Interview: Frightened Rabbit's Scott Hutchison
Frightened Rabbit play the Music Hall of Williamsburg this Saturday with the Spinto Band. Tickets are $15 and still on sale here.
"I tend to judge papers by how many shits it takes you to read through them. I think NME, for what it's worth, is a one-shit paper. After one shit, you're like, 'Alright, I've seen enough of this.'"
Scottish mistletoe for Scott Hutchinson?
It's certainly a familiar formula: jangly guitars, galloping percussion, juicy pop melodies, romantic neuroses. But Glasgow's Frightened Rabbit do it better then anyone else. If the quartet's sophomore record, this year's The Midnight Organ Fight, is indie rock comfort food, then lead-singer Scott Hutchison is the star chef--the bearded bard whose tough break-up (aren't they all) inspired a near-flawless 14-track suite.
Next Tuesday, October 21, Frightened Rabbit will release Liver! Lung! FR!, a live version of The Midnight Organ Fight recorded in Glasgow. But before the band's performance at Southpaw last summer--the final night of a month-long US tour with Brooklyn's Oxford Collapse--Hutchison joined us in a (relatively) quiet back-stage corner to discuss Adam Duritz, Scottish tourism, and the evils of the British music press. -- John S.W. MacDonald
When Frightened Rabbit's first album came out [2007's Sing the Greys], you guys didn't give out your last names, and in a lot of your press photos you and drummer Grant Hutchison are wearing masks. But now, I take a look on your MySpace page and you have your full names listed--first, middle, and last. Why so shy? And why the personality change now?
Well, it was never really a purposeful thing. We just thought first names are all anyone needs really, right? People started to comment on the fact that we were being regular bastards... But you know, I just don't have that catchy a second name.
Given that the first record was re-released in November of last year, and your latest album [The Midnight Organ Fight] came out in April--a span of only a few months--how long was the gestation period for these new songs?
Yeah, there are three songs from [the new] record that are much older--like made at the same time as the first record. They just happen to fit in with the ones that were written and demoed over a block of I'd say three weeks. They were arranged in a short space of time, all with the same sort of feeling about them. The difference was vast because the first record was written while music was still a hobby. I was still in college and I was like writing one song a month max.
This was while you were at the Glasgow School of Art?
Yeah, I was at art school. I didn't really have time for anything else. I was just kind of messing around with my four-track and writing songs that way. This [album] was a more focused effort. I wanted to write an album, as apposed to a selection of songs.
So the short time-span and the focus on coherence affected the songs themselves? They all felt similar?
There was a moment--not a moment, but a period of time that they refer to.
Honestly, producer Peter Katis [Interpol, The National] is not the guy I would have expected a folk-rock band like yours to record with because he does bigger, sleeker, post-punk bands. So why Peter? Did the songs themselves seem to suggest that kind of producer?
I've always had the ambition towards larger production values. The first record sounded like it did because of the means that we had. We had one week in a fairly D.I.Y. studio in Glasgow to thrash some songs out however we could get them done. It was like that just through process, rather then actually wanting that sound. I want our songs to sound like larger pop productions, and Peter's great at putting muscle behind things and a really nice sheen on stuff. And I think that's an okay thing to do. Actually, my goal's always been to couple a really pleasant musical and melodic background with fucked-up lyrics. So there's filthy, twisted stuff lying on top of this really quite polished bass...[Peter's] also a great friend of our label manager, so we got into the backdoor with that--really, the main thing was that. But again, I wouldn't have worked with him if I didn't think it was gonna work.
Were there certain albums that Peter had worked on that you were drawn to?
I'm a huge fan of the first Interpol record [2002's Turn on the Bright Lights]--the second one I can take or leave. And yeah, Boxer [by the National] is fantastic... He also mixed one of my favorite albums ever--The Twilight Sad record [2007's Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters]. He mixed that one, and that's to me just so good--just fantastic.
The National released a DVD [A Skin, A Night] about recording Boxer with Peter Katis. Have you see it?
I haven't seen it!
It's good. You know, it's sort of clichéd in the way that it's so focused on "the trying times of the band recording their highly-anticipated new album." It took The National a long time to record Boxer --like three months or so. I imagine your experience was much different.
Yeah, it was a short process. I think we'd just deserve a half-length DVD. It was quick.
The name that comes up a lot in reviews when people try to describe your voice is Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows.
There you go [mock eye-roll].
It's interesting because a lot of these people don't like the Counting Crows, yet they love your music. Somehow it doesn't bother them that you sound like Adam Duritz.
Well, it comes up and then it's not that negative of a thing... I think a lot of those people even like the first couple of Counting Crows records. And now it's "Big Yellow Taxi" and horrible stuff like that--I mean, terrible. But the guy's not got an unpleasant voice; he's just essentially made some awful albums... I don't see [the connection] either.
You really don't see it? So who are some singers you try to emulate?
Even though I don't take it that far, I do like the things that the singer from Clap Your Hands does. I love Bob Dylan's early voice... But really the songs are about me and trying to be as honest as possible so I don't try to affect it in any way... You know, I started singing by accident. All the inflections, I try to keep them genuine rather than considered such that they fit into the [musical] context... But yeah, I don't hear it, but I can see how people need a comparison.
There's this balance in your music between rousing, celebratory pop melodies and these really self-deprecating lyrics. Is that balance really important to you? Do you always try to maintain that?
Yeah, it's absolutely purposeful. It's really important. I do have a desire to wrap things up in a nice complete ball--there's an end, there's a middle. There's a fairly widely use of guitar pop structure in most of the songs. That makes the lyrics--I was hoping that would make the lyrics easier to digest.
I see a similar thing in the solo albums that [former Arab Strap guitarist] Malcolm Middleton has done.
It seems like everybody who ends up talking about any of the Scottish bands that get some play in the States always says how miserable the music is. Is that a fair generalization?
Yeah, there is that. I mean, it also has to do with dry humor. Malcolm Middleton records, Arab Strap records, there's fucking myriads. And Nick Cave's records as well, they're dark yet there's a black humor running through the whole thing. And self-deprecating - that's kind of like taking a poke at yourself. It's so miserable, yet always with a twist of humor or hope.
I think that dark humor is not as common in American rock. It's more of a UK Diaspora thing. Scottish and British bands are just much more adapt at doing that.
There's the mastery of Morrissey--we're all learning from his teachings. But yeah, I'd say [my lyrics] hopefully aren't funny "ha-ha," but funny like "Ah fuck."
It seems like there are a lot of young Scottish bands that meet with success in the States, and Irish bands just don't (though there are some notable exceptions). Do you think this has anything to do with Scotland's proximity to London?
The Irish outlook is completely different as well. I think it's a completely different style of music. There's always the folk element... I think it's what we were talking about which is that bands like Belle & Sebastian--those with really witty lyrics--the Irish don't have that about them. I'm generalizing, of course. They're actually much more in tune with American rock in that it's a lot of open-heart clichéd moments. I don't think they have those disparaging elements.
I love the "Head Rolls Off" video with all the elementary school kids running around. They just let them loose?
We set up during their lunch break in secret. And then we did five takes so they started getting used to it. But the first take--the kids were great--but we were useless. We were supposed to act like they weren't there. It was an impossible first take. We were just in there and I was wetting myself laughing. So it was a right-off--the first take. But they were genuinely just like, "OK, so there's a band in school." One of the kids put his hand up and said, "Is it Gorillaz?" And in we come....
Did any of the kids start crying?
One of them on the first take tripped and braised his knee and his moment as a star was over. He had to go and sit in the nurse's office. He was crying. It was awful.
I wanted to ask you about the song of yours ["Good Arms vs. Bad Arms"] that got into an episode of Grey's Anatomy. How did they approach you about that?
This is all a publishing thing. It was out of my hands--all this stuff... I don't have any idea of the mechanism that put that in place. I don't even know how it affects your career. There's no real visible impact.
So you don't think it's made any impact on your career?
I think sales of that song went up that week?
Yeah, on iTunes that one song became more popular than the others [on Midnight Organ].
Do you watch Grey's Anatomy?
No. I have once or twice here and I know it's kind of a big deal. But it's not really widely watched in the UK.
Would you allow your music to be used in a major commercial?
That would really depend... It would depend on the song, depends on the brand I guess as well. But really you almost have to bite the bullet these days because unless you're David Bowie you don't make money selling records. It's all about touring. And again our tours are still on the loss. We need to be able to make money from this. And sure I'm not going to sell my soul to Nike or anything like that (it would depend on the price, I guess). But, you know, if it's innocuous and I don't feel like it's going to have any adverse effect...
There's a particularly memorable Levi's commercial from a couple years ago with Mogwai's "Summer."
Yeah, it was the Super Bowl... It was the first thing to be shown--the premiere of the new Levi's advert.
I thought that really worked. I was really impressed by that.
They've been on Sex and the City. Their music's so ripe for that kind of treatment...
That's right! Just last night I heard their song ["Kids Will Be Skeleton" from 2003's Happy Songs for Happy People] during an episode. That's funny. I was like, "Mogwai is the last band I would ever think would be on this show."
I think they put a lot of that money back into running their label [Rock Action Records]. That's just a great way to approach it. I would not be going out and spending my money on hotels and shit. It'd be used for the band.
You just did a big Midwest tour. What was the strangest thing you saw in the Midwest? It's very different from the rest of the country.
It is different. One of the weirdest experiences was actually when we pulled up in Minneapolis, and there was a loud siren going off all over town--a tornado siren. And we were like, "Uh, I kinda want to see one but I don't want to be involved." I wanted to watch it from the bar. That was weird.
I know you've gotten more people at your shows in the US this time around. But in general, how would you compare the personalities of the audiences in the UK versus here in the States.
People here are more intimate. I mean, we're more popular here then we are over there. Also there's something about a Scottish band playing in Scotland--that's not really that much of a novelty... But to give the American audiences credit, I think they just make their own minds up about music. The UK is governed by one or two shit publications.
Yup, the NME's the one. And you know, no matter what anyone says about Pitchfork, it's not nearly as evil as that magazine. So I think [American audiences] are more open. Jokes sound funnier to them as well.
No one laughs at my jokes in the UK.
I watched a recent interview where you said that the bands that you listen to aren't covered in the NME? So who are the bands you listen to?
Wilco, TV on the Radio--maybe at one point have [been covered]. I can't stand the NME because they're so fucking full of shit. What else have I listened to? Actually, I listen to Crystal Castles these days. I didn't want to like them, but I do. I love Ryan Adams--he just doesn't get in the NME. Band of Horses.
Does the NME give much coverage to Scottish bands? Do they cover The Twilight Sad?
No, never. They've actually had even less exposure than us. Our album got a review in it. The fucked-up thing about the review, and this just increased my hatred, the reviewer gave it a nine out of ten--I know because I met him--but they ended up giving us an eight because they didn't think we were an NME -type band. And they still do, but that was not the original review.
So they didn't change the review itself?
It was exactly the same; they just changed the grade. That's what I mean... it's a fucking rag. I tend to judge papers by how many shits it takes you to read through them. I think with NME, for what it's worth, is a one-shit paper. After one shit, you're like, "Alright, I've seen enough of this."
It's interesting, you know. It's easier to make a living being a music journalist in England, but the press is so much worse. In the States, you can't make a living, but the blogs are a better system because they provide better support for the bands.
Yeah, I think you get better journalism over here. I mean, NME supports bands. There's this band in particular--I don't really know them well enough to pass judgment on them at all--they're called the Dykeenies. I don't know if you've heard of them.
No, I don't think so.
I just think it's an awful thing to do, right? They put them on the NME tour and gave them lots of publicity. The review comes around and gives them a five out of ten. And it's like, "Well, okay. Why did you pick them up in the first place if you think they're shit?" It's just such an arbitrary way of just going like, "Yeah, you'll do. You." And then in the first week, you're on the cover. But there's no fucking substance at all. And I think people here--journalists here and people that I've spoken to--they don't ask stupid questions. I mean, I know there's shit here. But there's such a tabloid, paparazzi culture, if you please, [in the UK].
Well, here's a stupid question: If you had to choose a different band name that involved an animal, what would it be?
I've always wanted to change my middle name to "Owl." My mum doesn't want me to do that, so it's going to have to be added to my actual middle name, which is "John." So the band would be called Owl John.
Owl John? I like that.
I like it too. If I ever do a solo project, it's going to be called Owl John.
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