For Scott Hutchison, the songwriting inspiration can come from anywhere.
From a Scottish sitcom about a larky soldier who’s served in Iraq. A break-up, his own usually – a recurring them, it seems, judging by the incisive, compelling accounts of heartache sprinkled through Frightened Rabbit’s three previous albums, Sing The Greys (2006), The Midnight Organ Fight (2008) and The Winter Of Mixed Drinks (2010). A shit family Christmas that only got worse come Boxing Day. Or from a room-full of American fans mainlining a long-lost Celtic connection while also hoovering up a powerful British indie-rock band with a folk heart and a soulful love of their heritage. Frightened Rabbit are proudly Scottish, and adored on native soil, but their songs also seem to take on greater resonance and power the further from home they travel.
Ideas might have come on any one of the ten or so US tours undertaken by the band, each bigger, noisier, rowdier, more special than the last – there aren’t many British bands who can match Frightened Rabbit, formed by this thoughtful former art student nine years ago, for the level and intensity of their American success. Or they can come via a hero peer on the Scottish music scene, in this case onetime Arab Strap dipso-poet Aidan Moffat. Or Hutchison will take inspiration from the shortcomings he himself sees in the songs he wrote for his band’s last album.
“With The Winter Of Mixed Drinks and what I tried to do there…” begins Frightened Rabbit’s founding member and singer, “…and the things about that I didn’t like that I wanted to make better this time… The last record was purposefully open and vague in its imagery. But I wanted to write dense poetic songs again. And that was a kick off into State Hospital.”
Welcome, then, to State Hospital, a rousing, narrative tune, full of intertwining, racing guitar lines, and pulsing round a central image – “her heart beats like a breeze-block, thrown down the stairs” – written by Hutchison from a female perspective.
It serves as the curtain-raiser to a few things. A five-track EP of the same name. Frightened Rabbit’s upcoming fourth album, Pedestrian Verse, due out next year. And to the band’s new relationship with Atlantic, a deal forged eight years after Selkirk native Hutchison started the band with his drummer brother, and after three albums made with respected indie Fat Cat.
“I feel very creatively liberated on Atlantic,” says Hutchison, a man who – with bandmates Grant Hutchison, Billy Kennedy (guitar, bass), Andy Monaghan (guitar) and Gordon Skene (guitar, keyboards) – has almost a decade’s experience building his band, cultivating a fan-base, improving their chops, and doing these the old-fashioned way: touring.
Earlier this year, the five-piece were ready to make their fourth album. But their producer of choice wasn’t available, and Hutchison was kicking his heels. And that, too, fed into a song. Home From War was partly catalysed by the original pilot for Gary Tank Commander, a Scottish comedy that has gone on to become a cult show north of the border.
“He’s a guy back from Iraq and he’s just bouncing about, he’s got nothing to do, doesn’t know what to do with his life any more. ’Cause he’s been structured and regimented for that amount of time. It’s really funny but I found it quite interesting and sad.”
Suitably inspired, and rather than sit on their hands, in February the band hired a house in Kingussie in the Scottish Highlands, trucking a load of instruments and studio gear up from Glasgow. The then spent three weeks writing and playing and recording and writing and playing some more.
Three songs were immediate keepers: Home From War, inspired by that aimless squaddie, a Pixies-meets-Coldplay giant that’s sure to become a live favourite; Off, an intimate, chorally atmospheric tune written in one quick afternoon; and Wedding Gloves, a yarn about a couple who try to rekindle love by putting digging out and putting on their matrimonial garb. It’s narrated by Moffat, to whom Hutchison entrusted the writing of the verses.
“He totally got what I wanted,” beams Hutchison, who finagled the ex-Arab Strap man’s involvement via drunken, late-night email. “He said to me, ‘right, you want me to be a sexual Yoda?’ I was like, ‘aye, if you like!’”
Come the month of May, and Frightened Rabbit’s producer was finally available. Leo Abrahams was Brian Eno’s assistant for 11 years. So on top of being a great guitar player, he’s a man well-versed in free-thinking. “He was definitely up for shaking things up, and he has plenty of soul and understanding” – all perfect qualities for the band’s new songs and fresh perspective.
A month in Monnow Valley studio in Wales did the job. The EP’s opening two songs, State Hospital and Boxing Day – the latter a mordant yet defiant account of that Yule hell – have been pulled from those sessions.
Only State Hospital will appear on Pedestrian Verse. Hutchison is understandably keeping the just-completed album under wraps for now. But he will say that State Hospital “informed the rest of the album”, and that the bulk of the other songs “have a different atmosphere” from the remaining new songs on the EP. “I don’t know how to describe it… I mean, we did consider them all for the album, but they just didn’t work. But I was really fond of what we got out of those three weeks of creative freedom.”
Next up: an “underplay” tour, in which Frightened Rabbit purposefully slip back down a few rungs on the gig circuit ladder, playing small UK and Irish venues they’ve long since outgrown. For this British band with a huge following across the Atlantic, it’ll be a challenge, but a wholly rewarding one.
It’s just how Hutchison likes to do things – stretching himself, pushing his skills and the band, taking nothing for granted and believing, always, that there’s everything to play for. Why else give an album the title Pedestrian Verse?
“I scribbled that on the front of my notebook on the first day of writing songs for the new album,” he recalls with a smile. “It was like throwing down the gauntlet to myself. Call your album Pedestrian Verse and you just leave yourself open to people going, och, that’s a bit boring… So,” he smiles, “I couldn’t write anything dull.”
With the glorious five-track State Hospital EP, it’s the emphatic start of a job well done.