Hard work and self belief. Two essential ingredients in making it in the world of music. It seems that the four piece – named after a busker in Australia where frontman Van McCann was living at the time – have this in spades, as they continue on their upward trajectory, and a long sold out tour of the UK coming up, as well as new material including the current single 'Soundcheck', and an album later in the year
"Just graft, man," says frontman Van McCann, in explaining their success. "We played a couple of hundred shows a year before we had a deal. When bands like Stereophonics played at Echo Arena, we'd put a CD on every single car in the car park. We went to a Kasabian gig once and when everyone came out we revved up a generator in the rain in the carpark, and played to all the people coming out. Got loads of CDs out. We used to turn up at universities with a generator, and played."
Sounds old fashioned, doesn't it? By playing constantly, and with few inhibitions (plus some great songs and a welcoming personality) it's heartening to hear such stories. There’s been a spate of these type of musicians who, through a combination of the sheer joy of playing, and a truly hard work ethic, have developed fan-bases above and beyond the usual tortuous playing of ‘normal’ gigs. We’re talking busking here, and setting up wherever the rewards look promising. Solo artists such as Passenger and James Bay have developed audiences in this way, and so have the Bottlemen. “We’ve lived in the van the first seven years,” he says, playing everywhere, living off £5 a day.” It's all paid off very handsomely for these superb indie-rockers, first by signing with Communion and then with its much older and bigger brother, Island Records. "It appealed to us at the time," says Van, about signing to Communion. "'We love you as you are', they said. ‘We don't want to change anything'.
"Ben Lovett (of Mumford & Sons, who set up Communion) took a listen, thought we were great, and before we knew it we were making an EP, and they thought every song was a single, which is what they released. They'd never had a 'guitar' band, and we were conscious that if we fail, they fail, and if they fail, we fail. But the label is run by musicians, so they know what you like and what they don't like.”
Part of a dying working-class tradition, Catfish & The Battlement are the real deal. Like Oasis, and the Arctic Monkeys, two working class bands they hugely admire, there is something refreshingly unpretentious about them. Even more so than those two bands, there are no tricks, just a simple heads down, highly spirited and, above all, disciplined work ethic that has seen them survive for years, with barely nothing.
“Ben gave us a lifeline when no-one would touch us, and everybody was like ‘rock’n’roll is dead…’ Everyone calls us dated, and say we’ve got long hair like Oasis used to. But I liked Oasis when they had long hair! I’ve seen Ben do some rock star stuff… They then signed us to the Island deal. It's overwhelming really, I always used to dream about playing arenas. I could see us doing that. But I couldn't see us getting a deal. We just wanted to play live.
"We signed off the dole when we signed with Communion, and got a wage, but we worked out what we could afford and it was still only £8 a day!" McCann laughs. Certainly an improvement on the aforementioned £5 a day, but take inflation into account… "We signed off the dole, to get on the dole, but without having to sign on, and lying about trying to get a job.”
After a relatively long slog playing the 'toilet' circuit, things have been moving incredibly quickly in the last three years. Formed in 2007 by Ryan Evan 'Van' McCann and Billy Bibby (who has subsequently gone solo), the duo played guitars in Bibby's parents B&B in Llandudno, Wales. Benjamin Blakeway joined soon after on bass, with Jon Barr on drums, who was then replaced by Bob Hall. And with Johnny "Bondy" Bond replacing the departing Bibby in 2014, the line up has remained stable since then.
I remember assuming the first time I came across the name that here must be another of those rootsy-folky-bluesy outfits trailing in the wake of Mumford & Sons superstardom. In fact, it comes from an early childhood memory of McCann's when he was living in Australia, where he was living at the time with his British parents (McCann is, rather interestingly, a test-tube baby) "The first years of my life I was travelling around Australia, with my Mum and Dad, in the back of a van. They wanted to get away from where they were living. They wanted to try and start a family out there. I got the inspiration for the band name in Australia, through a busker. I never did work out why he was called that (Catfish)." In fact, he is known as Catfish the Bottleman, so named because he plays beer bottles strung on a wire, along with a drum kit, mimicking theme tunes and Christmas songs and the like. He is a minor star in Australia, having been a finalist on Australia's Got Talent in 2008. McCann and the original Catfish actually met up in early 2015, at a radio station in Sydney. As for the band name: 'It doesn't pigeonhole us, like the Arctic Monkeys kind of thing, although everyone thinks we might be folky or bluegrass."
Not that this has made any difference to their success, as a band who have tapped into youthful emotion, a combination of McCann's lyrics and the band's high energy, no-nonsense epic indie guitar music. "I've always written lyrics and stories since I can remember. I was dyslexic at school, I could never spell. But I was always good at capturing a story. My life's been surrounded by music. My Dad played the harmonica, and my Mum and Dad had a hotel when I was a kid, with a bar in it, and all my family, who are Irish, would come down and my Granddad would play the fiddle. He's one of the coolest men on the planet, like the Godfather in our family. I ended up teaching myself guitar, and I jammed with him a couple of years ago when he was playing the fiddle. It was a nice moment. I've just been surrounded by music my whole life. My Dad named me Van after Van Morrison!
From playing very small venues around the country whilst doing everything and anything they could to win new fans, they ended up on the bills of Reading & Leeds and T In The Park in 2014, which turned out to be proper game changers. At Reading they were so taken aback with the surge of people coming into the tent to see them that they actually thought it must have been raining outside. “That’s when I knew it was real,” he has said. “I thought they were just coming in because it was pissing it down. But it was still sunny! When we went on they knew all the songs. Our album wasn’t even out yet. It was mental.”
“We’re like the simplest band in the world,” says McCann. “We’re straight up. We go out and sing as good as we can, and hopefully rile everybody up! But, you've got to be careful. You could be one of these bands, who get all over magazines and pay to get on TV. At the time we were pissed off, when nothing seemed to be happening for us. 'Why is nobody signing us'? We felt like we've got something good. But, now I'm made up, everything we have done has led to this. We'll just carry on playing gigs, listening to people singing and go crazy. It's still dead exciting."