Fleet Foxes: Wander This World Together
interview, introduction and photographs by Daniel Coston
Originally published in Big Takeover Magazine, winter 2009 issue
The first thing you notice about Fleet Foxes is their sound, a mixture of musical influences that we have all heard in different places, but rarely put together in this fashion. Then you see them live, and you see five musicians pouring out multi-part harmonies and playing a variety of instruments, and you realize that this band is for real.
Both their self-titled album and preceding Sun Giant EP suggests an alternate universe of sound, one where troubadours embrace both Beach Boys Smile-era harmonies and arrangements, and folk melodies and lyrics that give it a seemingly personal touch that draws the listener in further. Fleet Foxes is that rare band that reminds you that the palette of musical possibilities can still reach farther than we have come to expect.
For guitarist, singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold, the past year has brought a steady stream of possibilities and changes. By his admission, he is still getting used to all of the attention that his band now commands. But it is his honesty and love of music that makes talking to him all the more enjoyable.
BT: When I saw you in North Carolina last month, you were playing a packed 200-plus venue, and then three days later, you were playing to a sold-out Bowery Ballroom in New York City. What is that like to go from the smaller crowds, to the bigger crowds at this point?
Pecknold: It just depends upon the crowd. Unless you’re playing to twenty thousand people, I think it’s really up to you and the crowd to decide what wavelength you’re on together. You can play a show for a hundred people, and if they’re all totally not into it, that’s gonna be a different experience than six hundred people at the Bowery all totally behind you, and supportive. Size means less to me than general feeling of the crowd.
We played the Pitchfork festival, which was over 10,000 people. At that point, it was kind of abstract. Aside from the few people that you can make out their faces, it’s almost like looking at a painting. But they all were really sweet and supportive, and that was different than some other festival experiences where it’s the same amount of people, but nobody is giving you any attention, and that decides how you feel about all those people, and what makes you nervous.
BT: How have you been handling the media coverage? Have you been having to get used to talking about your music?
Pecknold: I think it’s a drastic shift from living at home, writing music and working a job, to being on the road all of the time, and meeting people. Having people recognize you is a very different experience. I think it takes a little adjustment. I don’t think I’m fully used to it yet. There are elements that are harder to deal with than others. Obviously, it’s all a big blessing, but it’s tough being away from your family, or not having time to write songs, but at the same time, it’s a very lucky thing that has happened.
BT: The roots of this band go pretty far back. How long have you been friends with [guitarist and songwriter] Skye [Skjelset]?
Pecknold: For almost ten years now. Once I started writing songs when I was around fifteen, we started working out stuff in my basement, just for fun. I guess that was the start of the band, but there was never a name.
I think we discovered a lot of stuff together. At around that age when you’re discovering music for yourself, becoming a music listener. That’s what you want to do. We would kind of show each other stuff.
BT: What I was struck by in reading your bio is that the music you were listening to growing up was very diverse, which is very much like the music that you’re writing now. It’s not one category, it’s several. Was that always a point in your head, you didn’t want to be one thing, you wanted to be whatever it felt like at the moment.
Pecknold: Yeah. Every song was kind of an exercise, or a stepping stone. I don’t think that you should hold songs as sacred. The song is just a reflection of what kind of choices you wanted to make at that time, and what was inspiring you, or what felt good at that moment, and that’s always changing.
The music that I listen to for enjoyment is usually just stuff that’s beautiful, or stuff that you can hear the person behind the song. To me, that’s the only criteria when listening to something. So that doesn’t have a genre requirement.
BT: Do you think categorizations for some people sometimes get in the way of just listening to music, or enjoying music? Should people be more open to those things?
Pecknold: That’s tough. When you hear a song and enjoy it, that’s an honest experience. And any time that you put that into words, it doesn’t really matter what the words are. You had an experience with that song, and that is what ultimately matters. And I think that it’s true no matter how somebody comes to music, whether it is by comparison or categorization. Ultimately, if they react well, they’re reacting to something within the song, and that’s what they’ll take away from it.
BT: Are there things that you hope that people take away from your music, both with the record and EP, or is it whatever the listener gets from it?
Pecknold: I don’t know. The more expectation you put upon the listener, you know, you hear a song, and it’s really over the top, and if I hear a song that’s too over the top, I think it’s just pandering. That the artist is putting an expectation on what that song is, and how that song is going to affect the listener, and that’s affecting their song in a bad way. You hear a song that’s very bombastic, or very emotional, and it comes across as fake, or it’s so, one thing. It’s not really letting you have an experience with it, it’s telling you how to feel. So I think that the less you think about a listener, or how a song is gonna come across, the better just to leave it up to them.
BT: You and Skye have been working together for a while, but how did you find the rest of the band? It’s a really strong collective you have, a real five-man group.
Pecknold: Yeah, totally. That took time. We’ve played with other people in the past. For us, it wasn’t really about technical ability. Ultimately, if you’re gonna be in a band, it’s important to start with people that are already your friends, or people that you want to be friends with.
In the past couple of years, we met Casey [Wescott], and through Casey, who plays keyboards, we met [bassist and vocalist] Christian [Wargo]. And we’d been fans of Christian and his music because he was in a band called Crystal Skulls. And it was the same way with Josh [Tillman], who plays drums. We’d known of Josh because he was a singer-songwriter playing shows in Seattle, and that’s how we’d gotten to be friends with him.
So it was really just people that we knew that had their own creative impulses. And I think if we weren’t doing this band, everybody would be working on something else. And as a member of the band, it’s inspiring to me that everyone has their own creative drive, too.
BT: Have you found that having these five guys in the band has influenced what you and Syke were writing? Could you hear more of what you could create through them?
Pecknold: Yeah, I think it opens up a lot of doors. Playing with people well-versed in what they want. I think in the future, it’ll lead to more musically rich stuff. Because Christian and Josh will come up with stuff that is really cool, and stuff that I never would have thought of. I think that’s super-cool.
BT: The Sun Giant EP came out earlier this year, before your full-length album was released this summer, but I’ve heard that you had already recorded the album before the EP.
Pecknold: We finished the LP in November of last year. It was kind of a long process making that. There were a number of songs that had been in the works, and it came down to the last day of mixing that we were like, still deciding the tracklist out of all these songs that we had recorded. It really took that long, until the last day of mixing to really know what the record was.
So the day after that, we showed the record to Sub Pop. We had been talking to them a little bit. And they said that they wanted to put it out, but they could only put it out in June, seven months later. Because that’s how it works. If you’re recording something without a label, a label that might put it out is not waiting for you, because you’re not on their label. They’re planning their release schedule, anyway.
We were really excited to be on Sub Pop, but it was frustrating to have to wait to put it out. So basically we had finished the record, and we had this new batch of songs, which were being worked out. And we were just working on them for fun, and they were kind of turning into their own little batch, that works together as five songs. So we were like, let’s just record these five songs that are their own thing as an EP in January, and then put it out on our own as soon as we get it back from the manufacturer.
We spent a week making and mixing the EP. Because we had done demos for all of the songs, we knew what they were gonna be. Then, once we finished the EP, Sub Pop came down to the studio and listened to it, and they said, “Yeah, we’ll put this out, on the same schedule that you were gonna put it [the EP] out.” So that was fun for us.
I don’t think the EP is more representative... of where the next record is gonna go, because it was done later. They [the album and EP] were kind of the same time, more so than the next record will be. I think the next record will be a lot different.
BT: Has the next record started to take shape?
Pecknold: Yeah, I think it’s coming together. Obviously, we haven’t recorded anything yet. I’m always trying to think about how those songs will come together, because there are a lot of songs in the works.
BT: When I saw you live, I really struck by the four-part harmony that you guys have. Tell me about the importance of harmonies within your band.
Pecknold: For us, first off, it’s really enjoyable to sing with other people. It requires a different kind of concentration. You can’t really just tune out, because you always have to be listening to everybody else. Especially at shows. You can’t just sit back and play guitar and sing your lead vocal. You have to be constantly hearing what everyone else is doing, and stay on top of it.
And the other thing is, we wanted the record to sound full, but we didn’t want to have to add big electric guitars, or strings. It felt like this was a really fun way to make the record sound full, without having to add all of these parts that we couldn’t do live. Any extra arrangements we did went into vocals. And for me, I grew up singing idly with my folks, or doing musical theater stuff, it’s always been a part of my life.
BT: I read in Mojo Magazine that you have traded emails with Van Dyke Parks. How did that come about?
Pecknold: I first emailed Van Dyke when I was... maybe 15, or 17. I was super into Smile, and through Smile, I found all of his music, like Song Cycle, To Discover America. I found his email address, and I said, “Hey, I really love your music, I’m trying to write songs, too.” And he wrote back this incredibly sweet, really encouraging email, that was like, “Keep doing it, keep following your individual path. Try to make that you really love, or feel proud of.” And that was really encouraging, at that age.
Then he wrote about a month or two ago, saying if we ever wanted string arrangements, give him a call. It was pretty bizarre. I don’t think that he understood that he inspired me, and was kind of responsible for the band in some obtuse way. And then he emails offering us help. To read that, it ws kind of a mindf-ck, for me, and very cool.
BT: What is it about the Beach Boys’ Smile period that speaks to you?
Pecknold: Just hearing how... Smile is so weird to me, and yet its it still pop music. It just proved to me that how fluid that medium is. The rules governing pop music are much looser than the rules governing hard rock, for instance. And those songs are just so good.