Frightened Rabbit: Exclusive Interview

Drew Fortune :: Friday, July 23rd, 2010 4:00 pm

Frightened Rabbit are having a hell of a 2010. Their new record, “The Winter Of Mixed Drinks,” started topping “best of 2010″ lists on first listens, and the band has been riding a wave of praise around the globe.

After playing a couple highly-anticipated shows at SxSW, the Scottish 5-piece was waylaid in a giant cloud of Icelandic volcano ash (the same one that derailed General McChrystal) and had to miss Coachella.

But unlike McChrystal, the cloud didn’t slow Frightened Rabbit down. They’ve continued barnstorming fans with their anthemic live show, and on August 8th they’ll get to make good on that festival gig at Lollapalooza. D+T writer Drew Fortune caught up with the band earlier this year to discuss their epic record, and what would become the Year of the Rabbit.

It’s a cold day in Austin, Texas. The sun has been hidden behind ominous looking clouds since I peered out of my hotel window at 8:00 am. SXSW is limping to a close, and haggard journalists and artists stagger about the lobby, drawing last gasps of energy from coffee and energy drinks. Brothers Scott and Grant Hutchinson of Frightened Rabbit suddenly appear before me, smiling. Scott points out the lobby windows and says, “Eh. Everyone’s freaking out about the weather today. This feels like home to us.” The Selkirk, Scotland natives are a long way from home, but with an extensive touring schedule and high profile festival dates (Coachella, Lollapalooza), The States are beginning to feel a lot more familiar to the boys. Frightened Rabbit’s 2008 release The Midnight Organ Fight introduced the band into the American consciousness, and through positive word of mouth and a road warrior mentality, 2010 is shaping to be the year that Frightened Rabbit makes the leap into the mainstream. It wouldn’t be too far fetched to see the band become America’s Sweethearts, with their boyish good looks and arena-friendly anthems (recalling a more bombastic and cynical Snow Patrol) ready to set the hearts of young girls aflutter.

Drummer / younger brother Grant is sneezing and blowing his nose. Scott is sipping his coffee and absently munching on a bagel, covered with lox and capers. Both brothers are smiling and we’re laughing a lot. It’s a pleasure to find them so affable and disarming. The Winter of Mixed Drinks, the hotly anticipated follow-up to The Midnight Organ Fight, is a brooding and moody affair. It’s a difficult record, custom-made for repeat listening and crawling inside on a drizzling, gray morning. The mixed emotions of a band growing slowly out of their twenties, with the weight of approaching stardom resting heavily on their shoulders, swirl amidst barroom guitar jangle and angst-ridden lyrics. If The Midnight Organ Fight was the purging of a relationship gone sour, The Winter of Mixed Drinks is songwriter Scott’s rebound album, complete with the insecurities and confusion that accompany any breakup. There is always light at the end of the tunnel, and Scott and Grant share a familial and musical bond that no amount of heartbreak or melancholy could ever tarnish.

The Midnight Organ Fight hit pretty hard. Were you comfortable being thrust into the spotlight?
Scott Hutchinson: Perhaps from the outside in, it looked like a big leap for the band. The album grew exponentially as time went by, and word of mouth peaked when we toured the States a year after the album release. Suddenly, shows in the UK were selling out. Initially, when it came out, we didn’t feel anything at all. There were some nice reviews of the record, but when you’re on tour you don’t really keep up with the press.

You’re not Google-ing yourself all the time?
Grant Hutchinson: {Laughs} No, our dad does all that and reports back. The only way to gauge our popularity was to see the shows getting bigger and bigger. We just kept getting busier and busier. Last year, the process for assembling The Winter of Mixed Drinks started, and it was supposed to be the end of the Organ Fight campaign, because it was still on this upward trajectory. It wasn’t like it was an album with posters plastered on subways and everyone knew about it.

Do you get nerves on the eve of a big show?
SH: Yeah. We just did a small tour of England, and a London show right in the middle of that, which was about three times the size of any of the shows we’d ever done. That night I was pretty fucking nervous.
GH: Especially playing the new stuff. The Organ Fight stuff we can play in our sleep it’s so familiar. But we’re still settling into the new stuff, and learning how to play it live. Songs develop live over time.
SH: We did the tour, and Winter of Mixed Drinks had been out for a week, so the audience was still getting used to it as well. A lot of fans I’ve spoken with, it seems their favorite song changes all the time. So we’re still figuring out which songs are fan favorites and how to work them into a set.
GH: Going back to the recognition thing and our gradual ascent, when you rise in prominence the way we’ve done it, it’s much less nerve-wracking. It’s different than having a hit record and playing 3,000 capacity venues straight away, which I don’t think is very healthy for a band anyway. {Laughs} But I say that because it’s never happened to us.

We’re of the same generation. Are you fearful of the trajectory of the music industry at the moment? Print media is dying, and everyone is stealing music, or listening for free on Lala.
SH: Well, if you look at it historically, with the way press and music formats have changed, we’ve been through this process before. For us, it’s great actually. Our music is more accessible than ever, small bands don’t necessarily need labels to get that big break anymore, but the worry is forging a career at the moment, and it’s probably only going to get more and more difficult.

How do you mean?
SH: People don’t make money from selling records anymore. They used to, because people used to buy records. That’s just the adjustment that needs to be sorted out. Like you said, it’s the same with magazines.

It’s scary for me as a writer.
SH: I know, but I think in the whole scope, bands are the least likely to suffer. The labels are losing their power. What that means is that bands can promote their music and organize tours and get a fan base without a label’s intervention, and that’s good.
GH: One of the things we’ve found is that you’re never going to be able to replace or replicate a live concert. The appetite for live shows is still there, and that’s our bread and butter. We’re lucky we have that.
SH: You meet quite a lot of people who come to the shows who are more willing to spend money on a ticket than buy the records, having downloaded it for free. More often than not, they buy the record at the show. They’ll come up and say, “I enjoyed that so much that I feel bad not buying a record.” The percentage we get from selling one record is…well I don’t even know.

Where does the 99 cents go from selling one song on ITunes?
SH: I know! What I dislike about that whole thing is that people pick up one or two songs here and there.

They’re deconstructing your album, and your guys’ albums are very narrative. Does that bug the hell out of you?
SH: Yeah. Each song is just one piece. I never buy just one or two songs of a band’s album. Especially on our new record, I understand how approaching the record by one or two songs randomly might not work initially for the listener. I think that each song is a building block that contributes to the album as a whole, and it shouldn’t be listened to out of sequence. There’s no obvious “hit” on this record. I’m still a fan of the album format. But digitally, there are no limitations and someone could release an album that is 24 hours long, you know? What was previously governed by two sides of vinyl, or the length of a CD, is no longer applicable.
GH: A band could release individual songs as well. Just write something and stick it on ITunes and not bother with an album.

It seems very disrespectful. “Here’s something I just jerked off. Come buy it.”
SH: {Laughs} True. I know.

Was there a weighted pressure approaching The Winter of Mixed Drinks?
SH: Yeah, it was a positive thing in a lot of ways. It pushed us into forging ahead in a new direction. Our main intention with this record was to make something that was less comparable to Organ Fight. I understand that it’s natural for someone who has lived with Organ Fight for the last two years to approach the new record and not get it after the first few listens. Some people really attached themselves to Organ Fight, so it was something I was aware of when writing the new record. I tried to remove that pressure from my mind. I went away and wrote the record in a fairly remote part of Scotland alone. I was just getting healthy again after the tour, and we were all just completely exhausted. Grant ended up in the hospital with some weird virus.

Being Scottish, is it a prerequisite that you party pretty hard?
SH: Physically, you can’t do it. When we started out, we were doing pretty much everything ourselves. The first two weeks of touring, we’re usually pretty healthy. We eat well, and try and maintain our voices. Then you get to a certain point, and things just start to collapse. It’s sort of terrible to say this, but after we come off a tour, around 5pm or 6 I feel like I need a beer. You get into that habit on tour. Some might call it alcoholism, but we just call it habit. You turn up at the venue, and although I would love to see museums and do the cultural things in each city; there’s just no time to do that in the U.S. Traveling by van or bus, you have to worry about parking, and there’s just nothing else to do. Sometimes you use the alcohol as a coping mechanism, and it’s your friend and all that if you’re depressed.

It seems fairly obvious judging by the title, but did booze influence The Winter of Mixed Drinks?
SH: Yeah, absolutely. I think it can be taken literally, but it relates to the whole notion that after a certain period of time, you just feel like you’re drifting and don’t know what your purpose is. The drink can contribute to that feeling of nothingness. Touring just numbs you, and you feel you should be excited about playing a big show, and sometimes you just can’t muster it up. It should be the greatest feeling ever, like “This is what I’ve been working towards!” But I’m so tired and so sick of this that I can’t get excited. I think it happens to a lot of musicians and especially with me, because touring isn’t the reason why I started the band. It’s a byproduct for me.

Where’s the joy then? Holding a new record in your hand?
SH: Yeah, there are certainly moments of joy on tour, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. You’re in this bubble essentially with the same four people for five weeks, and it can be really difficult. You end up reaching a certain point where there’s nothing left to talk about. I’ll wake up one morning and just hate Billy Kennedy (guitar/bass) for no reason.
GH: Sometimes I’ll get pissed that Billy picked up a free pair of Ray-Bans and I didn’t get one. It’s really horrible.
SH: Then you go on-stage, and for that hour and a half, everything is cool. That’s when I remind myself why I’m going through all this shit.

Is it hard being brothers as well? Is there sibling rivalry?
GH: Actually, it’s easier.
SH: We know our roles in the band, and there’s no insult I could throw at him that he hasn’t heard before from me. There’s no way in the world I would have any kind of serious, angry argument with anyone else in the band. It’s good to get that frustration out. He’s the person I take my frustrations out on.
GH: I’ve stopped apologizing. And also, there’s no point when I’ve tried to take on any kind of songwriting role. Scott writes the songs and I play the drums, and there’s no confusion there. With siblings in bands, a lot of trouble can come from both guys wanting the spotlight.

I think of Oasis by default.
GH: Yeah, of course. That can cause problems, but I’m comfortable with my role.

How has Scotland shaped your music. When I think of Scottish bands, I think of Mogwai moodiness, but you have that Teenage Fanclub “light at the end of the tunnel” optimism.
SH: Everyone gets down, but it can never be that bad. I wrote Organ Fight about a breakup, and it can feel like the worst thing in the world.

How long was the relationship in question?
SH: Seven years. It was pretty traumatic, but there are so many worse things in the world. It can feel like death though.
GH: I think Mixed Drinks has more of that Scottish connection. It’s less personal, and really shaped by landscapes and it has a certain regional feel about it. I interpret it more as being about the relationship between your town or surroundings and less about personal relationships.
SH: That’s definitely true. Being isolated like I was, there’s certainly some stuff about death and all that. I need to find a way to talk about the themes on the new record without sounding like a hippie. It was about getting back to the basic elements of being a human. Tearing stuff down and all that.

Are you a transcendentalist?
SH: {Laughs} Ugh, I know.
GH: Scott was tossing flowers in the woods while he wrote the record.
SH: {Laughs} I was actually in a commune. The truth is, sometimes I forget how beautiful Scotland really is.

Is songwriting cathartic for you?
SH: Some people ask if it’s therapeutic, and I don’t think that at all. It’s really more a necessity. I don’t get a release from it, and I don’t have any other way to say the things I need to say. Cathartic is too strong a word. Catharsis means self gratification or burning something off. I don’t get that. The pleasure comes from constructing a song around the lyrics, and it’s never like, “Damn, I’m glad I got that off my chest.” That’s not really the point. It’s hard to explain the point.
GH: I can’t speak for you, but it seemed like you wrote Organ Fight for that person to hear it.

I don’t want to get too personal, but how did your ex respond to the record?
SH: Uh, quite well.

Are you still friends?
SH: No, I don’t speak to her. For a little while after the record came out, we still saw each other out, and she said she liked the record musically, not really taking into account that it was written about her and us. She tried to remove herself from it I guess.
GH: When I first heard demos for Organ Fight, it was like, “Alright, so that’s how Scott is feeling. This is pretty serious.

Grant, did you know what was going on with Scott at the time?
GH: I knew what was happening, but didn’t quite know how hard it was on him.
SH: The new record is a lot more purposefully oblique, and a lot less personal. That comes from consciously having no way to remove the fact that there’s an audience listening to the record when before, there wasn’t an audience when I wrote Midnight Organ Fight. Writing something like Organ Fight again would just feel odd.

At the end of the day, is family the most important thing?
SH: Yeah, definitely. Before we left for SXSW, we just became uncles.
GH: I can’t wait to get home and see our little niece. We don’t really get to see Mom and Dad that much, and we don’t get to see our other brother as much as we’d like.
SH: I’m very much attached to home. I could quite happily make a record every six months and never tour, and just hang out with family and friends. That’s what’s really important to me. Having a sense of home and being surrounded by people you love.