Scott Hutchison admires the measured songwriting of Tom Petty
Photo by Jennifer Pearl
Photo by Jennifer Pearl

Scott Hutchison admires the measured songwriting of Tom Petty

In Pop Shop, we support the dying art of physical shopping by visiting independent record and bookstores with some of our favorite actors, writers, directors, and musicians. This week, we met Scott Hutchison at Rockaway Records in Silver Lake, L.A.

The shopper: Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison was in dire need of a mental and physical respite last year. After exhaustive touring behind 2013’s Pedestrian Verse, the lead singer and songwriter was exhausted physically and wracked with anxiety. The creation of Owl John, his first solo outing, provided the perfect outlet for creative spontaneity and rejuvenation. Produced by Rabbit multi-instrumentalist Andy Monaghan and Olympic Swimmers’ Simon Liddell, the album was a direct rejection of the Frightened Rabbit modus operandi of demoing and deliberate song craft. Written and recorded on site at the Isle Of Mull in Scotland in just two weeks, the self-titled album is 10 tracks of spontaneous self-reflection, showcasing Hutchison’s biting honesty while providing an ambivalent take on his new home in “Los Angeles, Be Kind.”

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers: Pack Up The Plantation: Live! (1985)

Scott Hutchison: This is timely, because I’m about to go and see Tom Petty this weekend with my girlfriend. I had a basic knowledge of Tom Petty before we were together, and she’s a huge fan. I think since then I’ve come to get a new appreciation of what an important songwriter he is. We just watched the Petty documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream, and all the things he’s gone through and the interesting contractual scuffles that have happened to him that he’s personally seen through. When people were getting screwed over by the music industry he spearheaded a lot of the change in contracts and all the stuff that I didn’t know about. I have a huge admiration for him in general. The fact that he’s still going and still making records—and his last one went to No. 1 on Billboard. In his 60s, he seems to still have energy that a lot of musicians his age have lost.

The A.V. Club: What speaks to you in his songwriting?

SH: It’s simple but clever. The smartness is in the fact that you don’t realize how much has gone into them. He always does just enough. He never does too much. It’s really measured songwriting. There’s a lot to be learned from that. The way that I write, in terms of trying to keep showmanship over musical passages to a minimum so that the song can speak—that really is what he’s been a master of since he started. Even though he’s got super adept musicians around him, it’s still about the song. I remember him saying, “If you can’t play one of your songs alone on an acoustic guitar then it’s not a good song.” I live by that. If you can’t break it down to those basic parts and still have it sound okay, there’s something wrong with it.

AVC: What period Petty do you dig the most?

SH: There’s the energy in the early stuff, but he still moved with time. Obviously Damn The Torpedoes has so many great songs on it. For one record, that’s kind of unbelievable. Watching this documentary, no one’s entitled to a lifetime career. The reason he’s had one is because he’s been able to adapt, change, and still write great material that sounds relevant, without sounding too much like an old guy. He’s revitalized himself numerous times, and seems to put himself into new situations, and always has a hunger for what he’s doing. Therefore, there are a couple of really good Tom Petty years, and the weird thing is there isn’t one real classic. It’s the reinvention, without changing his clothes. His hairstyle has been the same forever. That just kind of says it all.

AVC: Is reinvention something that you’ve had to start thinking about, going on 10 years in Frightened Rabbit?

SH: Reinvention isn’t a word to describe what we do, because I think it’s more of an organic progression. That happens over the course of two years between a record anyway. I never wish to just shovel the same shit in the direction of our audience. Perhaps a lot of people would be happy enough with that, but I don’t believe that’s good enough. That kind of reinvention thing where you entirely change your sound in-between records—I’m not really sure that’s something that I’m interested in. There needs to be maturing of the band. I can’t be writing the same songs that I was when I was 22, because I’m not the same person. That’s all that applies, really.

Elvis Costello And The Attractions: Punch The Clock (UK Import) (1983)

SH: I picked this up because it has one of my favorite songs ever on it: “Shipbuilding.” I came to that song via Robert Wyatt. He did a beautiful cover of it, and then I went back and realized it was Elvis Costello. I’ve started to get into Costello, but there’s so much there. It’s one of those mind-boggling things. He almost seems like the British Neil Young with his output. In a similar way with Tom Petty, this is a guy who’s not resting, who has tried so many different things and seems as vital now as when he came out. I heard he never wants to play in Britain ever again. I don’t know if that’s still true. If you’re in this industry, you have to look out for yourself. I think he’s done that and stuck to his own standards and never listened to what he’s been told. I picked up this record, because I need to learn more about him. From what I do know, I have a huge admiration.

AVC: He’s got the punk aesthetic but the songwriting was always strong. I can see a little parallel to early Frightened Rabbit.

SH: Yeah, and I think these are two people with weird, shitty voices. Brilliant and unmistakable, but I think that’s something that I slowly learned to—not enjoy—but certainly appreciate the bad things about my voice that actually make it good. I’m not a fantastic singer, but I can sing my own words in a way that I mean it. This is what they do. I had problems with my throat, with my vocal cords, and I got the whole camera-down-the-throat thing. The guy was like, “You’ve got one lazy vocal cord that doesn’t move in the right way.” He seemed really worried about it, and then he said, “You’re not, like, an opera singer are you?” I said, “No, no, no.” Then he said, “Alright, this is just what makes your voice what it is.” Technically my voice is fucked, and that’s why I sing like I do. [Laughs.] When you’re met with these limitations and you don’t have this voice that can do anything, the limitations are what makes for good art.

AVC: When you look at guys like this with such longevity, does it seem daunting to you as a songwriter?

SH: No! I think in recent terms, Frightened Rabbit’s actually had a fair bit of longevity. We’re almost on album number five, and the fan base has always built. It’s never gone backwards, and never stood still. Having never been fashionable or part of a wave is a good thing. You have to tour and work a little bit harder. Longevity is something we’ve always aimed for. To hear our music—it wouldn’t have to have been made now.

Eurythmics: Revenge (1986)

SH: Annie, a nice Scottish lady. She’s from Aberdeen. A classic album. This record, when we were going on holiday, was a huge favorite of my parents. When we’d go on holiday to France—we did this every year. They had like, one Bruce Springsteen record, and then this. Even though I wasn’t necessarily looking for it, I could probably sing along to all these songs. [Laughs.] Dave Stewart is one of these writers that’s invisible but ubiquitous. He still works with a lot of artists. He likes to remain relevant, changes what he does, and did three, four records with the Eurythmics at most and that was it. Again, he’s probably a guy in his 60s who is still trying to find new ways of making music. It’s something that I hope will be applicable to me when I’m that age and I’m not just sitting around watching TV all day. [Laughs.] The other thing that ties all these guys together are that they’re probably super rich and don’t have to work again, but they do. That’s what’s extra amazing. If I got really rich, I don’t know if I’d work again. [Laughs.] That’s going to sound awful, but I worry about that. One of the things that keeps me going is that I still have to pay my rent. But, this one reminds me of summer holidays to France.

AVC: Growing up, how much access did you have to American music?

SH: The Internet was available but just getting started, and my Dad said, “It’ll be available for free in a year. We’ll get it when it’s free.” We had a major chain store which stocked really basic chart records, and there was one short-lived record store in a town five miles away. I didn’t grow up in the city, so our trips to the city were infrequent. I didn’t have access to a whole lot. My older brother was the one who fed me music. Where I grew up, Pearl Jam was edgy. [Laughs.] I was the only Pearl Jam fan in my year. It was a lonely place to be.

I remember the world opening up when I got to Glasgow for college when I was 18. I was able to walk down the street and have access to everything. I didn’t have the Internet until I was 18. It was fucked. Then everything started to change. My whole taste changed. There was a whole raft of Scottish music that I could just walk down the street and see them play. There was Mogwai, Belle & Sebastian, and Teenage Fanclub. In the matter of two months I had all that. The fact that it was visible made it more plausible to me that I could do it. When you’re coming from a small town it’s just like there’s no fucking way that it’s going to happen. It wasn’t even an ambition of mine. Then I get there and there’s people doing it and they hang out in the bars that I was drinking in. It was like, “They’re right there. They’re human.” Whereas, before, I was just into these super-acts and that didn’t seem like a thing that I could do. I was like, “Fuck it. I’ll be happy if we could do what Mogwai have done and have a career and have some control.” Plough your own furrow.

The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia (2009)

SH: I have not seen it. My girlfriend recommended it. We were trying to find it last night on various streaming services and it was nowhere to be found. This is apparently about a family of absolute nutcases in West Virginia. I only moved to the U.S. about five months ago so I think it’s going to be a good learning curve for me to figure out what this country’s all about. [Laughs.] Apparently it’s hilarious.

AVC: It’s harrowing and hilarious.

SH: Yeah, the reality of it is just terrifying, I think. When you get out to these more remote places, on tour, you don’t see much of it. But it’s there all the time and a huge part of the U.S. It’s apparently by Johnny Knoxville.

AVC: He and Jeff Tremaine were producers.

SH: I’m definitely going to buy this one.

AVC: This is obviously a representation of a small part of our culture, but it is a nice representation of how fucked up America is.

SH: I don’t know how much it simplifies it or makes it funny, but it’s not funny in a lot of ways. It’s one of the most prosperous and least prosperous countries on earth. There’s a caricature to be made out of that type of person, but essentially they have a bad existence.

AVC: Does this type of gun-nut, pill-popper clan exist in Scotland?

SH: The difference being that we don’t have guns in Scotland. They’re not available, unless you’re a farmer. Everywhere has—what would you call it—trash? [Laughs.] Everywhere has that, but there’s just different levels. Scotland has its problems, but they’re just slightly different. There’s a lot more heroin and cheap drugs everywhere, and there are parts of Scotland that I would not go to. It’s not that different, but there’s such a volume of people living like this in the U.S. You can have almost a whole city that’s off its nut. [Laughs.]

AVC: Do you get a lot of drugs at your shows?

SH: No. I don’t think so. We’re a drinking band. I remember, we went to this festival up north in Scotland and it was known as a dance festival. They branched out into bands. We felt weird during the show, because people weren’t reacting the way they usually would. One of our friends was in the audience and said, “Nobody’s drinking.” We realized that everyone up there was taking ecstasy. Their whole reaction just freaked us out. I’m quite glad that we’re a drinking band, because that makes people vocal and involved. It’s quite obvious where our music comes from. It comes from drink and a certain type of Scottish culture.

Blazing Saddles 30th Anniversary Special Edition (2014)

SH: The annoying thing is that I was in a hotel maybe eight months ago and I happened upon this on the TV. I had never seen it, but it was like two-thirds of the way through. I knew what it was and I had been told so many times to watch it. I saw a third of it, and I haven’t managed to get to the rest of it. I didn’t know quite what was going on but there were some amazing jokes. As far as I could tell, it has some edgy jokes now. That kind of surrealism, mixed with wanting to offend people—there’s actually something very British about that. Some of my favorite stuff like Brass Eye, with this guy Chris Morris, was like an extra-offensive Daily Show before The Daily Show existed. His whole outlook was that the more complaints he got after a show was broadcast, the better he’d done. That kind of stuff really appeals to me, so I want to watch the first two-thirds of it now. [Laughs.]

AVC: Is there certain American humor that goes over your head?

SH: Yeah. There’s a whole raft of sitcoms that were not part of what I grew up on. I think that’s all that it takes—is for it to be in your community and on your radar. I’m not talking about edgy stuff, but shows like Roseanne and Cheers and stuff that I just didn’t enjoy. There’s also a lot of stand up. I never really got Steve Martin. I don’t know how much people enjoy Eddie Murphy, but I didn’t. There’s a new brand of subtlety to American humor that I’m not sure was entirely evident. I’ve really been a fan of people like Stewart Lee from the U.K. I don’t know what the difference is, really. I think it’s much closer now. There was a loudness going on in the U.S. that got to me, and it was the opposite of that in U.K. humor. It was a slightly less brash form.

Jeff Tweedy: Sunken Treasure-Live In The Pacific Northwest (2006)

SH: I was lucky enough to see Jeff Tweedy play a string of five shows at Largo. He’s one of my heroes. I saw Wilco right after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and left going, “That was fucking perfect.” I almost don’t want to spoil it by seeing them again, because I have this incredible memory of it. It was one of those shows where I was so captivated and engrossed that I was almost forgetting to breathe. I was aware that I was seeing a band perform this album that was really special. He is one of those people who I feel like, when he dies hopefully a long time from now, he’ll have his integrity intact. He’s got this consistency to what he does, and another interesting thing about Wilco is they pretty much control all of their business. It’s a smart way to go. They make albums entirely for themselves in a way.

AVC: A Ghost Is Born is pretty anti-commercial.

SH: Yeah, the start of that record—some songs never really get going, but they demand more attention. They don’t regularly punch you in the face, but they suck you in. I think that’s my favorite type of record—one that you maybe don’t like to begin with.

AVC: Are you into Uncle Tupelo?

SH: Yeah, a little bit of it. There’s a lot to like about early Wilco and Uncle Tupelo. It’s slightly more simplistic but enjoyable, and there’s not quite as much depth to it as Wilco’s gone into more experimental realms.

AVC: There’s a nice through line to all of your music picks.

SH: Yeah, these are the people that I want to be.

AVC: Tell me about the birth of Owl John.

SH: It was something that I wanted to do for a while, but I always felt like I’d never be given the time to do. I just expected there to be pressure to get on with the next Frightened Rabbit record after we were done touring this last one. The A&R guy that we work with at the label saw that I certainly wasn’t enjoying it toward the end of last year. He told me he wasn’t even sure the band was going to exist toward the end of the year. I wasn’t either, because it was just not enjoyable.

AVC: Internal stuff?

SH: Everyone was still friends but it was like, “What are we doing this for?” It’s ruining our health and sapping our enthusiasm for music and for our music especially. It was just grinding us down. I was not healthy mentally and physically. It just wasn’t what I got into it for. I think when you get an album that does reasonably well—it wasn’t stellar but it was our most successful to date—everyone starts to pull you in the direction that they want you to go. Everyone’s booking shows, and they’re not talking about whether the band has a week to recuperate or not. You end up on the road for nine weeks without a break. I used to be able to do that when I was in my 20s, but I can’t anymore.

AVC: Hangovers get exponentially worse.

SH: They do, and just suffering from all sorts of anxiety. This came at a time when I just needed to reenergize. It was a completely different atmosphere. It was really spontaneous. We didn’t have any songs written before we went into the studio. It was like one song per day. They just materialized rather than it being written and demoed.

AVC: What’s the best song you’ve ever written?

SH: Ahh! [Laughs.] That’s a good question.

AVC: And why!

SH: From the last album, there’s one called “State Hospital.” That to me signified a shift. It was one of the first songs that wasn’t about me. I was looking at whether or not I could write about someone or something else outside of my sphere and still have the same level of detail and have it pack a punch emotionally. That was the song that proved I could do this and do it reasonably well and I’m still very proud lyrically of that song.

AVC: What can fans expect to hear on the next Frightened Rabbit record?

SH: The collaboration has gotten even more open. The guys are writing music without me and that just never would have happened a couple of albums ago. There’s a broader raft of influence, and for that reason it should be more interesting. Maybe it’s going to get taken away naturally from what people expect, but we’re still going to make songs that we enjoy. Bold moves don’t really interest me. “This is a fucking electro album. Get used to it.” [Laughs.] That’s not going to happen. I still like a chorus. I still love structure in that way. When you get this far on, you start to recognize your own habits. We just did three weeks of demos, and we’ve been pretty strict. It was like, “We do that shit all the time. Let’s not do it this time.” We boost things in the chorus all the time. Let’s bring it down. Let’s not do that thing where the song ramps toward the end. It starts to get tiring. The last thing I want to be is predictable.

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