Frightened Rabbit's Scott Hutchison on The Midnight Organ Fight
As Frightened Rabbit's The Midnight Organ Fight approaches its tenth birthday, Scott Hutchison talks us through the album from self-inflicted heartache to living in cupboards
I’ve been asked so many times about the process of making The Midnight Organ Fight, how the songs emerged and the method of recording everything, and the only honest answer I can give is that I don’t really know how on earth it came together at all. There are of course elements of this album which were studiously considered, but that really only makes up about 20% of it. The rest was an exercise in trusting the collective gut instinct and flying pretty swiftly by the seat of our pants. I don’t even think the producer Peter Katis knew what our game was after the first week of recording at his studio in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I couldn’t blame him, because we didn’t have much 'game' at all and if we did, we certainly weren’t aware of it.
Having had a good reason to go back and listen to the album of late (we’re in the midst of rehearsals for the anniversary tour at this point), I find there are lots of surprising elements that I had forgotten about after years of simply performing the songs live and rarely referring back to the album as a whole. Subtle details peek through the most to me, some of which I have no recollection of putting on there, some of which immediately transport me to a specific time and place like a whooshed-up flashback from a lazy television show. The biggest surprise, however, is that there isn’t much I would change. I think (I hope) I’m a better singer now and I still believe that the piano sound in The Twist is fucking dogshit, but aside from that it’s in pretty good shape.
Before discussing the recording of the album, I suppose it’s worth rewinding for a minute to consider the writing of the damn thing. This album was clearly borne out of a prolonged period of heartache after the demise of a long-term relationship, I can’t deny that, but there is a broad misconception about this album and I’ve not really had any call [to] address it until recently. Until now, in fact. This is not an album written by a person who was dumped. It’s an album about a person who left a relationship and regretted the shit out of that decision. That’s a fairly broad brushstroke of course and nothing in life is so simple and one-sided, but I thought it was time to correct the popular notion, because even though I was very, very sad... it was my fucking fault.
Maybe you don’t need to know that though. Maybe you want to hear about the cupboard I lived in for a few months, financially and emotionally depleted as I was, in (my brother, and our drummer) Grant’s flat. That cupboard was where I conceived The Modern Leper (points to a door like Alan Partridge in 'Bono’s house'). See, you don’t need to have a big fancy studio to do good things. It is nice to have windows though.
Perhaps you’d be interested in the day I wrote and demoed My Backwards Walk in Marcus Mackay’s studio The Diving Bell Lounge just off Gibson Street in the West End. Once I had finished I came back to the flat feeling reeeeally chuffed with myself. I thought it was worth celebrating this song emerging from nowhere (to this day, the ones that waft in from under the door like a visit from an apparition are the most thrilling moments in my life) and I started drinking to mark the occasion. I drank a lot, even for a tubby 20-something musician. That night I announced my victory to the band and invited them along to the studio to hear the Hot New Track. Unfortunately by the time we got there I was no longer functioning effectively enough to operate the Tascam machine and very soon vomited all down my front, slumped in a corner. Victory was mine!
I suppose that sums it up rather well. The process of writing the album was the equivalent of being sick on yourself then picking through the bits of carrot and sweetcorn to find interesting shapes and tiny colourful items that you didn’t know could exist in the bile and lining of a stomach.
A big chunk of that beauty was supplied by the aforementioned Peter Katis, producer of numerous wondrous albums and player of ice hockey. Although we are now close enough that I’m able to call him ‘Pete’ from time to time, when we first arrived it definitely felt a little odd and he was definitely ‘Peter’. I guess it can often be that way at the start of a project, however at that point I was quite aware that he essentially took the album on as a favour to his old friend Adam Pierce at FatCat. Though I must give major props to Adam for this move, initially it felt like Peter wasn’t quite sure why these Scottish chaps were in his house. We were nervous and quiet. I was initially extremely worried about being allergic to the cats (Bob Dylan and Petey deserve a special mention here; to this day they are the only two cats I’ve met that I didn’t have any allergic reaction to).
The atmosphere did change pretty swiftly after week one. We sweetened up Pete and his talented studio assistant Greg [Giorgio] by making regular iced coffees; it was the middle of summer and we couldn’t have the AC on while we were doing takes so ice-cold caffeine was the chosen fuel. I think aside from the (admittedly GREAT) coffees, the ‘vibe’ shifted as it became more obvious that we were there to work and did NOT want to fuck around. Having said that, it was probably Peter’s wonderful wife Ann Risen who really changed his mind at that time. Ann still maintains that The Midnight Organ Fight is her favourite album he’s ever been involved in, which I still maintain is my favourite accolade that FR have ever received.
When we left Peter’s place in the middle of the process to spend 12 days or so tracking in the much more financially viable (read as “almost free”) confines of Adam Pierce’s studio in upstate NY, we had to start again in a way. Had to show another two engineers that we were not there to fuck around. Those middle sessions with engineers Kevin McMahon and Jeremy Backofen (both excellent dudes) were pretty long. 12 to 14 hour days of tracking, breaks for grilled cheese sandwiches on potato bread, only one or two heavy whisky nights. We worked hard.
Having written this short throwback (it could have been a lot longer and included Billy [Kennedy] nearly setting off Peter’s studio sprinklers with birthday cake candles, the infamous channel 901, and the fact that I missed my brother’s stag party to stay in Bridgeport and finish mixing the album, sorry again Neil) it has struck me that the things I said at the beginning about us not really knowing what we were doing aren’t entirely true. Because although we WERE flying by the seat of our pants, we weren’t mucking about. We didn’t really know how to operate in a studio but we’d sure as fuck try to learn and listen and get better. In so many ways, this was the album that set us on the path we still stroll along today, at our own pace whistling a wee tune.
I left the studio and flew home to Scotland from Newark on the evening of 4 July with a mixed version of the album to listen to on my iPod. The plane took off, I was alone, I played My Backwards Walk to check everything on my shite headphones. There were fireworks foofing away below, little explosions across the city and into New Jersey or wherever. They seemed synchronised with the tiny bits of colour I was hearing. It was, admittedly, pretty fucking magic. Still didn’t know if the album was any good though...
The Midnight Organ Fight was released on 15 Apr, 2008 via FatCat Records. Scott Hutchison plays Lake of Stars, The Art School, Glasgow, 11 Mar; Frightened Rabbit play The Midnight Organ Fight, Liquid Room, Edinburgh, 12 Mar; O2 Academy, Glasgow, 17 Mar