Frightened Rabbit: Some things just feel right
After a summer of playing festivals, Scottish indie rockers Frightened Rabbit is hitting the road again in support of their most recent album, Painting of a Panic Attack. Produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner, Painting of a Panic Attack features the band’s anthems but with percolating electronics sprinkled throughout the songs. Taking a break from rehearsals, singer-guitarist Scott Hutchison recently phoned us to talk about the album.
Growing up in Selkirk, what kind of music did you listen to?
When I was growing up, it was the beginning or middle of grunge. I was into Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and went to see all those kinds of bands. This was pre-Internet. It wasn’t a hugely diverse selection of music at my disposal. That was the best I could do. The whole thing changed for me when I moved up to Glasgow and in the local area, I could see Scottish music. I was getting into other stuff like Ryan Adams and Wilco and Mogwai. It really opened up. Before that, I wasn’t really a songwriter. I was just a guitar player. I didn’t have any ambition to be a songwriter and didn’t consider myself a singer in any way. It was really just learning guitar solos when I was in high school and then I ditched that to start playing something more simple and meaningful.
Why do you think you were drawn to alt-country acts like Wilco and Ryan Adams?
I liked the storytelling and the honesty. There was less bluster involved. It still had drama but it was subtler. The whole thing seemed more connected to human nature and what it’s like to be alive. I felt like the stories in those songs and the idea of the singer being the protagonist and he can sing and write openly your own life was what drew me to that music and made me want to do that myself.
The band started as a solo project and then became a duo for the first album. Talk about what it was like to record that first album, Sing the Greys.
We didn’t even really think we were making an album. We were just messing around. A guy who became our friend had a studio and he saw the band almost by mistake. He thought there was something in it. He told us we could use the studio. It wasn’t intended to be an album. We had the songs and we ended up putting it out ourselves and then getting signed and putting it out again. It was a DIY thing with no huge ambition for it at that point.
Did The Midnight Organ Fight represent a breakthrough for the band in terms of its popularity?
Yeah. That was where it started to snowball. That tour got crazy, especially in the U.S. Our agent told us we could come back next week and still have an audience. Things just doubled and tripled over time. For a year and a half, we hardly stopped touring and we were totally up for it. We were in our mid-twenties and we wanted to tour as much as possible. That’s what we did. The whole thing snowballed. We realized we could pursue it and it could be our job. It was incredible. That wasn’t the situation prior.
Talk about when the songs for Painting of a Panic Attack started to come together.
I guess it was August of 2014. We reconvened after a few months off doing some other things and generally getting some time away from the band. The touring schedule was equally hectic. We needed that time off. It wasn’t like we agreed to take six months off and come back. It was just that we waited until we wanted to get back in the studio. We started making soundscapes and feeling our way around to see what the sonic feel of the album would be. They weren’t necessarily songs at that point. There were vocals. It was like writing a film soundtrack. We figured our way out from that. Then, songs started coming from those nuggets over the next couple of years.
Living in Los Angeles inspired some of the lyrics?
It did. It wasn’t entirely negative. I just didn’t quite connect with that city. I had some amazing times there. It just turned out not to be for me. I spent 18 months there and found it tough to find a tight social group. That didn’t appear and it took some effort to try to create it.
You got an Owl John album out of the deal.
Lyrically, that album did come from there. We recorded the music first and then after that, I moved to L.A. and wrote all the lyrical content. That’s right at the start. Painting of a Panic Attack covers less of that. It’s more like the next stage of me living there. It’s about how the city isn’t quite what I thought it would be.
How’d you wind working with The National’s Aaron Dessner?
He had been listening to Frightened Rabbit for a bit and we toured with them. We had mutual friends but it never went further than that. He enjoyed the solo record and we just got in touch by email through someone at the label. At that point in time, the idea was that he could help arrange some of the ideas I had forming. I had demos that weren’t finished. It wasn’t’ put on the table that he would produce. I went to his house in Brooklyn and we worked on his studio in his backyard and he invested so much time and thought into the demos so it was a no brainer. We’re all huge fans of The National so we were excited.
What did he bring to the album?
He calms us down a little bit. Making music is grasping for attention, and he allows the songs to breathe. He coaxed us away from the habits. It doesn’t have to have a huge chorus and big ending. You can let the song travel of its own accord. He reined us in. It’s very restrained in that sense. Tempo-wise, he brings a good deal of holding back and that can be more powerful than throwing the kitchen sink at it. That was a huge lesson to learn.
I hear a lot of electronics imbedded in the tunes.
A lot of that comes from the demo. I started working with music software half way through. I was previously reliant on [guitarist/keyboardist] Andy [Monaghan] and I was in L.A., and I had to learn something for myself. I tapped into some electronic sounds and it was a whole new soundscape. I hadn’t used that instrumentation to write. The core is less me in a room with a guitar. It was more about me experimenting with a little synth or tapping away on drum pads. A lot of it was discovered away from the kit. It was really to get out of the comfort zone. I had existed as a songwriter in that mind frame for quite a long time. I would write on piano or guitar and then work them up. Their inception was electronics. Many of the sounds you hear are taken straight from the demo sessions.
I love the way “Get Out” starts slow and then explodes. Talk about your approach on that song.
That came together so quick. I did write that one on guitar. It was so fast and natural and it came three quarters of the way through the demos. We were getting caught up in this whirlpool of thinking too much about songs. That one came along like a breath of fresh air. The chorus is what came down on the first day. I thought it was a holding lyric. I thought I would find something more erudite and smart. It never really happened, so I thought it was the right one. There’s something to be said for that. We tried to do that on this record. We would run the course between thought and instinct. Some things just feel right and you don’t know why. There are other days you spend days pouring over and can’t get them right. There’s a good combination of that on this record.
Did a particular incident inspire “I Wish I Was Sober”?
Maybe not. I don’t know if it was one incident. Unfortunately, it was a number of incidents. My relationship with alcohol hasn’t always been a healthy one. That spans from nights of getting lost and I guess drinking to hide from something. That’s a theme that’s recurring. I’m sober now. I haven’t drunk for one month at this point, which is the longest stretch perhaps in my adult life. Changes had to happen. It’s weird saying that. I get to the point in the evening when I think it’s perfect and I want to make it more perfect. That doesn’t happen and it gets worse. I’m enjoying not doing it. I like the clarity. It’s refreshing.
I like how “A Lick of Paint” closes the album. Making it the last song was intentional, right?
That song is a bonus track. It’s not made clear at all. These songs are not part of the album. It’s supposed to end with “Die Like a Rich Boy.” I thought about it a lot. I looked up on iTunes, and it’s a 15-song album. I was like, “What the fuck?” The main body of the album was considered to the point that “Lump Street” and “Die Like a Rich Doy” almost run in sequence. They’re related lyrically. We went over various things and played the song in the car. It’s important to us. I really it’s not as important to the majority of the general public because people don’t listen to music in that way but you might as well try.
Do you have a sense of where things might go on the next album?
It’s time to make a bold move. We started looking into that with the electronics, and I’m intrigued as to how much farther we can push that and take a bolder step with the next album. We only just started discovering those things during the making of this album. There’s more to discover. I want to go further into that realm of weirdness. The album didn’t come out as strange as I hoped. We want to make a stranger one next time.