The Van who would be King


Cigarette paper between his fingers, Van McCann is sat in the smoking room at the back of Catfish & The Bottlemen’s tourbus. It’s parked outside Schubas Tavern in Chicago, a 200-capacity room where the band are due onstage in less than an hour.

“I don’t know what to do,” he croaks.

Sat across from him is Catfish’s sound guy, Mike Woodhouse. “Your voice is fucked,” says Mike, “so the way I see it, you have three options. Option one: sing as normal. From what you’re saying, that’s not an option. Option two: get the audience to help you. Get them to sing like you did that night in Leeds. Option three: pull the gig, but…”

Van cuts him off. “We’re not pulling the gig.” Catfish & The Bottlemen have never pulled a gig. “People have paid their hard-earned money and they’ve already been waiting outside for hours,” Van says, gesturing to the snow piled up outside. “It’s fucking freezing out there.”

On their current American tour Van has been up at 9am every day to do live sessions for radio and local TV before the band’s evening gigs. He says that’s why his 22-year old voice currently sounds like a waste disposal pipe. He’s tried all sorts to save it. He’s tried not drinking. He’s even tried not smoking, and Van smokes likes it’s a dying art. Nothing made any difference.

“Our label says we have to do sessions if we want to be the biggest band in the world,” he says, “but it frustrates me that the competition winners at the session this morning are going to get a better show than the fans tonight. I’m only in this band to write songs and sing. It frustrates me when I can’t do it.”

The rest of the band and management once again propose cancelling the gig, even at this late hour. Van won’t hear of it. If Catfish & The Bottlemen have made it this far – two sold-out nights at O2 Academy Brixton, a Top 10 UK debut album in ‘The Balcony’, appearing on Letterman – it’s because of Van’s work ethic, about which he’s endearingly earnest. Catfish have been gigging hard since 2009. This is their second US tour and it too is completely sold out, but Van refuses to let anyone treat it like some kind of victory lap. If they want to keep reaching new heights, they have to be responsible about it. No slacking or hard partying. Schubas Tavern is a rung on the ladder to playing big shows: Van wants Oasis at Knebworth, The Stone Roses at Spike Island.

“I remember going to see Oasis at Heaton Park,” he says. “It was like everyone was going to the core of the earth. It was like Jesus was back. A couple of lads from Burnage did that? That looks good to me.”

catfish2The first thing Van McCann says when he gets onstage is: “I need you tonight, Chicago. My voice has gone completely so I need you as much as you can.” The band launch into opener ‘Rango’, which tilts at the stadium rock of recent Kings Of Leon songs, and Van starts thrashing around as he plays, as if hoping to make up for his lack of voice through sheer physical exertion.

“Thank you,” he rasps afterwards, then launches into an explanation that’s near enough word-for-word what he just said to Mike and the band in the bus: “I’m sorry my voice sounds so rough. I want you to know we don’t go out and get fucked up before shows. We’ve had to play sessions every morning. We love playing shows. We take this seriously. We’re professional. We’ve never pulled a show, because we’re prepared. I’m really sorry I’m not 100 per cent…”

They make it through the single ‘Pacifer’ unscathed, but Van isn’t done apologising. “I’m only here because I can sing,” he says. “I feel awful. If any of you want your money back afterwards you can have it. Or I’ll buy you a beer. I promise you I’ll buy the whole place a beer…”

A voice from the crowd cuts him off: “Shut up and sing!”

“You sound great!”

“We love you!”

They tear through ‘Fallout’ at full pace, and afterwards Van just grins. “Shit. Did I promise you all beers? I’ve just done the maths in my head. There’s a lot of you in here. Is this an 18-plus gig? So you’re all old enough to drink? Shit. I didn’t say anything about getting your money back, did I?”

The crowd laugh and shout for him to go on, but on ‘26’ his voice starts to drop out, and by the next track, the slower-paced ‘Business’, he sounds awful. The band’s tour manager runs onto the stage and puts his arms around Van’s shoulders and asks if he wants to pull the gig there and then, but Van won’t leave unless he’s dragged off.

He’s got to play the next song, because it’s ‘Kathleen’ and that’s the big radio hit. It’s the one the American fans all heard first. The one they played on the Late Show With David Letterman. The one that finds the sweet spot between The Strokes and The Cribs. Impossibly, something about ‘Kathleen’ seems to rejuvenate his voice. By the end of the song he’s full of confidence again, and signals for the other three members to leave the stage so he can play the introspective ‘Homesick’ on his own. Accompanied by just his guitar, his voice is now totally exposed and yet somehow healed. The band come back on and they roar through a couple more songs. Then, before the howling closer ‘Tyrants’, the tour manager reappears. He tells the room the band have put enough money behind the bar to buy everyone in the venue a pint.

The crowd look at each other. “Fuck,” someone says. “He wasn’t kidding!”

Kev_2_JHAfter the show, the band are back in the tourbus for just 13 brief minutes. Van and his best mate and guitar tech Larry shut themselves in the back room for a smoke, their post-gig decompression ritual, then open the doors and jump out into the snow to meet the fans clustered outside.

“We were going to invite them in and make them a brew,” says Van, “but imagine what people would think if they saw some picture of a young girl posing with us on our tourbus.”

So instead they stand around outside for an hour, even as the temperature drops down below minus 10. They separate off, and three concentric circles of fans form: one around bassist Benji Blakeway and drummer Bob Hall, one around guitarist Johnny ‘Bondy’ Bond, and the biggest around Van. A girl hugs him and says, “You changed my life!”

A 21-year-old guy called Nicholas tries to force a fistful of dollars into Van’s hand. “I just played the House Of Blues a couple of weeks ago with my band and I had bronchitis,” he explains afterwards. “I know how hard it is to go onstage and sing your heart out. When he said he was going to buy everyone in the venue a drink I got goosebumps from my toes to my fucking head. They just put on the best show I’ve ever seen, because it was so real. It’s humble, and it’s honest. The lyrics mean something to everyone. It’s not the overproduced bullshit that you usually hear on the radio. When he sings about being drunk and horny… I’ve been there. We’ve all been there.”

catfish-kegpOnly when absolutely everyone has got their selfies do Catfish climb back onto the bus. Van heads back to his smoking room, leaving the rest of the band to hang out at the front. At the end of last year Van told NME that the band aren’t really mates. After so long on the road, is that still true?

“I think we’re like brothers now. We get on,” says Bondy. He laughs, and continues: “Although saying that, I fight with my brother all the time.”

“There’s a family spirit,” says Benji, nodding.

Van re-emerges. After spending so much of the night worrying about his voice, he wants to think about something else. Talk turns to their next album, which he wrote months ago but first played to the band last night.

“It’s more widescreen,” says Van. “We needed to open our eyes a little bit. The album we’ve got is good, but it’s an 18-year-old boy trying to get out of a small town. When I listen to the first album now, it sounds angry. That was us trying to break out and get somewhere, and now we’re opening up and going, ‘Christ, we’re in America! This is class!’ We want to go to stadiums and play simple rock’n’roll songs. Put your girlfriend on your shoulders and your arm round your best mate. Dads can take their kids, like my dad used to take me. They’re still songs about normal life, but it’s less about John in Manchester and more about Manchester, y’know what I mean?”

The band head back into the venue to hit the bar. Van prefers to chill out on the bus. He hasn’t thought about anything other than Catfish & The Bottlemen for six years. “I’ve tried to slow it down because I realised I wasn’t enjoying it,” he says. “All the lads would be laughing and having a joke, but I’d be coming of stage thinking, ‘Fuck, I missed that note.’”

The idea is that it’ll all be worth it in the long run. Van has put every penny he’s ever earned from royalties into a separate bank account. “I’ve never touched it,” he says, “even if I wanted £40 to go to the pub. I’ve kept it all and when I have a kid I’m going to give it to them. That means every single song I’ve ever wrote will mean something to somebody. I want to be the best dad and the best husband, like my dad was to me.”

That’s why Van keeps writing songs. He wasn’t supposed to start writing that new album until April. Instead, he finished it while they were still recording the last one. Then he wrote 20 more songs. His friends in bands told him he should take advantage of his record label and get them to fly him to LA, so he hatched a plan to keep the new record a secret until April, then feign writer’s block and get a free holiday. He couldn’t do it. He shrugs. “I couldn’t hold it in.”

He loves being on tour in America, but he misses Britain. “I love pound coins,” he says, “and pasties.” Mostly he misses his “shitty cottage” in Chester, where he can write songs, play FIFA and smoke in the kitchen. That’s why, after he has eventually joined his bandmates for a few drinks, he tells them he won’t be going on to the next bar with them. Instead, he goes back to the bus with Larry, and they smoke and rewatch Austin Powers until Larry falls asleep. Then Van picks up his guitar, and he writes another song.

Originally published in NME, 14 March 2015.