Interview by Cher Dunn
B3’s Cheryl Dunn recently sat down with Van McCann from Catfish and the Bottlemen before the band’s show at Milkboy in Philadelphia. The band has been touring non-stop for the past year and have no plans on slowing down, with the recent release of their brilliant debut album The Balcony. You cannot blame the band for not being able to keep the venue names straight. “Is the venue called Milkboy? That is weird…I like it!” McCann says. The show would be their second time in Philly this year after a great show at Underground Arts. McCann can’t keep the venue names straight, but his enthusiasm for the shows themselves cannot be underestimated. I spoke with McCann about their past year, meeting one of their heroes, maintaining their energy, his plans for the future, and sending nudes to NME.
The band had come from NYC and Van speaks fast and energetically about their gigs: “It was amazing! We did one gig in a place called “Baby’s Alright” and that was really cool. My first gig back takes me a while to get into so I didn’t enjoy it. Well, I enjoyed it but I felt like I could have done better. But the second night, Mercury Lounge, I felt like we really nailed it. I think everyone was really into it. In between songs it was pin drop quiet everyone was listening to what I had to say. I was just telling how I wrote the songs. People were genuinely interested and it was just a really cool vibe of people. Just people really passionately into the songs whilst we were playing them, then in-between the songs like ‘everyone quiet!'” he whispers, “Really cool. It was nice!” He continued, “It was kind of overwhelming for us. It sold out yesterday, the gig, we came over and we were thinking ‘We’d be lucky if there was 10 or 20 people there!’ cause in England you hear yourself on the radio so you kind of know how much you’re getting played and you know who’s writing about you and who isn’t writing about you, so you can kind of predict your trajectory. But, over here, ’cause we’d not heard anything since we left, we didn’t realize it was getting played on the radio. Didn’t realize people wanted to interview us. So when we came over and the gig sold out we were like “Whoa! That’s crazy!’ it’s good! It’s very good!” he emphasizes with a smile.
I had to bring up a special fan they met at their New York show. “As if I forgot about that! Ewan McGregor took us out for breakfast! It was surreal.” Ewan McGregor has been the face of the band since they released a montage of the actor for their lyric video for ‘Kathleen’. His face even illuminates from the bands drum kit at each show. Ewan McGregor saw the video and tweeted, “Don’t quite know what’s going on here but I’m flattered by @TheBottlemen Looking forward to your gig in NY!!” with a link to the video. The actor did not just go to the show, McCann beamed as he told me about their day with McGregor. “We walked into this cafe and I was like, ‘We’re meeting someone here,'” he recalls wryly. “And they were like, ‘You got a name?’, ‘Yeah…Ewan McGregor’ they pointed over to the corner and he kind of looks over the back of his chair at me, and I was like ‘Oh my God!’” I couldn’t help but smile at the sight of him beaming over the experience. He continued, “You know how in films where you don’t walk, you just get dragged together magnetically? I kind of just hovered over to him and it was like walking into a TV set and onto a film. It was unreal,” he emphasizes. “He was just smiling and looking at me and I was just melting…like ‘Oh my God, he’s gorgeous.” I could not be happier for another human being to meet their hero. Van McCann was illuminated with joy.
McGregor didn’t go to the show alone, McCann explains. “His daughter came to the show that night. She came with her friends and she is so nice. Somebody told me that he’s a really good dad. Someone told me that they knew his kids somehow and I was like ‘Oh, they might be a bit show business cause he’s a superstar and that, but she was so nice. So nice.” We discussed how there is nothing better than meeting people you look up to and having them be everything you wanted and more. “He was more than that! It just made me think- it was his aura. We were talking about it yesterday and we were saying I think [the reason he is] so good at what he does he’s got an aura. When we were sat with him it felt like ‘Oh, he’s not even acting in those films! He’s just naturally cool as fuck!'” He concludes, “It’s just one of those things that was just amazing. He took us to this shop, this clothes shop, and we got loads of smart gear and it was quality! Amazing morning. It was like ‘See you in a bit!'” I told Van how great it was that he just wished that into the world by putting him into their videos, on their drum, and just made that happen. Would he do that again with someone else? “No, I’m sticking with Ewan forever,” he says sternly before continuing. “He was so interested in what we had to say and he was so interesting with what he had to say. He was just a good, good guy. He was exactly what we thought he’d be and more.”
I couldn’t help but notice that McCann also seem to radiate the positivity he saw in McGregor. “Really? Stop it! Thank you very much. Thank you. I’m tired today as well [but] I imagine you caught me on a good day. We’d be laughing. We’d have bellyache!” he laughs, “But thank you!” McCann was a test-tube baby and vocal about this in his songs and interviews when explaining how he thought of their band name. I asked him to tell me the story. “Mum and Dad ran off to Australia together. Me mum found out when she was younger that she couldn’t have kids the proper way because she got ran over when she was younger. They ran off together to try to start a new life and they tried for an IVF baby, a test-tube baby, and despite doctors saying it was never going to happen they tried twice. They put all their money into it, they were working two jobs and on their final attempt, just when it was getting to much for them, they were like ‘Ok, we’re giving up after this go’ and then they had a go and the next minute I popped out like I scored a touchdown!” he exclaims.
His family then traveled around Australia for two years, which is where McCann recalls his first memory of music. “My first memory of music was seeing this busker play. He used to play a washing line with wine bottles on it like a drum kit and he was called ‘Catfish the Bottleman’ and I thought that was an apt thing to name a band,” he states. Although Van McCann does admit he regrets the name. “I wish I hadn’t named it that now, because when you are trying to tell drunk people, especially drunk American people what you’re band is called they’re like, ‘Catfish and the what?'”
After the release of their debut album, virtually everywhere but the US, I pressured Van McCann to tell me when we would be able to get our copy. According to him, I’m not working hard enough. “Everyone’s leaked it! It’ll be leaked. Go get it!” he says. I suggest I must be terrible at pirating music, but he tells me the New York fans must not be. “When we played in New York yesterday everyone [called out] ‘Oh my God, play ‘Hour Glass!’ and I was like ‘You shouldn’t know that song, it’s not out over here!’ so I think people have got it,” he says smiling. But for those of us who like the rush of buying the vinyl from our local record store, we’ll have to wait until January. “I think it’s going to be January. I think it will be January between the tenth and the twentieth, I reckon,” he informs me. We discuss the difference of release dates between countries and he says it is probably so they can cover more ground in the US before the album drops. McCann wonders how many people will be at the Philly show that night, but then admits, “If I came over here and there was one person coming to see us I would be like ‘Mate I’m in America. I’m 22. I wrote a song in my bedroom that was good enough to fly me across the world.’ I’d be happy playing to one person if they cared about it. You know what I mean?” The band played to a packed house of thrilled fans that night.
This year has been non-stop for the band. He tells me how sometimes they don’t even know where they are, might not get to eat at all before a show, and how hectic and tiring tour can be. But even with no sleep the band comes alive on stage. “When we go on stage, no matter how tired you are you get this burst.” He continues, “Our whole thing about being in a band is, we want to make people go away from our gigs thinking not necessarily about music, but going ‘That was one of the best nights I’ve had in my life.’ Turning to their mate, putting their arm around their mates and going ‘Mate, that was a class night. We had a good night.'” Even if the night continues for fans and they talk about the show later, McCann wants to give something to his fans live that resonates. Something that makes them “feel something inside them where it’s like ‘Mate that was powerful, I enjoyed that,'” he explains.
McCann explains how he admires America for their view of success. “It’s good over here in America because everyone is so into success. Like in England, the British culture is very much like…people do like to kick you when you’re down. If you are doing well for yourself they kind of like to go negative. Especially in this press. You never really see the english press talking about how good a band is. They only talk about how bad a band is. Whereas over here, they want heroes and triumph, and they’re like ‘you’ve got to support this band!'” He gives an example of their show in New York the night before. “Everyone [had] big smiles on their face. Everyone wanted it to be good and if we did the job yesterday, which we felt we did, then everyone went away from that gig like we wanted them to. Whereas in England they come with a cub on, a miserable face, so you have to spend your night trying to make them smile. So America is so…easy. That’s the only word I can think of. It’s like walking into a room and instead of someone looking you up and down, they hug you. I like it over here. It’s nice. Too hot though,” he adds.
We discussed the band hopefully playing SXSW next year, our love for the band Little Comets, and British Radio DJ Huw Stephens, who presents the British Music Embassy shows at Latitude 30. However, it took some convincing that actual fans go to the festival and it’s not just an industry festival “Full of Lawyers and Accountants clapping really slow” as McCann fears. I told him of my favorite set at SXSW with Little Comets, where not only did the room fill to the brim during their set, but the street became packed with people who stopped to watch their set after hearing the band as they walked by. McCann shares my enthusiasm and explains their relationship with the band. “Yes mate!” he says excitedly. “They are a good band. They are amazing. The thing with them is, they taught us so much because they have massive record companies chasing them. The labels wanted them to change who they were and be something they didn’t want to be, which is what they do to most bands really. You wouldn’t believe the amount of bands in England that are going around now lying about their age and being dressed by their management. But Little Comets are like ‘Nah, we’re doing it ourselves’ and they’ve built their whole reputation themselves.” He remembers first meeting them after being a fan. “Growing up listening to them, then meeting them and being mentored by them in a way…they taught us quite a lot. You do get a lot of stuff like that in the industry, like if people tell me to do something that’s slightly…” he gives an example, “like a deluxe album. We refused to do a deluxe album, because to me, in England you just do a deluxe album if you want to steal a couple more pound of a couple kids. You put like maybe, ‘oh here’s a demo version of a song, we’ll charge you five quid more for a nicer case’ you know what I mean?” He continues passionately, “I’m not doing that. I’d rather have them steal it than spend more money on just one song.” Their time with Little Comets made them stronger as a band, “They taught us to stay true to ourselves and do whatever we want to do.”
Van McCann tells me more about his experiences with press in England. “You know NME? They hate us in England. Which is fine! I don’t mind that. I think they need… I like it when magazines and bands don’t get on. It’s like, people used to hate Muhammad Ali but you’d still go pay to see him. I was raised on Muhammad Ali, so the way he used to think is the way I kind of think. I want to be the best. I’m not afraid of saying that we want to be the biggest thing on the planet. You get one chance in life and I’d rather go out full on giving it my all trying to be the biggest thing and the best thing we could possibly be than just be like, ‘oh yeah, we’re happy to stay a mediocre level and just stay in our bedrooms writing songs’ because that’s not the truth,” he says. Then, referencing their time in New York, he continued, “We watched Jay-Z and Beyonce in that Central Park gig the other day and they finished the gig and I had just seen two helicopters fly off straight after the gig. I was like, ‘I bet he’s just tucked [Blue Ivy] into bed, kissed her on the forehead and said ‘I’ll be back in an hour’, put a film on and he’s flown to the gig, gone off, went onstage, rapped, straight off back to his daughter’ and I was like, I want a helicopter. I think if you’re in a band and you don’t get to a stage where you can kiss your son goodnight and be back before he’s asleep…” he thinks then admits, “because my ultimate goal in life is to have a family. I love my family. My family is huge so the reason why I want to get the band as big as it can is because I want to be able to get a helicopter to my [future] son and bring him to the gigs.” He opens up about what it’s like to have of a significant other while on the road nonstop. “I haven’t seen my girlfriend in three months or something like that. I keep telling her I’m doing this so we can build a life together. That’s why I’m going to try to get it to be as big as it can be,” he continues honestly.
Van McCann digresses to his not-so-loving relationship with NME. “They [NME] hate us in England because they don’t like bands that come out and go ‘We want to be the biggest thing’. The album went top 10 without anyone’s help, we weren’t getting any media attention or anything like that. The album went top 10, so they had to review it, so them emailed us asking for a copy of the album to review it and I was like ‘nah, fuck that!’ they’ve hated us for so long…so I just sent them a picture of me naked and just said ‘review this!’,” he then states sadly, “They didn’t print it. I told them to print it but they wouldn’t.” Totally unfortunate. He continued, “Little Comets told us that anybody else would have probably gone, ‘oh! NME are interested now! Finally!’ and bent over for them, but we were like ‘no! if you don’t want to be on board don’t be onboard!’ let’s have it! To hell with them,” he continues smiling, “It’s all a good crack to me.”
McCann tells me about the album writing process and how the band not only tries to focus on building a wall of sound, but also makes the listener feel something. He explains, “I want to write music that doesn’t just sound good it feels good. I want to physically feel it.” He recalls a night they scrapped all their songs and thought, “Right, I want to write music like when a chorus comes in I want it to pin you to the back wall, like you feel like it’s literally hitting you in the face. I remember making everything feel big, feel huge… It’s just kind of what came out [from that].” He goes on to reference the UK press again, not being into guitar bands. “They hate us ’cause we’re old fashioned, we don’t use lap tops, synths and that kind of thing. We just play guitar music, just three guitars and drums and me singing. They don’t like that because they’re like, ‘Oh my God I heard that a million times,’ it’s hilarious. If you read the stuff in England, they’ve been saying for the last five years, all the English press were talking about ‘we need guitar bands back where are all the guitar bands hiding?’ then we come back and they say we’re out of date!” he smiles, before continuing, “They go, if this came out five years ago this would have been an amazing album. You know, if The Beatles brought Revolver out next month, you would still think, ‘This is an incredible album!’ Music can’t be dated if it’s good.”
Fans of Catfish and the Bottlemen can be assured the band has no intention of slowing down and every intention of making more great music. After finishing up their US tour this month with a slew of West Coast shows, they have about a day off back home before continuing their tour in the UK all the way through April. Even though the boys expect to be non-stop on the road for the next year, doesn’t mean we can expect a new album though. If it’s up to McCann they will release another next year. McCann tells me of his goal to write and release five new albums in the next few years. He explains, “I didn’t want to be a band that disappeared for years. I feel if anybody’s invested in our band or cares about our band as much as they do in England-like I was saying about physically going to shops and buying the album- then I want to be able to give them a band to listen to every single year. Imagine if we can give people five or six albums, which is rare for a band nowadays,” he says before continuing,
“That means they can grow up with us. If they are 17 years old and they grow up for the next ten years, by the time they are 27, we could have five or six albums out. I want to be one of those bands. I don’t want to be a band that disappears after a few months. So we are going to try our best not to.”
Catfish and the Bottlemen are currently touring the US and have made it to the West Coast. Tickets are also on sale for most of their UK dates. For tickets and more tour information, click here!
*ALSO – B3SCI’s Bruce Rave hung out backstage with the energetic Catfish and the Bottlemen leader Van McCann before the band’s LA debut at The Echo. The chat covered the band’s music, their ambitious goals, their super strong live shows, and of course the origins of this very unique band name. “The Balcony” is their first album and it’s US release will be January 6. Here’s a listen to their chat.