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Craig Clemens

October 29, 2014
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When I sat down with Van, lead singer, founding member, and driving force behind Catfish & The Bottlemen, it was laundry day.

Tour manager Daniel had caught me across the street peering into the dark venue and whisked me away with a greeting and handshake across the street to the Portuguese bakery and coffee shop where I found the band barely wearing their tattered clothes and nursing their caffeine.

I honestly wasn’t sure what to make of these guys. I’ve seen a bunch of acts come through town that look a lot more haggard than these Brits, but had I not known that they’d been on the road for the past couple months I would’ve assumed that they were a bunch of locals recovering from a long night along Toronto’s Ossington strip.

Little did I know, that I just caught these guys on a bad day – it was laundry day. “Where you getting it done” I asked once I figured out that Van was in his shitty clothes. “Oh, just around the corner”. “Yeah, that’s a alright one”, I said. It wasn’t. Toronto is synonymous with shady laundromats infested with bedbugs as mob fronts, the one he referred to being one of these – but his clothes were probably already nearly done, so I didn’t want to worry him.

Quite honestly, he probably didn’t even care. Unbeknownst to me I was talking to a touring-pro. This was someone that had been traveling around England, Europe and the Americas since he was 14 years old. Having dropped out of school because he missed a science exam where he instead traveled to Sheffield to play a show getting back at 6am the next morning.

I was talking to a natural. This was someone to whom writing music was not only something that happened naturally, but in combination with a blue-collar work ethic and a family full of love for music, had become somewhat of a savant when it came to pushing out new and catchy music.

The music Van writes, and performs with Catfish & The Bottlemen (who unfortunately were unavailable for an interview as they were focused on finishing their coffee and laundry) is so highly influenced by early-2000’s British rock that it’s honestly hard to imagine how this guy isn’t on his 8th record. The music made seems so much directly out of 2004 that it’s almost unfathomable that this isn’t an industry pro going through the motions to cash in just one more time.

This doesn’t worry Van. He embraces everything he’s worked for and every single person who loves his music as a fruit of his labour.

Wise beyond his years, and just getting off the phone with his 3rd interview of the day we sat and talked about growing up in the back of a van, coming from a musical family, writing as second nature, and the idea of ‘selling out’.

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Playback: So.. how’s touring going?

Van: Amazing! Exciting.. um.. we just got a bus for the first time over here and it’s amazing. I feel like Bon Jovi or someone.

Playback: It’s your first time on the road, like, for real?

Van: Well, we came over here in February, I think, we did about 20-odd shows, but that was literally just to put us on the map so people would actually know that we were a band. But this time, like, I mean tonight we sold 70 tickets in advance. So I’m like, “fucking hell, it took us like 8 years to sell 70 tickets in England”. I mean, we played at a bar last night and everywhere we go people are singing the songs back at us. We sold 2 shows out in New York, to like 400 people a night, and it’s getting fucking crazy man.

I just got off a call from someone from Japan and I’m like, “what the fuck does someone want in Japan”?

Playback: That’s incredible to see that kinda success on your second tour. I mean, how long ago was it that you were doing similar gigs in England? And now you’re doing it 1000’s of kilometers away?

Van: Uhh, yeah. I mean, it was only last year that we were selling out 100 caps, you know, small rooms. Fuck, yeah, that seems like so long ago. Cause we just got our tour dates through two weeks ago for England and we put them on sale yesterday and we sold, something like, 2 ½ thousand in Manchester in a day and to me I’m like, “What the fuck!?”.

To me, I used to go see The Strokes and stuff at venues that big and I’m like, “how are we doing this?”

Playback: Let’s talk about that for a bit – you’re living in England, from Wales.

Van: Yeah, living in Wales, but we’re English; we moved there when we were kids, so, brought up in England. Really, you know, I’ve been on the road since I was a kid, my mom and dad we used to like just live in the back of a car and drive around the world.

Playback: Holy fuck…

Van:    Yeah, the first two years of my life I spent in Australia, then we came back to England, then to Wales, then I pretty much started bands straight away so I’ve been in a van since I was born, pretty much.

Playback: So this touring thing is second nature to you then?

Van:    Yeah, it’s weird when I get home, that’s when I get “homesick”. People actually always ask me, “Do you get homesick when you’re touring”, but to me my home is in a van. Living out a suitcase being broke as fuck – that’s where I thrive.

Playback: What was it like living this lifestyle growing up? I mean, at what point did you go from sitting in the back of your parents van, to creating this kind of music?

Van: Pretty much since I was born, really. I mean, there’s a video of me – when I watch it I can kinda remember being there when I was a baby – and like I’ve got these massive headphones on and my dad’s playing me ‘Beautiful Boy’ by John Lennon.

They used to run a B&B when I was younger and while my mom was making breakfast or something my dad would just sit me down and play me music right from the get-go. We never watched TV really, or really did anything else other than listen to John Lennon and Van Morrison, it was never like nursery rhymes or anything like that. Fuck, he used to sing John Lennon songs to me when I went to bed.

Music was always around me – my extended family, we’re all Irish, so my granddad, he’s still in a bar band now that tours around, and he’s pushing 90 now.

Playback: Oh wow…

Van: Yeah! He plays in a Irish folk band. It’s weird how it works, they all just say, “Come to Manchester at this time” and they all just meet in a bar and sit down, all of them have a few drinks and they just sit and jam. One of them’ll leave and a saxophone player will walk in and join. It’s crazy.

He had a stroke a few months ago and doctors said he’s never walk again; never play the fiddle again, and we we’re like, “Oh my God, it’ll kill him if he can’t play the fiddle”. And the next day, my dad rang his house: no answer. So he rang his phone and said, “where are ya?” and he’s like, I’m on the ferry to Ireland with my fiddle, I’m back on tour.

Playback: That’s badass!

Van: He’s the one, he and my dad that got me my first guitar. And during New Year and Christmas everyone used to come to my guest house and we used to all sit around in the bar, get drunk, and sing song, ya know? So I’ve got a big Irish heritage of just, you know, “get the spoons out”.

Playback: The kitchen party atmosphere.

Van: Totally, it’s my favourite part of making music.

Playback: So, your granddad is a musician, you father is filling your head with all this music from really young – what was your formal education like?

Van: Eeeuhhh… I got kicked out of school cause I was in a band.

Playback: Wait.. what? Because you were in a band?

Van: Yeah, well, I was supposed to write my exams, I was like 15, and we got offered a gig in Sheffield and it was like, go do your science exam or go to Sheffield.

Playback: So you were like, “well I gotta go play”.

Van: I came back for the rest of my exams and I stunk of smoke and drink and stuff like that, straight out of the van from the gig, and they were like “Mate, don’t come back here again”.

I mean, I wasn’t a little shit in school, I did alright and teachers used to like me cause I was quiet and I always went to my lessons, but I never used to work cause my mind just wasn’t there.

It’s weird now cause the teachers that kicked me out of school are oddly proud of me, and I’m all like, “you better fucking buy a T-Shirt”. The whole school now, when new kids come in learning music the teachers there are like, “Van used to go here”, I’m like, “fuck that”.

One of the better things about it though, my old PE teacher has said that when kids are getting changed for football and stuff that they’re playing our music and kids are starting bands cause they go to the school that I went to, and that’s really exciting. Every once in a while I run into a kid from that school and I’m always like, “tell that teacher that they’re a dickhead”.

Playback: So you’re kicked out of school, you got this gig in Sheffield – was this one of your first gigs as a band?

Van: No, I started the band when I was 14, and we used to play 200 gigs a year. I mean, we all come from a working-class background, our dads didn’t work at a record label, we were forced to really get out there and play.

Funny enough, one of the first things the label told us when they signed us was, “Alright, we gotta get you a van”, and we were like, “we’ve got a van” and we were just 17. I mean, we bought a van before we could even drive it. My dad used to drive us around and I had to actually sack my dad cause it was going to kill him.

He used to drive us, say to Sheffield, come back at 6 in the morning, drop me off at school and go straight into waiting on people at the B&B. I was like, man, I’m going to kill my dad keeping this up, so I had to sack him, and THAT nearly killed him. He drove us to Germany once and it took us 17 hours to get there and the only time we stopped was to fill the van up, he didn’t stop to sleep or anything. Haha! He just had a leather jacket on with a razor in one pocket and a toothbrush in the other. When we stopped he looked back at us, eyes all red and said, “we’re here” and I was like, “shit he’s not going to hold up for this”.

So from Monday to Friday we used to play in pubs, we’re from this kinda seaside town full of old people, and we’d just sit and play Beatles covers, and that was how we used to get paid. So if you work every single night we’d get 200 quid between us, put a little bit into the van and put the rest into the band kitty.

On the weekends we used to go out with this other band and go and play venues with our own songs. We do that – Friday, Saturday, Sunday, in proper music venues, then straight back the next day at hotels playing for those old folks.

Playback: When’d the label find you guys?

Van: Oh man, I think, how old was I? I was 19?

Playback: 5-6 years of playing Beatles covers during the week and playing ‘real’ shows during the weekends.

Van: …and we ended up losing all our girlfriends and all our mates because of it cause they wanted to be kids and go get drunk and stuff. I remember one time after I got kicked out of school and went out with my mates and came home and my dad was like, “if you’re going to get kicked out of school don’t be getting fucked up, I want you to be somebody”. I remember then just being like, “shit…”. Every weekend I had spent writing songs, so by the time the label had come around and was like, “we’re going to send you away for a week to write some songs”, I was like, “I’ve already got the album written, it’s done, I’ve been writing songs since I was 14, it’s done”.

I’ve got the next album written already. Every time they send me away to write some songs, I just go and spend the week with my girlfriend and come back and I’m like, “I wrote these songs!”

So yeah, I just kinda bluff my way around it now, and it feels good cause after all the stuff I missed out on when I was young – my mates out having a good time and I’m at home working and working – the fact that I can just be in Canada right now and not feel pressure to work, it’s exciting.

Playback: That’s amazing, having worked on that skill of writing a song for so long and just being able to “do it” now.

Van: It’s weird. I think it was John Lennon who said, “you’ve got to write 10 songs to find one good one” so to me it was like every 7th or 8th song would be keeper. So a lot of times I would just write to get the ‘shit’ out of the way and then I could really focus on finding one.

Writing songs, for me, is kind of the easiest part about it. I don’t know why but, like…um… I know it sound arrogant like the songs just fall out of me but…

Playback: Well, I mean, are you writing for yourself, or are your writing for other people?

Van: You know, I never really understood when people say, “I write for myself and if other people like it, then great.” I mean, if you write for yourself then you better not leave the house.

Playback: Then why are you recording it?

Van: I mean, there are bands that are ‘cooler’ than us and they’ve got better haircuts and shit, but when I sit there writing songs, I think “are 100,000 people going to like this, cause if not, then I’m going to throw it away.

Playback: If this is a song I’m going to play for my girlfriend once then I’m just not going to bother.

Van: So, when I write a song, it doesn’t matter if I like them or not. I mean, there are songs in our set that I thought were throwaway songs, but I played it for so many people that they ended up sticking. So now songs that I thought were shit are some of my favourite songs because they actually make people happy.

I write constantly thinking, “are 100,000 people going to sing this back to me”? I mean, I don’t know why that’s not considered ‘cool’… If you’re saying that you want to play arenas and stadiums in England you’re not considered a ‘cool band’. Instead a band that wants to be ‘middle-of-the-road’ and all that stuff…

Playback: A band that’s the lowest common denominator…

Van: It’s like saying you want to be a professional hockey player, but you’d be content to sit on a team that’s like 10th in the league.

Playback: Yeah, I don’t want to be the best player on the worst team, I want to be the best player on the ‘best’ team.

Van: Exactly! For me, I say, “if you don’t want to play to 500,000 people every night, I’ll do it”. So for us, it’s just about writing songs that people want to hear.

It gets a little weird cause the English press hates this – they seem to think that we’re selling out. I mean, if you suddenly go from playing in front of 10,000 people to 100,000 people it’s the opposite of selling out – it’s just being successful.

I heard this story about Patrick Carney (from the Black Keys) where he was offered a ton of money for a mayonnaise advert and he said no because he thought he would be ‘selling out’. Then his parent came up to him and was basically like, “we spent our entire lives dreaming of that kind of money, and you just turned it down?”

My manager actually asked me today, “is there any advert you wouldn’t want to do?” I was like, “I’ll do tampon adverts if it meant my music reaches more people”. I mean, it may as well be my song than somebody else’s.

I just want to be as successful as possible, now I don’t want to hurt anybody, I want to do it the right way – and if it’s not cool to say that you want to do that, then I guess I’m not cool.