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Getting To Know: Fleet Foxes

By Patrick James on June 26, 2008


Getting To Know: Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes ain’t no freak folk. They’re friendly folk. Onstage, the 22-year-old Seattle-based singer, Robin Pecknold, is friendly and folky, but casts an imposing shadow as well—his long hair and beard conjuring an image of some lonesome traveling undertaker; a vision only slightly at odds with the otherworldly tones of his pitch-perfect voice. But removed from the spotlight, he speaks softly and earnestly. He’s forthcoming and nervous, starting and stopping and starting again as he coughs, stutters, and laughs his way through an explanation of his band’s name.

“I read somewhere that it was like we inked it straight out of an indie band name generator,” he says. His delivery is deadpan, but not disaffected. “Things like that and flippant comparisons to other bands used to bother me because you do spend a lot of time working on stuff. You think, ‘If we had wanted to just rip off some band, we should have put less effort into it.’” His tone a bit strained, increasingly stressed with each syllable after some band, he adds, “It makes me feel like crawling into a hole.” Then, to break the tension, he smiles, “It’s not really a big deal.”

But Fleet Foxes, it would seem, are becoming a big deal. And even if their name feels a bit too de rigueur, they produce timeless sounds. And despite superficial comparisons to some northerly folk contemporaries, they aren’t bound to any scene, genre or trend. Their only obligation is self-imposed: to make music they believe in.

 The five members of Fleet Foxes began as two: Pecknold and his childhood friend, guitarist Skye Skjelset. “Skye and I have known each other since we were 13,” Pecknold says. “We’ve been playing music together ever since. Once I had a few chords under my belt, I showed him a couple and he just took off.” The band and its name came out of necessity “two or three or four years ago,” when Pecknold and Skjelset got tired of jamming in their parents’ basements and set out for the city. They wanted to meet new people. They did, and keyboardist Casey Westcott (Seldom), drummer Nick Peterson (Headphones, Pedro the Lion), and bassist Christian Wargo (Crystal Skulls) eventually completed the quintet.

The match was perfect, but the writing/recording process was protracted. “We probably recorded 25 songs over the last half of 2007,” says Pecknold. “I think we first started trying to make the record in May of last year, and there’s nothing that remains from that time.” The biggest obstacle, Pecknold explains, was his own songwriting. So he scrapped everything he was working on and tried a pared-down approach, taking a cue from his favorite classic rock record, The ZombiesOdyssey and Oracle.

“That record was such a lesson. It was orchestral in terms of how they wrote it, but they didn’t have the budget to get all cheesed out on strings. If you have five people in your band and everyone can sing, and everyone is playing an instrument, then you don’t need anything else. Strings and oboes are great, some little things here and there. But, no rock band is coming up with a cooler string part than Ravel.”

After playing a few shows without recording, the writing finally started to come. Pecknold mined his own life for true simple tales—classic, but not cliché. They eventually recorded the five-song EP Sun Giant on Sub Pop, and then, most recently, their self-titled debut LP. The small body of work comprises a gospel-folk mix of traditional melodies and innovative structures—it’s sparse but full, affecting but never affected; orchestral but never overblown. Pecknold calls the sound baroque—and it is—but what it really sounds like is the work of five close friends who happen to be insanely talented. Composed, yet true. F