Restlessness Blues: Robin Pecknold And The Rewriting Of Fleet Foxes

Robin Pecknold and I had our road trip all planned out. We pull out of Reykjavik around lunchtime, aiming to play tourists for the afternoon. There’s a giant, famous waterfall called Gullfoss we want to see, and if we’re lucky maybe we can make it to one of Iceland’s black sand beaches for sunset. Soon enough, we’re rolling through volcanic fields, blackened rock and moss spreading out as far as we can see into the sort of blank gray-white haze of the air, until that clears and reveals mountains in the distance. Pecknold’s driving music choice is impeccable. He’s cued up the original Blade Runner soundtrack, and its simultaneously haunting and dreamlike patterns are perfect for the landscapes of Iceland, a country that’s often beautiful in a brutal way, horizons enticing for their general absence of other humans but bearing an attendant anxiety when you stop and think about how bad it could go if you were to get stuck out here, too far from civilization.

Both Pecknold and I are in town for this year’s iteration of Iceland Airwaves, a festival that consumes Reykjavik at the beginning of each November. The preceding night, Pecknold’s band Fleet Foxes played a majestic set in a cavernous, modern theater situated near the docks in Reykjavik. Serving as one of the festivals headliners this year, they’re also one of the primary international names on the 2017 lineup, a part of Fleet Foxes’ next European leg amidst a lot of touring behind their long-awaited third album, Crack-Up.

We make it just about an hour outside of town before our plans go awry. We stop to check out a lake and some mountains, then head across the highway to a crevice that’s apparently featured on some kind of Game Of Thrones-themed tour of filming locations in Iceland. Around this time, we swing by a rest stop where a ranger informs us that due to a storm coming in off the coast, they’re about to close all the highways and we need to turn back to Reykjavik immediately. So much for that. As we drive back through rain and the beginnings of snow and insane winds, Pecknold and I start talking about the long road he took between the last Fleet Foxes record, 2011’s Helplessness Blues and here: him in Iceland at 31, post-college and having released the most complicated and sophisticated album of his career thus far.

Despite how beloved Fleet Foxes’ first two records were, it initially seemed a strange prospect, their returning in 2017. Six years is a long time for any artist to go between records, let alone a young band with two records to their name, a band in a position to keep churning out material and solidify their standing. But also that particular six-year gap saw a lot of changes — the paradigms of the music industry continued to break down at an accelerated rate, and the cultural moment Fleet Foxes were often lumped into then now feels like ancient history. During that gap, Pecknold resurfaced from time to time, but rarely with any promise of new music. In the meantime, the band’s former drummer Josh Tillman embarked on a solo project as Father John Misty, finding acclaim and significant relevance in a very different landscape, and the world moved further beyond the late ’00s indie moment with which Fleet Foxes had been associated.

“I’m glad the music we did was what it was, but if it would get compared to something, even rightfully so, it would really bother me, because it was proof that it wasn’t on its own trip enough,” Pecknold reflects. “It wouldn’t bother me because it was wrong. It would bother me because they were right.”

There was an inherent uphill battle when Fleet Foxes returned this year. A question of, where do they fit six years down the line? With Crack-Up, the answer turned out to be a recontextualization of this band, a darker and more conflicted work that in turn reframes what came before it, an album that underlines the fact that Fleet Foxes have always been somewhat out of place and time despite superficial resemblances to the scene of the late ’00s. It’s an album with riches that take time to unfold, with a density that hints at the hard-fought road Pecknold traveled to get back here.

That road included a sort of self-imposed exile, with Pecknold going to college in New York. To hear him speak of it now, it sounds like the kind of quarter-life crisis plenty members of his generation have experienced, the primary difference being that, you know, Pecknold had already found somewhat sudden success at a young age. Prior to Fleet Foxes’ debut, the biggest aspiration Pecknold had was to headline a particular Seattle venue. “We just wanted to be a big local band,” he says, remembering how the record was already finished and he simply planned to release it, tour, and get back to the studio with the assumption that nobody would really listen to it. “Then it came out, and it’s not what happened at all. I wasn’t thinking outside Seattle.”

For a folk-rock outfit in the 21st century, Fleet Foxes found astronomical success, inadvertently paving the way for more watered-down festival-circuit indie-folk full of singalong “oh-oh” refrains. By his early 20s, Pecknold had achieved the dream. He’d made it big as a musician. But some things were still not quite right.

“I just remember being very insecure when the first two records came out, and I feel like that permeated a lot of my decision making, creatively and otherwise,” he reflects. “That was one thing I wanted to address in private before doing a public-facing thing again.”

Having been writing music consistently since he was a teenager, Pecknold found himself in the midst of some soul-searching during those college years, a period of time he characterizes as “contrasting” and “kind of crazy.” He moved apartments frequently. He flitted from one idea of his future to the next, with not all of them even being creatively oriented and with options as far-flung as being an analyst, a film director, or a pro surfer. (He delivers the last one with a laugh.) “I felt very confused and disjointed,” he recalls. “Every two hours, I wanted to be a different person. Every day there was something, ‘I don’t want to do music and I want to do this.’ I just didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

Pecknold went down the rabbit hole for a while; or, at least, he embraced a new life removed from that of a touring and recording musician. He speaks of his college days in New York as an isolating time, perhaps a crucible he needed to experience before crafting Crack-Up. He came out of school with a different work ethic and different set of ideas; the album turned out littered with easter eggs, music theory details that are there to deepen the meaning of the songs if you’re looking for them.

You can tell how all the years might’ve impacted him. Generally, Pecknold is reflective in conversation when asked about his music. As we drive back to Reykjavik, he stares out the window from time to time, taking long pauses, lost in thought or biding his time trying to figure out precisely what he wants to say on a particular matter.

But he’s also conscious about going too deep. “I think over-intellectualizing music is a trap,” he says, bringing up his music history classes from college. “You’re aware of a music history and how one thing leads to another, so that creates this impression that there’s a ‘right next thing’ to be made, because you can retroactively see how things progressed. Which can be paralyzing, because you can say ‘OK, well, am I doing the right next thing?'” That bogged him down for a few years, until he was able to glean what he needed from the experience and get back to that old artistic truth: to go with what feels right, to trust your instincts.

“While making this record, I was able to get to a mental place where there wasn’t really anyone I was desperate to impress,” he says. He was able to make a Fleet Foxes record that was on its own trip.

Robin Pecknold
CREDIT: Jon Bauer

There’s always been an ambitious and panoramic quality to Fleet Foxes’ music, with Pecknold’s melodic sensibility conveying yearning of some type or another more often than not. On the first record, that usually tumbled into a sense of joyous wonder. Then on Helplessness Blues, you can hear the beginnings of what prompted Pecknold’s break, the simmering anxiety and the enclosing grip of paralysis. Six years later, Crack-Up is a chronicle of the spiral out and the eventual return. It’s a more somber and weathered record, where those big melodies are further spread out and, when they do arrive, have a more melancholic or seeking timbre to them.

This is the genius turn, the way in which Crack-Up can shift one’s perspective on this band. The danger with the kind of music Pecknold writes — unfailingly beautiful, pastoral, often rushing towards wide-eyed catharses — is that it can be dismissed as merely “pleasant.” It’s what could tempt a person into consigning Fleet Foxes to the indie era when they first found success.

On Crack-Up, Pecknold injected a healthy dose of darkness and existential crises into the music. “I think at a certain point in working on the record, there were things I was perceiving in myself as weakness that I decided to make features of the album,” he says. That feeling of being disjointed, confused? That’s all over Crack-Up. Pecknold explored severe contrasts, pushing further from where Helplessness Blues‘ multi-part saga “The Shrine/An Argument” left off and building these intricate, tangled songs for Crack-Up that swung harshly from one section to another, or at times featured elements or rhythms working against each other.

It’s the sound of a person fighting against and figuring himself out in real time, frequently taking sharp turns and then crashing down into insular, meditative moments. “I thought, I could make something interesting out of this,” Pecknold says, reflecting on the phase that wound up birthing much of Crack-Up. “Capture something, in a confident way.”

The title Crack-Up, taken from an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay, seemed to sum it all up. But it may have contributed to the potential to perceive the album as an enigmatic tapestry of references. “I just thought it was a cool title,” Pecknold says. “I honestly, at this point, wish I had called it something else, but I wasn’t really thinking about how I would talk about the record. It wasn’t made to be discussed in that sense.” Though Fitzgerald isn’t exactly an avant-garde reference point, Pecknold says this when we talk about the idea that there’s this assumption his college years are baked into the album. He pushes back against that, pointing out that the lyrics all came later and the main influence of Fitzgerald’s essay was the concept of holding two ideas in mind at one time, a concept Pecknold set out to translate into musical interpretations.

Really, life in New York played a more fundamental role in the finished product. The city’s rhythms, its isolation, the constant navigation that comes with living there. “I would just walk for hours and hours in New York,” Pecknold recalls. “You’re passing by something and a sound passes by, or you go into a building and it’s a completely different environment. If you walk south to north you’re traveling through time. It’s a very strange microcosm.” The city wound up being foundational, the experience of living there during school but also its character, with Pecknold experimenting with field recordings and found sounds from those endless walks. When he speaks of the place now, he’s starting to sound conflicted again — like he got what he could out of it then, but it might be time to reset once more. “It would just be cool to keep trying new places,” he says. “Different environments bring out different things.”

Fleet Foxes
CREDIT: Rob Ball/Getty

By the time we get back to Reykjavik, the storm has started to hit the town — the wind moves so aggressively that the rain is essentially horizontal. We find shelter in a bar with a name that’s fairly unpronouncable for a native English speaker, sitting in a room that has a flimsy door to a side yard that the wind keeps whipping open against the wall like in some kind of horror movie. Pecknold sits with a coffee and a pack of Camels in front of him, and we talk about the implications of Fleet Foxes having now returned with an album he believes in, but in a far different landscape. We talk about what’s next.

Pecknold was conscious of the fact that, though he’d tuned out his old music life for a few years, Fleet Foxes would be returning under changed circumstances. Earlier in the year, he engaged in a few conversations with other ’00s luminaries regarding the “State Of Indie” they found themselves making comebacks within, first with Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth in an exchange on Instagram, and then with Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste in a chat for Interview. (He laughs and says the former accidentally came across as a bit “Get off of my lawn.”) This is the flipside, the potential drawback, of a Fleet Foxes on their own trip. “There’s a security in knowing exactly what is going on and knowing how you fit into it, even if that brings with it an anxiety of being another rank and file [indie act],” Pecknold reflects. “I admire bands like Wilco and Radiohead that are able to maintain their own fanbases and universes and they’re not as beholden to certain aspects of the hype cycle.”

The other curiosity when it comes to the notion of where Fleet Foxes lives in 2017 is the fact that, at just 31, Pecknold already occupies something approaching an elder statesman status. Even with some of the artists who have ascended during his time away — like, say, the War On Drugs — being the same age or older than him, Pecknold’s band was one of the big names 10 years ago. He sat out the phase during which some of his contemporaries — artists like Arcade Fire, St. Vincent, or the National — kept plugging along and became much, much bigger names incrementally. Now, even as Crack-Up was released in a year full of new albums from the big indie acts of ’07 or ’08, it feels both outside of that moment and the current zeitgeist. A still young and restless Pecknold is now a man who’s been through one era already and now exists on his own plane.

As far as what the future holds from there, the answers, for now, do not seem to be that Fleet Foxes will disappear again. They’ll be touring all through next year, and new projects are already percolating. Pecknold mentions one idea he’s had for a few years, saying it’s “very complicated and requires a lot of computer work,” which does not mean Fleet Foxes is going electronic but that the new material needs a lot of “rendering.” That concept may or may not get folded into what Pecknold identifies as the next record, the one he’s currently writing songs for and which he says will depart from the approach of Crack-Up. “On Crack-Up I was trying to find interesting ways to make things feel fractured,” he explains. “On this one, I want to find interesting ways to make it feel very fluid. Gradience as opposed to hard cuts. Slow dissolves.”

He still doesn’t know whether he’ll want to make music for his whole life. Some of those questions linger, whether because of continued personal discovery or the impossibility of imagining what the music industry will look like when Pecknold is an old man. What he does know is he wants to make music now, in his 30s. He points out that the best he’ll sing, physically speaking, is now, and his vocal abilities will inevitably begin to degrade as he ages. On Crack-Up, you can already hear Pecknold’s voice maturing; there’s a new resonance now when he explores different corners of his voice, like the grainy hush of album standout “I Should See Memphis.” “While there’s the opportunity, I’ll do this thing, just as if you were 21 and playing football,” he says. “I would like to be getting albums recorded. That’s more of a concern than when I was 23.”

Though the end of Crack-Up finds a bit of resolution, Pecknold doesn’t sound satisfied. He sounds like he’s still hunting for something. On the other side of his break from Fleet Foxes, there are some pivotal changes. “I don’t have a lot left to hold up as, ‘If only I could do this, then I’ll be happy.’ I know happiness isn’t about attainment, but practice,” he says. “You can’t throw that tennis ball of happiness and run and go get it. You cant just be playing catch with yourself.” There’s that tension, that creative disposition and a constant search for something else, whatever it is.

The way Pecknold puts it now, it’s always in terms of new and grander ambitions, not paralyzed dissatisfaction. He wants to take on bigger projects; he talks about wanting to be more involved in the visual side of Fleet Foxes; he talks in abstract terms about the willingness to explore projects outside of music entirely. The core tenet, it seems, is to never stop moving. To never tread water. It might’ve been a similar impulse that first compelled to Pecknold to walk away from Fleet Foxes for some time. But that was him running in multiple directions. This is him reinvigorated, rekindled. Before we leave the bar to battle uphill through Reykjavik in the lashing rain, he says something that sums it all up, that explains why he left Fleet Foxes behind when he did, why Crack-Up had to break new territory for them, why he won’t settle for any one road forward. After going through all of that, he has a navigating principle: “I don’t want to feel static.”

Robin Pecknold
CREDIT: Jon Bauer

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