Robin Pecknold talks future Fleet Foxes material

Courtesy: Pitchfork

On the strength of one EP and one self-titled album, Seattle backwoods harmonizers Fleet Foxes have ascended to indie stardom. They’ve played festival stages and appeared on “Saturday Night Live”. They also won Album of the Year honors from Pitchfork and toured their hearts out. So how do you follow up a debut run like that? To hear frontman Robin Pecknold tell it, you question whether music is really what you want to do, you work on some side projects, and then you hunker down to start work on the follow-up album.

Fleet Foxes are now in the early stages of album number two, and Pecknold is also keeping his creative energies up by forming a band with his sister and working on pretend film scores with Morgan Henderson of Past Lives (and formerly of Blood Brothers). He recently chatted with Pitchfork about Paul Thomas Anderson, Neil Young, and his decision to keep making music.

Pitchfork: What have you been up to lately?

Robin Pecknold: This year has been kind of trying to write new songs, then going on tour, and then coming home and trying to write new songs, and then having to go back on tour again. We rented this house in Port Townsend, which is on the peninsula here in Washington, across this big body of water from Seattle. So I was living in this house in the middle of nowhere by myself. I was just trying to write songs up there. But it never really panned out because we kept having to leave to go on tour again. It’s only been in the past month or two that we’ve been home long enough. We’re done touring now until we’re done with the next record. It’s been crazy just being home for an extended time. Now, we’re working on stuff every day, and there’s a few other projects going on at the same time. So now is when we’re writing and starting to record the new album.

Pitchfork: What are the other projects?

RP: My sister Aja, who is our manager, started writing songs last year out of nowhere. Sometime this year, she started sending me GarageBand songs that she would write, like her singing along to the GarageBand metronome. So me and my friend Morgan have joined her band, and we’re making an album for her. That’s been super fun. And then me and Morgan Henderson– he’s from the band Past Lives– we just yesterday finished up this thing. It’s 15 minutes of film score-type music, what we would like to hear in a movie. It’s just something that we wanted to make and then maybe film a movie in that style.

Pitchfork: So it’s kind of your film score audition tape?

RP: Yeah, exactly. It’s what we would want to hear in a scene when they’re in a Jeep going across the savannah. Or the Woody Allen bar scene, clarinet-style.

Pitchfork: Are you trying to do a full-length film score at some point?

RP: I think that would be super, super fun. I’ve being able to write music without having to think about a song, or without having to think, “OK, this also needs to have a bridge.” Or, “This song’s deadlocked because it doesn’t have a chorus, but the other part is cool.” Some songs are harder to turn into finished songs than others, but when you’re just writing music and you’re just writing melodies, and some of it’s just rhythm stuff, that’s all it needs to be when you’re just writing to an image. So it’s been fun to think about it in that way. It’s been freeing. There hasn’t been any singing or anything; there have just been a few small elements. Morgan’s been playing the instruments, mostly. He can play the clarinet and strings and stuff, so he’s been playing the non-guitar instruments. It’s been fun to think about it outside of the format that, because we were touring for two years, we have been in for so long.

Pitchfork: So it’s been like a thought exercise?

RP: Yeah, kind of. When you’re writing, it’s the difference between a memoir and a book of fiction. That sounds pretentious. But if you’re writing fiction, you can just do whatever. I feel like if it’s a songy song, it needs to be more like a memoir, but if we’re just working on melodies and rhythms to be set to a film at some point, it can be more exploratory. One of the songs is totally like a Sidney Bechet jazz clarinet piece, which Morgan just wrote. There just needs to be a bit more freedom of something.

Pitchfork: Does your sister’s band have a name?

RP: Yeah, Rainbow Fang.

Pitchfork: Do you guys have any plans to put out a record?

RP: Yeah. We have six songs done, and I think we’re going to do a 10″ vinyl for her friends.

Pitchfork: Do you think you would ever tour with any of these outside projects?

RP: I don’t know. I think it would be fun. With the film score idea, Morgan and I just became really good friends, and we were trying to figure it out. Obviously, Fleet Foxes and Past Lives are very different bands, and so the idea kind of permutated. At first, we were thinking about re-scoring an old movie, taking an old movie and redoing the score to what we want it to be. Then we could play the score together live in front of the movie a few times and have that be the show. Now I think we’re more interested in the idea of working together with a director at some point in the future, to make a score that they like for scenes that they have directed.

Pitchfork: Do you have an ideal director in mind?

RP: I think whatever ideal director I would have would probably be able to find someone much more capable. But Paul Thomas Anderson’s the best guy. I think There Will Be Blood is the best movie ever. And Jonny Greenwood’s score in that is amazing. That was just a perfect pairing of feelings. So that would obviously be the Holy Grail.

Pitchfork: You said you’re starting to record the Fleet Foxes album. What stage would you say that’s in?

RP: It’s in a very early stage of recording. We rented a new space in Seattle. We were looking for a space in town, and I asked Josh [Rosenfeld] from Barsuk, the label honcho dude, if he knew of anything. He said that Death Cab were moving out of their space and the space that they were in was the space where they recorded all the Sub Pop records from 1986 to 1992. Phil Ek worked there a bunch. It’s been a studio since the 1970s, and Nirvana did Bleach there. It’s pretty run-down. It’s not a big or nice studio or anything, and we’re just renting the building. We brought our own little recording setup in. But I was really excited to tell Jon [Poneman] and Megan [Jasper] at Sub Pop that we were renting it. If we weren’t renting it, it would probably become a retail store. So we’re in that space, and it has this cool feeling to it. I mean, it’s probably just psychosomatic, but it has this vibe to it. I’m just going down there every day and writing songs, which I haven’t had the chance to do in a long time. It’s been almost two years since we recorded anything, which is just crazy to me.

Pitchfork: Do you need that time back home without touring to let your ideas marinate before you can turn them into songs?

RP: I think what’s nice about having time at home, off from touring, is that you can feel like an individual again, and that you’re kind of growing as a person. You can separate yourself from what you’ve done or what you’ve been a part of in a much more realistic way than when you’re on tour, playing the same songs every night. I learned a lot about myself from touring; I think we all learned about ourselves from touring. Touring and learning what you’re doing wrong and then going home, you can feel like a growing individual again. I think it’s kind of a cliché, but to me songwriting is more like work. If you keep doing it all the time, you’re inevitably going to get something that you want to use at some point, and you just have more time and opportunity to do that when you’re not doing something else.

Pitchfork: How would you say that the new songs you’re writing are different from the first album?

RP: I think they’re less poppy. I listened to the first record again, and I was kind of nonplussed. Some of it I was into, or I could see why we did that at that time. But some of it we would just never do again.

Pitchfork: Like what?

RP: Some of the more upbeat stuff. There are definitely super-upbeat songs that are being worked on for the new record. But as a whole, it’s probably a little bit less upbeat. Not darker– some of it has a more exuberant feeling to it. But some of it is just more realistic. When I was listening to the first album, it was kind of like research. I was listening to the record for the first time in a really long time. When I was listening to it, I felt like I didn’t get a chance to breathe. There was a lot of “too upbeat.” I guess people think we’re already kind of a mellow band, so maybe the next album will be pretty boring to most people.

Pitchfork: Do you think it will be more restrained?

RP: I think it will just be a different feeling instead of mellow. But positive– it will just be a different feeling from that. Different chord shapes, some extended. On the first record, I kind of wanted to avoid any extended grooves. But there’s definitely a couple of those coming in now, where the guitar part almost sounds like it could be a sample, just because it’s kind of repetitive, and then just kind of a groove built around that part.

Pitchfork: Is there any music you’ve been listening to that you think could be shaping the music you’re writing?

RP: The biggest thing to me– and I mean this in a totally approach-based way– is Neil Young. There’s less of a Neil Young feeling than on the first album. But we were asked to do his [Bridge School] benefit down at Mountain View [California], and the experience of being around his crew and being an observer into his world for a few days was this crazy and inspiring experience. He seems like such a wonderful person, and it seems like he just did it the right way. He doesn’t seem to have any enemies, and he just does what he wants and looks after the people in his circle. You would meet person after person who did such and such job on the tours, and everyone had stories. There were dudes that that had stories from 1971, and everyone had nothing but good things to say. Someone has done it the right way in this music game, and it ended up being fulfilling and good for the people in his life as well. I think that made me still want to do the recording and touring thing, after feeling not too excited by it.

Pitchfork: Were you burnt out on it?

RP: I think I was just sick of having to think about myself all the time, being onstage and seeing other bands and whatever. Everyone reacts differently to whatever life’s circumstances are, and I was kind of unsure if this was for me, and seeing [Neil Young’s] whole cadre and seeing his manly good-heartedness [laughs] was really inspiring. Another thing I’ve been listening to is Mountain Man. I was really blown away by that stuff. I thought the singing was really great. And Beach House– the new record is so good. I’m so happy that they went with Sub Pop; I’m so proud to be labelmates with them.

Pitchfork: Would you like to tour with them?

RP: I think that they should do their own tours, like headlining tours. We toured with them in the UK a year and a half ago; our first tour there was with Beach House. We were just tickled pink at that time. I think they will be more than capable of doing really strong headlining tours of their own. By the time we’re ready to tour again, they’ll probably be bigger than we are.

Pitchfork: Not too many bands get as big as you guys have off of one album. Is there pressure involved in following that up? Do you put pressure on yourself? Do you feel responsibility to the people who bought the first one?

RP: The last year has been a really trying creative process where I’ve not been knowing what to write or how to write. This film score thing has helped a lot in breaking that barrier, where I don’t feel beholden to anybody. But I didn’t feel beholden to anybody when I was writing the songs on the first record, and that’s how it’s going to have to be again. I’m sure there are people that will gravitate toward your band for certain reasons. We would probably lose fans if we changed certain things. If someone is a fan of our band, and they like one or two songs, and there aren’t that style of songs on the next record, then they won’t buy it, or they no longer like the band. That’s fine with me. We did those songs; they still exist. People can listen to those songs if they like them. That’s totally fine. I’m just interested in doing right by myself as a songwriter. The other thing is that I’m just trying to write– this sounds so stupid– but just trying to write good songs, and not worrying about what style they are.

Pitchfork: That doesn’t sound stupid at all. That sounds like the best approach to dealing with this.

RP: Yeah. Maybe a good song isn’t as exciting as a totally new style of music. But there are so many millions of songs to be written, but there are only so many genres; there are only so many times you can combine or reinvent a genre. So I feel like the song should be what I’m looking for. And I feel like we have two or three songs for the new album that I think are good songs that should exist in the world, so they’ll be on the album. And then there are some that you justify to yourself: “This is a new kind of music,” or “this is so complicated.” Those probably won’t end up on the album.

Pitchfork: Do you have any idea when you might release the album?

RP: Definitely 2010. There’s no way it wouldn’t be next year. But probably the early second half, or mid-second half, stocking-stuffer style.

Pitchfork: Is there anybody that you want to work with on the album who you haven’t worked with yet?

RP: I don’t know. I’m also enjoying recording the Rainbow Fang stuff and the soundtrack stuff; I feel like I’m learning a lot about engineering. Not that I want to produce it myself, but I feel like I could do it. I love working with Phil Ek and I love bouncing ideas off of him, and I think he and I could make a really great sounding album together, but we’re so not at the recording stage yet. But I want the recording to be like two weeks. I want it to be really fast. I want to do all the vocal takes in one go, so even if there are fuck-ups, I want them to be on there. I want there to be guitar mistakes. I want there to be not totally flawless vocals. I want to record it and have that kind of cohesive sound. [Van Morrison’s] Astral Weeks, to me, is the best-sounding album because it sounds totally like there was only six hours in the universe for that album to be recorded in. So I want it to have that feeling.

But to me, the recording isn’t going to be the hard part. The writing is the hard part, and that is almost half done. The only real reason that it’s been taking a while is that I don’t want to go on tour again anytime soon. Once you’ve finished an album, then you have to start the process of that stuff. That’s fine, but I just don’t want to start that right now. I really want to do it at some point in the future, but it’s just not right now. And I just don’t think we are really needed right now; there’s a lot of really great music coming out, this year especially, so I think there isn’t really anyone who’s waiting for us to release anything.

Pitchfork: I also wanted to ask you about White Antelope, your solo project. Do you have any plans for that beyond the MySpace page?

RP: Do you know that Roy Harper record Stormcock? It’s just super sick. Jimmy Page plays on some of it, and it’s just this super sick 12-string thing. That’s the other thing about the new record; it’s mostly the 12-string guitar. Not chords, but I’m mostly playing the 12-string guitar, so that will be like the primary sonic distancing from the last record. But Stormcock is really beautiful. It’s like four songs, just beautiful lyrics. It kind of has this acoustic heavy metal vibe on some of the songs, where he’s just playing these intense parts but it’s on acoustic guitar. They recorded that at Abbey Road. I think it would be fun to go record a record of that kind of thing at Abbey Road in like four days. But that’s the kind of thing I would want to do and then not release it. I don’t think the world needs another trad-folk record.

Pitchfork: So you would just do it for your own personal enjoyment?

RP: Yeah. [White Antelope] is me recording cover songs for my own personal enjoyment. I don’t think the world needs to hear my covers of whatever or my takes on whatever song. When I was recording those covers, I had written a few songs in that style, but I’m not interested in releasing a solo album or whatever.

Pitchfork: You deleted your Twitter. Any particular reason? It was a pretty good Twitter.

RP: You read that thing? I just didn’t really feel like I could be myself.

Pitchfork: Like you were performing?

RP: Yeah. At a certain point, you know that people are reading it because you’re in a band that they have heard of or something. I don’t even think that many people read my personal thing, but I just felt like I couldn’t be totally honest, like “this movie blows” or “I hate this band”. I thought that maybe it would get back to the person, and there’s no need for that. I think John Mayer’s Twitter is entertaining, for sure. You get a different opinion on that guy from reading his world-wise Tweets. But I wouldn’t want to use Twitter as an unofficial mouthpiece for data to send the nation. But I think it’s a cool and interesting medium; I don’t see how human communication could possibly be condensed further, unless it’s like a single node in your brain transmitting the feelings to whoever.

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