In the period between 2004 and 2007, Scott Hutchison was persistently heartbroken. His on-again, off-again relationship would never truly achieve stability — he and his girlfriend couldn’t live together, but they sure as hell couldn’t be apart for long.
“It’s not just about one breakup from one relationship, which then led to an album,” the lead singer of Scottish indie rock outfit Frightened Rabbit explains. “It’s like a period of muckups in the same relationship on my part over the course of three years.”
Following his graduation from the Glasgow School of Art in the early 2000s, Hutchison was living in a tiny flat in Glasgow and working odd jobs at galleries, liquor stores, and furniture shops, using all of his spare time to record raw, unpolished demos in his kitchen, and playing tiny shows with fellow guitarist Billy Kennedy, plus his brother, Grant, on drums. But even as his craft was developing one dead-end gig at a time, Hutchison was growing increasingly disillusioned with his chosen path as labels, majors included, would string the band along for months before finally turning them down.
“He was angry with the music industry, and he was not getting a foot in,” Alex Knight, co-founder of Brighton-based Fat Cat Records, remembers. “He’s got the breakup, he’s stuck in Glasgow, wants to be in a band. He’s still living in the same town, not getting out of that town, not experiencing anything different, and just struggling.”
Instead of succumbing to his rough situation and walking away, Hutchison channeled his feelings of desperation and anxiety into his music, which eventually led to The Midnight Organ Fight, one of the most lyrically accomplished and introspective albums of the young millennium. In the ten years since the release of the record, Frightened Rabbit has amassed a cult following, building off the success of their 2008 release, landing a major record deal with Atlantic, and playing virtually every late-night talk show and festival around the world. This winter the band is taking the product of Hutchison’s heartbreak — 14 songs of despair and catharsis — out on the road for a short tour of smaller venues than usual, playing the record in full, including two New York shows at Music Hall of Williamsburg and the Bowery Ballroom.
But back in 2007, things didn’t look so good. Beginning in 2004, Hutchison had sent labels a series of four demo CDs of varying quality, full of unfinished lyrics, off-key singing, and what Knight calls “a cacophony of noise.” Underneath the roughly recorded demos lay some of the most raw and honest lyrics in recent memory, a devastating account of his never-ending breakup. Many of those early tracks were released as 2006’s Sing the Greys, the band’s debut, initially released by local label Hits the Fan Records. Others, however — some dating as far back as 2005 — would go on to make up some of the most anthemic and brutal songs on The Midnight Organ Fight: “Fast Blood,” “Head Rolls Off,” “I Feel Better,” and “Keep Yourself Warm.”
“Your songs are improving. This is a much better set of demos,” Knight remembers telling the band. But he also noted that “the drums sounded like these cornflake packets getting clattered about in the background.”
Though one of those early songs, “I Feel Better,” famously ends with the line, “This is the last song I’ll write about you,” Hutchison continued to mine his crumbling relationship for inspiration. Even after Fat Cat eventually signed Frightened Rabbit, and the band began to record with famed Connecticut-based producer Peter Katis (Interpol, the National, Jónsi), Hutchison still wasn’t terribly prepared for his personal struggles to be widely heard.
“For some stupid reason, I didn’t even really consider that they’d ever be particularly public,” Hutchison says. “Even though I did have a mission to play to quite a lot of people, you record these songs and go, ‘Ah fuck, I’m going to have to do this now.’ Although I don’t at all regret not censoring myself, on one hand, it was extremely uncomfortable for me and on the other, that exact thing is definitely what got people in. It’s uncomfortable, but they were getting something very visceral, real, honest, and open. I guess in part, I thrived off of that embarrassment or that difficulty.”
And while Hutchison didn’t feel compelled to repress his most sensitive lyrics, those around him tried. Knight says that, while he knew the record would eventually be successful, he also knew that it would be a slow burn: the album wasn’t going to get radio play due to the rough around the edges nature of the recordings and its high number of expletives, including the prickly chorus to an otherwise tender lament: “It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm.”
“Everyone who heard that was like, ‘What the hell is this?’” producer Peter Katis remembers on first hearing what would become one of the group’s most famous refrains. “It’s a pretty heavy line and over the top, and I said, ‘I don’t like to talk about lyrics and I’m not telling you to change this, but it can be super off-putting. It’s something to consider – is there a variation that wouldn’t destroy all of the meaning but wasn’t off-putting?’ In the end, my gut said, ‘Don’t change the person’s lyrics!’ It brings the house down at shows and it’s very moving. I take that as a great lesson – I almost tinkered and thank god I didn’t.”
Though the album received critical praise — particularly in America — upon its release in April 2008, it relied on word of mouth, and the corresponding album campaign was centered on the live experience. Known for the crushing volume of the the band’s shows — Katis says, “I thought my chest compressed, it was so loud” — Hutchinson was able to successfully hide behind the pair of heavy, fuzzed-out guitars from him and Kennedy. But since Midnight Organ Fight’s tracks didn’t reflect their thrashy live versions, Frightened Rabbit added multi-instrumentalist Andy Monaghan to give more musicality and subtlety to the songs.
Hutchinson’s anguish was now on full display, finally in focus for the growing audiences at each show, and while he may have played these songs before, his lyrics — previously disguised as yelps and screams — were now completely audible for the first time. He had to relive his breakup night after night without anything to hide behind, especially during the solo acoustic stanzas of “Poke,” perhaps one of the most tortured songs ever written:
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 now we’re unrelated and rid of all the shit we hated
But I hate when I feel like this
And I never hated you
With the album’s growing reputation, Hutchison was getting what he always wanted — a legitimate career in music – but it came at a price, taking a heavy emotional toll on his mental health. Already regularly fighting bouts of depression, Hutchison found that he had to confront his demons each night on tour, while dealing with the physical exhaustion of playing up to twelve shows in a row with no days off. And without meaning to, Hutchison had made himself a magnet for his fans’ misery, the leader of a traveling lonely hearts’ club band.
“People started to come to me and talking about really personal, emotional subjects that they may not have told their closest friends, but they were telling me about them,” Hutchison remembers. “I didn’t know how to deal with it at all. Due to the personal nature of that record, an expectation of me had been built up in the listener’s head a lot of the time and I was very keen not to disappoint.”
Luckily for Hutchison, he had the benefit of touring with fellow Scottish rockers the Twilight Sad, friends from before Frightened Rabbit tasted success. “I suppose at the time when he was first going through it, it was a really fucked-up therapy session in front of many other people,” says Twilight Sad frontman James Graham. “If he did find it tough, we were there to put a drink in his hands and go and have a laugh.”
Plenty of bands can rock out, but it was Hutchison’s lyrical honesty that drew fans, even influencing a new crop of musicians. “I have such an appreciation for people who discuss the ugliness of love,” says Julien Baker, who collaborated with Frightened Rabbit on a surprise EP in late 2017. “I feel like sometimes, we don’t get to the gritty imagery of that ugliness. Even if it’s working or it feels momentarily good, it’s still quite this grotesque thing. We’re trying to imbue it with beauty and I think that idea is something [Hutchison] captures well. It’s just crazy how you feel so embedded in the scene that they’re constructing for you.”
Still, as the crowds grew and the venues doubled and tripled in size, Hutchison felt like he was oversharing, perpetually picking at a scab that could never heal.
“I was sick of feeling that I was fucking complaining onstage every night,” Hutchison says. “These songs were grating on me a lot, and that’s what formed the next album’s narrative being a lot less personal and a lot more veiled. I started censoring myself. I was embarrassed a little bit.”
As time went on, he began to write in a different way, avoiding the detailed emotional evisceration of songs like “My Backwards Walk,” and taking a step back. Frightened Rabbit’s next three albums, especially 2013’s Pedestrian Verse, found Hutchison singing about other people and searching for new protagonists, even opening up the songwriting process to his bandmates for the first time.
Ten years removed from the release of The Midnight Organ Fight, Hutchison is overjoyed to play all of these songs in the same set once again. They may not be the same unrefined, deafening threesome without a bassist, but these songs are still just as meaningful to the band and their fans as well.
“I’m relishing the chance to bring these visceral moments back to people in the audience,” Hutchison says. “I love the reactions and the moments that really work on that album. I make a joke at the beginning [of each show] – ‘Oh, get ready to be really fucking sad’ – but then it’s not. It’s the least sad 45 minutes that we’ve ever played. It’s pure and it’s just letting go and it’s been a really, really great thing to do so far.”
The woman who inspired those songs may be far removed from Hutchison’s life, but many of Midnight Organ Fight’s tracks still very much resonate amongst Frightened Rabbit’s listeners, who project their own experiences and relationships onto the tracks about struggling to acknowledge a breakup, attempting to push away suicidal thoughts, and giving into the pressures of going back to a former partner just one last time. A scrappy and emotional breakup album for the indie rock generation, Scott Hutchison & co. are definitely in a better place mentally than they were a decade prior, finally content to revisit their overexposed past without any hint of the heartbreak that overwhelmed the songwriter in the first place.
Frightened Rabbit plays “Midnight Organ Fight” in full at The Music Hall of Williamsburg on February 24.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 24, 2018