bastille

It’s appropriate that the popularity of a band with a song about the fiery destruction of an ancient city began to blossom during a storm. Londoners Bastille were playing at a 500-capacity tent at the U.K.’s Isle of Wright about a month after they began gigging as a band.

The tent was empty, until it started to pour. By the time they were done, no room remained.

“It was, at the time, amazing to play to that many people in one go,” 26-year-old Bastille vocalist and keyboardist Dan Smith said.

Smith doesn’t credit the downpour for boosting the band to the status of the United Kingdom’s top selling act of 2013 – but it was an early sign that the hook-heavy electronic pop project he started in a college dorm room was going places.

Bastille plays Amoeba SF and a Popscene show at the Rickshaw Stop on Monday before returning to the Great American Music Hall on Sept. 19.

Another sign for Smith came before he even recruited bandmates Will Farquarson, Kyle Simmons and Chris Wood.

While he was still performing shows by himself, Elton John took a liking to Smith and offered him a management deal.
“I think one of the people working at his company had been coming to some gigs and heard some of my songs,” Smith said. “They got me into their studio and had me record a couple of songs I’d written. Getting a phone call from Elton John to join a company is really (interesting).”

But the grand size of the firm didn’t sit right with Smith. He wanted to start small and build a fan base the traditional way.

“I kind of felt like I wanted to start from the (bottom),” he said. “I feel like doing it the way that we have has earned us a lot of incredibly loyal fans who tell their friends about it through word of mouth.”

Where Smith and Bastille are now – an EP (Haunt) that debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart, a video (“Pompeii”) that through the end of June had been viewed more than 25 million times online, a debut album (Bad Blood, released earlier this year in the U.K.) that debuted at No. 1, and an American TV debut on Conan (two days following the Popscene show) – is definitely not where they started.

Smith started Bastille (named because he was born on France’s Bastille Day – he was to celebrate his birthday two days following this interview) by himself, using a laptop and a synth to record songs. He was not noticed until his last year at college, when a roommate entered him in a contest, and he won recording time in a professional studio and his first-ever show. In 2010, he began putting his songs online.

First he performed by himself, then with Farquarson and Wood, and finally with Simmons. Known in the U.K. as an introvert, Smith has worked hard to establish himself as a performer and not just a bedroom songwriter and producer.

“We’ve been touring together for over two-and-a-half, three years, so we were very much a band now,” he said.

As a songwriter, Smith steers clear of the usual autobiographical and love topics. Instead, his muses include history and film. “Pompeii,” for example, is about the fiery destruction of the ancient Roman city, and the discovery of human remains at the archeological site.

“I just thought it would be such an interesting idea to try and imagine the conversation that could obviously never happen between the two of these bodies that were stuck in this pose,” he said. “I guessed probably they’re a bit bored. In the line, ‘How am I supposed to be an optimist about this?’ I guess it’s a bit of a joke because how could a charred, ashy corpse be an optimist about anything?”

The band also released a single called “Laura Palmer,” named after the character in Twin Peaks. Smith is a fan of series creator David Lynch, as well as film director Terrence Malick. The video for another song, “Flaws,” was created with clips from Malick’s film Badlands.

Smith said he views songs visually and tries to imagine them as a narrative, whether it is through a conversation between characters or by setting a mood through his production.

Next week’s Popscene show will be Smith’s first visit to San Francisco since his parents took him on vacation as a child. Everyone in the band is obsessed with Mexican food and when Smith is told that he will have his fill in The City, his voice lights up: “Amazing! I’m so excited!”

The United Kingdom is not known for its Mexican food options, but that is beginning to change, he said.

“There’s a place called Oaxaca – with a ‘W’ – W-A-H-A-C-A,” he said. “It started in London, and started growing and growing as a chain. That food is amazing. Some places are not so good.”

The band means business when it comes to Mexican food – at the merch tables, fans can find Bastille Hot Sauce. Smith and his bandmates were tired of seeing the same swag at concerts and decided to pour out their love for mouth-burners on to their fans.

“Next thing I knew, we were designing the labels for it, (deciding) how spicy we wanted it to be and how much habanero we wanted in it,” Smith said. “Suddenly, it was a reality.

Follow writer Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter and RomiTheWriter.Tumblr.com

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