A line of about 40 teenage girls has formed outside of Webster Hall, a mid-sized concert venue in Downtown Manhattan. The lion’s share of the Hot Topic squad woke up at 6 a.m. in their hometown of Philadelphia, drove to the city, and have been queued up for the past six hours under the hot summer sun, with six more to go before showtime.
Inside, Catfish and the Bottlemen, the ludicrously named Welsh rock band, are in the throes of a miniature crisis—one that’s gotten ringleader Van McCann’s undies in a serious twist: The strobe light situation does not agree with him.
“We’re in a bit of a fight today,” says McCann, feathers visibly ruffled. “It’s business. Just not being able to… You want to be able to afford a few strobe lights to make the crowd get excited, and scream. I’m always trying to progress, make the live show better, and make us rise into being a stadium band—as opposed to a pop band, which we still are, and it’s frustrating.”And make no mistake about it, McCann, 22, views this whole rock band thing as a business, first and foremost. Tonight’s Webster Hall gig is for 1,500 people, a fitting size for a band whose first album, last year’s The Balcony, went gold in the U.K., but the lads are far from satisfied, and every new topic of conversation seems to inevitably circle back to the size of their shows.
That album, which mixed scream-happy Strokes tunes (“Kathleen”) with Kooks-y choruses (“Cocoon”), made the boys a household name in the U.K., and earned them the BBC Introducing Award for best new act at the BBC Music Awards last December. It’s a far cry from the band’s early days, when the brooding fellas were just teenagers who split their time between a Monday-to-Friday gig playing covers of artists like the Beatles, Oasis, and Arctic Monkeys at a pub for 50 quid a pop, and busking in car parks outside of proper concerts performed by the likes of Kasabian on the weekends. As the story goes, a 16-year-old McCann tried to give Kasabian guitarist Serge Pizzorno their demo and was flatly rejected.
“They were a pain in the ass at the time, but funny to look back on,” McCann says of the busking days. “They were just all things that were in the way of the dream. Everything we do now, the focus is on football stadiums. That is the drive. Everything that’s in front of that is just in the way. I never got to see the Stone Roses at Spike Island or Oasis at Knebworth. I got to see Arctic Monkeys at Lancashire Cricket Ground in Manchester, that was 66,000 on their second album, and that shit blew my head off. It changed my life.”
He pauses. “It’s been a long time since a British guitar band has done a show like that. I think the people are craving it.”
Kings of Leon, I mention to him, were ruined by their stadium ambitions. Whereas early albums like Youth & Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak were brimming with youthful vitality, their post-“Sex on Fire” output seemed hollow and pandering, as if they’d rolled over and begged the radio to fuck them.
“We just want to be a stadium-level band,” McCann says matter-of-factly. “It’s like you said about how Kings of Leon became mainstream and crass and all that, that’s what we want. If selling 500,000 records makes you crass, then we’ll be crass. If selling out is playing to 50,000 people and making more money from it, making more people happy from songs you wrote, then fuck it. Why not?”
He even hates the band’s name. It comes from the time he spent with his parents traveling across Australia in a van before settling in Llandudno, Wales. They were celebrating his birth, which didn’t come easy—“I’m a test tube baby… I wasn’t created in a bedroom, I was created in a laboratory,” he proudly proclaims—and McCann’s first musical memory was that of Catfish the Bottleman, a well-known Australian street busker who plays tuned beer bottles (his own name comes from Van Morrison, his father’s favorite singer). So when the group formed in 2008, they adopted the name Catfish and the Bottlemen.“When we got signed I tried to change it,” he recalls. “I had about 50 names. I wanted something short like “Catfish,” since everyone calls us that anyway. All our labels like it, but no one else does. I don’t like it, either.”
The label they got signed to in 2013 was Communion Records, owned by Mumford & Sons’ keyboardist Ben Lovett. “He saved my life. I always say I owe him my life,” says McCann.
It’s no secret that this is McCann’s band. When I chat with him and drummer Bob Hall, the fella is completely mute, and even when I address him, he turns to his singer for a glance of approval before answering.
“I love Kanye,” says McCann, big-upping an artist with a similar thirst for the spotlight. “I think his music is amazing. He lives in The Matrix, however. But he entertains me, he’s funny, he’s outrageous. You’ve seen him go up and take Taylor Swift’s award and be really mean to her, but I’ve seen other instances where he’s taken his trainers off his feet and given them to kids in airports. He can be an idiot, and he can be lovable.”
Like Kanye, McCann has been known to talk some shit. Earlier this year, after being complimented by One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson on Twitter, the lads trolled him online before trashing the boy banders in a subsequent interview with The Sun. “You lot won a competition! I’ve sat in a band of seven years while you queued up outside Manchester Arena then did a bit of disco to a man behind a table who then put a few dollar bills down your jacket,” said McCann. “Everything they do is preconceived and controlled. It’s live pantomime.”
I mention the One Direction beef, and he smiles, and winks. “Yup,” he says. “They’re young pop lads, and we’re young rock lads. We’re not the same.”
As for those stadium goals, next week, the lads will be playing NYC’s Terminal 5—a 3,000-capacity venue in Midtown. And just last week, the band delivered a rousing performance of hit single “Kathleen” on James Corden’s The Late Late Show. There were lots of strobes.