Scruffy love songs from a test tube baby

Llandudno-based group, touring pros and headliners of BBC Radio 1’s Introducing Stage in Glasgow this year, Catfish and the Bottlemen are going from strength to strength. I caught up with frontman Van McCann when the band graced the O2 to chat tour, school and musical friendships.

“Best tour yet by a mile,” exclaimed Catfish’s Facebook post in May. Doubtless, their (almost) 20,000 Facebook fans would likely agree. With multiple gigs sold clean out across the country, and their latest single debuted by Zane Lowe, May has definitely been a manic month for the quartet. “We played in Birmingham – it was nuts. It was our first real headline gig in Birmingham since about a year ago. We sold 30 tickets then, but [this show] completely sold out. Everyone went crazy.”

A similar story surrounds their Derby gig. “We played that when we were kids and no one used to come see us. Now, it’s sold out.” Oxford, too, holds a special place in McCann’s heart. “The people who have us here are dead sound,” McCann laughs, remembering antics of his last encounter with the city of dreaming spires. “We were supposed to leave at 10pm, but we left at ten in the morning. We were just having a party in the dressing room. It was crazy.” This popular future looks likely for the band: “We’re doing a 500-odd capacity venue, and that sold out two months in advance.”

The band have definitely earned whatever success comes their way. “We’ve toured for so long that it just feels good to get a fan base. We’re just all on a high, very much so.” Not every up-and-coming artist is able to boast a fan base quite as impressive as Catfish: Carl Barât (of The Libertines), The Vaccines and Zane Lowe are all avid supporters and friends of the lads. Despite nabbing ‘Hottest Record’ last year, McCann admits he wasn’t entirely sure what it was about. “That’s an odd one, because I’ve never listened to radio before in my life. I didn’t know people still did, but Bob [Hall, drummer] does. When we got that he was going crazy.”

McCann’s ambitions are much more specific: “If we get on FIFA, that’ll be… wow.” This follows an unusual experience the group shared one night: “The thing that hit me most was we were watching the Champions League one night, and we came on soundtracking the highlights of the United game.”

Catfish and the Bottlemen’s new friendship with The Vaccines stemmed from a far more humorous tale. The two bands were playing over the road from each other in Cardiff (The Vaccines supporting Arctic Monkeys). “We went across the road dressed how we dress.” Here, McCann gestures to his black, leather ensemble – suitably rock. “We just went over and were like ‘We’re The Vaccines, we’ve left our passes inside!’ Security let us through, so we went to the backdoor, and The Vaccines were there. We got talking.”

After seeing Catfish’s set after their own show and enjoying it, the two bands clicked. So much so that McCann and Vaccine’s frontman Justin Hayward-Young spent time writing together in New York at the start of the year. A similar drive to get their music heard brought about their contact with The Libertines’ Barât. “We met Carl in the Czech Republic, we had a gig there… no, Austria! We met Carl in Austria! Weird.”

McCann’s confusion demonstrates just how far Catfish’s music has taken them. “We had a gig in a club, just gave him a vinyl and he played it, liked it, so he invited us to play in London with him. We played [the Barfly] with him. We’ve met him in a few places: bumped into him in Germany, where he was DJing. Just from doing the circuit, really.”

It certainly hasn’t been an easy process to get this far, however, and the band have made sacrifices along the way. McCann, who helped form the group at the tender age of 14, experienced the hard edge of this when he dropped out of school. “I got kicked out. I wasn’t a shit or anything; I was polite to teachers. I was like anybody,” the Cheshire-born singer explained. Instead, it was Catfish: “I used to tour when I was 14, 15. So I used to go to Sheffield on like a Tuesday night, get home at five, then get up at eight again to go to school. I just fell behind. I got a letter saying ‘don’t come back’ after I went away to record for a week.” Old teachers of the lads, who grew up around each other back in Wales, now frequently see them on stage. “You just couldn’t do the two things. I miss going to school,” McCann admitted, before uttering wise words that sum up both his and Catfish’s ethos: “I just think if you’re gonna go for something, you’ve just got to fully go for it.”

McCann’s real life inspirations form the basis of some interesting songs. “My mum and dad running off together – there’s a song about that.” Somewhat uniquely, McCann’s conception also gains a song. “I was a test tube baby. My mum got run over when she was a little kid, so she couldn’t have babies. The doctor was like: ‘No way, not even IVF’. But my dad was persistent. They tried twice, and used all their money up. The third time they were like: ‘We can’t do this anymore – it’s torture’. But that time, I worked!”

Other songs follow slightly more common tales. “Songs about being in love but not being able to afford to go visit the girl you love, long distance relationships, missing people from home and the provincial town mentality (knowing everyone’s business). Just scruffy love songs really.” Again, McCann’s down to earth and realistic approach is seen as he writes, influencing the entire lyrical choice. “I never write lyrics down,” he confessed. “I think, if I don’t remember it in the morning, no one else is going to remember it.”

This has driven the band’s recent recording of their official debut album. Despite having demos of 80 songs, accumulated over the past few years, the band have managed to wittle down a select few that will grace shelves toward the end of the year. “I’m really proud of it,” McCann repeated, a smile on his face. “We wrote a ballad, which we’ve never been able to do before!”

Following a trip over the Atlantic, Catfish are returning to embrace the festival scene. As always with the band, half-hearted is not enough – the boys lay claim to the most festival dates of a band in the UK this summer (so their agent says), playing over 30. This has already started, with Leeds, Reading, T in the Park and Latitude numbering among the locations where fans can catch them. However, it’s the smaller Tramlines Festival, Sheffield’s finest, that the band emotionally connect with most. “It was the first to take us in as a band. When we were kids, starting out, Sheffield started to sell out.”

After an album launch and another tour, McCann’s hoping to record again. “I’ll go away and write the rest of the second album. Then, go have a baby, have a couple years with the baby. Make him a man – or her. Make her a man. Then, come back [to music], go have another baby, then go solo,” McCann jested. “’Cause, you know, I think the others are gonna go bald.”