Interview: Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison

By Ryan Dembinsky (Ryan Demler)

Back in October of 2008, huddled together closely in a cluttered green room upstairs at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg, the members of a band from Selkirk, Scotland called Frightened Rabbit – most of whom wielded Apple computers as they killed time before their set supporting Delaware’s Spinto Band – chatted amiably about their friendships with one another, the critical success of their latest album, The Midnight Organ Fight, and its acoustic offshoot Liver, Lung, FR, as well as their current U.S. tour.

What they didn’t know at the time was that they were actually responsible for my own personal Almost Famous moment so-to-speak. That was my first real backstage interview. Everybody always tells a newbie or an underdog to “act like you’ve been here before.” So, that’s what I did. Being a tad nervous, I polished off about eight beers beforehand at a bar across the street, only to find out Frightened Rabbit consists entirely of down-to-earth, thoughtful gents who are happy to share their insights on any number of subjects. What resulted were a lot of laughs and subsequently, one of the finest indie rock shows I’ve seen – and that’s not just because of all the beers.

Fast forward about 18 months and Frightened Rabbit no longer play the role of underdog either. On the contrary, having just released their third full-length album, The Winter of Mixed Drinks (released March 1 on Fat Cat Records), produced by indie wunderkind Peter Katis (The National, Swell Season), fans and critics alike have been teeming with anticipation for this release ever since The Midnight Organ Fight went on to populate so many 2008 “Best Of” lists and the band itself emerged as leaders of a burgeoning Glasgow music scene – one of the most compelling locales in music today.

On the day before the big release of The Winter of Mixed Drinks, JamBase caught up with the busy rockers to check in on all things Scottish, working with Peter Katis, and the unwritten rules of being a Frightened Rabbit.

JamBase: List 3-5 things that influenced this record, such as people, books, movies, other musicians, events in your life, or feelings at the time.

Scott Hutchison: Ted Hughes’ book Songs of the Crow was a massive influence lyrically. It’s an amazingly powerful set of poems, and there is a wonderful thread running through the series. It’s terrifying in places. The North Sea had a huge effect on the record. There are clear nautical references throughout, and they would not have been there were it not for my coastal location at the time of writing. Walking was a major factor in the way I finished the writing process. There is something about the rhythm of striding across the land that gets the mind ticking over. A brusque walk always sparks an idea for me.

JamBase: Could you give some background on your relationship with Peter Katis, both from a working and friendship perspective?

Scott Hutchison: We were incredibly lucky to work with Peter on The Midnight Organ Fight. He is an old friend of Adam Pierce’s [the head of Fat Cat, USA] and as such we probably got a good deal. At first, everyone was unsure about what we were trying to do; I think he wondered what the hell we were doing in his studio. But slowly we gained an understanding of each other and it started a great working relationship. I love what he does with records. His style is a little different from my own, perhaps he works a lot more subtly, but that is something that adds a great deal to the records. He creates space, whereas I have a tendency to fill it up with all sorts of shit.

Last time we spoke, we joked around about your childhood growing up with Grant [Hutchison, his sibling and FR’s drummer] and how when you first started playing music it wasn’t so cool to have your little brother in the band, but as you guys grew up you came to become close friends. How would you characterize your relationship these days?

It’s still a totally solid friendship. We have fairly distinct roles within the band, and we tend not to step on each other’s toes. Grant deals with much of the day-to-day running of the band, something I am fairly inept at. It’s great that he has a knack for organization, because it allows me to go forward with the creative side. We still argue, but it’s always constructive. And I am always right [laughs].

Along those same lines, how would you describe the camaraderie of the band?

The best way to sum things up is through the unwritten, and usually unspoken, rules within the band. You don’t finish Grant’s cider. You don’t fuck with Billy [Kennedy, bass] when he’s hungry. You let me sit in the front seat for most of the journey. If Andy [Monaghan, guitar] has gone missing, he will be “on a wander.” Don’t try to find him; he always comes back on time. Gordon [Skene, keyboards] doesn’t like shit food. If you suggest a Chinese buffet, he won’t be joining you.

Could you talk about some of the interesting elements from working in the studio that came across on the new album, such as cool overdubs, effects, interesting things you used for sound effects, etc.?

The most important item of equipment became the SP-404 sampler that I bought when I was writing the record. We just took some of the loops and sounds straight off there. They were pretty lo-fi, but I think it stopped the record from becoming too “over-produced,” although some may argue otherwise.

I gather in listening to the album that it’s meant to be emblematic of escaping one’s life or running away, so to speak, which seems somewhat consistent with Midnight Organ Fight. Could you give a little background on how you got to this concept?

Quite simply, I was alone for a certain amount of time, which gave me the space to assess what was and was not important in life. I’m not saying I’ve got it figured out, but the simplicity of things out in Crail [Scotland, where the bulk of the record was written] made everything seem so fucking easy. My brain just worked the way it ought to out there. The city can be stifling.

On the flip side, there’s some unbridled optimism toward the end of the record on “Living in Colour” and “Not Miserable.” Are you happy these days?

Yep! I was never terribly unhappy for long periods of time before, but I suppose listening to the last record you could be forgiven for thinking that I was permanently miserable. I’m pleased to say life is pretty good right now. Long may it continue!

So, you guys are getting closer to full-on fame nowadays. How do you feel about fame? Do you welcome it or is it a little scary to think about it?

I can’t say I’m aware of being on the brink of full-on fame. There are different levels I suppose. It’s nice when people come up to you in the supermarket to tell you that they like your music. I won’t ever get tired of that. When they start telling me I’m a dick and my music sucks, I will begin to worry.

How much influence did Peter Katis have on the sound and the material? Did he help write with you at all?

He didn’t have a role in the writing, but he has an absolutely magic touch on all of the records he works on. The albums quite simply would not sound as they do without Peter’s input. As I said before, he mixes very subtly, and especially in the new record, has helped to create some space in a rather busy, layered record.

With Midnight Organ Fight you spent about two weeks in the studio. How did the process this time around compare?

We had about twice as much time. On Organ Fight we essentially recreated the demos note-for-note in the studio. This time, we saved a lot of the arranging and creativity for the studio itself, so it was a lot more involved. Perhaps the luxury of time led to certain portions of the album getting a tad overblown, musically, but it’s something we were aware of, and it’s definitely the way I wanted this one to sound. It’s not something I wish to repeat next time.

There’s quite an indie music revolution occurring in Scotland these days, particularly on Fat Cat, with you guys, James Graham and We Were Promised Jetpacks. What would you say makes Glasgow and Scotland in general so special for music?

Scotland is an indoor nation. Making music, or any kind of art, is perfect for us. We are pale and pasty-faced, hate the sun and love a dark room. There’s a very specific dark and self-deprecating nature in lots of Scots that filters through to the creative output of the nation. Glasgow is the center for most of this activity. It’s a city built for the arts. There are so many spaces to play and work in. It just breeds good stuff.

What are your two favorite songs on the album, one from the perspective of the music and one from the perspective of the lyrics?

“Things” is the most succinct song I’ve ever written, lyrically speaking. There’s not much wasted language in there, which I like. I think parts of “Skip the Youth” are our most musically ambitious to date; I’m especially fond of the two minute intro. I’m aware that it could be incredibly annoying for some people, but that only makes me love it more.

Finally, when last time we spoke, you had some pretty funny comments about the Enemy [aka, NME]. It seems as though they have since taken quite a liking to Frightened Rabbit. Are you still skeptical about them? What are your feelings toward the music media in general these days?

I have no beef with anyone in the music media. I don’t expect to be universally loved. I don’t want to be. It’s healthy to read articles by people who clearly hate my band. The NME has been kind in recent months, which is great, though it’s not incredibly important to me. It’s best not to take any of that stuff too seriously. Reviews are relatively ephemeral in comparison to the actual content of the record.

New Interviews Elsewhere

I’ll try to use this site in part to share some of my other projects.

First, I got the chance to interview the inestimable John Oates – otherwise known as one half of the best selling duo in the history of music – over at Jambase.

Second, I started contributing to one of my favorite off the beaten path blogs Post Trash run by Dan Goldin (founder/cult hero of Exploding in Sound records). My first feature was an interview with the powerful rising stars from Boston, Kal Marks. Huge thanks to Carl Shane who spent multiple hours chatting with me. I managed to lose the entire recording the first time we spoke, so he was kind enough to do the entire thing twice.

Hollywood’s Sordid Past in Casting Sports Movie Lead Roles

Did you ever notice that, in aggregate, sports movies cast some of the least believable stars possible in the lead roles? We all laugh at the thought of Keanu’s Shane Falco as a quarterback with NFL potential before his career got derailed by a houseboat fascination or Anthony Michael Hall as a star recruit star out of high school in Johnny Be Goode, but the list goes on ever longer with head-scratcher after head-scratcher.

Brendan Fraser as David Greene in “School Ties”

The old Jew at a prep school makes friends, stars on the football team, hides religion, gets caught, gets exiled, and overcomes adversity plot. It’s a formula as old as time itself. But you can only shake off so many Bedazzleds and George of the Jungles before a sports role is a bad idea. Plus, he he’s not even Jewish. He looks big enough and physical enough, but he’s done one too many “scared overachiever who lost his thesis paper” to believe in him as a gridiron hero.

Anthony Michael Hall as Johnny Walker in Johnny Be Good

Fresh off the role as neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie in The Breakfast Club, Anthony Michael Hall took a complete 180 degree reversal into the BMOC in Johnny Be Good. Anthony Michael Hall actually plays this role well and makes us all wish we were getting recruited to play college ball, but talk about not being typecast. He covered the polar opposite ends f the cool spectrum in the span of just two films. Plus, never before have movie audiences been awed by the hang time of punt. I always felt punt hang time was the real measure of a man.

Tom Cruise as Stefen Djordjevic in All the Right Moves

Tom Cruise in football pads? He looks like Harry the Hunter from Beetlejuice with that tiny head poking out of those things.  At 5’1” Cruise played a brash bad mofo, but we think he should probably stick to dancing to Seger in his undies?

On a side note, who named a football player Stefen Djordjevic? He must have come up through the NFL’s short-lived Nordic development league.

Robin Williams as Jack Dundee in Best of Times

We miss Robin Williams, so  like Michael Bolton, we celebrate his entire catalog.

Still, you’re telling me that thick-framed version of Robin was supposed to make the game winning play and become the local gridiron celebrity? You can’t even fit glasses like that under a football helmet.

It goes to show you though, take a couple of good actors and you can turn even the dumbest of plots into a pretty enjoyable movie? It’s the classic “underdog wins” plot with a twist. Dundee (Williams) lures his high school buddy and quarterback hero Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell) into playing a re-match of high school football game they lost 13 years ago. Dundee pulls out ever trick in the book to lure Reno into the concept. Finally they play, and Dundee, after getting banged around the entire game breaks free for a miracle bobble and catch 80 yard TD for the win. Good times.

James Van Der Beek as Mox in Varsity Blues

There is no way that during the Dawson years prime, we can suspend reality and envision Van Der Beek as a legitimate quarterback.

Mox gets the call to start for the varsity team, when the BMOC, goes down with an injury and he isn’t sure he can handle the pressure or all the Cool Whip that comes with it, but he pulled through for the team and this wound up becoming one of the better modern football movies. Amy Smart and Ali Larter? Hmmm.

Keanu Reeves as Shane Falco in the Replacements and/or Johnny Utah in Point Break

Hold still, you’ll just feel a little prick. This won’t hurt a bit. “Pain heals, Chicks dig scars. Glory… lasts forever.”

Somewhere a casting director loves the idea of Keanu Reeves as a washed up ex-college football star as it’s happened twice: in Point Break and the Replacements. Maybe it was that inspired role in Parenthood where he drives the funny-car into a wall. I can’t really say for sure, but somewhere somebody says to themself, “Keanu Reeves – burnt out quarterback extraordinaire. Yep. Solid.” Of this whole list, this is the one role that is actually entirely unbelievable.

Cuba Gooding Jr. as Rod Tidwell in Jerry McGuire

I suppose at the time, this was a decent choice, since we had no idea what Cuba had in store for us, but fast forward ten years and this is the guy who gave us Boat Trip and Snow Dogs.

Scott Bakula as Paul Blake in Necessary Roughness

I kinda hate to include Bakula, but he’s Bakula and Bakula is a one role man. This would be like Barry Sanders playing one final season with the Vikings. In all seriousness, he was great in this role and I was convinced lead a team of outcasts back to relevance at age 34. Necessary Roughness might be the funniest sports movie ever made, so while it would have been tempting to cast someone physically big and more well-known like a Bill Paxton, this turned out to be the perfect choice. Speaking of Paxton, bet you didn’t know he wore a size 14 shoe.

Craig Sheffer as Joe Kane in The Program

This dude kind of fell off the map after starring as the confused borderline alcoholic Joe Kane in The Program, and to be fair, he probably wasn’t the most awkward looking guy to don football pads and a helmet. Still , he’s irritating in that thinks he’s cool, but can’t remove that over-serious look off his face and most likely has a hot temper kind of way.

 

Honorable mentions: Omar Epps as Darnell Jefferson “The Program” and Corey Haim as Lucas in, well “Lucas”

Dunkirk and Darkest Hour: How a Happy Accident Became the Best Thing to Happen to Hollywood in 2017

Crippled by a perfect storm of new channels for film distribution, secular headwinds dissuading people away from the movie theater experience, a television renaissance, and conservative creative Hollywood decision-making where comic book movies and comic book movie sequels are about as exciting as it gets: it’s fair to generalize that Hollywood has been playing it overly safe as of late. Adventurous high-risk projects that employ unestablished plot formulas or untested screenwriters and/or directors are a rarity.

Yet a strange coincidence in 2017 may have offered up just the evidence we need to see that taking chances can pay off – even if it was a complete accident. Two movies about the exact same World War II battle told from completely different vantage points may have reinvigorated the stale as a crouton state of Hollywood film-making.

Earlier this year, Christopher Nolan released a time-skipping, all-too-real front-lines look at the Battle of Dunkirk, a critical early World War II battle, whereby the British forces backed themselves into a proverbial corner* whereby had the Germans proceeded as aggressors, the Axis forces could have won the war back in 1940. Nolan’s film, Dunkirk, focuses almost entirely on the action on the French beaches of Dunkirk via three vantage points: land, air, and sea with varying speeds and freneticism depending on the mode of transport.

The film grossed $545 million dollars, which in and of itself is a big win for movie fans desperately hoping for more risks or at the very least some headier thematic content – yes, a war movie is considered daring in today’s movie industry – but the real optimism is in the seemingly coincidental accident that later in the year, as the very same battle is told from the Halls of the British Parliament from the perspective of the British politicians making the decisions behind the scenes, via Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour.

Darkest Hour feels like a well-placed collaborative sister film that rolled out in theaters just as Dunkirk hit Cable On-Demand and Streaming sites. It’s almost like watching a different character’s interpretation of the very same events not unlike an episode of The Affair on Showtime. You’re watching the exact same time-period unfold with all the fear and intensity, but from entirely different character viewpoints.

While Dunkirk has the action of the war and Christopher Nolan’s trademark mind-bending of time and space which makes for a more accessible war film – in a brief exchange with the lead Film Editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle, he said he thought Dunkirk was the more likely of the two to take home the Oscar for Best Picture – yet Darkest Hour was his favorite. Darkest Hour is gripping in its own right despite nary a sign of a gunshot. It’s entirely focused on Winston Churchill’s blind-drunk big-hearted approach to navigating a seemingly lose-lose scenario, but by following his nationalistic gut instincts to fight for their country., the extraction of over 300,000 British soldiers from Dunkirk succeeds.

In researching the timing of the two films, there exists to my knowledge no evidence that suggests that the movies were rolled out as an intentional collaboration, but it’s this type of creative riffing that could bring a new level of excitement back to film. This was the first time I felt a complete surprise and instantly wanted more of the story upon leaving the the theater in longer than I can remember.

Mick LaSalle, the aforementioned Film Editor for the SF Chronicle offered this on the potential of an intentional collaboration, “I don’t think they were coordinated, though they may have been intentionally released in a way as to avoid each other.”

In other words, the two films were hardly an intentional cross-promotion, but rather they stayed out of each other’s way at best. Ironically, I view this as a potentially new mechanism for the safety-first Hollywood enterprise  – one that clutches on to its formulas like Shake Weights – to embark on more adventurous material in within a potentially lower risk financial framework. For instance, following the success of Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, we could theoretically now have the stage set for additional deep dives into why the US held out so long in entering the war; how did Britain rally back after Dunkirk; or dare I say, a do-over of a Pearl Harbor picture. The new formula becomes the all-in onslaught on a topic of deep cultural relevance or historic significance but told through the eye various auteurs and in a variety of styles – some accessible, some challenging – from year to year.

NPR wrote an article highlighting the strange coincidence of the two films, albeit in the context of the accident being potentially threatening to the two films. I don’t see it this way at all. They are both better because the other one exists. In fact, Dunkirk might win the Oscar for Best Picture while Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill is a lock for best actor. This coincidence feels like a truly unique experience to be savored. Go see these movies back to back, or in consecutive days. You’ll have fun at the movie theater again.

Oldman’s Speech

Churchill’s Speech

*I figure if I’m going to lazily use the saying “backed into a proverbial corner,” I should at least pick a proverb to go with it. So, I picked two: “ Failing to plan is planning to fail” and “Eat breakfast as a king, lunch as a merchant and supper as a beggar.”