Using all the colors :: Frightened Rabbit interview
In the short time I've been listening to Scotland's Frightened Rabbit, something in their music has hit me hard. Their latest album Midnight Organ Fight has been more or less on constant repeat and haven't even come close to getting tired of it. You can read all about it here.
Scott Hutchison formed the band with his brother Grant (who is an insanely ferocious and passionate drummer) in 2004. I was curious to learn more about the person largely behind these gorgeous songs, so Scott and I sat in a Denver parking lot in the deepening twilight this past weekend and talked a bit more about the emotional core of the record, the songwriting, and the production that Peter Katis (The National) brought to it.
They are Frightened Rabbit, they are on tour in the US, and yes, they are happy to meet you.
SCOTT HUTCHISON (FRIGHTENED RABBIT) INTERVIEW
On Midnight Organ Fight you sing about working on erasing someone but lacking the proper tools. It seems that many of your songs on the record are a sort of catharsis, or a tool for working through a difficult situation, but at the same time, a constant reminder of some pretty rough times. Is that ever a difficult dichotomy?
Well, during that part of my life, that relationship and that situation was a really major part that wasn’t going to go away anyways, so I didn’t really see the songwriting as therapy or anything like that. It was just the most important thing that was going on at that point in time, and the only thing I really cared enough about to write about.
And now, each time I sing the songs I definitely think about that time just naturally, like imagery pops into my head, but the whole thing’s not hard anymore. Performing them every night definitely takes some of the edges off of it, but you still have to transpose whatever energy or emotion you’re feeling that day into those songs when you perform them. When the record was recorded it was still pretty fresh. It’s not really anymore. I’m really concentrating on different things when I’m doing it live, like playing it well, and getting energy into it.
I know as a writer that there is some sense of fulfillment when you can string together words that perfectly pierce the gut of what you are trying to express. All of the lyrics on the new album are extremely rich, but do you have any personal, small favorites?
Yeah, I really like the whole of the song “Poke.” I feel like something definitely happened with that one whereby I was able to exactly compartmentalize one particular time in my life – something about it, I don’t really know exactly what. I summed something up perfectly in that song, I really like the line about tying a navy knot, just how two people can be interlaced like rope:
"You should look through some old photos
I adored you in every one of those
If someone took a picture of us now they'd need to be told
That we had ever clung and tied a navy knot with arms at night
. . . I'd say she was his sister but she doesn't have his nose"
And then I also like the line about “I might never catch a mouse and present it in my mouth / To make you feel you're with someone who deserves to be with you.” There is a sense of compressing three years of worry on my part into that one line. Those words kind of appeared from nowhere.
But I don’t usually write in the moment or at the time of feeling, I usually write after the fact so that I can them almost fictionalize events and distance myself from them slightly. I’ve always thought that there’s one thing to be personal in a song, but then you’re really a fine line away from being selfish if you’re not externalizing it so other people be invited into your songs. I hopefully try and write so that there’s enough vagueness so that the emotion is specific, but the personal is not specifically mine anymore. People can attach their own emotions onto my songs, and I can let the songs go.
That must be kinda difficult to balance, because the emotion all by itself means less without any details or context.
Yeah. Of course, people close to me are well aware of lines meaning really specific things, which is fine, but I think the metaphors used are still idiosyncratic enough that not everyone feels those things as intensely as I personally would. I mean, I think anyone can even take most of the songs on that record and just enjoy them as rock songs, it depends what frame of mind they’re in.
But I definitely do try and get as much out of each line of lyric as I possibly can. I don’t like throwaway lines in other people’s music. I tried to make the whole record and each line matter. That helps with what we were talking about before, to make the live delivery of each line as if it really matters.
My first introduction to your music was actually a YouTube video where you covered a bit of Fake Empire before My Backwards Walk. The National are a bit formidable to cover, not many bands have attempted that that I’m aware. What is your relationship with their music other than sharing a producer?
I came to that song before we worked with Peter and got to know the record and loved it. I’d heard The National in a bar in Glasgow, and that song definitely came at the same time as when I was writing and finalizing some of our songs on the record. When I first heard “Fake Empire” --on MySpace cheesily enough-- I don’t know, there’s something about it where I just visualized myself inside of that song during that time in my life.
The National have a way with lyrics; there’s a line with them so often that really hits you so directly, and there’s wit which I really appreciate as well. I’ve never met the band, although I’d love to, so I cover that song 100% from a fan perspective.
I love Peter Katis’ work with The National, and you’ve said that with Peter you knew there was a certain way the record was always going to sound. Can you tell me more about that? How did that working relationship come about?
I got mostly what I’d expected from working with Peter, I just really appreciate the atmospheric quality he brings to all his records. Up to that point our demos and our first EP had sounded very closed, not really big. I really wanted to achieve a grander scale with this record. There was a completeness to the whole album and to the writing process, and I didn’t want the power of that completeness to be brought down by the music not being sonically powerful enough.
So Peter brought a muscle, I would say, to the record. He approaches things in production from a more scientific perspective than I do, which is good. He has his tricks that he uses on all his records, but he was really clear about the fact that he wanted to make our record unlike most of the other records he’s produced, which are quite dark. We got to the point at the end of mixing where he felt that this should really not be a dark record, actually. Hopefully we kept the power and the muscle without turning into Interpol. I mean, I think there’s black imagery, but also a hopeful aspect to the songs.
I can definitely appreciate the grandness on this record – I mean, there’s a place for the intimacy of bedroom demos, but the atmosphere and the beautiful sonic feel of the album kinda lends itself to expanding into new emotional areas through that as well.
Yeah, see the beautiful thing about Boxer is that there is so much breathing space for people to jump into the record. You can visualize yourself in the record and in the room . . . they definitely have a great way of describing rooms as well. The whole record has so much space, you can absorb yourself in it.
One of the nicest things that Peter brought to our record, actually, was that pulling back sometimes and taking things out. In my demos I tend to be all about filling the whole thing in. When I was younger, my mom tells me that I would always want to color in the whole piece of paper, rather than just drawing a person and a house and leaving it at that. I would want to color in all the white space to the very edges. I think that’s something that’s still there in me, I like to use all my colors. But Peter was very good at trying to make space so that there wasn’t that overload.
Is there a certain song you can point to on the record where you feel he did that really well?
There’s one called “I Feel Better” that I think I could have really taken over the top, going for more of a Phil Spector feel. But with what Peter did with that song, I feel like he made a difference in it. It’s completely different from the demo.
How has the response been in this leg of the tour?
It’s been consistently good. I mean we knew people were enjoying the record and it was doing quite well, but you’re never really sure what to expect until you get in each city and meet people and get their reactions about the songs. It’s been really nice. People are excited to talk to us as well, which is kind of weird for us, they want to meet us and talk to us about how they came to the record and why they like it. People are really forthcoming and very honest, and so many people apologize for being weird about it and taking it to heart but hey, they’re in good company with us. Really a big part of coming over here has been meeting the people that have connected with the record.
Do you feel like it’s been a long journey for the band to get to this point?
It’s been a really nice, steady growth. There’s not been a point with this band since its inception where I’ve felt that we’re moving backwards at any point. That’s the whole motto of the band, as soon as we feel that we’re traveling backwards perhaps it’ll be time to shake things up. But as for now, we’re moving forward and I don’t have any other ambitions aside from that.
In terms of our records, I really don’t feel you should be producing your best work on your first record either, or even on your second for that matter. I would say that I am in fact prouder of our second record, as a fan of albums -- that’s definitely an album and not just a collection of songs. That first album was really written over a period of time when songwriting and playing music was more of a hobby to me so it’s more disparate. But this one is more a representation of me as a person, so I enjoy giving that to people more.
And giving to people from the depths of their gut is definitely what this band does superbly well. Later that night they blazed brilliantly through almost every song from Midnight Organ Fight, as well as several older ones from Sings The Greys (the chanting fraternal harmonies of "music now!" felt like a rebel yell). I think I felt walls shake at the Hi-Dive from the emotion reverberating through the near-capacity crowd. I doubt that I will see a better show this year.
Here's the video I shot of the Fake Empire/My Backwards Walk. Their agitated intensity seeps out of every part, and watch Grant on the drums. The way he can barely contain himself as the song winds to the place where he comes in mirrors the way I felt in watching this song come to life:
Frightened Rabbit is playing tonight at Holocene in Portland, and on Saturday all you San Franciscans should absolutely head out to see them at The Independent. More tour dates follow in the coming weeks; I strongly recommend going home with the albums, a handmade t-shirt (like I did -- thanks Steve!), and a renewed faith in the power of good songs and live music.
[My other pics from the show are here, and my creative friend Kate took some artsy shots which can be found on her Flickr]
UPDATE: I greatly enjoyed reading Daytrotter's piece with Scott, where he tells 5 things that inspired him in the past week.