How Glass Animals Became One Of The Biggest Bands In The World

Having a conversation with Dave Bayley after witnessing him perform with Glass Animals is a bit like going to meet Superman and finding Clark Kent instead. Onstage, Bayley is electric, an incredible performer with the kind of charismatic energy that fills arenas. He carries the show with a look or a goofy dance, seemingly completely at ease commandeering thousands of voices as they sing along with his. But sitting outside at an empty hotel cafe — after the first of two sold-out shows at the Santa Barbara Bowl — Bayley is mild-mannered, soft-spoken, and sometimes even self-effacing. One shared element does comes through crystal clear in both instances: This is someone who is “deeply obsessed with music.”

The chasm between Bayley’s performing persona and conversational self is perhaps not that surprising. Though the band’s most recent album, Dreamland, easily translates into a psychedelic spectacle during their live shows, it’s also full of intricacies, juxtapositions, deep-seated anxieties and cultural commentary that suggests an introspective and empathetic observer. And, it’s worth noting, most of it was written while the life of one of the band’s members hung in the balance. Ultimately, that tragedy is the impetus that led Glass Animals to their most vulnerable album to date, and a trajectory that catapulted them to become one of the biggest bands on the planet, including a recent Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, their first nod from the Recording Academy. Because for this group, despite their pop success, is a band, and everything started with relationships.

Formed in 2010, Glass Animals is Bayley, drummer Joe Seaward, bassist Ed Irwin-Singer, and guitarist Drew MacFarlane, all of whom were childhood friends spending formative years in and around Oxford. “The band was just an excuse to hang out and have fun,” Bayley remembered during our sit-down conversation in Santa Barbara. “It was basically a hobby, our weekend hangout thing. The guys would come to London, we’d listen to music, make some music. Then somehow someone started paying us… and it just spiraled out of control quite quickly. I wouldn’t change it, though.” Bayley is, fairly typically, downplaying what really happened: The band was scouted by Adele’s producer himself, Paul Epworth, who noticed them immediately after attending one of their early gigs in London.

Bayley remembers Epworth being “a pushy date” — that’s how insistent he was about the band working with him, almost immediately signing them to his own label, Wolf Tone. At that point, Bayley was still in medical school, but dropped out to pursue music full-time. The decision was so fraught for him, he kept the truth of it from his mother for almost two years — though luckily, the band’s success meant the choice wasn’t a regretful one in the end. Quickly gaining global attention for their tremendous fusion of psych-pop, Brit-rock, and hip-hop, Glass Animals released their debut album, Zaba in 2014, and followed it up after two years of touring with 2016’s How To Be A Human Being. Their second album was certified silver in Britain, and nominated for the country’s most prestigious music award, The Mercury Prize, in 2017.

In the summer of 2018, however, things took a nightmarish turn when the band’s drummer, Joe Seward, hit by a semi-truck while riding his bike in Dublin, suffering a broken leg and a complex skull fracture that impacted his brain. Even his survival was unclear at first. Seward required two surgeries, one on his leg and one on his skull, and it was uncertain if he would make a recovery at all, let alone talk, walk, or play music ever again. Given his background in med school, perhaps no one understood better than Bayley exactly how serious the situation was. He was at the hospital around the clock during Seward’s recovery, helping translate between the doctors and his friend’s family, and, pretty naturally, reflecting on his own mortality. The band canceled all of their remaining concerts for the year, and the future for the formerly thriving group was in doubt.

“When you have an injury of that level, usually people don’t make a particularly good recovery,” Bayley explained, referencing that medical school past. “I had to keep a strong face for the family, to make sure I was trying to be really optimistic so they weren’t panicking — even though inside I would absolutely be panicking.” In the end, Seward did end up making a full recovery, something that Bayley can only describe as “miraculous,” but during those days when he and his bandmates were trapped in the hospital, unsure of what was going to come next, they entered a state that eerily mirrored what people endured in the initial stages of the pandemic.

“It was very much that kind of locked down state that I think a lot of people ended up in during the pandemic,” Bayley said. “You’re not going out, you’re not able to do the things that make you feel real, or human, or comfortable. You’re stuck in a room, waiting, not sleeping. Because the future is totally unknown. And that’s what happened while he was in the hospital, and I was in the hospital, waiting. I went back to all those old places… your brain starts to wander.” So the basis for the band’s third album, Dreamland was set — and it seems only right that an injury at the magnitude of Seward’s would impact whatever direction the band went in next.

Previously, Bayley describes his lyrics as “basically indecipherable,” words that were chosen for sound, and kept low in the mix. “When we started, the music was definitely quite shy,” he said. “I was shy, I still am shy, but that’s really why, on the first record, I had no idea what I was doing. I was just nervous for anyone to hear it. So everything is quite abstract. In the hospital, though, I started remembering things I never thought I’d remember. Whereas most people would try to bury that — put something on the television, nip that in the bud — I was doing the opposite. ‘What else can I remember? What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to me? What’s the most uncomfortable I’ve ever felt?’”

As Seward began to recover, Bayley took these unearthed memories and surreal thoughts and went back into the studio, by himself, and started to meticulously construct the songs that would become Dreamland. Representing a complete pivot from the way he’d approached lyrics and songwriting itself in the past, Dreamland is a wholly autobiographical album for Bayley, and leans more into the pop and hip-hop world than ever before. And something about his vulnerability, his search for the brutalist truths of childhood, and the depictions of failing relationships and toxic cycles, struck a chord with a world in lockdown. While 2020 unfolded, and more and more people entered the dream-like terror that is wondering if a loved one in the hospital is going to survive, or experiencing extended anxiety, the album only became more relevant. Interwoven with real snippets of audio from home videos Bayley’s mother took during his childhood, for plenty of millennials, listening to Dreamland might feel a bit like drifting back through their own childhood.

Even so, like plenty of other artists, Glass Animals were up against a brick wall last year when their long-promised new album was finally ready for release. In the middle of a year that will forever be marked by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the isolation, anxiety, and grief that came along with it, putting music into the world felt like a fraught decision. Add to that conversations around Black Lives Matter in June 2020, and reason enough for a delay seemed clear. Originally slated for July 10, Dreamland was pushed back to August 7 in order to keep focus on, as Bayley put it then “understanding how to defeat prejudice.” In person he elaborated more: “I thought there was a lot to learn and a lot to pay attention to,” he said. “I didn’t want to distract my attention from that by trying to put out an album.” In that moment, the band released their fourth single, “Heat Waves,” instead, a song that Bayley describes as “realizing you can’t make everyone happy … realizing it’s ok to be defeated by something.”

When Dreamland did come out in August, the pandemic was still in full swing, so the band had to resort to digital methods of engaging with fans. Thinking about bored listeners stuck at home, the band made all their song stems and artwork available on an open-source website, along with working on TikTok trends, a remix contest for “Heatwaves,” livestream internet shows, and a handful of TV performances that could bring some of their performance energy to fans experiencing the band’s first album release without a tour. But as the months went by, no one could have expected the way in which “Heat Waves” took on a life of its own. Winning Triple J’s Hottest 100 of 2020 contest, and becoming the first British band to top that indie-prestigious chart since Mumford & Sons “Little Lion Man” in 2009, the single picked up even more speed in 2021.

It was an interesting dichotomy: In a world where touring has been suspended for the longest break in recent memory, a group that is ostensibly a rock band had released a yearning, emotionally resonant pop hit, and the charts were accepting it as one. At the time it was released, though he considered the song a special one on the album, it was just a standout song. Neither Bayley, nor anyone else, realized it would soon become the biggest song in the band’s history so far, and one of the biggest songs of 2021. “With ‘Heat Waves,’ it was coming to terms with the fact that it’s okay to understand, appreciate and know that you’re missing someone — that it’s actually probably quite healthy,” he remembered. “That you should let yourself do that, you shouldn’t try to bury it the whole time. It’s kind of like a eureka, euphoric moment. Or it can be.” Picking up a couple nods at the Billboard Music Awards for top rock album and top rock song for “Heat Waves,” the track also amassed Spotify streams and social media traction.

As the band was finally able to embark on live shows behind the record in the spring of 2021, the impact of the album — and its hit single — began to grow. Eventually making its way into the Billboard Hot 100 in America, this fall the song shot all the way up to the No. 7 spot due to some more viral TikTok use, and also went all the way to No. 5 in the UK. The song’s growth mirrored the band’s expansion through live performances, which included a predominantly sold-out run in both Europe and North America (mostly rescheduled from canceled 2020 dates), and major festival appearances at Life Is Beautiful and Outside Lands (along with a scheduled performance at Bonnaroo, which was canceled due to weather). Context on how the band’s live performances grew over 2020 and 2021: This year, the band was booked for a series of mid-tier performances at festivals, for next year, they’ve already been announced as a headliner for at least one festival, Lightning In A Bottle.

Named Variety’s Group Of The Year for their annual Hitmakers series, and Grammy hopefuls for the Best New Artist award next month, the band’s manager, Amy Morgan, was also recently recognized for her excellence by Bloomsbury for their 2021 Artist & Manager Awards. Morgan called the award was “a huge honor” and gave as much credit back to the band for making her job feel like a “privilege.” From her perspective, the band’s growth is most apparent in their live show, which is, in so many ways, a completely different accomplishment, a separate beast from the album itself. “Glass Animals is a team, so I think it was an award for us all, really,” Morgan said. “They’ve always taken their craft as musicians super seriously. The live setup is something they developed themselves. It’s complicated and there are no shortcuts — they’re absolute purists and technically as well as creatively brilliant. Watching them build the current show made me very aware of how much they’ve learned over the years touring… it’s great watching them put it all into practice.”

The band’s ability to take Dreamland’s already dance-heavy, R&B-leaning sound and translate it into something even more dynamic for audiences is truly impressive to watch. After a year and a half trapped indoors — and, even with vaccines, no real end in sight — one of the only reliefs of 2021 versus 2020 is the ability to gather together (especially outdoors) and listen to live music once more. Though the band never shied away from live performances as a place where songs could morph and change before, they seem to have taken the show angle even more seriously for this latest tour, populating the screen with nostalgic, ‘90s-themed computer imagery, using fluorescent pinks and pastel greens in the backdrop, incorporating a basketball hoop and hotel neon. Perhaps some bands would’ve shied away from making their live show bigger and bolder than ever before after a pandemic, but for Glass Animals, the maximalism worked.

In the pit at one of their Santa Barbara shows, the crowd was eager to dance along to Dreamland stand-outs: The Timbaland-cribbing “Your Love (Déjà Vu),” the bubbly effervescence of “Tangerine,” their earliest hit, 2014’s “Gooey” — which is prescient of the sounds on this latest album — lead single “Tokyo Drifting” (sans the ferocious Denzel Curry appearance, sadly), and of course, the set closer and their discography-defining hit, “Heat Waves.” Morgan remembers her own reaction to the track after an initial listen: “I loved the song and I knew it was one of the most important songs Dave had written but I don’t think anyone could have predicted what would happen!”

As one of the only songs with a single writer and producer to reach the heights it has on the charts, the success of the track plays back into the live show in the same way that Bayley’s ultra personal lyrics are buoyed by the presence of a full band. There’s no one without the other, the story is only complete with the two taken together: live rock band and hit pop song, the tragedy within the band with Joe’s injury and Dave’s reaction to it, trauma and recovery, both within the band and the entire global ecosystem. After everything that the band, and Joe, went through, Bayley’s main takeaway is that a second chance cuts both ways. It’s a reminder of how easily things can be taken away, but also a cue to savor the lucky moments for all their worth. “Being able to tour again, with Joe, it makes you feel so lucky,” Bayley said. “It also makes you realize… it could be taken away at any time. So it makes you feel lucky every day, about pretty much everything that you have.”