Interview: Scott Hutchison from Frightened Rabbit
Singer from Scottish band on songwriting, US success and the fight to redefine a particular swearword
I discovered Frightened Rabbit about six years ago. As an American living and working in Edinburgh post journo grad school, I wrote about music for publications like The List and immersed myself in the Scottish music scene. I got it; and I was sure, at the time, that this was because of my frame of reference, that I had a special advantage to making the music mine. Surely certain lyrics and pictures painted within them in the accents of bands like Twilight Sad and Frightened Rabbit were understandable only to those lucky enough to call that beautifully dreary place home?
I could not have been more wrong. I returned to the States (kicking and screaming, might I add) to find a Twilight Sad song or two on an American friend’s iPod. Sparrow and the Workshop and We Were Promised Jetpacks played casually on a stereo during dinner at friend’s apartment in Queens. And then there was Frightened Rabbit. Not only did their CD sit prominently on display in an NYC record shop, but they also appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon while I was in the city. I was both overjoyed as well as confused. These bands were accessible to all, the music no longer made especially for me. Thank god for that.
Now, having returned to my southern roots in South Carolina, I do ache for reminders of what I consider to be my other home. So when I realised Frightened Rabbit was coming to a city near me, I hightailed it there to get my fix. I wanted to see them from an audience of my countrymen, hear fellow yanks sing along to every word, and experience the music from this side of the Atlantic.
I also got a chance to catch up with Scott Hutchison before the show in Charlotte, North Carolina, during their tour with The National. I came bearing gifts of Irn Bru for an appreciative crew and sat with Scott on their fancy US tour bus discussing the band’s American life, homesickness, and the vastly different audience reactions to a certain noun beloved by an entire nation of unapologetic Scots.
KS: So, how did y’all hook up with the National, and how’s that going so far?
SH: Well we’ve only done two shows with them so far, but it’s been great. To tour with a band that has heavily influenced what you yourself have been doing for the past five years is a great thing, you know? And then, after meeting a couple of them, it turned out they’ve been fans of us for years, so it just came directly through them, which is always the best way. I think we’ve been really lucky with the bands we’ve been working for because they always seem to have taken this same track - which is a very slow path - to the success that we’ve found. Death Cab for Cutie are another example, and maybe there’s something in them that recognizes that we’ve done the same. They appreciate the way we’ve come - not by choice - but this is just the way careers go sometimes, and we’ve always been in this to have some longevity to our career. And maybe they see that.
So when are you back home, exactly? How long are you here for? You've been to the States a lot now.
A lot. Yeah, I’ve done a solo tour, so including that one I think I’m on about 13 or 14 visits now. After The National tour we continue on with a headline tour for another six weeks, but I don't go home to Edinburgh until mid November when we play in Glasgow. It’s a long one, but what else would I be doing? I never complain about being busy. It’s a good sign.
I’ve recently heard the term ‘expats’ used in referencing Frightened Rabbit. Do you feel at home in the States at this point?
Yeah, I do. It’s funny how, at some point or another, it stops being the wide-eyed dream. With the first three tours it still feels like that, and it’s still fantastic now, but it just feels normal. We’re very lucky to have made that transition due to being here so often, but I still have to remind myself occasionally of that younger guy who was in awe of the place. And coming from Scotland, this is something that every band dreams of doing, and not every band gets to do.
What city would you consider your home away from home?
Well, there are a couple. My girlfriend lives in Los Angeles, so it’s great to see her there. Having disliked Los Angeles a lot, it’s grown on me - and she's the reason for that. From the outset, we’ve also made a lot of friends in New York and Chicago. That’s what it essentially comes down to. Your favorite cities to play tend to be the ones where you have the most friends. So with our longer history of playing in those cities and with now-old friends in those places, those two are different for us.
What’s the first thing you want to do whenever you get back home?
You know what I love? The fact that you can walk around everywhere. So when I go home I just like to go on a wander. I live right in the city and can get anywhere I want in 45-minutes on foot.
So you’re based in Edinburgh?
Yeah, just me. The rest of the guys are still in Glasgow.
How long have you been in Edinburgh?
For about four years now. When I used to come home to Glasgow - it didn’t really give me the respite that I needed from this lifestyle because Glasgow still maintains that life of everyone going out on Tuesday and Wednesday. Edinburgh is very different, in that my friends there are nine-to-fivers and they go out on weekends. And that suits me really well when I come home, because it’s a completely different schedule. What a lot of people see Edinburgh as being boring for, I really find soothing.
When you’re out of the country, what sorts of things help cure pangs of homesickness? Besides...
Besides people bringing us Irn Bru?! Well, we’re always travelling as a group of friends who've known each other for years, and I think music is the obvious thing to say, but then I remember very clearly when previous long tours were nearing the end, and someone will put on King Creosote... and I just well up. Also, although we’re certainly welcoming to people, there’s an insular side to the group, where we have lots of very Scottish in-jokes and they’re purposefully very Scottish so we can sit around in public and no one knows what we’re talking about. So that keeps us grounded and keeps us feeling like we’re at home away from home.
Have you had to tone down anything over here, or can you freely say the word ‘cunt’ whenever you like?
There’s a couple of our songs featuring that word, and it was a really interesting process to go from playing shows in Scotland, where that word is embraced so strongly, to playing here, where it's like the audience has a collective intake of breath. And I go, ‘Ooooh you don’t like that word much, then.” In Scotland, it’s the loudest one; they wait for that line and they want to scream it as loud as they can. So I see myself as an ambassador for that particular noun, as it’s such a varied one. It can be a term of endearment, so what I’m trying to do is try and bring that [sentiment] here so that maybe it loses that offensiveness, because here, (whispers) people think I’m talking about a vagina. And I’m not. Ever. I mean, I forget that that's what the word originally pertains to, so I just use it bring a little bit of that [endearing sentiment] with every step.
So have you seen a lot reminders of home over here? As someone from the Southern US living in Scotland, I went to Glasgow's Grand Ole Opry a few times. I mean, it was hilarious. Have you come across any reminders like that, ridiculous or maybe not quite as much so?
Well, you definitely get a lot of that in some places, with Boston being a prime example. A lot of people still feel really attached to that quite distant heritage, or even some completely fabricated heritage, and that’s fine. We don't tend to go to Scottish bars, but this guy does run a really nice one in Boston, and he came to the show and brought us homemade Scotch eggs and a crate of Irn Bru. He genuinely tries to serve really good Scottish drinks, so occasionally you find people doing it right. There are a lot of people who are doing it wrong (laughs), but I don’t mind.
What are some of the most notable Americanisms you may have picked up over here?
Ah, I pick it them quite quickly. One I didn’t realize I was doing quite as much as I am is starting sentences with “I guess…” "I guess we could do that." "I guess I don’t mind that." And just the inflection of the language as well, the way you change the shape of your Rs, and things like that. Andy doesn’t change his accent at all. I don't know how he does it, as he has to repeat his orders in restaurants. I just Americanize to make my life easier.
I know what you mean. In Edinburgh, I lived on Balcarres Street, and I had to roll my Rs for the taxi driver so I could just get home already.
Yeah, exactly! Even things like ordering a tuna [chuna] sandwich; it’s got to be tuna [toohna]. And you can’t really say Mountain Dew [jew] either.
Ha! I guess not! So, why do you think American audiences have responded so tremendously to you guys? There seems to be no barrier there.
I think there are a couple of reasons. The main one is that before we came here, there was already a tradition of Scottish music doing well over here, started by Belle and Sebastian, Teenage Fanclub, The Vaselines being covered by Nirvana and stuff like that. I think that opened up the ears to what was going on, or just got people watching Glasgow. So it’s almost like the door was already open and we just walked in. And our label, FatCat at the time, were so willing. The usual trend for British bands is ‘Let’s just do Britain like hell, and then we’ll think about America.’ And more often than not, that doesn’t work. What happened here was everyone was in on Frightened Rabbit from the outset, if they wanted to be. It was available, you know? It wasn’t like we were this export that was being brought over to break it. We were just here, from the start, even before we’d officially released our record on FatCat. And they were just so encouraging, so they kept bringing us back. That’s not an expense that most labels are willing to put out when you’re not selling any records.
So that’s what must have happened with Twilight Sad, too, right?
Oh yeah, exactly.
See, for me, you guys were a local Scottish band, but then I arrive in New York to find your record sitting there in a record shop, and I realized then what was happening.
Right! Yeah, and also both bands were picked up by Pitchfork early on, which at the time had great influence, and probably still does, but perhaps diminished slightly. They've since completely ignored us, but that’s fine - they did what they needed to do. And then there’s an affection for Scottish music here. And also maybe, we’re... quite... good.
No, i just think we’ve worked really hard at what we do!
What do you think the differences are between your audiences here and there?
I don’t know. There’s a level of excitement because I think it’s just assumed in Britain that we’ll definitely be doing tours there - we’re available there. Over here, I don't think it’s necessarily a given - even though we have toured here a lot - that we’ll be back. So whenever we come, there’s a level of excitement, maybe matched in Scotland, but unmatched anywhere else.
What do you like the most about being here?
Well, I do love the restaurant and hospitality culture here. It’s vastly superior. I actually enjoy people’s outlook here. It can be overtly positive in a way that makes me feel a little bit unwell, but with the right balance, it’s a much better attitude than that which people have towards things there. There’s a - and I do love this about Scottish culture, though it can be overbearing - but it’s just that you can’t succeed too much. That’s good, because it keeps you grounded, but there’s a miserableness in Scotland in everything everyone does, and I love it for that, but at the same time it’s refreshing to get over here where it really doesn’t exist as much. The cynicism isn't here.
Where do you feel more inspired doing your songwriting?
Well, I’ve never really tried extensive periods of writing over here. I’ve done bits and pieces, but I think the key keeping things fresh is to do it in different environments. We were just talking about it the other day, because we’re going to have to start thinking about the next record after this tour. We’ve done a lot of writing in Scotland, but it would be good to shift it up a gear and get out of the comfort zone, away from what we're used to, and over here would be good for that. So the only worry, especially on the West Coast and California, is the effect that may have on my writing, and whether I would be all happy and full of vitamins...
And happy, in a relationship…
Exactly. But that’s absolutely, a completely awful thing to think, because I should be able to write no matter what, but I'm used to writing a certain way. It's just about thinking what I'm going to write about. So, I don’t know.
So, that’s the next plan?
We’ll start the groundwork. What we usually do is take a bit of time after touring, but it’s good to just get back into that mode as soon as you can, whenever we have time.
You also worked on Fruit Tree Foundation project, as did a good friend of mine, Jill from Sparrow and the Workshop
Oh yeah, Jill, she’s fantastic!
Yes, she is! So are you planning on doing any more projects like that anytime soon?
I’d love to, and it was really beautifully done. I thought it was such a great thing, and also personally, for me, that was my first taste of proper collaboration and it really changed my outlook on songwriting. Before, I was kind of like, ‘Yeah, I know how to write songs. I don’t need anyone’s help,’ and then, of course, you learn so much. So it changed my whole outlook, and I would love to get involved in that kind of thing again.
Frightened Rabbit tour the UK in November 2013, with a two-night stop at O2 Academy, Glasgow on Sat 16 & Sun 17 Nov. (16 Nov sold out)