FIRST PUBLISHED ON JANUARY 30, 2013 IN DROWNED IN SOUND
Scott and Grant Hutchison are sat on an L-shaped, leather couch, sipping instant coffee, somewhere near the top of Atlantic Records in Kensington. Both are bewhiskered, tattooed and stylishly attired – the family resemblance is clear. They’re here to chat about Frightened Rabbit’s excellent fourth albumPedestrian Verse, and while bands are always keen to talk up their wares, their excitement about the release is palpable.
It marks the first time Grant – along with Andy Monaghan, Billy Kennedy and Gordon Skene – shared composing duties with his brother. And for Scott – an incorrigible raconteur – it marks a return to his lyrical roots. In hindsight the reactionary, but underrated Winter Of Mixed Drinks, was a logical withdrawal for a man scarred from the experience of airing his filthy laundry in public. But over the course of a late evening natter with DiS, Grant and Scott talk about the importance of honest songwriting, the band’s fresh approach to recording and the transition to a major record label.
The album is called Pedestrian Verse – a title that seems ironic. It’s very lyrically dense and you’ve said, Scott, that this is a style of songwriting you wanted to return to after the last album.
Scott: I actually wrote “Pedestrian Verse” on the front of my notebook before I’d written any material as a sort of gauntlet. If you call your record Pedestrian Verse, even as a working title, you open yourself up to criticism because it’s a very easy title to jump on should you provide clichés, dull lyrics, anything pedestrian – you’re in the shit.
Every time I opened that notebook it was there, challenging me to write in a more thoughtful manner than I did on the last record and I think it’s better lyrically than anything we’ve done. But now that the album is out I suppose it does seem ironic, but I didn’t intend the irony.
And isn’t this the first time you’ve had a fully democratic and inclusive songwriting process?
Grant: Yeah, it was a decision that Scott consciously made: no one else could make it. I think that’s part of the reason why it took a bit longer as well, we all had to adjust to that and seeing how far Scott was actually going to open it up as well. Part of me was thinking it would be easier said than done. Fair enough, Scott’s saying this but is he going to get into the studio and say ‘I don’t like what you’re doing there…’? That didn’t happen. Obviously we still had discussion, but everybody had their own input. When you listen to the record, musically you can hear everyone’s creative input in there.
Scott: It’s probably far more obvious to us, knowing what everybody’s parts are. I am personally able to be more excited about this record than anything we – I say we, I mean I have done in the past. It’s not entirely mine. I can sit and see a wider picture rather than have my head up my arse.
With the last record, I was losing sleep over it. I wasn’t able to see whether it was good or shit and then in hindsight, parts of everything we’ve done in the past are fucking shit. I was bored of the way I was working. I was bored of songs I was coming up with at the beginning of this session and I just needed to give it a kick!
Was the pressure coming from being the sole songwriter, the reaction of your band, or of your fans, or of the press?
Scott: There are levels of it. I put the most pressure on myself to achieve something. I suppose coming from an artistic background it’s a kind of classic artistic endeavour to constantly be seeking that. What happened was the last record was the first time I was very aware of an audience – a sizeable audience – as opposed to not really having one before.
That pressure kind of built and I had to find ways to deal with it. I guess it’s just a process of learning and even if I hadn’t let the band into this, I would’ve learnt to deal with that pressure. But in doing so, it almost completely eradicated it. We were challenging ourselves and it was a wider forum.
One of the other important aspects of that was Leo Abrahams’ presence, kind of taking on the role that I used to have. On many occasions he had the final word: he would stop things if he thought they were going too far. That sounds like he was some kind of nursery chaperone.
Grant: Well that’s exactly what he was! On the last record, when we were recording we were like children, chucking everything on. We worked with an engineer rather than a producer when we tracked it and he wasn’t in a position to tell us to stop. There was nobody saying that [stop] last time and instead of having a part in a song that sounded big melodically, or through subtle changes or small parts, it was a case of: “Right, if we have 30 instruments here, it’s going to sound big!”
Scott: It was saturated, oversaturated. And I realised it was one of the great mistakes that we’d made – I’d made – really soon after we’d put it together. It was overblown and it was over the top and it was just kind of seeking scale over content and indulging our… myself.
I think that indulgence, in terms of layering the songs, is gone from this record. It’s a lot more decisive and again, partly that’s Leo’s doing. It’s a discussion and a five-part process, rather than one ego playing guitar upon guitar.
When you speak about there being certain things you wanted to remove, is that heavy layering specifically what you mean, or was there more to it than that?
Scott: The other thing that happened, it was a process that stemmed from the album prior to that Midnight Organ Fight being quite personal and me finding myself being quite uncomfortable with that. When I wrote it, again there was no audience, I wrote it for myself. Then all of a sudden there was one and I’m revealing all this so that was purposely reined in.
In the end what you get is a slightly watered down version that’s actually not the way I should be writing, it’s not the way I like to write really, but it was kind of necessary at that point in time. I became really aware that I didn’t want to reveal so much that it affected people that are actually real and in my life.
But this time around I thought that if I edit myself again the same thing is going to happen again and the way to make a better record is to take that censorship out of it – for better or for worse, personally. For the good of the record I didn’t edit.
It must be difficult for the other guys in the band, particularly you Grant, when Scott comes in with these extremely personal songs with some quite disturbing lyrics – I’m thinking particularly of the songs on Midnight Organ Fight? And Scott, what kind of knock on effect does it have on your personal relationships?
Scott: It’s maybe not a great thing to do, but I’ve occasionally lied about what it’s about to try and veil it in that way, rather than say: “Yeah, this is about how you made me miserable, and this one’s about wanting to kill myself.” That’s a bit of a harsh thing to say.
Obviously at the same time it’s self-explanatory and I don’t know how it makes you feel [to Grant] – we’ve never really spoken about it before?
Grant: Midnight Organ Fight was obviously pretty brutal to hear – hearing some of the lyrics on that without really realising how serious the situation was. Because weirdly enough Scott’s not someone who opens up face-to-face about issues like that. But this record’s kind of what I came to expect, or hoped that it would be.
Scott: You hoped I’d be very miserable?
Grant: No – I hoped you’d be more honest! With this record, I don’t really feel like it’s Scott opening up quite as much about himself and his own feelings. There’s still quite a lot of that in there, but the opening track [‘Acts of Man’] for example is about humanity and man as a whole. Yeah, it’s difficult to hear some of the lyrics but then what he always seems to try to do is add a little bit of humour and also hope, eventually. Even with a song like ‘Floating in the Forth’ – it’s got pretty dark content. But in the end he steps down from the bridge.
It seems to be a common factor about Scottish music. There’s certainly an element of misery, but there’s also a sense of wryness to a lot of it.
Scott: Absolutely. Look at Aidan [Moffat]! It’s classic. Especially in Scotland, but I’m sure in other parts of the UK, you can’t just get away with whining. That’s not what anyone wants to hear. Amongst your peers in Scotland you can’t get away with it.
Grant: There’s a fine line between over-earnestness, whining and the general pessimism or realism there is in a lot of Scottish people’s attitudes. But that’s something you find with a lot of Scottish bands.
Scott: Over-earnestness and wistful romanticism doesn’t actually wash – not with our pals.
Grant: You can go so far with it that it becomes fake. It becomes almost a parody. Whereas being honest and having a little bit of a joke about it is more real.
Have you ever sat down and wrote something and then thought: “I can’t sing that!”?
Scott: Yeah, stuff gets crossed out pretty regularly. I’ve got lots and lots of material like that. I recently became quite interested in being an invisible writer of pop music – so I’ve started keeping bits for that purpose. So you might hear them some day but you’ll never realise it’s me!
Grant: Swimming in your pool of…
Scott: Money! Yeah, that’s the goal!
We’ve talked about the last album and how you would’ve changed elements of it. But I saw you play last summer and it was really great to see the tunes from that album going down well and taking on a new life in the live arena.
Scott: Completely. There were some mistakes made in the studio, but when we perform them live that’s when they’re at their best. It’s a band again.
Grant: They’re not bogged down with layers. I was doing three or four layers of drums and it was indulgent – good fun though! But you can’t do that live, so what happens when we play them in front of people is they’re stripped down to five-piece band songs. I think that’s what has happened – we’ve come full circle now and are recording that way.
Scott: I tend to focus on the mistakes that we make because I don’t want to repeat them. However, that album by no means did us any harm. For a lot of people that was actually an entry point, then they went back to the other two and those songs go down really, really well.
I just think we had a lot of pressure on us from Fat Cat to finish the record, so I wrote and demoed it right off the back of a monstrous Midnight Organ Fighttour that kept on going and going and going. I wrote and demoed it in three months, whereas we as a collective wrote and demoed the new one in 18 months. So just time-wise, you’re going to see an improvement.
Did that sour your relationship with Fat Cat?
Scott: No, there were other problems. The main thing, and it’s not a personal attack on anyone, is that our ambitions changed. Their ambition for us didn’t match our own. We were at the end of a contract; there was no bad feeling. It just felt like we were done and looking for something new. It’s almost like if you’re contract was up, would you look for another job? Maybe.
Grant: I think it’s a natural thing that people do when they reach the end of a contract. You don’t instantly re-sign. There’s no bad feeling there – what they did for our band with their resources I still find pretty astonishing. They don’t have the same resources as Atlantic. It’s a few guys in an office no larger than this room, with interns doing work that people here are on a fulltime salary for. There’s a lot to be said for the fact that they’re still going and releasing good music.
I remember yourselves, the Twilight Sad and We Were Promised Jetpacks, all making a bit of a splash in the US with Fat Cat…
Scott: We’ve totally got them to thank for so much.
Grant: They just put us on tour from the very beginning and you wouldn’t find many indie labels regardless of size that would be willing to send their bands out for a US tour before anyone’s ever heard of them: it’s an uncommon thing. They wanted it to happen simultaneously – there was no conscious thought of let’s crack Britain and then America. In fact, there was no conscious thought of ‘cracking’ anywhere.
I remember with the Twilight Sad, for instance, I’d never heard of them and they started getting positive reviews on American sites…
Scott: And that translates back in a positive way. A lot of people probably said the same about our band when we were starting to get featured and blogs and reasonably well-respected websites over there when nobody had even heard of us in the UK.
You said this album had a bit of a longer gestation period, but between this and the last you put out a few EPs. Only ‘State Hospital’ has made it onto Pedestrian Verse, but you could arguably pick a couple of the tracks from each EP and they’d sit well on the LP. What’s the method there, are you constantly writing songs without any idea where they’ll go?
Grant: The first EP [A Frightened Rabbit EP] was written for the tour but having said that these songs were all written in the same sessions. It wasn’t a case of saying “shit, we’d better write an EP!”, but when Scott wrote those songs and we recorded them I never thought they were going to be on the record, I always saw that EP as a standalone EP.
Scott: It was something to sell on tour really. But at that time we did kind of write constantly for that period of time and surprised ourselves, turning around and having 22 songs. That was far too many because we’re not going to be that indulgent and write a double album. But when we were looking through all the material those ones didn’t really fit.
Although there’s dark material on the new album, it’s got a much lighter side, sonically. Those ones like ‘Boxing Night’ and the Aidan [Moffat] track [‘Wedding Gloves’ – both from the State Hospital EP] are a wee bit more oppressively dark.
There’s a real sort of macabre element to the Moffat track.
Scott: I’m really proud of that. I just didn’t think a full length was the right place for collaboration like that – it would’ve sent the wrong sort of messages.
Grant: That was discussed for a while. I think that song’s great and hearing it before Aidan recorded his bit, I thought it was brilliant. Then when he sang on it, it was just… wow! For a while we wondered how we couldn’t put it on the record, but I think that EP’s got its place. I’m glad those songs have been released separately from the album.
When we released it, a lot of people said it was the Frightened Rabbit through the ages EP. We had a song that sounded like The Greys, and then there was a couple of Midnight Organ Fight ones and then a Winter of Mixed Drinks track. They were all quite different that we felt wouldn’t have the cohesion we would have liked for the full length.
This month, we had the news about HMV going into administration. I’m sure growing up in Selkirk you didn’t have a HMV megastore on your doorstep. Will it be missed – was it a place you used to buy records?
Grant: In Selkirk there wasn’t a shop that you could buy music in but the town, Galashiels, six miles away there was a Woolworths and a WH Smiths – that was where I got music. Or we’d go to Edinburgh once we were a bit older where generally we’d go to HMV or Virgin when it was still around.
Scott: When I was at university, my way to find new music was to go round all the music shops and stand at the listening posts. I would spend a lot of time in HMV listening to entire records. And of course there was Avalanche in Edinburgh as well, which had great listening posts. It was almost like a Soundcloud with walking involved. Although recently I don’t know the last time I set foot in a HMV – if it’s not working, it doesn’t really deserve to exist.
From our perspective, we’ve never worked when bands of our level were making any money from record sales. It used to be the case that when you were at our level now you could’ve made an alright living from selling records. But we’ve had to look to other ways and I know a lot of people at labels are definitely a wee bit stressed out right now.
Grant: People are saying that it’s great for independents, but are all those people who shopped in HMV going to shop in indie stores? I don’t think they are, they’re going to shop on Amazon. And I think now, we’re past the point of even trying to tackle piracy online. It’s uncontrollable.
Scott: Your record is almost, and this is probably a cynical way of putting it, an advert for your live show, because that’s where bands can make money now. And this is not what’s in mind when making music, but having your music heard can potentially lead to it being selected for TV or film and that’s how you survive. I don’t think HMV disappearing will mean less people buying music.