It’s not far into Frightened Rabbit’s latest record when Scott Hutchison starts singing about the decaying remains of human skeleton behind his house. That moment arrives five minutes and 39 seconds into Pedestrian Verse, on its second song, which is titled, naturally, “Backyard Skulls”.
Hutchison is offering a metaphor for the emotional baggage that he carries – that we probably all carry in our own ways – and, as usual, he’s not one to tip-toe around a poetic device: “All our secrets are smothered in dirt, underneath paving stones, lying, waiting to be told / Some stay hidden, whilst some get found / Like a long lost soul, like a skull beneath the ground.” This is unequivocally morbid talk, and it’s not all that surprising coming from a guy who once compared his emotional state to leprosy. But it’s equally unsurprising that “Backyard Skulls” still comes off sounding like something completely triumphant. Like the best Frightened Rabbit songs, its urgent and visceral and it worms into your head, even if you’d rather not walk around muttering about “white silent skulls… smiling at the hypocrisy” like a psychopath.
That ability to turn what should be by all accounts sadsack mopery into some anthemic and cathartic puts them in line with likes of Los Campesinos and The National, the latter of whom Frightened Rabbit had just come off tour with when BYT spoke with Hutchison a month ago. “To tour with a band like that is a huge honor,” he said of the experience. “They’ve been one of my favorite bands for a long time now. We were trying to stop being little fanboys every night and play it cool, but we were essentially just so pleased to be there”
The thick-brogued Hutchison is this unassuming throughout our conversation, but Frightened Rabbit isn’t a band that behaves likes it’s “just so pleased” to be anywhere. It’s hustled to capitalize on the success of 2008 breakthrough record, The Midnight Organ Fight – touring relentlessly, tightening its sound, writing a lot of music. And with Pedestrian Verse – or, really, its preceding EPs – Frightened Rabbit has made the jump from modest indie Fat Record to the relative luxury of Atlantic Records. But if “Backyard Skulls” isn’t obvious enough of an indication, this change hasn’t softened Hutchison’s focus: “I made a decision on Pedestrian Verse not to pull any punches.”
Frightened Rabbit wraps up its U.S. tour tonight with the two shows at the 9:30 Club.
You once described your songs as “semi-autobiographical.” What did you mean by that?
There’s an element of fiction in everything. Broadly, the material is taken from my life, but poetic license necessitates the completion of a story in a satisfying manner. It’s also important to write in a manner that doesn’t come across as a diary entree.
When I was in college, I studied illustration. I was going to be an artist. What I learned from that process is that you need to take ideas that are very personal and make sense in your head and externalize them so that they can then make sense to other people. For a long time, that’s the idea that I’ve been going for: Sure, these songs are about me, but I would rather when the listeners hears the records to put themselves in that position – to be able to walk into a song and become the protagonist, rather than it being an overbearing recounting of my own life.
Is there anything you’ve written that you regret airing in public?
No, actually, it’s the very opposite. Using our third record, The Winter of Mixed Drinks, as an example, I’d become a little bit aware of being overly personal and I wanted to remove that aspect somewhat, and in retrospect, I think that I was mistake. The mistake that I made was to not be personal, because I think that was to the detriment of the songs.
It’s a selfish move. I’m putting details not just of my life out there, but I share my life with other people as well, and they’re in there too, and they can hear that. That’s where it becomes difficult.
But I made a decision on Pedestrian Verse not to pull any punches. I think the songs are better because of that. For better or worse, that’s the way that I write best. The mistakes were never to be too personal. The mistakes were only to censor myself.
Are there misconceptions about Frightened Rabbit or characterizations of you personally that bristle you?
Once material is out there, people make there interpretations about my character. In particular, there have been references to, you know, “For years he had a drug problem.” I’ve definitely had bouts of depression and things like that, but when people come to me – and occasionally I’ve received letters – and start trying to save me through religion, that starts to irk me somewhat. It irks me that people think that my life is so desperate that I need their help. I’m not asking for anyone’s help. Help in itself is the product. When people read too deeply, it can be inaccurate, but, again, at the same time, it’s really not my place to tell someone how to feel about a song or how to feel about our band.
I think the other thing that people often assume is that I’m really sad and morose person. I’m generally not, because I’m able to have this catharsis through the songs. People are often surprised by how joyful our live shows can be – that it’s not just a bunch of guys staring at our shoes and complaining. Those are the misconceptions that abound, and though I understand where they’re coming from, they’re inaccurate.
Before we entered the studio, Leo already had the demos and his head was completely immersed in these songs. From the very first day that we met him, he understood what I and the band were trying to achieve. When you have a person at the helm of the record who you feel has exactly the same level of passion for it as you do, that rolls the thing along in a much more effective and happy manner.
Early in your career, when start working with someone, they have no idea who you are. It’s only as a session goes on that they start to understand what you’re trying to do. The thing with Leo was that he was right in there from the start. He became like an extra member of the band. With that level of understanding, a lot of the decisions that he made on the songs were really appropriate and resonated with us. It’s a working relationship that I would love to continue on future records.
What is it that were you trying to achieve?
There was a sense that we wanted to take what we’d done before and refine it. We wanted to distill it to its essential parts. That’s something that we had made the mistake of not doing before. There was a sense on the record before this [The Winter of Mixed Drinks] of throwing the kitchen sink at songs and seeing what sticks.
When we came to write this one, we wanted it to be a band record. We wanted it to sound like the work of a band rather than one individual, which it was before really. It was just my songwriting and my playing on most of the record nearing up to the studio; whereas the guts of the record are pretty much performed live with all five of us in the room. That was a new experience for us, and Leo was very, very conscious of that. The result was not having any fat on the album. Nothing is there that doesn’t need to be there. In the past, we’ve thrown stuff on a record without enough consideration. He brought a very considered approach to this album.
What’s your touring experience like? Given the amount of emotional release in your music, it seems like it might be exhausting.
“Exhausting” is the word. I think that it’s a case of finding a routine that suits me, and suits everyone in the band too. It’s really important when you have such a long touring schedule to take each day as it comes, because otherwise it becomes very stressful and daunting.
The performance in and of itself, as well, is kind of draining. Giving everything we have is something that we’ve always done, and people come to expect that. That expectation can be tiring – it’s a pressurized environment, and it’s just about trying to find your modes of dealing with it and not letting it break you down too much.
Is that something that’s come with time?
I’ve become better at certain aspects. I’m certainly better at relaxing and taking each day as it comes, rather than letting it pile it up. That’s just due to necessity, because it can start to affect your health. But there are certain other things – I should probably drink less. I probably shouldn’t smoke. Those are two crutches that still exist for me. But, overall, I’ve become a healthier tourer than in the old days.
I just started a relationship and I’m looking forward to treating that in a more normal fashion. The band has spent not just this year together, but we toured a bit last year and made the record together. The last few years have been spent in each other’s pockets in a lot of ways, so one of the thing that I’m excited about is to branch out and make my own record. I want to get some space from Frightened Rabbit – the whole thing becomes your entire life and that’s not a healthy way to be, creatively or personally.
I think we’re all looking forward to a small break from being together. And then it’ll reinvigorate us. You know, we’re not going to take long – it’s not like we’re going to take a year off or anything, but I think that it’s important to reinvigorate us for the next record as Frightened Rabbit, which won’t be too far away. It’s just necessary for everybody to reboot. I think that me going away, being selfish about it, and writing for myself rather the band will be a really positive experience.
What sort of record do you want to make?
When you’re part of a band – and especially now that we’ve started writing more collaboratively – there are compromises. Those compromises are genuinely positive, but it would be nice to go and make a record using other musicians. I’d like to play with people who don’t fall into the mode that we’ve constructed within Frightened Rabbit.
It could be something as simple as working with a drummer who isn’t my brother. We’ve been together, making music under the moniker of Frightened Rabbit, for nearly ten years, and that’s enough time to just maybe get a little bit too comfortable. I’d like to put myself in situations that feel weird and it’s a little bit uncomfortable, but that will hopefully breed something different and exciting and very separate from Frightened Rabbit.