Catfish And The Bottlemen became one of the UK's biggest young bands armed with little more than their wits and a Squier Tele. Just try and take it from them now...
"They've done it the grindingly hard way: going from bedroom to boardroom over the course of the last seven years"
There's no such thing as a truly self-made band - every successful musician has had help from someone at some point - but Llandudno's indie-rock heroes Catfish And The Bottlemen come pretty close.
Lacking the 'bank of mum and dad' backing that enables many new musicians to catch a break, they've done it the grindingly hard way: going from bedroom to boardroom over the course of the last seven years, with no shortcuts.
Bolstered by new guitarist Johnny Bond (previously of Detroit Social Scene) back in August, they watched their debut album, The Balcony, hit the top 10 and are now cramming venues on both sides of the Atlantic.
"You guys were the first real magazine to write about us," frontman Van McCann reminds us at the start of our interview. "It's great to do it again." In that case, five years on, we're well overdue for a catch-up...
You spent seven years in a van. What are your best and worst memories?
Van McCann: "To be honest, it was all the best. The seven of us sleeping in one bed in a Travelodge and battering each other because you've been on the road for six weeks. Or breaking down when it was literally freezing and nailing it down with rain and we had to put the van in neutral and roll it to the next petrol station.
"We all appreciate where it's at now, because we've all had those nightmare gigs" - Bondy
"But that makes for the best moments. If we were fighting about it at the time, five minutes later, you think, 'I don't care, I'm on tour with my best mates in the world.'"
Bondy, was lacking that shared history an advantage or disadvantage when you came into the band?
Johnny 'Bondy' Bond: "Well, I have the same story, but with different names and different places. We did the same thing [with Detroit Social Club]. We had next-to-no touring budget and we gigged a lot.
"Our first van, which we spent two years touring in, had four seats, the side door didn't work, then it had a bean bag and a chair for the other two band members! The gear would hit you on the head, in the back.
"If you really want it, you do that. You go out and play a gig, drive back from Glasgow, freezing, get up and go to work at half seven the next morning and get on with it. We all appreciate where it's at now, because we've all had those nightmare gigs."
Bonding with Bondy
Bondy joined the band in August 2014. Why did Billy leave the band?
Van: "Billy left the band because he had a big win on the bingo and Bondy joined the band because he's the saviour of all men. He was my favourite guitar player growing up. I used to go watch Detroit Social Club when I was a kid and tell all my mates, 'This guy, Johnny Bond, he's 17, and he's been on tour with Oasis. He's a geezer!'"
"Bondy had been watching us the week before at Latitude and the next thing, he was onstage with us at Reading and Leeds" - Van
"When it came to him joining our band, he'd been watching us the week before at Latitude and the next thing, he was onstage with us at Reading and Leeds."
Bondy: "My first gig was [Lake District festival] Kendal Calling. Van gave me a phone call about a half a week beforehand and said, 'Do you want to just come down to the practice room?' Then it was like, 'Oh yeah, we've got gigs in a few days...'
"So I basically had two days sat in my bedroom driving the guy I was living with insane by running through the songs on a loop, went down and walked into the practice room able to run the full set. So Kendal Calling was a baptism of fire - there were about 5,000 people in the tent. Then we had Reading and Leeds!"
Which guitarist or musician has had the biggest impact on your playing and writing style?
Van: "For me, it's Mike Skinner, he's my biggest inspiration, but in terms of a guitar player, I really like the way Van Morrison plays guitar. If he's screaming something, he'll make the guitar scream something.
"Slash and Led Zeppelin freaks me out. Those face-melting things... I don't want my face to melt, you know!?" - Van
"It's a bed for the lads, what I do, so I loved singer-songwriters in bands: Noel Gallagher, Kelly Jones, Richard Ashcroft, John Lennon - just those working-class guys. It just felt more real. I've got a big family so someone would always be in the kitchen on New Year's Eve playing Don't Look Back In Anger in the corner and smoking cigarettes.
"I just loved singing songs with people - that was always the holy grail of it. Slash and Led Zeppelin freaks me out. Those face-melting things... I don't want my face to melt, you know!?"
Bondy: "I'm only impressed by a guitarist when there's real feel in it, so the likes of Peter Green - he could play a guitar solo which uses a sparse amount of notes, but the feeling's there.
"On the whole, I'm not impressed by a solo that isn't melodic. I'm more impressed by vocal melodies. When I write songs myself, most of the guitar parts will be a secondary thing. So, from a guitar point of view, Peter Green."
What guitar are you playing at the moment? Do you have a favourite?
Van: "Bullet Tooth Tony, mate! It's this guitar that I've had for years [see The Root of Van's tone at the end of the gallery]."
"I literally bought this [a Bigsby-equipped Gibson Les Paul] the other day, in Nashville" - Bondy
Bondy: "I literally bought this [a Bigsby-equipped Gibson Les Paul] the other day, in Nashville, towards the end of the American tour. It's a 2002, and our roadie fitted the Bigsby for me, because I do quite a lot of mad dive-bombing stuff.
"I'm a very noisy guitarist. I've always avoided Les Pauls because I've been put off by the clean sounds, but it's pretty much all high-gain and fuzz boxes in this band, so I'm enjoying having my classic rock moment. I mean, the first time you pick one up, you just want to play T-Rex songs!"
What amp and pedals do you use?
Van: "I use a tiny little Marshall Class 5. It's got volume, mid, treble and bass on it and it's about the size of a pack of cigarettes. It's the simplest thing in the world.
"My setup is the Yorkshire Tea of guitars" - Van
"I go up to it and I go, 'Alright Marshall,' and he goes, 'Alright Van. What're we doing today, same old shit?' And I go, 'Yeah mate, nothing too much.' My setup is the Yorkshire Tea of guitars."
Bondy: "I've been switching around a bit on this tour, but I've got a Fender Super Reverb and a Marshall '87 Plexi head with an Orange cab that our guitar tech brought along and apparently used to belong to Nick McCabe. He recorded all The Verve stuff on it.
"Then pedals-wise, I've got a Z.Vex Vexter Fuzz Factory for the more wild moments, the MXR Custom Bad Ass for standard chord parts, a Keeley-modded Tube Screamer for cutting through, a Whammy pedal for lunacy, then the Roland Space Echo for delay, and a Holy Grail. I've had them pedals for maybe 10 years, though - the Holy Grail is literally rusted to bits!"
The view from The Balcony
What track from The Balcony do you most enjoy playing?
Van: "Cocoon - that's my jam. It always brings the house down. Lyrically, it's sublime and Bondy's guitar solo is just unbelievable. It's a really grown-up song, for me.
"In terms of watching the audience and just bashing the chords out, Cocoon is awesome" - Bondy
"Until about a year ago, I thought middle-eights were just something that got in the way of the third chorus, so Cocoon was like my first proper 'arms in the air' pop song. I was in New York and I was dead high-up in this building, looking out and I thought, 'I want to write something that fills this space.'"
Bondy: "Yeah, in terms of watching the audience and just bashing the chords out, Cocoon is awesome. People go ballistic when they hear that track.
"I think Tyrants displays a lot of the effects I use, but in terms of enjoyment, I'm usually on edge when I'm playing it. You've got to catch a lot of steps and do a lot of hits on pedals, so I'm always worried I'm going to fall on my arse!"
Guerilla gig tactics
You used to sneak into label offices and leave CDs. What else did you do?
Van: "We used to try everything! I remember trying to give Serge from Kasabian a demo when I was 15 and he said no. We were trying to sneak into his gig at Manchester Apollo as a support band, so we got a generator and revved it up outside and, as the venue opened the fire escapes, we had 2,500 people in the car park bouncing while our mate was giving CDs out.
"We had 2,500 people in the car park bouncing after [a Kasabian gig] while our mate was giving CDs out" - Van
"If we got stuck in traffic on the motorway, we'd walk up the line and give CDs out to all the cars. Then we'd just wind people up and get in the magazines and have a laugh. They'd always have to write about us because it would be like, 'Look at what these pricks have done now!'"
Things are going very well for the band nowadays. When did you notice a turning point, a moment of critical mass?
Van: "Reading and Leeds last year was definitely a moment. When we came offstage, everyone was crying."
Bondy: "It seemed a really poignant moment. The album wasn't even out and the crowd were singing every word back - and that was just over two weeks of me being in the band."
Van: "Everyone believed, but the tent wasn't full all day and it was all these bands that NME had been putting on the cover. We'd had none of that and we thought, 'No-one's going to come and see us.' But we went on and had 6,000 people in there and outside the tent, queuing up in the rain. I couldn't even get the words out because I couldn't stop laughing."
You're ambitious and you wear it on your sleeve. Why do you think other bands go to such pains to veil their ambitions?
"If selling out means playing to 100,000 people, making them lose their s**t... then I want to sell out!" - Van
Van: "They just don't know what they're on about. They say, 'We just want to make music for ourselves.' But if you wanted to make music for yourself, why did you leave your fucking bedroom? Why play a gig? Why stick it on the internet with fucking artwork and sell it on iTunes for 79p? You want to be successful. You're just talking bullshit. I think people see through it, to be honest.
"If selling out means playing to 100,000 people, making them lose their shit with their best mates and their girlfriends, then I want to sell out! If it's going on a Hellmans advert and getting two million quid for it then 'Fuck, I love mayonnaise!'"
What is your measure of success, then?
Van: "Just the fact that I don't live in Llandudno anymore. I live in Chester with my best mate in a tiny little cottage... People have taken a chance on us and we're never letting that go!
"We're so overwhelmed by the support that we're like, 'Fuck having a break!' I don't want to go to parties yet. Writer's block? That's just a fucking ciggie break, mate. You come back in and you finish the song. You do what you need to do.
"We're just proper little normal gimps. I'm just so grateful and proud that people have invested in my music and my group. And we're only young. I'm only 22 - I've still got five years before I have to worry about writing Sex On Fire or Wonderwall!"
The Root of Van's tone Meet Van's sidekick, Bullet Tooth Tony...
He might not have a clue who the Slipknot guitarist is, but Van's devoted to his Fender Squier Jim Root Tele AKA 'Bullet Tooth Tony'.
"You see all these bands get all this mad free stuff, but I'm from Widnes, man, my guitar is stinky!" - Van
"I don't even know him. Doesn't he have a mask on sometimes?" laughs Van. "I use that guitar because it's matt Black and it's got a volume knob, and that's it. It was like £150 and I've swapped the scratchplates over and I've smashed it up, but it just doesn't break or go out of tune.
"The biggest gig I've played with it was about 15,000 or 16,000 - when we did Earl's Court. You see all these bands get all this mad free stuff, but I'm from Widnes, man, my guitar is stinky! You're not a football player, you don't need good boots. But then again, Bondy's Les Paul sounds amazing and everyone takes the mick out of my guitar - you don't get girls with my guitar!"