In the short course of three albums, lately last year's The Winter of Mixed Drinks, Frightened Rabbit has created a very distinct sound of Elliot Smith-like hyperrealism couched in the emotional alienation of 21st-century banality. The Scottish indie-rockers take the every day and make it sad; not since the days of the Smiths has a band been able to fully explain that melancholy and being alive are sometimes the same thing.
Frightened Rabbit write songs that help the listener realize that being this fucked up is not only normal, but preferable. Because if nothing else, the bruises lead to art and art makes you realize that happiness really is possible.
A few days before their long-awaited appearance in Houston - they were forced to cancel their last two scheduled shows, one due to a "van problem," the other because of a super-huge volcano - Rocks Off had a chance to speak with lead vocalist and songwriter Scott Hutchison.
Rocks Off: What were you doing five minutes ago?
Scott Hutchinson: I was still kind of sleeping, on the bunk on the bus. It's funny, you never really get used to the time changes and being on the road, living the bus lifestyle. We're on the West Coast right now; it's still morning. Being on the bus completely changes one's perspective about life, and about time.
RO: Winter of Mixed Drinks is clearly a record more concerned with self and less concerned with the girl - but at the same time, many of the songs treat the self as something in part defined by what's no longer missing in your life - meaning the girl. How do you reconcile the idea of being able to break away from your past while at the same time relying on the past to realize who you are?
SH: I think you're right - it's kind of human nature to define yourself by using someone else, or a group of people. I wrote this record about myself after trying to move on from a seven-year relationship, and it was hard. At the same time, I don't know if anyone knows who they are if not for other people, and the person I've become in a way forced to use is the person I have such a long past with.
It was easier on this album to kind of get away from that past, too, and come to understand who I was after the recovery period. It's a difficult question to face, and a difficult thing to realize - who am I, am I anyone?
RO: On two songs ("Modern Leper," "Not Miserable"), you use metaphors of disease, particularly the kind of disease that leaves people permanently scarred with spots. Is there something about broken relationships that makes you feel they are impossible to get rid of, like skin?
SH: Yeah, I guess relationships are like that, kind of permanent. I always wanted to express that. I like using disease metaphors because like skin, yeah, it makes you tangibly understand when something's wrong with you. Funnily enough, I have eczema, not too bad; but it's something I've had to deal with since I was born. When all that stuff was happening, it kept getting worse and it kind of takes over when I'm stressed or not quite right; so there's a real element to that.
With a lack of sleep, or drinking too much - which is what was happening at the time - it kept getting worse and worse, and I guess that was a way for me to let my audience know that this is a real thing and not just a song. So yeah, I do think relationships resemble skin diseases, and I literally have to deal with it. Not leprosy or anything, but you know.
RO: Is it possible to be happy while singing songs about sadness?
SH: Absolutely. I try to pack it with emotion, but the overriding one now is joy. At shows and stuff, I've come to feel like the songs and the material have become more important to everyone else than they are to me, so I try to act like a spokesperson for the group, and I see people singing them back to me; and there's nothing sad about that. All the actual content and the original feeling disappears in that moment.
What I've always tried to do is show a way to sing about it without being cheesy and icky. What is always interesting is to see the men being able to get fully lost in the subject matter without looking like they're losing their manhood. Or I don't know, maybe I'm just overthinking it.
RO: Was there really a night where you almost drowned (from "Not Miserable")?
SH: Well I didn't actually almost drown, like die in water. I'm referencing one night when I had a terrible Christmas Day; it was the first Christmas Day without this person. I went home for Christmas, and it was shit. I didn't quite drown, but I drank and drank. I was all on my own, and realized that something had to change.
It was like I almost died, being completely alone on a day when you're supposed to be with your family, just like everyone else and here I was sitting in my apartment with no one, drinking alone; and I kept drinking. It was that day when I made up my mind to change things.
RO: On all of Frightened Rabbit's albums, there is an instrumental interlude somewhere near the middle. What's the significance of that?
SH: The idea came from one of my all-time favorite records, The Hour of Bewilderbeast by Badly Drawn Boy. The interludes are never done in the studio when we're making the album; they're always done at another time. I guess they mean something, probably coming from what I'm thinking about the first half of the album as you get to the second half; but for me I just like having them on there. I'm sure most people just skip over them anyway, because they don't really make much sense.
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RO: You're obviously a very confessional songwriter and performer. Do you find it difficult to live such a public life?
SH: No. I think if the response was negative, I would find that difficult but in general the response to the things I'm saying is positive. With this new record I was more aware of it, so it's slightly less confessional than Midnight Organ Fight. When I was writing Midnight I was unaware of the audience, so all of the confessional stuff didn't seem to matter.
On the new one, I was more aware of the people who I knew would be listening so it became harder to write, knowing that there were going to be all these people knowing about my life. I try to keep some aspect of that but it becomes harder the more people listen. At the same time, it's the only way I know how to write songs, so that's how it'll always be.
Frightened Rabbit plays with Plants and Animals, 8 p.m. Thursday, October 21, at Walter's on Washington, 4215 Washington, 713-862-2513 or www.superunison.com.