Van McCann, singer and guitarist for the United Kingdom's Catfish & the Bottlemen, has a strange relationship with the song "Homesick."
"I thought it was the worst one of the batch we did ... when we first started recording for Communion," he said, referring to the label/tour founded by Mumford & Sons' Ben Lovett. "Since then, it's become my favorite."
What changed, McCann said, was that other people liked it. And therein lies a great deal of the charm of Catfish & the Bottlemen, a band described by the UK's The Guardian as "deeply old-fashioned - and unfashionable."
McCann doesn't disagree with that assessment - whether it means an indifference toward appearance or, in a larger sense, a band more in love with the idea of playing for as many people as possible than selling lots of records or making artistic statements. When the quartet performs a Communion/Daytrotter show at Maquoketa's Codfish Hollow Barn on June 19, expect no-frills rock-and-roll with one goal: to connect with the audience.
"We're not doing anything outside the box," McCann said in a phone interview last week. "We're not trying to do anything special. We're just trying to write good songs in an old-fashioned way, the way Oasis did and the Strokes did and the Arctic Monkeys did. It's not anything that hasn't been done before, but we're just trying to do it better than everyone else. If everyone else is thinking outside the box, we're going to stay right in the middle of it."
That might sound like pandering, but there's little about the band that feels calculated or crass. The group has been together for more than six years, but McCann said he considers last year its official beginning: "We don't really class it as being in a band until 'Homesick' came out. That was like the start. Everything else was just getting ready. ... We needed to write good songs instead of playing bad ones and grow our hair just long enough to be classed as rock stars."
The new EP Kathleen & the Other Three - a teaser for a full-length due in the fall - is indeed full of rock-star potential, four tracks of unpretentious, catchy, radio- and arena-ready garage rock. Praise for the song "Rango" from the music blog Scientists of Sound pretty much applies to the whole: "With bright, forwardly driven guitars forming the backdrop to Van McCann's glazed vocals, 'Rango' becomes a delightful mix of clearly thought-out indie rock. Add in subtle tempo shifts and piercingly beautiful guitars, and you're left with a uniquely resplendent offering."
The songs were self-evidently written with a large audience in mind, and McCann compared them to lasagna - meant for mass, eager consumption. And he said he has no interest in writing or performing difficult music. "If you're going to do that, why don't you stay in your bedroom and do it?" he said. "When I'm writing songs, I think 60,000 people are going to sing them in an arena. I write songs for the people."
But shooting for a large target is less about the trappings of fame than the power of music to forge bonds. "The reason I'm in a band is to tour," McCann said. "My favorite part of being in a band - more than playing music - is meeting people. ... I can write a song in my girlfriend's apartment, and the next minute I could be in America because of it. I could write a song that could fly me across the world. That blows my mind. ...
"I like what it does to people. ... I can make you laugh or cry or [feel] whatever I feel."
A breakthrough in his songwriting, McCann said, came after seeing Ida Maria perform. "She just felt everything she was singing," he explained. "Instead of basing it on what she was listening to, she was basing it on what she felt. ... The kick drum would blow her across the room. I'd never seen that before."
In his own writing, he said, he stopped listening and started feeling. A chorus worked, he said, "because it felt like ... it pinned you to the wall."
And although Catfish & the Bottlemen have played 1,000-seat venues in the UK, the Communion tour - the band's first foray into the United States - is a welcome proving ground, McCann said: "We played to like 40 people yesterday in Washington, DC. That's kind of like seven years ago. That's the band we were. It's like starting again for us, but with a bit more knowledge now. ... It's a lot harder, but very exciting."
Catfish & The Bottlemen will perform a Daytrotter/Communion show on Thursday, June 19, at Codfish Hollow Barn (5013 288th Avenue, Maquoketa, Iowa). The 21-and-older concert starts at 7 p.m. and also includes Outsides, Hailey Whitters, and Amasa Hines. Tickets are $9.50 in advance and $15 the day of the show. For more information, visit CodfishHollowBarnstormers.com or CommunionMusic.com.
For more information on Catfish & the Bottlemen, visit CatfishAndTheBottlemen.com.