(Note: When an opportunity to interview Frightened Rabbit singer Scott Hutchison arose in advance of the band’s April 19 show in Tempe, I knew my friend Casey, the man behind the great blog Crumbler, was the man for the job. His impassioned response to Pitchfork’s review of the band’s new album is worth your time, as is his outstanding interview here.)
Scott Hutchison answers the phone in Amsterdam, which he is visiting on this day for the first time. He has come to play a show with Frightened Rabbit, the band he started as a solo act in 2003 and has since developed into one of the most compelling acts in indie rock. Amsterdam has lived up to his expectations: “Booze is a cunt,” he tweets a few minutes before I call him. “Brain no worky.” But by the time he picks up the phone he seems to have shaken the cobwebs: He is cheery and thoughtful, gamely answering questions about his band’s excellent new record, The Winter of Mixed Drinks, and the somewhat bizarre critical response it has drawn. Frightened Rabbit comes to the Clubhouse on Monday, and it’s a show well worth seeking out. Arizona was an early adopter of Frightened Rabbit; according to Hutchinson, it’s the first place that ever requested an encore.
Below Hutchinson talks about moving beyond break-up songs, creating his rap persona and being misunderstood by Pitchfork.
Crumbler: So you guys are heading to Coachella next week. Do you like playing festival shows, or do you prefer the clubs?
Scott Hutchison: Well, each presents itself with a different kind of challenge and atmosphere. The big shows that you play in the afternoon, a lot of the audience might not have heard your music before. That in a way is a bit more fun. When you play in the clubs, you have an audience from the start. But when you play at an afternoon festival, that feels like more of an achievement — to win a crowd over in the space of 40 minutes. I love them both, though. They have their pros and cons.
I saw you in a particularly sweaty club in Arizona a couple years called the Rhythm Room. Midnight Organ Fight had just come out, but everyone in the pit knew all the words (see video at left), and you guys came out to play an encore. I remember you saying that you don’t usually play encores — is that still the case?
The reason back then was that no one had ever called us back before. Now we do plan for it. I do remember that show — it was a surprise that people wanted to hear more.
So reading reviews of The Winter of Mixed Drinks, a lot of American critics heard it as a happy, optimistic album — like it was a total break from Midnight Organ Fight. But to me it seems like there’s still a lot of darkness in your writing. How do you see it?
I agree with you. I think that whole (idea) has been overplayed a little bit. I don’t think overall it’s too big of a shift, thematically. I definitely still tend toward darker imagery.
Reading the reviews, it’s as if people want you to be happier — like they’re are pulling for you.
(Laughs) Well, that’s nice of them.
In general, the reviews for Winter have been good. But then you get something like the Pitchfork review, which said you sounded like Muse. You tweeted about that, which I wrote about. And it seemed to me that you weren’t mad about getting a lukewarm review so much as you were mad at being misunderstood. Was that the case?
Yeah. I think so. I think that’s a huge misunderstanding. I don’t hear it. Maybe it’s just me, but the Muse comparison didn’t seem to make much sense. I think it’s funny. The album for me was always going to be somewhat of a more-than-one-listen record. I think it takes time to fully get into it. But you have to imagine that most reviewers don’t give an album more than a couple listens before they write the reviews. And maybe some of those opinions change. I’d like to think that one or two people who gave it one listen and didn’t get into it went back and listened again and got into it more. But I’m OK with lukewarm reviews. I just don’t like badly written ones.
That said, and I know you don’t want to be compared to Muse, but would you at least consider adding a spectacular laser light show to your concert? Kids today seem to be really into flashing lights and explosions.
As soon as we can afford it. Although I think explosions in the Rhythm Room would be something else. Everyone would go home with third-degree burns on their face.
One funny thing about the reaction to Winter is that some critics used the idea that the record is ‘happy’ to suggest it was somehow less vital or interesting than a record that was solely about a break-up. So in this weird way, it’s like music fans pressure you to stay depressed and keep writing sad songs. Do you ever feel like you have this weird incentive not to be happy, at least in your songwriting?
Yeah. For me the challenge was to convey the same level of intensity with a completely different emotion. There were one or two ones that I read where they were saying that they felt like they’d lost this friend that they’d had, like we used to go drinking together when both of us were miserable. And all of a sudden their friend got happy, and they have to drink alone now. I think for me, it was a more of a challenge to try and convey a greater range of emotions. Perhaps the last record was monotonous a way; it was conveying mostly that sense of sadness and loss. This one is much more light in shade.
In a way it can seem easier to write a series of songs about break-ups than it is to create something that acknowledges the good days and the bad days.
I think it is easier. It’s a well-trod path, that break-up one. But I’d never really written bout anything else — I didn’t know if I could. It was a greater challenge in a lot of ways. It makes for a broader album, a less specific one. Maybe you can’t picture me in my underwear being sad. But that’s OK.
[Ed. note: I can still picture Scott in his underwear.]
In America we often think of depression as something that can be overcome by swallowing a pill or just snapping out of it and moving on from whatever made you sad. But you tend to write about it as a chronic, even dangerous problem. Like in “Not Miserable,” where you sing that “The dark can return with the flick of a switch.” Does depression still feel that close to the surface for you?
It is that way. It’s always around the corner. But that’s not a negative thing. I think it’s more of a case that I’m aware of it, and I’m aware of where it can rear its head. Before I would just give in to it. I think I’m conscious of trying to keep it at bay. Everyone gets it from time to time. I’m just better at dealing with it now.
If I wrote songs that were this candid about my life, I think I would scare my friends and family a little bit. How have your friends and family reacted to you singing about such raw, personal stuff?
It’s weird, because they obviously were aware, especially during Organ Fight, they were aware this stuff was going on — they just weren’t hearing from me most of the time. Singing about it was the only way I could relate it to anyone. And it’s strange to hear first off in a song that I had contemplated killing myself. For some of my friends and certainly my parents, that was strange one. It has been weird, but it’s been accepted.
At the same time, you’re singing about experiences that many people go through. What kind of reactions have you gotten to the darker material?
I’ve gotten some incredible reactions — and it’s not always the way I would imagine it to be. There are couples who come to the show, getting all romantic to some of these harsh breakup songs. Those are the strangest times for me. There’s also been a couple people who told me that the songs helped them not kill themselves. Especially the last album, people invested heavily in it and it became part of their lives. Which is amazing.
Even though some of your songs are dark, they also make for some awesome singalongs. Is it ever strange to you to look out a crowd singing all these deeply personal lyrics back to you?
Yeah, although it’s become less strange because it’s become more common. But it’s definitely been a surprise that people get that kind of joy singing. I love that contrast between the joy of singing in a concert with these often incredibly morbid lyrics. It’s a nice to get a sense of being life-affirming while also being completely dark. So it amazes me somewhat.
People who have just heard your songs might be surprised at how funny you are. You had some fun last month inventing a rap persona for yourself. Can you talk a little bit about Massif Testes? Where are you with rolling this out?
I’ve been mulling it over, just trying to come up with enough words to make a rap album. You have to have a lot of lyrics, and i’m usually quite sparse. Also I have to become a lot more arrogant. So we’ll see.
I particularly liked the idea of you walking through Edinburgh holding a cane carved from a supermodel’s thigh bone.
(Laughs) Yeah, I don’t know who she was, but it’s a really really wonderful cane.
That same piece, for Clash Music, mentioned you meeting your girlfriend for a bowl of soup. How does she feel about the possibility of winding up in a Frightened Rabbit song?
Well, she already has. Focusing on the joyful songs on the album, it’s her. I’ve been with her since Midnight Organ Fight came out, and given that I’ve spent a lot of time singing about my old girlfriends, she’s happy to finally be in one or two. So she’s quite happy with it. I think it was comforting to realize I wasn’t just going to be writing songs about that other person.
So what can we expect when you guys come out here?
Just look forward to the lasers on the U.S. tour. They’ll have you to blame.