Early last Thursday afternoon, I finalized my prep for an interview with Frightened Rabbit drummer Grant Hutchison, previewing the group’s upcoming Pabst Theater show on April 28. There was no shortage of material surrounding the Scottish indie rock band. After all, it’d just released its new album, "Painting of a Panic Attack," a little over a week before – a clearly personal record for frontman Scott Hutchison focusing on his struggles acclimating to his move to Los Angeles.
By the time we reached our phone interview later that night, however, all that prep seemed besides the point, as the whole music world mourned the sudden, shocking news of Prince’s death reported mere hours earlier. So Grant Hutchison and I just had to talk about our favorite Prince moments and songs, plus Frightened Rabbit’s latest work – and how having to work an ocean apart was actually a good thing.
OnMilwaukee: Your new album is really steeped in the loneliness and feelings of being in a new place because of Scott’s experience moving to Los Angeles. What was it like – as not only his band member but his brother – hearing about these tough, kind of homesick experiences?
Grant Hutchison: The end of the last campaign was sort of a pivotal moment in the band’s history, in that we all kind of felt a bit fed up and that maybe there wouldn’t be another album. After a few months, we all had some time off and some time away from it and realized no, we actually do still want to do this and we need to it, really, more than anything. So we got back together and starting writing again.
I think one of the main problems that we had with the last campaign was a lack of communication. Communication really broke down between all of us, probably in particular Scott and myself. So we opened that up again, and that was great. So when these lyrics started coming out, it obviously was quite shocking to hear some of them, but I was aware of it, and I was working through it with him, whereas previously, even back with some of the stuff on "The Midnight Organ Fight," that was me finding out for the first time how deep a hole he was in.
So this time around, it had less of an effect on me because we were communicating and speaking about it, and also helping him through it. That was the best thing about this album and these songs; we kind of spoken about it already.
As always, hearing Scott’s lyrics, the same as everyone else, you sort of get this "oof" – that sort of shock. But this time, we were more in touch and therefore I was less paranoid about what was going to happen.
Were there any concerns about working on these songs from across the ocean? He’s out in L.A., and you guys are back home in Scotland.
Funnily enough, it was actually a lot better because I think it’s hard to be brutally honest in a room with someone if there’s something that they’ve recorded that you don’t really like or don’t think is working or fits well. Which happens certainly, and it’s hard to take that as well. So having that sort of distance made for a lot more communication in a strange way.
Scott’s sending stuff over, and instead of having to sit there and give him a reaction or an opinion instantly, you could download it, take it away, listen to it for a couple of days or hours and really digest it a little bit more than you would if you were in a room.
And also, generally, if we’re all together, we’re in a place that we’re paying for the studio time or paying for the accommodation, you’ve got all of that in the back of your mind. Like, we need to come away from here with something, something solid that we can then work on and make a song. That wasn’t the case here. We were on a bit more of our own time, so you could take that song or that demo, and work it differently.
It actually helped a lot, and we had a lot more time to concentrate on what we were doing and what fits with the song, rather than, "We’ve only got a few days in this place; we need to f*cking come out with something," or "We need to move on and do another song." So, in a strange way, it opened up communication more than being in the same room together.
A lot of reviews for the album pointed out how the kind of bombast from past albums was a little more restrained this time.
Yeah, that’s something we spoke about even on the last album, and we completely failed. (laughs) That was just ridiculous; we went completely overboard on the last one. And it’s fine; it worked out. I think it was the album we needed to make last time.
So this time, when we actually sat down and started writing and demoing, we were, like, we absolutely can’t do that again this time. What we want to achieve is more space, less of the obvious, bombastic in-your-face, creating a big sound by adding layers – literally making it big by piling things on top of each other. So that was something we were very conscious of even during the demo process, of saying, "Stop, that’s enough; let’s move on, and if something else comes up, fair enough, but let’s try not. Let’s try to go into the studio with some room and some space to move."
How’d you try to do that?
The person we really, really need to give the most credit to for that is Aaron Dessner, who produced it. That was a conscious choice for that reason, knowing how much he has to do with his band’s sound and not wanting to sound like The National, but being really appreciative and in awe of how they manage to have these moments and have this weight to a song but it’s so subtle and very spacey and there’s not a lot going on. And that’s what makes it so brilliant. So choosing him was a conscious decision to push us in that direction.
I gotta say, at first, he had a way of working that we’re not used to. He does put a lot of stuff down and records a lot of stuff – and then just moves on. And we’re like, "What’s happening here? This seems a bit messy." (laughs) Basically, what he does is, at the end, he puts it all together and gets rid of what he doesn’t think is necessary and does a good job of editing the stuff that’s there into a song.
Honestly, it’s incredible, because we were right up to the last day thinking, "What the f*ck does this record even sound like?" Genuinely we were a bit panicked and worried that we’d got this producer in because we thought he was going to give us this sparse-sounding record that we’d been trying to achieve for a while, and we’d done the exact opposite. But it was just his way of working that we weren’t aware of.
But it was tough, because there are moments in your industry where we’d been working to almost a formula in the past of what we know works. There were a few moments in the studio that we could’ve done that – let’s add in a keyboard there, wait a couple bars, add another guitar, wait a couple bars – but that wasn’t Aaron’s vision, and that what was great about him. He forced that on us, which was incredible because that’s what we needed, someone to go, "No, no, no, it doesn’t need another four guitars."
Before we go, I have to ask: Do you have any particular Prince memories?
I do remember when I was younger – weird; you saying that just triggered this – I used to dress up in this red wooly hat and a red woolen shawl, and I’d look like a raspberry. And then someone, I think one of my mom’s friends, put on "Raspberry Beret," and I danced around to it. At the time, I had no idea what it was or anything, but that was my first sort of memory.
With him now, especially these past two years, you’re listening to the radio and you’re like, "Is that Prince?" It feels like now that sound has made a comeback, with bands like CHVRCHES and The 1975 doing extremely well. I don’t want to say ripped off, because that doesn’t give those bands credit, but some of those sounds and the feel has come back. I know they would admit it themselves too, that they wouldn’t be anywhere without that guy. It’s just shocking.
Yeah, that pop/funk/rock sound, the way he gelled all those genres together in such a unique, personal way. There were really few others like him.
That’s exactly it. It’s not like he was the first person to play it, but that very particular style of pop funk, he just completely nailed it. And with integrity as well, which I think is the hardest thing to do in the music industry: to become such a global artist and star and still keep your integrity and what you believe in intact.
Between him and Bowie, those guys were not only themselves, but they were cool being weird and being themselves.
Exactly. Those people don’t really exist anymore. I certainly can’t think of any new artists making waves the same way they did. Longevity is not a thing that a lot of people think about now – certainly not on the business side of the industry. That’s really sad, but hopefully we’ll get another icon soon enough.
We’re due for one. They’ve taken so many from us this year alone. Do you have a particular favorite Prince song?
I was actually looking through ‘em today, and it’s really difficult to pick! I kind of just ended up landing on "Purple Rain." I know it’s the most obvious one, but how good is that song? It’s incredible, and the movie as well. It’s gotta be that I think.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.