DrSmith does not know how to close. In the decade or so, the creative heart and pioneer of the Bastille, he was constantly thinking about music. There was a two week period over Christmas and New Years where he thought he just couldn’t make it. Then he went to the cinema twice.
“I went all the way through the first movie and three-quarters of the way through the second movie before I had to leave, awkwardly singing on my phone in the hallway, and back again,” he says. “If I have a song idea pop into my head, I have to remember it. It will eat me away if I forget it, or it is just a loop in my head.”
This may be a testament to Smith’s attractive hooks. Since the release of Bastille’s debut album, a decade has passed with number one hits, award nominations, and selling tours. Commercial success was rapid, although critical acclaim followed more slowly. The fourth album, Give Me the Future, will be released next month.
However, despite this objective success, sitting in the control room of Bastille’s studio with his ankle resting on his knee, Smith says he has a “very poor opinion” of himself. “I can’t really explain it,” he says. “I think there’s a dissonance in my head between what we’ve achieved and how I’m perceived, and the reality in my head.”
Smith, 35, is impossible not to admire. We spoke twice, first over Zoom before Christmas when he was isolated from Covid at home, then in his modest studio building, behind a car showroom in south London. After welcoming me, he is far away, talking freely about partying with his college friends on New Year’s Eve, “anxiety”, insomnia, diets and how much I love spending Christmas with his family (especially his young nephews), often interrupting himself by overlapping shadow, hand gestures Petition to emphasize points. He’s cute, funny — and touchingly hospitable (“I’m sorry if you think I’m trying to drown you,” he says after offering to fetch me water for the fourth time).
When he talks about the stress of being in a band — the tours, criticism, fame, performance anxiety, stage frights — he does so with humor and a candid warning about how privileged he is to do what he does. With his subtle humility and painstaking self-awareness, he is very much the first millennium man.
“I’ve never been very good at trying to pretend I’m such a superstar, a rock star, because it’s not what I ever wanted to be,” he says. “I see other artists who are really good at it – which is a skill in itself – but it’s not just a skill that interests me.”
Smith isn’t keen on interviews or taking pictures (“just to warn you, I don’t have control over my face,” he says, as he approaches the photographer). He seems relaxed today, although he tells me that college friends still find it funny that an introverted person like him is the lead singer of a major band.
Smith grew up in south London with his parents and sister lawyers. He says he had a happy childhood, but was a self-conscious child who never dreamed of a music career. “Just the idea of standing in front of people and doing anything, let alone playing music, was a far cry from anything I could imagine wanting to do.”
As a teenager, Smith wrote songs on his piano and laptop computer in his bedroom, but kept them to himself. Then, at the university, his friends encouraged him to join the talent competition (he was the runner-up). Pub parties and open mic nights followed, but he developed a severe stage fright. “I was nervous. I was such a wreck,” he says. “I used to drink a lot before continuing, which wasn’t conducive to pressing the pedal and keeping time to yourself. It was a nightmare.”
In 2010, after completing his college studies, Smith formed the Bastille with Chris Wood, Kyle Simmons and Will Farquarson. The band independently released an EP and formed a loyal following, touring the country in borrowed cars. The band’s debut album, Bad Blood, was written in Smith’s bedroom and produced with a friend. “It really couldn’t be more than that if you tried,” he says.
Even when they signed a record deal, he never thought they’d make it. “We weren’t elated; we weren’t told we were going to make it. So it was news for us. It was news for our record company, and for everyone else!”
But when Bad Blood was released in 2013, it debuted at number one on the UK Albums Chart and became the best-selling digital album that year. Its anti-inflammatory earworm, Pompeii, has gone platinum in the UK and double platinum in the US. Critics hate it.
“It has been rinsed!” Smith says with a laugh.
“It’s a cliché, but you can hear 100 beautiful things and remember the thing that isn’t. It’s a human thing. And maybe focusing on the negative is something to do with an anxious person.” Critics were more kind to the subsequent albums Wild World (last number 1 in the UK) and Doom Days (which peaked at number four in the UK), and in 2015 the band was nominated for a Grammy Award.
But this sudden, sudden rise to fame “stunned” the fame-averse Smith, who is pleased with the fact that many people have heard of pastel music, but have no idea what it looks like. “I was pretty self-deprecating as a defense mechanism,” he says. “I was always a huge pessimist. We all worked so hard at first—and still are—because we loved her. But I always predicted that she would fall apart at any moment. I guess that’s why I don’t think much about the future.”
Smith has a complicated relationship with his appearance, he believes, in part from being overweight as a teenager. “I was big until the end of my childhood and through a lot of college,” he says. “I’m really aware of not wanting to imply that anyone shouldn’t be old. But I remember I was just really shy and wanted to look different.”
Before his third year at university, he traveled in Thailand and contracted a virus. He lost his appetite and lost weight. When he got home, he started eating healthier and exercising more. That summer, his weight dropped by six stones. “When I lost a lot of weight and suddenly looked like a different person, it was like…I think for anyone who’s gone through such a big and drastic physical transformation, it can be a fair thing to turn around.”
He doesn’t want people to think that this was a magical transformation or ambition. “It didn’t suddenly instill so much confidence in me,” he says. “For a long time, I was still considered a bigger man, and I still do to this day.”
Smith says he’s never felt pressure from the music industry to change his weight, but the imbalance in his body weight meant that constant exposure to seeing his face — in videos, photographs, or artwork — was difficult to navigate. “It’s a strange field of work in which you constantly confront your own image,” he says. “It’s not fun – and it doesn’t feel particularly healthy.
“I think a lot of people have different forms of physical malformation,” he says. “We all have a version of ourselves that we see in our heads and often very different from the version of who we are through other people’s eyes.”
It makes being on stage uncomfortable. “For someone with body image issues, it can be complicated to stand on stage every night in front of so many people, when your instinct is to hide away,” Smith says. “Sometimes it’s not a problem, sometimes it is.”
Smith never needed a drink before he went on stage to perform with the Bastille, but it’s still a nerve-wracking experience even with his bandmates by his side. “It’s really worrying about whether or not I’m going to have a good show because I’m really nervous,” he says. “I have this really unhelpful thing where I’m deaf on stage – so I can hear the noise, but I can’t put anything down – and then I get really self-conscious about not singing in tune, because you can’t hear what’s playing.
“I remember playing at Alexandra Palace [in north London] – which should have been a great moment – and two songs I just missed and went completely deaf and the whole party for me then was this crazy and terrifying rollercoaster just trying to get past it. I hear myself say this and that’s just a real shame.”
In other words, performance is what he has to do to fulfill his passion for writing, recording and working with other creators. He wishes he could enjoy it, and he’s honored for fans to come see him, but his stage fright is “a form of panic attack.”
Bastille’s fourth album leans heavily on Smith’s penchant for science fiction (he talks passionately about the films Brazil, Minority Report, Ghost in the Shell, and books Philip K Dick and Margaret Atwood). He made his directorial debut for the music video for No Bad Days, exploring themes of resurrecting loved ones through technology. The song is inspired by Smith’s aunt, who died of cancer a few years ago.
“She lived in a state in Australia where they had just started assisted dying and she was one of the first people to take that route,” he says. He was able to travel to see her before she died. “To me, it’s amazing that she made this decision and was so incredibly generous in helping to guide all the people around her that she loved her through this very difficult situation.”
In the past 10 years, Smith has rarely taken a vacation. Even during lockdown last year, he hasn’t slowed down, spending his days finishing his latest album, running an online movie club and volunteering at food banks and vaccination centers. In the evenings he would write more music, as he had done when he was a student (“which I liked”).
And when he’s not with the pastels, Smith collaborates with others and enjoys being “a little part of this much bigger thing.” he wrote songs for artists (including Yungblud, Lizzo, and Haim); recorded films (the latest being the upcoming ‘From Devil’s Breath’, a short film produced by Leonardo DiCaprio), and worked with other musicians through a Bastille recording company and studio, One Eyed Jack, which the band set up to offer free space to others (in many Emerging times) for artist use. He’s also co-host of the BBC Sounds podcast with book lover Simon Savage, which comes out this week, and is working on a full-fledged musical with two of his friends. What does he do to close? A marathon, of course.
Not worried about fatigue? “enormously!” Smith says. “But I think because we started in a place where I was so involved in every part, and I was determined not to let that go, I just stayed so involved in everything that it could be expendable. I think, at some points, I’ve taken the road a lot.”
With all the success of the Bastille, has his “brutal critical novel” subsided? “I think there’s a small part of me that’s really conditioned, really to think that way,” he says. “But I think I’ve seen some of this negativity hit me with the fact that it’s been 10 years, and we’re still allowed to do these things.”
And as long as he can continue to do so, he is happy. “Recording has always been the thing I do for fun,” he says. “The studio is the thing that I love. Touring and all the other things that come with being in a band is just a side point to songwriting, songwriting, and creating something from nothing. And it’s really satisfying for me and my basic little brain.”
“Give Me the Future” was released on EMI on February 4. Bastille tours the UK in March and April. The Turn Up for the Books Podcast Available on BBC Sounds from January 12.