Personality Clash is a regular feature in which we throw together artists from different backgrounds, different disciplines and allow them to find common ground.
Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison is a fine songwriter, with his reputation stretching far beyond his native country. Recently sealing off sessions on new album 'Pedestrian Verse' the group have rarely sounded so confident, so assured in both their art and its execution.
Christopher Brookmyre, meanwhile, is one of the most acclaim authors of his generation. Matching dark humour with an ability to look quite serious topics straight in the eye, novels such as 'One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night' have turned him into a cult figure at home and abroad.
Sitting down together for a quick chat, Scott Hutchison and Christopher Brookmyre exchange notes on the nature of their creativity, the necessity of laughter and what their parents make of their work...
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Scott: Don’t know if I told you that the song 'Backyard Skulls' was actually inspired by 'Where The Bodies Are Buried?'
Chris: Thanks - I’ve only just heard it in the car! I know you’re about to go on tour- is that what all the rehearsals are for?
Scott: Yeah definitely - we’ve been able to get the room for five days straigh, so we don’t have to set up and take it all apart again.. that can take an hour and a half in itself.
Chris: I noticed that someone had tweeted you this morning that they went to kiss their girlfriend while playing that record. I was thinking, that doesn’t really sound appropriate! Someone who thinks there’s a certain ambiance to the record but they’re not really paying much attention to it thematically…
Scott: Yeah it’s funny, that’s happened before. I mean, I don’t think thematically it’s ever been for people who are getting together. There was one incident, I think we were somewhere in the mid-west of America, it was a venue where the audience was very close to us. The stage was that high and they’re right there and there’s this couple, during this song 'Poke' which is essentially about the absolute nightmare of breakups who were just there getting off with each other the whole time - throughout the whole song. Didn’t really understand quite where they perceived the romance…
Chris: There’s a recurring theme though isn’t there? Most albums and songs about break ups and death- people just seem to think, even though there’s some sort of mellowness about it… I think I read years ago that there was some ludicrous percentage of Americans of a certain age who had lost their virginity whilst listening to 'August And Everything After', which is largely a song about depression and feeling alienated and not belonging anywhere - maybe it’s the loneliness that everyone relates to…
Scott: Yeah.. if you wanted to get together to a song that was genuinely about romance and had very little darkness within it - I don’t think I could get going…
Chris: No, people can’t relate to that can they - or maybe they need a song about somebody else’s relationship going really badly and they think well, it’s got to go better than that…
Scott: Yeah! We’re fine, check out this guy, look how fine we are…(both laughing)
Chris: I get the opposite. People assume that my work is darker than it is. They always talk about my books being noir or they talk about it being really dark but for the most part, most of my books have been real escapist, uplifting, ’good guys win’ type of novels…
Scott: I was going to get to that because I’m perceived as being quite miserable and I wondered how people perceive you? The overriding feeling in your books is always positive but there are some horrible characters…
Chris: There’s always redemption. The further down you can take the reader the more they enjoy leaving it on a high note. I suppose 'State Hospital' would be a very good example of that because it really does take you down and then does end on a note of optimism.
Scott: I don’t think I would get away with some of the things that I say in a song without that ending, it’s almost like it has to be in there otherwise it’s oppressive.
Chris: When I grew up, I couldn’t relate to really dedicatedly miserable songs, even that sort of Leonard Cohen ethos of you could write about misery as long as you can be humorous about it and have a certain rye perspective on it otherwise it becomes self indulgent…
Scott: Yeah exactly, I’ve found it’s a quite uniquely Scottish thing that tingeing darkness with that real sense of humour.
Chris: Another thing that people have talked to me about that’s come about my writing - I don’t allow my characters much a hiding place. I don’t let them get away with the kind of excuses that you might make for yourself and I think that’s a fairly Scottish thing. We want to be quite honest about our emotions. I think you would definitely be a better case in point as in some of these songs you’ve absolutely laid yourself bare on some of those early albums.
Scott: When you write a character, and particularly quite an unpleasant character how much would you say of yourself do you put into that?
Chris: This is the thing, I was thinking actually driving over here today. I was thinking about the extent to which you’ve laid your emotions bare in your work and there’s no getting away from identifying it as being you. Writers are far more coy, we write about ourselves all the time but we find ways to disguise it and people will often ask me if my more sympathetic characters are based on me but there’s probably more of me that goes into my less sympathetic characters. There’s quite a worrying amount of me goes into my villains - the character of Simon Darkcorp who was this really monstrous villain but who was also quite seductive, you were inclined to agree with him up to a point, and that was an exercise in taking all my petty prejudices and spiteful sentiments and blowing them up so huge….
Scott: A conscious exercise or just in hindsight?
Chris: No. I thought I can have fun with those prejudices - I can blow them up and invite people to agree with them but when those types of thoughts come into my head again I’ll always recognise what they’ll ultimately lead to!
Scott: So in that sense, the worst parts are comparmentalised by this character?
Chris: You probably don’t realise you have these thoughts until you start letting them spill out and then there’s sometimes a blurring - once you start down a train of thought and you’re imagining the world from the point of view of a character and you must do that in song writing and it takes you to places to a perspective that you didn’t think you had. That perspective forces you to see things a different way, you’re never quite sure the point where you let go of your own perspective and start looking from the fictional one.
Scott: There’s a very fine line between being honest and forthright and your song reading like a diary entry - you know like a teenage diary entry. It’s the hindsight aspect of things, I try never to write in the moment. The whole point of songwriting for me is to putting the worst parts in that character then I’m able to write about myself as if I maybe am a character-so there’s a different view point on it and that puts a frame around things that are pretty messy. To an extent there are fictions within my honest works - because I’ve got the advantage of being able to lay my foibles on a very anthemic chorus I can make myself add a sense of, wrongly perhaps, heroism or joy where there is none whereas the written page is just a voice on a page.
Chris: You can go back there and frame it in a way that has a dramatic irony to it or a tone to it that wouldn’t be there if it was just as you experienced it. In my earlier work when I created the character of Jack Parlabane that’s what I sought to do - I thought British crime fiction was full of fairly miserable detectives who were never allowed to have the one liners, never allowed to be heroic, they always striving after verisimilitude, and to quote Teenage Fanclub, I hate verisimilitude. I wanted to write a character who did have those one liners and of course no one actually says all those smart things but you almost do later. You’ve got the privilege to reshape incident, you’re not going to say this is how it happened, you’re going to say this is a reflection on what happened.
Scott: It’s a unique position to be able to make your flaws look really good - and also attractive and not just in the obvious rock band way but for somebody to feel, and I felt this too, in listening to a song and feeling or associating with that emotion is actually a pleasant thing. That dark space - I think we touched on it in 'Skip The Youth' where you can’t really taste life until you have experienced that darkness and that’s essential for me otherwise the good parts would just seem normal and I would hate for that to be normal.
Chris: You can’t appreciate the happy times until you have tasted that sadness. It’s alright to be sad- there’s this obsession with positivity at times whereby people are always telling you to chin up when actually you ought to be to be sad at certain times. When I wrote 'Where The Bodies Are Buried' it was a time shortly after a bereavement. My wife’s father had died and I just wanted to write something about bereavement at a time where there was no chin up sentiment that was going to do anything for anybody. One of the things I’ve always really enjoyed about your work - has been songs that actually contemplate what it’s actually like to be melancholy, not always indulge in something that is really a necessarily part of the emotional journey whether it’s in bereavement or a break up.
Scott: In that sense, it’s funny because I recently met up with a girl who was involved in ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’ and I had to ask whether she felt it was exploitative in any way - and she said she absolutely didn’t. But I guess in hindsight I felt that I had used something that was close to us in order to take my life somewhere else - I don’t think I did do this now…
Chris: I’ve got to be wary about that all the time - I realise that on one level writers are magpies, we are constantly grabbing wee shiny things that we spot everywhere and we take them away and use them there’s another time I think we’re actually like vampires. We kind of like suck at people’s emotional experiences to fuel what we’re doing and it’s often in the first draft of a book that I realise that’s just far too close to the truth. It’s not serving anyone for it to be that accurate so I’ll then blood it a wee bit - put another sort of wash of colour over it.
Scott: I guess there are different levels of releasing things for me. Bringing something to the band - lyrically, they almost ignore it, we don’t talk about that. I’m not really good at communicating in the normal human sense in conversation and that’s probably one of the main reasons that I do write is because that ‘s the most effective way I can find to say to say something. When it does come out that’s the first time that emotion has been expressed if you like. Being in a band with my brother for instance- that’s odd for him. My Mum and Dad, that’s odd for them because there are some dark things- I think there’s stuff there.. I don’t think most parents would know about those things about their son. You wouldn’t really go into the ins and outs of a relationship with your mum and dad.
Chris: You can’t afford to ask yourself that question though - I’m in the same position- my parents have always read all my work and really enjoyed it and it doesn’t even occur to me until sometimes later that I think, God when they’ve read it do they think that’s what’s been going on in my life?
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Check out the rest of Frightened Rabbit's Winter Warmer HERE.