For the second time in three days, Grant Hutchison, drummer in Scottish rock band Frightened Rabbit, was about to step onto a boat that aimed to take him nowhere. In Sydney two days ago, Grant had furnished himself with trappings from a Navy supply store before rolling around Darling Harbour at a stately pace with members of Chvrches, Haim and Daughter. Lorde couldn’t even swoon her way aboard. I imagined Grant had fond memories of being conveyed around the harbour, inhaling sparkling wine and watching the gentle wake of passing ferries unroll in long, white scarves as he drifted with the Laneway elite between Sydney’s harbour-side monuments of global renown. His memories must have seemed especially fond as he stood at the brink of Studley Park Boathouse dock two days later, listening to some tiny rowboats creak in front of him, probably thinking “why did he just tell us that Collingwood has the highest concentration of Tiger snakes in the world?” or “Why did he go on to mention that they can swim?” But it was too late to turn back. Scott and Grant Hutchinson were already in orange lifejackets, about to glide over the Yarra river, the river that a previous Scottish traveller in 1890 had called “the filthiest piece of water I ever had the misfortune to be afloat on.”
But despite the danger I had assured them, the brothers from Frightened Rabbit seemed to sink fairly comfortably into the drowsy, midday heat. After considering the condensed and slippery schedule of the Laneway Festival, a boat ride—regardless of venue and possibility of snake bite—was still fairly ideal.
"The whole routine thing [on the Laneway tour] is just gone because sometimes you’ve got a 5am lobby call to get to the next city, then you’re on at 3 in the afternoon and you’re drunk at 8 at night…" Scott lamented with a weary smile. And on occasion, as was the case the previous morning, the Hutchison brothers were still drunk at 8am. Co-hosting the Triple J breakfast show, Scott and Grant matched the youthful clamour of hosts Alex and Matt by remaining slightly inebriated for their duties behind the mic.
"He was more smashed than i was actually" Scott admitted, tilting his head towards Grant. "We were only meant to be in for half an hour…" But the brothers were on air for over an hour, providing the morning show with some anomolously entertaining banter and derailing any attempts at routine even further.
During their turbid on-air conversations, the brothers fielded a call from a listener called Sally, which was more telling than any of the album-cycle or touring-schedule type questions so popular with breakfast radio. Sally had seen Frightened Rabbit 8 times in 10 months over 2 continents. And I highly doubt that Sally’s fervour is an isolated statistic. Frightened Rabbit capture an emotional extremity in their music that makes it fertile for obsession. By his own admission Scott invests “a lot of [him]self lyrically” in the songs of Frightened Rabbit, groaning about loss, lies and the sickening way humans behave towards one another.
Word clusters like:
produce a thematic gravity that pulls particularly hard on the young. Such gravid themes provide what, in my youth, I called the ‘Radiohead Function’, of revealing something dire and personal to which the listener can tether their malcontent.
"Yeah, i remember reading a quote from Michael Stipe" Scott nodded, "he said ‘if you felt something, then there’s a really high chance that someone else in the world has felt it too…" Scott Hutchison studied art for four years in Glasgow and learned early on the importance of creating access points into personal ideas. "Otherwise it’s just going to be for you" he explained, "and is ultimately a selfish act". But most interesting about the ‘Radiohead Function’ is how these bands of emotional extremity and thematic gravity almost always become the bands to which we are most attached. Are the reflective, arcane truths these bands whisper to us while we’re at our lowest what makes them most dear to us? Is our emotional response tantamount to the measure of love we feel for music? Is it impossible for bands to both make us happy and be among our most treasured? Do we enjoy misery? Scott Hutchison didn’t necessarily think so. He drew more conclusions about the unshakability of a fan’s belief from the musical honesty of the act in question.
"We’ve never really been a buzz band, and I’m happy with that…[there’s] an endless supply of young guys with the right haircuts who can play those drop key guitar chords". But they don’t last. They don’t become the kind of acts that grow old with their audience.
And growth is something that is foremost on the minds of the Hutchison brothers. Despite the successful universality of Frightened Rabbit’s woe, Scott Hutchison has increasingly tried to avoid making his songs “feel like a diary entry” and on their latest record, Pedestrian Verse, attempted to plunge even deeper into the pool of collective experience.
"I think i wanted to be a little bit more cinematic in scope with the writing" Scott explained, "I use songs to process events but i was kind of externalising my viewpoint a bit more…" A mild but palpable vexation was passing through our small rowboat. The brothers seemed quietly confounded, their brows knotted beneath their sunglasses, listening to the hiss and flam of the small wooden oars being rinsed through the cool brown water. It was clearly hard for them to locate the exact point of genesis for their change in approach. Which made sense. Even without their initiation, change had found them. Frightened Rabbit were playing in larger venues, changing record labels and touring with bands they admired, all of which, according to Grant "changes you as a musician, in a natural way…" but something that was—Scott impressed—"more subconscious". For Frightened Rabbit, such change provided a key to the very survival of their band.
"I would like to treat our fans like they are intelligent people because they are". Scott was looking directly at me, propelling his words slowly and deliberately, for maximal force. "Treat your fan base in the way that you would like to be treated by your favourite band. Expand and adapt. Try a new way of expressing yourself."
But despite the enforced creative flux of Frightened Rabbit, the brothers Hutchison are careful to keep the band’s core intact. They won’t be:
1. Replacing all of their guitars with keyboards. A move that, to the brothers, “sounds like bullshit”.
2. Laying strings over everything. Which, instead of making a song bigger, creates something that “doesn’t sound big” but instead just creates “a mush, a saturation point”.
3. Playing a very particular drum line, “the scourge of all indie rock” according to Scott, which goes something like: “choo-do-do-choo-do-do-choo-do-choo-do-do-choo-do-do-choo-do” (think ‘Clocks’ by Coldplay).
As our boat continued its haul through the full sun at a stately pace, long, creaking bird calls rippled out from the banks.
"Did you see that duck?" yelled Scott. "It just went under the boat." Frightened Rabbit may have been demoted in regards to boating experiences, but in a musical sense, they are very much becoming. They have played sold out nights at the prestigious Barrowlands in Glasgow, a stage they played with varying degrees of nerves and disbelief and where they witnessed the seminal rock shows of their adolescence. And more recently Frightened Rabbit have not only played increasingly large festival stages around the world, but also toured the US with indie rock luminaries and defacto band mentors, The National. But despite being able to grasp the milestones that most rock bands only dream of, Frightened Rabbit’s dreams are far more insular.
"I think i’m more interested in creative milestones" Scott mused, "because that’s what ultimately people remember and so it’s the records for me that have the most importance…" Not to mention the personal milestones that the band have their sights set on. In 2014 Frightened Rabbit’s touring schedule is due to relax. Scott is moving to LA to live with his girlfriend and Grant is looking forward to spending some time in the apartment he spends money on but barely lives in. The constant tow of band and life has been a long one. And in 2014, the change in Frightened Rabbit’s focus and expanse looks poised to mirror the change in its members’ very lives.
"You sacrifice a lot over ten years of trying to make something of a band" explained Scott as we edged slowly back towards the dock. "And this year we’ve all decided that we’ve done that for long enough". They’ll still write new record, they’ll still play some shows. But in 2014 Frightened Rabbit will largely stay grounded, and presumably on dry land; mining even deeper into their ever-changing lives for our musical benefit.