Frightened Rabbit came to a crossroads after a lengthy tour behind 2013’s Pedestrian Verse; months on the road left the Scottish band—particularly singer-guitarist Scott Hutchison—exhausted and creatively spent. Stepping away, Hutchison recorded an album under the name Owl John and right around the same time moved from his native Scotland to Los Angeles. The city didn’t offer much for him to love, but it provided a wealth of emotionally packed material for Hutchison to draw on for Painting Of A Panic Attack, the fifth Frightened Rabbit album. Never one to shy away from putting his own emotional experiences into song, he wrote a batch that somehow manage to spin stormy topics—drinking, death, suicide, obsession, “an otherwise disappointing life”—into something less like a wallow and more like an exorcism. Produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, Panic Attack finds Frightened Rabbit in a more restrained, more complex mode; its songs rely much less on big guitars than they once did. But the trade-off is well worth meeting the album halfway: Hutchison’s words are as candid and lyrically surprising as ever, and the production reveals something new about them with every subtle turn. Hutchison spoke to The A.V. Club shortly before the album’s release and the start of a long tour that will send Frightened Rabbit around the world for much of 2016.
The A.V. Club: Where are you calling from?
Scott Hutchison: I’m just at the end of a slightly crazy week in New York. I was doing some TV stuff and then a couple of shows, and all the while trying to get over food poisoning. So it was fun.
AVC: Can you describe that food poisoning to me in detail?
SH: You want a headline? [Laughs.] You kinda forget how bad that can be. It was the kind where I’d rather be dead.
AVC: Do you know what caused it?
SH: I have this feeling that it was a hipster restaurant in Brooklyn. I remember cutting through the fish and thinking, “That’s not quite there.” And I just went with it because I was hungry. I should’ve sent it back. But I’m solid now, thank you very much.
AVC: Let’s talk about other scary, harrowing things instead—like your new album. Sometimes I listen to your records and I worry about you.
SH: Imagine what it’s like for my mother! This was a process, this album. We went through a couple of transitions before getting to the place where it stands now. I began writing trying to mask all that stuff—what you might describe as worrying. I started out with this smart concept album, where it was going to have a couple of characters and a narrative around them. And then life gets in the way, or walks in. I guess I was kind of reminded of why I started writing songs in the first place. I had to go back to that idea.
It’s a tough place to be, album number five, and wonder what the purpose of your band is. Is there really a necessity for another Frightened Rabbit album at all? All those kind of doubts are flying around. But I had this need when I was 18 to write a song. Should I try and tap into that again, and see where the need lies within my existence?
AVC: And you’ve never been a guy who’s hidden behind the “these are characters” thing, as if the songs had little or nothing to do with your experience.
SH: Even in some of the more narrative-based songs, there’s a portion of me, maybe just a bit more veiled. If you go too far, it’s going to sound like a teenager’s diary entry. But if you’re able to pull back, it’s not so oppressive. I’ve been kind of curious, and asking interviewers who have listened to the band for a period of time: When you hear Frightened Rabbit, what plays in your head? Are you imagining me? Not in a sexual way. [Laughs.] I’m just curious as to whether the listener has a movie with me as a character or whether they’re the protagonist in the song.
AVC: I don’t think I’m actually visualizing you while listening to your songs, but I hear them as stories that you’re telling, about you, that I can perhaps relate to.
SH: This material comes from real stuff. It’s not actually that thinly veiled. This has been an interesting period in my life, moving to Los Angeles, and being slightly out of step there. That contributed to a very, very intense—high and low—but wonderful relationship. We were very insular. It’s not an entirely negative album. It’s kind of an ode to some of the most extreme feelings I’ve ever had for another person. It was a very extreme thing to do, to leave my home, my family and friends, and go live in Los Angeles—a place I had never really felt a connection to. And to live with someone I actually hadn’t known for a great amount of time. It became a very intense thing. I have no real regrets about it, but it’s very much more written within the time itself rather than being reflective. The previous albums have described events that perhaps happened months or years prior, and this one is a lot closer to home.
AVC: Did you move to L.A. because that’s where your girlfriend already lived, or did you move there together?
SH: She lived there. That was my only impetus for going. I wanted to try something else. I’d lived in Scotland all my life, but the sole reason for moving there was her. I didn’t think too much about it. I don’t regret it, but as an adult to feel that out of sorts, it’s almost like going to school again. To feel like an alien. I was relearning how to live in a way.
AVC: What specifically made you feel that way? Was it the relationship, or the cultural shift?
SH: I don’t think the relationship was doing it. I found [L.A.] lonely, and I think she had as well. It’s got a very different social construct than other cities that I’ve spent any significant amount of time in. Friendships can be very surface. There’s lots of acquaintances, but no real connective tissue in a community sense. That formed a little moat around the two of us, and we sort of fell into one another a lot more heavily. That could be totally heavenly and also quite destructive. It’s sort of a vicious cycle, because the more you get involved in your own little world, it closes people off anyway. I never fell in love with it. I was there for 18 months, and then I left to go to Hudson.
AVC: Hudson, New York? That’s like the polar opposite of L.A.
SH: We’d spent the first half of the recording session at Aaron [Dessner]’s place; he has a place near Hudson. So we were up there for a couple of days working with him, before going to the studio near Woodstock, called Dreamland. At the time, I think I was over Los Angeles. We both were. You’re right, it’s basically the opposite of that. That’s what struck me up there. “Oh shit, I can actually have all the things we’ve been craving, and be closer to home.” I’m not one to get homesick, but I felt far from home in Los Angeles. It seemed to provide all the things that were missing. It’s a really sweet little community, lots of artists and musicians. I’ve grown into it far, far quicker than L.A. I guess I just never grew into L.A.
AVC: What sort of Frightened Rabbit record might come out of living in such an idyllic place?
SH: [Laughs.] I don’t know! Maybe I’ll start jamming a little bit more. Maybe we can get a couple of the bros over, into a practice space in the disused high school, and we just record it all in a couple of days. That’s very much the feeling up there. Grant’s [Grant Hutchison, Frightened Rabbit drummer] actually got a set of congas from high school; I think he was smoking weed at that point. He’s not been able to sell them, so if you know anybody that wants to buy Frightened Rabbit congas…
AVC: A lot of the story around the Owl John record was that you needed a break to maintain your sanity, but it sounds like you jumped into something that was insane in a different way.
SH: A little. The way that the Owl John thing worked is that we recorded all the music, and came back to Glasgow after being on a little island called Mull in Scotland. Three or four days later, I moved, and then completed that album in Los Angeles. I didn’t immediately feel shitty in L.A. It was refreshing to begin with. It was exciting. I kind of have to remind myself of that. It did provide everyone with a natural break. We didn’t sit down and say, “Let’s take a few months off.” We just knew we weren’t going to come back to it until we really wanted to. March to August we didn’t even think about Frightened Rabbit. Grant was doing his annual charity cycle event around the United Kingdom. Andy [Monaghan, guitarist] was producing some new bands in Glasgow. There were other projects going on. It was kind of unspoken. Owl John, because I worked on that with Andy and Simon [Liddell, guitarist], kind of informed the start of the Frightened Rabbit demos, whereby we went in and did one song every day—no lyrics, no vocal melodies, just making music. And we did that for like three weeks in Wales, and that was a new, fresh way for us to start a record—without that kind of earnest, “we have to get songs” thing. We just started doing it for the joy of it again, which had been completely obliterated by the last tour.
AVC: Was there something specific that precipitated that? Was it mostly being on the road too much?
SH: Yes. It was a fortunate yet slightly unfortunate series of bookings. We had a long tour booked, and once that was in place The National asked us to do two weeks with them on the front of that. So that turned a six-and-a-half-week tour into an eight-and-a-half-week tour, which is… a little too long. Then right at the tail of that we did Letterman. That was supposed to be our four days off before we went to the U.K. and Europe. So we ended up doing three months solid. One of our guitar techs calculated that, in terms of real days off, we had like six in that three months. And that was not enough. To the point where at the end of it, I was sort of breaking down. I was immersing myself in the bus-bunk life, where I would wake up for soundcheck, then probably go back to bed, then play the show, then get drunk ’til 4 and then do the whole thing again and never see daylight. It was getting unpleasant. We were still friends. No one was having arguments or anything, we were just barely communicating. We were kind of sad colleagues as opposed to excited buds.
AVC: Are you being more mindful of that going into a new album cycle?
SH: Yeah. Everyone in the kind of structure of Frightened Rabbit, extending through to management and the label, was very aware of what happened. The whole thing did take me by surprise last time. When you’re trying to deal with something in the midst of it, you have two choices: You quit or continue in a “let’s just get to the end of this” manner. Now, knowing the signs, if it was becoming too much I have more mechanisms in place to deal with it. Whereas before, there was alcohol available, so I used that. Not that that got out of hand, but I was drinking every day, and that was a happy place… I wasn’t getting smashed, I was just drinking every night. That’s just something I can’t do. It’s a lot to do with age as well, being 34 and not being able to… Some people will scoff at this, but it’s not like you’re 26 and your second album’s just come out and you’re so excited. The whole pattern of it has changed. I think we all just need to be more mindful of what we can and cannot do. Everything suffers if you’re doing too much, and I don’t think that’s unique to our job.
AVC: Did the new album’s “I Wish I Was Sober” come out of that time?
SH: That comes out of a bunch of times. That’s an amalgamation, I suppose. It was a strange kind of drinking because it wasn’t social. I was just on the bus. The song is definitely about various nights in Los Angeles where things got out of hand. I became much more aware of the way that the constant use of drinks just creates a deeper hole at the end of it. I think I have managed to get a much better relationship with it, and use it for good rather than evil.
AVC: Is a song that naked difficult to write and perform?
SH: It goes back to the title of the album. I’ve always described songwriting for me as a filing system, whereby with each song something that didn’t perhaps make sense has been put in order and filed away. A thought that I previously didn’t understand, I’ve started to understand better through writing. That’s the best way to approach it, rather than knowing what your conclusion is before writing the song, being open to that initial thread leading you somewhere you didn’t know you were gonna go. I always think of a song being a very neat frame around quite a messy painting. I get asked if I write poetry or longform, and I never have attempted it. It would terrify me, because there’s almost a math to songwriting. There’s a building already in place that you can hang things on. That’s what I like about songwriting. It’s quite neat.
AVC: In interviews, including this one, you’re asked a lot about the anxiety and sadness in your songs, but there is also a lot of joy in what you do. Can you pinpoint what you love most about your job?
SH: If I’m lucky, there are a number of different ways of feeling that excitement. Going back to the initial stage when you’re working with a nugget of an idea, and when that starts turning into something and the ideas are arriving without much effort, that’s an incredibly exciting thing. And when you get in the studio to see it take shape… I think most of my joy is from a song gelling or pulling together. And then we all get to present it in front of an audience, which is incredibly exciting. I don’t think people come to a Frightened Rabbit show to feel sad, and I don’t think they feel sad at the show. That struck me quite early on. There is a release there. Private little moments of excitement for all of us in the band become this outpouring of celebratory, “we’re all fucked, but it’s okay!” sort of thing. I really enjoy that feeling. I guess that’s what life has come to mean to me: It’s not ever quite right, but that’s okay.
AVC: Is there a moment on this new record you recall feeling that spark?
SH: If it doesn’t have that, the song probably shouldn’t be on the record. You should get a little tingle at the back of your neck, or wherever you feel tingles. We had a couple of laborious days in the studio, and Aaron could see that. We were approaching the second half of the song “Lump Street.” We’d been quite studious in our approach to the record up until that point, and he sort of let us fly on that one, putting me, Billy [Kennedy, bassist], and Grant together in a room to play the end of that song, totally free and with abandon. That was one of the parts where we all came back into the control room smiling, because it felt great. The three of us used to play together for a few years before we became a more serious band, and that was a really wonderful moment to play with those two, and put something on the album that related back, but was also a part of this new thing.
AVC: Would you like to say some nice things about Aaron? He had some very nice things to say about you in the press release for the album.
SH: I have a number of nice things to say about Aaron! [Laughs.] He has one of the most incredible musical minds I’ve ever encountered. The level of analysis is astonishing, and his actual practical musical talent is insane. The reason he’s extra impressive is because, for someone who has so much technical skill, he doesn’t impose that when it’s not necessary. He understands the heart of a song very, very well. If he wasn’t feeling that tingle, then we’d have to search for it. He was fully involved in the record, but also trying to take an outsider’s view about what’s necessary. “What does the next Frightened Rabbit record have to be? What’s its purpose?” He was very much trying to take us away from what we’d done in the past. There were times when I was fully tempted to just throw a big guitar in the chorus, and he stopped that from happening. These are habits and tropes that we’d been slamming on our records for a few years. The subtlety of his method is really impressive. And his restraint was key to how this turned out. I could go on. He did not disappoint.
AVC: Is there a particular song or part of a song that you felt his influence strongly? “Little Drum” sounds more ornate than you’ve ever been.
SH: He really got into that one. There’s a song called “Still Want To Be Here,” and I didn’t hate that song, but I didn’t think it was good enough. Part of me still doesn’t have a great relationship with it, but he was so behind it. He turned something okay into something I could genuinely hear the beauty in. It’s kind of a cheesy word to use, but I think beauty is something that he brought to this album. Something like “Little Drum,” embracing things we haven’t employed much in the past, like a brass arrangement. But the chorus in that song, and in “Still Want To Be Here,” they could—on another Frightened Rabbit album—have kicked in so much harder, and it would’ve lost impact. There’s just subtle shifts in both of those songs that keep your attention without grabbing you by the collar, and I think that’s where his skill lies. Let the song breathe, and let it be what it should be. He described all of our past records as frantic, and he did not want to make a frantic album. He brought that level of confidence and maturity to the whole thing, which I was initially totally uncomfortable with and now think is a huge step for us.