“Nowadays a band does an album and then they forget who they are and go to Miami and party and all that kind of thing. We just want to be responsible with the songwriting.”
Since childhood, Catfish and the Bottlemen frontman Van McCann has approached songwriting with diligence and tact. Performing music since he was a teenager, McCann possessed an instinctual fascination for the type of rock and roll that is built on big, sweeping choruses and massive appeal. Released this past September, Catfish and the Bottlemen’s debut record, The Balcony, is decidedly heavy on both. Speaking to Pancakes and Whiskey in late February, McCann candidly revealed how Catfish’s recent success has been the result of years of hard work and unrelenting ambition.
“I wrote three songs a night, every night because me dad says to me one time, he was like, “If you’re going to go for music and the lot, try and take over.” The bands he brought me up on and the bands I grew up watching, they’re stadium bands and like champions of music, you know what I mean? Like proper Gods. So I was adamant, if a record label was going to come along. Because you know, we’re not from London. We couldn’t just go and get demos in and stuff like that, we didn’t know anybody in the music industry. So I was always like, “If somebody’s going to come find us and make a record, I want to be prepared for it.” So when the label came, I had three albums worth of material ready. And they were asking for five songs, this is like sending them hundreds of demos. So the first record is pretty much the first twenty I sent, random order…So just writing all the time.”
“We always wanted to be the best we could be. I don’t believe in talent, I don’t believe John Lennon was born with ‘Imagine’ inside him, you know? I think he had to write 2,000 songs to get to that song. And that’s my thing- I want us to be the best, I want people to have a band to believe in again and rely on.”
Categorizing his own work as “autobiographical,” McCann points to several groups whose sound and aesthetic directly shaped his songwriting, as well as the type of sound he hopes Catfish and the Bottlemen have grown to embody.
“I wanted our songwriting to have the consistency and positivity of the Strokes and the enormity and the life-affirming feel of Oasis, but with down to earth, everyday lyrics like the Streets. I want it to be life-affirming, positive stadium rock where lyrics are just sharp and straight to the point, you don’t mess about with it. If it’s like, “I love you,” it’s like, “I fucking love you.” Do you know what I mean? Like I really love you. It’s severe…I want it to be deadly.”
Although McCann is quick to acknowledge that he and bandmates Johnny Bond, Benji Blakeway and Bob Hall, have always thought of themselves as a live band, even going so far as to liken the accomplished group to “just like your local pub band.” And regardless of their new album’s success, playing shows and getting to see how the fans digest their music is the most treasured part of the entire experience.
“To be honest, I don’t get much off a song me self, until I play it live. Like for me, I never wanted to be a recording artist or anything like that. That to me was just a bonus. If I got a record deal and all that kind of stuff, that was just a bonus to me. My thing was playing live. My thing was throwing these parties, these raves and like gatherings of people like playing my tunes. And people, no matter what they’re into, no matter what they hate, what they love, what their religion is, what their race is, what their sex is, whatever, they’re all there because they’re vibing off this one thing I made. And that’s why it was always about stadiums to me…To get a hundred thousand people in one place, not fighting about nothing…everybody laughing, everybody throwing their arms in the air with their girlfriends on their shoulders and like, best mates wrapped around them, you know? Just having a big party- that was the whole thing.”
The singer-songwriter considers the band’s connection to their audience to be so important, that he personally invited fans to be loud with their opinions and ultimately dictate The Balcony’s track listing.
“When I write, I don’t see anything until I see everyone else going. So when we picked this album we played about thirty or forty songs through these little spurts all over England and I said to everybody, “Meet me at the back of the bar and tell me which songs you think are shit, which songs you think are good,” and used it to pick the album basically. We pretty much did that. So I’d go the back of the bar at the end of the night and people would be like, “Please don’t put that song on it, it’s garbage,” or like, “Please do,” and people telling me that it needs to be whatever. And people picked it for me- it’s all about the people doing it for us.”
Throughout the years, their bond with fans has become so sacred and enduring that the group chose to honor that connection with the inclusion of a very special track. When speaking about the recording of “Tyrants,” McCann reflected on the song’s long history and how it has played a significant role in the band’s story.
“The only reason it’s on the album is because it’s been the last song we played in our sets since we were fourteen, every night. And we did an EP when we were like fifteen, sixteen and that was the last song on the EP, and the album cover that we’ve got now was the artwork on that. So we said, “If we ever do an album, to say thank you to all the fans that stuck with us, we’ll always have that as the last song and we’ll have that as the artwork.”
When asked if the recorded version is the only version of the song, the twenty-three-year-old frontman humorously explained how the composition’s age and story angle had inevitably provoked him to make changes, saying, “It’s a little bit different. I rewrote all the lyrics so it sounded a bit more up to date because it was just about me going to me first house party as a kid…it’s a proper daft thing to write a song about.” Although as McCann explains, it was hearing himself perform the song that specifically compelled him to make changes.
“I remember putting me headphones on to sing it in the studio, and being like, cringing on it going, “Oh man, you sound like a fourteen-year-old boy.” So I had to rewrite the lyrics and tidy it up a bit.”
And while he usually writes music alone, he values his fellow musician’s opinions as much as he does his fans. Often looking to friends for feedback and critiques, McCann speaks highly of their unrelenting enthusiasm and support.
“I’ve done it before, wrote a few tunes with other people…I can only write with people I admire, if you know what I mean? Like people who I am in awe of. So it’s hard for me to do it if it’s just sitting down with somebody and we don’t really know each other. But I’ve got a friend who I absolutely love and his band just got back in England, and we’ve been best mates for ages. Me and him bounce songs off each other like every week.”
“And me best mate, he’s our guitar tech. He’s been me best mate since we were kids. We grew up together and learned how to do everything together and we’ve got a place together now in England. We just sit in the kitchen and I’ll just sit there and play him a song and I’ll go, “What did you think of this?” He’ll always say like, “The lyrics need to have a positive twist there,” or like, “It needs to go ‘POP!’ here, like an explosion.” He doesn’t always write songs, but he directs me in which way to take it. And you know, tells me, “I want to feel happier there in that middle eight.” And I kind of write everything with him.”
Meticulous and steadfast in his methods and approach, the one place where McCann’s focus is not, is the studio. Recording The Balcony over a two-week period with producer, Jim Abbiss, the musician admitted that his interest in the recording side of things is limited. Reiterating his passion for live performing, McCann said that, “It was always touring, so I don’t really care as long as I’m singing on it and they’re my lyrics and if the lads are happy. I don’t believe in all that kind of production stuff.” Although he was quick to acknowledge that Abbiss’ approach had an incredible effect on the completed record’s sound. Known for his work with the Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian and Adele, Abbiss’ absolute mastery of the studio had impressed McCann immediately.
“For me, I was just like, “Jim, run with it, mate- you’re the producer, I’m just the singer-songwriter, I don’t tell you how to do your job.” So he just came in and he sent me to dinner, and he played me some of the songs and I was just like, “Wow.” I was like, “Mate, this is class.”
Reflecting on the album’s mood and tone, McCann spoke about the group’s desire to expand their sound while honoring the energetic atmosphere of their first full-length record.
“And I don’t think it’s the best sounding record in the world, I think we can go bigger than that, I think it could be bigger. Bigger drums, stadium rock, lower, a bit sleazier. I think the next record is going to be a bit more soulful. But it’s a perfect debut album. It just sounds like we’re trying to break out or something. It sounds exciting and it feels raw. Everything, all my vocal takes are like from one take, all the drums done in one take. We didn’t mess about. We were just there and we were rehearsed and we were so tight and we were so hungry for it. I just think it sounds like an excited group of lads writing some heavy songs.”
And though The Balcony was released less than a year ago, McCann is already looking towards the future. Talking about writing songs for what will become the new album, the musician explained that where other writers might feel anxious when expected to create music on a time table, being signed to a label hasn’t made the process feel any less natural or more hurried than it always was. After stating that he “thrives,” off the pressure, McCann further articulated how it can actually be helpful to a project’s progression.
“I’m up to those challenges, I love all that stuff. It motivates me, it drives me when people push me. I’m not even supposed to start writing the second album until April, like the label put a time in for me to start writing. And I finished it all before I’d even finished this album.”
While he was quick to explain how it’s too early in the process to say much about the new music, his sheer excitement for the band’s next record was apparent almost immediately…something that he is sure to have in common with fans all over the world.
“I’ve not played it with the band yet, so I haven’t even learned it with the lads yet. So I don’t know how it’s going to sound. But in my head, it’s going to be big. Big-sounding, like proper something you can go absolutely crazy to at festivals…arms in the air, people on shoulders, people on their shoulders, people on their shoulders, like tiers of it. Massive choruses and just like…explosive. Just proper, straight-up, down-the-middle rock and roll music.”
The Balcony is available online and in stores now
Article by: Caitlin Phillips