On the hunt for meaning with Seattle band Fleet Foxes
Nostalgic hippie ruralism and an aura of wilful mystery surround Fleet Foxes. James McNair tries to work out what makes them tick
Friday 13 June 2008
When I meet Robin Pecknold, it's less than 24 hours since he made the 4,799-mile journey from Seattle to the UK. It's hardly surprising that the 22-year-old Fleet Foxes wunderkind is jetlagged.
We're in east London, and despite his grogginess he's palpably excited at the prospect of his band's first-ever British show. "No way!" he will exclaim from the stage later that night, incredulous that a packed Hoxton Bar & Grill is cheering his acoustic guitar introduction to "Oliver James". It's a heady moment in which Peck-nold witnesses his music's transatlantic reach first-hand.
Six months ago, Fleet Foxes were just another aspiring band quietly plying their trade on MySpace. Now, they are 2008's must-hear act. Signed to Seattle's hip label Subpop in the US, and to the similarly discerning Bella Union here in the UK, they have just released an eponymous debut album that was largely recorded in Pecknold's basement last November. Fleet Foxes has already been hailed as a modern classic – "modern", that is, if a record that draws on English pastoral folk and the sound of California dreaming can be described as such.
News of the band's singular brilliance reached these shores via attendees of this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, where Fleet Foxes' guileless, openhearted music was the talk of the town. Radio 1's Zane Lowe, the NME, and Mojo's editor-in-chief Phil Alexander were among those smitten by the spectral three- and four-part vocal harmonies that Pecknold and co sometimes dare to deliver a cappella. Alexander even proclaimed Fleet Foxes to be "America's next great band".
"It's amazing, but it's kind of absurd, too," says the group's leader when quizzed about rave reviews of Fleet Foxes. "Regardless of what the critics say, I guess I'm always gonna think we're bad. The way music is disseminated nowadays, you could write one song, put it on your MySpace page, then a few weeks later everyone has written about you and you're gonna tour till you die. Disbelief is the only sane reaction. Until a few months ago, I'd never even been interviewed."
Pecknold's blue and black plaid shirt might peg him as coming from the Starbucks-loving birthplace of grunge, but this isn't information you'd intuit from listening to Fleet Foxes' music. It's not that their linchpin doesn't own and appreciate albums by Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots; more that the songs he writes tap into a more Arcadian vision not dissimilar to that played out on Midlake's magical 2006 album The Trials of Van Occupanther.
"Yeah, I can see that comparison," says the wan, twinkly-eyed songsmith, scratching at a beard Grizzly Adams would be proud of. "Although I live in the city, I don't live a city life. It would be dishonest of me to make music about partying all night at clubs, because I'm usually at home reading or playing guitar. I'm a fan of the great outdoors, and I think there's an element of uninformed nostalgia to what we do sometimes. I doubt if it would have been much fun to live in 15th-century England, though," he adds. "No proper bathrooms."
Fleet Foxes formed around the nucleus of Pecknold and guitarist Skye Skjelset while the two friends were at school. "My first impression of Robin?" asks the slight, fresh-faced Skjelset when quizzed separately. "That he was smart and funny and confident without really trying. He could have been the coolest kid in school but he wasn't interested in that."
"Skye was super-shy at school," offers Pecknold, by contrast. "He still is. I guess we were outsiders, just hanging out in science class. I hated high school."
Skjelset says the first original composition they played together was a prog rock-influenced nugget called "Tenement House". Back then, Fleet Foxes went by the moniker of Pineapple, but when a local punk band with the same name objected, Pecknold opted for Fleet Foxes because he thought it "evocative of some weird English activity like fox hunting".
He says Skjelset's "extremely cool" mother had a liking for Bob Dylan and Hank Williams that helped steer his and Skjelset's precocious good taste, but there were also trusted ears in the Pecknold household: Robin's elder sister, Aja, had been a rock critic for Seattle Weekly, while his father is a gifted multi-instrumentalist who played in the Seattle-based soul band The Fathoms in the 1960s.
Pecknold and Skjelset's shared Scandinavian lineage seems important to Fleet Foxes. Both men have or had Norwegian grandparents who settled in Seattle, whose salmon fishing once drew many Nordic émigrés, and a Nordic darkness seems to have filtered down the gene pool to inform some of Fleet Foxes' more reflective moments. That Pecknold's great grandfather was a sailor and his grandfather a farmer who "ran an orchard all his life" makes sense when listening to the album, its nature-rich songs conjuring simpler times.
The down-home, front-porch vibe also chimes with the Fleet Foxes' hippie-ish ethos. When they recorded their debut in Pecknold's basement they placed guitar amplifiers inside an Indian tepee. On the wall were the childlike, rural-set sleeve of Fleetwood Mac's 1970 album Kiln House, and a psychedelic-style drawing of Bob Dylan by Milton Glaser.
Pecknold seems anything but a party animal. He's smiley and polite, the only small cloud on his horizon seemingly the challenges that gigging in the UK might present for his strict vegan diet. He's fine on the music making – but more reticent when you try to lift the lid on his lyrics. In published interviews, there is precious little detail on what his wistful, elegantly wrought songs are actually about.
"I think it's good to be a bit enigmatic," says Pecknold, green eyes twinkling again. "It's fairly well documented that a lot of the songs are about close friends and family, but I don't want to give everything away, in the same way that I don't want to blog about what I do all day, either."
But all those people he mentions in his songs... Who is Bob Valaas in the song of the same name, for example? "That's my Norwegian granddad. But that song was written for my elder brother Sean, really. We used to spend a lot of time together at this log cabin my granddad built at Plain, Washington State back in the 1970s. I wrote some of the stuff on the album when I was out there late last year. When I'm on stage it's great for me to be able to sing a song that's about my brother."
Given that his sister Aja is a former rock critic, and that Dylan, a great one for teasing the press, is one of his heroes, it is unsurprising that Pecknold isn't forthcoming on what makes him tick.
Fleet Foxes is a family affair: Aja tour-manages; Pecknold's mother handles bookkeeping, and brother Sean – a film-maker who writes children's books – is making the video for the band's stunning debut single, "White Winter Hymnal".
"Robin has got things that are very important to him and people that he cherishes," says Skjelset. "Does he seem enigmatic to me? No, he's super quick and he'll always make you laugh. I guess I know what most of the songs are about, just because I've known him for so long. I don't know that he'd want me to disclose anything, though."
There's a churchy quality to the rich, rousing vocal-round that begins "White Winter Hymnal", and some critics have picked up on the devotional sound that informs parts of Fleet Foxes' debut. It's easy to imagine the group bringing in the sheaves, but Pecknold is not a believer.
"My dad was quite critical of organised religion, so we kids were never scuttled out to church. I don't know if there is a Judeo-Christian God, but if there is, I wouldn't blame Him for everything that's wrong in the world. I suppose music is a devotional vocation for me, and even if you're not religious that thing of aspiring to some kind of greatness can be a very useful tool. When you hear pure devotion, though – like Brian Wilson aiming to honour God on Pet Sounds – it's a lot more powerful than the average love song."
Rather than honouring God, Pecknold's songs seem designed to honour those closest to him. He describes his compositions as "happy accidents" and says that he is not particularly attached to them, something that surprises me, given their quality and intensely personal nature.
While many young musicians who are admirers of The Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel et al succumb to pastiche, Pecknold is able to distil such influences into something related but fresh. But though others see him as a precociously gifted talent, he feels he is playing catch up: "Bob Dylan was 20 when his first records came out, and Brian Wilson was 23 or 24 when he made Pet Sounds and Smile. Even back when I was 15 I was thinking, 'If I'm gonna get anywhere close to those guys I have to start now.'"
Pecknold says that if they didn't have to tour, Fleet Foxes could write and record five albums a year. The Beach Boys toured Wilson's songs while he stayed home to tinker in the lab, but Pecknold – whose credit card took punishment during the making of Fleet Foxes – has debts that touring the album will help to clear.
Seeing the world with his band of brothers will fulfil one ambition, but he can't wait to start work on the next record. "We've got about 15 ideas so far," he says. "I think we're moving to more unique territory. The stuff is more intense, and there are more peaks and valleys dynamically. Maybe I'll be a little more explicit with the lyrics this time, too. One new song I'm really pleased with is 'Silver City'. It's about a ghost town in Montana."
'Fleet Foxes' is out now on Bella Union. The group tours the UK to 18 June (www.myspace.com/fleetfoxes)
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