Musicians have long been divided into those so blessed with the superstar gene that they can’t possibly be human, and those ordinary enough to make you believe that you could do it too. With a second album on the way and a gold disc and a new BRIT award on his shelf, Van McCann of Catfish and the Bottlemen still seems like someone who has won a competition to become a rock star. His evident glee at every aspect of his day job is infectious. He even claims to have enjoyed our interview.
“I love doing all the stuff we do,” he tells me. “It’s three hours sleep a night, get back up in the morning. All that I do is hear music, study it and listen. Your goal in life is just to get as many people as possible into one room to shout words at you as loud as they can.”
That goal is working out very nicely right now. A series of warm-up gigs this month in relatively small spaces, building up to the arrival of his band’s second album in May, will lead to an outdoor show for 8,000 people in Manchester’s Castlefield Bowl this summer. For this band, it’s all about the gigs. “Winning awards, getting high in the chart, playing on Letterman, they’re the perks. I don’t get a real buzz off anything more than a gig though. And even more than playing, the best feeling is when a gig sells out. When you know that, for instance, 8,000 people have got up at nine in the morning to anticipate a Saturday in July in Castlefield with us. In my head I almost see 8,000 people sitting there, looking at their watches. I used to do that for the Arctics, and people are doing that for us now!”
Now 23, he remembers all too easily what it was like to be a young fan hungry for live music, travelling to Liverpool from his home in Llandudno for gigs and being pathetically grateful when bands such as The Kooks and Stereophonics bothered coming to Llandudno’s Venue Cymru. When he talks about The Beatles or Oasis in conversation, as he often does, he refers to “John and Paul” and “Noel”. It’s not with the familiarity of someone who moves in celebrity circles but the imagined intimacy of a music obsessive.
We meet in the Bottlemen’s management company’s office, decorated with posters and platinum discs for their better known clients Oasis and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. McCann clearly loves the association. The new album, The Ride, was produced in the LA home of Dave Sardy, who also worked on the last two Oasis albums and Noel’s first solo album. “It’s like playing at Old Trafford if you grew up kicking a ball against the wall,” says the singer. The Ride has a punchier sound than its predecessor, The Balcony, declining to experiment but nevertheless sounding bolder and more ambitious as the indie rock anthems pile up.
“His house was a paradise, full of synths and guitars,” adds guitarist Johnny “Bondy” Bond. He’s 26 and from Newcastle, joining in 2014 to propel the rise of a band that had been notable for little more than their silly name since they formed as young schoolboys in 2007. Bassist Benji Blakeway and drummer Bob Hall complete the quartet. Bond is dryly funny when he can get a word in, and keen to demonstrate encyclopedic music knowledge.
“When Bondy comes into the dressing room, the music goes on and it stays on ‘til we’re on stage, so the party starts at one in the afternoon,” says McCann.
“It’s weird how quickly the days go by and it diesn’t get repetetive or monotonous,” says Bond. “We turn up at a venue, put music on and hours just fly by.” McCann cites “The Killers, Strokes, Oasis, ‘phonics, Kooks” as dressing room favourites on which the whole band can agree. “A lot of people don’t talk about those bands any more as it’s not the scene, I guess, but I love them.”
McCann seems aware that his band might not be fashionable, and as with the Gallaghers, suggests you should probably look elsewhere if you enjoy the sound of new ground being broken. “I call people like David Bowie and Lady Gaga ‘artists’. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but I am not one.”
Instead, he’s done well by positioning the Bottlemen as plucky outsiders who’ve risen the old fashioned way, playing gig after gig to disinterested handfuls and getting better and more appealing all the time. Few would have expected them to win the British Breakthrough award at this year’s BRITs against Years & Years and James Bay with their number one albums, or Jess Glynne with her number one album and five number one singles, but that prize was voted for by the public and the Bottlemen’s bunch is fearsomely dedicated. “It was a mad feeling,” he says. “We pop up and everyone’s like, ‘Who are these little scruffs at the BRITs?’ We didn’t even know you were supposed to wear a suit. We’d come straight out of rehearsals.”
Unlike some newly successful bands, they haven’t moved down to London, haven’t blown all their money on luxury goods. McCann stays in an AirBNB when he needs one, and says he wrote the new album in a rented cottage in Chester. “I had insomnia. I just sat on my washing machine smoking and wrote all these songs.” His parents are between homes too, having sold the family B&B when too many fanatical fans started visiting. “People from Japan would come over and my dad would give them my clothes.”
So in one way, he has concrete evidence that his band has become a big deal, but in another, he’s retained a childlike naivety that makes him delightful company. “It’s like, when I was a kid playing football, you’d run down the wing and shout, ‘Giggsy!’ when you kicked it. I have that feeling now, if I’m holding an Epiphone, I’ll be like, ‘Wahey! I’ve got Lennon’s guitar on!’ The boy in you comes out.”
But he’s careful to draw a distinction between the upbeat lad enjoying his career choice and a lucky chancer. This was all planned, he insists. “I don’t think we’ve ever been caught saying we can’t believe it. It’s never unbelievable. Have you seen The Commitments, where the manager sits in the bath pretending he’s doing interviews? I’ve done all this stuff in my head already.”
And that goes right down to the album artwork, which on both albums is a white image on a black background, with the band logo in the left corner. McCann says that all the Catfish and the Bottlemen albums will have a similar image, 11 songs and a two word title that starts with “The”.
“We like keeping it simple. It’ll be 11 songs as quick as we can, every time. People will look back when we’re five albums deep and say, ‘At the time I thought he was chatting shit but he was right. He did have all this planned.’”
Next on the checklist: a number one album and outdoor shows where “you’re deciding your own capacity, as big as the burger vans go back”. Don’t doubt that this energetic underdog has already worked out exactly how to get there.
The Ride is released on May 27 on Island. Catfish and the Bottlemen play April 11, O2 Forum Kentish Town, NW5 (0844 847 2405, o2forumkentishtown.co.uk)