Catfish and the Bottlemen are the definition of a “do it yourself” band. Named after an Australian busker, the lads from Wales are finally starting to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Ryan “Van” McCann and his bandmates have earned every ounce of their success, playing in parking lots, sneaking burned CDs onto people’s windshields, and saying “yes” to every opportunity they’ve been offered. In 2014, their hard work finally paid off as their debut album, The Balcony, was released on Island/Communion Records, eventually being certified gold in the U.K. Now hard at work on their follow-up record, Van and guitarist Benjamin “Benji” Blakeway spoke with SF Weekly about sleeping in cars, David Letterman, and getting song ideas from your drunk dad.
Listening to The Balcony, the songs feel like they’re almost designed to be heard live in a crowd of rowdy fans. Do you write your songs with the live experience in mind?
Van: Totally, mate. That’s the only way to do it really.
Benji: The only way we know how and the only way we ever want to know how.
Van: I get cabin fever in the studio — we’re actually in the studio right now recording our next record — and I’m ducking the producer as much as I can. There’s a lot of ciggie breaks going on because I can’t be in the room, playing loads of takes. I want to be done quick, and out. Our first album was done in two and a half weeks straight off a U.K. tour where we were telling our fans to come meet us at the back of the room, saying, “Which songs do you like? Which songs don’t you like? Tell us what to put on the album.” Between the crowd that was coming to see us and our close friends and us, ourselves, we picked our album based on those shows — the touring.
We’d been touring for six or seven years already before we’d even gotten a deal. We knew where we were at, and we knew this was the kind of journey we wanted to take: to be a live band that goes on the road and sells their album to a crowd as opposed to being a hype band that gets that one big hit on the radio and next thing everybody knows you for your face or that one song. It was important to us to sell it on the ground first.
You’re playing The Fillmore in San Francisco [tonight] having already visited the city in February. With such a whirlwind touring schedule, do you ever get a chance to take the pulse of a city, go do something outside of the gig, or is it in and out and on to the next one?
Benji: For the most part, it’s in and out. But on that last February tour — because I’ve always wanted to go to San Francisco — me and Bob, our drummer, went all over the town. It was amazing. Most of the time you don’t really get a chance. You pull in, and by the time all the gear is loaded you’ve got to eat, and then you’ve got a soundcheck, and then you’ve got a show, and meet and greets or interviews, so you don’t really get to see the places that much.
Van: And then it’s straight on the bus and on to the next one. Our drummer though, Bob, he gets up every morning in every city we get into and he’s not needed until later because our drum tech sets up all his stuff and he doesn’t do interviews so he just gets off on his bike and rides up mountains and everything and sees the whole place. He’s turned into an adrenaline junkie. He’s a madman. Everywhere he goes he loves it. It’s quality. All the gigs have always been quality.
Benji: Everywhere we play in America is class. So good. Everywhere we pull into is completely different.
The Balcony will turn one in the U.K. next month. Do you have plans for your sophomore album, or are you still enjoying the ride from the debut?
Benji: We’re recording the next album now. Wow, it’s one?
Van: Yeah, we’re recording it now. There are very much plans for it. We’re going to get it out as quickly as possible. We are big fans of acts like the Arctic Monkeys, and I was a big fan of an act called the Streets, and they used to give the fans what they want. They used to give them records all the time, and the Arctics are still doing it. Hard hitting albums with good songs on it and good singles. But it’s been 10 years since anybody’s done that. We were watching their stadium show in Manchester one time, and that’s when were all kind of thinking about it, getting our thing going. It’s been so long since people have done that, especially a British band coming over to America to do it. So, we’re writing for that really. We’re making an album for that.
We want to come over and get loads of kids our age excited about a band again, and really give them content and release records every year with good songs on them; keep people buzzing, keep going to gigs, keep making new t-shirts that they want to go out and wear around America and all that kind of thing. We’re making an album to become a career band. This album – we’re all getting excited about it and we all need it. I want a house in America and Australia and England that need this album. We’re making an album to get this thing as big as it can possibly get.
You mentioned the Arctic Monkeys and Mike Skinner. Is there a band’s whose career path you look to as a blueprint for what you want for Catfish and the Bottlemen?
Benji: I’ve always liked Kings of Leon as a career band. They started off…not small, but they were by no means big, at least in the U.K. And then they just released album after album, with like 18 months or so between them. By the fourth album, they had “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire” and they were global, but they’d already built up a lot of dedicated fans in the five years before that. I feel like that’s quite a good group.
Van: They were very much like what we’re doing — take it as it came — in terms of the sound. They sounded like that for a reason. Their first album sounded novice, because they were, and it was so charming and endearing for that same reason. We very much sound like a pop band trying to escape a small town; it’s very much about being 16 to 21 and trying to get your thing going. The next album they were a bit more developed. Then the next album they were even more developed. That’s how we feel like we’re going. We’re also young and excited by it. Like I said, we want to make a career out of it, and the way they’ve done it is epic. They’ve climbed every step of the ladder. They slept in cars all the way to sleeping on private jets.
We’ve slept in cars for years, and vans, and all that kind of thing. We’re at the next step now, and it’s starting to become unbelievable in terms of how exciting and amazing it is. It’s the funniest thing in the world. You find yourself going to bed and waking up laughing your head off every day. The stuff you get to do, the stuff like magazines like yours taking the time to push your band. We never understood why bands don’t want to do interviews. We love it. We get to come out, have a little ciggie, get to speak to loads of mad people from different places and different backgrounds about our music. It’s quality. Kings of Leons, like Benji was saying, that’s a good shout. I can imagine the struggles and the joys, because we’re getting them now.
Benji: I bet you Kings of Leon, when they get to the end of their run, will be able to talk to their kids and go, “No matter what you do son, you’re never going to have it like the boys had it.” Do you know what I mean? They proper did it. They went out and did it.
Van, I know you’ve talked about not wanting to play songs that fans won’t know. As your in the studio now recording new music, are you planning to include any of these new tracks in your upcoming live shows?
Van: Well, we wanted to have a single out by the next U.K. tour so we could a new song but people would know it. I think because of the scheduling — our schedule is so tight — we’re here now recording but we’re going to try and come back, but we’d have to pull tours and everything. We already had to pull one show back home. We hated having to do it, but it would’ve meant we wouldn’t be able to start our album until next year. So we’re ready, the songs are ready — the album would be ready if we had the schedule for it, but we don’t, so we’re just going to have to dive into the tour. I think we’re just going to play some new songs, because we’re too excited by them. I feel like as soon as people hear them… I want people to know where we’re going with it.
We say a lot of things in interview, and we feel like we speak a lot of truths. We plan for the future, and we estimate for the future in interviews. We say what we think we can do and what we think we can be, and we owe it to the fans to come up with something epic. I don’t think there will be anything on the U.S. tour, because we’re still getting it together in the studio really. I think we’ll do some on the U.K. tour, and the next time we come back to the U.S., we’ll have some new songs. I think something will be released by the next time we come back. The next time we do a proper tour in the US, we’ll have a single out. I know the fans that like us now are going to buzz off it, because—
Benji: —we’re buzzing off it more than anything we’ve ever done.
Van: There’s no word invented for how excited and confident and proud we are of what we’re about to release. People who are invested in this band are going to get what they signed up for. That’s what I was trying to say before; that’s the kind of band we want to be. If you take us to stadiums, trust me, you’ll get your money’s worth. We have a laugh and we find this whole thing hilarious, but in terms of the band going places, we take it very seriously. We want to be up there with the greats. We want to make people feel the way the Chili Peppers do or Oasis did or the Foo Fighters are doing now. They’re not necessarily bands that I’m into, but you can’t argue with these people, do you know what I mean? They’re unbelievably big. That’s the kind of music you put on when you’re feeling really fucking down. When you’re at your lowest, they can make you feel your highest, and when you’re at your highest, they can make you feel even higher. Proper blow your head off kind of music. This next album, we want people to go, “Christ these guys have blown up. This isn’t a pub band anymore. This is going to get epic.” It’s about putting on a big show for people.
Speaking of big shows, at Glastonbury earlier this year, a fan threw a demo CD on stage and Van, you promised you’d listen to it. Does that speak to Catfish and the Bottlemen being the kind of band you wish you’d been able to throw a demo CD to when you were playing in parking lots?
Van: There were a few that did that. That’s why I took it, because I know how it feels because I was doing that. We were throwing demos at stages all the way up. In fact, we went on tour with The Kooks in Australia — they’d played in our hometown, and I threw a demo from the back of the room and it hit the bass player right in the face. When I saw him on tour I told him about it, and he said he took it. He probably never listened to it. We did have a few bands who took our CDs; there were a few people. Do you know the band Frightened Bands? They took one of our CDs. Carl Barat of The Libertines played our CD in a few nightclubs in Germany. We snuck in and gave him a CD once. We used to do all those kinds of things. Bands will come out and say, “All of this just happened to us. We just put our songs on the internet and it exploded. We didn’t mean for this.” That’s just their way of saying — when it all goes tits up — I’m out. I’m off.
We very much wanted to get a record deal, and we very much wanted to sell out venues, and sell albums. We very much wanted to do this. I used to sneak into record companies and pretend I had meetings with them. I learned their names off their websites, and I’d go in and say, “I’ve got a meeting with Mark at 2.” They’d say “Alright, Mark’s just busy. He’s in with somebody.” Then like someone from The Cribs would come out and walk past me from a meeting and I’d walk in and panic and throw a demo at him and say “there you go mate” and run off. When we’d get stuck in traffic, we used to get out and go all up and down the freeway to all the cars and give CDs to everyone. We used to do all that kind of stuff. Nobody was coming to find us. The music scene back home these days is very oriented around the south — London. London owns the music scene and especially for lads who aren’t trained in media, it’s very hard for a band like us to come through because it’s such a crazy world nowadays. We get in loads of trouble for stuff we didn’t mean to say. It’s just all mental. The ethos for our band was never wait for doors to be opened. It was bang down doors, because no one is coming to us so we have to go out and get them.
Earlier this month, you got to play “Cocoon” on Conan. Coming from the U.K., is playing on the U.S. late-night talk show circuit something you dream of doing? For a lot of U.S. bands, getting to play Saturday Night Live is like the pinnacle of success.
Benji: Definitely, yeah. We grew up watching videos of The Strokes playing on Letterman and stuff. Letterman turned out to be our TV debut pretty much. That’s huge to us. It was a bit surreal. We’ve seen so many videos on Youtube of bands playing his show, and to be able to do that before we’d done anything similar at home — Jools Holland and everything — was such an amazing opportunity.
Van: If you see our Letterman performance, if you watch it back, I walk over to our guitar player Bondy because I caught a little glimpse of us in the cameras, on a TV screen, and I walk over to him and I’m like, “Hey, we look like The Strokes! It’s quality!” We very much Youtube all those Letterman shows, because Letterman is who you used to turn to check out a live band here in the U.K. Letterman was a good representation, I feel, of the band. There always a good sound. The band always looked smart. If you were going to sell a band to somebody, Letterman was a cool way to do it. We when played Conan, we stole off in one the golf buggies and drove it around Warner Brothers studios. We’d seen Mark Wahlberg when we came in, so got on one of the little golf carts and drove it around with all the traffic. It was class.
You’ve mentioned your set at the Reading Festival in 2013 as a turning point for the band. Do you think the festival culture is beneficial to up and coming bands?
Van: How do you mean? In what way?
Do you think it’s a way for people to find new bands that they otherwise wouldn’t, or is it detrimental compared to the old model of playing smaller club shows where people can actually get a full dose of a new band’s brand of music? I feel like sometimes a small stage surrounded by food tents at 1 p.m. at an outdoor venue for 60,000 people isn’t the best way to get your first taste of someone.
Benji: I don’t think it is the best way. I think it’s actually more beneficial to the band than to any fan. We’ve played festivals up from five people in a small field, so we’ve been doing it for eight years. We’ve been doing these small festivals and these early spots, and it gives you the experience, so now when you do Glastonbury or Reading and Leeds, we’re already used to it and there’s no fear, just excitement. It’s just another show now. There are sound issues and stuff, so I don’t think it’s the best place to find a new band, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
Van: I think it depends on what kind of band you are as well. Back at home, we’re about to play Reading and Leeds for what, 20,00 people? Last year, it was 6,000 or 7,000. The year before that it was like 300 people. So in two years, we’ve gone from 300 to 20,000. That first 300-person show, I broke like three strings in five songs, and we had to grasp how to dig a little deeper for that set. Every step of the way, you’ve just got to learn how to dig a little deeper. If was watching a son grow up, first you see him as a baby, then you see him walk, then you see him grow, get a girlfriend, do all that type of stuff and go on to be whomever he’s eventually going to become. Imagine if we one day headline that festival. We’ve watched that baby grow, from the ground all the way up. If they have us back, we intend on doing it every year, every step of the ladder. What’s next? Main stage.
Benji: Probably, yeah.
Van: I think that’s the next stage for Reading and Leeds. Imagine the fans who go every year being able to go, “I went every year right up until this” and we meet them outside a gig and they can tell that story to us. There’s band from back home called Broken Hands that are good friends of ours. They dress the whole venue up in silver tinfoil, so it feels like you’re in a plane when you get there because all their songs are about trajectory and flight and turbulence. When they turn up to a festival, they’re just four lads, so it doesn’t create the imagery they’re going for. We’re a pub band — we’re used to playing on carpets with white walls while people are having their dinner and having a beer. We’ve played beer gardens and hotels and car parks — we play everything. So I think it does depend on the band. If you’re a fancy band, and you’re trying to create more than music, like you’re trying to create some kind of aesthetic with imagery — which is good when you get it right — then it’s hard to do that, but with a band like us, we’re just there to write song to get people to put their arms up in the air.
Van, you listed “my mum and dad when they’re drunk” and “Ewan McGregor in Big Fish” as a few of your non-music influences. Do you watch your parents tipping a few back or see a Ewan McGregor movie and think, “there’s a song in this?”
Van: Oh yeah, mate. It’s hilarious. My dad will say something drunk that’s brilliant and I’ll go, “Right, I’m taking that for a chorus.” And he might say something after that’s terrible, the worst line you’ve ever heard, and he’ll be like, “You have to put that in a song.” He always says that when he’s drunk. I write conversational songs. My songs are about real things. We’ve got a song called “Pacifer” on [The Balcony] that’s an argument between me and one of my friends. That’s just a straight-up argument, so when I scream “She said, ‘Oh please you’re obsessed’ “ on the song, that’s what she shouted at me across the room. I’m not an artist in any way. I don’t believe in people who say their artists. You’re just writing songs. It doesn’t come from a godly place. You’re either trying to write songs because you want to get rich, or you’re trying to write songs because there’s something you want to say. Those are the only two reasons anyone would write a song and release it. At the moment I’m still writing songs about real people and real experiences. Conversational stuff, my dad drunk stuff. There are songs about me and him — me and him fighting, and I can just change it to be a girl and make it a ballad. So I can create a song about me and him rowing and then change it to be about a girl and then it becomes relatable, and then you can tell the girl you’re with that it’s about her, and maybe she’ll keep you another two months.
People like to talk about your haircuts and your choice of black-colored attire, but are those things you give much thought to? Do you think a band’s image is important to being successful in rock and roll these days?
Van: Nowadays, it is important that bands look a certain way to sell, if they’re that kind of band. Like I was saying about those bands who needs venues to do their thing because their whole thing is aesthetic — there’s so much going on. We’re not that kind of band, so with our thing, we just try to look like everyone we think is cool I guess. To me, Jim Morrison could front any band ever. The way he looks, I feel, is the ultimate frontman. I’ve always wanted to be the frontman, I’ve always wanted to be the lead singer, and I’ve always wanted to be the lyricist. We like our hair longer, but we don’t really think about it.
Benji: No, we don’t really. We like to keep everything simple, from our clothes to our songs. Even down to the artwork, it’s just like a matte, it’s all similar themes and it’s all very simple.
Van: Everything is about the songs. Us wearing black was just a traditional Johnny Cash thing. We just looked right in it. We turned up together one day, and we just never stopped turning up that way. I definitely try to look sharp, especially nowadays. Before we were just wearing the same clothes every night because we were living in a van, but nowadays, with things getting a bit bigger, I feel like we’ve got to look sharper. My mom is always saying to me, “You look so scruffy on TV. You look like you don’t even have a shave or nothing.” I’m like, “Mom, I’m in band! We’re not supposed to!” So I definitely try to look sharp, but it’s not for anyone else. It’s for me and the lads. All the lads look cool every day. Evey day Bondy shows up he’s got a quality shirt on. Even when Benji showed up for football he looked like a rock star, and I used to go in with green Brazilian football shirts and a ponytail and my dad would be like, “You’re not a proper rock star. Benji looks like a proper rock star.”
Catfish and the Bottlemen play the Fillmore on Wednesday, September 30. Tickets are available at Live Nation.