The Importance of Radio, and Keeping Things Surprising with Bastille’s Dan Smith

This year we mark a full century of information being broadcast over the airwaves. From the first newscast on August 31, 1920 in Detroit, MI (What’s up, WWJ fam!) to the world premiere of Bastille’s latest single “What You Gonna Do???” on July 30 – we’re celebrating!Dan Smith, frontman of the U.K. group that has given us the hit singles “Pompeii” and “World Gone Mad,” among others, recently joined KROQ’s Nicole Alvarez in Los Angeles for a virtual chat and spoke about the power of radio in his own musical upbringing.“Oh wow, that’s a big question,” was Dan’s initial reaction, but you could quickly tell he’s been an avid listener his entire life. “As a kid it was hearing songs for the first time, hearing new music and that was super exciting. It was tuning in to hear the premiere of tunes from your favorite bands. It was discovering music.”“I used to listen to XFM a lot because I couldn’t sleep very well,” he continues. “I used to listen to John Kennedy on XFM who used to do album playbacks. That’s how I discovered so many albums that I love, so many artists. That’s where I first heard Regina Spektor, Antony and the Johnsons… so many artists that became my absolute favorites. It was a real root of discovery; it was company; it was hearing other voices, hearing voices from around the world; it was the school trip listening to stupid, funny DJs chatting rubbish… It’s everything. Growing up I guess it informs your taste. It tells you what you do like and then it also makes you realize what you don’t like, as well.”“In more recent years it’s been some of the coolest, weirdest, most surreal moments of our lives. Getting to play shows live on the radio and in different countries all over the world… making friends along the way. It’s such an amazing medium, it’s so connecting in so many ways.”Dan has also taken that love of radio on the road, giving him a look at the similarities that weave in and out of programs across the globe. “As my life has gone on and we’ve traveled so much, getting to hear what radio is like in different countries is pretty cool, the threads that run through the world over, and quite hilarious differences.” Nicole agrees, saying “it’s always been this consistent friend that’s never left.”Looking back on Bastille’s prior releases, Nicole sees Dan as one to always have a watchful eye on the underbelly of the world, a keen observer of the times we live in. Listening back to the band’s Doom Days, which dropped a little over a year ago in the summer of 2019 before all of us knew just what “doom days” could really be, she feels Dan was onto something special, almost spooky with the topics tackled.“It’s very weird,” Dan admits with a smirk. “I was talking to our tour manager today… for our second album, we spent the entire time wearing boiler suits and face masks, and the followed it up with ‘Doom Days,’ an album about the apocalypse.”“In the beginning, we were looking at the world, and the changes in the world over politically and, I guess, the news as a window into the world we live in, which is always a really confusing one for many, many reasons,” Dan says about their 2013 debut, Bad Blood. “Having made a second album (2016’s Wild World) that confronted some of the big moments of change that were happening in the U.K., the U.S., all over the world, I think we felt having lived in that for a couple of years touring and playing our shows we wanted to make something that was an escape from that. A kind of tongue-in-cheek, intentional, willful ignoring of it.”“But in the process of making this album, which was meant to be a euphoric, escapist, hedonistic record, about a night out where you choose to ignore all these things,” Dan says, “a bit like what life is like anyway, whatever intentions you have to block that stuff out it inevitably leaks in. It inevitably seeps back into your mind, and your thoughts, and experiences. So, in trying to make an album that ignored all that, it ended up becoming almost entirely about it, but constantly trying to push the arc towards finding solace in other people.”Now facing his sixth month of lockdown and canceled shows, Dan says the moment he realized his life would never be the same was when he was out with friends having a good time.“I feel like with COVID-19 there was a sort of ripple effect of everyone having their eureka moment about how serious it was. I remember here in London on a Friday night, me and a load of my friends went to a comedy show. Things were feeling really strange and everyone was talking about it,” Dan admits. “A bunch of my friends are doctors and, obviously, it was at the front of everyone’s minds but we were still out and feeling weird about it, and guilty.”“The next day,” he says, “was for all of us our moment of ‘wow, things are gonna shift now.’ I remember speaking to my parents trying to get them to take it seriously and other friendship groups were still, for weeks, doing stuff and going out.”One experience he’ll surely never forget was during a writing session in Los Angeles in 2019 as the Australian bush fires were ravaging the continent. The band we’re about to embark on a tour down under, and one of his co-writers girlfriends, a nurse, gave him a mask to wear.“You should probably have this,” the nurse told him, but at the time it was almost novelty in his mind. “It seemed sort of otherworldly that I would wear it,” Dan says. “Since then it’s come in really handy having that in my bag.”“It’s just so funny what a difference a few weeks makes, or even at that point what a difference overnight made. Just seeing this thing ripple around the world and how different countries have dealt with it and the way different governments have communicated things... It’s just indescribably crazy.”Bastille has just released a brand new single, “What You Gonna Do???” a collaboration with Blur’s Graham Coxon, an obvious departure from their past work.

“We sort of look to our first three albums as sort of a trilogy,” says Dan. “Our creative process was the same throughout the whole thing and they represent a kind of unit, and a body of work. I think coming to the end of the ‘Doom Days’ time of our lives, we wanted to keep things fresh.”“This was a song that started life on a tour bus in Salt Lake City at the end of last year. I just wanted to make something heavy, and exciting, and surprising.”Surprising, like including Graham Coxon. “We just sent it to him because we absolutely love Blur and I’m a huge fan of his,” Dan says of his involvement. “We sent it over and were like, ‘it’s a lockdown. He’s definitely free. I wonder if he’ll be up for it.’”“I think our one rule for ourselves in this next phase or era or whatever is hopefully to surprise people at every turn.”