“To be honest, at the end of last year, I was really sick of Frightened Rabbit. I’d had enough of it.”
Scott Hutchison has long since carved out a reputation for himself as one of Britain’s most starkly honest lyricists, but he’s just as candid in interview. Last year, Frightened Rabbit, the band he’s fronted for last decade or so, released their major label debut, Pedestrian Verse. It met with some of the strongest reviews of their career - not that I imagine they’ve ever cried at night for lack of critical adoration - and was a commercial success, too, peaking at number nine on the UK album chart. They toured it extensively, playing to some of the biggest rooms they’ve ever reached on both sides of the Atlantic. There are plenty of bands who would kill to get to that level. It is massively to Hutchison’s credit that he can admit that he was disenchanted with it.
Rather than sit around complaining about it, though, he decided to be proactive, and the result is Owl John; a new record, under that same moniker, that gave him an outlet for experimentation, as well as the chance to get back to the way he used to work, back in the early days of the band. It’s like nothing he’s done before; inspired by a move from Edinburgh to Los Angeles, it’s often dark, unsettling and claustrophobic; Frightened Rabbit fans hoping for the band’s customary exercises in life affirmation will be disappointed. Speaking to me from LA on the phone, Hutchison discussed his motivations for the album, balancing his new life in California with his old one in Scotland, and - crucially - the future of Frightened Rabbit.
JG, DiS: How long had you been thinking about making a record outside of Frightened Rabbit?
SH: Since our last album, really. We wrote that record, Pedestrian Verse, totally collaboratively, and that was a departure in itself for me, because up until that point, I’d written, arranged and essentially played most of the instrumentation on all of the Frightened Rabbit albums before that. They were already kind of solo projects, in a weird little way. It was a purposeful move to write the last one together, but I do think it left me with something else to get out; I needed an outlet for being a little bit more selfish, where I didn’t have to confer with four other people in order to make decisions. I’d been working on and with Frightened Rabbit for pretty much ten years, and it felt like time for everyone to have a break from it. By the end of last year, I was pretty sure that if I wanted to regain a bit of enthusiasm and excitement for the band, then I had to do something else, something that kind of refreshed the palate.
How far do these songs go back, then? Did you start writing whilst you were still on the road with the band?
Well, that’s just it; there was no writing for this record. That was the idea. We wanted to make it, from the outset, a really different process to Frightened Rabbit, where we write and demo everything well in advance, and go in to record with demos that are very much to a finished standard. When we came to do this one, I went in with Andy (Monaghan) and Simon (Liddell) from the band, and we didn’t write any songs. Instead, we were like, “let’s try to finish one piece of music a day, and I’ll try to write lyrics”. The lyrics didn’t happen, but we did end up doing one finished piece a day, after turning up in the morning with nothing. The hope was that it’d naturally take it away from sounding like a secondary Frightened Rabbit album; none of these songs existed before we went into the studio.
From what I’ve read, half of the record was done on the Isle of Mull, on the West coast of Scotland, and the rest in Los Angeles. How exactly did that work?
All of the music was done on Mull, and it was basically an instrumental album when we left there, with a few vocal ideas just as notes. I moved out here about a week after we finished recording the music, and I wrote and recorded the vocals here. It’s definitely a combination of those two places; lyrically, the themes are quite clearly coming from my initial experience of moving here, so there are two very clear halves to the record, in that respect.
What made you move out to LA?
My girlfriend lives here, basically. We’d been in a long distance relationship for about eight months before I moved, and that was long enough, to be honest. I’d had ideas about moving out here anyway, before I met her, just as a change of scenery. I think one of the great things about having this job is that we can still work together, as a band, remotely, and live wherever we please.
In the press release for the record, you talk about Owl John as a character - “these are John’s songs.” Were you trying to write from somebody else’s perspective, or is it still a personal album?
It’s a bit of both, really. I think that the idea behind the name was that there were three of us involved in making the record, and it was a collaborative effort; it was more than just me. Even though it was a much freer process than working with Frightened Rabbit, it just felt like, at the end of it all, I wasn’t comfortable putting my name to it, because that would undermine the work that the other two guys had done. Plus, you know, I had gone into the whole thing with the idea that I’d write from a different perspective, and get into a different headspace. There’s some of that on the record, and also some personal stuff, because there were things that happened when I got out here that I felt like I had to write about. The aim of ‘Owl John’, really, was just to steer it away form being too closely associated with my face and my name.
It really does sound quite a bit different to Frightened Rabbit; a lot darker, I think.
I know I went in with the intention of writing something that wasn’t leaning so much towards the anthemic side of things, something that was more intimate. There are a few choruses on this one, but not in the same way as in the band; they’re not those singalongs that Frightened Rabbit have really come to embody. I think I wanted to make something that sounded more claustrophobic, too. The thing is, there’s no expectations for this record. The band has a reasonably loyal fanbase, that looks for a certain type of thing from us, and not having those expectations on us with this record really freed us up to do something stranger. We didn’t need a big single, or any of those big moments, because these songs are never going to be played live as they are on the record anyway; we didn’t have to worry about anything that was outside of that studio.
Do you feel as if you need to have some big singles on every Frightened Rabbit record? Is that pressure a real thing?
It’s silly to say it’s not in the back of your head. I don’t think we write to make singles, but with what our live show is now, and with the participation we have from the audience, we’re very aware of that kind of thing. It’s not that we’re pandering to the audience, necessarily, but you’re certainly aware of them, and I think that you have to be. I’m not saying we’ve been churning out the same shit for years, but there’s a certain kind of song that we write, and we write quite well, that I wasn’t really keen to have too much of on this record. Plus, being honest, there’s always pressure from the label, especially now that we’re on a bigger label; they want us to have those big, unifying moments, too. I have no problem with that - I like writing like that - but it was lovely to have a break from it.
Was it just the three of you in the studio, or did you bring anybody in to produce?
It was just us. Andy did the production; he’s always been a bit of a whiz with recording software. He’s been working away on a few things in Glasgow, recording demos and albums for friends’ bands, so this was like his chance to do something a little bit more visible, a little bit more high-profile. He recorded, produced and mixed it, and I really wanted that for him, because I think he’s brilliant at that kind of thing. It was nice to just have the three of us in there, to be honest; just shutting ourselves away, with no outside influences.
There’s a lot of stuff on the record that I don’t think would have fit on a Frightened Rabbit record; those weird, distorted vocals on ‘Cold Creeps’, or the chanting on ‘Don’t Take Off the Gloves’. Was it a case of trying to experiment as much as possible, because you knew you wouldn’t be able to get away with it in the band?
That’s exactly it, really. There was definitely that sort of anything goes atmosphere there; we were coming up with parts that I knew, were it a Frightened Rabbit album, everybody would be saying, “that’s not going to work for us at all.” You know, half of the record doesn’t really have drums on it, and that’d be a problem in the band, because we’ve got a drummer who wants to be working! And, honestly, I don’t really care how this record does, commercially or critically. It was a project for us, certainly for me and Andy, to have a break from the band and get excited about music again, because, to be honest, at the end of last year, I was really sick of Frightened Rabbit. I’d had enough of it. I needed to do something else, and as much as you obviously hope as many people will hear your music as possible, this was a personal project to kind of help me out mentally, first and foremost.
Something else that really jumped out at me was ‘Two’; is that a Gaelic spoken word section at the end of that track?
Yeah! What happened was, we’d found this Gaelic sermon online, but we couldn’t get clearance to sample it. We then ended up finding a guy, just through a couple of connections, who was willing to do a translation for us, so that section is just the lyrics from the song, translated into Gaelic. We got him to kind of deliver it as if it was a sermon; the idea behind the song is that it’s dealing with that hellfire, apocalypse, end of the world kind of thing, thematically. Again, it’s something that would perhaps just be a bit too out there for a Frightened Rabbit album, and I feel like any idea of that ilk that did come up was indulged, pretty much every time.
I remember when you released Pedestrian Verse, there was a film that accompanied it that followed the band when you were touring off the beaten track in Scotland; you were telling me that it was kind of a deliberate move, to keep in touch with your Scottish heritage. Was that the case with ‘Two’, especially seeing as you’d just moved to LA?
Yeah, I think so. You know, it’s funny, because I’ve certainly had friends who have, half-jokingly, asked that question about me moving to LA - taking the piss a bit, and saying that the sound of everything I do is going to change, that I’ll become this happy person writing west coast melodies and jangle pop. So, yeah, on ‘Two’, it was a move on my part to show that in moving to such a different place, there was no loss of my own sense of Scotland, and that I essentially still want to write music that sounds as if it comes from there. Plus, you know, I didn’t want the album to become too focused on, or about, Los Angeles, and I did want to bring it back to where it started, which was on the west coast of Scotland. That was the idea, but I was probably just a bit paranoid that people would hear some of the themes on the album and think that I’d just gotten lost in this place, and forgotten where I was from.
Before I knew that you’d moved out to LA, I was listening to ‘Los Angeles Be Kind’ and wondering about your relationship with America; Frightened Rabbit seemed to find success there before you did back home. Was that a factor in wanting to move over there?
Probably, yeah. I mean, I feel quite comfortable over here. I just did a bunch of dates on my own, on the west coast, and they went really well. It’s nice to have the opportunity to do that; at this point, Frightened Rabbit have done about fifteen tours of the U.S., so I do feel really connected to it. Plus, the move over here was also driven by the idea that I’d love to start working with other artists, and writing songs for other people, and there’s a lot more opportunity for that here; you don’t get the same kind of through traffic in Scotland. I’ve not really gotten my teeth into that yet, but it’s something I’m keen to develop outside of the band; just to collaborate with other people, in that kind of invisible writer sense. So, yeah, it was work-related too.
What exactly did those west coast shows entail? Is it going to be the same when you play in the UK?
It was just me and a guitar; obviously, the album isn’t out yet, so I just premiered about three or four new songs a night from the record, and then the rest of it was Frightened Rabbit stuff. It was really nice; I have to admit, I was aware that if I did do the ‘solo record’ thing, I’d be able to play more shows on my own, and that’s another way of just refreshing my relationship with my songs. I’m back to playing smaller venues, and I love that; you get a dialogue, a conversation with the audience that you can’t get at, say, Brixton Academy. I’d essentially just go out with no plan, and it’d quickly become a request show, a really intimate thing with the crowd. That’s pretty much how they’ll go in the UK, too, but with a few more Owl John songs.
Now that the record’s ready to come out, do you feel as if you achieved that goal of regaining some enthusiasm for the band? Are you going to be ready to jump back into Frightened Rabbit when the time comes?
Absolutely; in fact, that’s already started. The great thing was, because this album obviously took quite a bit of time, it meant that the other guys were able to take a break too, and that was a relief for them; they had other things they wanted to try. We all needed that time away from the band, I think. I’m coming back to the UK this weekend, and we start writing for Frightened Rabbit again next week. Again, Owl John has really served a purpose there, because we’re all really excited; nobody’s coming in thinking, “oh, fuck, we’re going to have to trawl through this again.” I mean, apart from anything else, I haven’t seen the guys for a long time; just on a friendship level, we haven’t been living in each other’s pockets for the last little while.
Mission accomplished, then?
Definitely, definitely. You know, I can’t overstate how rough things had gotten at the end of last year; in a way, this record saved the band. Even our A&R guy was saying that he wasn’t sure that Frightened Rabbit would still be a going concern this year, and honestly, I wasn’t either. So, put simply, this record had to happen; for the sake of everybody’s career, if nothing else.
'Owl John' is available via Atlantic Records on August 4th. Scott Hutchison plays two Owl John solo shows in August:
5 - Soup Kitchen, MANCHESTER
6 - Oslo, LONDON