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Interviews

Catfish and the Bottlemen Are the Potty-Mouthed Brits Who Want to Save Rock 'n' Roll

Their frontman once sent NME a naked selfie and said review this.

by Casey Lewis
10 October 2014, 5:50pm

Within a few minutes of meeting up with Van McCann, a 22-year-old kid with crooked teeth and a propensity for saying, "Fuckin' ace, mate!" at a bar in the Lower East Side, he looks me in the eye and says, "I want to be the biggest band in the world." And all I can do is nod my head.

The night before, he played at Baby's All Right, where heavily made-up girls dressed like Lana del Rey shouted his name and screamed every word to every one of his songs. Tonight, his band, Catfish and the Bottlemen, will perform in front of an industry-heavy crowd at Mercury Lounge before they embark on their first American tour with the hope of generating buzz before Communion drops their debut album next year. The Balcony, which was released in the UK last month, hit #10 on the charts and was the #1 selling album as far as physical copies go.

But even though they just spent the summer playing at festivals across the world and have fans getting the band name tattooed on their arms, the English media won't stop, to hear Van tell it, shitting all over them. Not since the Arctic Monkeys came along and released their debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, has another young, by-the-bootstrap British band recorded such unpolished, unapologetically earnest rock 'n’ roll record as Catfish and the Bottlemen. It's no coincidence that their debut was produced by Jim Abbiss, who worked on the Alex Turner-fronted band's first album. But even if they can't get any respect (The Guardian called them “daft” and lacking in elegance), the dudes are undeniably talented and their music—in all its potty-mouthed glory—is a force to be reckoned with.

(In fact, they were so good I couldn't not buy their band tee, which has their album art of a guy and a girl with their hands down each others' pants—a graphic that prompted my mother to ask me not to wear it in public, even though I'm way beyond the age that my mother can tell me what to wear.)

I caught up with Van ahead of his show over beers (mine, not his) and we talked about starting from the bottom, getting kicked out of high school for ditching class to play a gig, and aspiring to be bigger than a stadium band. (One thing these guys don’t is lack confidence.)

No pint for you?
I don't drink before shows. We try to blow everyone away, and once that's done, then we party.

That's very responsible of you. How did you guys meet?
I went to school with, Benji, our bass player. I've known him since I was five. I'd been looking for a drummer for ages. Our old drummer used to skip gigs to go to the cinema with his girlfriend. So I messaged our manager for a new drummer and he gave me Bob's address. I texted him and said, "Fancy a jam?" I punched his address into the satellite and he lived right across the road from me. And our guitar player, Bondy, is amazing. He's from Newcastle. We've been together for 8 years, but this year is when we finally got our shit together.

After doing this for so long, are you surprised things are taking off?
Without sounding arrogant, it feels more like, finally. We're working class kids, and we come from no money. The English press don't really like us. They like when bands do it the glamorous way. We played every venue in the country and we made it from one person to twenty people to fifty people to one hundred. And now we're playing to two-and-half thousand people in England. We've come from the bottom all the way up and they don't like that dirt under your fingernails storyline.

We've been a band for so long, and for six or seven years, we were shit. Everyone who said we were shit three years ago won't admit we're alright now. But it's good, because our fans are based on word-of-mouth. In England, we put our album out and it got #1 in the most physical albums bought in shops. It's all about people saying, "Come see this band."

When I was 14, I knew we could be something special. I think you can be anything you want in the world. You don't need money to get where you want to go as long as you have enough drive. I grew up on Stones Roses and Oasis, and they're from backgrounds where you have to work for it. We lived and slept in the van for three years, had no money to our names, and couldn't hold a girlfriend down because we'd always be touring. Now, to be over here playing in New York tonight and to have a bar full of people. That I've written sounds good enough to fly us across the world just blows my mind.

When did you start writing songs?
I used to write girls lyrics in primary school. Then, I picked up the guitar when I was 14 and started writing songs for the band.

Did you play shows when you were in school?
Yeah! I got kicked out of high school. I had an exam, but I had a gig in Sheffield, and I went to the gig. I used to always get in trouble in school, but I wasn't an idiot. My focus was on music. Half my teachers were like, "Go for it," and half were like, "You're never going to make it." Now they come to my gigs and I make them buy t-shirts as payback.

Were your classmates into the band?
Not at all. We were bad. We were really shit.

But you stuck with it anyway?
I grew up watching Muhammad Ali and he spoke like he was going to be the champion when he was a baby. I was always dreaming big. I just believed we could do anything we wanted to do. If I had said then—which I probably did—that we'd be playing in New York in a few years, they'd have gone, "Oh fuck that." I just believe in us. I know how good the lads are at playing music, I know I can write songs that resonate with people, and I know I care enough about people who come to see us. When our record label signed us, I had 300 songs ready. I had the next three albums written. People are getting tattoos of us in England. If we split up next week, I'll be fucking gutted. We need to be around for as long as we can be around.

How does it compare to perform in the U.S. vs the UK? The crowds here must be a little different than what you're used to playing in front of other there...
This feels like we're 16 again, when we used to play to pretty much no one. It's exciting in that the audience has got no expectations. In England, we play so many shows, and they know we can play live. It's exciting to try to own the crowd again.

What bands do you think get it right?
I like Alex Turner…I think he's the best lyricist maybe ever. I like the sound of Oasis. I like stadium bands. I like The Strokes. My favorite one is the Streets—do you know Mike Skinner? I like Van Morrison. I like The National's new album. It's amazing. The songs just build and build and build and then become massive. I like songs that make you feel euphoric, like you could take on the world.

Do you want to be a stadium band?
Bigger than a stadium. Stadiums are too small.

So…like, One Direction-level?
Nah, they're not big enough. We went to see Jay Z the other night in Central Park and after the gig, within seconds, I saw helicopters fly off. I dream about everything, so I go, "I want a fucking helicopter."

In England, it's so uncool to want to be a stadium band. You want to be underground. You want to be cool. To me, it's like wanting to be a soccer player or an American football player but feeling OK about being on a team that's tenth in the league. You want to be on the best team in the world, right? If I was a dustman, I'd want to be the best at picking up litter, you know? I just want to be the best I can be. I'm not scared to say I want to be the biggest band in the world.

Working with Jim Abbiss on your album is a good start. What was that like?
Amazing. He's amazing. When we recorded the album, we had nothing to our name, no credibility. I don't know anything about producing music. So I'd sit there being a dick on purpose, like "Man, I'm losing my identity, man." And he'd be like, "How many #1s do you have? Mate, I think I know what I'm doing."

The whole album was done in three weeks. I hate being in the studio. I get cabin fever. I went in, and just screamed it out. I wanted it to be really honest, and I wanted there to be fuck-ups on it. Jim's very good at making sure we sound like no one else. Or he probably tried, anyway, but we rip as many people as possible off. I've been trying to sound like The Strokes since I was 11.

Have you seen The Strokes perform?
I saw them at Governor's Ball, but I can't enjoy shows in the audience anymore. I want to be on stage. I want what he's got. But it's not about a cockshow thing. When we first started the band, people would look at us like we were dirt. We were scruffy and had no money and barely ate or slept. We looked rough as fuck. So if it comes to a point where one day I can actually afford a nice jacket, I'm going to buy it. People want heroes in America. They want you to succeed. But in England, if you start doing well, all people want to do is bring you down.

Do you enjoy touring? It seems to suit you.
You might as well stay in your bedroom if you don't want to be massive. I love doing press. It's fuckin' ace to talk about my music all day. I'm exhausted but you've got to do it if you want to be who you want to be.

I'm technically not supposed to ask about your album, since it's not out here, but what's your favorite song on there?
A song called "Cocoon." I wrote it in New York and it reminds me of feeling like the luckiest man in the world. A week before that, I didn't have a job, I had no money to my name. And then we got signed and I was in New York writing songs. It reminds me of feeling the best I've ever felt.

Also, a song called "Hourglass." I think it's a really honest love song. I can't really write them. I struggle with it. It's not a love song, like the Eagles would write that would be perfect for a film. It's perfect for everyday life, like real shit. It has loads of swearing in it. We get a lot of bad press in England because we swear in our songs. The Guardian said we were potty-mouthed but it's like, "Mate, we're 21-year-old lads. We swear."

When I tell my girlfriend I love her, I don't tell her that I like her a lot and I think she's as beautiful as the sky. I say, "I fucking love you so fucking much." That's just how I speak.

With the exception of BBC Radio, a lot of British media hasn't been especially kind to you. What's the deal?
So much of this bullshit goes on in England. I thought this only happened in Spinal Tap. They dress you, lie about your age, all that kind of thing.

Seriously?
For real, mate. Some bands are massive now in England, ones that have just blown up this year, are 25- or 26-year olds pretending to be 18. NME will say, "Go away, change your name, cut your hair, come back, and we'll put you on the cover." It's all money. Everyone's lost faith in them. They hate us. They asked us for a copy of our album so they could review it, because we got top 10 in England without any help. They've been slighting us for ages. So I sent them a picture of me naked and said, "Review this." They gave us a four out of ten. I think I got us four points.

Casey Lewis still has not taken off her Catfish and the Bottlemen tee—JK. She's on Twitter - @caseymlewis.