Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Interview: Scott and Grant Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit

I don’t know if Frightened Rabbit was scheduled to play any of the inaugural balls on Tuesday night (I could see Rahm Emanuel being a big fan), but the night before they did put on a great set at the Rock and Roll Hotel. Before the show, I sat down on the ridiculously uncomfortable couches in the green room to talk with lead singer and songwriter, Scott Hutchison. Not bad, after all, he did write the best album of 2008. Joined half-way through by his brother and drummer, Grant, they discussed The Midnight Organ Fight, and a life of nearly ten straight months on the road.

NQL: First off, when you scheduled this date, did you know what would be going on in DC at the time?

Scott Hutchison: I think our booking agent did. It was picked as a treat for us or something. We’re gonna check out some of the stuff that is going on tomorrow, take a walk around. But yes, I think it was purposeful.

NQL: I saw Josh Groban yesterday at the concert at the mall so tonight you have some big shoes to fill tonight.

SH: [laughs] Well, there will be slightly fewer people, but yeah.

NQL: Do you have any more plans to take in some of the events while you’re here or do you have to get right back on the road?

SH: We have to leave tomorrow afternoon for Baltimore, but that won’t be too hectic of a drive, I guess. We got some last minute shows added. Tomorrow was supposed to be our day off, but we got offered a spot and we said yes. I’ve never played Baltimore.

NQL: But you’re not taking in the Inauguration or anything?

SH: I think we’re gonna do it. We’re staying with a friend and she lives kind of close, so we’re gonna head down. When is it, like mid-day?

NQL: Noon? I don’t know.

SH: But yeah, we’re definitely going to see that. For what it’s worth, that we can actually see. Have you seen any of these before?

NQL: No. I mean, I saw Obama speak yesterday, I guess, but I’ve definitely never been to an inauguration. I saw you guys last summer with Oxford Collapse at the Black Cat, and I didn’t feel well and left after about five songs. But it seemed like you were playing The Midnight Organ Fight from the beginning. And I noticed with your recently-released live album that it’s structured the same way. And I know when I listen to that record it tells a story from beginning to end, so do you feel it almost has to be played that way, like it would be out of order any other way?

SH: We don’t anymore. There was awhile when I quite enjoyed doing it like that. I guess we played that set that way for that whole tour. But I do feel like it’s a story, and it’s fairly chronological. And we were quite happy playing it like that, but it doesn’t really bring any surprises, either, so we stopped doing that.

NQL: Speaking of that, whenever I tell people about your record, I mention “I Feel Better” which is the second track, but in that song you say something to the effect that this will be the last song I sing about you. “You” meaning the girl, I presume. And unless I am interpreting this wrong, I took it as kind of a joke because nearly every song after that seems to be about that same person.

SH: It’s not a joke. The reason it is on the front end of the album is because that was the genuine feeling at that time, unfortunately. Well, fortunately, actually because we ended up getting a whole record out of it. It could have just been an EP. But there’s definitely a reason why it’s on the front end of the record.

NQL: Gotcha. The third track, “Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms,” I probably heard that song ten times before I even noticed the lyrics, and that it wasn’t just some nice, romantic song but actually had a more bitter, funny, and sinister tone to it. Is that something you planned for the listener? To take kind of what seems to be a beautiful song, but once you peel back a layer, you realize there’s something completely different there?

SH: Yeah. I think the two parts kind of come from different parts of my brain. The music kind of satisfies the side that kind of likes that, you know, and the music doesn’t stray far from indie-guitar rock and the lyrics hopefully contrast that and have some surprises in there, and people will be like, “Whoa, did he just say that?”. But yeah, I really enjoy that contrast. It’s weird that it took you that many listens.

NQL: It really did.

SH: Personally, I’m not really a lyrics kind of guy when I listen to other people’s music. But, I definitely like that contrast.

NQL: And that might be my thing, maybe as a listener. Kind of like a Pavement thing where lyrics aren’t always necessarily meant to be heard.

SH: It’s true, and it’s kind of nonsense as well. It takes a really strong lyric to make me listen to it. But it’s definitely nice that a song can be enjoyed on both of those levels though, you know. Just as a mellower song, but with deeper kinds of levels. We’ve been doing a cover of a Neutral Milk Hotel song…

NQL: Which song?

SH: “Song Against Sex.”

NQL: Oh, yeah, first track on On Avery Island, right?

SH: Yeah. But take a song like that, and we play it, and I’m surprised I even know the lyrics.

NQL: Just curious, can you get all the syllables down like Mangum can?

SH: I kind of got it. You just have to pick where you breathe, otherwise you’ll keel over.

NQL: I can’t sing along to that.

SH: Yeah, yeah, it’s tough, it’s been tough, but I think I got it down. We’ve been playing it on a lot of cities on this tour. It’s nice to sprinkle something different in there that people aren’t expecting, otherwise it’s just the same old set.

NQL: That reminds me, I remember before The Midnight Organ Fight came out, you said you were getting kind of sick of playing the first record (Sing the Greys), and that you couldn’t wait for the next album to come out so you could start playing those songs. Do you feel that way about this record yet?

SH: No, I don’t think so.

Grant Hutchison: I don’t think we’re sick of it. It’s more just like we’re ready to do new ones on top of our other stuff.

SH: I’m not sick of it, because whenever we come back to play it in the U.S., there seems to be a whole new set of people at the shows because the way the album has grown has been quite gradual and quite consistent. So there are people who weren’t there from the start, and it’s new to them, and that makes it fresh to me. And people that have been at the shows seem to be very excited about the songs, and that kind of feeds back to us, I think, so I’m not tired of it yet. I’m tired of touring.

NQL: [laughs] It seems the album had a pretty strong word-of-mouth well after it was released.

SH: That’s it. Absolutely. Especially at the end of the tour, which I think has been heavily affected by all those end-of-the-year polls. And we got included in a lot of good ones.

NQL: You were # 1 on mind, by the way.

SH: That’s great.

NQL: A few of my friends had it farther down.

SH: That’s all right.

GH: It’s really helped, because it’s been close to a year now and there are still plenty of people who are seeing us for the first time, and it’s been ten months at least, that we’ve been touring on this album, so to still have people seeing us for the first time is pretty great, and like you said, it’s that word of mouth, slow build kind of thing. And the end-of-year lists have added to that. But most importantly, as long as the crowd is still excited, you’re going feed off of that.

SH: I know a lot of people didn’t really like Midnight Organ Fight the first time they heard it, and told me they weren’t that impressed, but then they just sort of came across a lot of the songs on shuffle on their iPod, and we’re like “Who is this?” and realized that maybe that hadn’t really given it a chance. And a lot of people then kept going back to record, and back again, and then they were just sort of addicted to it. So even then, with people who bought the record, it took them awhile to get into it and figure out what it was about.

NQL: I really liked it from the beginning, mostly because I thought “The Modern Leper” (first track) was such a strong song. But like you said, I don’t think I really “got” the album until I listened to it multiple times. And I realized there was a funny story going on, maybe not funny, but one that deserved to be paid attention to because it’s so relatable to probably 99% of the population

SH: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I think that’s the reason people still come back to it is because the album really hit home for a lot of people, with normal experiences that people go through.

NQL: I feel it touches on all the right stages with anger, revenge, acceptance. It basically covers the whole timeline of a break-up.

SH: It (the breakup) happened six month prior to me writing the songs. And I was able to get a view of it from the outside and deconstruct the narrative of it. And it’s semi-fictionalized, parts of it were for effect and stuff, but a majority of it is absolutely true, and it’s not out of the ordinary. It happens to everybody, but I think because it’s such a well-trodden path, that drove me to a new way to express these things, because it’s been expressed so often, but I don’t think it has been expressed in this way, like leprosy for instance, and it drove me to try and find a new way to describe how it feels, I guess.

NQL: I couldn’t agree more. I certainly have never heard a line like, “I’m drunk, and you’re probably on pills. If we both have the same diseases, it’s irrelevant, girl.” When you write a line like that, I mean, do you laugh, or pat yourself on the back, because that’s pretty hilarious.

SH: Well, it’s funny but it’s true. And because it’s true, I’m not bothered that people find it hilarious. Some of my favorite lyricists like Nick Cave, Craig Finn, they still use a lot of humor in relation to pretty dark themes and I think it’s a really human way of dealing with a lot of things.

NQL: Especially when writing a breakup record I would think, because there’s that fear of getting pigeonholed as a whiner or “oh, man, this guy is depressing me” type of thing.

SH: Yeah, right. Otherwise it reads like sort of a "Dear Diary" entry and I wanted to be less selfish than that, and allow people to actually walk in and be the person in the song.

NQL: Backing up a bit, you said something about the year-end lists and those are just everywhere now, but obviously you guys pay attention to them, and do you find that’s true with most bands?

SH: We have the Google alerts working on our hotmail account, and everyone has one now, the blogs and stuff like that, but when you throw a lot of those together they can become a pretty powerful force. Just on a pure numbers level, album sales doubled for us I think in the middle of December until now. Actually, we went from about 350 sales a week to almost a thousand. So it’s really had a lasting effect.

GH: It’s good to find new albums as well, just to see other people’s top ten.

NQL: That’s really interesting to hear that from the other side of the fence. Because I do that, I notice. I’ll keep seeing some band name pop up and eventually I’ll feel compelled to check it out.

GH: Exactly. And since we’ve been on tour for ten months, it’s kind of hard to keep up with everything, especially with new releases week-by-week. Obviously there are certain ones you know about, and certain ones that after a month people will be talking about, so it’s good just to see what everyone else is listening to.

NQL: So you guys have been on tour for ten months. Scott, earlier I heard you say you were sick of it.

SH: It’s only because, if we had two more months of touring then I’d be in the mind frame of like, “Yeah, two more months, let’s do it.” But since we’re approaching the end, it feels more like your last week of school or something. It’s been great. I’m not sick at all of playing live. The shows on this tour especially have been great, and enthusiasm has been huge so that really helps.

NQL: So going back ten months, I guess that’s about right when the album came out, how different are things now? You must be pretty satisfied with the past year?

SH: Absolutely. I mean we never predicted we’d be headlining a show at the Bowery Ballroom, or just playing there.

NQL: That’s New York City, right?

SH: Yeah. I guess we feel now that we got everything by working very hard so that’s very satisfying to see that it actually does pay off, to just really hammer it.

GH: We haven’t really said "no" to much.

SH: We just said we’d do any shows. They can be shitty, we don’t care. And they have been shitty and incredible and everywhere in between.

NQL: What makes the difference, just the crowd?

SH: Any number of things can make a show good or shitty. It can be the room…

NQL: Speaking of which, this is a pretty sweet green room or whatever you want to call it. The 9:30 Club which I guess is the main venue in this town has nothing on this place. I’ve seen much worse than this. The couches leave a little to be desired. [Interviewer's note: The room was very spacious and had a refridgerator stocked with beer.]

SH: We played in at the Great Scott in Boston last night where your green room is the men’s toilet. Or the women’s, I guess. And when you come off the stage, you just sort of wait by the stage until you go back on. Which is pretty strange. But yeah, we’ve had some crappy venues and crappy audiences. Like the UK is not as into us as the U.S., so some of the venues we’ve played there are pretty tiny.

NQL: I remember reading something about Black Flag and how when Henry Rollins first joined the band he was bummed when only five people showed up to the show, but then (Greg) Ginn pulled him aside and said, “Those people are here to see us. It’s not their fault no one else showed up so we’re gonna put on a good show.” But how hard is it to actually do that versus saying that?

SH: It’s not hard. When we were in Austin we played for about four people in a room a little bit smaller than the one downstairs and they fucking loved it. And it probably ended up being the longest set of the tour because we were like “Well, we’re here, let’s have fun.” And you can play in front of a bunch of people and have it feel like shit or feel weird. It’s completely random, sometimes.

GH: It keeps it exciting. These past three shows have all sold out, and they have all been pretty good. And it just changes so much from city to city, especially in the States, and you can’t predict what a crowd is going to be like.

NQL: Any city or venue that has really stuck out over the last ten months?

SH: I really enjoyed Chop Suey in Seattle. You can get about 250 people in there and it seemed to be quite the exiting place. And also 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis.

GH: I was just about to say Minneapolis. It’s actually part of a pretty large venue and Of Montreal was playing in the large room, and the small venue is really small, but it’s very personal.

SH: I had no preconceived notion of Minneapolis as a town. I know New York is awesome, Chicago is great, it’s always been good to us. But when you turn up in a town like Minneapolis and see a bunch of people, that is great. So yeah, Minneapolis really surprised me.

NQL: Are you getting ready to work on a new record or is that something you don’t even want to think about right now?

SH: No, I’m really starting to think about it. Now more than ever. It’s nice to be able to switch the head around and be in that mode.

GH: It’s completely different from touring.

SH: It’s completely different. Touring is not creative, and not nourishing to your brain, it’s actually damaging, and for the most part (damaging) to your body.

NQL: [laughs] And I assume you can be home when you make a record.

SH: Yeah. We plan to do that in Scotland. The reasons behind that are mostly because we miss the place. I think it will be nice to feel productive again rather than just being on automatic pilot all day. I don’t really like being on the road.

NQL: When was the last time you were in Scotland?

GH: Christmas day.

SH: Yeah, we left Scotland on Christmas day.

GH: It’s just more, in the past ten months, we haven’t had more than a period of four or five days back home.

NQL: This is going to be a stupid question, but one I have always wondered. When you’re on tour, what do you do with shit like your mail? Who looks after your place when you’re gone for ten months?

SH: I don’t have a place. My mail goes to my parents’ place but they don’t open it. I think my dad would freak if he saw the bank statement.

GH: I just moved back as well, but previously I lived with one other guy in an apartment and spent just way too much rent when I wasn’t there at all so I just moved back home. So I can come home to huge pile of bank statements and phone bills.

SH: I should be paying more attention to what’s going on in the bank but there is generally very little to look at.

NQL: Well, I am going to wrap this up, but give my friends in Chicago a good show when you go there soon. Empty Bottle, right?

SH: Yeah. We got to add another show, so now we have an early and a late show. I think Chicago is one of the places we can get away with playing more of the first album as well. Chicago kind of picked up on it quicker than anywhere in the world, I guess. In fact, there is this radio show called Sound Opinions

NQL: Oh, sure. With Jim (DeRogatis) and Greg (Kot).

SH: Yeah, I didn’t even know they did a radio show, but the message board that is attached to the show caught on to our music very early on. And a lot of them are based in Chicago.

NQL: Actually, I remember listening to Sound Opinions earlier last year and they were talking about The Midnight Organ Fight and then they took a swipe at your name. I think they said they loved your music and played “The Modern Leper” but didn’t care for the name Frightened Rabbit.

SH: Well, “Sound Opinions,” that’s wonderfully creative. Jesus Christ.

NQL: [laughs]


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