Progress Report: Fleet Foxes
NAME: Fleet Foxes
PROGRESS REPORT: Seattle’s favorite new folkies overcome the dreaded sophomore slump with their hotly anticipated Helplessness Blues.
The last time I talked to Fleet Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold was back in 2008. At the time, Pecknold and co. were in the midst of doing nonstop press for their about-to-be-released full-length debut and I was interviewing him for a fashion magazine that he’d never heard of before. Even though the band’s debut album had yet to be released, Pecknold was clearly already feeling bewildered by all the attention. As he recounted the humble origins of Fleet Foxes and described the making of the band’s debut — a period of creative endeavor characterized by having no money and zero expectations — Pecknold seemed more than a little anxious about the future. “I just want to move on to making another record,” he told me. Little did he (or anyone) know, Fleet Foxes would spend the next three years burning up the road and doing weird things like performing on Saturday Night Live, selling out lots of big shows, and raking up bucketloads of ebullient critical praise. It was gonna be a while before anyone would have time to give serious thought to record number two.
“We definitely didn’t see it coming,” says Pecknold of the band’s success. “I remember having conversations before our first record came out that were along the lines of — let’s just get this one out and get it over with so we can get busy on something new — which didn’t really happen. Given the kind of music we make, we just didn’t anticipate selling that many records. It’s not as if we became super famous or as if we were asked to do a lot of things that we were uncomfortable with — other than an embarrassing photo shoot or two — but it was definitely incredibly weird … and it has definitely changed all of our lives completely.”
This May the band will release Helplessness Blues — the highly anticipated and apparently none too easy to make sophomore album. According to Pecknold, both he and the band went through the requisite amount of worry and second-guessing that would plague any band faced with the task of following up an unexpectedly gangbusters first album. However, based on Pecknold’s own description of the new record and given the vibe of the recently released title track, the band have wisely opted to keep doing the things they do best — i.e. write really expansive folk-pop songs and sing beautiful harmonies — rather than fuck with the formula. Still, trying to break new ground musically while also embracing a kind of staid folk traditionalism proved to be a tough trick to pull off.
“It was definitely very hard,” says Pecknold. “Among other things there were just a lot of technical challenges to figure out. I was really exhausted and sick for nearly four months, so my voice sounded awful. The record probably could have come out in 2010 were it not for that. I had to give myself time to get better. At one point we went into a recording studio in New York City to mix the record — thinking the record was done — and realized that it sounded weird and we weren’t really ready. Also, from a creative standpoint, I wanted the songwriting to be better. I wanted the lyrics to make a little more sense and to delineate a little bit more between the folk and the pop stuff this time — to have more barriers between those two vibes. Does that make sense? Even now, it’s a hard thing to articulate.”
Work on the new record started in the fall of 2010, a couple of months after the band’s seemingly never-ending tour had finally come to an end. Pecknold spent several weeks writing songs every day alone at home before reconvening with the band — and producer Phil Ek — at a Seattle studio. Aside from a few very specific aesthetic goals — more “organic” drum sounds and vocal performances recorded all in one take — Pecknold explains that a lot of the struggles involved with the making of Helplessness Blues were more ideological than technical.
“There are so many considerations to make when you are making a record,” says Pecknold, “You just want to make the best thing that you can, you know? You want it to be a good song, but it can’t be too much like anything else you’ve already done. And you can’t help but think about the landscape that this music is going to be received in, which also affects your creative process. For example, I can listen to one guy with a guitar and want to slit my wrists in a bad way, but I can listen to another guy with a guitar and want to slit my wrists in a good way — even when there is very little difference in what they are doing. It’s so weird, but you can’t always explain what it is exactly that makes one good and one awful. In the same way, you can’t always decipher what makes people respond the way they do to your music. And thinking about those things too much can really spoil everything.”
As he describes it, Helplessness Blues is a much more direct and less obtuse record than Fleet Foxes, but it’s only now, with a little bit of distance, that he can start to be objective about the lyrics or try and explain what these new songs are really all about.
“The lyrics on this album are funny to me when I think about them now,” says Pecknold. “It’s like this weird self-actualizing, self-perpetuating thing — like, the things I’m talking about on this album are things I’m going through because I’m making an album. You know? Like, songs about knowing when to let go of things and just be present for the people you love. I have such a weird relationship with this record in that way. The process of making it really took over my life and started affecting my relationships, which in turn affected the record. It’s a weird feedback loop between my life and the music. Sometimes I fear that being a musician has made me really self-involved and a lot of this record is about recognizing that and trying to move past it.”
Pecknold says that everyone in the band has nothing but “extreme gratitude” for the success of the band, but the runaway train nature of their career trajectory has caused a certain amount of growing pains within the group. “Every relationship in the band has gone through different phases,” he says. “It’s like a soap opera in some ways, though none of us have ever really had a throw down fight. I used to get really freaked out if someone was in a bad mood. I’d take everything really personal, like, did I do something wrong? When usually it had nothing to do with me. I think we’re at a place now where we’re pretty happy. I can say that I really love all of these guys and we’re all in a good place. I think the process of touring that first album and having it be successful just added this extra layer of confusion to our relationships, but now we can all sit back and see that so much of it is just bullshit and we can’t take everything so seriously. It’s fine.”
Regardless of what happens with the new record and how it is received by the world, Pecknold and his bandmates seem to have found the experience of making it to be both exhausting and tremendously illuminating.
“It’s not crazy different from what we were doing before,” says Pecknold. “Thankully, I realized that if I were try and write a more serious kind of “rock” jam, it would feel like a novelty and I’m sure it wouldn’t be good, mostly because I don’t have very many references to draw from for that kind of music. It’s just not the music I know and love. That being said, I think my feelings about folk music have changed a lot since we made our first record. It has a different feeling to it now and I have a different understanding of it. After the first record came out, I had to really come to terms with what it is that we actually do. It sounds so pretentious, but in deciding to play folk music there is this almost curatorial aspect to the music you make. You are working within a tradition. Everybody who makes music is making a choice — you see the unlimited options out there and pick the one that feels right for you. In making this record, I think I finally became totally comfortable with our choice, which is being a folk band. This is the style of music that gets me really stoked. You know, if we were suddenly making a witch house record then that would feel pretty inauthentic, but I feel pretty comfortable with what we’re doing. Playing folky music is what we do best.”
Helplessness Blues is released 5/3 via Sub Pop.