The Return of Fleet Foxes in Indie’s Brave New World
Robin Pecknold discusses 'Crack-Up,' the band's first album in six years.
Photo by The1point8 and Ace Hotel DTLA
The act of preservation has been integral to folk music's past, present, and future—which is exactly why Robin Pecknold's trying to quit smoking. We're sitting on the rooftop of Los Angeles's Ace Hotel on a fickle, subdued Friday morning, and the mastermind behind folk-rock juggernauts Fleet Foxes is chatting about his progress on this front. Clean shaven and decked out in a knit cap and an outfit resembling military fatigues, he's focused and purposeful as he lays out the stakes. "I want this to be as good as I'll ever sing," he states with intent, his mind on the band's upcoming tour blitz behind their third album, Crack-Up.
Pecknold's not getting any younger, and so his approach to aging, as is the case for many millennials in his age bracket, has focused on self-betterment: eat healthier, try to exercise more often, be mindful of the pain in your lower back. He's currently down to two cigarettes a day, emphasizing that the road to quitting has thus far proved "impossible" but that a way forward is still in front of him.
Throughout our hour-long chat, talk of the future rolls in and out, like the clouds stalking the sun on this atypically overcast May day. He's concerned about that nagging back pain, Trump, and global warming—and he's already thinking about the next Fleet Foxes album, too, despite the general public having heard just one song from Crack-Up, the eight-minute cathartic centerpiece that is "Third of May / Ōdaigahara."
Whatever shape the next record takes, Pecknold wants it to sound "really joyous," and there's good reason for that: Crack-Up is undoubtedly the darkest-sounding and most complex Fleet Foxes record to date. While the album shares some thematic bent with the existential musings and naked self-examination that marked 2011's Helplessness Blues, it's light years away from where Pecknold started out. The pairing of 2008's Sun Giant EP and the following year's self-titled full-length represented one of the most confident debuts from a band in recent memory, chock full of bold, bright harmonies and straightforward songwriting that was easy to fall in love with. So much was that the case that, as Fleet Foxes rapidly ascended to the upper echelons of the indie stratosphere—think Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver, Dirty Projectors, and Animal Collective—their rise anticipated a brief surge of mainstream interest in folk-leaning sounds, from Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers to American Idol winner Phillip Phillips.
If Fleet Foxes sounded like gorgeous, sun-kissed landscapes, though, listening to Helplessness Blues felt like being in the eye of a storm: The record was as portentous as it was inviting, with darker textures and increasingly personal lyrics sharing space with the gangland sing-alongs that listeners had come to expect from the band. Helplessness Blues showcased Pecknold's impressive growth as a songwriter, and it was thrilling to imagine what would follow. That question became more substantial as the wait grew; every passing year built increasing concern that listeners might never hear from Fleet Foxes again.
After six long years, the release of Crack-Up confirms that those worries were all for naught, but the record arrives in a very different world from Fleet Foxes' last outing, and its vibe—a challenging, emotionally vulnerable document that requires multiple listens to fully apprehend—is far from celebratory. "If there were moments of darkness, they were always tempered by something lighter," Pecknold explains after having a good chuckle when I mention that listening to Crack-Up isn't exactly a day at the beach. "That was the goal. But I'm at the mercy of the songs I have to work with, and the state of mind I'm in. There was a lot of questioning, and some isolation."
As a songwriter, Pecknold's often drawn to examining the little whirring gears behind Big Themes—love, family, togetherness, purpose—but the deathless march of time looms large, too. "I'm afraid I haven't done anything—that I'm losing curiosity," he tells me following some extended contemplation, after I ask him what his fears are. Pecknold is a natural conversationalist and extremely affable, but when it comes to personal or spiritual questions, he's patient with himself in finding answers—and if there's none to be found, he says so without a hint of annoyance.
"I want to be able to keep maintaining curiosity, because if that dies then our music will die, too."
"I wish I could have the mind of a 60-year-old and the body—and energy—of a 25-year-old," he continues. "That worries me. While I was making this album, I had a lot of curiosity. I was pretty engaged at [tour] rehearsal, but we did a lot of touring before, so I don't have a lot of curiosity about what touring is like. And putting out an album, too—what will be fine or whatever, it's okay. I want to be able to keep maintaining curiosity, because if that dies then our music will die, too."
After the tour cycle behind Helplessness Blues ended, Robin Pecknold disappeared. If you prefer less dramatic terms, he took a much-needed breather after experiencing "a period of depression" that took place following the completion of that record. The last thing he wanted to do was grab a guitar and put himself—and his work—at the aforementioned mercy of his mind state. " Helplessness Blues was more angsty than I wanted it to be, and I got even angstier in the years after. I wanted to ride out the storm."
In 2013, he opted for a literal sea change, pulling up roots in Portland and relocating to Manhattan's hustle and bustle, enrolling in Columbia University's undergraduate program to study English. (After graduating high school in Seattle, he attended one semester of community college before dropping out to pursue music full-time.) At Columbia, Pecknold, who is now 31, found himself among "18-year-olds, military veterans, and [older] people that had been doing other stuff when they were 18"—as perfect of a crowd to vanish within as any.
"I was working through some stuff, and going to school meant that I could do it in private without making a record out of it," he explains when discussing his time at college, insisting that making music was never too far from his mind. "I love to put myself in situations where I'm just an absolute beginner—it's such a great place to be, and I was focused in a different way than what I'm totally familiar with. It was cool seeing people forge new paths for themselves, but I wasn't trying for a new career or something."
Pecknold also managed to pick up a new hobby as an East Coaster: surfing. Water imagery abounds throughout Crack-Up, and there's a breathtaking image of water hitting shoreline rocks that adorns the album's cover, reminiscent of the chapter cards in Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves; the aquatic focus was a direct result of days chasing the swell at Long Island beaches. "I had enough experiences of almost drowning and being throttled by some huge wave that I started to think about the record in that sense. Something would crash in and then it would get really calm. Having an oceanic push-and-pull to the music was the goal."
Above all else, decamping to NYC—"from the Pacific to the Atlantic," as Pecknold puts it— was a necessary decision to achieve some distance from, well, everything. "I removed myself from all these little situations, looking for some autonomy or self-reliance that I didn't have before," he waxes when recalling what he's taken away from the last six years of his life. As with all things involving life, there were negatives to what otherwise seemed like a positive choice: "I felt really isolated for a very long time. Making this record cured that problem, though."
Togetherness, as well as the pains of falling out of touch and attempting to reconnect, are at the axis of "Third of May / Ōdaigahara," which takes part of its name from Fleet Foxes band member and childhood friend Skyler Skjelset's birthday. Skjelset recently told The New York Times that the band's prolonged absence caused him to wonder if they were done for good, and one particular line in the front half of "Third of May" addresses the anxiety of growing apart after so many years alongside each other: "Aren't we made to be crowded together, like leaves?"
Ultimately, the lead-up to and making of Crack-Up—which was written and recorded in the last year and takes its title from a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald essays published in 1945—brought Pecknold and his bandmates closer again, a process that taught him as much about his own hurried nature ("I can boil down most of the problems I've had in my life to a lack of patience") as it did about life's essentials. "If there's a main thing that's happened in my life that shows up on the record, it's that no one can live alone."
Essentially vanishing from music for the greater part of a decade might have been a holistic choice for Pecknold, but there was a sense of shrewdness behind the decision, too: In the 18 months after Helplessness Blues was released, the upper echelons of the music industry pushed folk-leaning sounds hard and fast—a reactionary response to the economic and artistic steamroller effect EDM had on nearly every corner of pop at the time, as well as an attempt to capitalize on the success found by Pecknold, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon (who went on to win the Grammy for Best New Artist a year later), and their more rustic-sounding peers.
"I was afraid that if I made another album, it'd just get lost in the shuffle. And if it wasn't very good, then it'd be part of this… whatever."
"There was a folk fatigue in those last few years," Pecknold observes. "I was afraid that if I made another album, it'd just get lost in the shuffle. And if it wasn't very good, then it'd be part of this…" He trails off for a second. "Whatever." Later in our conversation, Pecknold elaborates on his consciousness of the trend cycle, stating that, as a songwriter, resisting the urge to follow the current of contemporary sounds comes naturally to him: "I pay attention to stuff that's going on, and when I see stuff that doesn't sound like what we're working on, I'm like, 'It's good that we're not going down that road, because somebody else already did that.'"
Indeed, very little else in 2017 sounds like Crack-Up; compared to the robust harmonies and bold choruses of Fleet Foxes' breakout 2009 self-titled LP, the record sounds like the work of a different band entirely. There are very few choruses to be found, in the traditional sense; many songs resemble swatches of melody stitched together like a patchwork quilt, with sudden tempo shifts, whispered asides, and instrumental passages that linger like string in the breeze. The record demands your full attention, and its greatest impact is carried when listened to from front to back. The best points of comparison throughout might be Helplessness Blues' tortured and explosive centerpiece "The Shrine/An Argument" or the expansive and complicated English folk found on Roy Harper's 1971 album Stormcock.
When listening to Crack-Up, the platitude "They don't make 'em like this anymore" comes to mind, but it's fair. Pecknold's songwriting dips as far (if not further) into the knotty, complicated structures of progressive rock as it does with more traditional folk-rock sounds—both of which couldn't be any less in vogue with the sounds currently affiliated with the marketing term known as "indie."
Pecknold knows this, too: earlier this year, he and Dirty Projectors' Dave Longstreth caught a minor amount of flack on the internet after having an open dialogue about the state of indie music in 2017, with Pecknold lamenting that "indie rock" had lost the "progressive" weight it carried around 2009, citing Longstreth's Bitte Orca, Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion, and Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest as examples of past progressive glories.
A handful of my music critic peers vehemently (and incorrectly) criticized Pecknold for this particular comment, misreading his use of the term "progressive" as related to matters of identity and representation in indie rock rather than a reference to the esoteric genre of rock once popularized by bands like Rush and Yes. When I point out this to him, he looks briefly alarmed, clearly not previously aware of the misinterpretation. "I wasn't trying to say anything in particular," he states, clarifying that he was referencing "music where a lot of music is happening in it."
It's true that a lot of the strongest indie rock seeing release these days hews closer to more uncomplicated-sounding eras of music—the meat-and-potatoes slackness of 90s indie, post-punk's brittle confrontationalism—than the kind of music Pecknold and his more visible peers traffic in. It's also true (and more than a little ironic) that Fleet Foxes are returning with their most complex and demanding record in a landscape where they stand as one of the few capital-B big "indie" acts in existence.
Pecknold recounted how he recently took to Instagram to praise Grizzly Bear's "Three Rings," the first single from their forthcoming album Painted Ruins. "I wanted to say, 'Grizzly Bear: best band in America,' and I was like, Are there any other bands in America? It doesn't seem like a band world right now. There are a lot of solo artists. Jay Som's a solo artist. Even Dirty Projectors are a solo act now. There just aren't that many bands happening right now."
The current musical landscape does often prize individual personalities (emphasis on the word "personalities") over cohesive units, perhaps the biggest change that's taken place between the release of Helplessness Blues and now. During that period of time, former Fleet Foxes member Josh Tillman reinvented himself as Father John Misty, releasing a string of engaging and divisive solo albums each accompanied by the type of publicity blitz typically afforded to big-league pop stars.
By comparison, Pecknold's approach to the press cycle surrounding Crack-Up couldn't be more different: He's careful not to reveal too much about himself, emphasizing by way of omission that despite being an adept conversationalist, he's a considerably private person, too. Talking with him, you get the feeling that he's very content to let the music speak for itself—but in 2017, is that enough?
Whether there's an answer to that question is irrelevant; to Pecknold, the question may as well not even exist. "If you're way too worried about being pigeonholed, then you're just reacting—you know what I mean?" he states inquisitively, as the sun emerges through the clouds again. "You're giving up your agency to somebody else. Hopefully that there's a depth or excitement to my music, or beauty, or something that stands on its own."
The1point8 is a photographer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Instagram.
Larry Fitzmaurice is VICE's senior culture editor. Follow him on Twitter.