Swimmer's Ear
Story & Photos: Brian Heater

It's three o'clock in the afternoon and, for once this dismal New York summer, it seems that the weather might actually hold up - which is to say, of course, that it's hot and sticky and generally disgusting, even this close to the ocean. Scott Hutchison is seated in a makeshift bungalow in the artist's area back behind the main stage, where his band Frightened Rabbit is set to go on in roughly an hour. He's got an electric fan trained on him, a pair on sunglasses on his face, and a bottle of water in his hand. But with his button up long-sleeve shirt folded up around the elbows, he still looks a touch miserable in this East Coast humidity.

Hutchison is in good spirits, however. It's a sunny day at the beach, and Frightened Rabbit is one step closer to conquering America. Soon they'll take the stage at the ninth annual Siren Festival and charm the pants off the packed, sweaty crowd, beneath the weathered wooden latticing of the Coney Island Cyclone. They'll sample heavily from their most recent record, Midnight Organ Fight (FatCat, 2008), the first several rows crammed up against the metal guardrail singing along to every heart-wrenching word. And then it's time to fly out to the Second City for the Pitchfork Music Festival.

For a group so invested in the art of self-reflection, however, conquering the world doesn't afford a lot of opportunities for introspection. That, for better or worse, is our job.

Are you planning on seeing any of the other bands here today?
I'm doing interviews all day, so I haven't had a chance yet, and we leave straight away to go to Pitchfork [Festival] tomorrow.

Are there any bands you're going to particularly regret missing?
Yeah, some guys we played with at a festival last year, called Bear Hands. They're from here [Brooklyn, NY]. We won't get to see them. We're gonna miss The Ravonettes because we're leaving. We're missing Grand Duchy - we're missing everything.

This is sort of the big summer of outdoor festivals for you.
Yeah, it's nice. I mean, you can overdo these things. But it's nice to play festivals, play kind of... the hits. Not that that really applies to us.

You've got two records so far...
Yeah, right, exactly. But it's a nice way to come back and play to a bigger audience.

I was discussing [Midnight Organ Fight] with someone recently, and we were having some trouble picking out "happy songs." "Old Old Fashioned" was the only one we could come up with.
That's really positive? Yeah.

These type of venues seem like an odd atmosphere for playing depressing breakup songs.
There's that, but also in terms of audience reaction, there's a lot of joy going on out there. I guess a lot of people - I don't know - I think there's often a hopeful twist at the end of them. We're not going to be playing some of the most maudlin songs.

Which ones are off limits today?
"Poke" is not going to happen. That's severe, and "Backwards Walk." Actually, I think it may be more me being paranoid about it than anything else. I like to keep the momentum up. I'm sure it would be fine if we did play some of those numbers, but I just feel like we would be losing everyone if we played those slow ones. We like to keep it fairly upbeat - as upbeat as we get.

The last record had a breakup theme going through it. Do you feel yourself pushing things in a different direction as you start to write songs for the follow-up?
Yeah, well, the new record is done. I had to make it less about me, because in my life, nothing really happened to me. Nothing bad.

If something happens, it's probably bad.
Yeah, right, exactly. So it's more fictional. I had to make up a story rather than have it be completely autobiographical. There's still one protagonist, but it's not necessarily me this time.

You're framing it with a single cohesive narrative running throughout the album?
There is. I think. I tried to do that with all the records. I love albums, and I like albums that run and you feel like you've stepped into someone's life or taken a bit out of someone's life. That's important to me.

So who is this person?
He's a little bit of me. Basically, I've got this character in some sort of crisis.

No, though there are a couple of relationship-y songs on there. But it's much more open. The theme is that he removes himself from society by swimming out into the middle of the ocean. It seeped right in. I didn't know what I was going to write about. I went for a month-and-a-half and decided to write an album about the sea.

So, we get the full story over the course of the record? The set-up and the resolution?
The resolution is that he wants to come home.

It's more of a mental resolution?
Yeah. You feel like maybe he's getting there towards the end. He wrestles with a shark.

It's very Hemingway.
Yeah, right, but it also should be interpreted as maybe a night out - a night of excess as well. It's about losing yourself. A lot of the metaphors are mixed between the sea and drinking - getting fucked up.

Do you swim yourself?
I do. Well, I do know how to swim.

You wouldn't drown if you were in water.
No, no, I'd be fine. Yeah, I can tread water for a good solid...

That has some reflection on how control you are in the story. Some people, if you drop them in the middle of the ocean, they'd sink like a stone.
Yeah, well, this is it. You can swim or you can be taken by the tide as well. So, there are parts of it where he does that, and I think that's part of the reason for doing it - he can't find his own direction anymore, so he lets something else decide. His fate, I guess.

When did you actually start writing songs for this record?
In February.

So, most of the success you've seen here in the States has been subsequent to that.
Yeah, well, in January we came for a tour, and we saw it there. We sold out Bowery Ballroom [in New York]. You could see a measure of it there. But it still rolls on. It's quite nice, actually. People are still discovering the band. People still come to shows and say, "Hey, I just got the record." It was out over a year ago. That's nice for me to know that it's very much a word of mouth thing.

Do many people tell you that it takes a while to seep in?
Yeah, most people who are now big fans didn't really like it the first time.

It's a weird record, the first couple of times.
Right. I'll never be able to experience that. What's weird about it?

For me, it was strange lyrically.
The thing I like to hear. It's not very experimental, musically. It's very simple, structurally.

It's a little folk-y, in that respect.
Yeah. It doesn't veer off into weird new territory. But what I like about that, is the lyrics come as a shock. Some of them are hardcore - they're a little rude.

I remember when it finally clicked what the title of the album meant: a euphemism for sex.
Yeah, it's really kind of rude. It's not really a very nice way to describe it, but then, it's not always very nice.

Do you think that's consistent with the way sex is portrayed on the record? You sing about diseases a lot.
Yeah. The thing is, I didn't really... I had this - it's not an obsession - a fixation until I finished it almost. Then I looked at it and realized that I was talking about organs, limbs, diseases. I think where it comes from is that heartbreak really feels like something that's afflicting you, physically. They call it heartache for a reason. You don't really die, but it feels like you will.

It's interesting too, because when you talk about sex in the modern context, you can't really divorce it from the idea of diseases. I remember being maybe 12-years-old and learning about sex and diseases at the same time. It's such an integral part of sex education now.
Yeah, yeah.

Is there a little element of that in the disease references?
I mean, actually getting one? I wouldn't want to push that too far. That's kind of gross. And I know that it can be gross, but it's more to just try to explain that feeling as a disease rather than saying, "I'm sad and I don't know why." I know why, and I feel like shit.

If the first record [Sing the Greys, 2006] had a theme - if only based on the title of the album - I'd say it's sort of a feeling of malaise.
Yeah, that was written when I had a really bad bout of insomnia, and that's definitely a feeling related directly to insomnia. It's detachment. Nothing has any meaning, and it fucks with everything. It fucks with your relationships; you become really detached and weird. I don't think the songs themselves sound grey.

That sounds like an important part of all of your records - that juxtaposition of the music and the subject matter.
Yeah, exactly. It makes people put more of an effort into it, and I find that when they do, they're kind of hooked and it's nice. There are a lot of addicts for that record. I know people that still listen to it pretty much everyday.

It you take the ennui of the first record and the break-ups of the second - these are two subjects that have been tackled a lot in popular music. Do you find it makes them harder to tackle when they're so well-tread?
No, it just drives you to be more creative with the way you approach it. I just try to form my own language in a way. On this new record, some of the phrases that I used on the last one crop up again. Similarly, the phrase "the greys" pops up in "I Feel Better" on the last record [Midnight Organ Fight]. It's kind of nice to figure out your own language in that well trodden path.

By that same token, this upcoming album seems to be as far removed from that as possible. It's about someone literally swimming into the middle of the ocean.
Yes. Maybe so. It still deals with the way humans interact, but it's much more general. I wanted to make it less... I was just sick about writing about myself. I thought, 'I can't write another record about myself.' I wanted to open up a little more, and make it less...whiny.




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