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Frightened Rabbit: “You need to evolve to stay relevant”

“It’s only when you do your next record that you get an idea about what the last record was,” starts Grant Hutchinson. “‘Pedestrian Verse’ was a climax of the sound we were trying to achieve for the three records previous and we felt we achieved it as best we could. This time round allowed us, with less worry and stress, to really push ourselves in a slightly different direction.” Frightened Rabbit’s fifth album ‘Painting of a Panic Attack’ is a departure but it doesn’t stray too far. “It’s still Frightened Rabbit,” Grant concedes. “But we didn’t feel we needed to do those big anthemic songs about sadness. There are still elements of that but we tried to push ourselves in a different direction.”

“I think everyone had a bit more leeway in pulling it in the direction they would pull it in,” adds Andy Monaghan. The five members of the band, brothers Scott and Grant Hutchinson, Billy Kennedy, Simon Liddell and Andy were all given space to see how they far they could run with new elements and ideas before reaching a limit and having to bring it back in. It created an album that expands on the Frightened Rabbit verse. “There’s a middle ground we found on this one. It was a difficult process for many reasons but the end result, we’re all really, really happy with.”

Work on ‘Painting of a Panic Attack’ began not long after the last gig for ‘Pedestrian Verse’ and took a year and a half to complete. Decamping to a place in Wales with “pretty much nothing”, the band wrote seven songs but it didn’t feel quite right. “I think Scott found it difficult,” offers Andy. “He put lyrics on everything but two or three songs but the rest weren’t his strongest. We, or Grant, were pushing him to up the game a little bit on that side.”

“At the time he put it down to writers block but I don’t even think it was that. I think he’s now since realised that he felt like he had to change how he was writing, same way that we felt we had to change musically. But he went too far. He was forcing himself to do something different, rather than just writing naturally and then maybe tweaking it a little bit, which is essentially what we did with the sound of this record; we didn’t suddenly go no more guitars and no more big endings. There were certain constraints we put on certain things but it was more getting the sound out there and then stopping when it was done but with Scott’s lyrics, I feel like he was forcing himself to try and write differently rather than just letting himself to write the way he does,” offers Grant. “‘cos that’s what people love about this band more than anything, the lyrics and Scott’s writing. So I went to him and said ‘this isn’t you’. He took it onboard and realised there’s a reason people like the way he writes and there’s a reason why he wrote so easily in the past. You just have to let it happen.”

Abandoning the one room, Frightened Rabbit set to work separately. Exchanging ideas over email, sparks were given space to take flame and directions were allowed time to figure themselves out. The removal of that knee-jerk reaction meant ‘Painting of a Panic Attack’ could take a more natural stance. “That’s the thing we’ve always tried to do was to create a space musically. We’ve been very guilty of, certainly on ‘The Winter of Mixed Drinks’, just throwing everything at it to try and make it big. Last time round we were aware of it, but I still don’t think we managed it. It was still quite heavy. This one we really have managed to show some restraint and say that song’s done. There are some points where the kitchen sink has been thrown on, but in a different way. Again, this is probably a lot of Aaron [Dessner, producer]’s input but it’s more subtle. It was something we were really conscious off and that’s something that Aaron, if you listen to [his band] The National, you know their songs are full of nothing but still manage to sound big and grand. It’s something I think we managed on this our record. Getting to this fifth album, we know what we’re doing and to not have the fear that’s something missing, which was probably the case in the past.”

Working with one of their heroes was “good, eventually. It was difficult at first because we hadn’t worked with him before. He works a certain way, which is different to the way we’re used to working.” There were times during the recording process where the band were asking themselves “What is going on? So many other things are getting put on, so many other things are getting taken off and you don’t know what it is anymore. I would like to think he had a vision of what each track was when we were at this stage,” offers Andy. “It’s reassuring to think that, but who knows. There were a few times where it was like, ‘is this a Frightened Rabbit record or an Aaron Dessner record but it was just a case of finding out how each other worked and where the boundaries where. It came good at the end,” Grant adds.

After an initial two-week session in New York, everyone took a fortnight away from recording. While Grant avoided listening to any of the half-finished material, Scott and Andy both did and “freaked out.” Discussions about how everyone was feeling meant that when they returned to Aaron’s home studio, the band “were aware of what was needed, what was missing and we’d figured Aaron out a bit more. Things came together quickly.”

Aaron’s input shaped ‘Painting of a Panic Attack’. “It wouldn’t have sounded like it does with anyone else,” admits Andy. “It wasn’t so much it changed, he just realised it. There are bits that he focused, bits that he blurred up, he was the person who could help us get us to where we wanted it to be,” adds Grant. “We all had the same vision of what the final piece should be like and he steered it in that way.”

‘Pedestrian Verse’ saw Frightened Rabbit “achieving what we could ever achieve with that sound,” so they closed a door on it. “It’s time to start anew,” but the band, “never felt the pressure of ‘the last one did so well, so this one has to do just as well’. For us, we ask: do we feel musically, as a band and as individuals, that we’ve progressed in a way we feel happy with? We wouldn’t go out and release a drum and bass record or a weird instrumental, soundscape album because we know our fans wouldn’t want that but at the same time, you have to release the album you want and hope that people enjoy it. You just want to reach new people, reach new listeners and play to new audiences. That’s all you can ever hope for.”

The decision to push things forward was a considered one. What started on ‘Pedestrian Verse’ with Scott opening up the songwriting to include the other members of the band held more weight with this album. “Basically if this band wants to stay together, we have to make the decision to push ourselves and change our view of what we think is right and what we think this band needs,” states Grant. “We all did that. You need to evolve to stay relevant. Hopefully we don’t run out of places to go but where can you not go,” he asks with a smile before adding, “But we haven’t started writing the next record yet.”

Taken from the April issue of Upset. Frightened Rabbit’s ‘Painting of a Panic Attack’ is out now.