Fleet Foxes finished 2008 by overwhelming many best-of-the-year lists and scheduling a set on Saturday Night Live, during which they were wearing at least one smelly shirt. Singer Robin Pecknold speaks before decamping to a creaky new home studio to work on their new album. This interview by Thomas McMahon.
Where exactly is Port Townsend, and what’s it like there?
Robin Pecknold (vocals, guitar): If you’re coming from Seattle, you would take a ferry north. Port Townsend is kind of like on the other side of Puget Sound from Seattle, so it’s on the peninsula. It’s pretty slow moving. It’s nice, because it’s secluded, but it’s not like you can only go to the Wal-Mart or the Safeway. There’s a couple of good restaurants and a good food co-op. And Washington’s first independent record store is here—Quimper Sound. So it’s kind of a sympathetic environment.
You’ve been recording up there?
Kind of writing and setting up a better home-recording situation than we had last time. We could only record two tracks at a time at home, which is cool, but the more you do that—the more you’re layering that many tracks—it starts to sound more like a fake environment. Nothing has any relationship to the other instruments. So now we can record more tracks at once, but it’s still a pretty basic set-up. So mostly getting all the home recording stuff together and learning how to use it, and then kind of working on writing more than recording.
Can you tell us anything about this album in the works?
It’s tough to say at this point how it’s going to all pan out. We’re not in any big rush to get it done. I think people would appreciate us going away for a while as much as getting something out right away. And maybe none of the songs we’re working on right now will be on it if we do spend a long time on it. But I feel good about where the new songs are going. There are elements—maybe more the EP and a couple of the LP songs—elements of that kind of style in it. But it’s a little more, like, manly. Like Nickelback manly.
So you’re going to be a contender in the modern-rock realm?
Yeah, screw this! There’s not enough dough in this indie-rock game. We’re going whole hog.
Did someone call Fleet Foxes ‘The Styx of the late ’00s’?
And is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Oh, I think that’s a bad thing, right?
Your dad was in a soul group in the ’60s?
Yeah, the Fathoms. I think they recorded one 45. He was like 17. I don’t think they lasted very long. I remember I would look up my dad on Google, just to see what his Internet presence was or something, and there was this thing where he had put out a message on something that was like—‘Looking for my old bandmates in the Fathoms.’ I don’t know what happened.
Are they thinking about a reunion?
That would be awesome.
Maybe they could open for you guys.
Yeah, totally! But he’s been helping out a lot with getting this whole place up and running.
So is it like a cabin that you have there?
It’s not so much a cabin. It’s kind of barn shaped. But it’s two levels. And, honestly, I have a sinking feeling in my gut that we won’t actually be able to do much recording here, as much as I would want to. Because the house itself, it’s one of those houses where it’s all put together with joined pieces of wood, but then bolts or braces—it’s all this conjoined timber. So at like noon, the whole house creaks. It starts to kind of expand because it’s getting warmer. And then at like 8, the whole house starts to contract. It’s the noisiest thing—these ripples of the wood contracting. It’s actually kind of a huge disappointment.
So we might be hearing some house creaking on the next album?
Yeah, it could be like making beats out of the crazy pops and cracks. But between like 2 a.m. and 8 a.m., it’s kind of a silent time. Usually. Unless it’s raining. That’s the other thing. If it rains, there’s a tin roof, so you can hear the rain. I should have spent a few days here just sitting around before deciding this was the spot. But I think we’ll be able to get something done here. I wanted to have it so that we wouldn’t have to go to a studio at all, but maybe that won’t work out.
Did you play guitar and sing from a young age?
I started playing guitar at 13, so not that young. I just started learning Dylan songs. I’m kind of a remedial guitar player. I always wish my parents had forced me into violin lessons or something, so I’d have that knowledge base.
Did you do any singing in school, like choir or anything?
I did school plays, like Annie and Oklahoma!, that kind of thing—which was fun.
What was it like doing Saturday Night Live?
I honestly almost feel like that was a weird dream still. The process of doing it was really fun. They seemed excited to have us there. I think Andy Samberg and Bill Hader were gunning for us to the music bookers. So that made the whole thing feel better than something where you’re just kind of thrown into it. Some TV things can feel like go-go-go and then you’re done, and then it’s like, ‘Get out of here.’ But that felt more like a friendly experience. But the main thing that I still think about: I wore this green shirt that I didn’t get a chance to wash before we did it, and that was the only shirt I brought. So I just am worried—do the cast members think that I’m really smelly? And do they tell people that I was smelly? But there was also a feeling afterward that there was something kind of final about it. Because it was like the last thing we did of all the touring and promotion stuff for the record. But it also kind of … I almost felt kind of guilty about it. To play Saturday Night Live is a big honor, and kind of a dream, but it’s like what do you do after that if you’re … you kind of have to stop defining the experience of being in the band by the individual things that you’re doing, or something.
Yeah, because if it’s all milestones, at some point it will just run out, and then what are you left with? And I think because we were so busy doing all that kind of stuff the last year, it’s almost like we stopped being a band that was worried about music because we were never having a chance to work on music. So I’m kind of glad that all of that stuff is over for the time being because now we can just work on music and be an actual band again.
In the liner notes of the Sun Giant EP, you wrote, ‘Music to me is just as awe-bringing as the world maybe once was.’ What did you mean by that?
Well, one of the things I love to do on tour is if we’re driving through the Southwest at night, and you’re just on these totally barren roads, and if it’s a clear night, and you get out of the car at like 2 in the morning, it’s like you see the stars so much more vibrant—like you can see the whole Milky Way. There’s no light around for miles. So I’ll just turn the lights off in the car and go stand out there and stargaze or whatever. I love doing that, but it’s also like, at one point in time, that wasn’t something that you were choosing to do—to put yourself in that situation. That was your situation. And I feel like sometimes I’m having to manufacture experiences in that way. It’s almost like how someone that would dress up as, like, a count and go to a renaissance fair. It’s kind of like manufacturing this experience that they want to have but isn’t actually their experience. I almost feel that way, because even if I’m out there in the middle of the desert looking at the stars, I could still pull out my cell phone and call 911 or something.
And you have the car there.
Yeah. It’s still a beautiful experience, but there’s an element to it of tourism or escapism, even though you’re just in the natural environment. I think in connecting that to music, I was just meaning that, to me, music can be really evocative in a really pure way, in that there’s no, like, intellectual barrier almost. When you’re having to put yourself in the middle of the desert at night, there’s an intellectual leap there that you’re having to make from your normal life experience to this old experience. And I feel like music lacks that, or is able to pass that intellectual center of your brain and into just a place of feeling, you know? I’m just as easily transported by a song as I am by that experience, and there isn’t that kind of guilt about it.
One more question about liner notes: In the album, you mentioned not trusting photographs. Why is that?
I think I had been reading or listening to something about memory, and it was weird to think back on all my childhood memories and then be able to look at a photo album that my mom had and see that they were all the same as those photos. It’s like, oh, I remember when I was two, going to the beach with you and your friend and your friend’s son, and then there’s like five photos of that experience, and they kind of matched my memory. But I found that just in the same way that a certain smell can take you back to a place, a song can, too. Almost easier. I feel like a photograph is something that’s guiding your mind or influencing your memory. But then a song, it will evoke something or stir something in you, and because it has no visual quality, it’s not influencing the memory. It’s just bringing it to the surface.
FLEET FOXES’ SELF-TITLED FULL LENGTH IS OUT NOW ON SUB POP. VISIT FLEET FOXES AT MYSPACE.COM/FLEETFOXES.