When playwright Gary McNair was asked who should provide the music for his new play Square Go, there was only one answer: Frightened Rabbit. He’d been friends with the Scottish indie rock band for years – as well as being a huge fan – and had been waiting for a chance to work with them on the right show.
Square Go was to be that show: at first glance, it’s a cheeky comedy about two 13-year-old Scottish boys hiding out in the toilets at school ahead of a fight – a “square go” – with a monstrously bigger boy. But the play, co-written with Kieran Hurley, slowly turns into a quietly devastating examination of the brutalising expectations of masculinity.
“If you want music that identifies the brutish raw power of masculinity with a tortured fragility on top of it,” McNair begins, “by someone who’s spent their career looking at the power that lies inside testosterone, and the sadness of when you live up to that darker side…” Well, that was what Scott Hutchison, the frontman of Frightened Rabbit, had always done so fearlessly, he felt.
He approached the band about a year ago; they were keen.
Then in May, Hutchison took his own life, after struggling with depression.
The group had not yet begun recording the play’s soundtrack. Naturally, there was no assumption that the rest of the group would complete the project.
Yet remarkably, Square Go has just opened at the Edinburgh festival – with an all-new soundtrack by Frightened Rabbit.
And making music together has turned out to be something of a healing experience during an unimaginably difficult time.
“It’s been therapeutic,” says guitarist Simon Liddell, during a conversation over the phone from Glasgow in which he and fellow bandmate, guitarist and keyboard player Andy Monaghan, discuss the process with generosity and openness.
“We were hanging out a lot at that time anyway. It was nice to have a focus; it was nice to be making music together,” adds Monaghan. “It was healthy. It was a good way to deal with what we were going through.”
The recording process, with fellow bandmates Grant Hutchison and Billy Kennedy, has “been positive and fresh and… yeah, enjoyable,” he says, sounding still a little surprised.
“Scott had been at the helm [of making music for Square Go], he was the point of contact and he had a lot of enthusiasm for it,” says Liddell. But he adds that the timing of the show, which meant the band had to work together in the months following his death, playing their instruments together, helped the group as they grieved.
“Otherwise there wouldn’t necessarily be any pressing need for us to be back in the studio.”
The other useful thing was that the music for Square Go was always going to be different to Frightened Rabbit’s own records.
While McNair is right to point out that Hutchison’s music often wrestled – as McNair’s play does – with “the shittiness of being a man” while searching for “the beauty and hope inside things”, the nature of the show also demanded the band explored new musical directions.
Square Go is staged in the round, and should feel like a sporting event; at various points it tips into a wrestling match, the audience whipped up into whooping and cheering. The soundtrack needed to reflect that energy.
“It’s fun,” says Liddell of their new music. “It’s less the miserable Scottish indie of Frightened Rabbit! The requirement wasn’t Frightened Rabbit style music – it was actually bigger, bombastic rock sound, and maybe more scuzzy. It was quite a nice opportunity to do something a little bit different.”
“It was exciting for us because it was an opportunity to free those shackles a little bit,” chimes in Monaghan. “To make things that are not as over-thought, that are maybe a little bit lighter.
“It has been a very helpful process: to be together, to be doing what we normally do but in a slightly different way.”
McNair and Hurley began work on the play some years ago, when they performed together at the Shunt nightclub/art space in London.
“We devised this little game called Man Test where Kieran and I would go head-to-head in a series of challenges to see who was the biggest man – because neither of us felt like typically, archetypally male men. We did arm wrestle contests, who’s got the most hair on their chest, who can chop the most onions without crying…”
It would escalate into a massive punch-up between the two good mates. “The seed for the show was that moment when two guys fight, and folk cheer on,” says the Scot. “Also we created what, strangely, felt like a sporting event. We hoped that we were pushing the audience to stop cheering at some point, to see the brutality of it.”
But, er, they didn’t. Instead, the crowd just got totally caught up in it, egging them on.
So they knew they needed to develop the concept – and by making it into the story of two schoolboys, they hope to provide greater space for reflection. Square Go invites the audience to consider the link between violence and sport, the rituals of participating and spectating, and how these might entrench certain expectations for how men relate to one another.
But also: how sport and violence might provide much-needed outlets for emotion, and even instances of human contact, of touch, for men struggling to connect.
“There’s no space for contact for men,” McNair says. “But there’s a space for men to be physical when it’s violence or sports. It’s all high-fives and hugs when you score in football, but as soon as you get to the locker room it’s not ok.”
The play shows how young men are taught not to share their feelings or speak about what’s really going on inside. Instead, the two boys bicker and banter.
“Not being able to speak about things is one of the biggest threads, I’m so glad that’s landed,” says McNair. “Because you could look at the show and go, this is just endless patter. But that’s how guys try to get it out, especially at that age – they don’t ever sit there and go ‘I’m feeling a wee bit funny’, they try to get a laugh. Laughter and bravado just covers so much stuff.”
Square Go also offers within it an instance of how, if denied outlets for darker feelings, male violence can turn destructively inwards. Given Hutchison’s suicide, that scene feels now almost unbearably raw.
The play text begins with a dedication to him: “For Scott. You can mark our words, you made changes to Earth.”
But it’s also a hopeful show, one that stages friendship and love as well, ultimately reminding audiences that it’s ok to reach out.
And for McNair, it’s been improved immeasurably by having Frightened Rabbit’s music underscoring it. Overcome with emotion during our conversation, he has to take a break when talking about Hutchison – but he’s got no shortage of words with which to praise the rest of the group for somehow, in such circumstances, not only completing the project but “absolutely smashing it”.
“I’m delighted that the guys wanted to commit to making this show,” he says. “I know that what they’ve made is amazing, and I know that Scott would love it and be mega proud.”
Frightened Rabbit have an ardent fanbase, and McNair is among them. “They found their people because they spoke a truth for so long, and they’ve continued to do that for this project. They’ve committed and delivered on that, in the most unknowable circumstances. What a bunch of heroes.”
The project may also suggest a future musical direction for the group – individually, and together.
Liddell also provides a soundtrack for McNair’s other show, After the Cuts – a near-future vision of the UK without an NHS – which is at the Fringe too.
A more ambient, electronic offering (“It sounds Jon Hopkins-esque,” McNair tells me), Liddell again found the project gave him a useful external focus in recent months.
I ask if they’ll continue to make music as Frightened Rabbit, and they suggest not, making this the final project under that name. There are currently no plans to release the Square Go music – although the band say the odd track might find its way online.
“But the four of us, I hope we’ll make music together,” says Monaghan.
“And scoring for theatre, and film is something we’re keen to pursue,” adds Liddell. “Music will continue – just in a different form.”
‘Square Go’ and ‘After the Cuts’ are both at Summerhall, Edinburgh, until 26 August. For support on mental health issues – or to donate to charity in Scott Hutchison’s memory – please visit the SAMH.org.uk