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Synth-pop group blows up with destruction-inspired hit

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Bastille, the most-streamed act in the U.K., is set to perform to a sold-out crowd Wednesday night at the Garrick Centre.

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Bastille, the most-streamed act in the U.K., is set to perform to a sold-out crowd Wednesday night at the Garrick Centre.

A calling-card single can launch a career. Just ask Bastille.

The U.K. new wave act, founded and fronted by singer/songwriter Dan Smith, has been having a banner year thanks in no small part to Pompeii, the fourth single from the band's 2013 debut, Bad Blood. The song was second most-streamed track of 2013, just behind Daft Punk's Get Lucky. It continues to hold strong in the iTunes Top 10 at No. 7 and is certified double platinum in Canada. (It's no surprise that tonight's show at the Garrick is sold out.)

Bad Blood, meanwhile, has since sold over two million copies worldwide and been in the Top 10 on iTunes in 34 countries. Bastille -- which includes keyboard player Kyle Simmons, bassist Will Farquarson and drummer Chris "Woody" Wood -- earned four 2014 BRIT Award nominations on the strength of the record, winning for British Breakthrough Act. It was announced Monday that Bastille is the most-streamed act in the U.K.

Simmons had no idea Pompeii, a song inspired by the destruction of the ancient Roman city of the same name by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, would become a chart-topping hit.

"I don't think anyone can tell when they're writing a song what it'll do," he says, on the line from Minneapolis. "We were just writing for ourselves, really. Dan had been looking up stuff on Pompeii and thought it would make for an interesting song. By no means did we think it would have the outcome it has."

While it has a distinct '80s bent, Bad Blood borrows from a wide-reaching, mixed-bag of genres. It skews more accessible than experimental, but the album did force the band to be creative; after all, Bastille's pop/rock arsenal was missing an important weapon.

"We didn't use any guitars," Simmons says. "At first, it was just because Dan couldn't play guitar, but as we continued, it became a bit of a challenge. How do you create that thick sound when you don't have guitar? So we started using loads of strings and different instruments like marimbas and layering vocals and stuff to fill that void. It all came together and people seem to like it."

That last part is an understatement. While Bad Blood has found success in the U.K., it's performing well Stateside, too. Bad Blood was the highest charting debut album by a U.K. act in 2013 in the United States and Pompeii has since broken the 1.5 million download mark.

"It all takes some getting used to. It's all incredible, exciting stuff, but it's a lot to take in. I'm in America being interviewed by someone in Canada. How did we get here?" Simmons says, reflecting on what has been a whirlwind year.

Bastille formed in 2010 after Smith, then a solo singer/songwriter, had written a bunch of material he was interested in developing with a band. Simmons was the last to join.

"We'd work all day, then rehearse from 9 p.m. until about two in the morning," he recalls.

Being able to quit day jobs was a defining moment.

"It's interesting, actually -- in the crossover from my former job (on stage crews for corporate events) to Bastille, I actually built a festival stage that we'd eventually play on," Simmons recalls with a laugh. "That was pretty surreal. I've been on both sides of it."

Bastille isn't interested in riding the lightning of its first record. The band is already working on its sophomore album.

"Dan never breaks from writing. He's always going off and singing things into his phone," Simmons says.

Mark Crew, who co-produced Bad Blood with Smith, joined the band on several of its recent European dates to record some tracks. Simmons says they're hoping to head in a bolder direction with the new album.

"We're using the first album as a basis, but we want to take it more extremes. I think we gestured at certain things -- like some of the hip hop elements. Now, we really want to go there. And we're using guitar now, so that opens up a world of options."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2014 C3

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