Fleet Foxes: Homegrown harmonies, going back to nature and the blues

As his band return with a new album, Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold talks to Andy Gill
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The Independent Culture

In a hotel room in Clerkenwell, Robin Pecknold waits patiently for his wholefood lunch to arrive. Casually dressed and bearded, he has a relaxed, hippyish air about him which belies the more driven, methodical aspects of his character.

It's this inner ambition that helped elevate his band Fleet Foxes to an unexpected position of prominence in the modern pop landscape. Formed by songwriter Pecknold and his guitarist buddy Skyler Skjelset in high school in Seattle, the group devised its own variant on friends' shared musical interests – mostly Dylan and Neil Young – adding extra members as the need for more guitars and drums and especially voices became more pressing. (They currently number six.) By the time they released their self-titled debut album in 2008, they had developed a rich blend of folk-rock textures and gleaming close harmonies, which on tracks like the single "White Winter Hymnal" cascaded in round-like garlands through a song that seemed closer to religious polyphonic choral music than rock'n'roll. Or, at least, any rock'n'roll since the glory days of Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Eagles.

For some reason, however, their sound captured the ear of a much wider audience than expected, particularly in Europe, where Fleet Foxes became the breakthrough act of the year. By the time it was being lauded as Album of the Year in countless critics' end-of-year lists, Fleet Foxes had sold more than 100,000 copies in the UK, reaching the dizzy heights of third place in the album charts, going platinum and kick-starting a groundswell of acclaim back in America. In retrospect, it was probably the single most important factor in the recent resurgence of interest in folk music and harmony singing – a revival of this most analogue of forms ironically due in part to that most digital of technologies, the internet, where Fleet Foxes' fanbase expanded exponentially within weeks of their early EP releases.

It may seem a bit early in his career to start looking back, but on the new Fleet Foxes album, Helplessness Blues, Pecknold appears preoccupied with matters of upbringing, childhood and heritage. In song after song, lines seem to short-circuit his musings back to his youth, often in poetic manner. "I will lay down in the sand and let the ocean carry me to Innisfree like pollen on the breeze," he sings, as if yearning to return home. Not that he has any personal connection with Ireland.

"It's from the W B Yeats poem 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', which my grandma typed out and put on the wall of their cabin, as if to say, 'this is our Innisfree'," he explains. "My grandpa built the cabin in the Seventies, I guess, and my parents were married there. Me and my brother went up there fairly late in making the record, saw that poem on the wall again, and kinda nicked it from my grandma."

Yeats's poem is the quintessential back-to-the-land rural escape fantasy of urbanites in search of peace, the poet imagining building a small cabin, and listening to the lapping of water on the shore, as he trudges along the city's "pavements gray". A fantasy which is obviously so much easier to achieve in America, where there's nothing but open space for miles, than in a crowded little island like ours.

"Yes, it's insanely huge," Pecknold agrees. "Unlike here, where space is at a premium, and everything's so settled in its history. Even now, there's so much land, you can buy 20 acres in California for a fair amount of money. There's still a lot of unsettled areas."

That's especially the case up in the Pacific Northwest, where Pecknold and his fellow Fleet Foxes grew up. Travelling to Europe as a successful musician has brought home to the singer the huge differences between transatlantic cultures separated, as Churchill put it, by a common language.

"It feels very new there," he says. "Here, there's so much history, the old rubs up against the new everywhere. But in the northwest, and the West Coast generally, apart from the Spanish Mission stuff, it's just new. I think the oldest building in Seattle was built in something like 1898. I like that about the West Coast in a way, that it feels unsettled, that it's still the frontier, in a way – it doesn't feel as shackled to the past. And it's incredibly beautiful up there. There are two huge mountain ranges on either side of the city, east and west, so there's all these hills and lakes, and Puget Sound – it's really dramatic, very Scandinavian-looking in the right light."

With such an abundance of open space and untamed wilderness, it's no great surprise that the resurgent folk-rock movement has found plenty of fertile ground in which to take root across America. From Fleet Foxes up in Washington state, to Midlake down in Texas and Bon Iver over in snowbound Wisconsin, musicians are retreating to rural basics with acoustic instruments, in search of firmer individual musical anchorage within a tradition after decades spent marching in lock-step to computer click-tracks, hunting for a future in which everything and everyone sounds more or less the same. This notion of music having a personal signature is vitally important to the band. "The way we recorded, we didn't use a click-track, every song is free tempo, just me and Josh laying down acoustic guitar and drums together," Pecknold explains. "Any time it's me singing and playing, it's me singing and playing at the same time. It's important that there's not too much editing, too; there are compositional changes sometimes, but our performances are not edited to hell."

He remains dubious, however, as to whether this current trend for "woodshedding" suggests any deeper, shared affinity, between the current crop of bands, for the past.

"I think certain different sounds evoke different things," he says. "Like, there's a lot of history in the acoustic guitar, obviously. Every combination of instruments evokes something. With the Bon Iver record [For Emma, Forever Ago], his bio explained about it being recorded over three months stuck in the woods, and that became the thing about that record – but I don't really hear that in those lyrics, which are pretty oblique. And with the Midlake record [The Courage of Others], lyrically I thought it was almost more like What's Going On, concerned with the ecology and 'what are we doing to the earth?'. Aside from the obvious implications of using acoustic instruments, which is that you're going to be evoking something old, I don't know that there's that much similarity."

All three, however, have tapped into a new desire for rootedness in music – in Britain, the appeal of Fleet Foxes' debut album, which sprang from nowhere to the top three of the album chart, helped pave the way for the success of homegrown nu-folkies like Mumford & Sons. Fleet Foxes' sudden ascension is one of the more remarkable confirmations of the power of the internet in disseminating new music, enabling bands to develop a momentum almost instantly without the slow-moving promotional machines once considered necessary to break new acts. It's something Pecknold approves of, though he's not entirely convinced by music on the internet.

"If you choose to pay attention to music on the internet, it can be overwhelming," he says. "You can get inundated with a lot of garbage. And it's not the best way to hear music. I still prefer recommendations from friends. It's much easier to consume music now, but that's what you're doing – consuming it."

There's also the worry that, just as the internet has destroyed the delayed gratification that used to be such an enjoyable part of being a music fan – hearing rumours about new recordings, reading about them, and then waiting eagerly to hear them – it may also have accelerated the jading process. The notion of "here today, gone tomorrow" has become that much more literal in an age where instant idiot responses are requested for every new bit of digital media, and burgeoning careers are buried under an avalanche of "You suck!" comments. Being a music fan of the old school, Pecknold finds the absence of any deeper interest being exhibited by online "commentators" quite baffling.

"Because there are no print limitations on the internet, you'd think there would be all these 50-page articles examining the records, but now all you get are Tweet-sized reviews," he says. "There are way more opinions, but not necessarily more thought-out opinions. The other sad thing, to me, is that if you think about memories that you have, they're about so much more than you get on a computer: things like the colour of the light, what it smelt like, and tactile things. But if you're just looking at a computer screen, it's this void of just information. Will I look back and think about the way the computer screen looked when I read that thing or talked to that person on the internet?"

For the moment, though, Fleet Foxes are probably safe from any online backlash. Helplessness Blues continues the debut's formula of rich, layered close harmonies set to jangling guitars and other things that go "twang" in the night: autoharp, hammer dulcimer and lap-steel guitar. "It's the same genre – it's not like a techno album or anything," says Pecknold. "It's within the same framework, it's not a bunch of different instrumentation, for the most part. I just see it as reflecting more refined ideas about this style of music. Everyone had different arrangement ideas, but from the writing side of it, I wanted the lyrics to be clearer, about some identifiable topic. And we're just stretching out more, with multi-part songs."

One of these multi-part songs is "The Shrine/An Argument", in which the aforementioned yearning for Innisfree segues into somewhat spikier territory courtesy of the album's most shocking musical moment, a burst of free-jazz sax that tears into the fabric of the song, leaving it in emotional tatters. Where did that come from?

"I was listening a lot to Ascension, by John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane," explains Pecknold. "I don't have a ton of experience with that kind of music, but I would put that record on and I liked the way it would just elicit different emotions in me – I'd have this pumped-up energy, like this weird anxiety. I was really into that, the way that music can be capable of producing that feeling. In the context of that song, it's like the different phases of a break-up, so I thought the music in every different section should have the appropriate emotional feeling: the beginning feels really nostalgic, and there's a section in the middle that's loud and rougher, then it goes to this solitary place, then ends in this argument. I was just trying to capture the different phases of a break-up in one song."

But it's the concerns with family, duty and responsibility that most mark the new material, from the opening track "Montezuma"'s wistful refrain of, "Oh man, what I used to be, oh man, oh my, oh me" to lines in the Arabic-flavoured "Bedouin Dress" about "the borrower's debt is the only regret of my youth".

"I think that and a few other songs on the record are dealing with the same thing," he agrees. "With the idea of how much are you taking, and how much are you giving back – just generally, in relationships and so on. Like for me, I've just been really focused on music, and there were times when there was just no room in my head for anything or anyone else – so the people around me were giving themselves, and I wasn't giving much back because I was focused on the record. That started really bothering me!

"I'd like to find more of a balance. I think with this record out of the way I might be able to clear my head more. But I'd read about The Beatles, and find that George Harrison was only 19 when they first visited America, and I'd think, Wow, I gotta get working!"

Pecknold's concerns are perhaps given greater weight because Fleet Foxes is very much a family affair for him. His sister manages the band, and his brother does all the band's artwork and videos. His father, a luthier, is even building a special guitar for the band to use on their upcoming tour. So any careless emotional damage could cut dangerously close to home. And he's so obsessive about his music that he might easily lose perspective: years after finishing his debut album, he still frets over what he considers its shortcomings – a lyric that could have been different, a vocal that might have been sung better, even the size of the font on the cover.

"Yeah, I have trouble getting over things," he admits. "I listened to the first LP the other day, and maybe it's not like the Hiroshima of albums that I thought it was – to completely overstate it. I think you can become so intimately familiar with something that it's like taking a trip with someone for two months, and at the end of it you hate each other, but when you look back at the trip you realise you had so much fun. And anyway, if I was like, 'Oh my god, that record is perfect', that leaves you no room to develop. You have to have a hard opinion about yourself, at least a little bit, just so you have somewhere to go."

The concern with what one is taking, and what one is giving back, is perhaps most directly addressed in the album's title track, where Pecknold reflects on the self-centred individualism of his youth, when he believed he was special, and the mature fellowship of his adulthood: "After some thinking I'd say I'd rather be/ A functioning cog in some great machinery/ Sowing something behind me/ But I don't know what that will be." Is this an accurate assessment of his current attitude?

"Yeah, totally," he confirms. "I wanted that song to be a completely open opinion, with no kind of poetry, if you know what I mean. It's hard to articulate without it sounding really reductive, but I was born in the Eighties, a time of relative plenty in the United States, so I felt like the 'individual' thing was really emphasised when I was a kid, and I just don't know where that has left me. If everyone's just like this autonomous individual, y'know, to me it would be culturally..." He pauses, momentarily lost for words, then continues: "Sometimes I find myself wanting something to stand under, you know what I mean? Something that is less like, 'I'm this unique guy'."

As in being part of a lineage, owing something to a longer tradition, rather than being this isolated, brilliant spark of light?

"Yes. I don't want to sound too political or anything, because this is just my personal thought, but I guess I feel like in being a white male from America, a member of the most privileged sect on earth, I have everything that people all over the earth are fighting for, and sometimes I just feel like I'm not really doing enough with that. That song is basically about that, the desire to cultivate something more than oneself."

It all sounds a bit liberal to me, I joke – the next thing you know, you'll be in favour of socialised medicine! Which sparks the most left-wing outburst I've encountered from an American musician since Steve Earle. "Corporate America, in every incarnation, just has us by the throat," says Pecknold with feeling. "Even the health-care bill they passed last year is just a big hand-out in a lot of ways – it has the full support of all the big pharmaceutical companies, and you have to wonder why. Why would you want to pass a bill that has the full support of all the pharmaceutical companies? That makes no sense. Until lobbyists lose control, or there are stricter rules on campaign funding, I don't think they'll get anything productive passed. But Obama's trying, he's really trying. People try and put the fate of the world on his shoulders, but there's a lot about the system that you can't control."

Though as his band's home-grown, family-reared success confirms, judicious use of internet technology, allied to a grassroots community of the like-minded, can enable those lacking the weight of lobbyists to carve out their own space within the system, just as their forefathers built their own log cabins out in the woods.

Fleet Foxes tour from 31 May (www. fleetfoxes.com); 'Helplessness Blues' is released on 2 May on Bella Union

Heavenly voices: harmony bands

The Beach Boys

Always recognised for their vocal harmonies, the California band's Brian Wilson has been hailed as the greatest inspiration to Fleet Foxes' songwriter Robin Pecknold.

The Byrds

Pioneers of the folk-rock we hear in Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons, despite their many line-up changes the LA band had a distinctive harmony-laden sound, most famously so in the gorgeous songs "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and "Mr Tambourine Man".

Warpaint

The LA-based, all-girl art-rock four-piece incorporate harmonies into their winning delivery of psychedelic rock, effects and six-minute jams.

Bon Iver

The singer-songwriter Justin Vernon's hypnotic, hushed strummed guitar and falsetto often leads to lush, multi-tracked harmonies, as on his "For Emma" and "The Wolves".

Mountain Man

Label mates to Fleet Foxes, Mountain Man blend folk, country and traditional Americana. Contrary to their name, they're a trio of 20-something women who met at college in Vermont, and who create gorgeous, haunting harmonies.

Mumford & Sons

The most rapidly ascending band of last year, with their Brit award, Mercury Prize nomination and No 2 charting debut album, the folk-rock band's rousing harmonies are in debt to Fleet Foxes.

Elisa Bray

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