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U.K. band Catfish and the Bottlemen take the 'uncool' approach to rock stardom

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Catfish and the Bottlemen are a small town band with big stadium ambitions. The four-piece rock band, who formed in a Welsh town of only 20,000 in 2007, have never hid their desires to be the next big Britpop band, going so far as to openly emulate the sounds of the acts they aspire to.  

It’s a blatantly “inside the box” approach, according to singer Van McCann in a press release accompanying their sophomore album, The Ride, and it’s working. The band, which includes lead guitarist Johnny Bond, drummer Rob Hall and bass player Benji Blakeway, intently falls in line with the long lineage of Britpop bands, right down to the gritty vocals (McCann sounds strikingly similar to the Kooks Jake Pritchard), big guitar sound and choruses that aren’t meant to be sung, but shouted aloud by everyone in the audience.

“It's deemed a little uncool to be expressive of how ambitious you are, but some of my favourite acts have that and that's what's endearing of them,” Bond says during a sitdown interview with Blakeway in Toronto. “Go to a Springsteen or Oasis gig and the feeling is so good ‘cause there are 50,000 people singing the same line as you. Why wouldn't you want to do that?”

Fittingly, we’re speaking just a few days before the band were to perform at Glastonbury, three spots from the top of the Sunday night lineup (behind PJ Harvey and LCD Soundsystem). Earlier this year, Catfish also won best breakthrough group at the Brit Awards, and their new album was produced by Dave Sardy, who worked with Oasis as well as solo Noel Gallagher.

“Doing the new record with Sardy, he had some similarities [to Oasis] in the production, whether it be drum sound or how he does guitars. From being fans of them, it’s like, oh shit, we're really doing this. It's going to sound as big as.”

The band comes by their stadium ambitions naturally, a by-product of fighting their way out of the seaside Welsh town.  

“We're from a tiny town, less than 20,000 people and an hour from the nearest city, so when we were starting, we had to get out, we had to drive wherever we could to play, Manchester, Liverpool,” says Blakeway. “To be from North Wales, there’s no real big city, there is no music scene, no venues. You can play in bar but there are no stages. You literally have to go to [Catfish drummer] Rob's dad, who worked in a school, and we would take the stage from their place, transport it over to a bar. We just had to leave.”

That mantra has always worked it’s way into the band’s calculated approach to songwriting, adds Bond.

“When we write, it’s like, 'what would the audience be doing at this moment?', this is where they are building up for the chorus and getting ready, everyone is going to be hands in the air at this point, and so on,” he says. “We don’t write to have a hit, we write to sell tickets.”

“I like Oasis but I find it odd when people my age act as if they were around in the ’90s for that.”

Johnny Bond, Catfish and the Bottlemen

It’s an appropriate work ethic considering their direct influence of post-Britpop bands like the Kooks and Arctic Monkeys, the latter of which were known to give away burned CDs with their demo recordings at live shows on their way through the ranks.

“Some mags have said it might be like an old fashioned or traditional way of doing it, but that seems odd to me, it seems just like the right way you do it,” says Bond.

Blakeway reminds Bond of the time their frontman threw their demo CD onstage at a Kooks concert. “The Kooks played at the town we're from and Van threw our CD as they walked on, hit the bass player square in the forehead. He put it it on top of his amp, but I’m pretty certain he wouldn’t have listened to it.”

Coincidentally, they ended up supporting the Kooks in Australia. “I don't think Van reminded them about pinging a CD off his head,” says Bond. “You can get a good distance and some force on a CD.”

Asked about their endless comparisons to Oasis – McCann once told the Guardian their audience is full of “40-year old men who tell me: ‘I’ve been waiting for a band like yours since Oasis.’” – Bond is a little more standoffish.

“I like Oasis but I find it odd when people my age act as if they were around in the ’90s for that,” he says. “I appreciate them but they didn’t have the same impact as if you were there in ’96, queuing at the bar to watch What's the Story. I missed out on that, so them bands, Kooks, Arctic Monkeys, they were the ones that were on the covers when we were growing up. That was an influential time in our lives.”

“The Arctic Monkeys album was the first one I bought” adds Blakeway. “Me and Van, that was also the first gig we ever went to. Seeing those kind of bands come through makes you want to pick up a guitar.”

Fittingly, it’s a sound they’re all to happy to bring back in an era dominated by rap and electronic music, where Kanye West can (rightfully) claim to be “the greatest living rock star on the planet,” as he did to then BBC host Zane Lowe.  

“Everyone is screaming that rock is dead, but it’s not,” says Blakeway. “It's there if you look for it and it will become popular again.”

Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG

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