Originally published in The Irish Times, June 24th 2011
ROBIN PECKNOLD is a hard man to pin down. At one point, it seemed that an interview with Charlie Sheen would be easier to arrange than one with the Fleet Foxes frontman, but when your band is as in-demand as his is right now, it’s to be expected.
When Pecknold is eventually forcibly tethered to a telephone, the setting couldn’t be more perfect. Having ridden the bike he brings on tour to a quiet park in downtown Dallas, the twittering of birds soundtracks the songwriter’s musings on his band’s recently released second record, Helplessness Blues . Yet trying to cram the Fleet Foxes story into a 20-minute phone conversation with a man who hesitates to speak about the album’s fiercely personal themes is a big ask, especially when he frustratingly spends what seems like hours carefully weighing up each question before replying.
The album has undoubtedly been well-received, although not as voraciously or quickly as its predecessor – but that’s to be expected, Pecknold agrees.
“Once the record’s done, it’s done,” he says. “Nothing anyone is gonna say is gonna change the record itself. It’s been a long process. We sort of know what we want to do next anyway, so it doesn’t really matter how this one’s received. Right now, the new songs feel like they haven’t fully solidified yet, but in a cool way, y’know? We’re still trying live stuff with them, and different ways of performing them. When you perform a song hundreds of times, like we did with the first album, you sort of get it to a certain place where it’s not even like a live version anymore. So it’s cool to be playing new ones that don’t have as much muscle memory to them yet.”
In any case, it’s not as if the Seattle band rely on critical validation – nor, in most cases, expect it. Pecknold has grounds to be somewhat wary of the press these days; a recent public spat on Twitter with NME (Pecknold accused the magazine’s website of misquoting and sensationalising something he’d said in a Sunday Times interview) preceded a 4/10 panning from the magazine a week later.
“Who’s to say if it’s even connected? I’m just happy that I’m on record as saying that magazine is a joke before that review came out, so they know it’s not just sour grapes,” a clearly amused Pecknold chuckles. “I don’t know, they’re kind of a weird magazine. Part of their brand or their image, or whatever, hinges on being alternative – but the stuff they promote is generally via these major-label channels. And they’re sold on every newsstand. I mean, I definitely read reviews, but I just don’t know to what degree they matter to me. We’ve been lucky to get some good reviews, but you can’t venture as to why someone likes or dislikes something, other than it aligns with their tastes.”
Pecknold shook up his songwriting approach for the new album. While many tracks from Fleet Foxes told tales in the third person, much of the new album deals with the singer’s personal problems. The temporary breakdown of his long-term relationship – largely due to his obsession with the record – played a big role, although he’s somewhat reluctant to discuss the details.
“Some of these songs are going to be uncomfortable to sing,” he admits. “But I think it’s a little more upfront. The emphasis on the first album was definitely on the music, but I think even the next record will be different to this one. I wanted to give people a bit more personality, in terms of the lyrics – more of the person that I don’t think came across on the first record. I don’t think we’ll go deeper into the ‘woe is me’ territory from here, though, but we’ll see what happens.”
That shift in lyrical perspective isn’t the only thing that’s changed in the Fleet Foxes camp. The addition of a sixth member, multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson, as well as an array of new instruments, has seen the band evolve in more subtle ways. If there has been a criticism of Helplessness Blues , however, it’s that it doesn’t stray too far from the territory charted on their debut. Nonetheless, it displays a band whose distinctive multi-part harmonies have become even more precise, and whose ambition – as heard on songs such as the epic The Shrine/An Argument – grows ever more insatiable.
“If you were to hand me both records and I had never heard either before, I think this is the one that I would prefer, just in the sense that it’s aligned more with my point of view on this kind of music right now,” he says. “I feel like this record reflects a change, in terms of a more informed approach to this style of music. If we were to have radically changed the genre underpinnings, we would have been going into less informed. In the music I listen to, I’m not really expecting the guys to be changing up the style dramatically – like ‘Oh, why didn’t Will Oldham make a disco album?’ or something,” he laughs. “You just want to hear new songs. I’m just along for the ride as a fan, like when Radiohead changed things up. But if they hadn’t, I’d be along for the ride, too.”
Pecknold spent much of the past two years informing himself by absorbing the back catalogues of artists such as Pete Seeger, Judee Sill and The Byrds. Bedouin Dress’s reference to the WB Yeats poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree isn’t the only Irish connection, either; Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks was highly influential.
“It’s not like you sit down and say ‘I’m gonna make an Astral Weeks 2 ’, or a record anywhere near as good; it was more about having the vocal performances sound similar,” he explains. “We did most of the vocals for this album in one go. Astral Weeks , and records like it, was one of the reasons we didn’t use a click-track on the drums. We recorded the drums live and the guitars live. You have to stop yourself from shaving the imperfections, because they add character to the music in a way that studio equipment can’t.”
Pecknold’s deference to the past is admirable, but the responsibility of having to write an album that sounds fresh and dynamic in 2011 indubitably requires skill. The genesis of Helplessness Blues lay in songs he had written for solo support dates with Joanna Newsom last year – three of which he released for free download – while he’s also got a number of side projects bubbling away, including one with his sister (and manager) Aja and new bandmate Henderson.
It seems remarkably prolific for a man who’s still just 25 years old, but recently unearthed YouTube footage of an impressive teenage Pecknold singing Simon Garfunkel tunes revealed someone who was destined for international repute.
He recently spoke of how the album’s title correlates with its themes of how sometimes, you’re the only person holding yourself back from fulfilling your goals. Now that he’s surmounted the challenge of the ‘difficult second album’ and has got his life a little more back in order, does he feel like he’s closer to realising his full potential?
“Shit,” he says with a half-sigh and another of those long pauses. “I don’t really know what the answer is. It depends on how you define ‘potential’ as a person, which everybody thinks about. Where would you have to be, to die happy? I guess it boils down to stuff like having a solid family and a solid relationship, or having accomplished something that you’re proud of, or whatever. I still don’t really know. Maybe I never will. But, y’know, I’m okay with that, too.”