Frightened Rabbit congregate at Glasgow’s Art School for a secret show and a dress rehearsal of their fifth album, Painting of a Panic Attack
It’s a rainy Tuesday night in early February and a mysterious band called Footshooters have sold out Glasgow’s Art School. Despite their apparent lack of internet presence and zero indication of any gigging history, tickets to the show vanish in record time. Hours before doors, Scott Street is full of excited faces exchanging knowing, secretive glances. Frightened Rabbit fans aren’t easily fooled; the protective hush is testimony to their determination in not giving away the game.
“We didn’t really want it to be a secret,” the band’s founder and frontman Scott Hutchison admits, grinning. In a tiny, homely dressing room, The Skinny catches up with Scotland’s favourite timorous beasties ahead of their not-so-secret show; it’s Frightened Rabbit’s first official gig in two years, and marks the first ever airing of their fifth studio album, Painting of a Panic Attack.
For Selkirk brothers Scott and Grant Hutchison, a show at the Art School feels like something of a homecoming. Scott studied a four year course in illustration here – or, kind of here – and the venue, as it was then, marked the site of the band’s debut gig. “I left in 2004,” he remembers, “and where I studied was destroyed… but I spent many evenings here, not actually playing… No! We did play downstairs here, once, about twelve years ago?”
“It was in the bar!” volunteers Grant. “Just as a two-piece. There was maybe… six people there? No, really. I’m not exaggerating. It was my first ever gig with Scott, I had stuff written down ‘cause he’d only just sent me the songs.”
“Our friends put us on the bill out of… sympathy? I actually think the first time the name Frightened Rabbit ever turned up on a poster was for the Art School!” Scott recalls, triumphantly. And, surprisingly, the band as we now know it – Scott, Grant, Billy Kennedy, Andy Monaghan and touring guitarist turned full-time member Simon Liddell – haven’t played a show here since.
‘Pedestrian Verse became a conclusion of sorts…’
This feeling of coming full circle is apt, given that Painting of a Panic Attack is the result of a rejuvenated, re-focused band – one which has rediscovered its voice and its motivation. Frightened Rabbit’s fourth album, 2013’s gigantic Pedestrian Verse, was a milestone in many ways. Their major label debut for Atlantic Records, the album was pegged as a truly dramatic departure from the band’s early work – finally accomplishing the scale in sound Scott had always hoped for – and saw them undertake an exhaustive touring campaign. Grant describes the process as leaving them “crawling over the finishing line,” causing the band – and Scott in particular – to reappraise “if the world needed another Frightened Rabbit album.”
“I think we might have been telling ourselves, and trying to convince other people that it was a departure, because it was what we wanted,” Grant admits. Scott concurs: “I think Pedestrian Verse became a conclusion of sorts – of something we’d been trying to do with albums previous. For me, that was when we actually achieved it and, for that reason, it felt much freer to move into other territories this time.”
Grant agrees: “Yeah, this time around, at no point did we sit and go, ‘Oooh, I don’t think that ending’s quite big enough.’ Which, you know, we genuinely did [with Pedestrian Verse]! Leo [Abrahams, producer] had us playing guitar orchestras...”
“It was heaven at the time!” Scott enthuses. “After not having the means, initially, to make big music in a tiny room… and then slowly getting used to how a studio works. All those things culminated in that album.”
Painting of a Panic Attack sees the band put that studio savvy into practice with a far less bombastic approach. Scott describes it, hesitantly, as a new “subtlety… hopefully! But we’re still processing it. We haven’t done a lot of interviews yet, and it’s talking about it that sort of clarifies it for us. But I do think this one is less immediate. It might be one that takes time…”
After Pedestrian Verse, Scott moved permanently to Los Angeles. The small matter of the Atlantic Ocean turned the band into a long distance relationship, relying on previously alien technologies in order to write their new material. Communicating via recording software and email forced an evolution: Scott had to learn a new technological self-sufficiency, and Grant admits to having “extended his repertoire”, although he still frowns when describing his initial distrust of anything other than an acoustic drum kit. “We had to look beyond what we’d become comfortable with,” Scott explains. “We had to approach it without too much of a defined idea of what our roles in [the record] would be. But in the end the differences in how you make a record are what become the differences in how it sounds! It’s important not to see them as obstacles.”
On working with The National’s Aaron Dessner
Concluding months of flurrying emails, the rest of the band joined Scott Stateside – at the legendary garage-turned-recording studio owned by Aaron Dessner of The National, in New York. After meeting on tour, Dessner and Scott spent time together, “half work, half socialising. Then it became clear that he was interested in making the album! It was incredible, I mean, we’ve clearly been influenced by his music.”
Under Dessner’s guidance, snippets of the original transatlantic email-demos were woven within the finished record; Scott explains, excitedly, how his home-made keyboard horn section was mixed with work by Sufjan Stevens collaborator Benny Lenzo.
Grant describes Dessner as “virtuosic”, and credits him with pushing the band far beyond their usual comfort zones – and attention spans. “It wasn’t always easy – he doesn’t stop working! He’ll be like, ‘So… what do you guys think about the sub in that floor tom at 2.33?’ I’d be like, ‘Pffff, sounds like a drum to me.’”
“It was a blessing and a curse! He’s a brilliant man,” grins Scott. But is Dessner happy with the result? Both brothers look at each other, nervously. Scott squirms in his seat. “I… think so.”
Painting of a Panic Attack is a beautiful album, and – this time – a true departure from their original sound. But while you’ll find fewer of Frightened Rabbit’s enormous choruses (Scott agrees: “Totally – it was like, can we do a big chorus now pleease Aaron?”) the band haven’t lost their familiar ability to pick apart personal battles and put them back together on a grand, cinematic scale. They joke that “a guy at the label” recently described it as “a five or six course meal as opposed to a starter and then a big fucking main course.” The analogy holds: Painting finds tension in its deliberate, intimate details rather than in an explosion of fireworks.
Even so, Frightened Rabbit’s heart still remains in the exact same place. “I think you have to build that world,” Scott emphasises. “I think it’s really important, especially for a long time listener of the band. No matter how far our reach may extend, there’s still a core of people who are in this club who understand some references which other people just don’t get. I think it’s really important to build a place that’s just ours.”
The record was almost titled Monuments: “To me, [the album] is supposed to be representative of a beautiful place that you go to remember something awful. But in the same way, a painting… it’s a beautiful representation, instead. Something terrible’s happened, and this album is about the place that you go.” He quips (correctly) that people don’t typically come to a Frightened Rabbit album for a “good time” – but concedes, “there’s turmoil on this record but… well, my mum said it was healing.”
He’s right. Frightened Rabbit have a rare propensity for encouraging their listeners to open up. Surely it must make for an intense experience, to play to such receptive, reciprocative audiences? “Certainly I feel responsible to match it,” Scott nods. “We all have to bring a little bit of that and it’s a privilege, I think, that people have allowed the songs to be part of their lives so much that they can elicit that kind of response. It’s wonderful. Someone said recently, ‘Oh fuck, I don’t like the new Frightened Rabbit song. I’m going to have to get rid of this tattoo.’” Grant laughs. “But it’s ok, he came around to it.”
Scott continues, reflectively. “I don’t think we’ve ever been a hip band… You know what I mean. And for that reason, I think people come to the music for the right reasons; because they’re drawn to it. And the band, as well – especially Grant, he’s blunt about it if he doesn’t believe in what I’m singing.”
“People really hang onto every word he writes. It wasn’t that the songs were shit – which they were, sometimes…” Grant’s interrupted by Scott’s admission.
“He just reminded me of why I started writing songs in the first place,” he says. “You can get caught up in writing for other people, writing songs for your audience, writing songs for a label… but no, I will do it because I… I can’t make sense of life unless I’ve written a song, in a lot of ways. And I’m still mildly shitting myself… I mean, you always are before a record comes out. But tonight, if this goes well I’ll shut up and get on with it. The first night is a really strange feeling. I just want it to be okay.”
As the lights go up, at the end of Footshooters/Frightened Rabbit’s first ‘full’ gig at the Art School, there’s a hush. It feels as if, for the last hour, everyone in the audience has been in their own private place, at their own private show. After well-worn favourites like Holy and The Modern Leper, a generous sampling of Painting takes over; the acoustic bruiser Die Like a Rich Boy and cinematic show-closer Lump Street receive physical, emotional responses from this litmus test of long-serving Frabbit supporters. Downstairs in the bar, Scott’s being thanked by flushed, effusive fans. How did it feel then, to be back? “It felt great,” he beams. “Really great.”
Cover story for The Skinny, March 2016
Mid-interview photo by the wonderful Amy Muir