Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit
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In a time when bands go from unknown to overhyped with neck-snapping speed, there’s something reassuring about the slow, steady rise of Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit. The group showed promise on its 2006 debut, Sing The Greys, which it expanded to great effect on 2008’s fantastic The Midnight Organ Fight, an album whose acclaim spread slowly thanks to word of mouth. A live album, Liver! Lung! Fr!, also released in 2008, helped sustain the buzz, along with constant touring (including a triumphant performance at the 2009 Pitchfork Music Festival). Whatever was to come next for Frightened Rabbit, it seemed, would be big or at least bigger.
With those expectations in mind, singer-guitarist and primary songwriter Scott Hutchison retreated to the Scottish coastal town of Crail to write Frightened Rabbit’s excellent new album, The Winter Of Mixed Drinks. Removed from distractions both existential (his and his band’s place in the world) and mundane (online movie trailers), Hutchison wrote the songs that would become the new album—and wrote them differently. Where Organ Fight deconstructed a failing relationship, Mixed Drinks finds Hutchison stepping away from what he succinctly calls “songs about girls.” Instead, the album is mostly concerned with songs about self, but not in an overly indulgent way. It’s more about discovering what you’re made of—or, as Hutchison sings in “Swim Until You Can’t See Land,” “Are you a man? Are you a bag of sand?” Just before the band's appearance at SXSW (including a headlining set at The A.V. Club's free day show, March Into Softness), he spoke to The A.V. Club.
The A.V. Club: In the press materials for this album, you said you were interested in “rejection of the habits and behavior most people see as normal, and in turn embracing a certain madness.” What do you mean?
Scott Hutchison: I think a lot of it was influenced by the slightly quizzical nature of behavior, especially on tour. All I had to write about from the year hence, before I started actually writing the songs, was about being on tour, but I didn’t want to write a record that directly referenced that, because I don’t think that’s interesting to anyone. So it was really more about the mental state that that kind of transitory life puts you in—the preconceived social conventions, things like that, don’t even apply in that kind of atmosphere. So it does change your mental state quite a lot.
AVC: Which preconceived social conventions are you referring to?
SH: The general behavior of the population, I guess, doesn’t often apply to being in a band that’s touring. What is normal to me is perhaps not normal to everyone else. I think when you can leave the things you’ve done behind the next day by driving away—I’m not saying breaking laws or anything, definitely not that. [Laughs.] But it’s like the things that you do almost seem to matter a little bit less. If you act foolishly in your hometown, then that’ll come back to you. You’ll see a person, you’ll see someone who witnessed the event or whatever, but when you do it on tour, it’s like, “We’re gone the next day. Nobody really gives a shit.” So I suppose it’s that kind of way. You get a bit lost in that, because touring life—especially when you have a tour manager, as we did last time, and having a bus and stuff—you kind of live more like a child than an adult.
AVC: You can see that as an explanation for rock-star excess. That situation will drive you crazy after a while.
SH: Yeah, completely. I don’t think we’re that excessive, but there just seems to be a point where it’s kind of the only thing to do. You turn up at a venue, there’s a large crate of alcohol waiting for you when you get there. All the museums are closed by the time you get there, especially in the U.S. You really just generally roll into a town about 4 p.m. or something, so there’s nothing much to do. You can’t really see the city, so all there is to do is sit in the dressing room and have a few beers and kick around.
AVC: You also get, potentially, a much different view of a city.
SH: I think so, certainly. I guess when you come to a new town, you’re not sure, exactly, what part of town you’re in, so you just kind of wander about. But often the venue’s not in the most salubrious part of town. [Laughs.] It’s interesting. People that come out to shows sometimes are really strange as well. Your point of view on the city is definitely on the people, rather than what it has to offer culturally, which is definitely a unique way of finding out about a place.
AVC: Your band’s name comes from what your mother used to call the anxious look you’d get on your face as a child when in social situations. It seems like the “frightened rabbit” look would come out a lot when you’re dealing with the business of being in a semi-popular band.
SH: Those [situations] are easy because I can definitely adopt a mode—not to say I’m adopting a mode particularly right now, but it does go the same for interviews when you’re talking about the band. It’s very, very different. It’s talking about yourself, but it’s talking about a specific aspect of yourself, and it doesn’t really go into whether or not you as a person are actually interesting. It’s perhaps what you do is interesting. I don’t know if there’s a difference, but I certainly struggle. Small talk flummoxes me. I just can’t do it. If you say, “Hey, go up to that guy at the bar. Start a conversation,” I just couldn’t do it. But at shows, you’re often, because you just played a show, so it’s like easy to get things going, but I’m really silly I guess. I don’t know if “retarded” is the right word. It’s not right. I freeze up. I have something wrong with me that doesn’t quite work in the same way that other people do and it’s frustrating, but it’s something I can’t do anything about.
By the way, I don’t want to put people off talking to me. I do like talking to people. [Laughs.] It’ll be exciting. I won’t be rude. I promise.
AVC: Shifting gears a bit, there seems to be a “back to basics” theme to Frightened Rabbits’ songs, like “Things” on the new one and “Old Old Fashioned” from Organ Fight. Are you trying to go for a simpler feel in your music, or are you just trying to get away from certain distractions?
SH: It’s both, really. Although I took all my recording gear and stuff [to Crail], I really didn’t expect to start writing for a couple of weeks, because the main aim was to simplify life and start to get back to understanding—you know, having me feel like I lost sight of some of my personality through what we were just talking about. It was a chance for me to go. It’s really difficult to talk about without using horrible hippie-ish clichés, but you get back and discover what you’re about again, but then the writing starts happening quite quickly. I do have to write alone. It’s not a collaboration, so that’s necessary. But purely from a mental and physical health point of view, it was more important that I just kept a routine. I was eating the same meals every day for each meal, and it was important for me to do that. It was very basic, simple meals I was making, and I just wanted to have these be the same for once.
AVC: So what was a typical day like?
SH: I would start taking long walks, so that meant I was sleeping really well. So I was getting up much, much earlier than I was used to. I would have a 9 a.m. wake up. There was porridge in the morning. Then I’d have a bunch of activities—maybe I’d go for my walk and come back with an idea for something, and I’d start writing with a guitar or just writing down on paper. My lunch was two or three pieces of bacon, and then I’d start again. During the weekdays there was an antiques program called Dickinson’s Real Deal, and then after Real Deal, I would start working again. The evenings were kind of my own. I would have fried rice with onions and peas for dinner, and then I’d have a glass of wine, and I’d fall asleep earlier because I was tired. So that was it. That was my day.
AVC: And how long was that?
SH: Five or six weeks.
AVC: Are you easily distracted when you’re working on new songs?
SH: Yes. The thing about up there was that I had TV, I had no Internet, I had no cell phone. So when I have those things, I’ll go and watch tons of movie trailers and stuff, you know? Just wasting time for wasting time. I don’t need to see movie trailers. I’ll see the movie if it comes out. It’s just one of those things. My mind is very easily distracted. It’s totally perfect working conditions for me out there.
AVC: Did you have Internet withdrawal?
SH: No, it was great. No withdrawal symptoms whatsoever. The Internet comprises for me—you know, start the browser, you’ll do 10 minutes of useful stuff answering e-mails, and then incidentally another hour and a half just looking through people’s MySpaces. It’s just not healthy for me, so I was pleased to get rid of it.
AVC: The press materials say you thought of the song title “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” before the lyrics. Is this a common practice of yours?
SH: I think that’s happened pretty rarely. I think the only other time—with “Old Old Fashioned” that happened. They’re usually named afterwards. It was funny, the whole sentence, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land,” almost shaped the record as well, because I actually ended up writing maybe three songs before I wrote “Swim,” but with that whole working title for the album in mind. So I had already picked that theme and that idea being the start of the start of the story. I just hadn’t written the song yet. I’ve never worked in that way before.
AVC: The title is appropriate, given you were pretty isolated when you were working on it.
SH: Yeah, and it needn’t be interpreted as a literal journey. There’s lots of ways of losing yourself, right? You can feel as lost drunk in the middle of the city as you can out in the wilderness. So it’s definitely not geographical; it’s more mental.
AVC: Each Frightened Rabbit album has an instrumental somewhere around the middle. What does that add to your music?
SH: It’s the more selfish aspect of what we do sometimes, because for me, it’s a connection between the conception of the songs and where they were written and demoed to the final record. Especially with this one here, “Man/Bag of Sand” was recorded in Crail, so for me to have that on the record is important as well. It maybe reminds the listener that there’s a thread running through the album, and I understand for some people it’s a total skip-over track, but for me it makes the record. We were working in the studios that we do now with Peter Katis and stuff, and there’s an element brought in where we were getting slightly more polished perhaps each time. That’s not something I’m uncomfortable with as such, but I do want to offset that with homemade stuff, with things that are obviously not that way.
AVC: Yeah, one interview from a while back noted that Midnight Organ Fight was more polished than Sing The Greys, and you said, “Well, we didn’t have any other choice. We didn’t have enough money to make it more polished.”
SH: Exactly, yeah. It’s circumstance.
AVC: That’s an easy trap for fans who put a lo-fi sound on a pedestal when often the band wasn’t trying to do that.
SH: Yeah, we’ve always been striving to sound bigger. I mean, I love all types. As long as a recording is done well, as far as I’m concerned, as long as it’s effective at what it does, I don’t care. But for me it was definitely not the way that I want our career to go here, henceforth, from here on in. I think it’s just something that I wanted to see if we could do it. It’s been the thing that we’ve been striving towards since we started. Now that we have that, there’s maybe no need to repeat it, but it’s definitely something that I wanted to do.
AVC: So do you really not have any breakup songs left in you, as you said for this album?
SH: No, there’s no breakup, thank fuck. Even if there was—and I hope there is not another one in the near future—I think I kind of just covered it. For [The Midnight Organ Fight], the charting of breakups from pretty much it happening to me almost realizing it’s okay. This new record is the next step in that progression, I guess. I just think that there’s other things that I’d like to challenge myself with lyrically. Even writing this album, although it’s much less personal lyrically, I wasn’t sure. I’d only ever written songs about girls. I was scared, because I didn’t know if I could write anything else, you know, if that’s all you’ve known. It’s like maybe a kind of crime-fiction writer trying to write a comedy. How do you do that? It’s a different language. I’d thought I’d come up with my own language for expressing these things. I’d like to continue challenging myself and taking different subject matters. Maybe I’ll take something altogether different for the next one that isn’t anything to do with my life whatsoever.
AVC: Here’s where the concept albums start?
SH: Yeah. Have you ever heard of a band called Field Music? I think the band was The Week That Was—one of the guys came out and did a [solo] concept album. I hate that word, “concept album,” but he did an album about an astronaut. That kind of thing appeals to me, in a way, because my brain definitely responds to a brief, if you’d like, in the same way that I had the theme for this album before it started.
AVC: Having some sort of theme behind it doesn’t necessarily mean prog-rock.
SH: Certainly not! I haven’t bought a cape yet. [Laughs.]
AVC: It seems like an interesting moment for Frightened Rabbit, because it’s like you’re on the precipice of something. It’s not clear what’s coming next, but it seems like it’s going to be bigger. Does it feel that way to you?
SH: Yeah, I hope it’s bigger. I agree with you. It’s not clear. People tell me all sorts of things that they think is going to happen to my band this year, and any of them could be right—or none of them. But you can only hope that each album brings more people to your music. But yeah, I have no idea. I guess we should talk in another six months or so. I just don’t know, because the response has been good and positive to this album; if it continues in that way, hopefully everything will be fine. As long as things go forward for me, and I think in many ways by doing the record and being happy with it and feeling that, though it’s not a giant leap, it’s still a progression for us. That for me is enough.
AVC: How do you process people whispering in your ear like that? It’s like you could be dismissive, but it’s hard not to get swept up in it.
SH: Sometimes, yeah, of course it is. It is hard not to get carried away with it, and you catch yourself saying certain things from time to time, and you’re like “Fuck, you really did sound like a dick there.” But it is difficult, and there’s no point in being falsely humble about things—just to go, “Oh, you. Shut up. Nothing’s going to happen. It’s going to be awful.” It’s not. I think it’s a good record. I think people will like it. I just don’t know what’s going to happen. I can have a vision in my head of where I would like it to take me, but I don’t know if that will be. It’s not a specific place or anything. Maybe Japan. But, you know. It’s things like that. I don’t want to be a dickhead about it, but sometimes it’s difficult.
AVC: Your brother and bandmate Grant mentioned that the band used to have an unspoken rule when you toured in a 15-person van: You wouldn’t speak during the day because you’d get on each other’s nerves. But now that’s less of an issue, because you’re presumably touring in a bus.
SH: Certainly. Definitely in the States.
AVC: So that’s something, right?
SH: It’s a big step, definitely. It’s more comfortable. It’s definitely more like what I thought it might be like to be in a band, you know? But it’s a reward, as well. You’re right. It has been small steps for this band. There’ve been lots of them. There’s never been—even when the last album came out, there was no giant leap or shift. It took a while for people to hear about it, ’cause it was kind of like a word-of-mouth thing. We’ve always felt that the steps have been small enough to be within our control, yet large enough to be…gratifying, I guess.
AVC: How important is it to you that you break through here? Although it’s hard to say exactly what “break through” means.
SH: Yeah, I know. It’s a tough one. At this point, where the new tour has venues like Webster Hall and the Fillmore in San Francisco, where, for me, that signals a point that I maybe thought was much, much further ahead in our future. I didn’t think it was going to be now. So, I’m really happy with where it is right now in the U.S. If more comes along, then great. If it stays exactly the same, that may be okay, too. But I don’t know what the term “break through” does mean, necessarily. I suppose it’s different for everyone else. I don’t have my eye on stadiums or anything like that. But, you know, America is such a varied country. We’re getting the figures through for our tour dates, current sales and stuff, and you have like 300 up in Seattle, and then you have nine down in San Diego. Then you have three in Salt Lake City and stuff like that. [Laughs.] It’s just, you know, who knows? Maybe the point where it’s more consistent everywhere.