Sorry, I was waylaid by a pint.
Those are the first words from Scott Hutchison, frontman for Scottish band Frightened Rabbit and the singer and writer behind Owl John - his new, and as it turns out necessary, side project.
He’s a few minutes late for our interview at Glasgow’s Cottier Theatre where he’ll be playing a solo show later the same day in support of his album, Owl John. I say it wasn’t much of a hardship for me, sitting in the blazing sunshine nursing a soda and lime (hey, I’m a professional) in the leafy environs of the west end of the city.
It would seem there wasn’t much sunshine in Hutchison’s life towards the end of last year. His band, Frightened Rabbit, had released their fourth studio album and first for Atlantic, the anthemic and addictively powerful Pedestrian Verse. While surrounded by critical acclaim, the cycle of recording and touring was taking its toll on Hutchison and the band and following the culmination of a tour early this year the decision was taken to not return once again to the studio but for the band to down tools and take some time off – before Frightened Rabbit imploded for good.
But Hutchison quickly found that doing nothing wasn’t for him; with the help of a couple of band mates he set about writing the songs that make up Owl John and suddenly found himself with an album. It’s a record that deals frankly with his disillusionment with the recording/touring process, the anxiety and nervous breakdown that led to the band taking a break and the move to Los Angeles that began the process of getting Hutchison back on track. While at times Owl John sounds like Scott’s day job, there are also songs on the album which don’t sound like anything he’s done before. “Hate Music” brims with barely-contained anger and rage, clattering percussion meeting chanted, bile-filled vocals, while “Cold Creeps” is messy, fractured and dripping in fuzz and distortion. It’s not all grim, though, as “Los Angeles Be Kind” and “Don’t Take Off the Gloves” are full of Hutchison’s own brand of positivity, and as always he’s got a unique way of forming a lyric that lifts his music way above your average indie rock band. You’ll never hear anyone sing “there’s poison in the tap water” with quite as much euphoria as he musters.
As we settle in under the Glasgow sunshine, I say to Scott that on first listen I thought Owl John was an angry and anxious record, but after a few more spins you can see he’s working through some stuff, and there’s a sort of linear process that finds him more settled by the final track: “I’d agree with that, yeah,” says Scott. “It was a process; there are sort of two sides to it, one that sort of deals with how I was feeling before the record – which is the reason for making it in the first place. Towards the end of last year Frightened Rabbit was getting a bit much; I wasn’t enjoying it and I don’t think anyone in the band was enjoying it anymore, because we’d done too much.”
Hutchison continues: “Songs like ‘Hate Music’ and ‘Cold Creeps’ are about essentially going through an undiagnosed nervous breakdown sort of thing…” I say you can hear that straight away in the lyrics to “Cold
Creeps”, where he’s describing being frozen to the spot with anxiety (“Cold creeps through my fingertips like / the frostbitten night”) and the singer agrees: “That’s absolutely what was happening and I’d never felt like that before. It was striking how that sort of mental disorder really affects you physically as well. So a lot of the record is about processing that, and that’s why I did it in the first place. When it came to the end of the tour cycle for Frightened Rabbit, the label sort of knew…the guy at the label said ‘I wasn’t sure there was going to be a band at the end of the year’ because he could see cracks…” Between the members of Frightened Rabbit? “Not between us,” clarifies Hutchison. “It wasn’t inter-band fractions or anything, it was just a general sense of it wearing me down.” The end of the first half of the album is signalled by the track “Los Angeles Be Kind”, a beautiful love song to Scott’s adopted home, and it’s a place that affects the back half of Owl John: “Then there’s moving to Los Angeles, there’s obviously some fairly literal references to that,” he begins, “and that being quite an alienating experience to begin with. But now I’m settled there and it’s started to feel as much like home as it possibly can be, because it never quite will be…but you’re right in saying the writing of the lyrics was a process…”
To completely change the way he worked with Frightened Rabbit, Hutchison chose to record the music on the Isle of Mull, accompanied by fellow FR man Andy Monaghan and Olympic Swimmers’ Simon Liddell, before writing the lyrics in LA, so I’m wondering if this had any effect on the sound of the album. Did the isolation of Mull, and indeed Los Angeles, have an impact? “I suppose it’s two things,” says Hutchison. “The making of the album when we were on Mull, just making music outwith the confines of the band – and I use confines because there’s pressure involved in writing when you’ve got a fan base that’s established and the label has expectations of how that album is going to do – I didn’t have any of that, and that was a kind of freeing process, and then moving to LA about a week after finishing doing the music and writing the
lyrics there, it was just a process of I was writing these things as I was feeling them on a day-to-day basis. It was all written in the first couple of weeks I moved there.” So rather than having a negative impact, was Mull a much-needed escape? “Yeah; although I didn’t write the lyrics on Mull, that experience for me was entirely positive,” Scott affirms. “That was an escape; that was basically me knowing I needed to have a break from the band…but I knew I didn’t want to sit on my arse for three months, so going out there and almost making music like I used to, without any expectation, a totally spontaneous project….that was a really wonderful experience, and then going out to LA – with all these expectations of what it would be, and some of them not quite being met – then that informed a lot of the content.”
The worries over isolation actually surfaced once Hutchison arrived in Los Angeles. It’s something you can hear on “Ten Tons of Silence”, where the singer is finding it difficult to cope with a certain level of isolation. I initially thought it was a reference to Mull, but it is in fact about the unforgiving nature of LA: “’Ten Tons of Silence’ is really about moving out there – and I do have a network of friends there…but it’s not the
same as here, you know? It’s much more disparate and there was a massive sense of isolation when I got there, for sure.” Hutchison goes on to explain the reason behind the move: “My girlfriend is absolutely the only reason I moved there, and it has proven to be totally worthwhile…but you need more in your life than that – and that was the thing we slowly realised. You can’t just have each other, you need to build other aspects of your life…which I didn’t really have set up. We were sort of in each other’s pockets and when two people spend too much time together there’s a lot of that idea too…we were just going out boozing ourselves a lot of the time, getting smashed, having an argument and then coming home [laughs]…I mean, I kind of enjoy that in itself, but…” As Scott tails off, it’s clear there’s plenty going on in his life, something – as it turns out – he didn’t think was there when he chose to record under the name Owl John: “When I first came up with the idea for the record and the name Owl John, the idea was to maybe write in character…but that didn’t work! I didn’t think I’d have much to write about [personally]…but there was plenty haha!” I agree: on “Good Reason To Grow Old” we can hear Hutchison sing “Oh, how she murders morbid thoughts / plunges a knife into the suicide…”, so it’s clear that we’ve got two people in a loving, if eventful, relationship: “Oh no that’s a happy one, that’s a good one! I mean, I don’t want to go too far into it but she’s a very strong-willed, feisty person and that’s what I love about her. It’s interesting, and never a dull moment in our household!”
Going back to Scott’s time on Frightened Rabbit’s last tour, there’s a moment on “Songs About Roses“ where he sings: “chloroform the singer who has nothing to say / stare in wonder at the masses, sing along anyway” - and it sounds like there was a real disillusionment with both the songs he was singing, and the people he was singing them to. Was it a case that Scott just didn’t want to be there onstage with Frightened Rabbit? “Yeah!” he confirms, immediately. “On a number of occasions; the problem with being in a band, from an outsider’s perspective it’s a wonderful job and for that reason I think this is why I came to write the record. I didn’t feel like I could talk to my pals who sit at a desk five days a week about how shit my life is! I couldn’t talk to the guys in the band because they were exactly the same as I was.” I ask if there was a moment where everyone realised it couldn’t go on this way? “I remember one show in particular in Ireland,” begins Scott, “where I sang the last two songs in a foetal ball at the front of the stage! It was really bad, and that was the night where everyone thought ‘okay, I knew he wasn’t coping but I didn’t think it was that bad’. So there were nights, because I couldn’t talk about it, I would display it in different ways. It comes down this weird cycle: the band exists because I can’t really communicate in a standard fashion so I’ll put it into songs, and then it comes back round to that being a problem again. So there were nights when I didn’t want to be there; but that sounds so selfish and I didn’t want to make a thing out of it. So some nights I could get through it: play the songs, get off, go to my bed and isolate myself again…sometimes it was too much.”
What Owl John has achieved is not just to have produced ten songs which often sound radically different to Frightened Rabbit. As much as you might not find the unsettling distortion of “Cold Creeps” or the Gaelic
translation of the lyrics to “Two” (at least I think that’s what it is, unless my translation skills from Gaelic-English aren’t as good as I thought) which make themselves known towards the end of that song on a FR album, what Owl John does is to allow Hutchison to work in a more productive and healthy way. He explains how the recording process worked: “The whole process and the intention of it, is to show the music is simply what we did that day. The whole album works chronologically: song one is the song we finished on day one, and the last song is what we ended up with on the last day. We stuck to that rule, and the same applies to the songs. We didn’t labour them and that’s why I think they are more direct, and more open.” It turns out, also, that limited time constraints were a positive: “The time that I have to write a Frightened Rabbit album, the time that I have to put lyrics down and then reconsider how much I’m revealing of myself and maybe hide some of that….I didn’t have that time,” says Scott. “I was writing songs on the day and going into the studio to record them, and that process did not allow me to have that censorship, and that was a good thing. These were processes we’d put in place before we went to make it; there are moments which could easily sit on a Frightened Rabbit album but I think the difference is that it was far less considered, and so for that reason it’s a more honest portrayal.” I say that this is something that’s really noticeable, that Owl John doesn’t hide behind metaphors and rather than being a “woe is me” record, we’re asked to join in on this journey of sorts: “Yeah, that’s the idea,” agrees Hutchison. “I guess I’ve always thought of a song as an invite…it’s about how you take that thought or whatever you felt at that point in time and make it accessible, you know? That’s kind of the key for me.”
Hutchison is keen to point out that Owl John isn’t strictly a solo project when I ask about the involvement of Monaghan and Liddell, both of whom he knows very well. Was it a case of working with people he trusted, and knew his way of working? “Exactly! Andy was very much on the production/engineering side of it,” he explains. “He’s wanted to get his teeth into something for a while now, and again this is his chance to move over into another side of interest for him. To think less about the songs and playing guitar, and more about the technical aspects – which he’s absolutely obsessed with. Simon has been working his way up to the point where he’s now essentially a member of Frightened Rabbit, and it was just about getting different characters in to make this album. He’s got great musicality, but it’s sort of opposite to mine, and Andy’s a weirdo [laughs].” Scott continues and reveals how much the two were involved in: “So there’s at least two or three songs on there I didn’t have a hand in making the structure for. ‘Red Hand’ and ‘Good Reason to Grow Old’, those are basically Simon and Andy’s songs that I’ve arranged differently and wrote lyrics to. That’s really refreshing as well because it’s nice to work on something that’s not entirely your own – and that’s another reason for not calling the ‘Scott Hutchison’…apart from the fact I’ve got a shit name! I mean, it’s not a shit name…it just doesn’t lend itself well to a rock record.”
In talking about names, I ask Scott if it was difficult to get away from Frightened Rabbit completely on Owl John; yes, the recording process was different but he does have a rather distinctive Scottish brogue…“Yeah, it was hard. I had got into some habits with Frightened Rabbit,” he admits. “We write big choruses, there’s a sort of anthemic aspect to the sound that I was quite keen to leave off this; however it crept in completely on a couple of tunes. I was conscious of trying to tread a line! I find it almost predictable when someone does something so ‘unpredictable’…like a guy from a band striking out and he’s saying ‘this is my electro project…this is my drum and bass album’ so I didn’t really want to go all-out into totally unfamiliar territory, that would have been too considered. So, although I didn’t want it to feel like a bunch of floor cuttings from the last Frightened Rabbit album – which it wasn’t – basically the label was asking us in the run-up to recording ‘have you got any demos?’” And I take it, given the recording process Scott has detailed, there wasn’t anything to give them? “Well, we didn’t write anything in advance! Nothing was demoed, nothing was arranged; we worked up from a nugget of an idea, left it, did the same the next day and that’s how it worked, and I think that naturally took it just enough away [from FR]. But I totally understand I have a recognisable voice and that’s impossible to shroud….I would love it if this album appealed to lots of people who hate Frightened Rabbit! That would be the greatest compliment I could receive; if someone who did not like us enjoyed this record.”
As the sun beats down and the photographer waits patiently for some pictures of Hutchison, I end our chat with questions about the future; what’s the future for Owl John (“No idea!” is the reply), and has the writing
and recording of this recorded helped clear up the future of Frightened Rabbit? “Yeah, we drove up here for these shows from Wales. We’ve started demoing and we’ve kind of taken the same process…a song a day….” And are things looking good? “Yeah, yeah! If I hadn’t done this album we’d have been back in the studio in March just torridly working on a Frightened Rabbit album that we didn’t want to do. So to get away from it in every sense, move to another country, start doing shows on my own, make a record which – admittedly indulgent – was absolutely necessary….I made this record in order that Frightened Rabbit could still exist, because otherwise I don’t think it would. To get back into it is really exciting and I’m glad to be around them again. Now, we all feel like it’s a new start.”
Owl John is out now on Atlantic. Head here to purchase your copy.