[First published at Noisey, March 2016]
Frightened Rabbit, left to right: Scott Hutchison, Simon Liddell, Billy Kennedy, Andy Monaghan, Grant Hutchison / Photos by Cheney Orr
“It should really be called Woke Up Happy,” suggests Frightened Rabbit guitarist Andy Monaghan of the band’s emotionally fraught new LP. A wry giggle passes round the room. With a deadpan monotone concealing his perverse glee, lead singer Scott Hutchison joins in: “Woke Up Happy, yeah. Woke Up Happy in a Park With a Picnic Right Next to Me.”
It’s a relief to hear Frightened Rabbit mocking their own cynicism again. On their four studio albums since debut LP Sing The Greys in 2006, they’ve developed a reputation for morose introspection—and made a habit of poking fun at the sincerity with bone-dry humor wherever possible. Take “The Oil Slick,” the final track on the band’s 2013 LP Pedestrian Verse, a track that bled reluctant optimism from each of its fresh cuts. It was musically bright and sardonic, full of playful guitars and rising, affirmative open chords to accompany the self-referential, mocking lyrics: “Only an idiot would swim through all the shit I write,” sang Hutchison, taking his own bleak outlook to task.
The track teetered on the edge of self-loathing until its affirmative conclusion when, for the first time, Hutchison broke the fourth wall and addressed his audience. First the optimism came with caveats—“There is light but there’s a tunnel to crawl through / There is love but misery loves you”—but eventually it boiled down to the closest they’d get to an affirmation. “We’ve still got hope, so I think we’ll be fine,” he sang, his voice in its upper reaches. The comedy didn’t just come from the song’s initial self-loathing; it ended with birds chirping.
“Yeah,” says Hutchison now in his thick Scottish drawl, a small smile breaking across his face. “That was a wee joke.”
But there are no birds chirping in the introduction to Frightened Rabbit’s new album. It is not called Woke Up Happy, and Hutchison spends no time telling the listener that everything’s going to be all right. Frightened Rabbit’s new album, out tomorrow, is called Painting of a Panic Attack and it opens with a track called “Death Dream” in which a distant organ and spare piano refuse every ounce of positivity that “The Oil Slick” drew from. At no point does Hutchison circle back round and laugh at the bleak picture.
Despite Hutchison’s initial efforts, it is, like Pedestrian Verse and 2008’s The Midnight Organ Fight before it, and album about a breakup. “Sometimes there’s just a desire… to not be the guy who writes about relationships,” says Hutchison, who started the band as a solo project in 2003, “but for better or worse, actually, it’s why I started writing songs.” Either way the last two years left Hutchison with little choice. In that time he left Scotland for Los Angeles to move in with his girlfriend, only to find himself in the midst of a crumbling relationship in a sunny city that he’d come to loathe.
That year and a half contained “some of the darkest and brightest moments of my life,” he says cheerily before focusing almost entirely on the darkness. “I was living in a place I didn’t want to be in. I felt extremely isolated… Myself and my girlfriend had kind of made a very unhealthy island for ourselves whereby we were just sort of this protected unit that was too close.” His life became claustrophobic, smaller within the sprawl of Los Angeles than it was back home. After 18 months, he called it quits: the relationship wound down, and he found himself back in Scotland with Panic Attack in its final stages.
With that in mind, it’s relief to see Hutchison and his bandmates poking fun at themselves. Sitting in Atlantic records’ midtown offices, midday sun blaring through the windows, the band are at complete ease with each other, turning answers into punchlines and finishing each other’s answers. Hutchison—a four-day beard around his jaw—seems at odds with the anxious introvert that comes through on the record. Like his bandmates he’s engaging and thoughtful, keen to hear my take on the record before offering up his own. His brother Grant, the band’s drummer and next longest-serving member, leans forward while Scott falls back into the couch, considering every line that his bandmates offer up.
Nobody is afraid to talk about the fact that Painting of a Panic Attack is Frightened Rabbit’s darkest and most challenging record yet—no mean feat for a band that has prided itself on that aesthetic. Hutchison’s lyrics almost entirely do away with comedy, choosing instead to stare continuously at the discomfort he creates, inspecting each of its crooked corners and pulling it apart with tweezers.
“It’s a very different situation, perhaps, to how I’ve written albums before,” he says. “I was inside the turmoil, whereas if you write after the fact then it gives you a greater sense of perspective. Perhaps then you’re able to be amusing about it or more hopeful about it.”
When Hutchison says that he was inside the turmoil, he means it in its most literal sense. He wrote large chunks of the record while sitting in the home he shared with his girlfriend in Los Angeles, detailing the breakdown in real time. “It felt very sick,” he says of the writing process. He pulled back at first, passing his misery off onto semi-fictional characters. You can still hear their shadows on tracks like “Lump Street” and closer “Die Like a Rich Boy,” but the process wasn’t working. “When I first started writing the album, I was kind of staying away from it because I felt too close to it, I was trying to censor it or edit it out.” Eventually, his brother intervened. “Grant got in touch to say that he… didn’t think I was saying exactly what I needed to say in the demos that I’d written,” says Scott. “And he was correct.”
On “400 Bones,” this uncensored closeness is almost unbearable; it is the purest distillation of Painting of a Panic Attack’s world. It opens with Hutchison staring at the person that he’s come to rely on, realizing their mutual isolation while one hand plays simple keys. “Four hundred bones crumpled in bed / I’m the only one who knows that you’re still breathing,” he sings, carefully. It’s a portrait of intimacy at its most stark and contradictory. His home is “a sleeping mausoleum” and sex is “another French death.” He sings his co-dependence as if he has become it, treating every line like a blessing and a curse. Their home “is my safe house in the hurricane”—a protection from the raging LA outside, but a disquieting comfort on the inside.
“For such a warm place, it’s cold as fuck,” says Grant of LA, turning to his brother. Scott nods.
When Frightened Rabbit reconvened in Wales in late 2014 for their first writing session since the end of the Pedestrian Verse tour, they were ready to start fresh. The record had in many ways been a breakthrough for the band, their first since signing to Atlantic from Fat Cat and making the jump to the majors.
Since the very start, they’d seen more success in the US than back home in the UK, selling out American tours in a way that other British indie bands couldn’t imagine. Days after the the full release of debut LP Sing The Greys in 2007, they were in the US ready to embark on an extensive coast-to-coast tour. They were ubiquitous on message boards after a show South by Southwest. Something about the band resonated in America more fully than it did back home. “I guess in Manchester or London, Scottish music is slightly less exotic,” says Scott.
But these things tend to level out. By 2014, between the major label deal and the increased radio play back home, Frightened Rabbit had become a successful band able to sell out larger theaters just about wherever they wanted. And with that came the inevitable exhaustion of constant touring. The band talk about it in the most casual, off-hand manner imaginable now, but it had begun to get to them. After the tour finished, they knew they had to “regroup when we want[ed] to. Because otherwise, if it was before then, it could’ve just fallen on its arse.” It’s a very Scottish way of saying that increased pressure—either from their label or themselves—could have meant the end of the band.
More than that, they’d reached a natural creative endpoint. Pedestrian Verse had distilled the band’s sound and perfected something they’d been working on for years. The clattering, scattered Sing The Greys and 2008’s clever, troubled The Midnight Organ Fight had established the band’s peculiar brand of guitar-led indie and allowed them to mature. Then in 2010, they released the more pop-oriented The Winter of Mixed Drinks, a showcase for the band’s melodic tendencies. It was so radio-friendly that the album’s lead single, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land,” was picked up by a major soup brand for a TV commercial in the UK.
Pedestrian Verse combined these elements masterfully. It retained the bright sensibilities of Mixed Drinks’ chorus-heavy pop, but combined them with Organ Fight’s more obtuse pleasures. Pedestrian Verse contained some of the band’s rounded tracks to that point, melodic when it felt right, but still unquestionably theirs. Tracks like “Backyard Skulls” and “The Woodpile” had an uniquely untidy joy them. At the same time, they pushed their isolated melancholy further than it had been before, with tracks like “State Hospital” coming off as a reimagined version of The Twilight Sad.
“To me it was the best representation of us as a band,” says Scott now. “And that doesn’t need to happen again… Those of us that have been around for the longest have been chasing something that sounded like that. And then once it was essentially achieved, a door’s closed. It gives you a lot of freedom.”
So Frightened Rabbit set about reinventing themselves sonically. First, they turned away from their traditional setup in the studio. Grant got a drum machine, Scott started learning how to use the production software Logic, and the band got familiar with synths. They consciously set up rules to stave off old habits: “Don’t automatically reach for a guitar if you’ve got an idea,” says guitarist Simon Liddell. “Present it in another way,” says Scott.
The songwriting process was overhauled, too, with Hutchison, previously the principal songwriter, now collaborating in real time. “The previous way of writing would be Scott coming to us with a song that had maybe been written on an acoustic guitar,” says Grant. “It was harder to take it away from that if it’s already there.”
The result is a sonically more diverse record, less guitar-driven and more prone to experimentation. “Lump Street”, with its shades of light and dark, falls squarely on its multiplied electrics and “Get Out”, the album’s lead single, fuzzes and swims along, turning to the clash of a guitar and the crash of a symbol only for the boldest punctuation. Most radical of all for Frightened Rabbit is “Woke Up Hurting,” a dancey, stomping track that sounds takes the template of Organ Fight’s “Old Old Fashioned” and forces it through layers of buzz. Its expansive chorus sounds like something built for an outdoor festival, readymade singalongs at its core.
The lyrics were still Hutchison’s, though, so the light never fully pours in. “There are bright sounding songs on this album,” he says. “‘Woke Up Hurting’ may be the most disco-y, upbeat song Frightened Rabbit’s ever written. But yeah, sort of a dark subject matter.” That’s no accident, either; Hutchison is constantly searching for ways to draw his listener into the darkness with him. He says he’s “always enjoyed that contrast between twisted lyrics and something that’s a very open door. And then once you’re stepping into the song, hopefully other things reveal themselves as time goes by.”
There were “many happy accidents,” according to guitarist Andy Monaghan. “We have no idea how we did it,” says Grant. “We don’t know how to get that sound back. But it’s on the record, so it’s fine.”
While Frightened Rabbit liberated themselves musically, Scott was able to escape Los Angeles. He took trips to clear his mind occasionally, traveling to nearby Big Bear to organize his thoughts. The trip to Wales was a full month of writing music, no lyrics. Away from the “turmoil” of West Coast life, he could breathe. This, though, is Frightened Rabbit. Their disaster-laden tracks are not for show, and Hutchison finds it hard to switch his brain off.
“When I was starting out on this album, the doubts come in where it’s like, ‘What is the point? Does the world need another Frightened Rabbit album? What does it need to contain?’” Even in the midst of this experimentation, he managed to doubt himself. This is the same man who said that only an idiot would swim through all the shit he writes.
In short, this shit keeps happening to Scott Hutchison. Over and over again. And he really wishes it would stop. He talks about a conversation he had last night in which he told someone that his relationship hadn’t worked out: “And he said, ‘Oh, but you got some good songs out of it.’ I was like… that’s a little bit… I hate to feel like there’s any kind of currency out of this. That’s the part that I’ve almost felt like apologizing to people in the past about that. Because that is not what I’m trying to do. I’ve always said, yeah, absolutely, I would take…”
Grant cuts him off. He’s his brother; he’s heard this before. “A good life and a crap album. You’re due it.”