Scott Hutchison & Simon Liddell of Frightened Rabbit on touring and embracing the bleak

As I sat in the airless room near The Corner Hotel in Richmond I pondered the irony of interviewing Frightened Rabbit about their latest album, Painting of a Panic Attack, whilst I was personally mid-way through my very own anxiety attack. At least the stifling temperature in the room would hopefully serve as a sufficient excuse for the sweat leaking from my face. I took some comfort, too, from knowing that Scott Hutchison would probably be the last person to judge me harshly should it all become too much and I made a Jen-shaped hole in the wall as I succumbed to my desire to flee.

Hutchison’s own journey through anxiety and depression is well-documented. His music gloriously articulates the agony of the isolation and despair that comes with the lowest of times. Somehow he and the band have managed to make something incredibly beautiful and uplifting out of the bleak reality of it all, and it was that, in particular, that drove me to confront this latest episode of anxiety so that I could have a chat about it with him and bandmate, Simon Liddell.

Welcome back.  It’s a short tour this time, you’ve snuck in on the east coast…

Scott: Yeah! Just four dates and I’m going home. I’m leaving tomorrow, he’s staying a bit longer.

Simon: I’m staying in Melbourne a few days, and all of the guys have got various semi-holiday plans.

Scott: Glad to be back. It’s been a while.

Are you going to come back again soon and do a full one?

Scott: That is out of our hands, sadly, but I’d love to…any time! Any time Australia is do-able we’d love to do it but it’s financially tough…I don’t mean the journey so much. There’s been a lot of talk about festivals but they’re changing and leaning more heavily towards dance music. It’s been hard for guitar bands of late, I think.  The big festivals we’d maybe normally have been able to get on haven’t really been interested so…

Simon: Even since last time we toured when we did Laneway and that was kind of a band-oriented line up but you can see it’s even changed since then.

Obviously places like Scotland have small distances to travel but we’re hampered here somewhat by the tyranny of distance, is that something that impacts touring musicians?

Scott: Certainly it’s strange to be flying most days, you know, but it’s kind of the only way to do it over here. It’s actually not that much of a pain in the arse because everything seems so well set up for touring musicians.

Simon: You’re used to it here.

Scott: It’s not a big deal to turn up to the airport with twenty cases and that’s a really helpful thing. Apart from the early mornings I quite enjoy the whole flying thing.

You don’t get tired of it?

Scott: Tired? I am tired, but that’s different…that’s my fault, actually. (Laughs)

On the festival thing, you’ve played some fairly massive ones, including Glastonbury and T in the Park, so how is it to come from something like that to the little Corner Hotel in Richmond? Is it a different mindset or is it the same stuff?

Scott: It’s the same songs, essentially. I enjoy the variety. I say this from my perspective, in terms of communicating with the audience it becomes much easier. I really get off on people shouting at me, or us. I enjoy that a lot. I can’t really hear anyone if it’s on a massive stage in a big tent or out in a field. It changes everything, it’s very much of an ‘us and you-down-there’ kind of thing. I try to make every effort to bash that barrier in and talk, and be talked at or shouted at… Variety, you just have to embrace it, we’re not in a position where we can play essentially the same size venue in every place across the globe. It’s a very varied existence being in Frightened Rabbit.

Simon:  I remember…I joined the band later on, like a couple of albums ago…and the first shows I played were some pretty big festivals over here, like Groovin’ the Moo, so that was something I’d never experienced before…that sort of view from stage and that size of crowd, but I got really quickly used to it and it became as comfortable as smaller venues.

I like the intimacy of a smaller gig, I much prefer being able to see the musicians and what they’re doing and interact, but there is a real energy that comes with a festival.

Scott: Yeah, everyone’s in a slightly different mindset, aren’t they, depending on what time of day, or they could have been at it for two days, so things are quite heightened in that sense. Over the course of a set that lasts for 90 plus minutes, you can’t present a flow of music that’s more like a journey, maybe. A festival you just go in and hammer it from the offset and not let up. You have to grab people’s attention because there’s so much other stuff that they could be doing at that point.The goal is to not only bring people in from the outer reaches of the field but keep them there.  I’m sure we lose a few!

I’m finding the contrast between the blackness of some of the content, the lyrics, and the melodies that you’ve put it to quite intriguing.

Scott: That’s good! That’s always been the goal, actually.  I enjoy pop structure…pop’s such a difficult word to use because it can be misconstrued…but what I mean by that is essentially our songs don’t veer too far from verse-chorus kind of structures. One of the favourite things somebody ever said to us was that they were singing along to our songs for weeks before they even realised what they were singing, and then the lyrics hit home and they went “Jesus!” I always think of it as the music opens the door and then once you’re in we’ll close it behind you, and you’re stuck in this scary, dark room with a weirdo in the corner doing weird things.

(At this point there was a lot of laughter, possibly heightened in my instance by aforementioned anxiety attack and the fact that I was, indeed, in a scary, dark room with potential weirdo/s between me and the door.)

Ah, there’s an image.

Scott:  (Laughs)  It’s my job.

Given the personal nature of the lyrics, is it strange to have people singing lyrics back to you that are about painful experiences for you?

Scott: Well, there’s a couple of things that help the process, or normalise it, the fact that when we’re all in a room together singing what essentially could be interpreted as depressing, miserable songs but there’s a certain sense of joy to the live shows that I don’t know we’d have predicted when we first started out. Also, when people are singing, they’re singing from their own perspectives. Hopefully it’s become ingrained in their life enough that they’re bringing their own experience to the show and it’s a release for them so that makes it less weird. I never find it strange, actually, I always find it overwhelming and just very pleasant a lot of the time. It’s a big compliment, really.

Is it cathartic, maybe?

Catharsis is one word, definitely. There’s not a lot of people who think we’re just alright. You either really don’t like us, or you really, really do – that’s the general sense that I get – so the level of enthusiasm is really high at our shows, no matter what the size of it is, and it’s wonderful to look out and you can actually see on people’s faces what it means. That’s not exclusive to us and our band or anything but it’s a really lovely thing.

In terms of songwriting – and I don’t like making comparisons because it freaks people out – but there’s a couple of songwriters I particularly admire and your stuff reminds me a great deal of some of theirs…

Scott: Okay…

Frank Turner…

Scott: Ah! Yep. Yep.

And Simon Neil.

Scott: I’m cool with that.

I think because you’ve got the same eloquence and ability to articulate as Simon and Frank…something that a lot of other songwriters don’t always seem to have…

Scott: I don’t know if they don’t have it but I feel like maybe they don’t choose to spend the time. It just takes a lot of time. Also I think there could be a perception of what a good song is, or maybe a lot of writers don’t enjoy revealing that much? I can understand that too.

Simon: Keeping things ambiguous.

Scott: There is songs like that as well, but just from a perspective of if you’ve only got this one album, or one song to say everything then why not make it a very dense document of what you’ve been going through rather than just skimming the surface. Frank does that extremely well. He’s a smart guy. And Simon, I think, has pushed it beyond…he’s managed to make his thoughts apply to quite a lot more people than I have, but it’s fine company.

Simon: You’re just listing friends of his.

Scott:  (Laughs)

With the album I get the sense that it’s about isolation and bit of desolation, separation, that sort of stuff, but also how much of what you do is also intrinsically because you’re Scottish?  I find, in my experience with Scots, that embracing the grim is kind of a national pastime.  

Scott: Yeah! I get asked that a bit…I’m often trying to sum up what it is that makes Scottish music quite unique, no matter what the style…

Simon: It’s about finding the humour in bleakness. Basking in the bleakness!  (Laughs)

Scott: Yeah. A lot of the songs focus on a time when I was living in Los Angeles and I was feeling very isolated there, but the one group of people that I found there that were also into Frightened Rabbit were stand-up comedians. I found out that there was a whole group of them there that absolutely loved Frightened Rabbit, so I didn’t do any shows with other bands, I just did shows with comedians. (Laughs)

It makes sense!

Scott: And it made sense! It’s what Simon was saying is that whole thing of, ‘the world’s fucked but we’re okay’.

So what’s next for Frightened Rabbit?

Scott: We’re going to start getting properly dug into writing. We’ve been on the whole album/tour/album/tour cycle for quite a long time now so maybe it’s a decent time to also concurrently work on other projects, so that’s in the background of everyone’s mind, I think. It’s important for us to use the time that we have off – there’s really not much this year in terms of the usual four to five week tour that we’d usually have, that’s not happening – it’s more of one or two weeks here and there so that gives us space.

Simon: At the end of the last campaign, at some point after that the writing began but this time there’s a bit of a head start, I guess. There’s already been movements towards demos, and you’ve been writing, so we’re ahead of the game.

Scott: Over the past few months we’ve had four days here or two days there and it’s difficult to really get into it. You can only scratch the surface and then you’ve got to go on tour again.  I don’t really do well writing on tour because it’s a very different mindset. I think getting a solid couple of weeks I’ll actually see some results. There are nuggets of ideas already but we don’t have any songs.

Simon: We’ve got some riffs! (Laughs)

That should give you some time to plan a proper Australian tour, then.

Scott: Yeah. The wonderful people who get us out here, we were speaking with them in Sydney and they are talking about trying to find the right spot for us at various maybe festivals, maybe headline shows…I hope it happens. It’s looking more positive. I think this was a really important trip for us to do. If we hadn’t made it on this album cycle we may not have made it again. It’s really heartening to see that people haven’t just moved on, that we’re playing to as many…if it’s exactly the same people as last time I don’t care, the lovely thing is they keep coming.

Simon: The shows have been great. We had a couple of nights in Sydney, one in Brisbane, and tonight in Melbourne as well. The crowds have been amazing.

Scott: We were shocked at the ticket price though! I guess that’s just accepted. I feel like it adds a lot of pressure to it. Are we worth $60?

Simon: Was it $60?

Scott: AYE!

At that profoundly Scottish moment I felt it was the perfect place to leave Scott and Simon to their musings about value for money and skulked off into the Melbourne night. I can say that if you have to be trapped in a dark, scary room with weirdos then Frightened Rabbit are the best kind.