815 V St. NW
Washington, DC, 20001
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.”
Billy McCarthy (vocals, guitar)
Eric Sanderson (bass, keyboards, vocals)
Rob Allen (drums, percussion)
With its open-armed energy and elegiac grace, “AUGUSTINES” marks a colossal leap forward for Votiv/Oxcart recording group Augustines – no mean feat considering the extraordinary power of their breakthrough 2011 debut, “RISE YE SUNKEN SHIPS.” Songs like “Now You Are Free” and the plaintive “Walkabout” are both immediate and engaging, joining joyously unrestrained arrangements with singer/guitarist Billy McCarthy’s signature affective lyricism. “AUGUSTINES” marks a milestone on Augustines’ amazing journey, the work of a gifted band ascending to new heights while simultaneously grappling with their place in the universe.
“You have to do some soul-searching when given the opportunity to manifest your dream,” McCarthy says. “You’re free to walk the walk you always said you could walk.”
“If you struggle for a period of time to get something, there’s obviously a feeling of pride that comes when you achieve it,” says co-founder/bassist Eric Sanderson. “It’s very freeing, but like with any kind of freedom, it comes with a sense of wonder and confusion.”
Augustines was born upon the ashes of the Brooklyn indie rock band, Pela. That combo called an end to its collective trip in 2009, but founders McCarthy and Sanderson reunited to record a series of deeply personal songs chronicling despair, depression, and the untimely death of a close family member. They dubbed their intimate new endeavor, “Augustines,” which trademark issues required be appended to “We Are Augustines.”
“The name ‘Augustines’ resonates for us in many regards,” Sanderson says. “The minute we gave the project a name is really when it birthed itself. To have that name taken away from us, or even modified in a minor way, was always difficult. Now we’ve come full circle.”
“RISE YE SUNKEN SHIPS” – recorded and mixed by Dave Newfeld (Broken Social Scene, Super Furry Animals) – instantly set Augustines among modern music’s most compelling new bands. Songs like “Juarez” and “Book of James” touched a collective nerve, their dark subject matter refracted and then elevated by Augustines’ affirmative approach. Hailed by iTunes as 2011’s “Best Alternative Album,” “RISE YE SUNKEN SHIPS” was a critical and popular sensation, earning abundant praise and a fervent fan following. McCarthy and Sanderson enlisted the talents of British-born, conservatory-trained drummer Rob Allen and with that, Augustines became a fully-fledged band. The trio traveled the planet, performing innumerable headline shows, support sets, and show-stealing festival dates.
“We went touring together for two and a half years,” Allen says, “ Over two hundred shows…You can imagine the kind of bond you get from going on the road like that. You become a family.”
By the end, Augustines felt akin to Archibald MacNeal Willard’s “The Spirit of ’76,” bloodied but unbowed as they marched home from their long campaign. They paused to heal their dents and dings, with McCarthy embarking on an extended expedition that saw him visit such far-flung locales as Kenya, Turkey, Mexico, and Alaska. He eventually drifted back to the Applegate, California elementary school where he first learned an instrument. There he worked, observed by students and faculty as he put fingers on strings and pen to paper.
“I wanted to go back to the most stripped down form,” he says, “to when and where music first touched me. It was very soothing, having been at this for 12 years, to limp back to this small town grade school.”
Meanwhile, Sanderson and Allen worked on demos of their own, each still abuzz with ideas and experiences garnered on the infinite tour. In late November 2012, Augustines reconvened for a month of woodshedding at Temperamental Recordings, a converted 19th century country church in Geneseo, New York.
“It was like a music factory,” Allen says. “You could just feel the creativity oozing. We’d been playing basically the same set for two years so it was just like an overflow of ideas, like lava from a volcano.”
Fully armed, Augustines next headed to Bridgeport, Connecticut to record with co-producer Peter Katis at his residential Tarquin Studios. Katis (The National, Frightened Rabbit, Interpol, and – most importantly to Augustines – Jónsi) proved the ideal collaborator, helping focus the band’s driven pace and ample vision.
“We needed to work with somebody that was mature and confident,” Sanderson says. “Peter is very regimented and organized. He’s level-headed and that helped us to be level-headed as well.”
From the start, the sessions evinced a decidedly more optimistic point of view that the one which fired their heartrending debut, with songs like “Nothing To Lose But Your Head” and the buoyant “Kid, You’re On Your Own” lit by positive vibrations and striking confidence.
“This was us moving on together,” Allen says. “It was wonderful to come through the other end and record a new record. It was a huge accomplishment and looks towards a brighter future for us all.”
“The depth and the place the first record came from is not something that is repeatable,” says Sanderson. “It’s not something one would want to repeat. We did everything we could -- as artists, as men – to learn from that experience, to become better people and move on.”
Where their first record was created in relative isolation, “AUGUSTINES” was made “with the awareness that we weren’t going to be alone anymore,” says McCarthy. “This is us handing it over to those people that sang our songs back to us all over the world.
“The first record was obviously very personal,” he says. “It was really for us in many ways. There was almost an exchange – we turned from the interior and started considering some of the breathtaking moments that happened to us on the road, in different countries.”
Indeed, tracks like the thundering “Cruel City” and the album-closing “Hold Onto Anything” demonstrate a distinctly outward shift in sonic scope, interpolating the holistic experience of West African music into Augustines’ sweeping, multi-faceted sound.
“It’s not musicians up on a pedestal,” Sanderson – who studied music in Ghana – says. “The audience is singing, the audience is dancing, they’re all making music together..” That's what we've been trying to do our whole lives as musicians, but only recently have we been able to embrace that."
“It’s all about being inclusive,” McCarthy says. “Interaction is the lifeblood of what we think music is.”
Now based in Seattle, Augustines are eager to bring their brilliant new album to a worldwide audience keen for their return. If “RISE YE SUNKEN SHIPS” provided much needed catharsis, “AUGUSTINES” now takes this very special band to an altogether new plane, transcendent and triumphant.
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