Robin Pecknold Reviews 2020
The Fleet Foxes leader on Borat, SpaceX, Red Dead Redemption 2, the death of Mr. Peanut, and more.
For a good chunk of 2020, Robin Pecknold was deep in the world of Shore. He’d already spent years laboring over the fourth Fleet Foxes album, and the music was there. Soon, we’d all get to hear it, and the lush, golden autumn sounds therein would lead to Shore becoming one of the most acclaimed albums of the year. Perhaps more importantly, the album’s warmth and beauty felt like a balm in one of the most traumatic years most of us have lived through. But first, Pecknold had to figure out one big key to the album: He didn’t have any lyrics.
After brief bread-baking dalliances and a video game deep-dive filled Pecknold’s hours during the height of New York’s initial lockdown, he set about trying to finish Shore with a different kind of quarantine activity. He got in his car and drove in daylong loops around upstate New York and back to the city, listening to the mixes of Shore and suddenly feeling inspired. In a year when most of us could only look outward and connect with each other through screens, Pecknold wound up making a communal embrace of an album, a collection of songs reaching out to listeners and talking about what people pass on to others.
In such a strange year, obviously we all had a lot of our bandwidth and attention taken up by the pandemic, the politicalized atmosphere surrounding it, and the election. At the same time, there were still media events and quirkier goings-on we could all bond over, maybe stuff that could give us all a bit of respite from the confusion and darkness of 2020 otherwise. And on the other hand of that, a giant universal experience fragmented what could’ve been major cultural moments — like, for example, a would-be blockbuster like Tenet arriving into mostly empty theaters and then sort of disappearing back into the ether, or all the other blockbusters stuck in limbo until 2021. Our consumption became more atomized than ever, with everyone latching on to whatever it was that could get them through the long, time-melting stretch of coronavirus.
Every December we talk to musicians who made some of our favorite music from the past 12 months, and ask them about a bunch of goofy detritus by way of “reviewing” the year at hand. It’s a funny prospect in 2020 — it goes without saying this year would rank pretty low within such an endeavor. But it’s also funny because at the same time we have theoretically had a rare, overarching unifying experience, we are also more fully siloed. On a December afternoon, Pecknold and I caught up over the phone: Here’s what his 2020 looked and sounded like. It has some overlaps with mine, and maybe it will with yours, too.
Were there any 2020 albums you really got into?
ROBIN PECKNOLD: I loved the Fiona Apple album. I listened to that a ton when it first came out. That was a crazy 2020 imprint, for sure. Any time I listen to it now I’m taken back to that insane lockdown phase. I listened to Kevin Morby’s album a lot. I listened to the Phoebe Bridgers record, Waxahatchee, the Dylan record. All the stuff that’s getting mentioned left and right. I listened to Chris Bear’s album a lot that he put out under the name Fools. It’s very peaceful and calming music, and it’s instrumental. That was a huge comfort for a while. From January to March I was just working in the studio, and then from March to May I wasn’t working at all, and the only record that poked through then was the Fiona Apple one. And then from June to October I was just back working every day, or talking about the record, putting all that stuff together.
You were upstate with Aaron Dessner last year when you were starting Shore. Did you ever wind up talking to him about this unexpected Taylor Swift collaboration?
PECKNOLD: A little bit. When I was heading back up there in June to just drive around and get some space from the city, I ended up taking a pair of speakers to [engineer/frequent Dessner collaborator] Jon Low’s house. I had a pair of monitors he wanted to borrow, and he was like “Oh, yeah we’re working on this big pop album but I can’t tell you what it is.” And I was like, “Is it Taylor Swift?” [Laughs] And he had this perfect poker face and said, “I can’t tell you.” I kinda knew that it was going on, and I was really excited to hear it and excited for it to come out. It’s so cool that those guys got so involved in that. I was so happy when it got announced I could text Jon, “I knew it!”
One of the other music stories, though it seems like ancient history now since it happened before the pandemic: Billie Eilish was the second person ever to sweep the main Grammys categories. I don’t know how much you pay attention to that part of pop music, but I was curious whether you were following that at all.
PECKNOLD: I think Billie Eilish and Rosalía and that spacious kind of production where there’s this really heavy bass and not a lot in the mid-range and then a ton of room for this beautifully sung quiet vocal — that kind of production and songwriting approach is really cool. It’s amazing that it’s as popular — being 34, I feel like I have some outmoded ideas of what’s “mainstream.” I still have some residual “It’s gotta be kind of like U2” or something. Just from being a teenager. When I really listen to what’s going on, it’s way different than what I think is mainstream, and way cooler than what I think is mainstream. That’s really inspiring to me.
So after you got bored of baking in quarantine, you delved into video games. Everyone I knew who could get a Switch was deep into Animal Crossing, like this facsimile of real mundane life when you couldn’t leave your apartment.
PECKNOLD: I wanted to get a Nintendo Switch to play Animal Crossing, but I couldn’t find one anywhere. I didn’t want to overpay on eBay. I bought a PS4 the day before lockdown started. That was the last thing I did, I went to Gamestop and bought a PS4, like, “This might come in handy.” [Laughs] Then I downloaded Red Dead Redemption 2, which was cool because we were working in the studio where they made all the music for that. So we’d been using all these instruments that Woody [Jackson] at Vox had bought to use for that score. It was cool to play the game and hear Woody’s music and be connected back to that experience when I had been recording at Vox for six months or whatever it was. And then just to ride around a horse and go hunting [in the game], that took up a large chunk of my time in April. I tried again, I guess a month ago, to play a video game. It didn’t connect. I guess at this age it required a global lockdown for it to be a thing for me.
So you’re not fully back onboard with gaming and getting into Cyberpunk 2077 or whatever.
PECKNOLD: No, I’m not, but I did have this one weird — you know how in those games you could be in first-person mode or third-person mode? One thing I’ve been thinking recently, like if I’m on my phone, or throughout the day I’ll check in [with myself], like if I switch the camera of my life to third person mode, would I like what I’m seeing. Like, this guy just sitting there scrolling on his phone. There’s something of this third-person camera thought that came into my head as a litmus test or a gut-check. “If I’m in third-person mode, would I still be doing this?”
Here’s where things get a bit more random: They killed Mr. Peanut this year. I had actually not seen this commercial until recently, and it’s a pretty bizarre bit of branding.
PECKNOLD: [Laughs] Why did they kill him?
Um… I think this was some genius marketing firm looking at how the internet reacted to the death of Iron Man in Avengers last year and thinking, “Let’s get some of that.” I guess? Then he was reborn as a baby nut, though. It didn’t last that long.
PECKNOLD: Was that James Murphy’s idea?
Killing Mr. Peanut?
PECKNOLD: Yeah, so it’s kinda like a band breaking up and getting back together.
Oh. [Laughs] I didn’t follow you at first.
PECKNOLD: You get to a certain point and the only thing left to do is blow something up.
We love this! https://t.co/LgMGOGZIer
— Fleetwood Mac (@fleetwoodmac) September 26, 2020
The ubiquitous Fleetwood Mac video got a little overdone when everyone else started doing it, but at first I was kind of like: This is the purest little bit of joy we all needed in a year where nobody had that.
PECKNOLD: That was amazing. And then Kyle McLachlan’s one where he’s Dale Cooper doing it, that one was great. We all want to feel that freed.
As the man with a skateboard and a jug of Ocean Spray.
PECKNOLD: Absolutely. That’s the image of the year, for sure.
I know you spend a decent amount of time online engaging with fans, but do you find yourself spending a lot of time going down wormholes on Instagram or TikTok or whatever?
PECKNOLD: Yeah, I don’t have TikTok. I should probably download that, but it seems very chaotic and stressful. Instagram… I spend too much time on there. Sometimes it’s the only means of connection, especially this year, so I think that’s why I’ve been overusing it. But there’s so many downsides. You’re left with so much residual mental noise. I’m cooling off on it now for the rest of the year.
It’s a weird year for movies, since we can’t actually go to the movies. And then there were these would-be big events like Tenet that were sort of just like, lost or debated only online or whatever. Was there anything in particular you got into this year?
PECKNOLD: There was a movie called The Souvenir that I think came out last year, and then there was a movie like that that starred Jude Law. The Nest. That had a similar vibe to The Souvenir. Kind of ’80s period piece, slight arthouse vibe. I’m trying to think what else from this year I watched. It’s been weird not being able to go see something. I started watching Mank but it didn’t quite connect. It’s been a weird year for watching things. I was watching like, the first season of Sesame Street, which was on HBO Max, and then like old Disney nature documentaries from the ’50s, which were on Disney+. And then that How To With John Wilson show was amazing.
Oh, yeah, I’ve heard — people keep recommending it to me. I don’t know what it is, when I can’t go to a movie theater I think I kinda back off of movies. Then with TV, I found myself just watching — like all the sudden I’m obsessed with Survivor. The thing you’re saying about the Disney stuff, I can relate to that. It’s like we all found these weird pockets of what calms our minds.
PECKNOLD: Speaking of that, there was a series I was just watching out of morbid curiosity that was produced by the app Calm. It was 20 minute episodes about like, noodles. Just calming things. This beautiful shot of someone in a sunlit room making noodles and this romantic music and this guy just like, “Noodles.” His voice was as if he was a meditation app trying to put you to sleep but he’s just talking about noodles. I watched that a few times just thinking, this is the most ridiculous 2020 thing.
If you were digging through the archives of Disney+, are you a Star Wars fan at all?
PECKNOLD: Yes. But the only stuff I’ve seen of The Mandolorian have been the YouTube highlight clips of all the Baby Yoda scenes. [Laughs] I haven’t actually watched the episodes.
Another movie event was Borat 2. You and I are around the same age. Borat was a big deal when we were young.
PECKNOLD: I started watching that and it just… it doesn’t hit the same way now.
I was wondering about that.
PECKNOLD: I guess maybe Nathan For You — that make-people-uncomfortable style of humor, maybe he just took it where it needed to go from Borat and he did it better because he wasn’t playing a character, or because it’s not about deceiving someone or making them uncomfortable enough to incriminate themselves. I don’t know how to state it. I loved Nathan For You, and it scratched a similar itch but did it better, so when Borat came back around it wasn’t advanced enough, or something.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX had their first manned launch this year. Are you into space stuff at all?
PECKNOLD: [Pause] No. [Laughs] I mean, I’d be into any actual kinda revelation about aliens or if there was a secret manned base on Mars or something like that. But the privatization of space exploration is kind of sad. Elon Musk… I’m not an Elon stan.
Yeah it sort of takes the romance out of the whole thing. And then he’s basically a Bond villain. But: Say by the time you and I are in our mid-50s, and space tourism was a thing–
PECKNOLD: Oh, 100% I’d do that. For sure I’d do that.
OK, say by the time we are old there was an up-and-running Mars colony. Would you move to Mars towards the end of your life?
PECKNOLD: It depends on how bad things got here. It depends on who I was with. Just to have been the one to do it? Probably not. Because everyone that will know about that will eventually die and I’ll die too. I would do it if it were a situation of, obviously, if we had to vacate this planet then yeah I would move to Mars. But just to do that, hm… like what are you going to do on Mars? Like just to experience that? Yeah, I’m good. I would stay here.
Speaking of aliens, did you see these monoliths?
PECKNOLD: Yeah, the Planter’s promotion? Mr. Peanut’s gravestone?
You’re really connecting the dots quickly here. Where were you the day the election was called?
PECKNOLD: I was in New York City. That was the best day of the year. That was an incredible day.
I had never experienced anything like that.
The screen writers really went too far this time. Biden is declared the winner on a Saturday when it’s 75 degrees in NYC in November.
This is the scene at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.
Video by @JulieDressner pic.twitter.com/M1gssYrVvd
— Cliff Levy (@cliffordlevy) November 7, 2020
Millions continue to celebrate Joe Biden’s victory in the streets across the U.S. This is footage from Manhattan in New York City.
— Travis Akers (@travisakers) November 7, 2020
When the crowd in Times Square saw President-elect Joe Biden jog onto the stage in Delaware. pic.twitter.com/TC4H7gAdeU
— David Begnaud (@DavidBegnaud) November 8, 2020
PECKNOLD: God. That was unbelievable. It almost made being in the city all year worth it. Hearing clanging pots and pans around 10AM outside my window and thinking it was some kind of thank you to first responders again, but then someone yelling, “That’s right! That’s right!” Just hearing that out the window and then looking at the news seeing they’d called it. I just walked out of my apartment ecstatic. I went everywhere. I went to Washington Square Park, everyone was already gathered. People had found Biden merch somewhere — I had never seen that previously. Then I walked over the bridge to McCarren Park and then went down to Prospect Park. I was just out on the streets all day.
I was right near Prospect Park that day yeah. You know, you live in New York for a while and you have those kinds of days where the whole place seems more unified, like one big community. But the last one I’d had was for the hurricane in 2013, when some of us had to evacuate. I had never seen something like this, such a huge public outpouring of relief and joy.
PECKNOLD: And that whole week leading up to it had been so tense. Nobody was allowing themselves to be excited. The first day results were so deflating. To have that tension released like that was the best.
The last few years I’ve done these interviews have been the Trump years. Every time we are wrapping up one year and looking towards the next thinking it might be a touch better, there’s some new blindside or atrocity. So, with a great deal of hesitance, my next question is: Did that day give you a bit of hope? Like we’re nearing the end of a long tunnel? I had kinda forgotten there could be days like that, you know?
PECKNOLD: I think so. I’ve been reflecting on that the last couple months. Having some space from recording and not having a tour to go on, I’ve just been thinking about how dark the last few years have felt in so many ways. And just how strange it is — just how much power our politics has over our collective state of mind if you’re paying close attention. Obviously a lot depends on what happens in Georgia, because we could wind up in a situation like the last four years of Obama where he was just getting cut off at the pass by Mitch McConnell. But even if that happens, even if the Republicans retain control of the Senate, just the mental break from the abuse of the news cycle I think is gonna have to be enough. Speaking personally, it’s funny to have spent the whole Trump era back in this music mindset. Finishing Crack-Up around when he got elected, touring for the first two years of it, and then working on this one for the two years after that. To have this clear sky personally together with this clear sky politically [now] is kind of interesting. It’s funny how those things can dovetail sometimes.
On the pandemic level, with these vaccines rolling out — presumably sometime not too far into next year we won’t be totally out of it but enough people will be vaccinated that we can go back to more of a normal life. What’s the first thing you’re looking forward to doing again?
PECKNOLD: As simple as going to a crowded coffee shop and sitting inside. Just being inside. Getting shelter from the weather inside. I miss it being like 5PM on a cold day and walking in somewhere and warming up. Which is very low bar.
It’s funny how much the goal posts get moved on this kinda thing, yeah. There was that period of time in the summer in New York where it was OK to try and see people a bit but if it was bad weather everything shut down, because it was just only outdoors.
PECKNOLD: I still haven’t eaten indoors since March. But sometimes I’ll have to walk into a place to buy — like walk into a coffee shop that used to be a coffee shop and now they’re selling flour or coffee beans. And I get a flashback, like imagining these people filling up the space speaking and laughing and rubbing elbows. I think I’m most looking forward to that normalcy.
That was kind of what stoked the lyrics for Shore as you were driving around this summer right? You were mulling over that idea of community more.
PECKNOLD: Definitely. In a lot of ways I’ve had great community connections this year but they’re all mediated. I started doing this thing, where me and some friends would do a regular Zoom check-in. That’s something I should’ve been doing for 15 years. I never thought to do it before this. To just get your friends together and pass the conch shell and talk about what’s going on.
Oh wow you’ve stuck with that the whole year huh?
PECKNOLD: Last month or so we’ve started that back up.
That makes sense. I guess I have a lot more phone calls now. I know after Shore you weren’t writing for a bit. But given how optimistic you felt coming out of this, have you gotten back into that zone?
PECKNOLD: No, I still haven’t. For me, I’m really happy with how the record came out. I’m adjusting to this position — one of the things this year is I’ve felt like it’s been hard to choose which things you’re reacting to because so many things are happening and things are changing so frequently that you’re not like, “Oh, this is the thing I’m seeing that’s going to guide my choices for the next thing I want to do.” It’s just been so chaotic. The Shore record, I feel like that’s an awesome capstone on something. There’s a lot of clear sky creatively now. I don’t feel so bummed on how it was received that I need to prove something, but I also don’t feel burdened by some amazing… I just don’t feel like I’m reacting either way to how the record came together or how it was received. That’s a new mindset. I’m usually reacting to something. So I’m sitting in this non-reactive state for a second and seeing what comes up as an exciting thing to do. It kind of feels like a bridge between eras right now, personally. I need to come up with a new set of ideas and exciting things to explore.