Bastille's Dan Smith Breaks Down Third Album 'Doom Days'
Dan Smith knows the end times are nigh, and it’s going to take a lot more than a massive bender to pull him back from the brink.
On the London-based quartet Bastille’s third album Doom Days, out today (June 14), frontman and lead songwriter Dan Smith maps out a debaucherous night of self-indulgence that may or may not be occurring amid actual armageddon. Structured like a loose concept record with no specific characters but a discernible narrative cohesion, the album hits the various beats of a night out when the stakes could never be higher.
Despite Doom’s endless binge of questionable decisions and bleak outcomes, it was developed during a period of relative stability for the band. Finding themselves stationary for the first time since their breakout single “Pompeii” scorched the alt-rock airwaves in 2013, the band settled into their newly-owned studio in South London called One Eyed Jack’s, inspired by Smith’s long-time infatuation with surreal '90s crime soap Twin Peaks.
Smith describes the initial concept of Doom Days as a direct reaction to their “big, sprawling” 2016 sophomore record Wild World, with a heavier electronic dance influence, simple, straightforward lyrics and a brisk runtime.
“Touring [Wild World] meant singing songs about reacting to the world’s changes every night, and the production that we created around it was a very heightened version of those ideas -- there was a lot going on,” he recalls. “We wanted to make a record that was all about pure hedonism and totally shut off from the problems of your life and issues of the world.”
However, their new “musical home” at One Eyed Jack’s kept the band from going completely insular, thanks to the regular influx of emerging talent sharing the studio space. This coexistent creative environment became crucial once Smith realized he was going to play host to an apocalyptic party meant to reach max capacity.
“If the album is trying to tell this story of one night, for it to feel a little bit raucous and rough around the edges, it needs voices to walk through it to help populate the songs,” Smith tells Billboard.
Along with bandmates Kyle Simmons, Will Farquarson and Chris "Woody" Wood, the album features London-based singer Kianja, frequent collaborator Charlie Barnes, New York by way of Melbourne singer The Dawn of May and English singer-songwriter Rationale as well as a host of vocalists fresh off the band’s ReOrchestrated tour in 2018 that reimagined their catalogue with an orchestral, gospel choir twist. The rotating cast of characters and inclusive recording process resulted in what Smith calls a “document of that period of time and who we were working with, who we were excited about, and who just happened to be next door.”
The final product is a concise alt-pop set that boosts the importance of meaningful human connection by accentuating the lack of it, while also examining just how long we can distract ourselves before the menace of reality begins to seep back in. Just a few weeks before the album drops, Smith chatted with Billboard over a damn fine cup of coffee, as he contemplated the benefits of escapism in the end of days.
“Quarter Past Midnight”
I wanted to articulate that feeling when for some people, the evening’s over and the responsible people can peel off home, and then there’s that group that just wants to keep forging on into the night to see what’s going to happen; it’s that sort of reckless abandon that’s in the air. I wanted it to feel like it’s set in the back of an Uber flying through the city, and capture that sense of a city at night and how everything’s flipped on its head.
I must have written 20 to 30 verses because there’s so much to say and not much space to say it in. I guess I wanted it to be an exciting mini-journey that sets the tone and drops you straight into the middle of the story. Also, I wanted to allude to the characters being in this space where they’re perhaps not in control of what they’re doing or saying, or where they’re going.
On one level, it’s about the stupid shit we do that we know isn’t good for us, but we do it anyway. It’s also about that point in a relationship where you can both identify that it’s potentially quite self-destructive and probably best to end things, but there’s bits of it you don’t want to let go of. It also speaks to these big, collective decisions we seem to be making, be it in elections or whatever, that some people view as great and some people view as terrible, but ultimately we all have to live through.
I guess it’s an example of one of those songs where I wanted it to subtly exist on a much different level, but it’s grounded in a personal story and you can take away what you will. I wanted to litter the album with pop culture references and references to the apocalypse, to have this almost tongue-in-cheek sense that there’s an apocalypse happening outside, and I guess it’s up to whoever’s listening to decide if they choose to take that as literal.
I wanted to make a weird, oddball version of a quote-unquote party record. I quite like the idea of being a passive observer at a house party and [seeing] all the ridiculous, stupid shit people do and say. Musically, Kianja is wandering in and out, and there’s a singer called Bim who was one of the gospel singers we worked with on the ReOrchestrated tour that riffs over the intro. This is another one where I had loads of different options for what to say. Sometimes if I know what a song is about, I slip down a rabbit hole of writing pages and pages of lyrics and I kind of set a trap for myself, because cutting that back and picking your favorite verses can be very hard.
“Divide” is on one level about being that person who doesn’t want anyone to leave a party and wants the night to continue forever, like knocking on the window of somebody’s Uber as they’re leaving shouting “Don’t go!” It’s also about a breakup, and it’s also about living in these slightly weird times where the world is so polarized, and people seem to want to refuse to actually engage with each other and have a conversation. We really wanted to have a song that was basically just my voice and a piano. I think this would be a moment of sparsity and simplicity on an album that has quite a lot of shit going on.
It’s a '90s-nodding rave record about trying to come up at a party while someone has cornered you to talk about politics, and basically just saying, “OK cool, that stuff is important and it’s fine but please can we talk about it tomorrow, or not?” The riff at the beginning is a nod to some of the synth riffs from the '90s, and we wanted to do a Bastille song that had a drop which is something we haven’t really done before.
This is the last song that we wrote for the album. The chorus has been around for a while and as we were coming to the end of the album process, I had all of these ideas floating around in my mind that I wanted to say but hadn’t managed to articulate yet. We had like a week before the album was getting mastered and as I often do, I turned to everybody and said, “Right, there’s another song I want to add. Sorry!”
We were flying to Australia to do three gigs in three days and we had one day at One Eyed Jack’s left, so we went in and recorded the song and the parts in its structure, but there was so much I wanted to say that I wrote 30 verses and recorded all 30 verses in three different octaves. Then we got on the plane to Australia and on the 24-hour flight, I wrote another 30 verses. I found a couple of hours in between the three gigs and went to a studio in Melbourne to record and sent those 60 verses to [co-producers Mark Crew and Dan Priddy] who happened to be in L.A. So this weird song that happened in a week between London, L.A. and Melbourne essentially sums up everything we wanted to say on the album.
It was nice doing it last because it allowed me to look back at the record and think, if it’s an album about escapism, I needed to articulate what I needed escaping from. I wanted it to have no structure and flow like a rap, and to cram in as many references and points about life and anxieties in 2019 as I possibly could.
“Nocturnal Creatures” was kind of the first song that we made that had that breakbeat, '90s sound. It was sort of about throwing yourself head-first into the night with somebody and feeling that slightly ridiculous, naive, indestructible feeling, that feeling that you can outwit the sunrise, and it set that nocturnal, nighttime tone for what the album would become.
The chorus is basically everyone that’s found anywhere on the album; we wanted it to be a proper gang vocal. Then there’s a quote at the end from a Russian gentleman [in a Highsnobiety documentary] talking about Russian rave culture at the end of the Soviet Union and suddenly feeling this freedom to do what you want and be hedonistic. I thought it summed up the sentiment well and they were up for us using it so we sampled that.
It came from a love of Frank Ocean’s album Blonde and the intimacy of it. Clearly so many ideas and thoughts and recordings that had gone into it were pared back, and I think it is a brilliant example of reductionism.
We wanted to do something that felt super intimate, super honest, kind of stoned and woozy and sums up that moment at 4:00 a.m. when you’re surrounded by people that you do or don’t know and have that weird, naive, slightly fucked up contentment. You’re thinking, “Ah this is bliss” -- but it’s probably not bliss at all. I wanted to celebrate that, so I recorded myself and the choir and pitched it around to make it ethereal.
We got our friend Rittipo, who’s a saxophonist and has toured with us a fair amount, down to the studio and let him loose on the track. I think it adds a really beautiful nighttime vibe and a kind of improvisational quality that my musical brain would never go to, so I guess it was a lesson for us on how good it could be to let other people bring their identity into what we do.
“Another Place” is one of the last tracks I wrote for the album. I wanted to write a positive song about a hookup that both parties are happy to engage in just once, knowing that they’ll probably never see each other again. There’s a lot of songs about the kind of darker side of hedonism and of mindless late night encounters with people, and I wanted to write something that felt as warm and positive as it can and hopefully should be.
I just really like the sentiment of it and wanted something that gave the album a bit of a lift and a softer, lighter moment. I pushed myself to write in a slightly different way, with a big chorus, almost half-spoken tumble of words and I think it’s quite nice to do a song that’s probably a bit more honest and interpersonal.
“Those Nights” might be my favorite song we’ve ever made. I wanted to build a track that felt like the end of the night; it’s woozy and aimless and blurry and maybe not really sure what’s going on, it’s the yearning for human contact. Rittipo came in and we listened to a lot of Bon Iver, he played us a lot of jazz and we sort of let him loose again. We wanted him to layer up an orchestra of different saxophones to create that slightly hazy nighttime warm hug of a feel. Also we got a gospel choir to come in and we used their vocals as a sample to feel like voices in your head.
I wanted the beat to sound like it was happening in the room next door so it’s really muted. Then the outro is like the space between when you remember what’s happened and when you pass out. I love The Streets’ album A Grand Don’t Come For Free, which is also a kind of narrative concept record, so I nodded heavily to that with the outro. Basically I wanted a musical outro that allowed the musicians that we brought in to just go off on one, really. It feels like a very honest, raw song and I really love it.
“Joy” is about waking up on the kitchen floor and suddenly the anxieties of everything that’s happened, everything you’ve done and said, the problems of the world you’ve been trying to forget, all of the sudden come flooding back in, and then you get a phone call from that one person who can set your head straight. I guess sometimes redemption can come from the smallest, most innocuous pieces of human contact, and also I wanted to touch on the irony that we’ve looked at phone addiction earlier on the album, but ultimately it’s the thing that pulls you back from the brink.
In these bizarre, weird, complicated times, it’s easy to be nihilistic and pessimistic and I’m like that very often, but I wanted the album to have an arc. It would have been easy to end in a super-negative way, but forcing ourselves to have a little bit of optimism felt important to the album.