The Weekly interview: Fleet Foxes leader Robin Pecknold

Pecknold, far left, brings Fleet Foxes to Las Vegas for the first time on August 13.
Photo: Shawn Brackbill
Annie Zaleski

In June, indie-folk band Fleet Foxes released Crack-Up, its first album in more than six years. Musically, the record features the familiar signifiers that made the Pacific Northwest group such a sensation—pastoral harmonies, meticulous arrangements and haunting songwriting—but Crack-Up also marks an intriguing step forward. Humming electronic elements burble beneath “Cassius, –” while “Third of May / Ōdaigahara,” a song inspired by frontman Robin Pecknold’s longtime friendship with collaborator Skyler Skjelset, is a nearly nine-minute epic blooming with acoustic guitars and aching sentiments.

During the years between records, Pecknold retreated from the spotlight, attending New York City’s Columbia University. Leading up to Fleet Foxes’ Las Vegas debut, Pecknold spoke to the Weekly about the ways college informed his worldview, returning to making music with Crack-Up and how the band’s relationships have evolved over time.

What new insights on your music did you gain by taking a break and going back to school? One of things I was thinking about a lot before going back to school or while making music was trying to cobble together some worldview or philosophy around music that could accommodate all the influences, but also see a value in transcending them, or finding a new way to utilize those influences. I don’t want to do some, like, retro revival stuff, but I also have tastes that don’t necessarily run that contemporary.

Electronic music is older than The Beatles, and musique concrète is older than The Beatles, and Schoenberg is older than The Beatles. There’s all this stuff that sounds more advanced to something that is much older. I think I ended up a little bit back where I started, but with less fealty or allegiance to music of the past.

Was there any particular class that really shaped your thinking? Probably this Walt Whitman class. It was a summer class, and we just read Leaves of Grass and walked around New York looking at different monuments related to him, or places he had lived, or places he’d printed that book. There are a few of his poems that were part of the class, where it was like a picture of a mind, or a worldview, that I thought was really inspiring and worth aspiring to.

After you went to college, was it a given that you would continue making Fleet Foxes music again? Or were you unsure? In my opinion, it was a given. [With school] I had wanted to move into something else, or a different life pursuit. I think that was all taken on faith that it would help me make an album that I was happier with in the long run. It was too much like unfinished business [to stop].

When the band did get back together, how did you find that your personal and professional musical relationship had changed—or not—with Skyler [Skjelset] during the break? He and I were officially adults now. We met when we were 13 years old, and from 13 to 26 or 27, we were kind of in the same dynamic. We saw each other pretty sparingly for three years. And I think that was just enough time to reset the dynamic. There’s a lot more mutual respect and less sibling rivalry (laughs).

When you guys were getting together to make music, what kind of new influences did everyone bring to Fleet Foxes this time around? On this one, I was into music that was trance-y or Moroccan Gnawa music or Ethiopian jazz, stuff that had a trance element in terms of repetition to induce a hypnosis or something. And that made its way into more of the music on this one than it did any of the past ones.

Skye brought a lot of textural ideas. A lot of the sound design stuff throughout the record is Skye’s work. Casey [Westcott] had been doing a lot of stuff with this program SuperCollider, and then manipulated keyboard instruments like harpsichords and Rhodes pianos. …

There were definitely parts of songs that I hear that I was really inspired by, but it was more like messing with structure or dynamics or transitions or contrasts. Those were things I was finding, or pulling out of movies. There was a slideshow at my grandmother’s funeral. There was something about just watching the slides, and how they’d all be from the same picnic, or whatever it was, but the way the slides registered in your mind and then immediately changed to a new image—so you’re still in the same space, but it’s from a different vantage point. I had that on my mind while recording the songs. So it was musical stuff, but then also a lot of nonmusical, life stuff.

You guys are very much known for your meticulous sounds and studio approach. What are the biggest challenges in maintaining that over the course of an entire record? That wasn’t really challenging. It would be very challenging to have to write and record an album like this from scratch in, like, two months or six months. As far as the writing of songs, it’s luck of the draw. Sometimes your hands go to some shape and the melody will just pop into my head. You can only dictate it so much.

It takes time to accrue enough things that have potential for there to be enough music to be worth working on for an album, at least in my experience. But then once there is enough of that stuff, the actual recording was just a joy. It’s just really engaging. Whatever is meticulous about it was really fun and just mentally captivating. … I didn’t find anything difficult about making this one, because so much was written in advance that I was really ready to go.

And you guys got to record in some really amazing studios, too, all around the country. All those rooms have different vibes and different spirits floating around. That must have been pretty galvanizing too. I think on this album there was a lot of wish fulfillment. … I really loved to make an album that was the most like albums that I really love, in terms of complexity or vibrancy. And also, if I’m ever going to lose a bunch of money on recording studios make it the good ones. I don’t know if we’ll be able to do that again, because it was fairly expensive to make. But it was completely worth it as far as the experience goes.

Now that the record is out in the world, what are you most proud of about it? The way that we made it. As I get older, I’m trying to think less in terms of end results and more in terms of pleasure in the experience of doing something. When I put too much emphasis on my goals, then I achieve the goal, then the goal disappears, and then there’s just some new goal. It’s just this idea of the goalposts moving.

Skye and I have talked about this. On the last day of making it, [we said] regardless of whatever happens this year with this album, this was a great experience. And that’s what we’ll remember about it, and that’s the thing to be proud of and to hold on to, the experience of doing it.

On the [previous] record we made, I was totally cool with that being a miserable experience, because I was only thinking about the end product (laughs). But I’m happy with this album, and I’m also way happy about how [it turned out in] the end.

Fleet Foxes with Bedouine. August 13, 8 p.m., $26-$41. The Chelsea, 702-698-7778.

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