Skint for eight of ’em: the rise of Catfish & The Bottlemen

On the north coast of Wales is found the picturesque seaside town of Llandudno. With a population barely exceeding 20,000, and an abundance of resort hotels, it is hardly an ideal location to start a band. Nevertheless, Catfish & The Bottlemen, whose brand of brash and lively rock has seen them garner significant attention and acclaim in 2014, hail from this very town.

‘The thing was, we didn’t want to make a name for ourselves there,’ explains singer and (reluctant) guitarist Van McCann. ‘The last thing you want there is loud music; it’s like the most peaceful place in the world. We had nowhere to play, and people don’t like our music. They’re into dance music if they’re young, and everyone else is still into Roy Orbison.’

McCann is speaking to me from outside a London hotel. He talks quickly, with fervour and zeal, explaining how the band were forced to look elsewhere for opportunities.

‘It’s a great place to come home to, but we had to make our name everywhere else. Places like Manchester and Sheffield have taken us in as home. We just see ourselves as [having] been on tour our whole lives. Home has been on the road; we don’t feel like we’re from anywhere.’

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Catfish & The Bottlemen is their self-proclaimed mediocrity. ‘We know we’re nothing special,’ admits McCann. ‘We think inside the box. There’s loads of better looking bands and better musicians than us. They rule the British music industry, and we came out – dead scruffy and looking like Austin Powers – and we just wrote songs the way everyone expects them to write. I think people forget that there’s kids sat there going, Oasis are gone now; where’s our band? I think we just made music that was dead simple, and [has] honest lyrics, and I think I just scream ’em with passion and people go, you know what, he talks sense; he’s not trying to be something he’s not.’

But success has been a long time coming for the band. ‘Well we’ve been together for eight years now, and we’ve been grasping for it. We’ve been living in the van for seven of ’em, we’ve been rubbish for six of ’em, and we’ve been skint for… eight of ’em.’

It’s an honest assessment from an honest young man, whose frank and outspoken nature is evident in his songwriting. Indeed, he lists The Streets, Van Morrison (after whom he is named) and The National among his inspirations. ‘I’m really into lyrics, and really good singers. I’m a singer. I don’t even like playing guitar, I just do it ’cause I don’t know anyone else who’ll do it for me. To me, it’s about words and melody, and it’s about hitting people there.’

Apparently Australians understand. ‘You guys get me!’ he exclaims. ‘You’re just like, he’s 22, he’s singing about swearing and drinking and being in a small town and falling in love – and out of love – and falling out with best mates and all that sort of stuff. In England I get loads of stick for it.’

Perhaps that Australian sensibility was forged in the early years of McCann’s life. ‘[My parents] took me over there when I was a baby. We toured around for like two years in the back of a car, just seeing everywhere with no agenda, and Mum and Dad just working wherever they could find work. It was class. So for me, I always said to the record label, how do we break Australia? I’ve never met a band who’s come back from Australia and said they’ve had success there. I’ve only met people who’ve broken America. I want to come back and tell my dad about Australia and tell him that we sold out theatres over there, and that the place he took me ’round as a baby – the cities – I’m going back to those places now as a man, or a young lad, and selling them out. I’d love to be able to tell my dad that.’

Catfish & The Bottlemen’s first tour of Australia is less than a week away. The band are supporting The Kooks on a run of shows, which for McCann is ‘massive’. One of the driving forces behind their imminent visit is the support of radio DJ Zane Lowe, without whom the band would almost certainly not have garnered the attention that they have. I quizzed Van about the relevance of radio in today’s technological landscape.

‘Well, to be honest, when I was a kid I never listened to the radio; I was always out playing football with my mates. I didn’t think it meant anything. When we got played on the radio… I didn’t realise what it did. It’s mad; it goes out to so many people. In England, [BBC] Radio One have stages at festivals, they bring bands up the ranks… It’s like being a soccer player; they take you in as a youth player and train you up and make you better.’

Catfish & The Bottlemen are certainly an exponent of that system, but it hasn’t altered their youthful outlook and inimitable enthusiasm. ‘We just love being in this band. We just love it; that’s why we’re so driven. Imagine being told as a 22-year-old lad that your band’s getting flown to Australia to support a band in an arena where there’s loads of mad Australians with all their beautiful women.’

‘You’re living the dream,’ I told him. He wholeheartedly agreed.


Catfish & The Bottlemen are supporting The Kooks on the following dates: