Catfish Coast to Coast is five cities, five photographers, five favorite shots, and five questions documenting each photographer’s impressions of the event. Journey to Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, and our final destination of New York City as Catfish and the Bottlemen tour America in support of their debut album The Balcony, available on Communion Records.
We hope you enjoyed the ride.
PART 5 of 5: NEW YORK CITY, THE BOWERY BALLROOM
Our 5-city itinerary from coast to coast with Catfish and the Bottlemen ends with New York City, just as Catfish and the Bottlemen are poised to conquer the Big Apple once again with a show at Webster Hall on June 16. It is a fitting finale in that no city in America is more closely tied to the lore and aura of Catfish and the Bottlemen than New York. It was on a balcony in NYC that Van McCann wrote his personal favorite track on the album, “Cocoon,” while taking in the view of an urban, nocturnal tapestry of lights that shined bright with hope and possibility. That moment of euphoric inspiration is the namesake of the band’s debut LP, The Balcony.
New York is also home to Tim Lahan, the artist who drew the Keith Haring-esque white on black illustration on The Balcony album cover. The story of how that came to be is told at the end of this article.
New York is also currently home to Ewan McGregor whose familiar face has graced the drum kit and the amps of Catfish and the Bottlemen on tour. This admiration has become reciprocal and Sir Ewan recently co-starred in the band’s video for “Hourglass.”
Finally, New York was the first American city to ever host the band, in June of 2014. It also just so happens that our photographer Ken Grand-Pierre was there to capture that moment, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
On this particular journey to the Big Apple, Catfish and the Bottlemen played a sold out show at The Bowery Ballroom, capacity 575. The beautiful Beaux Arts building, originally constructed just prior to the stock market crash of 1929 and vacant for decades thereafter, has operated as a state-of-the-art concert hall since 1998. Numerous notable performers have played The Bowery. If one were to merely list a selection of “bands whose name begins with C” alongside Catfish and the Bottlemen, that list would include Coldplay, Counting Crows, Chris Cornell, Courtney Love, The Cranberries, Cloud Nothings, Caspian, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah… Imagine then the entire A to Z of talent that has played The Bowery Ballroom!
Ken Grand-Pierre spent his teen years in a small suburban town about 40 minutes away from New York City. He describes it as a place where it was not common to pursue goals and dreams. He thus left home to continue his studies in New York City when he was 17. Once in the city, Ken began going to concerts and experiencing the joy and energy of live music. Seeking a means and an excuse to attend more shows, he seized upon the idea of becoming a photographer, purchasing a camera with the little money he had. There was, however, one concern: he had no experience with photography, “no business holding a camera,” and was, initially “really bad, super god-awful.” He nevertheless got a thrill from doing it and persisted until he got better and even excelled at it, to a point where it has now become his life.
High profile acts that have been photographed by Ken include Phoenix, Fun, NIN, Queens of the Stone Age, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Kills, Arctic Monkeys, Blur, The Strokes, The Kooks, Interpol, Rudimental, Stromae, and many more. He even photographed Little Comets who recently joined The Bottlemen on their UK tour dates.
Ken’s relationship with Catfish and the Bottlemen dates back to June 3, 2014 when he photographed their very first performance in the US at a Communion label showcase at Rockwood Music Hall. A few days later, he captured a series of day-in-the-life photos and documented their midday performance at the 2014 edition of Governors Ball Music Festival. Remaining a loyal fan of the band, Ken shot their first major US tour in autumn of 2014 in both New York City and nearby Brooklyn venues. The current assignment, as well as his attendance again at the band’s recent Brooklyn show, likely makes him the only photographer to have captured all six New York City area performances of the band to date. “I love seeing their growth,” he marvels.
Spotlight on Larry!
“Larry has become just as much of a celebrity as the band,” observes Ken Grand-Pierre. “The audience chanted his name before and during the show. It surprised me and was amazing to see that.”
5 Questions for the Photographer
XS – What was your personal show highlight?
The Bowery Ballroom is a room that can be both joyous and intimidating for bands. It’s an intimate room and at the same time a fairly large room so a lot of bands can feel a sense of trepidation playing there: they don’t know how the crowd is going to react or how they’re going to do. What’s amazing with Catfish is that they don’t fall under that. They don’t care if something seems daunting or terrifying. They’ll just go right into it. My favorite thing about this show is that it was such a great example of that. They came out on stage and started playing right away. It was all about enthusiasm. It was great seeing Van’s enthusiasm. He was performing like he was performing in New York: the fact that he was playing music in New York was on his mind the whole time. He was constantly smiling, thrashing about, thanking the crowd. It was a really nice environment to see a show. The crowd was singing along. The crowd was singing so much that at times you could barely hear Van! It was almost deafening, chant-like. It’s a weird thing to say, but not every band can connect with a crowd. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Catfish just do, they connect with the crowd and they work beautifully. You can tell they care about the audience.
XS – Describe the show in five words or less.
Joyous. Ferocious. Fresh. Immediate. Hopeful.
It’s the final city in the series so we’re going to break a rule for this question and include Ken’s full explanation of the word “hopeful” because it’s a good one:
Definitely hopeful because the thing about Catfish that I love a lot, it’s probably one of the most important things about them: in cities like New York or LA, going to shows just becomes a thing that you do. It’s fun and you love it, but sometimes, the performance is not as memorable as you would want it to be. So a band like Catfish is hopeful because everything they do is such a great experience that reminds you why you love live music. That’s something that a lot of bands can’t do so it’s a very hopeful thing to watch them perform.
XS – What was your favorite thing about shooting this show?
Something that happens after a while when you photograph musicians and shows is that you start to understand that you need to accept whatever is being given to you. Photography is an interesting field because it also has a lot to do with control and environment, and what throws a lot of people about concert photography is the exact opposite of that – you have control over almost nothing! What I love about that is when you have a band as energetic and fun as Catfish are, as passionate as they are, it makes for great photos because you’re just feeding off of them. When I photograph musicians, that’s what I aim to do. I feed off of the band. My favorite thing was capturing their ferocity, and also their generosity because they spent the show thanking the crowd and smiling. It’s great to see a band do that, to show that it’s massive for them to be playing a show in New York. I loved being able to capture that happiness.
XS – Which shot is your personal favorite and why?
There’s a close up photo of Van that’s dark with red light coming from behind. Something I’ve become obsessed with when photographing bands is that of course you want to capture the essence of that band, capture everything they’re about, but also, which is very important, is capturing things that maybe people don’t have, something different. The best way to do that is to capture moments when the band is doing something different that they’re not really known for. When people talk about Catfish, they talk about the energy and the passion. No one really talks about the quiet moments like when Van is singing a song like Homesick or Hourglass. That particular photo was taken right before the final chorus of Homesick. Just capturing a moment like that means a lot to me.
XS – Anything else you want to add?
When I first heard Catfish and the Bottlemen, oddly enough I heard them on the radio. A good friend of mine Phil Taggart works for the BBC and once in a while when we’re talking, he’ll have music on in the background and one day he had Catfish playing just in the background. I remember asking him what it was and he told me. That started the rabbit hole of it all. I thought, “These guys are good, I want to find out who they are.” What I’m leading into is that sometimes the bands you end up loving a lot, the bands you really end up latching on to are bands that you don’t try to find. They just come to you randomly, when you least expect it. So what I’d love to say to people who are reading this is to keep an open ear to anything. If you’re reading this and don’t know who Catfish and the Bottlemen are, look them up! Don’t care about influences, or who they might sound like, or how they dress – just listen to the music. What I love about this band is you could give someone one of their songs and you don’t have to describe it; people will take to it. It’s immediate.
Last year at Governors Ball, I wanted to do something different and cover the early opening bands. One day was Little Comets, one day was Catfish and the Bottlemen, and one day was this amazing artist named Meg Myers. I got there at about 9:00 am when they were setting up for their set a few hours later and it gave us time to talk and get to know each other. During that morning, they were always aware of how new a band they seemed even though they’d been at it for a while. They understood people would be hearing them for the first time, and with that, there is nervousness that comes with it. They were quite nervous prior to going on stage, they didn’t know if people would take to them.
Every time I’ve seen them since, I’ve just seen them become more confident and comfortable. At Bowery I loved seeing them confident that they deserved to be there. For a band to play New York and project “We have the right to be here,” is massive. There’s a confidence that they’ve taken a hold of and I love seeing that progression.
They’re a band who doesn’t try to overthink what they do and who they are. They don’t try to be weird. Their music is simple. Some people might listen and think they’re too simple, but I actually think that’s one of their strongest attributes. They have a large female fan base, but they’re all songs that girls can have their boyfriends listen to and love as well. One of my favorite lyrics is in “Hourglass,” “Craving your calls like a soldier’s wife.” That’s perfect! If you’re a guy who’s into a girl, that’s what it feels like. And that someone like Van can just condense it in that way… not many people can do that. All genders, all ages can get into this band. That’s amazing to me.
Every year I get to work with a lot of bands. Something that never gets old and always surprises me is seeing these bands grow. Two bands I worked with a lot last year are Catfish and the Bottlemen and Royal Blood. I feel it would be impossible not to bring up Royal Blood in that both Catfish and Royal Blood are becoming massive, but they’re the most humble people you could ever meet. Catfish don’t see themselves as rock stars when you talk to them. They see themselves as just people. I’ve seen them at the start. I’ve seen them have to struggle a bit and wonder what they might do and where they could go. Sometimes with success, people change, but with these guys don’t forget the hard times. They worked really hard and I’m very happy for them. You can’t predict success like that. A lot of people think you can, and that it’s calculated, but you can’t. It really depends on if people take to it or not. Catfish and the Bottlemen’s success belongs completely to them.
Epilogue: Tales of New York – The Art of The Balcony
One of the lasting ties between Catfish and the Bottlemen and New York City stems from the now-iconic image that graces the sleeve of The Balcony depicting two headless bodies, one male, one female in a surreal, intimate moment. The story of how that image came to grace the album cover is told by artist Tim Lahan:
“The artwork on the cover was originally a random doodle I did while bored at work, and uploaded to my old Flickr account in summer of 2009. Van from the band emailed me about the drawing and asked if he could use it for the band’s second EP, Beautiful Decay (coincidentally the name of an art publication I also had work in that year). At some point last year the band’s management had contacted me again about Van’s desire to use the drawing for their major label debut LP. The rest just snowballed from there.”
The original post to Flickr of Tim’s ink on paper illustration can be seen here.
The graphically simple illustration has been redrawn, reinterpreted, and embraced by fans around the world in a variety of media: notebook doodles, graffiti, needlepoint, keychains, DIY fashion, and cake.
A few particularly devout fans have even had the art from The Balcony tattooed on their bodies. One of the first individuals to have done so is Sean Traynor, who shares why he made this choice:
“I first heard of them just over 2 years ago. Their song ‘Homesick’ was on YouTube and as soon as I heard it I was hooked. I first saw them play in November 2013 at a venue in Dunfermline, Fife called PJ Malloy’s to about 50 people and then again a few months later in Glasgow to about 100 people. This was where I first met them. I couldn’t ask for a nicer bunch of people: had a lot of time for the fans, they had a drink with everyone after they played, really down to earth. They are all about the same age as me; they’ve achieved a dream I’ve always had and worked really, really hard to get there. I have the most respect for bands who make it on their own without them being manufactured. It’s what music is all about and they are a prime example. This is why they mean so much to me because I personally live for music. Because of all this, I decided to get a tattoo related to them and what better way to do it than get this fine piece of artwork.”
— Sean Traynor (@seantraynorrr) March 21, 2015
Our chronicle of Catfish Coast to Coast ends here with a short inventory of a few recent achievements: a successful and sold out US coast to coast tour in support of their debut The Balcony, a Late Night with David Letterman appearance, a sold out UK Tour, a debut album that went gold in the UK, a Main Stage appearance at BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend, another US Tour currently in the works, a fully booked summer festivals season, an upcoming UK tour that sold out close to 30,000 tickets in a matter of minutes… By the looks of it, Catfish and the Bottlemen have only begun building a devoted fan base and may be well on their way to becoming one of the most successful bands of the decade.
Special thanks to the band, and to Arwen, Daniel, and Kristina for helping make this adventure possible.
By Julie Blore-Bizot
Photography by Ken Grand-Pierre
Additional photography and special thanks to The Bowery Ballroom, Paul Adams (setlist photo), Sean Traynor (Catfish and the Bottlemen tattoo photo), and artist Tim Lahan (timlahan.com) for sharing his story of the iconic cover art for The Balcony.