Interview: Frightened Rabbit
Scottish group Frightened Rabbit built a devoted fanbase by focusing on the personal — specifically, heartbreak and the aftermath that follows. But on their fourth record, Pedestrian Verse, they’ve zoomed out. Its songs are character studies that focus on loss of faith, mental illness, the longing for home and the strange, bitter comfort that comes with unhappiness. That broad reach is appropriate: Verse is the group’s first record for major label Atlantic, a fact that has caused no small amount of murmuring amongst their followers. Any fears the transition has blunted the group’s effect are misguided. This is easily the group’s most cutting and absorbing work since their 2008 breakthrough The Midnight Organ Fight, containing all of that record’s frantic urgency but tempering it with the wisdom of adulthood.
As the group was preparing for an in-store at a London record shop, eMusic’s editor-in-chief J. Edward Keyes talked with drummer Grant Hutchison about scaling up, staying grounded and learning from your mistakes.
Reading a few interviews with you guys in advance of this record, it seems like every single one of them opens with someone asking you about signing to a major label. Why do you think that idea continues to be such a big deal to people?
Well, I think, we reached a certain level on an independent — we grew up a fanbase ourselves, with help from the label. And I think [as a result] a lot of people feel like we’re they’re secret, and that they don’t really want to share us with the masses — which I guess a lot of people were afraid of happening. So signing to a major, I guess, has been a talking point for that reason. I mean, we felt that Atlantic were the right choice, we felt that their ethos is quite indie for a major label, but at the same time, you’re always kind of waiting for a fight, almost. We were expecting them to swoop in at any point and say, “Where are the singles?” or “We need more hits.” But that moment never came. I mean, we were definitely ready for it — and maybe even tried to pick a fight without them even wanting it.
[Laughs] How did you do that?
Well, it’s been quite a long process from the last record and we, at certain points, got a little bit worried that they were never going to release the album. But really, all they were doing was giving us the time to write what they wanted to be the best Frightened Rabbit record to date. But there were occasions where we did get a bit frustrated and a bit concerned that it was taking too long, and that maybe that was all some sort of plan. But as it turned out they, more than anyone, recognized what we’d done and the fanbase that we’d built up, and they were more aware than anyone of [the danger of] ruining that. They don’t want to be blamed by all of our fans for ruining the band.
The fact that you are on a major, and now potentially have a platform to reach a much larger audience — how did that impact the way you approached this record?
Actually, [the way we approached this] had a lot to do with the last record more than anything, and how that came out — the process of making that record and the outcome not being what we wanted. We looked back at ourselves and what we’d done in the past and thought about how we could improve on that, rather than thinking, “Well, now we’re on a major label, things are gonna have to be different.” We wrote the songs together as a group this time, rather than Scott coming to us with fully-formed songs and saying, “This is it, these are the parts.” That, from the outset, made a big difference.
I want to back up for a second — you said the last record [The Winter of Mixed Drinks] didn’t come out the way you had intended. What were some ways you thought it fell short?
It’s kind of weird, because I feel like we were trying to achieve a major label sound on an indie label — which we now realize was not the right thing to do. We realized with the recording of this record, which is on a major label, that you don’t need to push yourself to achieve that. You don’t have to force it or write in a style you feel is more “major label” or more “mainstream.” It’s really just, this time, we just wrote the record. We wrote the songs we wanted to write. With Winter of Mixed Drinks, we tried to make it sound big, and the way we tried to make it sound big was by adding layer upon layer of guitars and keyboard, because we thought that would give it more strength. We’ve come to realize that there really is no quick fix or easy way to do that — it has to start with the songs.
That’s really tough to do, though. Bands tend to get praised for writing these big, ornate, anthemic songs, but it’s always seemed harder, to me, to exercise restraint and to know how to scale back.
That’s exactly it. We didn’t have that when we recorded the last one. We didn’t work with a producer until we got to the mixing stage, so there wasn’t anyone controlling what we were doing. It was basically just kids in a sweet shop: “Let’s add this and add this and add this!” [Laughs.] And it is more of an art form to know when not to put something in. With the last record [producer] Peter Katis surmised that at the mixing stage. That’s one of his great talents — knowing when to pull back. But I think by the time it got to the mixing stage, it was a little too late. So this time around, from the very beginning, that mindset was there, and Leo Abrahams, who produced it, that’s something he’s very good at as well. He knows how to make the more subtle changes that have a greater impact.
You mentioned earlier that this record was more collaborative than your past records. What were some songs that changed the most as a result of you guys working on them together?
Well, we went away two or three times to write. We went to a couple of different houses just to get away and spend time together. A few days ago, we went back and listened to some early versions of the song “Nitrous Gas,” which started out with this weird Western sort of thing to it. I have no idea where that came from. That one really didn’t have a structure — there was no direction, really. But when we came back to it and stripped it way back, that’s when we realized, “Wow, there’s a beautiful song in here that doesn’t actually need a lot added to it.” We re-did “Woodpile” four or five times from the beginning to the end. “Woodpile,” we actually went a bit too far with trying to make it sparse. When we presented that to the label, they said, “Well, you actually might have taken too much away. You can put a few of those guitars back on.” Because it was collaborative, it took us a while to figure out where we all sat in the writing process. Scott was unsure as to how much he did want to hand over responsibilities. I personally thought, “In theory, it’s nice of Scott to say this, but when it comes to actually doing it, whether or not he’ll actually let go remains to be seen.” But he did, and it was a really great experience for all of us.
You talk about redoing “The Woodpile” four or five times. Is there a point, after you’ve reworked a song so many times, that you can’t even see straight anymore and you begin to lose perspective on it altogether?
The last recording we did of “Woodpile,” we said, “This is the last one. If you don’t like this one, that’s it!” You get to that stage and it gets to be like flogging a dead horse. We knew the right version wasn’t far away — and that’s the point where it almost becomes more frustrating. If you know something’s completely wrong, you can scrap a lot of it. This, though, every time we did another version we were like, “We’re getting closer, but I don’t know what it is that’s going to make this song finally right.”
Did the collaborative process extend to the lyrics, too?
No, we stayed away from the lyrics [laughs]. I mean, we weren’t looking to completely change direction. We weren’t looking to change the sound or the lyrical content, and I think it’s important that there’ll always will be that thread, that spine of it, lyrically, that belongs to Scott, because his lyrics are unlike anyone else’s, and it’s something that people, in the past, have really made a huge difference between us being a band they liked and us being their favorite band. So for us to come in and start trying to write lyrics, it wouldn’t add anything. If anything, it would take away. I think with the last record, Scott masked his lyrics a little bit too much to avoid directly referencing points in his life that might upset people that were involved. The lyrics last time were a bit clumsier, if you like. This time, he made a conscious decision to go back to the kind of honesty that he wrote on Midnight Organ Fight, which I think is a brave decision, but a necessary one, because the lyrics are a lot of the reason that people fell in love with the band. The name of the album alone, Pedestrian Verse, Scott had that written on his notepad from the very beginning, and he saw that as a sort of challenge, almost, to avoid writing lyrics that anyone listening could describe as “pedestrian.” In my opinion, it’s the strongest lyrics that he’s done to date.
One last thing I wanted to ask you: I know you guys spend a lot of time on the road. What are some things you do to help you maintain your sanity?
It’s funny, we’re about to embark tomorrow on tour, actually. I think it’s important to keep in touch with people back home so you’re not completely stranded. Because you are in a bit of a bubble and you’re not really aware of what’s happening in the real world. Phone Mom, I think, is probably the best idea. Mom will always bring you back to reality.