In early May, Seattle sextet Fleet Foxes released its overdue sophomore album, Helplessness Blues, to rave reviews and flattering chart positions. Sandwiched between Jennifer Lopez’s latest (No. 5) and the new NOW That’s What I Call Music! installment (No. 3) lay a gorgeously rendered, lightly psychedelic, bona fide folk record chock full of lyrics about delaying death, losing love, growing old, and looking for simplicity in overwrought times. At the center of it all—at least until the band’s next album—is singer, guitarist, and songwriter Robin Pecknold, whose deft songwriting ensured that Fleet Foxes’ auspicious 2008 debut wasn’t the result of some passing folk fad, but the beginning of a rich, even surprising musical career. Amid a dogged touring schedule, Pecknold talked with The A.V. Club about day jobs, the arduous recording process for Helplessness Blues, and why he isn’t a prophet, even though his liner notes say so.
The A.V. Club: Helplessness Blues presents a real yearning for simplicity. What about those who say, “Yeah, buddy, that’s easy for you to say with your fancy band”?
Robin Pecknold: [Laughs.] I think it’s more a yearning for something tangible, which could be a lot of things. Like, when I’m talking about the orchard on the titular track, that’s not like, “I wish I had some sweet piece of real estate.” I was listening to that Pete Seeger song, “If I Had A Hammer,” and it was a response to that—the hammer and the bell as symbols of action. I thought the orchard, in a metaphorical way, would be a symbol of cultivation. If it was literal, even I’d be like, “That’s kind of stupid.”
AVC: A lot of creative folks work menial jobs on their way up. To paraphrase a song, have you ever been a cog in someone else’s machinery?
RP: I’ve had the most old-lady jobs. I worked at a health-foods store as a teenager for a couple of years in the suburbs of Seattle, and when I moved into the city, I worked at this burrito place that was completely staffed by indie-rock dudes. Which was awesome. I heard so much bad music.
AVC: You guys had to scrape together funds to make Fleet Foxes, and did a lot of the recording at home or at your parents’. In hindsight, how did that affect the music?
RP: To be honest, it felt pretty luxe. We were used to recording in the most bare-bones way, doing demos and stuff since we were teenagers, so getting to go into a studio for three days felt like a huge expenditure. Even asking my folks for a few thousand dollars so we could rent decent microphones felt like asking a lot. We just rented studio gear, so we had a lot of extra time to record.
AVC: That record wound up on top-10 lists alongside artists like TV On The Radio, Bon Iver, and Hercules And Love Affair. Did you expect such a strong reception, considering the landscape?
RP: No, not at all. I look back now, and all I think about are the things I would redo on the album. All that other stuff is so abstract, like looking at Pitchfork and seeing it as No. 1 on their year-end list—I don’t even know what that means. It’s just a weird image I’m seeing on a screen. Context has so much to do with it. In hardcore traditional folk circles, that record would probably be laughed out of the room.
AVC: Do you think of your music as anachronistic?
RP: Stylistically, you just have to do what resembles stuff you like. I think that’s what everybody’s doing. What Hercules And Love Affair is doing, MGMT, Arcade Fire. I wouldn’t know what to do with synthesizers or speed metal. There are throwback bands out there that I really like, but I don’t think we’re that. I feel like most of the lyrics on this one are very personal and contemporary to me. It’s not like, “Let’s end the Vietnam War,” you know? It’s not someone else’s problems and emotional concerns for a different time period. If you happen to listen almost exclusively to music from ’64 to ’72, that’s just taste. There’s nothing you can do about that.
AVC: With this album, you had the opposite problem from the first, in that you sunk a sizeable chunk of change into a studio session, only to scrap the material and start over. What happened?
RP: Well, I think it’s been a little overstated. There was a group of songs that was going to be a record, but they never got recorded properly. I guess you could call that “a scrapped album,” but it was nothing that could ever be released—just a bunch of demos that were ultimately replaced. It was a really expensive mistake. The big setback came last September, when we went to New York to mix the album with Phil [Ek]. A lot of stuff didn’t sound right, and I ended up re-recording all the solo songs over several weeks.
AVC: After so much second-guessing, how did you know when it was done? How did you feel about the album when you finally let it go?
RP: I still have mixed feelings about it. The process was kind of weird—it felt like a lot of work. I think we definitely tried our best, but I don’t think it’s the final statement in any way. The way forward is a little clearer after getting this record out of our system. This one does address some of the things that irked me about the first one, like how lame the lyrics were, but this one feels very, very measured, like every aspect of it was tightly considered, and it’d be cool to do something that wasn’t that way.
AVC: In 2009, you said you wanted this album to feel like it was recorded in six hours.
RP: Well, we did record the basic tracks, drums and acoustic guitar, together at the same time with no click track, and we kept that the whole way through. But it was the stuff we layered on top that raised the question for me. So I feel like there’s a loose record in there, but I don’t know… George Lucas, after every Star Wars movie, is like, “I wanna make an independent feature,” but he never fucking does it, so maybe I’m being George Lucas right now.
AVC: This album focuses a great deal on age and station. Do you worry a lot over the prospect of death, or of becoming trapped in your life?
RP: Yeah, I do. Like how “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is two minutes long, but that those two minutes affected, or will affect, those guys’ lives until they die. These things that are really insignificant in terms of time can really control you or change things, like saying “I do.” I think it’s something that everybody thinks about, though, and so much of it is relative to specific relationships, not necessarily things I’m thinking about randomly. Things you have to think about when another person is asking you to.
AVC: What relieves that feeling?
RP: Songwriting is really gratifying for me, although these days I feel like I have less and less time to actually write songs, and I spend more touring, recording, and doing bandleader stuff. But I love hearing and making new music. That’s what I care about, and I don’t really see that changing. I think it’d be cool to do something a little less self-involved, but I love to do it.
AVC: You’re credited as “Prophet” in the liner notes, but you seem like a pretty humble guy…
RP: Oh no. [Laughs.] Oh my God. I didn’t even think about that. Prophet is a brand of synthesizer I play for like 10 seconds of a song. You can’t even hear it. Jesus. Oh man. We’re gonna have to reprint that. I also spelled someone’s last name wrong in the thank-yous.
AVC: I just assumed it was a band in-joke. I’m sure no one will—
RP: I wonder if the band guys think that too. “Fucking asshole, credited himself with ‘prophet.’” Fuck.
AVC: You’ve said you’re interested in pursuing a separate band project on the side. If you started something new, what would it sound like?
RP: I’ve been listening to a lot of David Axelrod, both his production work and solo albums, and I’d love to do something otherworldly like that, a half-hour of crazy cinematic stuff. I have no interest in writing all the songs for another Fleet Foxes album, so I think that will influence where the band goes from here.
AVC: You were the primary songwriter for both albums, right?
RP: Yeah. I feel like I took this record really seriously, thinking about every song as a piece of the whole, you know, written specifically to be track eight or track one, or the closer. That didn’t leave a lot of room for the others, and I don’t want to do that again. In addition to being great musicians, everyone in the band can write really good songs, so I think it’ll be more fun.