“A goal of this record was to gracefully exit the stylised box that we had been in, but to do so in a loving way and to leave a wide door open for the next…”
“Up early, huh?” quips Robin Pecknold sympathetically, wise to our time difference (8am my time, 5pm his) on a sunny Sunday morning. A pot of coffee has been downed with the hope of steering my brain into conversational mode, but he, thankfully, sounds particularly upbeat and eager to chat from the Sydney Opera House auditorium where the Seattle singer and his band Fleet Foxes have just wrapped up soundcheck for the third of four sold- out shows there.
It’s been six years since Fleet Foxes last played Cork, a rousing 2011 Live at the Marquee performance. Cork Opera House may not be as roomy as a big top, but what it loses in capacity it certainly rectifies with history. A meandering explanation is offered to Pecknold of the true story of Charles Dickens having publicly read A Christmas Carol on the same site (then known as the Athenaeum) in 1858. “You could say it’s a venue with ghosts in the walls,” I proffer to a quiet phone line, before a sincere wave of encouragement arrives from the other end. “Wow! Really?”
Broaching the topic of history uncovers Pecknold’s familiarity with Ireland. “I love visiting Ireland – I’m part Irish by blood. When I was in the middle of making the first record back in 2007, I was only 21. I took a break from recording and my brother, sister and I came to Europe for a month. We visited Ireland and rented a car and did the Dingle peninsula, the ring of Kerry and drove the whole way around the country. I remember visiting Cork and seeing a lot of live music in the bars.”
The Pecknolds’ trip to Ireland’s second city seems to have made an impression on Robin – quite literally. “I actually got my first tattoo in Cork! To take away a memory of the trip, my brother, sister and I got the same tattoo: the outline of a quarter, it’s just a small circle really. We all have it. I love Ireland because I have fond memories of that trip exploring different ruins and different landscapes, the old stone dwellings, and burial mounds. Really cool.”
“That trip really changed the first album. I ended up writing five or six songs right after that trip to Ireland that really changed the character of that record for the better.”
The album Pecknold speaks about is Fleet Foxes’ eponymous debut. The Appalachian honey-soaked, harmony-heavy release was a piece of 70’s-esque pop-folk glory which dripped and glistened from living room speakers universally upon its release in 2008, shifting hundreds of thousands of records in the interim. Their sound was forged from the fires of CSN, The Beach Boys and The Band, galvanised with a Seattle modernity. A little over a year later, the band would find themselves in front of a 100,000 strong Glastonbury crowd and sold-out shows all over the world thereafter; the success of which the trappings Pecknold found difficult to navigate. Nevertheless, Helplessness Blues arrived in 2011, a fine follow-up that built upon its predecessor’s penchant for multi-layered modern folk.
Pecknold, along with childhood friend and founding member Skyler Skjelset, pianist Casey Wescott, bassist Christian Wargo and multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson assuredly reintroduce themselves with Crack-Up, the long awaited third record which whispers into being, with the hushed opening of ‘I Am All That I Need’ hooking the listener into its lull before ‘Arroyo Seco’ brightens into that familiar full-on folk-rock. Crack-Up certainly satisfies the thirst for a Fleet Foxes record but Pecknold is dictating the flow.
“That was definitely the idea,” he enthuses. “I didn’t want album three to be so different that it was unrecognisable and I also didn’t want to go against my own instinct just to do something different. I wanted to keep the parts that were reflective of my taste and the kind of music that moves me but I also wanted to ration, to some extent; to play with listener’s expectations, to both please them and surprise them, to allow for different reactions over the course of time that they listen to the record.”
“I remember feeling proud of the first two records but to make them distinctive required a hyper-stylisation that I ended up feeling trapped by. Part of the goal of this record was to gracefully exit that stylised box that we had been in, but to do so in a loving way and to leave a wide door open for the next album.”
Crack-Up’s release in June will close a gap of a six year hiatus for the band. Pecknold used the break to return to Columbia University to study music and English literature and has mentioned that he feels Crack-Up has picked up straight from where Helplessness Blues left off. I ask if it is odd that the music’s timeline is different to his own.
“It makes me think of last year when I’d meet someone and tell them ‘I’m in a band called Fleet Foxes’ and they’d have associations around that which are about six years old,” says Pecknold. “I’ve grown since 2011; it’s not like you could listen to those records and know who I am now. In that sense, it’s nice to have a new album that feels like a good picture of where we are now as people. After we finished recording this record and I was getting ready to start rehearsing for the tour, I sat down for the first time in many years and listened to all three albums and the EP sequentially and it was pretty fascinating to listen to them change in abstract ways and practical ways and to hear, over the course of three hours, a condensation of fifteen years.”
With the Seattle singer’s reflection on the overall lifespan of Fleet Foxes, I ask: why the break and why at that time; a period when Fleet Foxes had the world at their feet?
“I just found it very stressful,” he says candidly. “It’s very rewarding but it can be withering. Exposure, or feeling exposed as a person can make you want to close off a little bit, and close off a lot if it’s too constant. It was affecting how I was thinking about music and what kind of music I would want to make. I didn’t want to be publicly confused,” he laughs quietly, “so I thought I’d just take a break until there was something I felt confident in and happy to share. It’s much easier to feel exposed when you feel like you have something to stand behind, necessitating that exposure.”
We lose ourselves in discussions regarding some of the more subtle studio moments on the record – such as applying Bach and Shostakovich’s ideas of musical cryptograms to the bass line for ‘Cassius’ – so much so that Pecknold momentarily forgets what the original question was and is sincerely thankful for the interest in the musical process.
“I’m surprised by how much time we spent on recording some stuff on the record,” he laughs confessedly, “there’s a part on the first song, ‘I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar’ where it’s just me singing into my iPhone walking through a door. I remember trying to find the right door for that,” he laughs upon reflection of the recording cocoon. “The sound needed to be sparse; this guy walking through a door and then getting hit by a train, basically. It took hours and hours to find the right door for that, to record it in the right time and its re-recording and importing into the song to see if it worked. The album ends with the sound of me walking down a stairwell and exiting the album, exiting the room where the album takes place. That was recorded in a number of different stairwells and even with different pairs of shoes to make it sound right.”
The closing song to which Pecknold refers (and album’s title-track) had its name lifted from an F.Scott Fitzgerald essay. He is quick to reference other authors as influences when I ask about books he has liked, such as renowned journalist and fiction writer Renata Adler. Her 1976 novel Speedboat is specifically highlighted.
“That book was pretty influential for this record. It’s almost like taking all the sentences from one book and jumbling them to make another. You have pieces of a whole but you are not getting it in a linear way. It was a very interesting reading experience to respond to. I wanted to try out new ways of approaching songwriting on this album. I would write paragraphs containing long descriptions of imaginary music and then try to make music to correspond to that description.”
Despite Pecknold’s keenness to chat about literature, he maintains that he derives more creative inspiration from film and visual art. It’s interesting to hear how he might consider English visual artist Grayson Perry’s advice for artists to “never get off the bus” – i.e. no matter what advice or promises are offered, one must keep going in the direction they wanted to go in the first place. What does he do to ensure he stays stay on the bus?
“Good question. I think whenever I felt like I was stepping off the bus, as it were, it was always from a lack of trust in my intuition. I think now aged 31 I feel very comfortable trusting my own gut.”
- Fleet Foxes play the Iveagh Gardens tonight (tickets still available) and Friday July 14 (sold out).
Tickets are priced at €45.
- Crack-Up is available now on Nonesuch Records.