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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 theme, 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 main-lining 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.’”
It serves as the curtain-raiser to a few things. The five-track State Hospital EP, released this September. Frightened Rabbit’s upcoming fourth album, Pedestrian Verse, will be released February 5, 2013 in the US. And to the band’s new relationship with Canvasback Music/Atlantic Records, 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 Records.
“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 was 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, this past February the band hired a house in Kingussie in the Scottish Highlands and trucked a load of instruments and studio gear up from Glasgow. They 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 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 a 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 this past May, 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 across the pond, 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 stateside, 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.”
At the start of 2011, in the middle of a brutal New York winter, Billy McCarthy and Eric Sanderson were slogging through backbreaking jobs in moving and art-handling. Gutted by the dissolution of their former band Pela (which had achieved significant success with its sole album Anytown Graffiti), both McCarthy and Sanderson began agonizing over their lifelong commitment to making music and its failure to sustain them. "I was carrying boxes up these fifth-floor walkups, saying to myself every step of the way, 'What the hell happened to me?'" says singer/guitarist/songwriter McCarthy. "I'd based every big decision in my life on music, and now it had me in this bad spot where I'm not a kid anymore and I've got no career to speak of. I was deeply scared about where my life was headed." Similarly disheartened, bassist/keyboardist/songwriter Sanderson recalls feeling as though "there was some massive undercurrent I was trying to get out of. I'd dedicated my life to music, and it felt like everything had just fallen apart."
Incurably determined to carry on with music, McCarthy and Sanderson got together and resurrected a batch of songs recorded prior to the band's 2009 breakup. Thanks largely to grassroots support from their fans, the two soon took to the studio to record the final tracks for their debut album as We Are Augustines. Released in the UK and Europe by Oxcart Records in March 2012, Rise Ye Sunken Ships would quickly garner much acclaim—and ultimately propel the band (now a trio featuring London-born musician Rob Allen on drums) into unlikely indie-rock stardom.
Named "Best Alternative Album" by iTunes US in its 2011 year-end review, Rise Ye Sunken Ships has helped We Are Augustines score highly coveted spots on the 2012 lineups of Coachella, Bonnaroo, Hurricane and Southside, Latitude, Bilbao BBK Live, Reading and Leeds, and T in the Park. After speedily earning a reputation as a triumphant live act, the band also sold out a slew of shows on its recent UK tour. And in February, We Are Augustines made its first major TV appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman, delivering a searing performance that prompted the host to address his audience with rarely glimpsed heart-on-sleeve earnestness: "What they're trying to tell us is life is an ocean and we are all ships," said Letterman. "If your ship has sunk don't despair. Don't lose hope." The band have since appeared on Carson Daly and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
From the very first listen, it's easy to grasp why Rise Ye Sunken Ships has inspired such an impassioned response. Opening with "Chapel Song" (a tale of love lost that's both heartwrenching and fortifying), the album is earnest yet fiery, fist-pumping yet thoughtful, thundering yet melodic. Though much of the record deals with tragic subject matter (namely, the in-prison suicide of McCarthy's younger brother James), it radiates with an aggressively hopeful spirit that demands repeated listens of songs like "Juarez" (a stripped-down powerhouse featuring the oddly anthemic refrain of "I got a drunk for a mother, got a saint for a brother") and "Strange Days" (a deceptively uptempo number that alternates chant-along lyrics with fuzzed-out harmonies). Mixed by David Newfeld (Broken Social Scene, Los Campesinos!, Super Furry Animals), Rise Ye Sunken Ships also achieves the graceful feat of infusing stadium-sized rock with uncommonly elegant flourishes (such as the sweetly somber piano work on "Barrel of Leaves" and the pairing of tenderly strummed acoustic guitar and subtle electronic effects on "East Los Angeles").
"Musically speaking, we're into finding different ways of approaching the same old three-minute pop song," says McCarthy. "The stories within the songs come from all kinds of places, from weird little late-night moments on a subway platform to bleary-eyed reflections on small-town living. It's all wrapped up in some sort of dreaminess and romanticism, but still very gritty and rugged." With the recent addition of Allen, We Are Augustines are eager to further expand their sound and explore new directions in their songwriting. "Before Rob came along, we were a project," says Sanderson. "Now we're a band." A drummer since the age of six and a former student of the Agder College Music Conservatory in Norway, Allen was introduced to McCarthy and Sanderson by former Pela drummer Tomislav Zovich. "At the time, I was working in a restaurant and trying to find a band to play in and nothing was working out, which just broke my heart," says Allen. "So I went to a studio to try things out with Billy and Eric one morning in Brooklyn. Normally these things only go about a half-hour, but we started playing and I looked up at the clock and five hours had gone by." Three weeks later, Allen and his new bandmates set out for We Are Augustines first tour.
Planning to head back into the studio in late 2012, the trio is presently focused on bringing its frenetic live show to venues around the world. "It's pretty crazy that now we're playing shows at outrageous places like Brixton Academy, when a little over a year ago we were just a rickety two-piece that needed fundraising money from our fans to make a website," says McCarthy. That fan-driven support hasn't gone unappreciated by We Are Augustines, who make a point of meeting with audience members after each show and attempt to respond to every message received by their band email account. "We've gotten emails from the strangest corners of the earth, from soldiers in Afghanistan to major-league baseball players to people in rehab," says McCarthy. "A lot of the time, it's people who've lost someone they love and feel that our music helped them get through that in some way."
Also in the interest in giving back, We Are Augustines is working on building a relationship with Amnesty International and recently contributed a cover of Bob Dylan's "Mama, You Been On My Mind" to the organization's charity compilation album Chimes of Freedom. And in an effort to raise awareness of the drug trade's devastating impact on the people of Juarez, Mexico, the band journeyed to the troubled border town to meet with the locals and film its video for "Juarez" (a gorgeously shot slice-of-life piece that captures one of the four instances in which McCarthy, Sanderson, and Allen were pulled over by the border patrol). "One of the gifts of being a musician is that you have people's ear," says McCarthy. "So if we can stand for something that's bigger than that 40-minute set, that's great. Which doesn't mean you have to be all stuffy and self-righteous—we still get crazy and jump off the stage and smash things up."
Indeed, maintaining a joyfully chaotic spirit is crucial to We Are Augustines (who've been revisiting episodes of The Muppet Show on their most recent tour because "it's so obnoxiously positive and feels pretty great juxtaposed with all the dark, distorted stuff we're singing about," according to McCarthy). "It's important to us that our shows are very celebratory and that the audience feels like they're part of what we're doing—that we're all in this room together, creating a memory," notes Sanderson. "We want people to have a cathartic experience—but still dance all night long, and walk away smiling. That's really not a sad story at all."