Los Angeles: When writing a song that imagined a conversation between two ancient ashen corpses, British electro-pop band Bastille never imagined it would become the track that led them into the American mainstream music scene.
Pompeii, a haunting and grandiose song of love and loss, has become London band Bastille’s breakout hit, scaling the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart to a peak of No. 10. The band most recently performed the song on NBC’s comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live. It is also nominated for British single of the year at the Brit Awards on February 19, where Bastille leads the nominees with four nods, including the night’s top accolade for British album of the year for their debut record Bad Blood.
On a recent trip to Los Angeles, the band — formed by Dan Smith, Chris Wood, Kyle Simmons and Will Farquarson — sat down with Reuters at the legendary Capitol Records building to discuss their breakthrough and genre-defying music.
Q: What were you thinking about when you wrote Pompeii?
Smith: It’s about two ashy corpses having a conversation about the fact that their city has been wiped out by a volcano, and they’re slightly bored because they’re stuck next to each other forever. But put across in a slightly more ambiguous way.
I love that the fact that we get to play it at festivals all over the world to people who are drunk and joking about and smiling, and they’re singing a song about two fictional dead people. I want the song to reflect the situation and to feel quite epic in some ways, and kind of sad and optimistic. Ultimately, it is quite tongue-in-cheek.
Q: Did you think Pompeii could cross over from the alt-rock stations and be played among mainstream pop hits? Smith: Where we maybe saw ourselves as a band and where we were hoping to go, we weren’t thinking of mainstream really. We wanted to make an album, and for that to do OK so that we could make another album.
When Pompeii in the UK was in a chart battle with One Direction and Justin Timberlake, for that sentence to possibly come out of our mouths was so ridiculous.
Q: How would you describe the genre your music falls into?
Wood: We wanted to put out a collection of songs that we thought were really strong and that didn’t particularly fit into one genre, because it’s such a wide variety of influences.
The only thing we tried to maintain for it is not using guitars, because … no one can play guitar, and then half way through it, we thought “let’s carry on using this no guitar rule.” We got some marimbas for These Streets, and I suppose that helped not having a constant sound, so some are really organic-based and some are minimal electro.
Q: You’ve repackaged Bad Blood with all your older material and two new tracks in All This Bad Blood, that was released in the US in January. Is there a new musical direction coming with the new tracks?
Smith: The new tracks are potentially early versions, they might turn into something else. We just wanted to make two new songs that solidly gesture towards where we might go. The Draw has become one of my favourites to play live, and it’s entirely guitar-led and it goes quite heavy at the end, which for us is kind of a departure but I think it still really feels like us.
On the other hand, we have Skulls, which is, in my mind, garage-inspired but it probably doesn’t sound like that to anyone else, and that’s more electronic.
Q: You’re off on tour in Europe and North America from February 26. What’s the biggest difference you’ve picked up on between the UK and US audiences?
Smith: There’s a quite nice lack of cynicism here [in the US]. We made the comment that in UK or London, if you meet someone in a bar who asks what you do and you say you’re in a band, you almost have to apologise. Our experience of coming here early on, especially when no one had any idea who we were, and still don’t know who we are, if you say you’re in a band, they say “cool, that’s really interesting.” I think we’ve had a really nicely skewed perception of the American music industry because we’ve been lucky to come and play gigs to people. I thought we were going to come to America and drive for weeks and weeks and play to empty rooms, I think that’s where our expectations lay, so we’ve been pleasantly surprised.