While it might be hard to imagine, there was a time not long ago when underground music wasn’t simply a click away. Frightened Rabbit singer-guitarist Scott Hutchison is old enough to remember that time.
Growing up in the Royal Burgh of Selkirk, a town in the Scottish Borders Council district of southeastern Scotland with a population that could fit into the Q, he wasn't exposed to a wide range of rock music. The town is famous for its cobblers — shoemakers and menders and not the tasty fruit dessert.
“When I was growing up, it was the beginning or middle of grunge,” says Hutchison in a recent Skype call. The band had just finished rehearsals for an upcoming fall tour in support of Painting of a Panic Attack
, its terrific new album of subdued indie rock that features anthemic ballads fleshed out with subtle use of electronics. “I was into Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and went to see all those kinds of bands. There wasn’t a hugely diverse selection of music at my disposal. That was the best I could do.”
Everything changed for Hutchison when he moved to Glasgow and started absorbing a wider range of music.
“I was getting into other stuff like Ryan Adams and Wilco and Mogwai,” he says. “It really opened up. Before that, I wasn’t really a songwriter. I was just a guitar player. I didn’t have any ambition to be a songwriter and didn’t consider myself a singer in any way. It was really just learning guitar solos when I was in high school and then I ditched that to start playing something more simple and meaningful."
He says he liked the “storytelling and honesty” of alt-country acts like Wilco and Ryan Adams.
“There was less bluster involved,” he says. “It still had drama, but it was subtler. The whole thing seemed more connected to human nature and what it’s like to be alive. I liked the stories in those songs and the idea of the singer being the protagonist so you can sing and write openly your own life was what drew me to that music and made me want to do that myself.”
Initially, Frightened Rabbit started as a solo project and then became a duo for the first album, 2006’s Sing the Greys
, an album the band recorded on the cheap.
“We didn’t even really think we were making an album,” Hutchison admits. “We were just messing around. A guy who became our friend had a studio, and he saw the band almost by mistake. He thought there was something in it. He told us we could use the studio for free. It wasn’t intended to be an album. We had the songs and we ended up putting it out ourselves and then getting signed and putting it out again. It was a DIY thing with no huge ambition for it at that point.”
For 2008’s The Midnight Organ Fright
, the band added guitarist/keyboardist Andy Monaghan of the group Piano Bar Fight. Hutchison has said he met him at a bar on New Year's Eve in Glasgow. Its frank songs about a breakup resonated with fans and the album became a hit on the indie rock circuit.
“That was where it started to snowball,” says Hutchison. “That tour got crazy, especially in the U.S. Our agent told us we could come back next week and still have an audience. Things just doubled and tripled over time. For a year and a half, we hardly stopped touring and we were totally up for it. We were in our mid-twenties, and we wanted to tour as much as possible. That’s what we did. We realized we could pursue it and it could be our job. It was incredible. Prior to that, it wasn’t the situation.”
After years of steady touring and recording, the band took a few months off to “generally get some time away from the band.” But then, the guys reconvened, and the songs for Painting of a Panic Attack
started to come together in August of 2014.
“It wasn’t like we agreed to take six months off and come back,” Hutchison says. “It was just that we waited until we wanted to get back in the studio. We started making soundscapes and feeling our way around to see what the sonic feel of the album would be. They weren’t necessarily songs at that point. There were vocals. It was like writing a film soundtrack. We figured our way out from that. Then, songs started coming from those nuggets over the next couple of years.”
Living in Los Angeles for an 18-month period inspired some of the lyrics. Hutchison says the move turned out to be a mistake and he addresses what it was like to be in a stranger in a strange town in some of the songs.
“It wasn’t entirely negative,” he says. “I just didn’t quite connect with [L.A.]. I had some amazing times there. It just turned out not to be for me. I spent 18 months there and found it tough to find a tight social group. That didn’t appear and it took some effort to try to create it. The songs emerged from moving there and trying to find my feet.”
Early on, he sent some demos to the National’s Aaron Dessner. He met him to get some advice about how to shape the songs and at that point realized Dessner should produce the album.
“He had been listening to Frightened Rabbit for a bit, and we toured with them.” Hutchison explains. “We had mutual friends, but it never went further than that. He enjoyed the solo record, and we just got in touch by email through someone at the label. At that point in time, the idea was that he could help arrange some of the ideas I had forming. I had demos that weren’t finished. It wasn’t put on the table that he would produce. I went to his house in Brooklyn, and we worked on his studio in his backyard, and he invested so much time and thought into the demos, so it was a no brainer.. We’re all huge fans of the National, so we were excited.”
More than previous albums, Painting of a Panic Attack
makes use of a variety of electronic instruments.
“A lot of that comes from the demo,” says Hutchison. “I started working with music software half way through. I was previously reliant on [guitarist/keyboardist] Andy [Monaghan], and I was in L.A., and I had to learn something for myself. I tapped into some electronic sounds, and it was a whole new soundscape. I hadn’t used that instrumentation to write. The core is less me in a room with a guitar. It was more about me experimenting with a little synth or tapping away on drum pads. A lot of it was discovered away from the kit. It was really to get out of the comfort zone. I had existed as a songwriter in that mind frame for quite a long time. I would write on piano or guitar and then work them up. Their inception was electronics. Many of the sounds you hear are taken straight from the demo sessions. We discovered some accidental magic and just kept it.”
“Get Out” starts slow with hushed vocals and a steady drumbeat but then explodes with an echoing guitar riff.
“That came together so quick,” says Hutchison. “I did write that one on guitar. It was so fast and natural and it came three quarters of the way through the demos. We were getting caught up in this whirlpool of thinking too much about songs. That one came along like a breath of fresh air. The chorus is what came down on the first day. I thought it was a holding lyric. I thought I would find something more erudite and smart. It never really happened, so I thought it was the right one. There’s something to be said for that. We tried to do that on this record. We would run the course between thought and instinct. Some things just feel right ad you don’t know why. There are other days you spend days pouring over and can’t get them right. There’s a good combination of that on this record.”
The piano ballad “I Wish I Was Sober” chronicles a night when Hutchison couldn’t “speak straight.” He says his battle with the bottle directly inspired the song.
“My relationship with alcohol hasn’t always been a healthy one,” he says. “That spans from nights of getting lost and I guess drinking to hide from something. That’s a theme that’s recurring. I’m sober now. I haven’t drunk for one month at this point, which is the longest stretch perhaps in my adult life. Changes had to happen. It’s weird saying that. I get to the point in the evening when I think it’s perfect, and I want to make it more perfect. That doesn’t happen, and it gets worse. I’m enjoying not doing it. I like the clarity. It’s refreshing.”
Hutchison says he thinks he’ll continue to work with electronic instrumentation on the next album. He wants to expand the band's sound even more.
“It’s time to make a bold move,” he says. “We started looking into that with the electronics, and I’m intrigued as to how much farther we can push that and take a bolder step with the next album. We only just started discovering those things during the making of this album. There’s more to discover. I want to go further into that realm of weirdness. The album didn’t come out as strange as I hoped. We want to make a strange one next time.”
Frightened Rabbit, Into It. Over It., 8:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $25, beachlandballroom.com.