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Fleet Foxes

The Sound of (Dis)satisfaction

Nov 01, 2008 Year End 2008 - Best of 2008 Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share

Imagine you’re 22 years old, and you’re standing on stage in front of a sold-out crowd in Berlin. Your band-which only has two EPs and a few tours under its belt-is performing the first of three encores in a city you didn’t even know had ever heard of you. Four months earlier you had no label and were self-releasing your music; two months before that, you were still a supporting act. Your first full-length album, which you have major misgivings about, hasn’t even come out, but people are singing along to its songs. Your band is still largely a homespun affair; your sister is your tour manager, most of your recordings are done at home, and your childhood best friend stands next to you and plays guitar every night. Imagine that you’re feeling a little overwhelmed. Imagine you and your band have made a first album that is arguably the most widely acclaimed release of the year. Imagine you’re Robin Pecknold, and you write the songs for Fleet Foxes.

“I told Sup Pop that I thought that the album would tank in every way and that we would then get started on the next one earlier,” Pecknold reflects during an early autumn tour stop in Columbus, Ohio. “I was kind of hoping that it would tank just so we could start recording again as soon as possible. By the time the record came out, it was already old news to us. The time between finishing it and having it come out, we were ready to move on. I was anticipating a tepid response that would be followed by a lack of public acceptance, and then all the more opportunity to start recording the next album,” he says, sounding slightly disappointed that the album didn’t fail. “I thought we put one over on Sup Pop by signing a deal that had two records on it. It was like, ‘Well, we’ll get to make the next record regardless. They’re so dumb for signing us to that.’ That’s how it seemed at the time.”

At the time, he might have been right. Certainly, Sup Pop had no real reason to expect that Pecknold, guitarist Skye Skjelset, keyboardist Casey Wescott, bassist Christian Wargo, and drummer Nick Peterson (later replaced by Josh Tillman) would be anything more than a regional success, just another Seattle band trying to find a following beyond the Pacific Northwest. And, reflecting on their remarkable year, the band doesn’t seem to really know how it happened. To set the stage, there was one well-received self-titled EP in 2006 and another, titled Sun Giant, in the spring of 2008. There was one tour opening for Oregon folk-rockers Blitzen Trapper, and a lot of comparisons to Crosby, Stills & Nash; The Beach Boys; and various Appalachian folk musicians. But no one could have expected an avalanche of four-star reviews and sold-out shows in Germany. Certainly not Pecknold, a creatively restless and self-doubting artist who still isn’t satisfied with the self-titled debut album that some publications declared an instant classic upon release in June of 2008.

“It was super long and seemed kind of endless,” he says of the fall 2007 sessions that stretched across months and drained the band’s bank account. “It was so frustrating, working at home with one bad mic and one preamp and trying to make it sound cool. It just wasn’t happening. And I was sick a lot. I couldn’t do vocal takes, and the ones that I did do sounded like I was sick. I mean, it was fun,” he says, stopping himself. “It was the only thing that I would want to do. But when you don’t have the physical or mental acuity to do what you want to do, that becomes a stumbling block sometimes.”

In the band’s first attempt at piecing together a full-length album, they had an idea of what they wanted, but weren’t sure how to get there. Constantly wriggling away right before they could grasp it, the debut went through numerous permutations, with Pecknold working on overdubs, and his band members stopping in after work to add their parts. The album was recorded once, scrapped, and re-recorded. Countless arrangements were tried, new songs were written and discarded, different song sequences were imagined, but nothing seemed to fit the vision Pecknold had in his head. And even when they thought the album was done, he just couldn’t let it go.

“We had time to mix booked, because the record was supposed to be finished, and the night before that mixing started, I did every vocal take on the record,” he admits. “It all happened in one night. We went into the mixing process like, ‘Ok, actually, this isn’t done.’ So we called it off and started again. And we were like, ‘Ok, we’ll mix in November, and then we’ll be done.’ And the same thing happened. For this new version of the record, in the last two nights, every vocal take was done again,” he laughs. “I think you’re done with something when you’re out of money, and then it’s close enough.”

Raised outside of Seattle, Pecknold grew up in a musical household, his mom playing piano and his dad writing songs for fun. But aside from some school plays, Pecknold didn’t spend his childhood obsessed with music-he was more interested in video games and sci-fi than writing songs. Then, on the last day of seventh grade, he made a new friend, Skjelset, and by the time eighth grade started, the two were hanging out in their science teacher’s room during lunch, playing their latest discoveries on his stereo system. By the time Pecknlod was 14, his dad had gotten him a guitar and shown him some chords, and the seeds of Fleet Foxes began to take root.

“The first stuff that I recorded, it’s definitely woe-is-me, bad Elliott Smith stuff,” Pecknold says. “I remember my dad got me a cheap 4-track for Christmas, and I took it up to my room and set it up and got the mic plugged in, and I recorded myself singing and playing guitar, and I broke down in tears. I was so ashamed of what it sounded like. I consider everything that I’ve ever had a hand in to be a misstep or a mistake in some way.”

But just as Pecknold is possibly the harshest critic of the album that has earned his band so much attention, he’s also more likely to regard his original songwriting exercises as only the first in a series of well-meaning failures. What’s certain is that he was forming a musical vocabulary that was rich in harmony and steeped in otherworldly reverb, his parents’ Simon & Garfunkel, Zombies, and Fairport Convention records, offering him blueprints for writing songs that create an unseen world of evocative images and ethereal textures. Just as Pecknold was taking his first awkward steps toward becoming a songwriter, his best friend and future bandmate was learning guitar as well.

“When he first started writing songs, I was definitely im-pressed,” Skjelset recalls. “When one of us would get better, the other would have to get better. He would start writing these more complex songs, and I would figure I had to get better at guitar to play them. We played our first show at a coffee shop, and it was an open mic night. He had been playing open mics by himself for a little while, and my mom and I and our parents and our friends would watch him. But our first show we played at a coffee shop, and it was a huge thing, like, ‘Are you ready for the show!’ and we invited all of our friends. And we did that three times, I think. Then our first real show where people had to pay for tickets, we were called The Pineapples, which was a terrible band name. It was just me and him. He was playing piano and acoustic guitar, and I was playing electric guitar, and I remember so many fuck-ups. It was so embarrassing.”

More songs and awkward performances would follow. Pecknold would finish high school at a community college, and a succession of drummers, bass players, and supporting players joined and quit in quick succession. The Pineapples moniker was dropped, and Fleet Foxes emerged from a list of equally animal-themed titles. Pecknold moved out of the suburbs and to Seattle, played with local band Dolour, and wrote new songs by the boatload. Eventually, keyboardist Casey Wescott and bassist Christian Wargo were enlisted from Seattle electronic pop band Crystal Skulls, and, after the addition of drummer Josh Tillman (who has released several solo records as J. Tillman), the band was complete.

“I guess the thing about Robin that I identified with is that he was really, really focused on songwriting,” Wescott says, the graybeard of the band at 27 years old. “He just dug in. I’ve seen him write tons of different songs, things in every different direction. He just works fast and he works hard at making things as interesting as possible musically. I love working with him because he’s so collaborative, aside from the fact that I love his material. I also love the fact that the guy-I don’t want to say he gets bored with his material-but he’s constantly pushing himself to his next song. It’s great because there’s always more material to work on than we have time for.”

But while he’s the undeniable musical center of the band, Pecknold is hardly a band dictator. Perfectly mirroring the fact that Fleet Foxes performs as a blend of voices with no lead, the songwriting process is an open-ended collaboration where the band works toward the shared goal of constructing a song that will leave everyone satisfied and creatively sated.

“I’m surprised, frankly, about how open he is about changing directions of songs,” Wescott continues. “He’s 22, and sometimes people are very protective of their songs and how they turn out, but he’s very into everybody contributing their ideas. Everyone trusts each other implicitly. No one is going to try to mess up a song or do something indulgent. We all respect each other musically, and that’s why this thing can happen and how there can be all this variation and all these different ideas happening, as opposed to something that would be much more centralized. Robin will definitely have ideas, and if anyone has an idea, we have to try it out. And now that we have the unit that everyone feels really good about, we’re all just looking forward to that next song.”

That next set of songs is already taking shape. Proving his eagerness to start the next album, Pecknold spent a rare week off drawing up the demos for ten new compositions, spending a week at his grandparents’ cabin, away from the glowing reviews, the growing crowds, and the reality that he’s now writing songs that, like it or not, are going to be listened to and dissected by far more people than he could have imagined only a year ago.

“It is something that is always in the back of your mind in some way, and it’s an exercise to keep it out,” Pecknold admits. “We’re just trying to tell ourselves every day that that doesn’t matter. It all comes out in the wash, and you just do it for yourself. If people like it, that’s what they like, and if they don’t, then that’s fine, too. It would be severely disappointing to make a record for other people. That wouldn’t be creatively fulfilling at all.”

“To me, the band hasn’t really started yet,” Pecknold continues, rallying some confidence. “It’s this group of guys, to me, that will be in it to the end. And it’s the record that this group of guys will make that we will stand behind and feel great about.”

And while Fleet Foxes haven’t yet had the task of following up an internationally acclaimed album, they’ve already proven that they can work without succumbing to the doubts and desperation that accompanied the recording of their full-length breakthrough. Sun Giant, the EP that was released before but recorded a few months after their self-titled album was released, was completed in a span of eight days, with the band developing the synergy needed to record quickly and relatively painlessly.

“That was a stark contrast, but that was just because we were able to have the evolution of the song happen much faster,” Wescott explains. “I don’t know what we’re going to do for the next one. We’ve got tons of ideas, and at the end of the day, we’re going to be making all of the choices as far as how the record is made and what is going on. We’ll use reverb on the record, but it might be nice to sing in churches and get some nice natural reverb. There are so many things that can be done, and at this point, I’m being purposely vague, because just how we did the EP would be amazing to me. But at the end of the day, the material is going to dictate how we go forward. What if the record ends up being one hour-and-a-half song? Then we’d probably have to cut it live,” he says with a laugh. “It really just depends on what’s happening.”

What’s happening right now is what happens to every band that rises from obscurity to the top of year-end lists-they’re going to tour until they can’t stand it anymore. And as much as they admit that they’d rather be at home with their friends and family, working on the followup to the album that has entered them into the ranks of the great harmony-driven rock bands, there exists a certain hard-won satisfaction in having succeeded on their own terms. Still, success can be fleeting in the fickle world of pop music, leaving Fleet Foxes with only one certainty: Whatever the future holds, Pecknold isn’t likely to be satisfied with it.

“I don’t know that I’ll ever feel successful,” he says. “I feel less successful now than I ever have. I don’t think it’s healthy to ever be satisfied with something you do, because what are you going to do then? You’re satisfied at 23, and you still have 70 years to live. Are you just going to pack it up? Life is so long. I don’t think I ever want to feel successful. I really feel dissatisfaction is the only driving force in the world, and in a way I’m happy with that,” he says, sounding perfectly content with the idea that he’ll never create something that meets his standard of pop perfection. “I’d be more dissatisfied to be satisfied.”


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