FRIGHTENED Rabbit are polite, pleasant lads.
Nothing wrong with that, but I get concerned when leader Scott Hutchison reveals he kills the longueurs of the rock’n’roll highway by reading poetry – and that on the next tour he’s seriously considering packing political literature on Scotland’s referendum. Suddenly I’m the frightened one.
But then the chat comes round to Mumford & Sons and politeness promptly disappears out of the window. I bring up the braying millionaire folk-rockers who like to pose as farm labourers because a couple of songs on Frightened Rabbit’s new album Pedestrian Verse sound a bit like them. Hutchison, who’d previously joked that the Mumfords had nicked his beard and belly, merely smiles.
“When I first heard them I thought, ‘That’s pretty great.’ They’re still better than a lot of what gets played on the radio, such as Flo Rida and the rest of David Guetta’s absolute pantheon of bollocks. But their latest album seemed to be shovelling the same shite, and that’s pretty insulting.
“The Mumfords have this huge earnestness in making these massive romantic statements with absolutely no substance to them. Above all else, that’s something we try to avoid. They’ve got a very recognisable sound but it would be easy enough for a young band to come along and nick a bit of it. I don’t think there’s anyone doing what we do, though. We’re not complex or experimental but there’s a place where we exist that’s all our own.”
Then Scott’s brother Grant laughs. Possibly he thinks Frightened Rabbit have just been displaying some huge earnestness of their own. He says: “Yeah, but all things considered we wouldnae say no to some of the Mumfords’ big fat audience.”
Often it can be tough to get bands to say what they think about rivals, especially when none of them is from Manchester and called Gallagher. So have Frightened Rabbit turned into Frightening Rabbit? Well, they’ve definitely gone from small label to major and this seems to have upped the ante.
I’m in a Swedish-run bar in Edinburgh with the Hutchison boys from Selkirk and Gordon Skene who hails from Fort William, while fellow Borderer Billy Kennedy and Andy Monaghan from Saltcoats are still on a break from the band’s final commitment of 2012: BBC Scotland’s Hogmanay hootenanny, presided over as usual by Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain. “We love those guys,” says drummer Grant, 28, “and it’s great there’s still a fiddle and an accordion played at midnight on Auld Year’s Night. I’ve watched them do that for 20 years but they’re not locked into the past. They want young bands like us to join in.”
The Hutchisons are heavily tattooed and I request a guided tour. Grant flourishes a fearsome design: “This is chemical make-up of the steroid that’s in my eczema cream.”
“Oh,” I say.
“That’s generally the reponse I get,” he laughs. Singer/guitarist Scott, 31, is more coy about the “C!” on his arm. “Me and a mate got this done at the same time: it’s too blue!” Elsewhere on their bodies there is insignia from old labels and records: Frightened Rabbit’s story until this point.
Debut album Sing the Greys came out on their own label; the next two were released by Fat Cat. The Midnight Organ Flight got them talked about as Scotland’s next big band: a break-up record requiring Scott to relive the breaking of his heart nightly, with some unexpected responses. Grant: “Remember when that couple in the front row snogged each other’s faces off for the whole show – weren’t they listening to what the songs were about?”
Then The Winter of Mixed Drinks built on Organ Flight’s success. “That was when our audience started to change,” says multi-intrumentalist Gordon, 28. “All the quiet beardy guys were disappearing up the back and suddenly there were youths taking off their tops because they’d discovered all these sex’n’swearing songs!”
But the band now have mixed feelings about Mixed Drinks. “If I’m honest that was us as an indie band trying for a bigger audience with a bigger sound and it didn’t work,” says Scott. “The album was rushed. There’s only so much a small label can do for you and Fat Cat, bless them, needed the record to come out quickly. The whole thing was written and demo-ed in three months. There was a lot of pressure.”
Because they can, new bosses Atlantic gave the band 18 months to come up with Pedestrian Verse. “The new album is informed by all the mistakes on the last one,” continues Scott.
“All” makes it seem like there was a lot of them.
“Well, there was if you think of each pointless layer of sound as separate. I got into a bit of a rut with my songwriting and only noticed this when we played that album live. Every number was building and building and building to the same kind of crescendo. After the tenth time in a row, that kind of loses its impact.”
The band may not think Mixed Drinks lost them any fans but are they worried this might happen with the move to a major? “Hopefully not,” says Grant, who mentions a magnanimous fansite reaction to the switch that he’d like to think is typical: “Oh no, they’re not my band any more! Ach, good on them … ”
With their clout, the new label must be hoping that Frightened Rabbit can become as big as Biffy Clyro and, who knows, maybe the Mumfords, too.
During the longer recording process, the other four Rabbits got involved in the writing process for the first time, although the lyrics remain Scott’s concern. He’s inspired by the poets Don Paterson and Ted Hughes; also Woody Allen. He’s a patriotic Scot who’s been courted by politicians in the run-up to the referendum, declining all invitations so far because he admits: “I don’t know enough about it.” But the Scottish condition continues to be fertile ground for him. “We have a unique outlook in Scotland that’s equal parts miserable and humorous. I think I’ve written quite a few songs where the theme could be summed up thus, ‘This is shite but we’ll be all right.’”
Grant says it’s important that his brother continues to have sole responsibility for the words as the fans, shirts on or off, have come to depend on his worldview. “Some of them were actually disappointed that last time round he didn’t give them another break-up album. I had to explain that, sorry, this was because he was happy.” For Pedestrian Verse, Scott says he’s continued to avoid the personal, turning his gaze on others.
“I challenged myself for this album not to write about myself and when you walk around a city it’s quite easy to wonder about what’s going on in folks’ lives. Just the briefest glimpse from peering in a window will do that. I mean, I’m not a pervert but … ”
The others burst out laughing and Gordon says: “‘I’m not a pervert but …’ That’s your headline right there!”
• Pedestrian Verse is released on 4 February on Atlantic. Frightened Rabbit play the Edinburgh Picture House on 26 February, Aberdeen Music Hall, 27 February, and Barrowland,Glasgow, 28 February. frightenedrabbit.com