Old Storms In New Places

Inside The Making Of Frightened Rabbit's Fifth Album

Scott Hutchison has errands to run. Cigarettes, coffee, snacks — you know, all the essentials for a day in the studio. We walk down the street, toward a gas station, feeling as if we’re in suburbia as a man mows his lawn, a shattered river of grass clippings running across the sidewalk. This is Ditmas Park — a somewhat more off-the-beaten path neighborhood in Brooklyn, far from the “Brooklyn” of Williamsburg and Bushwick, and made up of old Victorian-style houses that do something to your head. It doesn’t seem like this should or could exist in New York City, a quiet and removed enclave where, for a moment or a few, you could feel as if you’re working in almost semi-rural seclusion rather than amongst the electric movement of the city. When I first meet the band, it is August of 2015, and they are one of the final artists to join the National’s Aaron Dessner at his studio here in the days shortly before he lists his house for sale. This is where Frightened Rabbit gather to record their fifth album.

This moment in Frightened Rabbit’s life comes amidst a few years of transition for the band. Their last album, 2013’s Pedestrian Verse, was both an ending and a beginning of things. It was the start of Scott Hutchison opening Frightened Rabbit up from its original form — essentially a solo project where he had all creative input and control, but with steady band members — into more of an actual group, where the other members contributed songwriting and ideas. It was their first for a major label, Atlantic. They’d achieved more success than they might have thought possible in their initial mid-’00s days, now playing 2,500-3,000 capacity venues like Manhattan’s Terminal 5 or Philadelphia’s Electric Factory. But it was also the end of Frightened Rabbit as a band living and working together in Scotland, the end of those early albums where the fight for the band is everything in a person’s life. In a way, Pedestrian Verse marks the moment where Frightened Rabbit became everything they had been trying to grow into. In the wake of that, shifts and questions were afoot more so than answers or the sort of larger breakthrough the band had been hoping for with the last few records. Hutchison left Scotland in 2014, moving to Los Angeles to be with his girlfriend. He released a solo album, Owl John, that year; it was an outlet for experimentation at the same time as letting him get back to a way of making music he used to employ before opening Frightened Rabbit up to the other members. And now, Hutchison approaches his mid-30s, with some of his bandmates catching up. The circumstances leading to the album they’re making with Dessner are the sort that begin to plague any person at that point in adulthood: You’ve been doing this one thing and it’s been working, but you begin to reckon with time passed and paths not taken, or paths yet to be taken.

Frightened Rabbit arrive at Dessner’s house in the afternoon. Over the last several years, the band’s become an official five-piece, with a slightly altered lineup than in recent times. Brothers Scott and Grant Hutchison are still at the core of it, as frontman and drummer, respectively. Then there are longtime members Billy Kennedy (bass) and Andy Monaghan (guitar/keys), as well as Simon Liddell (also guitar), the band’s former crew/touring member who’s now full-time following the departure of Gordon Skene. They mill around in Dessner’s backyard for a few moments, chatting amidst the slivers of shade in the August heat. But Dessner is exacting and businesslike when it comes time to record, and quickly gets various members into the studio to start throwing new ideas at the song in question today.

CREDIT: Daniel Topete

For years, Dessner has maintained this restored old house, where his own band, the National, and the artists he produces could stay and work, but also carry on adult lives, raise families for a time. This is not a rockstar crashpad with hangers-on passing through and partying all day. This is a serious place, a peaceful corner. Dessner likes to be heavily involved in the creative process, working with the artist on the songs themselves.

“Most of the ideas that he has are in terms of songwriting and the parts and the melodies rather than a more traditional role a producer would have,” Grant says. “We’ve come into the studio for this less prepared than we ever have in the past.”

“He encouraged that,” Monaghan adds.

Given how protective Scott’s been of Frightened Rabbit’s music in the past, Dessner would seem, on the surface, an illogical fit for the band. But there’s history and admiration here. Frightened Rabbit knew the National from touring with them, and have been fans for almost as long as they’ve been Frightened Rabbit. The National are a major influence on them. When Frightened Rabbit’s U.S. label recommended Dessner as a producer, it made sense.

“It’s not like we sat down with guitars, but he helped flesh out arrangements,” Scott explains. “There are very few people who I would consider writing with for this band, and he was one of them. We’re all longtime National fans. That lends itself to a trust.”

The studio is surreal. It’s in a shed in Aaron’s backyard, and it is tiny. A whiteboard hangs on the wall with scrawled notes from the National’s sessions for High Violet; a synth belonging to Sufjan Stevens is nestled in a corner underneath a table. The group plays me four songs that they already know are definitely making the album, and which they characterize as being about 90 percent of the way to completion. There are things that immediately identify them as Frightened Rabbit songs: Scott’s Scottish drawl wrapping itself around his customarily confessional lyrics, the throb and shape of the things. But there are also noticeable differences; it’s evident that Frightened Rabbit know Pedestrian Verse was the end of something, too, and are beginning to push themselves past the tropes of their own music. One mid-tempo track, “Blood Under The Bridge,” stays meditative when you might expect it to explode in the chorus; “It’s all right, it’s all right/ It’s just blood under the bridge/ Put down the knife,” Scott sings, as if he’s sitting at the bar with you and matter-of-factly looking over his shoulder, one hand gripping a beer to ground him as he makes his way through the words. There’s a sparse acoustic song, an outlier. Everywhere else, there is the bottled-up grandeur so familiar in Frightened Rabbit’s music, that humidity of instrumentation and textures always threatening to break out into full-on storm. The storms are less frequent in the new music; or rather, they might be of a more consistent yet less violent presence. More carefully deployed. The two uptempo tracks they play me do burst into that Frightened Rabbit intensity when the chorus hits, but both pulse their way rather than race at breakneck speed. Notably, the guitars are one element in a squall of electronic textures and drum machine embellishments, continuing some of the aesthetic experimentation Scott had flirted with on Owl John.

The track they’re working on today, “Little Drum,” is prime Frightened Rabbit, the kind of song that sounds like one perpetual emotional swell, full of big drums and yearningly sweeping melodies. When the band takes its lunch break, Dessner’s walking around the backyard, his eyes betraying that he hasn’t downshifted into socializing mode and is still consumed by the work at hand. He decides to go back into the shed and track a guitar part himself. Initially, it’s a striking contrast to the tortured majesty of the Frightened Rabbit song as it exists. He plays through a cycle of harsh, bright downstrokes. It sounds like some sort of sunny post-punk, and winds up bringing a driving energy to the song, the springboard for another guitar part Scott lays down in response to it later in the afternoon. It starts with Scott in the booth simply messing around with a few lines, and then Dessner takes notice, tells him to pursue that for a minute. As Scott’s in the booth, he seems to be focusing on something elsewhere entirely, standing within the music, eyes closed and body occasionally swaying, as he finds a riff that plays off the slashing chords Dessner had recorded. Dessner calls directions inside to Scott. He tells Scott to try it cleaner, with less distortion; Dessner tells Scott to run through the different patterns he’d been trying until Dessner hears the one he’d been waiting for again and simply says, “There, that’s the variation.” The parts are simple, but immediately change the scope and tone of the song. The two of them have defined its direction in a matter of 30 minutes.

“‘Little Drum’ is in, in my book,” Scott says when I later ask him if it’s definitely going to be on the album. Then he quips: “Unless you think it’s shit, Ryan.” I don’t think it’s shit. Like Pedestrian Verse‘s lead single, “The Woodpile,” “Little Drum” is an emphatic gut-punch of a Frightened Rabbit song, the kind of thing that, if you’re a fan of a band, makes you think, “Oh, shit, they’re back.” But in everything I hear today, there’s also a palpable anxiety bubbling through the music. Nearly all of Frightened Rabbit’s music traffics in kicking out the demons. But this is different. There are fewer shout-along catharses, and more a sense of riding that ever-present storm toward something. All of it is the sound of a band pushing forward, against things. And the fight for answers seems far from over.

***
The next night, I meet the band for dinner at a thunderously loud restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, right across from the park that bears the neighborhood’s name. Inside, the space looks far older than the establishment itself: all wood and old-fashioned lights and tile floors. It immediately announces itself as the kind of Brooklyn establishment that serves oysters and arcane cocktails. We pile into a booth in the back, and everyone orders a round of drinks. They’re in a good mood right now. However difficult a day Frightened Rabbit might have in the studio, they never really bring it home with them.

Tonight, I’m also catching the band shortly into a reunion of sorts. With the rest of Frightened Rabbit remaining in Glasgow and Scott in L.A., the writing process has been a mix of writing sessions in-person and trading ideas via email.

“The geographical distance between myself and the rest of the band meant it was a little bit more work going on independently,” Scott says. “Last time, we did all the work together in sessions, in houses in Scotland, but that probably only comprises about half the record this time.”

After the major transition that occurred with Pedestrian Verse — Scott opening up the songwriting process to the others for the first time — this was divergent as well, a sort of hybrid of new Frightened Rabbit and very old Frightened Rabbit. With Scott isolated in L.A., he returned to the way he used to work on the earliest Frightened Rabbit albums, piecing songs together alone on a computer — which, in this instance, gave him the opportunity to chase new sounds. He even allows that, this time around, there was some writing done entirely by the guys in Glasgow that he mostly contributed a vocal line to, not too much more.

“Everyone has fully-formed ideas and they get them filtered and all mashed together into what they become,” Monaghan clarifies. “Rarely the thing that somebody does — or even the Glasgow crew composed, and then sent to Scott — that’s never it. The song’s going to evolve into something else.”

If the writing process was some fusion of the collaborative Pedestrian Verse and the solo Owl John (through which Scott first re-connected with the way he used to write songs alone), then the resulting new songs also owe something to the development that occurred with Owl John, which Scott recorded with Monaghan and Liddell.

“There was a freedom to making that record,” Scott recalls.

Owl John was the complete opposite of this,” Monaghan says. “In the sense that we went in with nothing.”

“I do think it contributed to our [current] direction,” Scott adds. “Or an embracing of something less familiar, to us and to our audiences.”

It was actually their label that suggested Scott step aside to do the Owl John thing before doing another Frightened Rabbit album; he’d been interested in it without thinking the label would want it, really. Through that, one of those unfamiliar things Scott embraced was a different idea of what Frightened Rabbit could be to him.

“It’s just Scott having trust in these guys to be more involved,” Grant says.

CREDIT: Daniel Topete

After starting Frightened Rabbit as a solitary, personal undertaking, it took some time for Scott to adjust to that. “It could probably be argued that I’m not entirely over it, either,” he allows. But as he let everyone else in on Pedestrian Verse, that album also presented him with a turning point. It was the moment where he felt like he’d captured the sound he’d always been looking for, where Frightened Rabbit became the sound in his head, totally. “It didn’t feel like there was any point in looking for that anymore,” he says. “[Pedestrian Verse and Owl John] provided a palette cleanser.”

That’s what set the stage for some of the experimentation on the new album. Like plenty of guitar-oriented bands before them, Frightened Rabbit found themselves confronted with what to do next. “Going into the record, there was a sense that we had to do something to push it forward slightly without it being a hackneyed move,” Scott says. They all credit Dessner with curtailing the safe options. If a song isn’t working, there’s always that impulse to go back to what you know, and what works. In the case of Frightened Rabbit, that previously would’ve been verses that yield to massive choruses, or emotive guitar-heavy outros. The new Frightened Rabbit material is, largely, still guitar-based indie music. But it’s dialed down. Scott began to feel they could get into bad habits with the instrument, because there are only so many places they could go with it in their music. Hence the guitar becoming more of an additional texture amidst more electronic elements than in any of the old Frightened Rabbit material. “Andy introduced synths subtly … or not so subtly sometimes,” Scott explains.

“[Scott] embraced it as well, and I’ve maybe just pushed it a wee bit,” Monaghan says. “Whenever I can eliminate all the guitars from Frightened Rabbit, I’ll be happy. I’m joking.”

“You’re doing all right so far,” Scott quips back.

Initially, Scott was seeking to overhaul his approach to lyrics as well. Frightened Rabbit’s music has always been deeply personal, with themes that often came directly out of breakups Scott experienced. Around a year ago, Scott was trying to change the way he wrote songs altogether, focusing instead on “a bunch of shit about made-up places.” “It was more other people’s lives, which I’ve touched on before, but I don’t really know, and it was bullshit,” he explains.

In the end, Grant was instrumental in helping his brother find inspiration again, telling him: “There’s a type of song I personally like to hear from you and I’m pretty sure everyone else does.”

To that end, Scott returned to the subjects he’s always excelled at: human relationships, particularly troubled ones, and the general ups-and-downs and ignominies of romantic upheaval. “I seem to have a well of turmoil to draw upon,” he jokes. Eventually, he realized returning to that well didn’t necessarily mean retreading old ground, and that avoiding it was to the detriment to the material they had. “It’s a new way of putting forth the notion that you had a bad night, or that you feel like a fucking idiot at certain points,” Scott says. “That’s what, I came to realize, is the reason I write songs anyway.” In the end, they were satisfied that they’d managed to attack the topics that resonate in the world of Frightened Rabbit, but to do so in a new setting, inherently giving it a different tone. Old storms in new places.

CREDIT: Daniel Topete

Since the album is still in progress at this moment, our conversation wanders to larger aspects of Frightened Rabbit’s career. The exact status of Frightened Rabbit has always been hard to pin down. They get good reviews, but they’ve never been one of the bands at the forefront of the indie scene, the sort where the media will cover any random move they make. If you were going by blogs alone, they have a somewhat invisible kind of popularity. I’m taken aback when they tell me that, aside from fervent loyalty in Scotland, they don’t do that well in Europe; having played venues a 10th of the size that they do in America, they were on the verge of not touring Europe anymore. Yet while they’re more successful here — “by a fucking mile,” says Scott — you wouldn’t always know it.

“I don’t know where Frightened Rabbit lives,” Scott says. “That might be the point. I don’t know if anybody knows where.”

‘Scottish band makes pretty good music’ isn’t a very good headline. ‘Forgettable guys make songs that you can cry to.’ Can you make that the headline?

It’s a peculiar kind of success: the kind where you might not have the sort of frenzied buzz to drive you to the next level of the industry, but also the kind where you’ve built up a loyal fanbase that would be enough to keep you making albums and touring as long as you feel like it. In a way, it might be a more preferable kind of success, the kind where you don’t live or die based on how a particular publication feels about a new album.

“The media are looking for the new thing, or looking to pounce,” Liddell ventures. “If you’re in-between, if you’re neither of those things, and still selling tickets, then that’s the perfect place to be.”

“‘Scottish band makes pretty good music’ isn’t a very good headline,” Scott jokes. “‘Forgettable guys make songs that you can cry to.’ Can you make that the headline?”

Jokes aside, Scott’s selling what they do short. There are reasons Frightened Rabbit have the following they have, and that this following is the kind that will fill a large room with crowds shouting along to the chants of “The Loneliness And The Scream,” or the refrains of “Keep Yourself Warm.” Frightened Rabbit’s music, and Scott’s lyrics, take personal demons and interior conversations and inject them with a totally out-sized sense of drama. It’s big, cathartic music about small wars. Intimate yet churning music about the stupid little things we do to each other on a daily basis. This approach can do something weird to a band’s stature. Frightened Rabbit don’t trade in the kind of vast universals that lead to filling an arena. It’s not often music that’s personally-derived but veiled enough for a person to read into, and then project themselves into it. It’s hyper-specific, full of little turns of phrase and imagery that you have to relate to in your own hyper-specific and hyper-personal way. Sure, they make anthems. But they make anthems out of the most self-conscious and embarrassingly human things. That’s a distinct power. That’s how you become a band whose fans have tattoos of your lyrics. Based on where the album is right now, that, at least, is one thing that hasn’t changed at all in the upcoming iteration of Frightened Rabbit.

***
Five months later, on a January morning, I take the train from New York City to Hudson, two hours along the river through the kinds of towns that make you question why people live anywhere else. Old, small, idyllic American places. Hudson is the kind of town you’d like to romanticize as you walk around, imagining that every white-haired person who walks past you is an artist or novelist that retreated to anonymity in the country decades ago. After a few minutes wandering down icy sidewalks lined with quaint homes, I find Scott standing on a corner on Hudson’s main drag, right below his new apartment.

There have been more changes in Scott’s life since the last time I saw him. A few weeks after the studio in August, we hung out twice in L.A. He was starting to plan his move east then, having never quite taken a liking to L.A. (“I think there’s a weird sense of darkness about this very bright but beige city,” he once said to me.) The Owl John track “Los Angeles Be Kind” and a new Frightened Rabbit song, “Still Want To Be Here,” bracket his time in the city, from his failing attempts to love it there to the reckoning at the end. It was mostly unkind, but in “Still Want To Be Here,” there’s a kind of resolution. While he sings, “Fuck these faceless homes and everyone who lives in them,” Scott’s main point was: L.A. just wasn’t the place for him, or for him and his girlfriend at that moment, but it was all right because he was with her.

“Even at this age maybe I’m still looking,” he admits, describing the ongoing search to find that place where he does fit. So they packed everything into their car and drove across the country.

CREDIT: Daniel Topete

The new Frightened Rabbit album has been done for a while now; Scott received the masters on that drive to his new home. We sit down for lunch at a bar down the street from his apartment, and Scott begins reflecting on the album. While the music’s been done for a few months, they’re still settling on a title, after weeding through something like 50 ideas that Scott had written in a notebook. Historically, Scott would pick a lyric from the album, one that tied it all together; in August, Grant had recalled how the words “Pedestrian Verse” were written on the front of Scott’s notebook throughout recording. This time, it’s taken much longer to reveal itself, and the increased democracy within Frightened Rabbit meant some deal of paralysis and deliberation on the title. Scott had favored Monuments, precisely because it didn’t seem like a very Frightened Rabbit title. For a while, the album was going to be called The Spill Of The War, a lyric from “Blood Under The Bridge,” but they eventually decided against it.

At the moment, Scott’s trying to process how to feel about the album while he’s in this weird no-man’s-land between the completion of recording and the official announcement, first single, or release. All he can do now is wait and wonder how it’ll go over.

“Right now I just hear how hard it was to make,” Scott says. “I’ve forgotten what it felt like to make our other albums.” (Scott alludes to how, in a particularly difficult moment, he considered naming the album Bye, but abandoned that a long time ago in the process.) The struggles in making the album were partly circumstantial, like the new distance between where he lived and where his bandmates lived. “In Glasgow, it meant something to be Frightened Rabbit,” he says. “It’s more of a family club atmosphere, the gang. That was switched off.”

Things were tense during the birth of this record, specifically between Scott and Grant at times. Scott recalls them sending emails and wondering “Should we just fucking call this a day? It’s not really working.” He found consolation in remembering watching documentaries and seeing the strain that making a great album had put on bands he admired. “I’d love to be in that camp,” he says. “Maybe we’ve toiled to make something.”

But many of the difficulties were deeper, more existential. He refers again to Pedestrian Verse reaching some kind of conclusion with the band’s sound. “There’s definitely no backward looking from this point on, and that’s refreshing in a way,” Scott reflects. “When we weren’t looking for that thing we’d been searching for anymore, we didn’t really have a goal in mind, and I still don’t, which is refreshing in itself.”

The other side of that is the questions you’re left with. What’s the point of Frightened Rabbit anymore? At once, they were closing in on five records and 10 years of going at this, always chasing that sound, always thinking the next album might be the one to break them through to a bigger scene. Scott found himself wondering: Does the world need another Frightened Rabbit album? “It’s sadder than the last record, in a very simple way,” he says. “It just comes at a different time for us personally. This one has changed the way I feel about where we are.” The end result is something Scott characterizes as “a fraught record, packed with doubt.” Though people like to sometimes simplify the naked emotions of a Frightened Rabbit record into a “Oh, there’s another indie band full of sad, bearded boys,” the reality of their music has always offered that way out; sharing in pain to burn it all away through that last chorus. “I can’t really write a straight-up downer of a song, I need to offer some nugget of hope,” Scott says. “That’s still there, but it might be in shorter supply than before.”

CREDIT: Daniel Topete

These are the growing pains of a band settling into its status in the world while its members have to start looking forward into what they want their lives to look like. For seven out of the nearly 10 years that Frightened Rabbit existed, there was always that lingering hope: “This next record will really break us through and a lot more people will know who we are.” And, as Scott puts it, “It didn’t quite happen.” But it’s also something he’s made peace with. He doesn’t dwell on it as much now. “I would be happy just being in a band that matters to a select bunch of people. And still matters to me,” he says. The difference now is all the members have to consider the future, and the notion that Frightened Rabbit isn’t the only thing that matters in their lives. “Frightened Rabbit would essentially end relationships, because we have all at one point or another chosen the band over that,” Scott says. Now, there needs to be more room — whether for personal lives, Owl John, Monaghan’s production work, whatever it is.

If any of that reads as dire, Scott admits he might be “purposefully pessimistic.” When I spoke to Dessner at Eaux Claires last July, he told me he felt that the music Frightened Rabbit were working on would be the stuff that took them to the next level, in terms of exposure in the rock and indie worlds. Who knows how different the end result is from what Dessner was talking about back in those early stages. Scott considers it their least immediate, and he probably isn’t wrong. But he also hopes that the flipside of that is that they’ve made something that will stick around. This is what remains to be seen when the album comes out.

Part of the point is that we’ve already achieved a lot of things I didn’t think we would have anyway.

“Part of the point is that we’ve already achieved a lot of things I didn’t think we would have anyway,” Scott says. It’s an acknowledgment of a strange juncture in any band’s career. Frightened Rabbit have achieved an enviable amount of success: They reached a level where they do play those club venues in America, and they tour on a bus, and they have devoted fans, and they’re not as beholden to what sites cover them or don’t. They found one ideal form of themselves already on Pedestrian Verse. And now, all these years in, they’re faced with having to ask: After all of that, what’s the next move forward? Is there another step beyond this? Or does it situate itself here? And if it does, shouldn’t that be good enough from here on out?

That’s all in the context of the music industry, but it’s something anybody could go through: the moment of finding yourself at a place where you’ve already achieved and experienced far more than you could have realistically expected some amount of years ago, but then confronting more questions than you started out with. What comes next? What’s it going to take to be satisfied? Does that ever happen? Should it? How did I get this far? How do I get farther? As musicians, it’s those kinds of questions that lead Scott and Frightened Rabbit to making the kind of album they have, that one grappling with doubt and anxiety about what is further down the road. When I sit and talk with Scott, I don’t hear someone who’s living the dream of a million bands and not knowing what to do with it; he’s fully aware of how far they’ve gotten, and grateful and happy that they’ve made it to this point. I hear a person who’s plagued by the sorts of things anyone wonders when they’re approaching the precipice of middle age, or any major turning point, for that matter. I hear a person who’s asking the same questions that I am. And, maybe selfishly, that’s what makes me hope the answers that Frightened Rabbit eventually find revolve around the fact that they do have plenty more to say, and that there’s plenty of value in another Frightened Rabbit album, now or years from now. Because I realized I’ve been hearing that person for years before we’re sitting at this bar together, and the words he sings in songs were always as present as the words we say right here, across from each other. It always sounded like a friend.

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