for a lot of people, like they’ve earned something or been rewarded. For Dan, it’s just still all so bemusing. And maybe that’s another part of the charm.

 

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