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Fleet Foxes: On Another Ocean

Mike Greenhaus | June 13, 2017

This excerpt originally appears in the June_July issue of Relix. To read the full story, subscribe here.

It's a mild, early Spring afternoon in Seattle, and Fleet Foxes have officially returned. For the first time since auteur Robin Pecknold quietly left the music industry and enrolled in an undergraduate program at Columbia University, the entire band has reconvened in their hometown with the goal of bringing the songs off their forthcoming third LP, Crack-Up, to life. Fleet Foxes haven’t played a concert in over five years and, these days, the band’s core members are spread out between New York, Seattle and Los Angeles. But, as they piece their catalog back together and slot songs into their setlist, Fleet Foxes’ full-band feel has started to come back into focus.

Pecknold was initially worried about whipping the songs off of Crack-Up into shape for the stage. Though rooted in the acoustic, harmony-laced bliss that’s been the band’s calling card for more than a decade, Crack-Up finds the five-person ensemble widening their angelic indie-folk sound to include new, colorful art-rock shades. Pecknold and band co-founder Skyler Skjelset compiled an arrangement book in advance of the rehearsals, taking their best guesses at who would be playing which parts live; keyboardist Casey Wescott went a step further, using Pro Tools files from the Crack-Up sessions to make track stems for his bandmates to study, articulating the individual parts. Everyone did their homework and, to Skjelset’s surprise, by the end of their 12-day practice period, Fleet Foxes were staging back-to-back dress rehearsals.

“We’re finding new ways to bridge the new and the old,” the methodical Pecknold says during a break between rehearsals the day after his 31st birthday. “We’re working on these five-to-eight song sections, so there’s constant music for most of the set. If we try and play a song from the first album and then play a song from this album, they just feel like they’re from a different place, so we have to throw a song from the second album in to bridge the gap. Then I can hear the commonalities and the differences more clearly.”

In a few days, Pecknold will head overseas to promote Crack-Up in Europe, after which he’ll reconvene with Skjelset, Wescott, multi-instrumentalists Christian Wargo and Morgan Henderson and touring drummer Matt Barrick to hit the road for a world tour. They’ll mix headlining dates at marquee under-the-stars spaces with prime festival slots and the occasional pairing, including a H.O.R.D.E.-like meeting-of-the-minds with Animal Collective. Though they’ve slipped back into the system booking-wise, the elephant in the room is that Pecknold pulled off one of the most impressive disappearing acts of the social media era: Like Rivers Cuomo two decades earlier, he brushed aside critical acclaim and hipster cred to pursue an undergraduate degree.

And, despite living in New York City, Pecknold removed himself almost entirely from the indie-folk live scene that he helped shepherd from clubs to massive festival stages and suburban malls. All of his bandmates continued to create music during that pause, though the most visible member of the Fleet Foxes family was undoubtedly former drummer Josh Tillman, who succeeded with his Andy Kaufman-esque transformation into Father John Misty—a Tony Cliftonlike commentary on pop culture and the over-earnest singer-songwriter scene.

“We definitely spent some time apart—Robin needed a break from the whole [Fleet Foxes] thing in order to get exploratory, and it was important to do that independently from each other,” Skjelset says from his home in New York a few weeks after the Seattle rehearsals. “We haven’t seen each other as much for the past five years. We’d kick it here and there, but it wasn’t much of an active relationship.”

Though Fleet Foxes never actually broke up, Crack-Up feels like a reunion record. It picks up where their previous album, Helplessness Blues, left off, with its denser, more fully realized soundscapes, and places Pecknold and his bandmates a few stops down the road. A culmination of the individual members’ musical explorations, the album also makes use of the studio in new, exciting ways; the group employed a small army of auxiliary musicians to flesh out their chamberpop arrangements, including string and woodwind players. Instead of just replacing Tillman, a number of drummers sit behind the kit (including Barrick, on loan from The Walkmen, who are currently on hiatus). Fleet Foxes showed their might as multi-taskers throughout the sessions and, with Crack-Up, it’s fully apparent that they are no longer a traditional rock group, where each musician is confined to one instrument. That also means Pecknold needed to deconstruct his ornate compositions before they were finally ready to enter his set.

“They’re more real to me now that we’re letting them loose—and it’s very loud and very expansive-sounding so far,” he says. “Now, I’m in this ambassador mode for my own musician self. And when I get time to write music again, I’ll be in a different mode. There are times where I’ve wondered: ‘Should writing the music I love be my job?’ But it’s not really my job. I wrote music the entire time I was in school and, if I never put a record out again, I would still work on songs. It just feels natural to me.”

Fleet Foxes officially formed in 2006, but really grew out of Pecknold and Skjelset’s friendship and bond over classic songwriters like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Skjelset describes their families as “just around each other” for as long as he can remember. Their siblings were even classmates. While high-school students outside of Seattle in Kirkland, Wash., they started writing songs and playing coffee shops. Pecknold, who has recorded solo EPs since his teens, eventually dropped out of school and started working at the Cha Cha, a restaurant that served as an independent-music hub. He immersed himself in the area scene and started seeing shows as often as possible; the first incarnation of Fleet Foxes, which included Wescott, grew out of their local community. “It was mainly: ‘Oh, wait, my friend is into this and he’s really good at that, so maybe he should play with us,’” Skjelset says of the band’s natural, early evolution.

Veteran Seattle producer Phil Ek, known for sweetening records by kindred spirits Band of Horses and The Shins, was an early supporter. After hearing about Fleet Foxes through Pecknold’s sister—who has managed the band since their infancy—Ek worked on their first DIY EP. And, when they signed with Sub Pop and Bella Union, he sat at the helm for both Fleet Foxes’ 2008 pilot EP, Sun Giant, and their full-length, self-titled breakthrough, which dropped in time for that year’s festival season. Soon, the band’s bestknown lineup took shape: Their rehearsal-space roomie Wargo (of the Los Angeles indie-pop group Crystal Skulls) signed on, while Tillman, who already had five EPs under his own name and was dating Pecknold’s sister at the time, moved behind the kit.

Fleet Foxes were a hit at SXSW 2008 and spent the early part of the year touring with Blitzen Trapper, who brought the Pacific Northwest act to packed rooms in major markets like New York and Chicago. Skjelset considers the time a blur—their opening spot at Bowery Ballroom was actually the first time some band members had set foot in New York. Serving as something of a meeting point between the era’s roots-rock revival and the concurrent surge of increasingly baroque indie singer-songwriters, singles “White Winter Hymnal” and “He Doesn’t Know Why” were instant classics. The Fleet Foxes LP was eventually certified gold.

The quintet spent the next two years on the road, quickly moving up the club ranks into sizable ballrooms and theaters. The group’s “classic lineup,” which now included Henderson, released their lone LP together, Helplessness Blues, in 2011. Though still a folk album, Helplessness Blues had an overarching darker sound and a more groove-oriented approach. Pecknold—who had weathered a breakup around the time and has struggled with social anxiety over the years—is credited with writing all of the album’s tracks, while Wescott took charge with some of the harmonies. Despite being his first album with the band, Tillman fully integrated himself; his voice blended beautifully with fellow singers Pecknold and Wargo. Helplessness Blues cemented Fleet Foxes’ reputation as a career act and even earned a Grammy nomination, but life on the road started to show its wear. They continued supporting the album into early 2012, but, just before that run wrapped up, Tillman announced that he planned to leave Fleet Foxes when they returned home. His farewell message stated, “Back into the gaping maw of obscurity I go…Sorry if I was distant and obtuse if we ever met. Have fun.”

One of the band’s most outgoing onstage personalities, Tillman continued releasing solo albums during his Fleet Foxes tenure and supporting those records on the road, causing him to be away from his bandmates for stretches of time. (“The cycle has been: Fleet Foxes record, my record, Fleet Foxes record, my record,” he said in 2009.) He also appeared to be in the midst of an existential crisis. However, Tillman managed to skip “obscurity,” re-emerging a few months after posting his goodbye message with the fully realized, self-aware second persona Father John Misty.

Pecknold says his relationship with Tillman had soured over the years and freely admits that he, himself, wasn’t always the easiest to work with in the studio. The singer was also questioning his decision to spend the rest of his life grinding it out on the road. “It’s not like the band would ever break up because it doesn’t need to, it’s not that kind of situation, but we were all sucking it up in touring that album,” Pecknold says. “We had a two-record deal with Sub Pop and Bella Union and, at the first meeting we had about Helplessness Blues with Sub Pop, I was like, ‘This is the last one for a while,’ because we were pretty burnt out. Our dynamic wasn’t great, and I was curious about other stuff, like school and traveling. We weren’t suffering through it, but we definitely saw touring Helplessness Blues as the end of that chapter for everybody. Then we would take a minute and re-approach it at some point. That was the plan all along. It wasn’t something that happened out of nowhere.”

Skjelset remembers Pecknold first broaching the idea of going back to school during the Helplessness Blues outing but, in 2013, they reconvened with Henderson to start working on a new record. Ultimately, they struggled to get into a proper creative zone and the sessions were mostly scrapped; the singer applied to Columbia and enrolled as an undergraduate student.

“I thought, ‘Let’s just skip the bad album—the third album no one liked. Let’s wait and the next one will be good,’” Pecknold says with a laugh, before adding more seriously, “but also, I’m conscious of the fact that I’m gonna die, and I’d like to have a broad range of experiences. I’ve never given college a shot, and I really admire people who have.” He also used the time to reinvent himself physically, changing his style of dress and even shaving his once iconic, shaggy hair. “There were times when people would say, ‘Hey, I like your band,’ or would help me navigate signing up for classes, or planning my schedule or helping me when I was totally in the weeds with schoolwork,” Pecknold says. “But I wasn’t broadcasting folksiness on the quad.”

All of Fleet Foxes’ members spread their wings during the break. Wargo toured with a reconfigured Crystal Skulls and, along with Wescott, gigged as Poor Moon; Henderson divided his time between folk act The Cave Singers, post-punk band Past Lives and session work; Skjelset, who says he followed a natural path from Sonic Youth to Nels Cline and other “out” sounds, released experimental solo records under his own name. And despite also living in the Big Apple, the guitarist gave Pecknold his space.

“Robin and I needed a break from each other because we’ve been friends since junior high,” Skjelset says. “Not in a bad way, just in a necessary way. If you get together with someone that you’ve been with since you were 12 years old, it’s like, what do you talk about at a certain point? All of your experiences are always the same.” Skjelset says he was surprised how long their break lasted, but adds that Fleet Foxes were “feeling pretty tired” by the time they slowed down in 2012. “There was something very un-music for Robin [about the group’s touring/promotional regime],” he explains. “He thought, ‘I’ve been doing music every single day of my life since I was 14 years old; here’s another thing that I could do.’

“It ended up being really good for all of us to explore new things and even just live life,” Skjelset continues. “Your music is reflective of your experiences—if you’re only living on a tour bus and you’re only seeing the inside of venues, it’s hard to have something to feel impassioned about. You get stale, dry. It also gave us all an opportunity to be humans again for a little while and feel things, see things and take things away from that.”

The Fleet Foxes rumor mill began to stir in late 2015 when Pecknold dipped his head above water and announced some support dates for harpist Joanna Newsom. Performing as a solo acoustic act, he used the opportunity to try out some new Fleet Foxes tunes and, soon after, started working on the collection of songs that would eventually become Crack-Up. Though he originally hoped to complete his coursework before Fleet Foxes regrouped, Pecknold took a sabbatical. “It was partially that Joanna asked me to do that tour, and then I was like, ‘OK, I might as well take the semester off.’” The experience bled into Fleet Foxes’ next act.

Skjelset says that, in late 2015, Pecknold called him “out of the blue and brought it up” while he was on the road. They talked further about a potential album’s vibe when he returned to New York and, Skyler says, discussed “what was important and what we could get from getting back together—all the reasons you would want to have a band instead of doing your own thing.”

Pecknold had continued to write while he was at Columbia—mostly at night, on the weekends and during vacations—but it wasn’t until the spring of 2016 that he started combing through his ideas and figuring out which songs felt like spiritual siblings. The members of Fleet Foxes reconvened that summer to demo their new material and started recording this past fall. They guesstimate that they only took four days off between Thanksgiving and early 2017, laying down material across the country.

“The band has a lot of themes, these pillars, so we really wanted to make sure the bones were supported and represented, but we also wanted to make it exciting for us, as people who are making the music,” Skjelset says. “We never had the opportunity to deal with those interests. That was part of the conversation: ‘We don’t want another record that is exactly like the last ones, and here’s these things that we’re interested in.’ And, as separated as Robin and I were for a while, he was listening to my music and I was listening to his, so there was an interest in making sure, on both sides, those things found their way into the writing and the production of the music.” (Pecknold also used his time away from Fleet Foxes to write an Off-Broadway score and says he is working toward a solo album as well.)

Fleet Foxes quickly realized that vocals were their true signature. Pecknold still considers their harmonies to be their central hook, and Skjelset praises his bandmate’s ability to use his voice as an instrument. Besides that, Fleet Foxes’ sound could be a blank canvas.

“I’ll have these little, happy accidents after I write, when we’ll fit one idea into something else; it will end up as a bridge, and I’ll realize, ‘That’s why I wrote that,’” Pecknold says. “It feels like excavating a dinosaur’s skeleton and you have all these pieces lying around, and you discover how they all fit together once you’ve written them or found them all.”