Catfish and The Bottlemen are Backing Up Big Ambitions
photos / Irma Ali
story / Erica Hawkins
The four lads from Wales have built their stadium-level ambitions in the sky and now they’re proving that’s where they should be.
It’s a cool October Wednesday in Atlanta, Georgia, a city known for its beleaguering heat. The respite from hot temps is more than welcome in the district called Little 5 Points, home of marijuana dispensaries, incomparable people watching, and a renovated World War II-era movie theater named Variety Playhouse. This is where fans, some arriving as early as the night before, queued to see British indie rock band Catfish and The Bottlemen.
The band, comprised of lead singer and guitarist, Van McCann, lead guitarist Johnny “Bondy” Bond, bassist Benji Blakeway, and drummer Bob Hall have been on their second US tour, selling out venues across the nation and doubling the capacity of their previous tour in support of their first album The Balcony.
This May, they released their sophomore album, The Ride, which, despite sometimes disparaging reviews from critics, debuted at #1 in the UK and top 10 in the US. This night marks their second time playing a sold out show in Atlanta.
Back stage before the show, in a room ornamented with local art, Bondy reflected on the out of ordinary reception the band has received in the capital of the self-proclaimed empire state of the south, saying, “We’ve only done two performances here, the sort of reception way out weighs the amount of times we spend here. Last time it was as if we’d played here for the last ten years or something.”
The band has evidently been on the receiving end of southern hospitality, Bondy added, “A lot of these towns, they’re all over the states, but in the south as well, like Atlanta, Austin, or Nashville they’re so musically oriented that when we can fill a room full of people who you know they live their life for music, they’re devoted music fans, that’s a real humbling thing to experience as well. You know that they know their music and they want to come spend their night watching you.”
Back home in the UK, the band is playing to massive crowds and headlining festivals. They’re also set to play their largest show to date later this month at London’s SSE Wembley. Even with those shows on the books, they still see the thrill in playing compact shows, especially when it comes to classic venues.
“At this size right at the minute we’re not really losing anything show wise, but then another advantage is getting to play some really unique beautiful old theaters. We did the Wiltern on this tour, we did Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, which has got so much history about it. We’re in a spot where, I mean look at the wall there, you can see.”
He stops mid-sentence and focuses his attention on a large wood art piece that hangs on the wall. It’s carved into the shape of Georgia with the names of musical acts scribed in black across the state. Van and Bondy start to rattle off note-worth acts excitedly. Among those listed are Elton John, Outkast, James Brown, and Ray Charles.
Bondy continues, “Getting to play in places with the likes of these. And in Kansas, The Midland Theater. Big beautiful ballrooms and theaters. It’s certainly big enough to put on the show you want to.”
Van shares Bondy’s sentiment on the perks of playing large and small shows, backing his words and animatedly acting out each thought, “It’s all good really, and I think it’s nice to be able to bounce between. We did an acoustic show in New York at McKittrick Hotel, just all stripped back on stools and little light bulbs. We like playing those shows acoustic because it’s a different side for the band again. So anything playing music live. I just love singing the words into the mic and everyone dancing, I love that. That’s my favorite bit.”
The first song of the night is “Homesick,” the first track off their first album. Watching them live, their propensity for the stage is evident. You can’t help but be susceptible to the energy in the room, it’s palpable even before they start. There’s a constant buzz in the pit, and the give and take between the fans and the band is contagious. You have no choice but to dance and sing back. It all feels natural, it’s also intentional. Van outlined the process of writing songs with the live set in mind:
“There’s a bit in ‘Soundcheck’ and I remember being in this rehearsal room and going ‘Everyone drop down here we’re doing this sort of buildup, can you feel it? Can you imagine this whole crowd in front of you dropping down low, and when Bondy’s solo picks up, everyone’s just going to go ape shit?’ And then when we played that live the first time in Glasgow, back home for a Scottish crowd, one of the wildest crowds anyway. It was like writing a theatrical show and then watching the actors play out with the crowd.”
“So then, as much as they’re watching us play it live we’re kind of watching them play live because in our heads were like we wrote this bit to make them do this let’s see if they’re gonna do it and when it drops, and they do it you’re like that’s class, that’s a great feeling. Everything was written how long people are going to sing, how wide their arms are going to be, how their hips are going to move,” relishes, Van.
Songs like “Cocoon”, “Kathleen”, and “Soundcheck,” are clear crowd pleasers, but to be honest every song goes off like a single, something that has apparently been happening since the band’s debut LP. Bondy recalled, “There was a staggered release with the first album, so the album tracks people shouldn’t of, on paper, known the words to them. It shouldn’t have been as well received as they were, but kids were looking online and finding lyric sheet videos and finding the lyrics. It just never felt like a dud track in the set.”
Even in a dud-less set, “7”, a number where the tempo builds up like a warning shot before luring you into a crawling chorus, is a standout. Van recalls it being one of the first songs from the second album that resonated with fans, saying, “Since that day really that we played ‘7’ live, that’s the one that people are singing as if it’s the first song they’ve ever heard of ours, like it’s the song that got them into the band. We keep saying it’s like fans of the band, they’re coming and they’re singing the next album as if to prove a point like, ‘keep going, keep going.”
There are no buried metaphors or flowery analogies in “7” just straight-forward lyrics about a relationship at the mercy of a seven-hour time zone difference. While elaborating on “7” being his current favorite, Van revealed, “overall I love playing that. Every night I’m like buzzing to play that one and it has been since we wrote it really.”
The audience seems to be buzzing to hear it as well, singing the chorus with their hands stretched outward towards the stage, their heads nodding back and forth in agreement. Van encourages them on: “I’d beg you but you know I’m never home / I’d love you but I need another year alone / I’ve tried to ignore it every time you phone/ But I never come close.”
Van’s vibrancy on stage made up of rowdy guitar play, punctuated by the wielding of the microphone stand, matches the aloofness contrasted with yearning portrayed in the song. This occurs simultaneously against interminable drumming by way of Bob all while Benji plays you deeper into the song, melodically and rhythmically. By the time the song reaches an obstinate guitar solo from Bondy, you may not realize it, but you’ve been singing and dancing all along.
Van acknowledged his natural inclination towards the live show, offering, “I’m most comfortable on the stage. When I’m not on stage, I kind of feel like I’m wasting my time because that’s what I love doing. I’d do it all day everyday if I could.”
When asked if there’s any anxiety to leave the road, Bondy explains, “There is still that element of anxiousness to get to the next stage, but it’s not necessarily the studio or get home, it’s like the plan that we already have ahead. We have some big dates back in England and then we’ve got some exciting radio shows here then we get to go to Australia. So it’s like, it’s still sometimes hard to keep your mind in the moment except when you are on stage, but yeah it’s definitely that anxiousness to keep pushing ahead and to keep getting to the next thing.”
For them, the live show embodies how music should be experienced, Van added, “We love going to watch bands live, and when I was a kid there’s no better night than going to see your favorite band sing your favorite songs with your favorite people.”
Since they view the stage as their main selling platform, it makes sense that they’d want to stay there as opposed to focusing on channels that don’t let their music take precedence over them as individuals. As Van puts it, everything goes back to the live show:
“When we write it’s to add songs to the setlist to make the live show better and bigger and make people keep wanting to come. We’ve always been a live band, always wanted to be a big live band, play live all year to as many people as you can around the place. For me recording has never been my forte it’s just like, glad we’re in the studio we got to record an album with a producer we love, and that’s just kind of a perk to it. For me, it’s just getting songs written and taking them on the road. We didn’t spend much time in the studio at all recording and banging our heads against the wall. It’s like let’s lay these down and go and take them around the world again. We’d rather sell it on stage and people say I’ve just seen that live now i want to buy the album as opposed to people hearing it on TV or whatever and be like go buy the album and see it live.”
Despite hitting the pavement hard and organically growing their large fanbase, they’ve never been critical darlings. They’ve often been chided in the press for their larger than life stadium ambitions, square-shooting lyrics, and mainstream success, but it hasn’t suppressed their enthusiasm. In fact, it’s pushed them closer to the type of fame they’d rather align with.
“It never got us down about the negative press. We just never really understood. We were just like, we’re just playing live, we’re not doing anything that they’re saying we’re trying to,” Van expressed.
Bondy picks up, “I think it helps you achieve what might be our favorite kind of fame, seeing other bands, is like a cult following which I know a lot of my favorite bands or a lot of favorite bands of both of ours, that’s kind of what you aspire to. You know that when you’re genuinely doing it for the love of music, you’re not doing it to walk into a supermarket and somebody go ‘oh that’s him’, you want to be famed for just playing music live and that upsets people. All they can say is I don’t like the music, they can’t say anything about you as a person or whatever because you haven’t stepped into that realm.”
Van called out the importance of fan opinion above anything else, saying, “We don’t ever say, review our album, say this about our album, they have taken that upon themselves to do that. I just always focus on the opinion of the people in front, because one person can say this and one person can say something else, someone can say something in this room, but if there’s 8,000 people or a disk on your wall that says a couple hundred thousand people adore it there’s no way you can argue with that because you’re making it for those people. So, it didn’t really alter anything. Like what Bondy’s saying, we’re just playing live that’s what we want to do, we don’t want to be known for being on TV shows all day, or sold out, or headlines. We want to be known for turning up, playing good, everyone going ‘They’re my favorite band at a festival,’ ‘That was my favorite night of the year.”
The same lack of credence for popular opinion is shared when asked about being chided for their stadium-level ambitions.
“I don’t think you should be able to put a cap on what you want to be. I just want to do this for as long as I can for as many as possible, so as big or as small as it gets or goes back down to as long as people are coming singing our songs, that’s enough for us.”
Bondy quips in, smiling, “Just makes for a bigger party doesn’t it, when people are there?”
Van continues, “It would be hard to say that anyone would sit down and go, no I don’t fancy The Hollywood Bowl, I don’t fancy that, that’s a bit too big for us, you know? I mean putting a cap on where you can go in life is a bit mad, with anything really. But yeah I definitely want to play, I want to play those big, Red Rocks, outdoor amphitheaters, love them,” he finishes, nodding and trailing off like he can already see them on stage in his head.
Bondy explains, that even with their grand goals, they’re still enjoying every aspect of the ride: “It’s not like an aspiration just for the sake of it cause that’s where we do want to head, but still, we came back earlier this year and played to like 100, 150 cap rooms in New York and Nashville and stuff like that, and sort of showcase that side of the band, which I guess is a more like garagey version. You know there’s merit in playing shows like that. They feel great.”
Van agrees, “As a band you feel like kids again. I always like being able to hold onto the poles on the roof and like walk around the crowd, and bumping into each other on stage again.
Bondy drove home the point, adding, “It’s not at a point where it’s like an empty aspiration, ‘we must just get bigger’, it’s still because it’s fun and that’s what we want to do.”
The same holds true when asked about not shying away from mentioning their influences. Van doesn’t carry a fear of being typecast as just another indie band, explaining:
“It’s not so much that we emulate, because I don’t think you can emulate really anyone because the voices are different and the players are different, all that kind of stuff you know. We just say who we like. We love American bands like [The] Killers, [The] Strokes, Kings of Leon, those kind of bands. People who are playing that kind of music don’t want to say it in case they get bucketed, but throw us in with those names.”
“The most influence we take from anything is right back to The [Rolling] Stones, The Beatles, and The Kinks. Their music videos are just standing there playing the songs, this is what we look like, this is what we sound like, no frills. They were relentless tourers and living in vans and like there was a spirit, a family spirit to it. Also we like the old fashioned way of doing things like my dad raised me massively on Van Morrison and the way he did it he shied away from all the pop singing but he’ll go back now and still play Royal Albert Hall and sell out a mad amount of tickets because he’s a class act now. He’s a classy act with a big repertoire. Bands like The National and stuff like that, the ones that just keep growing under the wing of their fans. We never shy away from anything, it’s just we’ve never been like shapeshifters where you can create an image or a persona, ours is just like four lads playing songs we like.”
Because of its superior acoustics and well-equipped sounds system, Variety Playhouse has been host to many live recordings. So when the spotlight fixated on an unbacked acoustic guitar carrying Van, the crowded theater was uncharacteristically silent for a moment, many of the fans well aware that the song “Hourglass” was about to begin. But, as he started to play, it was clear that the guitar was out of tune. So, instead, he took the microphone off the stand and walked closer to the edge of the stage, opening up his arms and singing along with the crowd (that hadn’t stopped singing, louder than him, since the now acapella version of the song started). He joined them in the bridge: “And I’m so impatient when you’re not mine/ I just want to catch up on all the lost times / And I’ll say I’m sorry if I sound sordid / Cause all I really ever want is you”
Towards the end, he mimes taking off the long gone guitar, generating laughter from the crowd that may literally reside in the theater, but figuratively rest in the palm of his hand. The song is finished in unison: “I wanna to carry all of your children / and I wanna to call them stupid shit.”
That moment captured so much of the charm of Catfish and The Bottlemen. Stripped down, there’s still a confidence, but not necessarily a cockiness. That self-assuredness by which they talk about their big ambitions and measure themselves against their predecessors is a consequence of the drive they have to make their aspirations a reality. It’s an ongoing honing of ability combined with a knowing that people exist that genuinely believe in every word they’re singing and every note they’re playing. They can have real moments like these because their fans have their back, and one day they may rest on that, but until then, they don’t plan on resting at all.
The band has been together for nine years now, and when asked what their plans are for the next nine, Bondy shared his thoughts on building up sustainable success: “Basically get it to a point where no matter what happens there’s a platform to go out and play live as long as we want to.”
Van summarized how the fan to band dynamic supports that platform: “You still see The [Rolling] Stones playing now, we still talk about those gigs saying you get to a point where your fans are just so invested. Because without them buying records there is no other record. So the fact that they took us to the second one then sold the second one so well, and put us straight on the third, just the idea of them being that invested, nothing can touch that between a band and their fans relationship. Just keep growing that. One thing I always speak to our manager about is, it’s all about lifelong fans. Not fans that like this song or like that song or are coming because it’s cool or whatever, but lifelong fans. The ones who are going to be like all the way, you know. All the way there, just invested in your band know all the words and all that stuff. It’s all about just building life long fans.”
Catfish and The Bottlemen are returning to the US this December with additional dates, view the full tour schedule at www.catfishandthebottlemen.com/live/