Frightened Rabbit: Great Scots

Music Features Frightened Rabbit
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As a boy in Selkirk, Scotland, 100 miles away from bustling Glasgow, Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison loved to draw. He learned to play guitar in high school, but art was his passion. Before he went off to Glasgow for art school, he’d never even sung in public. It hadn’t crossed his mind that he could.

“Glasgow basically opened up my eyes up to what people were doing,” he says. “You didn’t necessarily have to be a hugely accomplished singer to express these ideas and make something that was worthwhile. Even though I was into music from an early age, I never saw it as a career. I never saw myself as someone who would be the primary writer in any way.”

The city seemed exotic, exciting, even dangerous, and it opened up new possibilities he hadn’t considered. “I hadn’t even written a song when I moved to Glasgow,” Hutchison says. “At that point, I was 18, and that’s when an epiphany happened. I started writing. My music taste changed. Prior to that, I listened to Pearl Jam, I listened to Soundgarden, I listened to Nirvana all through my teens. Then all of a sudden when I was Glasgow, I found specifically Glasgow bands like The Delgados and Belle & Sebastian and Mogwai, where there was this beauty and romance in the music that—not to be disparaging to Soundgarden and Pearl Jam—was maybe missing before. There was a much more delicate and poetic and dramatic aspect to the music I was listening to. And that completely changed everything for me.”

When Hutchison took those first songs, called himself Frightened Rabbit and slowly began gathering a band, it was that distinctive Scottish romanticism blended with an equally Scottish sense of humor that gained the attention of fans. It was confessional without coming across as too emo—heartfelt songs that even cynical hipsters could claim as their own.

“Obviously beauty and romance and forthright lyrics are not unique to Scotland,” he says, “but there is a very specific tone to Scottish music and lyricism. There’s a sense that baring all is OK as long as you do it with humor, and I think it feels a lot less like a diary entry. Sometimes, I guess, music can be over-earnest. You actually can get away with throwing yourself entirely into full-on emotion, but there has to be an edge to it or almost like a caveat which brings it back to something much more normal or pedestrian or everyday. I think the unique thing about Scotland is that every romantic or overblown notion is always tinged with a tongue-of-cheek sense of humor. I’m thinking of [Belle & Sebastian frontman] Stuart Murdoch or Aidan Moffat from Arab Strap—all those self-deprecating and very knowing lyrics. There’s something quite unique to Scotland about that.”

That sense of staying grounded has never been more important for the band, whose fourth album, Pedestrian Verse, is being released on Atlantic Records today. One need only to look up the road in Dundee to find a Scottish band on a major label who doesn’t quite counterbalance its earnestness—Snow Patrol. But Hutchison has faith that his peers would never let Frightened Rabbit stray from its roots.

“One of the great things about being part of the Scottish music scene is that there’s no real place for egotism,” Hutchison says. “That’s really shot down pretty quickly because it’s a very small scene and very few people involved in it. With Snow Patrol, essentially they’re not really involved in the Scottish music scene anymore. They’re quite far beyond that. We still feel like a really integral part of that. I don’t think you can get away with being a self-absorbed, egotistical asshole—and I’m not saying anyone from Snow Patrol is that—but you can’t get away with that. You have to ground yourself. There’s a grounding in the music that never lets it get too grand or too self-absorbed.”

Hutchison also tried to keep his own ego in check by giving up some of the usual control over songwriting and recording to his bandmates—his brother Grant Hutchison (drums), Billy Kennedy (guitar, bass), Andy Monaghan (guitar, keyboards), Gordon Skene (guitar, keyboards)—and producer Leo Abrahams.

It’s been a long process for Hutchison, whose habit had been to present his bandmates with near-completed songs. “With the last record, I’d almost reached a point where I started to repeat myself and there was a pattern to my writing I was starting to recognize,” he says. “I didn’t think that was helping things. Moving forward, it seemed like I needed something to refresh the process. We’d been a band, a five-piece, for like three years by that point. We really felt like it was the time to start working collectively and getting everyone else involved so they’d really have an ownership of the songs from the outset rather than me bringing them material three months in and having to get used to it at that point.”

The result is the most varied album of the band’s career, but it didn’t come easily, at least at first. “It was a longer process this time,” he says. “We’re now almost three years since The Winter of Mixed Drinks came out, and there’s a reason for that. It’s not because we’ve been sitting on our asses; it’s because we started something that wasn’t natural to us. We found our stride about halfway through the process, and then everyone felt like it was a very collective thing. The decision-making was done collectively. It was much more kind of a forum idea rather than my say being the last word of the matter. It was a difficult thing for me to let go of control of something I felt was my project and my kind of—I hate using the word ‘baby,’ but it’s one of the best ways to describe it.”

Once he learned to let go, though, “it was actually really liberating,” he continues. “There are elements in this record that have absolutely nothing to do with me. In that sense, I was able to sit back and really for the first time, listen with a very different kind of viewpoint on the whole thing. There’s a bit more distance between myself and the material. We were much more decisive. There were times in the past where I would have just had veto [power] over something. This time it was up for discussion. And I think that made a huge difference to the way it sounds. I think it sounds like one of the most concise things we’ve ever done.”

Of course, one thing Hutchison couldn’t let go of was the last thing to be added to a song once the structure and melodies were in place—the lyrics. No one had any interest in sharing that role with him, and he had no interest in giving up that outlet.

“I write songs because I have no other way of communicating these thoughts,” he says. “I find it very difficult to do it in conversation but I’m very, very aware that I personally, as a listener, would never want to feel like I’m listening to someone’s diary entry. And I always try to write after the fact. Essentially, what I’m trying to do with those feelings and thoughts is seal them off. So it’s not about, ‘This is how I felt today.’ This is more about, almost, characterizing myself. And then, in that sense, if I remove myself slightly from the event then I’m able to write a slightly more balanced account. Self-deprecation does come into that because I have to catch myself, I have to stop myself from writing too—it’s not a very clever word, but I started to feel a bit icky of saying what I was saying to a wider audience. So, I find myself having to catch that at the last minute and go, ‘That’s enough’ or with a slight caveat that pulls it back from being too overtly emotional. And I guess that’s something I learned from Stuart Murdoch and I learned from Aidan Moffat”

For the band’s second album, The Midnight Organ Fight, Hutchison drew on the emotions from a difficult breakup, a topic he tried to shy away from on its follow-up The Winter of Mixed Drinks. This time he resolved to write only about other people in different areas of society, and early songs like “Acts of Man” and “State Hospital” are evidence of that. But then another breakup changed the tone for several songs on the album.

“I thought, at the time, I’d written enough songs about myself,” he says. “But then that necessity comes into play when something actually happens in your life. It’s kind of necessary for me to reflect on that. I write because I can’t really find any other way to express myself. It’s kind of important that I find a way of externalizing things I think and feel. So I didn’t really have a choice, and it all came back to this one person and this one event. And, in a sense, a lot of these songs do have something in common with Organ Fight.”

Listening to devastating songs like “Nitrous Gas” and “December’s Traditions” might have some listeners worried about Hutchison’s well-being, but it’s almost as though putting the sadness into his songs serves as a release valve. And sharing them with others turns those emotions completely on their heads.

“‘Nitrous Gas’ in itself is bit of a joke,” he says. “It’s almost like getting so miserable that it’s fucking funny. I’ve never found it difficult to play a song live. I’ve never found it hard to retread that. It’s actually quite the opposite. It’s kind of a wonderful thing that I’m able to continue processing. And then it’s also achieved something very positive about something quite negative. One of the things I really love about being in this band and playing live is that the live experience never feels depressing or morose. It can be quite a celebration, and there’s a lovely feeling amongst the audience that everyone’s letting go and releasing something in the same way that I release something within the lyrics and writing the songs in the first place.”

Even before getting into the studio, the band toured throughout the Scottish Highlands to try them out live for small, particularly appreciative audiences. It had been a trip Hutchison had wanted to do since starting the band almost a decade ago. He’d seen a documentary of another Scottish band, Idlewild, playing village halls and other places bands don’t typically tour up north.

“I thought ‘that looks incredible,’” he says. “It’s not only a great way to see the country that you grew up in—there were places that we went to that were unfamiliar to me. I’d never been to Skye, for instance. There was also a sense of rewarding those people with something intimate and something new. We want to try our material out on our most loyal and most ardent fan base. It felt like the right place to do it. We really wanted to make sure that by the time these songs got to the studio they felt a little bit worn-in. When someone brings something into the studio brand new, that can be either exciting or it can mean that the song is not actually truly realized or developed. So part of playing them live and playing them in Scotland was like a very comfortable and easy way for us to figure out where we needed to take the songs when we finally found ourselves in the studio.”

That close relationship with the fanbase has always been important to a band that used to send out biscuits with its demos in the early days. Having spent so much time developing a following and establishing an image, Hutchison was a little wary of what signing with a label like Atlantic would mean, but so far it’s gone better than he hoped.

“I expected way more of a fight,” he says. “And, in a lot of ways, I understand completely when we signed to a major label, some people—via social networks—were expressing concern. And that’s a concern I actually shared with them. I certainly was expecting we’d have to battle to maintain something we’ve spent six or seven years building from literally one person up to five, record upon record. And that fight never came. Which was really weird. I think we truly expected a lot more involvement—a lot of even really heavy-handed lack of respect—and that just didn’t happen. The label’s been so aware of where we come from and what Frightened Rabbit is now and how to treat that. If someone from the label starts coming in and, for instance, taking over our Twitter and it started to become just a feed of adverts for what we’re up to, that’ s just gonna smell like shit to everyone who have been intimate with the band for the past four or five years. And they knew that. They knew that if they tried to do that, it would be a mistake. They understand that we’re not wide-eyed 19-year-olds who are just like, ‘Give us free shit and take us to award ceremonies.’ I’m just waiting for that moment where things start turning awry but it’s not happened.”

Instead, Frightened Rabbit is a band that’s slowly, steadily grown into itself with a new, more collaborative way to work. Hutchison can’t see ever going backwards on that—at least with this group of musicians.

“But the great thing is,” he says, “now that there’s a new way of working for the band, it almost liberates me and opens me up. Before, everything I did went into Frightened Rabbit. Absolutely everything. Now, I don’t think that’s going to be the case. I think we have a way of working as a band and, if I ever wanted to break from that, then that will be an entirely different project and it would be called something else and it will contain material that’s quite different. Right now, I’m trying to gather and focus some energy on certain collaborations. I think that’s something I’d love to continue. As far as solo stuff goes, I haven’t had the time or maybe the energy because the album kind of zapped all of it. But I’d like to do more solitary work in the future.”

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