Scott Hutchison needn’t have worried that living in Los Angeles would dispel his penchant for Scottish gloom. In fact, the ready availability of sunshine, sprawl and wheatgrass had the opposite effect, reinforcing Hutchison’s mournful air on Frightened Rabbit’s new album, Painting of a Panic Attack.
“I felt quite out of step,” says the singer and guitarist, who moved from Glasgow to L.A. to be with his girlfriend. “In the end, we were questioning why we were there.”
It was one of several existential questions Hutchison was asking at the time, about his life and his career. In fact, it’s no small thing that Frightened Rabbit has a new album. For a while after the Scottish band released fourth LP Pedestrian Verse in 2013, the musicians weren’t so sure there would be a fifth.
“We toured very, very hard and extensively, and at the end of it, we were physically and emotionally pretty drained,” Hutchison says. “I personally had my doubts about whether there was any need or desire to go back and continue Frightened Rabbit after that.”
Spending nearly 18 months in close quarters on a tour bus had given rise to a thicket of doubt and tension among the musicians, while fracturing lines of communication to the point where everyone needed a break. Hutchison relocated and released a solo album as Owl John in 2014, which he describes as a “palate cleanser.”
Frightened Rabbit drummer Grant Hutchison, Scott’s brother, agrees. “In hindsight, I think it ended up saving the band,” he says.
Away from the pressures of the group, the musicians reconnected as friends and decided they still wanted to make music together. “We realized how stupid it would be, really, to stop now when all the things that might have caused us to stop it were avoidable,” Grant Hutchison says. “What we get to do is brilliant, and we love it and being away from it, we missed it.”
When they reconvened to work on new music, the band—also including longtime members Billy Kennedy and Andy Monaghan, who switch among bass, guitar and keyboards, and guitarist Simon Liddell, who joined as a touring member in 2013—established a new dynamic. Scott Hutchison largely wrote the group’s first three albums (check out our video session featuring that material) himself, before inviting greater collaboration with his bandmates on Pedestrian Verse. For Painting of a Panic Attack, the musicians gathered for a month or so of working out ideas, which gave everyone an equal say in the music.
“We didn’t have to write songs, as such,” Scott Hutchison says. “I didn’t write lyrics or melodies during that time, we just wrote music, and that was kind of a leveling process.” Later, Hutchison wrote melodies and lyrics from L.A. while the rest of the band worked on music in Scotland, and they emailed song sketches back and forth.
The long-distance collaboration, and learning the software required to make it happen, crept into the sound of Painting of a Panic Attack, which has more synthetic elements than on previous Frightened Rabbit albums: the electronic drums on “Get Out,” for example, or the moody, atmospheric keyboards on “An Otherwise Disappointing Life.”
“We didn’t make Kid A, but it’s got new sounds, and that’s essential for a band at our stage to remain relevant, at least to the five people involved with it,” Hutchison says.
Choosing Aaron Dessner of The National to produce the album opened things up even further. In addition to largely steering the sound of The National’s recent albums, Dessner has produced LPs for Sharon Van Etten, the Lone Bellow and Local Natives, and is known for an active approach in the studio.
“Aaron plays on most of the songs on this record,” Hutchison says. “He’s not really a knob-twiddling producer. He goes really deep into the song and sees what it needs and he’s hands-on in that sense. It’s something I’ve admired in a lot of the National’s work, where they let the song breathe.”
Though both bands had worked with producer Peter Katis previously, Frightened Rabbit got to know The National when the groups performed a string of shows together in 2013. Scott Hutchison sent Dessner demos of some of the music Frightened Rabbit had been working on, and The National guitarist responded with enthusiasm. The feeling wasn’t always mutual at the start.
“His process is very different from ours, and that caused a few initial bumps,” he says.
“We’d always thought, this is the song, these are the parts and once those parts are down, the song is done and you move on,” Grant Hutchison adds. Dessner works in a different way, collecting more parts than a song needs and then assembling them according to a musical blueprint in his head. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Though Grant Hutchison describes Dessner’s method as “really annoying and really frustrating” at first, he praises the end result. “One of his main strengths is the subtlety he brings, and we’re not subtle at all,” the drummer says. “We’re very crash-bang, stick on plenty of guitars. That was something we’d tried on the last record to stay away from and maybe didn’t succeed, so this time we were very aware of trying to strip the songs down to the reason that they’re so strong, which is the lyrics and the individual parts.”
Lyrics have always been one of Frightened Rabbit’s strengths. The band has mostly managed to stay on the right side of the fine line between melancholy grandeur and what Scott Hutchison calls “teenage diary entry” on songs that take sharply pointed recriminations and lacerating introspection and turn them into downhearted anthems. (Check out examples of this in the band’s 2008 and 2009 Daytrotter sessions.) Hutichison, the band’s lyricist, mines his own emotional landscape for material that has encompassed longing, heartache, defiance, more heartache and, on Painting of a Panic Attack, a sense of dislocation born of his stint in L.A. (He and his girlfriend have since relocated to Hudson, N.Y.)
“I know what I would consider too much,” he says. “It’s not about the level of how personal it is, I’m not worried about the information, it’s just about the portrayal of the information and how direct it is. The goal is to get that balance between something accessible and something far less accessible.”
Having come through the uncertainty of whether to even make another album, and then upending the writing and recording process, Frightened Rabbit is in a position neither Hutchison would have predicted a few years ago.
“It’s strange to be at album No. 5 and feel like we’re at the beginning of something new, but there does seem to be a greater sense of purpose,” Scott Hutchison says. “It’s never happened before, but I’m already looking forward to the next record, immensely, even though we haven’t even started touring this one.”