Robin Pec­knold’s Fleet Foxes were a huge fes­ti­val hit in 2009 but then van­ished. As they re­turn, he tells Will Hodgkin­son what hap­pened

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

Glas­ton­bury 2009: Fleet Foxes, the Seat­tle folk-rock band whose re­cently re­leased de­but had just be­come a word-of-mouth hit, took to the Pyra­mid stage be­fore more than 100,000 peo­ple and quickly won­dered what the hell they were do­ing there.

“It’s a plea­sure to be ter­ri­fied by you,” said singer Robin Pec­knold, while his child­hood friend Skyler Sk­jelset, the band’s gui­tarist, had the dazed look of a man dream­ing he was on stage at the world’s big­gest fes­ti­val with­out knowing how or why.

Thou­sands in the crowd were singing along to White Win­ter Hym­nal and Oliver James, beau­ti­fully church­like but dis­tinctly un­com­mer­cial songs in­spired by a trip to the Lake District that Pec­knold went on when he was 19 and the Steel­eye Span records he heard there. It was a sur­real scene in­deed.

“That was like a dream,” Pec­knold says of play­ing Glas­ton­bury.

“There were so many peo­ple there, the weather was very bad and we weren’t used to that kind of ex­pe­ri­ence at all. We couldn’t make out any faces, so it was like play­ing to a wall, while at the same time we had no idea if the mu­sic was com­ing across well. We looked out and thought, ‘How did this hap­pen?’ ”

We’re in a glass-walled room of the Ace Ho­tel in Shored­itch, east Lon­don. Pec­knold is talk­ing be­cause Fleet Foxes have re­turned af­ter five years of si­lence — a life­time in rock ’n’ roll. They have an am­bi­tious, cin­e­matic new al­bum, Crack-Up, and will head­line Syd­ney’s Vivid fes­ti­val later this month.

A lot has hap­pened since we last met. That was in 2008, in a grimy back room of a black­walled venue in Leeds. Fleet Foxes were on their first Bri­tish tour and Pec­knold was a shy, bearded 22-year-old. Self-ef­fac­ing and some­what dam­aged, he didn’t seem like typ­i­cal lead singer ma­te­rial. As it turned out, he wasn’t. In 2012, by which point Fleet Foxes were one of the big­gest cult acts in the world, he had what sounds like a break­down and re­treated from view en­tirely. He has only just re-emerged.

“Hav­ing that sud­den suc­cess was an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but we ended up in a po­si­tion of be­ing on the de­fence, of re­act­ing to things hap­pen­ing to us the whole time,” says Pec­knold, who — short-haired, clean-shaven and 31 — looks a lot health­ier than he did then. “Take Glas­ton­bury. How much should we have



changed the mu­sic to make it work in front of so many peo­ple? The band grew, it cre­ated an ex­pec­ta­tion for fur­ther growth, it felt like it might be down­hill af­ter the first al­bum and we were sud­denly deal­ing with all the mind games be­ing in a suc­cess­ful band brings. So I closed that door. For many years.”

Pec­knold did some­thing un­heard of in the world of rock and pop: he went back to school. En­rolling at Columbia Univer­sity in New York for an un­der­grad­u­ate course in mu­sic and lit­er­a­ture, he gave up the world’s stages for a life of tu­to­ri­als, fines for over­due li­brary books and af­ter­noon games of pool in the union bar.

“Tour­ing the first al­bum, then record­ing and tour­ing the sec­ond al­bum with­out a break, my health de­clined,” he says. “I needed some mi­nor surgery, but I kept putting it off to fin­ish the tour, so I was in a lot of pain.

“At the same time I was learn­ing that you can’t just be good at singing and song­writ­ing to be in a band. You need to be emo­tion­ally sta­ble, you need to be con­fi­dent, you need to be diplo­matic — all skills I had not thought about. And I could feel ar­rested devel­op­ment creep­ing in be­cause when you’re on tour you don’t have to think about any­thing apart from that time on stage. Be­fore you know it, you’re say­ing to the tour man­ager, ‘Hey, can you get my suit­case from the bus?’ I wanted to go back to a sit­u­a­tion that would be hum­bling, to be a fish out of wa­ter, to be re­minded of how small we are.”

Pec­knold at­tended lec­tures by day, learned to surf off Long Is­land by night, and went on pun­ish­ing long-dis­tance runs be­tween. Did he get recog­nised?

“Not very of­ten, and when I did it was to my ad­van­tage — peo­ple wanted to show me where the best cof­fee shop on cam­pus was. Most of the stu­dents were younger than me, but there was an ad­mis­sions pro­gram for mil­i­tary vet­er­ans, and although I felt like a limp-wristed mu­si­cian com­pared to what they had been through we had some­thing in com­mon. A lot of peo­ple had gone back to col­lege be­cause they didn’t feel like their lives were go­ing any­where, and that was cer­tainly my sit­u­a­tion. I was op­er­at­ing un­der the as­sump­tion that I have to put my­self into un­com­fort­able sit­u­a­tions in or­der to grow from them. The more ex­pe­ri­ences I have, the more I can draw on them cre­atively.”

Crack-Up, its ti­tle bor­rowed from F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s col­lec­tion of es­says but also ref­er­enc­ing Pec­knold’s burnout and sub­se­quent re­birth, was the prod­uct of this in­tense five-year pe­riod of study, con­tem­pla­tion and self-de­nial. It is a com­plex, ele­gant, ex­per­i­men­tal piece with sud­den shifts in style and mood, in which Pec­knold at­tempted to cre­ate a mu­si­cal equiv­a­lent of film di­rec­tor Ni­co­las Roeg’s tech­nique of putting contrasting scenes against each other in Don’t Look Now and Walk­a­bout.

At nearly an hour long, it is a sonic jour­ney, but one filled with the rich har­monies and trance­like strums that made peo­ple fall in love with Fleet Foxes in the first place.

The six-minute opener, I Am All That I Need/ Ar­royo Seco/Thumbprint Scar, begins with Pec­knold sound­ing ex­tremely de­pressed as he mum­bles a few hard-to-dis­tin­guish words about feel­ing in­se­cure be­fore the song bursts into glo­ri­ous colour, with strings and har­monies. It takes you by sur­prise.

“That was de­lib­er­ate,” says Pec­knold. “I wanted to make peo­ple wor­ried that the al­bum would be re­ally de­press­ing be­fore it be­comes the opposite. Some­times I need to be cheered up and so does the lis­tener.”

Else­where on the al­bum, Third of May/Odaiga­hara re­flects on Pec­knold’s friend­ship with Sk­jelset, dam­aged by years of tour­ing but nursed back to health by time spent apart; Na­iades, Cas­sadies is about the dif­fer­ences be­tween men and women; and I Should See Mem­phis is a road-set love story.

Of course, I know this only be­cause Pec­knold told me. The im­pres­sion­is­tic lan­guage he uses is im­pos­si­ble to draw clear mean­ings from.

Fleet Foxes, bound for this year’s Syd­ney Vivid fes­ti­val

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.