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Interview: Frightened Rabbit

Frightened Rabbit after one too many alcopops in the park

OK, so The Midnight Organ Fight has been out for a few days now, and if you’ve managed to buy, steal or borrow a copy you’ll know what a fucking superb album Frightened Rabbit have made: undoubtedly an early contender for album of the year. I wrote a review of it a few weeks ago, then didn’t listen to it for a while, and returned to it again the other night, and its tarnished glory only gets better with each listen.

The following feature was written for this month’s edition of The Skinny. It was conducted through a very faint transatlantic phone line one afternoon in late March, as the band were preparing to fly home to Scotland.
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When The Skinny first spoke to Frightened Rabbit’s Grant Hutchison last year his band were still lurking behind a seemingly intentional cloak of enigma. No surnames given, sparse MySpace, hoodie-clad in their few publicity pictures – it all seemed like some subversive, anti-commercial gameplan. But, on the eve of the release of The Midnight Organ Fight, their second-ish album, Frightened Rabbit have stepped further into the public domain and, though they may not be the cultural terrorists we took them for, the Glasgow-based Borderers are the latest in a line of fine bands to emerge from Scotland’s burgeoning music scene.

And it is indicative of their progress from local oddities to indie favourites that we now find Grant in the New York apartment of the band’s American tour manager, recovering from a night of Dionysian excess with compatriots Sons and Daughters. Over the phone he certainly sounds fatigued, and a little interrogation confirms that they’re all “feeling a bit fragile”.

Frightened Rabbit kicked off their American jaunt at the industry showcase South By South West, and Grant says the reaction has been very good: “They just love anything Scottish over here you know. They all think they have Scottish ancestry. And they love the accent when we go on stage and introduce ourselves. It’s difficult because the album’s not out yet but when we’ve played live everyone’s been enjoying it.”

With The Midnight Organ Fight‘s unpretentious alt.folk styling, Frightened Rabbit were almost ready-made for American success. Whereas first album Sing The Greys was more of a straight-up indie rocker (and basically the re-packaged version of their demo tracks), the follow-up is a finely crafted, musically rich album that was graced by Interpol/The National producer Peter Katis. “He has his own sound that you can hear on the records he’s made,” Grant says. “To be honest he’s the first producer we’ve worked with. Sing The Greys was just us. But having Peter there worked really well for us. We’re happier with the second album because it’s what we knew we could eventually do.”

But it’s not likely to be the music that resides in your memory after a first listen; it’s the battering-ram lyrics delivered by Grant’s brother Scott. The biographical nature of his writing is barely concealed (‘Floating in the Forth’ portrays a clear-minded contemplation of suicide), although he does twist his personal sagas into gloriously vivid metaphor. It’s just his way of dealing with it, Grant says: “He finds that that’s really the only way that he can talk about his feelings. He doesn’t bring these things up with people in general conversation. If he needs to get over something he puts it in a song. There are some songs where it’s about being in love and the next one is ‘fuck you’. It’s in real time almost, the way it flows. Scott writes about exactly how he’s feeling at that moment in time, which is quite strange when you’re his brother in the band and you find out about these things!”

Having taken their music to the Yanks, Frightened Rabbit are now focusing on their homeland. The privileged few who have already seen them in full flow will know that they are one of the most exciting live acts around; now expanded to a quartet, they belie their woolly image with strafing guitar and scatter-bomb drums. Do they consciously try to distance themselves from the record on stage? “Of course we want people to recognise the songs – we’re not gonna come out and start playing them in 7/8 time. But live and record are completely different things. I’ve never bought a ticket for a gig expecting to go and hear the album. I could just put the CD on in the house and play it really loud if I wanted that. You’ve got to put on some kind of a show for people that they’ll remember, so they feel part of something special. The worst thing for me would be for people to say ‘they’re alright’. I’d prefer if they went home and said ‘they were shit, they did this, they did that’. But for people to say ‘they were OK’, that’s the worst.”

With Frightened Rabbit due to make their Triptych debut this month, terms of indifference like ‘alright’ or ‘OK’ are unlikely to be heard post-gig. The band, like the festival itself, are no dwellers of the middle ground.

Frightened Rabbit’s Triptych show takes place at The Tramway, Glasgow on 26 Apr

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Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight

The Midnight Organ Fight

****

In medieval times it was widely held that your state of mind was inseparably tied to your state of body. Hence all the talk of apothecaries in Shakespeare and Ben Jonson’s Humour Plays. The theory may have been rightly trashed by modern medicine, but that hasn’t stopped it persisting – metaphorically, at least – in the songs of Frightened Rabbit. When singer Scott Hutchison conveys excitement, for instance, “fast blood hurricanes through me”, when he’s defeated and desperate he’s “a modern leper on his last leg”, or, most vividly of all, when a loved one leaves him his “spine collapsed and his eyes rolled back to stare at my starving brain.” Metaphor doesn’t really pack more corporeal punch than that: at times The Midnight Organ Fight comes across like a deformed Picasso figure rendered in words.

Approached from a less literal angle, Glasgow-based Frightened Rabbit’s second full-length (following last year’s Sing The Greys) is a quintessential break-up album. That’s not to say it’s mostly downbeat – as toe-tappers like Old Old Fashioned testify – but there are at least four prominent songs that deal with the post-mortem episode of love. I Feel Better is a classic get-over-you number, Good Arms vs Bad Arms is less pacifistic – “I might not want you back but I want to kill him” – while Floating In The Forth flirts with the notion of oblivion after a painful parting, before concluding: “I think I’ll save suicide for another year.” But, in its hazy, tender, Dylan-esque way, Poke is the most affecting and arguably the finest song on the album.

Before they were a quartet, Frightened Rabbit was the nom-de-plume of singer/songwriter Scott, which may explain why words largely take a precedence over sounds in their oevre. There’s a stubborn yet nuanced personality lurking in all the songs, whether it’s defending its atheism and confronting death in Head Rolls Off or scrutinizing the value of the one-night stand in Keep Yourself Warm: “You won’t find love in a hole / It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm.”

With such lyrical chutzpah, the music was never going to matter as much as it does for a group like label mates the Twilight Sad. In Frightened Rabbit’s case it’s accompaniment for accompaniment’s sake: an uncomplicated, pretension-free alt.folk canvas of scuzzy guitars, organ swells and brush-stick drums. Songs build patiently but never topple over into unrestrained noise or feedback. Sometimes, though, you find yourself yearning for more of the percussive energy that drove tracks like Be Less Rude and The Greys on their debut LP.

With not one but two excellent albums released within a year, though, and a hard-won reputation for their impassioned live displays, Frightened Rabbit are ready to become much more than a quirky obscurity: The Midnight Organ Fight will be the catalyst for a wider appreciation of yet another great Scottish band. It’s an album that invokes a range of emotions but generally leaves you exhilarated; enough, in Frightened Rabbit’s unique idiom, to make the fast blood hurricane through you.

The Midnight Organ Fight is out on 14 Apr via FatCat.

Frightened Rabbit play King Tut’s, Glasgow on 12 Apr, Cabaret Voltaire, Edinburgh on 13 Apr and The Green Room Venue, Edinburgh on 24 Apr

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