Fleet Foxes Are Not Hippies
Don't Let the Floppy Hats, Jesus Beards, and Five-Part Vocal Harmonies About Rivers,Trees, and Sunshine Throw You
Not that long ago, Fleet Foxes had a change of heart. "We all started getting discouraged by the direction the band was taking, and frustrated with the songs I was writing," Robin Pecknold, 21, the frontman for the group, recently wrote on his MySpace page. Pecknold and crew grew up on their parents' records—Crosby, Stills, and Nash; the Beach Boys; the Zombies; Joni Mitchell; Simon and Garfunkel—and they wanted to make music that was more true to those roots. Fleet Foxes were already doing fairly well for a new local band, consistently booking shows and drawing favorable write-ups from the local press, but they "scrapped every song we had and took a while to simply write new music." In that MySpace post, Pecknold described the new sound:
With the new music, we decided to put an emphasis on harmony, simple three- and four-part block harmony. The songs would be simple as well, songs about our friends and family, history, nature, and the things around us in the Pacific Northwest. Instead of complicated vocal melodies, we would try and use guitars and mandolins and banjos and other little guys to fill the melodic spaces in the music. We'd try and avoid conventional song structures, sometimes putting two songs together as one, or avoiding choruses and verses in favor of long vocal rounds and alternating instrumental sections.
"I am not a hippie," says Pecknold, sitting in a coffee shop along with his four bandmates four days after they announced signing to Sub Pop. Pecknold pulls at his frizzy, brown, shoulder-length hair.
He says, "I might look like a hippie, but I actually have much disdain for hippies."
This is funny coming from a guy who wore a floppy brown hat during Fleet Foxes' set five months ago at Bumbershoot. It was big and goofy, like something John Lennon would've worn. Pecknold is not wearing the hat now, but he still has a full Jesus beard to go with his long Jesusy hair. He's wearing layers of clothing (a coat, a scarf, a sweater, a shirt) because it's literally freezing outside, as well as one colorful fingerless mitten (he lost its mate). The tips of his fingers are calloused from constant guitar playing. He looks exactly like a hippie.
He knows it. On January 25, soon after the Sub Pop news, Stranger music writer Jeff Kirby posted a link on Line Out to streaming audio of five Fleet Foxes songs. The first commenter replied: "Fleet Foxes are so awesome except for the part where they ran off with Chris Robinson's dowry." The second commenter was Pecknold. He wrote:
I resent and apologize for that hat. I also can't claim to own any topaz, turquoise, rings of any sort, necklaces, dream catchers, peacock feathers, ponytail holders, or any of the other tchotchkes you might find in the Pandora's box that is Robinson's dowry. On that tip, though, isn't it rad that "hippies" nowadays define themselves by how many weird items they own/can wear at one time and not by any actual ideology? That it's just a veiled version of rampant consumerism with no meaning? The hat, however, is inexcusable and will be burned.
"Hippies were cool, but cocaine destroyed them," Pecknold says, wrapping both hands around his warm cup of coffee. "Cocaine and Charles Manson. As soon as 1970 hit, everyone in L.A., instead of being all free love or whatever, they all moved into these big mansions, these big locked compounds. All the music became really inward focused; '70s music is way more self-centered. It's not bad; it's good to evaluate the self, or whatever..."
Pecknold pauses. Then he cringes and exclaims, "Oh God. Don't quote me on that!"
His bandmates—Casey Wescott, Christian Wargo, Nick Peterson, and Skye Skjelset—erupt with laughter.
"It is good to ev-al-u-ate the self," Pecknold says in a robot voice, mocking himself.
Fleet Foxes have been together as this lineup for almost a year and a half—some have been friends and bandmates even longer. (Bassist Craig Curran dropped out of the band for medical reasons.) Their posture is relaxed, the quieter guys (Skjelset and Peterson) are perfectly comfortable letting the more outgoing guys (Wargo and Pecknold) field most of the questions, but no one's afraid to interrupt or laugh when someone says something goofy. There's a sort of rhythm between them while they talk, a rare connection that comes out in their songs.
There is no lead singer in Fleet Foxes. There are guitars, bass, drums, an electric piano, the occasional cello or string of chimes, and many voices. Everyone's voice is an instrument. It's Pecknold you hear most often in songs like "English House" and "Drops in the River," but it's the layers of dense harmonies sung perfectly that make the band's baroque compositions magnificent and vivid.
On the song "White Winter Hymnal" specifically, you can't help but think of a bunch of guys sitting around a campfire. The band takes the listener with them out among the trees. While round-robin vocals playfully sing about the river and snow and sun, their big voices reach up to the sky. Fleet Foxes conjure this scene without any irony. They've brought it to Chop Suey, Neumo's, the Crocodile, your iPod, your bedroom. And as you sing along, no matter where you are, the air starts to smell cleaner, you start to imagine the slightest tinge of pine, and the chattering voices around you turn into crickets. Lots and lots of crickets. So it's not at all surprising when Pecknold mentions that he's looking forward to camping on his days off during an upcoming tour with Portland's buzz band of the moment, Blitzen Trapper. While their music has been compared to mid-20th-century acts like the Band and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Pecknold says it's the environment around him that's his best muse.
"White Winter Hymnal" was featured on Pitchfork's Forkcast. The hard-to-please website adores the outfit, calling their success impressive and saying that the song (a preview of the self-released EP to come out next month) "manage[s] to pack an entire winter and part of summer in these two and a half minutes."
It's fitting that the songs are built out of long vocal rounds. Pecknold has a way of immersing himself in the best of what's around him—including people. With Fleet Foxes, he's harnessed some of the most creative minds in the music community. Bandmates Wescott and Wargo are in the Crystal Skulls, a popular mellow electronic outfit on Suicide Squeeze that Pecknold calls "the best band in Seattle." Peterson has played with David Bazan's emotionally charged indie-rock project Pedro the Lion. And Pecknold used to be in the lush pop outfit Dolour. Within Fleet Foxes, the otherwise clashing genres are brought together to coexist. Harmoniously.
Also in the how-to-coexist-peacefully department, Pecknold was once a music intern at The Stranger and his older sister is a music writer at the Seattle Weekly. This summer he and some bandmates founded Golden Dawn, a group that organized camping trips and hikes. But it was less about camping and hiking and "more about getting together and doing fun stuff," he says. "I feel like there's some negativity in town, in the music scene. So it was just an idea to do some stuff together." He laughs. "I didn't intend for it to sound so hippie."
Signing to Sub Pop expands the Fleet Foxes community even further.
"There aren't any real expectations," says Wescott, 27, who has a thick black mustache and a tailored jacket and an eloquent way of talking, even when talking about punk music. "We've all been doing this long enough to know that nothing happens the way you want it to, so we just keep doing what we want to do and hopefully it works out." Sub Pop, he points out, has "put out a ton of records that are rad that aren't being shoved down anyone's throat; they have a diverse roster. They've put out a lot of cool stuff. I love that they put out Tiny Vipers' record, for example."
"The thing is," says Wargo, "we never sit around talking about it."
"The only conversations we've had about it are like, 'Uh, should we do this?'" says Pecknold, laughing.
Sub Pop (or Bus Pop, Pus Bop, or Sob Pup, as Pecknold variously refers to it on his MySpace page—"because I'm a dork") wasn't the only label chasing after them. They won't say who else was, but for the last months of 2007, they were being courted by a number of different labels—some big, some small. Sue Busch, an A&R rep for Sub Pop, says, "I think they fit so well [with Sup Pop], especially with bands like Band of Horses and Iron and Wine. They fit squarely into what we're doing right now. They're young and we're really trying to work with bands that are not only local but also young, who show signs of progressing. There's something about their sound that's super unique. Robin's songwriting is so mature for his age."
Pecknold and Fleet Foxes aren't the only ones in the city building a new niche out of a quieter, backwoods sound—a far cry from the abrasive, guitar-driven sound that made Seattle famous shortly after Pecknold learned to walk. The Cave Singers, a Pretty Girls Make Graves/Hint Hint spin-off that signed to Matador in May 2007, construct songs fit for enjoying while sipping sweet tea on a decrepit old porch in the South. They've got some harmonies of their own (but nowhere near what Fleet Foxes accomplish) and have a tendency to fall into long, jubilant jam sessions, boasting different kinds of percussion, including washboards.
Likewise, ex– Carissa's Wierd band Grand Archives, who signed to Sub Pop in April of 2007, have obvious tinges of folk and Americana (and at times parlor music), with light, bright tunes saturated with melody and jangling guitars.
Maybe it's because the previous generation of local musicians is growing old and the younger generation is digging out its parents' old records, but easy listening seems to be the next rock. It was only a matter of time before Fleet Foxes got swept up in the wave.
We get around to discussing their upcoming tour, which includes three dates at the media frenzy that is SXSW (and as Sub Pop's latest signees, they'll no doubt get a fair amount of attention).
"I was asking Mat Brooke from Grand Archives for advice," Pecknold says. Tour advice. "He was like, 'Do not talk to each other at all the whole time, and if you see a vegetable, eat it.'"
"It may actually be the first band that I believe will eat vegetables on tour," says Wescott.
"Since it's a six-week tour through the whole U.S., the drives between cities won't be as long," says Pecknold. "So we'll get the driving done and be able to chill out and do some sightseeing or camping in certain spots. We'll keep it Zen."
Fleet Foxes will keep it Zen. Right. Because keeping it Zen is what not hippies do.