Most young Scottish bands making their first go-round through the States aren’t too concerned with radio play or filming videos for pay cable. They’re just worried about filling the club, collecting souvenirs and making a good first impression. But when your album is being universally praised and your live show touted as an uplifting experience, like scruffy trio Frightened Rabbit and their sophomore statement The Midnight Organ Fight (Fatcat), it’s hard not to envision the spoils of success.
That overwhelming praise stems mostly from the record’s blunt honesty and foul language, pieced together from the life experiences (no matter how miserable) of singer/guitarist Scott Hutchinson. Along with his brother Grant, who plays drums, and guitarist Billy Kennedy (bassist Andy Monaghan joined the band after the album’s completion), Hutchinson crafted one of 2008’s indelible pop treasures, no matter how bleak lyrics. Fusing folk elements with traditional indie blueprints, grand sonic arrangements with intimate and effortless melodies, songs like the skittered anthem “Heads Roll Off” and the hopeful suicide note of “Floating In the Forth” display a group far beyond their years and one on the precipice of hit singles (even if they swear to never stop swearing).
It’s fitting that a band who seemed to suddenly come out of nowhere (at least to American unfamiliar with their debut, Sings the Greys) was finally tracked down driving through the middle of nowhere. Somewhere between the vast nothing of New Mexico and west Texas, I got a hold of Hutchinson to ask him some pressing questions about leg fetishes and if he’s ever thought to hold his tongue in exchange for platinum.
I’ve been to Glasgow before and loved the mix of ugly and beautiful, old and new. Certainly the city had an influence on your songwriting and the sound of the band, but what specific elements of the city do you think inspire you the most?
Scott Hutchinson: I don’t know. We’ve got the best and worst weather in Scotland as well. There is always two weeks where there is nothing but rain, followed by two weeks with nice crisp sunshine. I don’t know if it’s an influence, but we’ve always got the hope of that good weather right around the corner, where in other places like the UK, it’s always grey and shit. I like that Scotland has that reputation—that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Is there anything traditionally Scottish you try and include in the music? The first time we talked you brought up the influence of country.
SH: Not really on purpose, I guess, but my mom and dad used to play in folk bands in the north of Scotland. It’s not that Scottish people have adopted country; we have our own form of country and it’s got the same fast fiddle that kind of sounds like bluegrass, and we’ve got the fingerpicking. Most of our songs start with that folk basis, and then we try to combine it with pop or rock elements.
And how about within the Glasgow scene? Is it as close-knit and productive as we’d like to believe over here?
SH: It’s close-knit because it’s actually a pretty small city and there aren’t that many bars that you’d actually want to be in. There’s like two or three where most people in bands drink, and that’s your social network and that’s what works. You get to know everyone in all the bands without much effort.
I hear a ton of Arab Strap’s influence in your music. Am I mistaken? Are they like untouchable hometown heroes or just guys you meet at the pub?
SH: Honestly I didn’t really get into them until after this record was done. I guess I was more into Malcolm Middleton’s last record and his previous work than Arab Strab. The thing with them is that they’re entertainers, but they’re also not to scene-y and that’s definitely the reason I like them. As far as contact, I’m pretty sure Malcolm was at one of our recent shows, but he had to leave.
Into the record, is the whole idea of “The Modern Leper” a metaphor of how you place yourself in the world?
SH: Yeah. I mean, I feel a lot different now then I did at that time. But, absolutely, for sure. I guess maybe the thing we have in common with Arab Strap is that we’ve both had some bad times with girls. I’m pretty sure that Adrian Moffitt’s been through some rough relationships.
Lots of the songs deal with abjectness, self-loathing and loneliness. Was there a central theme or concept to The Midnight Organ Fight or are these just a series of autobiographies?
SH: Entirely—that’s the whole point of it. Most of it comes out of that one specific time. All of the themes and words in there, all of that shit was going on. Almost all of the songs are autobiographical of maybe half a year of my life.
If I’m to believe the lyrics as reality, it sounds like you’ve had a rough time with relationships. How’s the love-life these days?
SH: Better. I’m in a different frame of mind these days, which helps. The songs were written some time ago, so a lot can change—and has—which is good.
Referring in particular to “Keep Yourself Warm,” though there are plenty of naughty parts to the record, do you ever find yourself editing your words in an effort not to offend?<
SH: I’ve never done that and I’d never want to do that. I’m trying to use language that I and the people around me use. I probably hear the word “fuck”—especially being in this band—maybe 30 to 50 times a day. So I’m not going to edit general language so that maybe we can get better airplay. Actually, our manager got a request from a radio station asking if we could do a clean version. But what are you going to change the word “fucking” to? It takes more than “snuggling” someone or “hugging” someone to keep yourself warm? So no, there’s harsh language and we’re going to use it.
I guess I’m asking a hypothetical question, but the closest “mainstream” band I link you guys to is Snow Patrol, and it appears that over the years they’ve dulled their edges for pop stardom. With such a tremendous accomplishment in Midnight Organ Fight, your profile on both shores is getting quite large in a short amount of time. What would you do if faced with a larger record label who would only sign you if you toned things down?
SH: I’d like to think not. I think I want to try and move away from the whole theme of that last record, but really not change the lyrical content because that’s true to the way that I communicate. So I don’t think so. Come back to me in a year. I think it would be a disappointment and disheartening to some people for whom this has helped in some way.
Or an opposing question: while you’ve now become inundated with some months of critical and commercial success and plenty of good times on tour, does that make it harder to tap into the despair that fuels your songwriting? Or is it just as easy for you to write a happy song?
SH: Well none of that has affected me to this point, but I think that that’s a definite challenge and I look forward towards expressing any type of fame. We’ve totally veered towards the black side of life and its darker parts, and I’d love to try to avoid that next time. No one wants to hear another complete record of break-up songs, so that’s definitely not what the next record is going to be.
There is more than one reference to “hiking up one’s skirt” on the record. Do I sense a leg fetish? I mean, if we’re going to get dirty here, you might as well spill it all.
SH: Funny you should mention that—and this is going to sound so weird—but you know under-skirts, like a petticoat, that are silky? My mom used to wear those when I was a toddler, and I used to constantly have my hand up my mom’s skirt, feeling the silk. It’s really weird, but it was totally asexual at the time. It got to the point where she just gave me one, and I would always be carrying an under-skirt around for most of my early years.
Do you have any plans after the tour? Do you have a new album mapped out already? Is there a certain direction you’d like to head?
SH: Well, first we have to go back to Europe and do a full European tour. We’ll be touring for the rest of the year, coming back to the U.S. in autumn. When the time comes to write a record, I will. There are bits and pieces, but I really need to focus my effort rather than write on the road. The new record is far from done.