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Interview Wed Oct 07 2015

Catfish and the Bottlemen Returns to Chicago on 10/10 @ House of Blues: Transmission Catches Up With Bassist Benji Blakeway

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The last time Catfish and the Bottlemen was in Chicago, they were playing a Lollapalooza aftershow at Subterranean. I was there. I'm still not sure my eardrums have recovered, though I don't know which caused more hearing damage -- Catfish's powerful set of garage pop or the crowd's rabid screaming/singing of every word. It was more packed than the Red Line after a Cubs game and accordingly things got very steamy, but the atmosphere raised every hair on my body. When singer Van McCann had to deal with microphone issues (on his birthday, no less) and everyone in the room filled in his lines on "Homesick" -- that's the reason you go to concerts. That's the impact Catfish and the Bottlemen's grimy, Kooks-y, hard-driving rock has on its listeners.

This time around, they'll be moving one step closer to the stadiums they've dreamed of filling since they formed in Llandudno, Wales, in 2007, playing at the House of Blues with opener Jamie N Commons on Saturday night. Catfish has been touring America for most of the year in support of their debut album, The Balcony. Fortunately, bassist Benji Blakeway was able to find some time on the road to speak with me over the phone about the band's travels, what's changed (and what's remained the same) as their popularity has grown, and the cardboard cutout of The Balcony's... um... unique album artwork that they've been taking with them everywhere.

We're excited to see you again in Chicago, Benji! What do you think of the city?

It's awesome! It's one of my favorite places to go in America because even after our show there's a highlight. It's always been very good to us, Chicago. There's a show we did at Schubas, I think it's called. Van had lost its voice, it was a real struggle of a show to get through, but the crowd kinda made up for it, since we were asking them to sing louder, help us along here. It was almost like a gig at home, with the crazy crowds we get at home, and that was in February at a tiny little venue.

That's amazing. Schubas is a great little venue, and now you're playing House of Blues, which is obviously much bigger. You've been playing some good medium-size venues all over America. How would you say you guys have approached your live shows differently as your profile has grown, both here and at home?

I don't think we really change it regardless of where we are. Like playing at Schubas or Glastonbury or Reading in front of 20,000 people, we always put on the same show no matter what. The lights might be different and the backdrop might be bigger, but once we're on stage, we always just try and, regardless of how many people are there, put on the same show and the same quality. We grew up playing in front of 10 or less people.

In parking lots.

Yeah. We didn't know if one of those ten people was from a record label or something, so we always conditioned ourselves to play the same show regardless of who's there. Even if it makes you look stupid going mad in front of like three people, you've gotta do it.

Your show is, literally, exactly the same because I know you guys have this philosophy where you don't play unreleased tracks or any of the stuff you have written for your upcoming second album. So how do you keep the stuff from The Balcony fresh as you play it over and over on tour?

We don't really -- we don't even really mix it up that much. A lot of it is exactly how it is on the album. There's a couple of songs, like in "Tyrants" or "Business," where we can go off and jam and have a bit of fun with it. But we were talking about this the other day because "Tyrants," the last song we play, was written in 2008. So we've played it I don't know how many times we've played it, but we were saying we're still nowhere near bored playing it even though it's exactly the same every night and we've been playing it like that for six-plus years... it's still not boring. We don't really need anything to spice it up yet.

You've got this timeless garage rock sound that really speaks to everyone. But when you listen to the lyrics, they're really gritty and streetwise. I think you mention someone being drunk on at least half the songs on the record. So let's say Van is singing "Homesick," and there's this very earnest conversation he's having with a character, or "Pacifier," where it's about a fight he's had with a friend, and you see all these smiling faces in the crowd just singing cheerily about these crazy issues. How do you reconcile the happiness with the very gritty nature of the lyrics?

That's a very good question. I don't know... it's weird but there's a lot of songs that are like that. I would think of "Hey Ya" by Outkast, that's one of the happiest sounding songs I've ever heard in my life. But when you read the lyrics, it's actually quite sad and it's quite dark subject matter. But everyone ignores it and just goes mad because it sounds happy. So I think "Pacifier" the same way, but I also think that despite the lyrics being about quite a dark matter, a lot of people can still relate to it, especially with the music being so positive. Despite it being about something that you might not necessarily wanna jump around to, the music kinda takes over. A lot of people can relate to it, so they don't mind jumping around and freaking out over it.

What has been your favorite song to play on this tour?

I'd say "Cocoon" totally has been my favorite live. It's my favorite to play as a bass player.

Why?

I don't really know, it's fun to play but it's always the one that gets the most insane reaction. I think it was DC, the 9:30 Club, after we finished "Cocoon" we had an ovation of people clapping for us for two minutes straight. We couldn't even go into the next song, it was just crazy. And every night "Cocoon" gets a very similar reaction. We must be doing something to people and we don't quite know what it is, but we enjoy it.

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It's got that stadium status quality that you've been playing after ever since you started as a band.

It feels like the song is bigger than the room sometimes. Like you said, it's a stadium song, we wrote most of the album imagining it being played in stadiums so when you hear it in a confined room, there's all these people sweating with each other and jumping around...people go mad for it. They go crazy.

You guys have been playing much bigger venues now, and as you mentioned you've been playing the same type of show with the same energy ever since the parking lot days. Do you think you've left anything behind?

Not really. I'd just say the connection with the crowd, obviously that's pretty much gone when you go into bigger venues. We cut our teeth in being able to see the whites of people's eyes in the crowd. We used to be able to talk to individual people without even needing to use a microphone, so that's kind of gone, which is a shame. I do miss that, but the more people there, the better. Small price to pay for having rooms five times the size of what we used to.

And you've always had your sights on that. Could you describe your live chemistry for me, and especially how it's changed since Billy [Bibby, the band's original guitarist] departed the band last year?

We've all got bigger and better guitars and guitar amps now, so that's changed. [laughs] But when Bondy [Johnny Bond, Bibby's replacement] joined, he made particularly me and Van, because you know Bob [Hall] the drummer is incredible, Bondy's incredible on guitar, so when he joined and he'd learned all the songs within three days -- we had three or four days' rehearsal before his first show, he absolutely smashed it -- me and Van were like, "Holy shit, we've gotta step our games up and get on their level!" We can jam better with Bondy because he's very good at improvising stuff. It made us want to up our game and get better, so it was a very good decision.

You've been touring around America a lot and as you do, a lot of posts on your Facebook come from something called HQ Bot. Is that the name of the cardboard cutout album art in so many of the pics?

No, HQ Bot takes that around though. He's in control of the cardboard cutout. We just drop any status we don't wanna do on HQ Bot, anything negative we can give to HQ Bot.

How did you come up with the album art for The Balcony? It's really eye-catching, people can have their heads in those headless bodies that have their hands in each other's pants.

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It was a bit of art called "Beautiful Decay" and it was made by an artist called Tim Lahan from New York. We used it on one of our EPs back in 2009, when we were nowhere, and he let us use it for free, and we'd make them all ourselves, you know. We thought it would be a nice throwback for all the fans who've stuck with us from the early days. When we were thinking of album art, we were just like, should we use that again? Because the EP did nothing, it didn't even hit the edges of where we wanted to be. So we used it as a little nod to all the fans who've been there since day one.

So as you've been taking the album art around America and playing all these great shows here, what would you say is the biggest lesson you've learned about the country?

It's made me not complain about car drives in the UK. You know we used to think a drive to London, which would take about four and a half hours, was bad, but it took us about two days to get out of Texas the other day. The UK pales in comparison to the size of America, it's insane.

What's your favorite memory from the tour so far?

The gigs have been the best things. This tour has been -- we've had production days before we started in Philly, we had two days in a rehearsal room with new amps getting everything sorted. We've had a lot of issues before with gear and stuff, getting lost at airports, breaking in the middle of gigs. But the fact that all these gigs are just running smoothly, that's the best thing to me. And seeing reactions from the crowds, giving us rounds of applause for nearly two minutes, that is the coolest thing that could be happening to us right now. Having the crowd go crazy. They're having as much fun as we are. This is the most fun we've had on tour and the crowds are seemingly the same. And you feed off each other. We stand on stage and they go mad and then we go even more mad and they go even more mad. It's fucking awesome.

I've read that you guys have three albums worth of material written already, and The Balcony was the first one of those you put out. Given everything that's happened on this tour, all of the success The Balcony has had, I'd imagine you're gonna approach the recording of the second album with a lot more worldly wisdom. How can we expect to see Catfish's sound and themes progress?

We're still very much the same when it comes to who we are in terms of players. Me and Van particularly on the album. It's not gonna be too different, but we've got Bondy in now and his guitar parts, his guitar lines and everything, they will be. So far he's only played the first album, which he wasn't on. He's finally gonna have the chance to write his own parts, his own solos, his own melodies. It'll be a bit different, but we've still tried to approach it the same way. The first album was done in like three weeks and because we've been recording this in between tours we've been struggling to find time, but at the minute it's sounding great. We're not trying to change too much, but It's gonna be massive, I think. It sounds massive.

I know Arctic Monkeys and Oasis are huge influences. Do you see yourselves carrying on their tradition? Are you adding to it?

Yeah, I think the last kind of band that did what Oasis did was Arctic Monkeys. I was 15 when that album came out, it was the first album I bought with my own money. I don't think younger kids have had anyone do what Arctic Monkeys did or Oasis did since then. It's been nearly ten years since anyone's been a massive breakthrough rock band. We do wanna follow in their footsteps in terms of how big they got and the effect they have on people, but Oasis kind of alienated a lot of people the way they were, their attitude. And Arctic Monkeys, for how amazing they are, they're very standoffish. Like when I was growing up, I didn't feel like I could be their mate, they're very mysterious and stuff. I think we've got a bit of mystique to us but we're also just straight up, we always just say what we're thinking. What you see is what you get with us, you can't misconstrue any of it, whether it's good or bad. People can relate to us, they come up to us, they know us, they're mates, and we like that. We're just lads.

Do you guys still try to do things like run the merch table when you can?

We used to, we can't do that anymore. But still, we go out and meet fans every single night we can. For hours and hours, we see everyone who's waited. You know, the show finishes at, say, quarter past ten, we don't leave the venue 'til half two, and there's still fifty people out there. They didn't have to wait for us, and the fact that they did, it's mad to us. So we wanna see every single one of them, shake their hand, take a picture, sign everything they've got.

~*~

There you have it, folks. You now know approximately where and when you can meet Catfish and the Bottlemen, if you have the patience. You can grab tickets to their show at House of Blues on Saturday night on the resale market.

 
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Jordan / October 7, 2015 12:04 PM

Great interview! These guys have a really unique sound. Awesome to get a little look into the thoughts of one of its members.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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