It Takes an Ocean
Not To Break
There is a moment, roughly five minutes and two songs into Painting of a Panic Attack, where the words “Get out of my heart” escape from Scott Hutchison’s pressurised lungs. There is something in Hutchison’s desperate exhalation and the gauzy surrounding guitars that seem to push his demands beyond the metaphorical and into the physical.
It’s not an isolated incident in the makeup of Frightened Rabbit’s new album, or indeed in a back catalogue which began gaining popularity with a record called Midnight Organ Fight. Everything is manifest, everything is palpable: Hutchison’s heartache, his grief, love and loss live in his blood and lyrics.
“Thinking back …” Hutchison muses, leaning into his clasped hands as he perches on the edge of the opposite sofa set amongst a rather bleak room in the warren of tonight’s backstage space. “It’s been present in my writing from the start. And, much in the way I haven’t really had the chance to assess with this album, it's only now that I'm forced into assessing it. I'm still thinking out loud as far as that's concerned. I'm probably the last person who should be analysing their own work. I didn’t notice until it was pointed out to me.”
"I want to feel these things that are physically overwhelming, so when it's wonderful it's like a drug.”
“It felt like a natural thing,” he continues. “I've always seen that kind of emotional turmoil as an illness. It's one that lasts for quite a long time and can't be fixed. You know, you describe it as a ‘hurt’ - why would you describe it as that if it weren’t actually painful? It's not just mental torment.”
“I was given a very stark reminder of that when I started having anxiety attacks. I've always felt the physical nature of love and loss quite strongly, and known that pain can be a physical manifestation of anger or anxiety; but I'd never felt my brain completely taking over my body before, and that was a very odd thing. To be like ‘This is a completely mental disorder that is paralysing me.’ And I'd never quite felt that level before and I think that's when I realised that this [Hutchison unclasps his hands and points to his head] controls all this.” His hands drop and part, gesturing towards his seated limbs.
It’s suddenly easy to trace the origins of the record’s title Painting of a Panic Attack, but this album, their fifth, is about so much more than that. And as with Frightened Rabbit’s past efforts, everything returns to the heart - to the core organ.
“A lot of the album was about a particular relationship, and I didn't realise quite how isolated the two of us became,” Hutchison says in a wise, drawn-out tone. “I'd moved to Los Angeles to be with this person and as soon as I moved out there it was just ‘I want to spend all of my time with you!’ We just built this moat around ourselves and it became such an intense thing - and an incredibly unhealthy thing in a lot of ways, where you rely almost completely on this one person. You cannot exist with one person alone. I think that building that place that's so private works up to a point but you need to let other people in – needing to bring other social aspects into your life but not knowing how to let go of this thing you've become. So, talking about the physicality of it I guess there's this person that you have an addiction to. There's the kind of drug like aspects of absolute elation and intense love.”
In “Get Out” there is something clinging to Hutchison’s heart, and it’s not something that any surgical procedure would be able to remove. When asked if that’s what the song relates to, he replies “I think that's all over the album but absolutely, the push and pull of that. 'Get Out’ definitely covers that. I cannot live without you but I have to find a way to exist without absolutely fucking clinging to you. I use that word ‘clinging’ which brings to mind a child, you know. It's strange to be in that position as an adult and feel like you've become so reliant that it's scary to let it go.”
" You cannot exist with one person alone."
“I find that because of the way I approach relationships, I get very intensely involved, really, really quickly. That means that any effect that has on me is very intense, so the end of it is not just normal but it's an absolute fucking disaster. But that level is what I want out of life. I don't want to coast along, particularly. I'm a person who has come to … or maybe I always have … find masochistic pleasure in the flip side of that as well.”
There is a strong sense of this contained within album track “Woke Up Hurting”, in which you can almost hear Hutchison smiling as he delivers the song’s melancholic message. The joyous chorus swells do the rest, enveloping any traces of sadness with an infectious radiance. “I find any strong emotion to be pleasurable, because it's far easier to understand than the bits in between. So life becomes a series of extreme highs and very dark lows. I want to feel these things that are physically overwhelming, so when it's wonderful it's like a drug.”
I ask, so when it's not wonderful, there are breakages, blood, pain and tears?
“Yeah, there are, I know, right? I think when you take it down to that base level it becomes a very effective mode of communication because it's available to everyone, whereas not everyone has been in the exact same position as you have. So to describe your unique position is maybe less open than describing just physical sensations. It's the same way that I've repeatedly used sort of pseudo-religious imagery as well. I use that not because I have any particular thoughts about it but it's quite a universal language. Whether or not you're involved in religion in any way, you know about the language and it's a very fast track, much like using language based on physical feelings. That's in their lexicon. It's not as alienating as trying to abstractly describe something. It's quite a simplistic way of putting something.”
Hutchison doesn’t try to intellectualize his pain: everyone has felt their blood boil or their gut wrench. “Yeah,” he nods in agreement. “Everyone remembers what that feels like. And if I mention it then there's kind of a chance that feeling may return in some small way. Just like a little wince or something. I want to make people wince!”
"I've always felt the physical nature of love and loss quite strongly, and known that pain can be a physical manifestation of anger or anxiety.”
It’s not just the base level of Hutchison’s bones that pull Painting of a Panic Attack’s abstract emotions into the physical world but the oppressive presence of Los Angeles – where Hutchison moved to be with his partner.
“I think that Los Angeles is such a strange place to be, where so much creative output is made but for you to not feel like it's a creative place. It's a closed door. I've never felt so regularly inclined to escape a place just to keep my sanity. One of the wonderful things about Los Angeles is what surrounds it. So within an hour you can be in the mountains or in the desert or by the ocean and those are some of the most beautiful landscapes I've ever found myself in. But the idea that you need those places because nothing creative was going to come out of me sitting in my apartment that I had come to dislike.”
“There's something a little bit sick about writing about it while she's sitting in the next room” Hutchison adds, unsure whether to admit that to the world. “So I had to leave to feel okay about that. And it is okay. It's not taking advantage of something and it's not exploiting something. It's what I came to realise after a couple of months of trying to figure out what the point of this record is. I was grappling with whether or not it was even necessary to make another Frightened Rabbit album, if anyone even gave a shit or if it was needed.”
“What I came to realise was that I needed it. Over here [in the UK] I had a community of friends and a way of life that allowed me to go and meet people on a certain night and put the world to rights, sort of thing. In Los Angeles that was lost so it was more vital than ever. I had to use this outlet to describe to myself how it was, or to understand it.”
“I was connected to one thing but I needed more than that, you know. My friends joked about the move changing the sound of the album and the outlook on life being much sunnier, and in fact it had the opposite effect: I retreated further within myself and felt very out of step with the mode of that city. It's not what I was accustomed to. And I tried. I tried to love it, and it didn't happen.”
“I missed the pulse of a place. I think you have it in London, even though it's slightly more sprawling than New York City or Glasgow or Edinburgh. You have that palpable community, that creativity, and it’s not necessarily having it shoved down your throat, but just being aware of it was really important. So yeah escaping to certain rooms and to New York for a couple of sessions a week at a time just made me realise what I was missing.”
Beckoned to the bright lights by the promise of community, Hutchison found himself very much at the centre of that world with help from The National’s Aaron Dessner, who ended up producing the album.
“We were near Woodstock in a place called Dreamland and it was just in direct contrast from what I'd had in LA. I just got there and felt instant relief. We moved after the album had been finished but that's where I kind of fell in love with it and why we gravitated there more long term. Then we were in Brooklyn at the producer's house for a couple of weeks and, again, felt the direct contrast. He's absolutely absorbed in that world and he's kind of a figurehead, almost, because he's got all these people around him. You know, he'd just be calling up the guy who plays on Sufjan's record to come do brass for us.”
We discuss how the pair ended up working together, and as the conversation progresses Hutchison realises that Dessner’s intensity matched his own. The intensity of his romantic relationship, of LA and the physicality of emotions found their equal in Dessner’s work ethic and spirit.
“He didn't stop thinking about it until it was finished. I just don't think he can do anything half-arsed, it's just not in his personality. He's just so analytical and musically gifted that it's just constant for him. That was both inspiring and frustrating because he's so intense. But I can't fault him for that. He's hugely committed. A lot of producers take thing from a purely sonic standpoint and he's able to assess the emotional value of things as well, and that's really important to him. That was really important.”
Before they started work in earnest “He came over to Glasgow to meet everyone else to make sure that it wasn't just me telling them that it was going to be a good fit. He was like ‘Well, I want to meet everyone else, it has to be a collective decision.’”
"I think we've created something more “beautiful” than we have in the past; a beautiful place to come and think about terrible things."
We reach a conversation about the band fairly late in our interview. In his isolation, Hutchison had forgone the physicality of Scotland and in turn the ties between band members had clearly weakened. “I think there's a certain amount of gang mentality that goes on in a band, or a family, just through necessity. A gang sounds a bit threatening. That's not really what we are but you know, you spend your lives in each other's pockets. Then I chose to remove myself from that, both by finding a new home and by cutting out a different project.”
By cutting out the band and carving his own niche with Owl John (with help from fellow Frightened Rabbit Andy Monaghan and touring guitarist Simon Liddell, who is now a permanent member of the band), Hutchison was able to work through the stasis that was clearly becoming suffocating. His music, his lyrics and his life lacked physical ties. “Maybe it wasn't a bad thing. I think it maybe put a couple of the guys off but I felt like there were times when maybe we would just collapse in on ourselves. I was starting to feel increasingly guilty. I think our communication had broken down a little bit.”
Reeling from a still-raw emotional state, Hutchison’s voice breaks and stutters. “Especially when that happened between me and my brother. I think that hit us both pretty hard. It's a completely different level when you're work colleagues, brothers and friends – and then having that almost being lost, wilfully. In hindsight, I don't know if I was escaping something or not. The close-knit-ness took a while to come back. Almost fairly recently to be honest, after the record was made.”
“Although we enjoyed the sessions, I was very distracted all the time and half of my brain was over there, sometimes more than half wondering why I was still pursuing this thing that was pulling me away from this other thing. I was being pulled away by the band from there [LA] and I was being pulled away by this person from the band. I was in a complete mental limbo a lot of the time and I was scared that was going to affect the album in a negative way.”
Knowing this, and knowing about the intensely suffocating nature of Hutchison’s relationship, gives context to album highlight “I Still Want To Be Here” - a pained and delicate expression of the strained and heavily nuanced situation he found himself in.
“I started listening to the songs as they were at that point and I started to cry because I thought it was terrible. I was just absolutely despondent. I didn't know who to talk to about it either because I didn't want to freak any of them out. But we did end up talking about it and they were like, ‘It's fine, it's half way. Well actually, it's less than half way so don’t assess it in that way.’ It continued to be a struggle for me until the very end. It was f*cking difficult, it really was. In the end I think it pulled itself together. Going back to the title, the way I see this album is – and I use the word beautiful not because I think I created that, we all did. But I think we've created something more ‘beautiful’ than we have in the past; a beautiful place to come and think about terrible things. Well, not terrible things. Tumultuous things maybe. But it didn't happen very quickly. We were no longer the band that we'd become accustomed to.”
" I was grappling with whether or not it was even necessary to make another Frightened Rabbit album, if anyone even gave a shit or if it was needed."
If you can hear these tensions anywhere on Painting of a Panic Attack, you can hear them on “Break” and the words “I didn’t bend and now we eat the consequence”. The potential energy of thrown punches and jumped ledges finds expression in howling strings and climactic drums beats, Hutchison once again making the listener feel like he very literally, and physically, found himself bending so to avoid breaking into pieces.
Following track “Blood Under The Bridge” comes as a slow, melodic sigh of relief and a move towards healing. (Painting of a Panic Attack often feels as if it were made to heal wounds). “It’s alright / It’s alright / It’s just blood under the bridge” Hutchison sings out to fade - the baseness of blood making this reconciliation real, making it thicker than water.
“I think the efficacy of communication became the main thing.” Hutchison replies when asked what the most important thing was to him and the band during the making of the album. “To have a sense of purity within yourself - to have a very pure goal you have set yourself and not to have been set by anyone else or their expectations on the album. And this became the most private album to become public, for us. And Aaron really helped with that as well. He was like 'I think you sound a little eager to please in some of your stuff' and he was like ‘Don't do that any more.’ To me that clarity and purpose has to come back to us.”
Suddenly it’s late and the dank backroom had become almost unbearably cold. In the conversation’s closing moments we end up discussing how Hutchison believes Frightened Rabbit’s music could come into a person’s life at a pivotal point. It’s something he’s brought up in interviews before. On a personal level it’s something I can believe too.
“I don't think it's the case that they gravitate towards us. I think it's just a bit of luck. It’s not just our music but any music relies on a sort of serendipitous meeting on a memorable point in one’s life and the right soundtrack. If either of those things are out of sync it doesn’t work, it’s not going to happen. I’ve heard a lot of people say that it [this album and previous Frightened Rabbit music] has come to them at a very messy point in their lives, some point that they needed to make sense of. Those were the conditions it [Painting of a Panic Attack] was written under, so it does make sense that that happened.”
A place to revel in those highs and lows, the occasional greys in between, and make sense of the mess: It feels like Painting of a Panic Attack is the album Hutchison, and Frightened Rabbit, needed more than anyone.