FOX ON THE RUN
Robin Pecknold’s Fleet Foxes were a huge festival hit in 2009 but then vanished. As they return, he tells Will Hodgkinson what happened
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
WE WERE SUDDENLY DEALING WITH ALL THE MIND GAMES BEING IN A SUCCESSFUL BAND BRINGS. SO I CLOSED THAT DOOR. FOR MANY YEARS
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