Fleet Foxes - Robin Pecknold on “Crack-Up” and Where the Band Might Head Next

Toeing the Line

May 07, 2018 Photography by Shawn Brackbill Issue #63 - Courtney Barnett
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Robin Pecknold comes from a breed of thoughtful, emotional Americana musicians who tread carefully with every word they offer.

As the lead singer and songwriter of Fleet Foxes, Pecknold is well used to success. The Seattle-formed band were universally acclaimed with the release of their debut self-titled album in 2008, a soaring folk collection of close vocal harmonies and luscious pastoral scenes. Its 2011 follow-up, Helplessness Blues, was similarly critically-lauded. After a four-year hiatus, last year the band released Crack-Up, whose lengthy spirals are full of the literary references Pecknold picked up on his time out studying English at Columbia University.

"While we were working on Crack-Up, it was the best I had ever felt about a set of songs that I had worked on," explains Pecknold. "The last albums had been more difficult to do: on the first album I thought it was bad, on the second album I thought it was very bad, and on this one, I thought it was good. But I also had the thought that that's probably a bad sign as far as what other people will think about it."

Crack-Up did not impress critics nearly as much as the first two Fleet Foxes records. For all the end of year lists on which it featured, it was described as over-indulgent and irritatingly complicated. Pecknold knows this, and hesitates not for lack of confidence, but for time to find the most accurate words. He responds with reason: "I'm not making something just to please other peopleI'm making it to please myself. So I can't expect the same amount of people to be on board. Obviously in a perfect world you would make exactly what you wanna make, and everyone would think it's incredible and love you forever! But that hasn't been how it's turned out."

Still, he must have known there would be an audience waiting: an album doesn't receive 85 on Metacritic for its follow-up to be completely ignored. It's here that Pecknold stumbles. Reluctantly he confesses that he does think of his audience too, that he wants a Fleet Foxes record to be "something that's useful and generous and engaging, and has stuff people would respond to and enjoy." Art can't be only self-serving.

Luckily, Crack-Up did give audiences something to respond to-and since its release, the band have continued to tour all over the world. While recording, Pecknold thought of the tracks as "scenes from a movie," but that doesn't work for a live audience. A crowd needs to know when to clap and cheer, and for that you need clear endings to songs, which has required some re-formulation of album material.

For all the trickiness of playing live, the process has proven fruitful for the band's musical development. Pecknold describes how they are playing tighter than ever, articulating his keenness to improve his singing with a basketball allegory: "It's like standing at the free throw line and seeing if you keep sinking free throws or not-did I hit this note? Did I hit this note? How can I do better next time?" He says early stand-out single "Mykonos" is the hardest for him to sing. But night by night, his range is improving. It's pleasing to hear from a musician who continues to learn, a modest willingness which bodes well for a fourth Fleet Foxes record, something already very much on Pecknold's mind. One thing he's certain he wants for the next one is to capture the energy of a live band "because live, everything has more power."

I ask him what's currently on his turntable and his answer is nothing, at the momenthe's taken it apart and is trying to piece it all back together, bit by bit, a typical pastime for a musician obsessed with component parts. What he has been listening to is soul musicCurtis Mayfield, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone.

"One of the things that was on my mind while working on Crack-Up was how much do we stay the same and how much do we make sure things are different?" He pauses, addressing his earlier acknowledgement of Crack-Up's reception. "If the reaction was more muted to toeing the line between the old sound and going somewhere new, then that seems like more license to totally change on the next one. I can definitely see those artists influencing the sound of the next album."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Spring 2018 Issue (March/April/May 2018), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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