In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Earlier this year, Frightened Rabbit embarked on a short tour to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their breakthrough album, 2008’s The Midnight Organ Fight. It was the Scottish band’s second full-length—they’re up to five now—and it struck a chord in a way they’d never expected but fully welcomed. Singer-guitarist Scott Hutchison attached brilliant, dark, funny, and depressing words to the sort of scrappy indie-rock that’s instantly endearing. It’s a harrowing but hopeful set that put the band on the path to bigger shows and bigger recording budgets for subsequent albums—which isn’t something that Hutchison necessarily thinks was a good thing, in hindsight.
Not long after the Organ Fight shows came surprise news of a Frightened Rabbit side project called Mastersystem, which features Hutchison alongside his brother Grant—also Frightened Rabbits’ drummer—and the guitarist from Editors. The band’s rollicking debut, Dance Music, just came out. “It’s been done since the end of last year,” says Hutchison, “but we were very much trying to keep it as a surprise. Not only a surprise that we’ve done something, but that it doesn’t sound like Frightened Rabbit.”
“It was an attempt to move away,” he continues. “It’s considerably heavier than anything Frightened Rabbit has ever done. Making a record is about trying to channel things that you admire and then essentially failing. For me to mention people like Iggy Pop and Nick Cave—you’re not going to hear that on there, but this is me doing a fairly rubbish, soft-Scottish attempt at that. I envy and admire any artist who’s got that kind of swagger, because I just don’t have it, naturally. This was an opportunity to attempt something a little bit meaner. The drum sound on this record is straight-up stolen from In Utero.”
The Mastersystem project almost feels like a palate cleanser for the next Frightened Rabbit era, which they’re already at work on. That makes this the perfect time for Hutchison to take a look back at his main band’s catalog with a fond-but-critical eye. He starts where fans might expect, but ends somewhere they probably won’t.
Noisey: You’re starting at the very beginning, which isn’t too surprising.
Scott Hutchison: The top two and the bottom two were the hardest. There are five, and the one right in the middle really can’t be anywhere else. Weirdly, the reasons for the bottom two are quite similar. Last place is Sing The Greys, our first album.
An album has two very distinct sides to it, those being what you actually think about the album now, and what it felt like when you were making it. On a purely sonic level, I think we underachieved on that record, because we didn’t know what we were doing. We were still trying to figure out how to work in a studio. The way that it sounded in my head is not how it came out. But if we were ranking this on the excitement level at the time we were making it, it would probably be number one, because that’s the start of everything for us, there’s no greater time than that. At that point, I should mention, I had already written most of the songs that would turn up on Midnight Organ Fight. What happened is we kept the better songs for the second record, and maybe the stragglers went on this one. We didn’t want to show our entire hand with the first record, and looking back, that was a sensible move on our part. But what you come out with is a fairly thrashy, underwhelming record as far as I’m concerned. A lot of people completely disagree with me, but that’s not up to them right now.
I remember an interview where one of you, maybe Grant, even considered the idea that maybe it shouldn’t count as your debut album, because the original 2006 release was so limited.
It was almost intended to make a mark, to announce that we existed as a band, almost like a well put-together set of demos. They’re better than demos, but we definitely had in our heads, “We’re gonna put this out essentially ourselves,” and to do that with some of our better material would have been a mistake. The songs quickly fell by the wayside. I think there’s probably only two songs that I could actually remember how to play on there now.
You did that album’s “Square 9” at one of the Chicago shows this year, which was a surprise.
We did “Square 9” for the places that were turning out when that record was released. Chicago was way ahead of the game. The Sound Opinions message board was our first indication that anyone outside of our own country was interested—not just outside of the United Kingdom, but outside of Scotland. There wasn’t a lot of interest, and yet somehow it turned up there. When we first came to the US with that record, there was a Chicago show at the Empty Bottle because of that message board. And I still know those people to this day!
So there won’t be an anniversary tour for Sing The Greys, then.
I doubt that highly. I think honestly there will only be one anniversary tour, and it’s the one we just did.
That one sits there for almost opposite reasons. That was us trying to sound far more commercial than we probably should. What I’ve learned since… I say “I” because the first three records, apart from the drums and maybe a couple of other instruments, I played everything on those records and made all the decisions, pretty much. So we had made our second one [The Midnight Organ Fight], and it was relatively successful compared to the first one, and we were kind of let loose in a nice studio. I erroneously went in the direction of adding layer upon layer of sound in order to make something that I thought would be grand and big. Weirdly, it actually kind of homogenized it. And though I’m proud of some of the songs on there, the way it was recorded—or the way that I essentially produced it—was really wrong.
Do you listen to your own records much?
Not really. After they’re mixed or mastered, I give them a cursory run-through. Thereafter, there’s no point. We’ll go back and listen if we’re trying to rehearse them. Going back to listen to Winter of Mixed Drinks for rehearsals after we had expanded to a four-piece was the hardest fucking thing. “Skip the Youth” is a great example of over-the-topness. There were points where we ran out of tracks because there were too many guitars on it! We didn’t mix it where we recorded it. We took it out to [producer] Peter Katis in Connecticut, and he opened the session files and said, “What the hell have you guys been doing since we last met?” Adding grandeur to your music isn’t about layers, it’s about doing the right thing. In the absence of being able to do the right thing, I just kept putting more and more onto it. It’s overburdened by layers of sound. My favorite Frightened Rabbit song, “Things,” is on that record, but again it’s not quite executed properly.
It’s interesting that you can pick your single favorite Frightened Rabbit song without hesitation.
Yeah. It’s weird. I’m just not sick of it. We haven’t played that song a huge amount, so that helps. The ones you play an enormous amount, they become a little bit less pungent. [Laughs]
But you’re able to reclaim these songs on stage.
We do! We do! A lot of friends of mine have said that they really enjoy hearing those songs live, because we reduce it to its necessary parts, you know? There’s five of us on stage putting it together now, and it turns out that’s all you need. The only thing that I’m grateful for with that record is that it didn’t kill us off, that we were able to continue making music after it was done. Because it could have. Also, in my defense, off Sing The Greys and Midnight Organ Fight, we completed a two-year tour, got back in January of 2009, and were told that we needed to book studio time in June, to make this record that we hadn’t written a note of. So we get back off tour, which had broken us all down—it was extremely long and grueling. And then I had three months to write and demo a whole album. Now, we’ll take a year or more for that whole process, just the writing and demo-ing.
Was that pressure from the label?
Yeah, but it wasn’t their fault. On that particular label we had become one of their biggest concerns. The great thing about now, being on a larger label, is that they’re not financially dependent on a Frightened Rabbit record coming out. I don’t blame them in any way. They wanted a follow-up, because the one before it had proven to be fairly well received, so they wanted to, quite rightly, capitalize on that. I could’ve definitely done with another few months.
You know how bands sort of have to say “This is our best album” when it comes out? Maybe I thought that at the time, but if I’m being completely honest I probably didn’t. It’s a fine record that didn’t quite… It had many obstacles in its creation. I was living in Los Angeles. We were trying to write an album pretty much via email. The making of it was difficult and long. Going into the studio, we were just not particularly prepared. We hadn’t spent any time in a room together, really, before that. That can go either way: If it hits the right mark, there’s something exciting about being spontaneous when you go in the studio. But it didn’t quite work that way. Again, a couple of my favorite songs that we’ve done are on that record, but I feel like some of the humanity was polished off it. It was a little shiny.
I really like “Die Like a Rich Boy,” which is like a plaintive song at the end, which really hasn’t got a lot of instrumentation on it. Do we need all of those bells and whistles on a record? When you’ve got a song that speaks properly as it stands, why put it in a fancy dress? For me, that one stands out as the way that I would like to go. And that was the last song that was written for it, and it was very quick and easy. I’d like to tap into that a little more.
The band co-produced that one with Aaron Dessner of The National. Did you feel like using someone who’s known for more lush productions made you head in that direction?
I think Aaron naturally pulled us in his direction. But I was willing to go there! I wanted to go there! I’m a really big fan of The National. Maybe you don’t want to be kind of in awe of the person who’s making your record. Maybe it makes the discussions a little more difficult to have. “You’ve done all this cool shit, you’re probably right!” There are probably times when I should have stepped in. But that’s not his fault. At the same time, he was probably most excited by songs like “Die Like a Rich Boy” as well. So maybe we went in with songs thinking that we’d sound a little bit like The National, because I fucking love that sound, and he was second-guessing it, too. There was a little bit of miscommunication there, I think, but all in all I’m pretty happy with it. The nice thing about that album is I know that we don’t want to make it again. We can move on, having discovered what we want from our records going forward.
Have you thought much about the next Frightened Rabbit record yet?
Quite a bit! We’ve started writing it, a few songs are underway, a few demos. The main decision that we’ve made is that we’re not going to employ a producer. Andy from Frightened Rabbit is extremely proficient in operating music software and has built a really great working studio in Glasgow, so we’re going to allow him to take the reins and make a lot more decisions for ourselves this time, based on everything that we’ve learned in over a decade. Going through this now, it strikes me that we’ve been through a lot, and we know what we want.
What I think I want to bring back is more of that humanity that we had on earlier records. You can lose a lot of that. Doing an anniversary tour of Midnight Organ Fight—we were doing that because it’s probably our most popular album. And I was thinking, “Why is that?” And listening back to it, I think that some elements of it that I maybe dislike, things about my voice that I don’t think are well performed enough, is what some people like about it. So maybe it’s more about being uncomfortable with a few things, and maybe the right kind of errors that allow the humanity to remain in the song. Rather than studio-ifying the whole thing and losing a lot of that innocence and energy.
There’s a certain desperation that hasn’t been entirely evident since that record.
Absolutely. I was just down in Brighton doing an in-store for the Mastersystem record, and I had a chance to catch up with the guy who runs [Frightened Rabbit’s former label] Fat Cat, Alex Knight. And we spoke about that record, and how it can never be repeated because of the situation that I was in. I didn’t edit myself lyrically, because there was no tangible audience to feel embarrassed about expressing these things to. And that desperation is real. And now, going forward, it’s about trying to tap into that same feeling. It’s really hard, because there’s an audience. It’s not an enormous section of the population, but it’s still thousands of people who are definitely going to hear these thoughts. I didn’t have that feeling at all then.
I’m a little surprised that this didn’t take the top spot.
I know! I thought about it a lot. That record has given us our career, essentially. It started us properly on the path that we’re on now. However, I don’t think it’s our most accomplished album. I think what happened with it is an enormous amount to do with luck. It wasn’t a considered move, it wasn’t a concept album, it was made almost ignorantly, you know? I remember just making and doing, and in the studio just making sure it got done, because there wasn’t a lot of time. My memories of it are so blurred, there was not as much thinking as we do now, which is a lovely experience. But there’s a lot that I would change about that album… I say that, but I wouldn’t change a fucking thing about it, because that would irritate people. But purely on a sonic level, there’s stuff on there that could be done better. For that reason, it’s in at number two.
Whose idea was the anniversary tour?
All of ours. I wasn’t necessarily cool with that concept. To me, doing an anniversary tour always seems like a dying band to rekindle some love. But I don’t feel like we’re a dying band, so it didn’t feel like there was opportunism attached to it. It was really the fact that I knew so many people would appreciate it. Eighty percent of the conversations I have with members of our audience are about that record—where they were in their life when they heard it, what happened to them, how it helped them, how for some of them it saved their life, or saved a friend or family member’s life. And I don’t say that flippantly, I mean it for real. For that reason, it will probably be the only one that we do an anniversary tour of. And also because—and it wasn’t designed this way—the songs sit together like a story. It doesn’t work in a timeline of my life—those songs aren’t in order of how it happened to me, but there’s an order that makes sense thematically. So doing it start to finish made sense for that reason. It was partly for us, but a great deal of the decision was based on how we knew people would react, which was very positively. It was a very joyful occasion for such a supposedly sad record.
Supposedly sad? Parts of it are extremely sad.
I think it’s quite a hopeful record in a lot of ways. I was working my way out of some mistakes that I’d made in a relationship. I didn’t write the majority of those songs in the moment. A lot of the feelings had been given time to stew and distill, and I was able to look forward rather than just being in the mire. Thinking about songs like “Floating in the Forth”—I didn’t kill myself. I took that forward into other records. There’s got to be a sense that, as fucked as life can get, we’re still alive and we’re still doing this and we’re going to attempt to carry on. I do think it’s wrongly perceived as a very sad record, although there are some miserable moments on it.
Were there any moments that were particularly hard to re-learn or perform?
There was nothing that I wasn’t going to be able to do, but absolutely “Floating in the Forth” was a real tough one. It’s a real thing. It’s a real thought. It’s a thought that I’ve taken to a place that I’m far less comfortable with… I’ve gone 90 percent of the way through that song in real life. But at the same time it’s gratifying. It’s heartening to know that I’ve been through that, and I’m stood there performing that song, alive and feeling good about it. It’s a tough one. My mum and dad were at the show in Glasgow. We can joke about it, but it must be really hard to hear your son sing about that.
How are you doing now?
Pretty fine. Middling. On a day-to-day basis, I’m a solid six out of ten. I don’t know how often I can hope for much more than that. I’m drawn to negatives in life, and I dwell on them, and they consume me. I don’t think I’m unique in that sense. I’m all right with a six. If I get a couple of days a week at a seven, fuck, it’s great.
I’ve always said that this album is the conclusion of a sound. Sonically, lyrically, melodically, it’s the culmination of what I personally had been trying to achieve with Frightened Rabbit since Sing The Greys. It’s what I hoped Sing The Greys would come out sounding like. Which is silly, trying to achieve that with three guys in a tiny studio in Glasgow. What we got with this one is without a doubt the best producer I’ve ever worked with in Leo Abrahams, who is the most musical, careful, and caring producer I’ve ever met, and who still manages to have a sense of abandon, because that thrills him. To me, that record is the right combination of big, simple songs with added elements of weirdness, both lyrically and instrumentally. It’s the closest we’ve got to perfect balance. Collectively, they’re the strongest songs, but maybe there’s not one on that record that stands out to me. Maybe that’s why I like it better. We still play a fair bit of that one live, so I think it survived relatively well.
We were also super prepared for that record. We toured a lot of those songs in Scotland before we even went into a studio. I can’t underestimate the influence that Leo had on that record, the pure pleasure of working with him and the amazing Tchad Blake. Bizarrely, Tchad Blake, who has worked on Pearl Jam, Elvis Costello, Neil Young, Tom Waits, he was our bass and drum engineer, just because he loved Leo. All he wanted to do was talk about Scotch, actually. He’s a big whiskey fanatic, and a lovely, lovely man. It’s the combination for me that this one encapsulates, of really appreciating how the record turned out, but also truly enjoying and being excited about the process as well.
Can you pinpoint anything specific that you did in the process that makes it stand out as your favorite?
I wonder. On a purely sonic level, we spent the most amount of time that I ever have on lead and backing vocals. The small pockets of backing vocals that are punched in at just the right place… They’re not constant, and they’re all adjusted to sound weird and unique to that song. There are lots of moments like that. Leo was a big fan of something happening once and then never again, so that album is stacked with moments like that. You hear a sound or vocal part once, and it doesn’t happen again. I really like “Dead Now,” it’s maybe one of the funniest songs I’ve written, in stark contrast to a very serious song like “Floating in the Forth.” It’s almost like pure joke, almost in reaction to that whole, “How’s Scott getting along? Is he still on the edge?” thing. A lot of the songs that we don’t play live very often are the ones that remain fresh to me. Maybe I’ll go and listen to that one again. I understand that this isn’t a chart that a lot of people would agree with, but in the end I didn’t have much problem putting this one at the top.
Well, you have a slightly different perspective than everyone else.
I’d say so!