21 June 2019 | Peter Ross | The Guardian
Does the band Frightened Rabbit still exist? Guitarist Simon Liddell and bassist Billy Kennedy, sitting in a Glasgow cafe, turn to one another for a moment, then shake their heads. “No, it doesn’t exist without Scott at all,” says Kennedy. “Scott is Frightened Rabbit.”
That present tense is telling. Scott Hutchison, the singer and chief songwriter of the Scottish indie-rock band, took his own life last year aged 36, after years with depression. Grant Hutchison, the band’s drummer and Scott’s younger brother, feels that the music now belongs to the listeners who were consoled by the band’s deeply empathic music. Head Rolls Off, perhaps their best-loved song, contains a lyric: “When my blood stops / Someone else’s will have not.” The band are living that line: working out how to carry the group’s legacy while moving on with their own lives. “It’s a difficult balance,” Grant says. “Are we keeping the band alive? Are we keeping Scott alive?”
The four surviving members have gathered to talk about the new album, Tiny Changes. Named for a line in Head Rolls Off, it sees artists including Biffy Clyro and Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry cover, in its entirety, their 2008 LP The Midnight Organ Fight.
Scott was the driving force behind the covers album, and had heard all the new versions before his death. The band are therefore keen that it should not be seen as a tribute to a life cut short. “I try to keep looking at it as a celebration,” says the guitarist Andy Monaghan. “It has taken on a different energy, I guess, but I don’t want to dwell on that. It’s a celebration of what the band had become, and the relationships with the artists who are on there.”
The Twilight Sad cover Floating in the Forth, in which Scott articulated a desire to end his life alongside his decision not to do so. As the band closest to Frightened Rabbit since the beginning of their careers, the band’s singer, James Graham, says he felt a sense of duty in taking on the track.
“Who else could have touched that? It scares me that we did that song. But I felt that we, as his friends, could step up and do it.” The song’s final line, which in the original is sung with a sort of desperate euphoria, is: “I think I’ll save suicide for another year.” In Graham’s version, that line becomes a refrain, emphasising the optimism and hope of his friend’s choice to live. “Then,” he says, “what happened happened.”
After making two troubling posts on Twitter, Scott left his hotel just west of Edinburgh late at night. His body was found in the same river he had sung about. “I still love the song,” says Grant of Floating in the Forth, “but I’ll probably never listen to it again.”
He recalls the first time his brother let him hear it. “That was like a gut punch. But it was such a beautiful song. I remember thinking: ‘Should this go on the album? Is that OK?’ And I remember saying: ‘What is Mum going to think?’ But that happened with every album, particularly the last one.” This was 2016’s Painting of a Panic Attack. “Scott having come a lot closer to taking his own life over the years, that was far more worrying than when I first heard Midnight Organ Fight because it was a lot more real.”
Scott had an alcohol dependency, according to Grant, something that was related to his depression. He would drink to forget how he felt. That last album contained a song titled I Wish I Was Sober. “By the time the last record was written,” says Grant, “I knew in my head that this was how it would end. I said to my girlfriend at the time that this is going to happen.”
You had braced yourself for his death? “Yeah, over a period of maybe a year and a half. There were lots of signs. In terms of the family and how we all coped, I think I was more prepared. I hadn’t made my peace with it because it’s still an incredibly difficult and shocking thing to happen. But I kind of knew that was how he would say goodbye. I knew it wouldn’t be a case of us growing old and one of us going to the other’s funeral when we were 70, 80 years old.”
Grant, who has received counselling in the wake of Scott’s death, says that grief hasn’t had a straight trajectory. “The normal things you’ll read about grief, they didn’t apply to me. What I read a lot were the steps that you go through, but they weren’t linear like that for me. It was like one day, it’s this and the next day, it jumps to this.” Even now? “It still jumps all the time. Obviously, with suicide, there’s a lot of guilt that comes with it, which is the hardest one to deal with.”
Grant says that he was wary of saying to his brother: “Don’t do this”, worried that any direct conversation might only add to the burden of Scott’s pain and stress. (The Samaritans’ suicide prevention advice says that people should not be afraid to tackle the subject of suicide with someone contemplating it, and that anything that helps them to open up and seek help is good.) Grant says: “His depression and anxiety were bad enough without me going: ‘I need you to stay.’ It’s a horrible thing to say, but some people just don’t want to be here. I did so many things over the years that probably did stop it happening [for a while].” These included encouraging his brother to have therapy, and to consider cancelling shows and tours to ease the pressure.
Although Grant was the younger brother, he acted like the elder: a steadying and responsible presence. Even when they were children, Scott was so anxious about sleeping alone at night that Grant’s bed was moved into his room. Frightened Rabbit was Scott’s nickname as a child, given to him by their mother.
Grant is OK at compartmentalising his life, he says, but finds it hard to separate Scott the singer from the family member. An attempt to do so was partly behind his decision a few years ago to take a short break from Frightened Rabbit, reasoning: “OK, if I can’t be in a band with you then I still want you as a brother.”
There was distance between them for a time, but Grant says the closeness did return. In the month before Scott’s death, they did a short tour of small venues as part of their Mastersystem side project, and travelled by van. “It was a load of fun and no pressure. It felt like going back to where we’d started.”
One reason Frightened Rabbit are so important to so many people is because of the overwhelming mutual empathy in the room when they played live. The joy and force of the music, juxtaposed with the sadness and candour of the lyrics, created a sense of a crowd and band with their arms around one another.
For the Hutchisons, too, gigs seemed to be the place where those distinctions between brother and bandmate collapsed. “Even when things were not good between us, we always connected,” Grant recalls. “The energy. The feeling. The majority of the time, when our relationship was strong, those nights were indescribable.”
Grant wants to be able to enjoy listening to the music of Frightened Rabbit again. “I’ve got two nieces and a nephew through my older brother, and I hope to one day have kids. And I want Scott to be a big part of their lives.” He would like to be able to play the songs to those children and say: “This was your uncle. This is what he sounded like. This is what he did with his life.”
The songs they hear may include material which has not, so far, been released. Scott, working with Monaghan, had recorded demos for the next Frightened Rabbit album, and the vocals are good enough to use. When the band are ready, they will finish the songs and put them out.
They know it will be hard to be in the studio without Scott there, without his creative energy and his laughter. When a famous musician dies, there is often a well-intentioned tendency to romanticise them as a tragic figure. Ought it be resisted? Liddell nods: “I don’t think Scott’s legacy or memory should be shrouded in darkness.”
Since Scott’s death, the Twilight Sad have been performing the Frightened Rabbit song Keep Yourself Warm in concert, intended as a moment of shared catharsis for band and audience. For Graham, what made his friend special as a songwriter was his ability to write about heartbreak in a way that wasn’t simply confessional, but allowed listeners to feel that their own darkness was being expressed.
“Scott’s voice will always be with us. His words will always be with us,” he says. “I’m not going to stop shouting from the rooftops or screaming from small stages about how amazing he was. I think it’s important that we remember him through the beautiful things that he put into the world.”
Tiny Changes will be released on 12 July on Atlantic Records. The Hutchison family has set up a mental health charity, Tiny Changes.
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.