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Frightened Rabbit and my grandma's ghost

Maria Natalia Gallegos Grihalva — better known to me as Grandma Sweetie — the strong-willed Ecuadorian immigrant who helped raise my little brother and I, looks up at me with death in her eyes.

Grandma is a stout brunette with flecks of ginger hair that accent the galaxy of brownish-red freckles dotting her short but once powerful frame. We are standing in her kitchen. She has been depleted of almost all her signature strength. Her kidneys are failing. On top of that, she has colon cancer.

It’s the winter of 2013. I’ve spent the past few weeks caring for my grandparents in their suburban home outside of Milwaukee. I have a ticket to see the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit the next week in Minneapolis. I ask Grandma if she wants me to skip the trip and stay with her and Grandpa.

“No, no. Go enjoy yourself. I’ll be okay,” she says in between pained breaths. Grandma is obviously lying. The end is near. But I could really use a night off.
Plus one

“It’s not just our music, but any music relies on a sort of serendipitous meeting on a memorable point in one’s life and the right soundtrack. If either of those things are out of sync it doesn’t work, it’s not going to happen,” Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchinson told the British website The Line of Best Fit.

After getting my bachelor's degree in 2008, I took a "gap year" in Europe. I acquired a six-month work visa for the United Kingdom through my university. Before crossing the pond, I completed an application for Teach for America, my tentative plan for when I returned home.

It's November 2008. I'm sitting at the edge of a stained mattress in a run-down Camden Town hostel in London’s north end. Two passed out, piss drunk Irish girls are snoring in the bunk next to me when I get the rejection email from Teach for America. Devastated, I sulk down to the common room.

A young woman is watching Final 24, a Canadian documentary series about the last day in a celebrity's life. She introduces herself as "DJ Shannon." She hosts a show on KEXP Seattle that specializes in bands from Brooklyn and Britain. The next day she will go to Brighton to stay with The Go! Team's drummer.

Shannon and I become fast friends. We discuss our favorite music and our Midwestern childhoods. (She is originally from a Chicago suburb.) At some point I tell her that I didn’t get into Teach for America and I have no idea what I’m going to do with my life.

“You need to come with me to Huxton Bar tonight. There’s this great Scottish band playing. It’s kind of sad music, but it’ll cheer you up,” she says.

Soft, soft static

“A lot of people still really have great fondness for that album,” Hutchinson says of Frightened Rabbit’s sophomore record — Midnight Organ Fight — during our conversation on their tour bus before a recent show at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee.

Frightened Rabbit was promoting Midnight Organ Fight that fateful night in 2008 at Huxton Bar & Kitchen.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the recording of Midnight Organ Fight. Scott and his younger brother Grant — Frightened Rabbit’s drummer — did the recording with producer Peter Katis over a three-week period in Connecticut and upstate New York.

“We didn’t have a very large budget and we knew that we had to get it done a certain way. I was doing fourteen-hour days, just going through it, just to get it done. It was kind of heavenly in a lot of ways. There wasn’t much to do around there. That’s all I thought about.”

The result is a timeless collection of gloriously heartbreaking songs. The music totters from delicate to explosive as it buoys Hutchinson’s brutally honest lyrics. This is Scottish music at its finest: gloomy, poetic, soulful, and brazenly triumphant. Seeing the band at Huxton Bar felt like a revelation, a transcendent high that I haven't stop chasing.

Having seen Frightened Rabbit eight times in nine years, I can safely say that songs off Midnight Organ Fight garner the most heartfelt audience response, despite the greatness of subsequent material.

Fittingly, Frightened Rabbit announced today that they will embark on a limited-run Midnight Organ Fight ten-year anniversary tour, kicking off in Chicago at Thalia Hall on February 16, 2018.

Romance and sadness

Scott Hutchinson grew up in Selkirk, Scotland, a small village about an hour south of Edinburgh.

“Not much of interest happening there. Not much access to a wider culture. There was no internet, so I had to buy music magazines. You can imagine moving to Glasgow at 18 and what an overwhelming shift that was.”

“Prior to moving to Glasgow , my music collection was very masculine, very adolescent. It was a lot of angry guitar riffs. When I got to Glasgow I found this romance and sadness in music, rather than just pure balls and anger.”

My own musical evolution resembles Hutchinson’s. Growing up in the inner city, I almost exclusively bumped aggro hip-hop. When I went to college in Minneapolis and became a DJ at Radio K my tastes expanded to indie rock and beyond, drawn to atmospheric sounds and confessional storytelling.

During our conversation, Hutchinson recalls a U2 concert he attended while in high school with his girlfriend outside of Dublin, Ireland.

“That was our first trip away together, so it was super special. She was standing in front of me at the show and we were sort of hugging. At one point, she turned around and we were both crying. I was trying to hide it, you know. I was just 18 and getting used to being an emotional man.”

Funny fans

The narrative basis of Frightened Rabbit’s latest record — 2016’s Painting of a Panic Attack — revolves around the isolation and discontent Hutchinson felt during an 18-month stint living with a girlfriend in Los Angeles, a topic he has exhausted in interviews.

I didn’t want to belabor the subject, but I did bring up the fact that I first became aware that he was living in LA after seeing him on the calendar of Largo at the Coronet.

“You know, the owner of that place is from Dublin and he really took to me, as there’s a sense of closeness. We could talk about his home and so on. And I quickly discovered that there’s a great affection for the band within the comedy community in LA.”

“I was on bills with Sarah Silverman, who is a big Frightened Rabbit fan. Tom Pappa, Bill Burr, Pete Holmes, all big fans. So I was at Largo for a lot of shows. I saw some incredibly memorable stuff. Most of the time I felt like an alien in LA, but if there was a place that I felt comfortable, that would be it.”

Towards the end of my time in Europe I became involved with a girl from Montreal, Quebec.

When we moved back to North America I was able to get work in Minneapolis. My brother and his college roommates let my Canadian girlfriend and I crash in their basement. During that time we were inseparable, not unlike Hutchinson and his girl in LA.

Following a few blissful months of codependence, my girlfriend returned to Canada. The week that she left Frightened Rabbit was at the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown. The band was touring behind their third record — The Winter of Mixed Drinks — released in March 2010.

I’ll never forget when they played “The Loneliness and the Scream.” I literally embodied that song — wailing inside the velvet-draped confines of the Varsity, bouncing and stomping, desperately trying to shake the heartache loose.

Acts of man

“I often wonder which one I’d take if I had to choose — you can have a comfortable life and you’re never gonna write a decent song again, or you can continue on this tumultuous trip and get material out of it?” wonders Hutchinson.

“On the surface there’s something a little sick about that," he adds. "I think most days now I’d probably take the comfortable life.” 

My road thus far has been closer to a “tumultuous trip” than a comfortable life. In 2010, I moved to Montreal to attend graduate school and pursue my Canadian romance. Our relationship slowly fell apart. By the time I'm living with my grandparents in 2013 our relationship is finished.

At the same time, Frightened Rabbit is set to release their fourth full-length — Pedestrian Verse. Once again, they are playing the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis and the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee the next night. Feeling the need for release, I purchase a ticket to both shows.

Grandma gives her blessing for the jaunt up to Minnesota, but says she will miss me. Grandma has said a lot of things these last few weeks, things I never knew about her life, tragic things. She misses her family in Ecuador and especially her sisters in California. She always did, but she hardly showed it. She simply redirected that love to us, her small Midwest clan.

Maria Natalia Gallegos was born in the city of Quito, Ecuador on August 2, 1926. Her father was a farmer of Spanish heritage and her mother was a housewife. She had eight brothers and sisters. Her mother died when she was young, after which she and two sisters went to live with an aunt. By the time she was 12, Grandma stopped going to school to work in a Jewish-owned general store and later in a bakery.

Grandma was in her early 20s when she met David Grijalva, a young stenographer and translator — better known to me as Grandpa Di Di. Grandpa went on to work for the American manufacturing company Allis-Chalmers, which was headquartered in Milwaukee. Through a sponsor at the company, Grandpa made his way to the Midwest in 1954 to pursue the American dream.

According to family lore, when winter arrived in 1954, Grandpa had just enough money for an overcoat or a flight back to Ecuador. He chose the former, saved up, and found an apartment. He sent for his family eight months after arriving in Milwaukee.

It took Grandma a while to adjust to her new life in America. She was depressed that her younger sisters ended up in Los Angeles, though an older brother moved to nearby Chicago. She eventually learned English and got a job at a donut shop. She became a fantastic baker, which is how she earned the nickname "Grandma Sweetie." The owner took such a liking to her that he offered Grandma a franchise she could make her own.

Grandpa didn’t approve of the bakery venture. He prioritized his own small business plans, none of which panned out in the long run. They were able to live comfortably in their old age because she saved half her paychecks from the donut shop.

When Grandma learned that my mom was pregnant with me she decided to retire. Throughout my life Grandma was a constant source of warmth and love — the rock that held our family together.

I’m thinking about all of this before Frightened Rabbit’s performance at the Varsity Theater in March 2013. When the show starts, I dance, chant, and let the music take me away — a brief respite from the misery back in Milwaukee.  

The next morning, I’m sprawled out asleep on a friend’s couch when my phone rings. Grandma Sweetie is dead.

Grandma died in the back of a taxi van. It was set to take her to a morning dialysis treatment. The driver strapped her in and went back inside for Grandpa. By the time they returned Grandma’s heart had expired.

I wrestled with my emotions on the bus ride back to Milwaukee. I resolved not to skip the Pabst show that night. When Frightened Rabbit took the stage I completely lost myself in the music. It was an out of body experience.

Grandma came to me in the pit that night. We danced like we did when I was a little boy. We did the twist. During the encore, the band reached an epic crescendo and I said "Adios abuelita” one last time.

“I remember a Sigur Ros concert where I lost myself in the moment like that,” recalls Hutchinson.

“I was in college. It was Valentine’s week and I had my first major breakup. I was not in good mental health, suffering from insomnia. The same week I went to another show alone, this singer Rosie Thomas, and I had a similar experience.”

Less frantic

The same year that Grandma died, Frightened Rabbit went on a two-week run opening for The National. Aaron Dessner of The National would go on to produce Painting of a Panic Attack. Like Hutchinson, Dessner has a brother in his band, but Aaron and Bryce Dessner are identical twins.

“I must admit that for the majority of that tour I couldn’t really tell the difference between him and Bryce. I would have conversations with a Dessner, but I didn’t know which one it was. At that point they had identical hair,” claims Hutchinson.

“Later on, he ran into the guy who runs our label in the U.S. and he mentioned that we were looking for a producer. Aaron said, ‘Well, I got loads of time.’ So I sent him some demos and he was really into it.”

“Aaron knew the back catalog and he had his thoughts on that. He was quite interested in removing the frantic bits. I went to his house in Brooklyn on my own just to see if we could get along. It was a lot of going out for dinner and coffee and just talking, which is really essential.”

“He had given it so much thought and had such a clear plan. Then he showed further commitment by coming to Glasgow. He had a kid due in like two weeks and still flew out. I was like, ‘Are you sure you want to do that? They can drop early.’”

Before making Painting of a Panic Attack, Hutchinson wasn’t quite sure the world wanted or needed another Frightened Rabbit record. His relationship with his brother had become strained.

In the end, they settled their differences and created arguably their best work to date. Dessner’s diligence and the band’s maturity punctuate the project. The songs may not reach that familiar chaotic apex, but they retain the band’s trademark emotionality.

When my Grandma died in 2013, I was not in a good place. The Montreal romance had ended. Once again, I had no idea what to do with my life. There was some time left on my Canadian work visa, so I traveled across the country searching for a place to start over. Somewhere along the way I decided to return to my hometown.

I met my current girlfriend on the red carpet at the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival. Our first year dating was a whirlwind, but after that we moved in together — with her two kids — and things settled down a bit. Life has become less frantic. But it's also never been better.

I asked Hutchinson if there are bands that have similarly evolved with him.

“Wilco is always there with me in that same way. It’s interesting how the growth of a band can mirror your own progress through life and they’ve definitely done that.”

A bright smile

Earlier this month, my girlfriend and I went on vacation to Los Angeles where we saw The National at the Hollywood Bowl. We stayed with my "tia abuela" (great-aunt) Teresa, one of Grandma’s younger sisters. Oddly, Teresa resembles Grandma more than her recently deceased twin sister Felisa, down to her mannerisms and voice. Spending time with Teresa since Grandma's death has been kind of trippy — it’s like Grandma's ghost come to life.

During our conversation, I ask Hutchinson if he was close with either of his grandmothers.

“Yes, one of them. She was a teacher. We’d visit her quite often because she lived in Edinburgh. Somehow as an elderly lady she managed to handle three boys. She would take us into the city on these educational trips, we’d learn about all this history. Then she’d make us come back and do a little bit of writing on these postcards. I actually still have some of those.”

“She loved art and architecture. She encouraged us to analyze the world, break things down and be creative. That stayed with me. It's a comfort to imagine if she was in front of me that she'd be very, very proud of the path that I've taken in life."

U2 came up during our conversation because I mentioned having seen them this summer. The iconic Irish band is celebrating the 30th anniversary of their fifth record — The Joshua Tree. I bring up the fact that Painting of a Panic Attack is Frightened Rabbit's fifth record. Then I ask Hutchinson if he can see the band on tour 29 years from now.

Hutchinson laughs sheepishly, but I can see the wheels turning in his brain. Suddenly, a bright smile flashes across his face.

“I think that’s a nice thought actually. I don't want to be doing anything else."