The Sydney Opera House may boast a striking, world-famous exterior, but the iconic building’s backstage, behind-the-scenes interior is a different story: a labyrinth of white corridors and compacted rooms, its innards prove far less inspiring than its opulent facade.
It’s in one of its many small, white, windowless rooms that we meet Fleet Foxes‘ primary singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold, his tall frame and warm, gentle presence ably filling the space. Although jetlagged, he’s excited to play, beginning that evening, the first of what will be four shows at the Opera House. Not counting a short US warm-up tour prior to their arrival in Australia, it’ll be the first major shows Fleet Foxes have played in over five years, the band taking an extended break while Pecknold completed a university degree. “In six hours we’ll know what we’re in for for the next three nights,” he smiles sleepily. “So hopefully it goes well, then we’ll just have to repeat it.”
Despite the fatigue, Pecknold, 31, is enthusiastic about discussing the accomplished, multi-layered and emotionally resonant Crack-Up, a dazzling step forward into new territory and the first new album from his band in six years…
It must be strange to go from a prolonged break to playing big shows for four nights straight on the other side of the world…
I like putting things on the schedule that make you rise to the occasion. When they asked us to do this it was “this seems a little bit insane” [laughs]. I think they asked in December, and we didn’t have any tour crew. We had to buy all these road cases and amps – we had to buy all of this stuff. All of our old gear was just lost to the wind so we had to build the whole thing back up again, but it felt doable. And it’s good to have a little fire under your ass.
Was the break good for you personally?
I think so? [laughs] Maybe it was too long – maybe four years would’ve been good instead of five or six. I was doing all this other stuff like trying travelling, surfing, woodworking – all this hobby stuff. But then school was like “Oh, I’ll go back to school” [Pecknold undertook an undergraduate degree at Columbia University in New York], but that’s a four-year commitment time-wise. It did push things back and I wish this all would’ve happened sooner, but it’s all in the past now and I’m glad for all those experiences.
Was there ever a time when you thought you wouldn’t bring the band back?
No. No, I never thought that. Maybe I’ll think that at some point in the future. If I really wanted to I probably wouldn’t have gone to that expensive school to study books [laughs]. I was always intending to make an album and tour again.
What’s the relationship like within the band currently?
It’s great. The record was really fun [to make]. It was more on me to not waste any more time and bring people in when I had a good idea and a good place for them to record on, and everyone was excited to contribute. It went really smoothly, and all the rehearsals have gone really smoothly and I think everyone’s happy to be doing it.
How did the other guys handle the break?
I think like me everyone understood that there’d be a break after the last one, and I think that like me they didn’t expect it to be quite as long as it was. If it were to never have happened again I would’ve made that call many years ago and not left them with the impression that it would. Especially in regards to my relationship with Skye [multi-instrumentalist and singer Skyler Skjelset] – we’ve known each other since we were 13. When we were 24 or 25, touring the last album, we were still acting like the 13-year-olds we were when we met – we still saw each other that way. Now I see him as the 30-year-old autonomous adult that he is, and he likewise. We now have a different understanding of each other as people – it feels new and not grandfathered in. It’s great.
Now you’re back in the swing of things, have you already thought much about the album you’ll make after Crack-Up? I read you said you wanted the follow-up to be “ecstatic” …
Yeah [laughs]. I’ve thought about it, for sure. I want to start planning it out and writing soon and hopefully have a normal schedule, like [having it out in] three years max.
What does “ecstatic” mean to you?
Well, I mean… [pause] I had to listen to our albums to get ready for touring and rehearsing. So I was listening to the first one [2008’s Fleet Foxes] and thinking, “Oh, this is very optimistic, like kind of naïve music”, like very “I’m 21-years-old”. Then I listened to the second one [2011’s Helplessness Blues] – maybe it’s better made, but it’s a little bit doomier, more existential, angsty or something. And then I don’t know what the one we just made is – I couldn’t sum it up right now.
To me, Crack-Up feels like bursts of sunshine appearing through periods of bleakness …
Totally, yeah. Maybe the next one will flip that, y’know? Flip that around. It’s also good to have a balance – not be too like a party album, like LCD Soundsystem or something.
That would be something, if you did that …
Not quite like that, but I would like it to be a little less moody.
Because of the long break, do you have a large stockpile of songs that you’ve built up?
There were tons of songs. Even though there’s 11 songs on the record, there are kind of like 20 songs on it in certain ways, just in the way they’re structured. I just wanted it to be very packed with ideas and dense, and just the best of everything I had written without too much filler and unnecessary repetition, so there’s more to unpack. I feel like it helps to think of it more like a movie and a series of scenes that are cutting between [each other], cos then people aren’t expecting it to be quite so strictly song-structured.
A lot of the songs definitely feel like several songs put together as a kind of collage. And then on “Mearcstapa”, it sounds like one song trying to muscle another one out of the way...
Totally, yeah [laughs]. I spent a long time with all these snippets of music and spent a long time recording them, so I would sit with one thing and be like “How does this make me feel? What is this saying, and what should I be saying instead?” So what piece of music, like you said, will muscle in. The beginning of the album is like “sad guy with a guitar”, and then the band knocks him off the stage. So I guess I was thinking about all the different sections of music and the most interesting way to put them in conversation with each other – thinking about them in that sense. “On Another Ocean (January / June)” – those are very different kinds of music in the first and the second half. It was just an interesting way to think about it – kind of editing the structure.
Is there a danger of doing that and the music coming off too much like an intellectual exercise? Were you conscious of wanting the album to sound organic, and not too stapled together?
We were very conscious of that – we were trying to do it in a legit way, but have some distinctiveness to it.
On the first track “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar”, it begins with what sounds like a raw demo before exploding into something more hi-fi. There’s a real balance between that on the album – between the intimate and the epic.
Totally. I got attached to the way the demos sounded because I just recorded those in my apartment and the sounded like Arthur Russell, or something kind of homemade and crappy [laughs]. I thought it would be cool if certain aspects of the album had that contrast – putting something that sounds really bad and something that sounds really clean and glossy.
There’s also a sample on “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” of a school choir singing “White Winter Hymnal” – that’s quite a meta thing to do …
[Laughs] Yeah, I know! So the basic rhythm of that song is the sound of the J train going over the Manhattan Bridge. I was standing on the pedestrian walkway of that bridge and just recorded that train going by and on a certain point of the track it does this [imitates train sound] “duh-doont doont, da-da-doont” – y’know, this clanging rhythm. So I built a loop outta that for the basic pattern behind all the music on a lot of parts of that song. And then I looped that again over these sounds of waves that I recorded at a beach in Long Island, so it’s the same pattern but now a water sound for the very end of it. Having those two things placed the song in New York for me. While we were recording it a friends sent a video of that song [“White Winter Hymnal”] being performed at her daughter’s career day at her high school, and it was in Bushwick / Brooklyn, which is kinda on that train route. So I thought I’d throw it on the end of the song because it’s on the train line where this is taking place. And it kinda feels like a memory, something cloudy.
Like a half-remembered thing that ties into your past …
The last thing we hear on the album is what sounds like a recording of you walking up stairs …
This studio we were at had this cool sounding door, so I was walking back and forth with the iPhone for that part. That was in the stairwell at Sear Sound. I put it in because it was like leaving the album behind, y’know? Like having the album be a picture of a bunch of conflicts. It has a psychological feeling to it because a lot of it is so intimate. Some of the lyrics aren’t so much directed at the listener, but more like the listener is eavesdropping on what is being said. So the album is this tangle of conflicts that is resolved, then it’s leaving it behind. Like leaving the room where this album takes place, and moving onto the next room.
There’s a lot of thematic threads throughout your music. The last track on Helplessness Blues was “Grown Ocean”, and it ends on the same note that Crack-Up begins with. The word “ocean” …
…is everywhere! [laughs]
…yes, is everywhere! It’s all over the album: in the imagery of the front cover artwork and in the video for “Fool’s Errand”; there’s numerous references to the ocean, water and rain in the lyrics; and there’s the song “On Another Ocean (January / June)”. The album also ebbs and flows in a very ocean-like way …
Totally. I was thinking about it as “water music”. I started surfing in the last few years so I’ve spent a lot of time in the water and experiencing it first-hand, like if on the day [the surf] it’s just too big and I’m just getting pounded like it’s a washing machine, the humility of that, or the grace of a nice day or the joy of finally catching something. Just being in that whole mental landscape of surfing. So it was influential for thinking about the album, and like you’re saying having the album have that ebb and flow and unpredictability like a storm at sea, then it evens out – just this oceanic quality. There’s also “Become Ocean”, a classical piece by John Luther Adams where you have two or three opposing orchestras on different sides and each one is a different wave and there’s these really long swells painting this 3D picture of this water music. So thinking about it like that. It’s also a kind of a nice word to sing, “ocean”. There are certain words that are just nice to sing or that sound sonorous – “ocean” is one, or “light” or “lie”, “line”. Certain ones that just keep cropping up, and half the reason is it’s just nice sounding [laughs].
Do you feel like you approach music form an intuitive place, or is there an intellectual aspect to it too? Is there a balance you strive for?
I think with anything there are just different phases. Like if you’re a writer you are better able to be intuitive or expressive in the way you want to be if you have the right vocabulary, like if you’ve done a lot of reading and you know the language you’re trying to speak in. That part of it is the mental work, the preparation for getting yourself for where you want to be mentally or skill-wise. From there you don’t really have to think, so when you’re making the record you can totally be in the intuitive side of it.
Do you see your music as a way to create a meaningful connection with others?
Hmmm.. [long pause]. It’s tough, because I still struggle with that a little bit. Making the album, I felt very close to Skye while we were producing it together and recording each other. Getting to play for people and see them excited is a form of connection, so it does facilitate that. But I’ve also been recovering from jetlag alone in a hotel room for two days [laughs], and feel disconnected from some things. So touring can pull you out of that but also provide this different kind of connection, and we have this great family of people working with us. So I think it’s my only means of being like “here’s who I am”, y’know? And “this is what I put into the world.” In that way it’s a tool for connecting to other people, for sure.
I imagine that must sometimes feel overwhelming – with your music, it’s connection on a pretty large scale.
Rght, right. If that reminds me of anything that I’ve experienced, it’s just that… I remember in the past feeling like me as a person wasn’t quite what I was reading about the band, y’know? They didn’t feel totally connected to me and so I felt a little alienation from that, maybe, or as a result of that.
What was the disparity between what you were reading and how you felt you were?
Just having my life reduced to, like, “lumberjack Beach Boys” or something [laughs]. That felt like a bit of a disconnect. But with this one I feel very connected to the record so hopefully that won’t be the case and I won’t feel alienated from what people say about it, so there’ll be more connection.
On a different note, I read a quote from Limp Bizkit’s Wes Borland …
[laughs] Please continue, this is ringing a bell…
Any sentence that begins with “Limp Bizkit’s Wes Borland said” …
You have my ear!
Anyway, he said “I think that Fleet Foxes is a negative influence on music.“
I remember this – it was a couple of years ago. Not to flatter myself or the band or whatever, but he probably meant it in the way like “Fleet Foxes is wack and there are other wack bands that happened as a result of them”, which is fine. I respect Wes Borland’s autonomy and right to his own opinion. But I can also see it on that “Nirvana begets Bush” line of thinking, where maybe the first one wasn’t so bad, and then other bands take it to different places. Perhaps he meant it that way, and I respect his opinion.
That’s a very mature response …
[Laughs] It’s not an opinion that’s keeping me up at night.