Fleet Foxes – Beyond the basement
Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes owes a hefty aesthetic debt to Oklahoma. Not the actual state, but the landmark 1943 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. When Pecknold was young, musicals taught him to sing out and feel at ease onstage.
“Doing school plays and local productions of Annie or Oklahoma! — that was where it started,” recalls the 21-year-old singer, guitarist and songwriter. But even before he began treading the boards, circa his 7th or 8th birthday, the Seattle resident had been bitten by the bug.
“As a kid, I played dress up a lot,” he says. “I remember one day, when I was super into Oklahoma!, I was wearing my cowboy outfit before kindergarten. And when Mom said, ‘OK, time for school,’ off I went — in that outfit — with no reservations.”
Although it involves a fair amount of ensemble singing, the Fleet Foxes’ self-titled Sub Pop debut owes little to Broadway. If anything, their sound locates them, geographically and historically, between the Laurel Canyon scene of the 1970s and the verdant Pacific Northwest of today. “Sun It Rises”, which opens the eleven-song set, nimbly interweaves voices a la Crosby Stills & Nash, or the Mamas & the Papas. Enough images for an issue of National Geographic litter the album’s lyrics, rife with references to mountains, tall grass, birds, forests, and hilltops in the mist.
Growing up, Pecknold and his best friend, guitarist Skyler Skjelset, delved deep into his parents’ record collection, which included Buffalo Springfield, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. “We were not really rebelling against our folks,” he admits. “We dug what they were listening to, or had lying around.” But they also latched on to the indie scene in their own backyard. “We were huge fans of Built To Spill and Modest Mouse, the K and Up Records stuff,” he adds. “All of that was kind of our music.”
Starting around 1998, the two friends (then adolescents) hid out in the basement, composing originals and playing favorite covers. “For a long time, it was just the two of us, and we weren’t doing it with any goal. We were just doing it for ourselves. There was no label involved, no expectations.” In 2006, they emerged into the light, recruiting Casey Westcott on keyboards and Nick Peterson behind the drums. Current bassist Christian Warg signed on later.
Writing for a group, after years in relative isolation, affected Pecknold’s craft — almost to a fault. Which is why none of the songs from their self-released 2007 EP made it to the album. “That first batch of songs was a reaction to the full-band format, instead of just songs that sprang from the heart,” he says. “Then we realized we could do whatever we wanted.” The band gutted its entire repertoire and started fresh.
The material on their debut disc, and the intermediate 2008 Sun Giant EP, definitely reflects an upswing in inspiration. The intimacy of the basement is retained, via the medieval, English folk feel of “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” and “Your Protector”, as well as the tactile sounds of guitar bodies and snare drum heads. But there are epic moments, too, such as the uplifting “White Winter Hymnal”, with its mesmerizing vocal round and Phil Spector-sized timpani. Thanks to judicious use of dynamics, and thoughtful production by Phil Ek, the distance between these extremes never seems too vast.
No matter how sophisticated or subtle the arrangements, the Fleet Foxes’ songs have a high incidence of sticking in one’s head. Perhaps because Pecknold composes in segments, rather than whole songs. “I’ll write a little piece, one chord progression or melody, and it won’t connect to anything else,” he explains. “Eventually, I’ll have ten or fifteen of those lying around. From those little fragments, I’ll decide which ones work in an interesting way together. It’s almost modular, putting pieces together.”
Despite the gusto with which the band renders the material live, thus far none of Fleet Foxes numbers have prompted audiences to sing along. (“I hope it doesn’t turn into Dashboard Confessional or anything,” Pecknold cracks.) Regardless, the band feels a genuine sense of community — with fans, and fellow travelers such as their Seattle indie acts the Cave Singers and Grand Archives — has arisen out of playing music.
“I am fairly antisocial — I have always been sort of a loner, and music is a good way for me to connect,” Pecknold admits. “We’re like birds, singing to reach out.”