Stealing time out from a promotional photo shoot, Van McCann glances out into an unforgiving English North Sea, battling the coastal breeze to light a cigarette. In a few, short weeks and 10,000 miles from here, the singer and songwriter of Catfish and The Bottlemen will look from the stage and see the mid-summer paradise of Tasmania’s South Pacific coastline, trading isolation and brooding cloud for the thunder of another jet-set, live performance in searing heat.
The signs weren’t there for Catfish and The Bottlemen to be a band of extremes, yet they seem to throw that precise silhouette, almost without intention.
Tumbling into 2019 by headlining festival stages on the other side of the world, McCann (vocals, guitars), Johnny Bond (guitars), Robert ‘Bob’ Hall (drums) and Benji Blakeway (bass) take a huge gulp of air before their homecoming and the start of another new chapter. Catfish and The Bottlemen’s 2019 new album release follows 2014’s platinum-certified debut, The Balcony and 2016’s gold, number one follow-up, The Ride. Companion to the release of their third album is the anticipation, if not vocal impatience, of their waiting fans and the knowledge within the band that it represents a likely escalation of the successes of the last three years. Three years in which they’ve seen sales of one million albums and, in 2018 alone, nearly a quarter of a million UK fans experiencing them play live.
Practically of no fixed abode, the band has toured constantly since their formation, now over a decade ago. Hotel rooms, tour buses, airport lounges and live venues are home, with the band’s roots seemingly indeterminable.
McCann is extensively quoted saying that his band’s isolation in the fast lane of emotive, youthful alternative rock is thanks to their conscious plot to ‘think inside the box’. While typical chaos swirls around an in-demand, arena-filling rock band, that uncharacteristically strategic starting point for the journey remains their pivot. When judged fairly from distance, Catfish and The Bottlemen are a natural reaction to an age of perpetual identity-crises, fruitless cravings for elusive individuality and the ‘curation’ of everything from shoes to breakfast cereals. They’ve proved that simplicity isn’t, as it turns out, a sin or the safest route to take.
Freed from opinion and expectation, young music fans flock in their tens of thousands to see and hear the band in concert, exercising joyful release, in communion, as the rest of the world appears to fight with itself on the outside.
Four years on, a new Catfish and The Bottlemen record could never sound like The Balcony. The band’s activities supporting their debut album quickly brought festival main stages and US late night television appearances. The Ride propelled them further into UK sell-outs at Don Valley Stadium, Wembley Arena, Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park and Cardiff Castle. Significantly, it also invited more quality time with global fans on tours to the USA, South America, Australia and Japan. Some of McCann’s youthful restlessness on record, a distinct and endearing awkwardness as he approached relationships with friends and lovers, was destined to evolve with each, giant step.
The first snapshot of a new album, ‘Fluctuate’, performed throughout summer 2018, teased out a lean, refreshed version of everything Catfish fans find so easy so to love. McCann performed what sounded like a personal diary entry and he sang it to them, about them, for them and with them. They, typically, soon started to sing every word back. What had changed, subtly, was the cool, open air in which the song was allowed to hang, McCann’s rhythmic delivery in each verse pinned to the bass and drums, saving the collective push for a supercharged chorus. It’s a progression that remains satisfyingly inside the box.
Catfish and The Bottlemen went it alone for near to a decade, before their guerrilla tactics (throwing demos on numerous stages and jamming them under car windscreen wipers) and relentless gigging paid off. “We’ve still been unsigned for longer than we’ve been signed,” says McCann, seemingly never allowing himself to forget the self-initiated activity of their formative years, despite living in the new reality of being a platinum-selling, arena-filling young front man. In person, he’s a character of kind humility, contrasting the magnetic image of the hip-swinging, black-clad front man that makes thousands of fans sway effortlessly to his every, energetic move. You get the feeling that he’d do it all again, no matter how long it took, to get Catfish and The Bottlemen to where they are now.
There are no red carpets for the band (they tried desperately to delay their arrival at the 2016 Brit Awards to avoid the frenzy), no tabloid-stirring relationships or ostentatious shows of excess. It’s not restraint; it’s the private life of four friends getting on with the jobs their fans have afforded them the privilege to get done. As McCann stares out into the endless sea on a windswept promenade he’s far from the voracious desire of his audience, one which easily finds affinity with him and reaches out for personal connection. Yet the scene is dramatically poised. It’s the very definition of the calm before the storm.