Taking Off: An Interview with Catfish and the Bottlemen

After eight years on the road, these Welsh indie rockers are conquering the music world one show at a time.
The Balcony
Communion (US) / Island (UK)

Van McCann is an artist with the world at his disposal. Instead of a brush, he paints with words; instead of paint, he fills his canvas with lyrics. “I draw it, and the band paints it in,” McCann says of his songwriting. “I come in with a sketch, and I know what colors I want to use, but then the band goes, ‘This color would be good here, and this color would be good for that.’ I get the lyrics in there, and they make it sound huge.”

An only child born to parents who always kept classic rock records in the house, McCann has been writing songs since he was a kid. A natural frontman, McCann is just 22 years old, but he has already been writing and touring with his band Catfish and the Bottlemen — named for a busker McCann met as a child in Australia — for eight years. Featuring McCann on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Johnny Bond on lead guitar, Benji Blakeway on bass, and Bob Hall on drums, these young indie rockers have their eyes set on the big time and are gaining momentum quickly.

It’s only been in the last two years that the Bottlemen started breaking through in a big way, first with a deal with Communion Records in the spring of 2013 and most recently with their debut album The Balcony. Released in the band’s native Wales in September of 2014 and in the U.S. earlier this year, The Balcony is an 11-track record that has already earned nods for its honest lyrics and vibrant energy. At the 2014 BBC Music Awards last December, Catfish and the Bottlemen snagged the Introducing Award and performed as part of a lineup that included Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, and Calvin Harris. The group’s success continues marching forward as 2015 progresses, with several of their North American tour dates sold out and their leading single “Kathleen” spreading to radio stations across the United States.

The success seems sudden, but McCann says his band is nothing like the overnight sensations that frequently pop up in the music industry. After spending years living in a tour van and playing every club in Wales that allowed them stage time, McCann is ready for the band to move into the next stage of touring and recording. “[Some of] the bands you read about go from playing to 100 people in London to 2,000 overnight,” McCann explains. “But we went through it, every step of the way. Nothing was a big jump for us because we took every step on the ladder.”

Catfish and the Bottlemen are going back to basics on their current North American tour, trading the crowds of thousands they grew comfortable with at festivals across Europe last summer for the few hundred concertgoers attending gigs in the U.S. and Canada. McCann doesn’t seem to mind; if anything, he’s excited by the opportunity to play before smaller crowds and give American and Canadian audiences a taste of his music. “We’re having the best year of our lives,” McCann enthuses in a thick English accent, his words sprinting out of his mouth as if he can’t say them fast enough. “Doing this tour and meeting people that are excited about our music, it’s the best feeling in the world.”

When Catfish and the Bottlemen stepped onstage before a sold-out crowd at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom on 9 March, they acted like the seasoned performers they are. Dressed in black from head to toe, each band member attacked their instruments in a blitzkrieg of sound. With a shout and a shake of his shaggy brown mane, McCann shot a grin at Bond as they plunged into “Rango”, one of the band’s singles from 2013 and the opener of the night. By the end of their hour-long set, the Bottlemen had played each of the 11 tracks featured on The Balcony, earning cries of joy from the audience when they dove into fan-favorites “Pacifier” and “Kathleen”.

“New York City’s sold out, this is fucking crazy. Thank you!” McCann said as he looked out over the sea of faces. “This is the show we’ve been most excited for.”

The band’s smooth presentation onstage owes largely to their years of experience, but it’s also a testament to the strong bonds that have formed within the group. The Bottlemen are living the dream of making a living by playing in a rock band with their best friends. McCann and Blakeway have been close since primary school. When the two set out to start a band, they discovered Hall, one of their recommended drummers, was actually a neighbor of McCann’s. Bond, formerly of Detroit Social Club, was last to join in 2014, though the celebrity status McCann once anointed him with as a fan has faded into one of respected friendship.

In tour videos uploaded to their website for fans, Catfish and the Bottlemen are silly pranksters, teasing one another and balancing objects on the prone body of whoever happens to be dozing at the wrong moment. Onstage, they are professional but fun, digging into their music as if it’s all they’ve ever wanted to do.

Catfish and the Bottlemen might still in the process of conquering the United States, but they’re already treated as icons in Tokyo, where they traveled to play at the end of January. “Tokyo is the first place I’ve ever been where I felt like an actual celebrity. We were getting stopped in the streets, and people followed our cars and went to our hotels and waited in the lobby,” McCann says, sounding like he’s still in awe. For him, the experience was strange, but he enjoyed the recognition. “It was really weird, because we’re the same as them. It just takes us back when people are that blown away by [our music].”

For McCann, music has always been a magnetizing force. As a kid dreaming about the future, he considered several career possibilities, but music was the only idea that stuck. “I’ve always loved music. In school, I always liked making the class laugh, so I’ve always had that kind of frontman dream.”

Serving as the band’s frontman fits McCann well, whether he’s performing onstage, mingling with the media, or writing songs. “The singer in this band is exactly what my personality is. I love meeting people, I love talking about music, I love doing interviews. I don’t mind doing photo shoots, I don’t really like doing videos, but when I’m with the lads I love it. Writing my songs and singing them — that’s what I love. It’s just something I never got bored of.”

McCann writes all of the band’s lyrics, most of which confront or comment on his personal experiences, relationships, and dreams for the future. When the Bottlemen launched into the opening sequence of “Cocoon” at the Bowery Ballroom with a swift attack on the drum kit by Hall, McCann was quick to grab the microphone and dive in, his voice strong with certainty. “I fell straight into your arms…”

“I love ‘Cocoon,’” McCann says a few days before the show. “It’s the last one I wrote for the album, in New York. They’re my favorite lyrics to sing. It’s the song I believe in most. I wrote that song with an agenda in mind: I knew what I wanted to do, what I wanted to say. I just love it when it comes like that, when it literally falls out of me.”

Writing and performing aside, there are few things as exhilarating as a crowd of enthusiastic fans. The Bowery Ballroom crowd cheered and yelped at the end of every song, calling out requests (“Pacifier!” “Cocoon!”) over transitions between songs. “Our fan base is loyal and real,” McCann says appreciatively. “It grew literally from word of mouth, from people on the streets and people driving lorries to work, that kind of thing. It’s real. It’s definitely how we wanted to do it, the long way.”

As the Bottlemen wound down their set with the final guitar-heavy notes of “Tyrant”, a cheer erupted once more around the stage. The night was over, but for the Bottlemen, the show is just beginning.

Meghan Roos is a freelance music journalist currently based in New York City and pursuing a master’s degree in cultural reporting and criticism at New York University. In addition to PopMatters, her reviews and artist interviews have been published by Interview Magazine, Blues Rock Review, High Voltage Magazine, the San Diego Reader, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and 1146 Miles.

Splash photo: press photo of Catfish and the Bottlemen by Jon Stone.