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Fleet Foxes' Fearless Folk

Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold talks folk music, live shows, and the band's future

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    Fleet Foxes headline Humphreys Concerts By the Bay on Sunday, April 15. (Photo by Shawn Brackbill)

    When Fleet Foxes returned from a years-long hiatus in 2017, they did so with a monumental statement: "Crack-Up," the band's third studio full-length album arrived last June via a new label (Nonesuch Records) as a breath of fresh air -- and largely sidestepped the "folk-rock" label that they've been saddled with since day one.

    The album is dense and labyrinthine, and while the gorgeous vocal harmonies that initially drew so many to them ultimately remain, they're paired with horns, strings, percussion, and other layers in near-jazz-esque arrangements that reveal more and more intricacies with each listen (especially on the six-plus-minute “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” and the nine-minute “Third of May / Odaigahara”).

    As much as Fleet Foxes progressed from their 2008 debut to 2012's indie-rock masterpiece "Helplessness Blues,” lead vocalist/guitarist Robin Pecknold imagines their fourth album will be a much different affair altogether than even the exploratory "Crack-Up."

    "To me, it's always like there's a kind of record you want to be making and you're kind of preoccupied by that or fixated on that until it's made, you know? Once it's made, it's no longer useful to you," he told me over the phone recently one morning. "It's almost like the byproduct of a thought process that was going on at the time.

    "So, the first album is the debut album where you're just trying to fill a set with a bunch of different kind of songs and the second album is different," he continued. "The first album is in the can and you want to expand on it; the third album's the same thing but maybe then you bring in new influences. Now, thinking about making the fourth album, I want to think about it like it's just the debut album again because the variables keep getting more and more complex. Like, now I gotta keep building on this and expanding on this and we can't really do another album of 10-minute songs 'cause it'd just get too crazy. [laughs] So I kind of want to pare it down somehow -- make something concise that's deep."

    It’s a surprising premise primarily because the band (which, aside from Pecknold, consists of guitarist/vocalist Skylar Skjelset, bassist/vocalist Christian Wargo, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Casey Wescott, multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson, and drummer Matt Barrick) has been on such a tear lately with not only the immensity of “Crack-Up,” but even the detail with which they approach their live show. Fleet Foxes fans can attest to the group’s obsessive in-concert presentation of their music -- and it’ll be on worldwide display during their upcoming shows when they take the stage with a myriad of additional horn, string, and percussion players.

    “Yea, they will be at Coachella and San Diego, too,” the frontman confirmed. “I'm excited about it. I feel very lucky to have everyone doing such a good job bringing the songs to life and doing shows. You do your best to kind of make a baseline level of quality but every day there's some crazy variable, like singing or something, to keep you on your toes. I feel like more of an athlete than I do an artist -- trying to nail the notes I'm going for. But having all that [additional] instrumentation is, when possible, invaluable.”

    Recent set lists often feature long segments where several songs are performed one after the other in a seamless, medley-type fashion -- which makes the whole experience feel more akin to an orchestrated theatrical production than typical rock concert.

    “It's like calculus,” Pecknold admitted, “but sometimes it's like a happy accident, like these two [songs] happen to go together well. And then choreographing how to change this guitar, and get that amp setting changed, or whatever at the same time -- for us, it's more fun not having to make everyone clap like 22 times. [laughs] I always find that the periods between songs are more stressful onstage than periods onstage when we're just playing. It’s like OK, we have six songs in a row where I feel more at peace than if I have to play them song to song without playing straight through.”

    Few musicians are as endearingly witty or charmingly charismatic during onstage banter, so it’s a bit of a shame that Pecknold would prefer not to have to do it too much -- but it really hinges on what the crowd allows him from night to night.

    “Some people are better than me or us at ‘OK, everyone, get on your feet and let's have a good time!’ [laughs] It's kinda like, OK either [the audience is] responding or they aren't but we're doing our best up there every night regardless. The same with banter: I've never had canned banter, but if someone throws out something funny from the crowd, I like being able to play along -- but it really has to be the crowd doing it. Maybe I'll find some way to better about this but I feel like it’s more like the crowd needs to throw me a bone so I can kind of go with it. Like, we played a show in New Orleans and this woman was screaming that I needed to sign her poster and it turned into this big, funny thing for, like, five minutes. And I was grateful for it because some shows you don't have anything to bounce off of. I should get better at the performance aspect of that but…”

    As our interview wound to a close, I asked if the band’s current trajectory would find them abandoning folk music altogether in the future? Had they reached the apex of what they could do within a genre they largely helped revive? 

    “I don't know.” Pecknold paused for a minute. “That's a good question...I mean, I think good songs are good songs and whatever makes the song happen is more important than whatever genre it's in. I do feel like I've been thinking about that just because I don't really know what people want to see at our shows, you know? I don't really know if they want an all-acoustic set or if they want us to expand from there because it's pretty instrumentally expansive at this point -- but I'm not sure if people even want that from us?

    "In the future, maybe we'll do segments within sets, like an acoustic set and then a band set, or whatever. But I like taking the music to new places. I think the instrumentation isn't really what's determining if it feels new or not to me, it's just about if the songs are good and if it feels like it has presence.”

    Fleet Foxes headline Humphreys Concerts By the Bay on Sunday, April 15, with Amen Dunes. Tickets are available online here. They also play the 2018 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival on April 14 and 21.

    Dustin Lothspeich is a San Diego Music Award-winning musician who moonlights as an associate editor at SoundDiego, runs the blog Gear and Loathing and books The Merrow. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.