An enlightening interview with Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes

An enlightening interview with Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes

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In our last conversation with Robin Pecknold he told us about how he wrote songs on paper, like they were a story: “This is how it begins, then the conflict, here is the conclusion.” It showed that Pecknold was a thinker. His music is beautiful and expressive, but there is more going on under the surface. There’s theory and thought.

This month Fleet Foxes released their new album, “Shore” and Robin picks right back up and reveals insight into exactly how he wanted it to sound, going bpm by bpm, creating a flow. We also get fun, too. Pecknold does a full on Werner Herzog impersonation, and we get a little druggy.

We talked after “Crack-Up” and you spoke about writing a song and writing out the movement of the music. Did you do that same thing here? What was your technique for writing music on this album?

I tried that a little bit on “Crack-Up” and I’ve tried that since then to varying degrees of success. It’s funny that you mentioned that because it was something I was thinking about starting to do tomorrow, thinking about more music to make. I didn’t do that for the songs on “Shore.” That was just going into a space every day and finding part after part somehow by your hands making a mistake or singing some line that ends up feeling like it has potential. It was a more traditional approach.

When you said “to varying degrees of success,” what do you mean by that?

Some of those ideas will stick and some will not. I want to keep working on music and I’m trying to get in that mindset where you’re brainstorming all of the different ways you can make stuff that has some variety.

I really liked it, for what it’s worth. While listening to the album you can tell the intention behind it. Fleet Foxes has continued to experiment in that way, and it pushes you along.

One thing I did try on this record that no one would notice was that I had a tempo map of the record. I knew that the second song of the album should be 102 beats per minute and the next one should be 126. I timed out the tempo flows between the songs before some of the songs were even written. No one would notice that, but hopefully in listening to the album and feeling the way it flows there is some subliminal intentionality that is absorbed.

How did you know what bpms to set them at? Where did that idea come from?

It came from scanning my favorite songs for their bpms.

No way. 

Then internalizing that. 120 is classic. Fleetwood Mac, “Dreams” is 120. That’s twice a resting heart rate. You only have so much leeway from 120 up or down before something stops feeling groovy. If you go too far you’re in half time. There aren’t that many tempos in terms of how they groove. It was more about what the transition between grooves would be. From 100 to around 120, to 80, switching between those 20 bpm gaps. 

That is wild. That is some science. Could you do a song map? As in, these were the bpms of a song that you were thinking of?

The first song didn’t have that because there is no consistent tempo in it. The Pro Tools section of it is very aggressively tempo mapped in terms of small tempo fluctuations that got mapped out exactly in the click track. “Sunblind” kicks in around 100. There are a couple of songs around 80 bpm. That is a slightly too slow strut kind of tempo.

How do you match that science with the art? How do you put the tempo map down and then say, around this we are going to create a beautiful soundscape that matches this skeleton.

It was good to have the tempo as the only control because it defines so much but it also leaves so much open. If you’re saying, this is 80 bpm, whatever the song is, that’s how fast it’s going to be, you’re left with so many ways to do that. The whole chord world is not dictated, all of that is up for grabs. I think it was helpful to have one control like that. It’s like The White Stripes only using three instruments. Setting some kind of limitation and then getting creative within that.

Could you say the name of the singer you have on “Wading in Waist-High Water?” 

Uwade Akhere. 

How did you find Uwade? 

A friend of mine sent me a clip of her covering “Mykonos” on Instagram. This was about a year and a half ago. She’s around 21 years old, probably 20 at the time. I was blown away by how amazing she made that song sound by staying very true to the phrasing of the recording, but the texture of her voice is just unreal to me. I never heard a voice that evokes that exactly, this weird combination of texture and ease. After hearing that, I connected that to this piece of music, “Wading in Waist-High Water,” that I had but I didn’t want to sing myself. It was a kismet kind of moment where I was like, there’s the voice that’s gonna sing it. Thankfully, my friend sent me this clip. It was also a nice coincidence that when we were recording in France she was studying at Oxford, so it was easy for her to take the train down to record with us for the day. In the studio she was very confident, very poised. I would be very nervous if I was 21 and I was singing on an album from a band that I’d covered. She was totally in her element. It was very inspiring. 

That story is the literal dream. You put a cover song on Instagram and think, maybe Robin Pecknold will see this and ask me to sing on his album. And then it happened. That’s the dream come true. 

It’s the modern equivalent of that story around the Bob Dylan “Desire” album where the woman who played violin on that album was someone he saw playing on the street and asked to be on the record. She was a busker in New York City somewhere.

On the album, water is the largest natural theme that you have connected to the album. Why is that?

Let me give the pretentious answer first, then I’ll give the more direct, clear one. The pretentious answer to that is, I was thinking about how waves through water operate like sound waves through air. From surfing the last few years, I got hung up on the stoney realization that when you’re surfing a wave you’re not surfing on moving water. The water itself is moving vertically up and down but there is a pulse of energy that is moving through the wave, and you’re trying to match your velocity to the velocity of the energy pulse. The water isn’t moving, really, until the wave breaks. That came to be meaningful to me emotionally. We are psychological mediums for these energy pulses that are passing through us from time to time. We are the medium in which things are being expressed more than we are the thing that is being expressed. That resonance between music and water stuck with me. 

I had this moment a couple of months ago when I was on mushrooms. We’re on Lake Michigan here, and my friend and I went down to the lake on a sunny day. We’re sitting down by the lake, and the waves are coming in, and I got caught on this idea of, what pushes the waves? What is this thing? It is this energy that will not stop, this energy that I will not understand. 

 It’s wind energy. It’s wind further out at sea, and that energy is being transferred to the water. The energy then organizes itself as long period waves that ravel somewhere with the amount of energy they have. They move through the water, and then break, and that energy is released. I get hung up on that as well. I had a surfing close call a couple of years ago where I almost drowned. After that, water came to be really dangerous to me. Any time I tried to go surfing again, any time I got caught in a rip current or could feel the water beneath me pulling me out to sea, or losing control, I would have a lot of trouble with that, panic-wise. That’s something to get over for me. “Shore” is the safe spot on the edge of something dangerous. The feeling I wanted the music to have was safe, but in liminal spaces, like living on the edge of death. You’re having to hold those two things at once.

Do you ever watch any Werner Herzog documentaries?

Yeah.

That’s the exact thing that he plays with. This idea about our love for nature and our obsession with it, and the danger of it, how much nature does not care about us. Nature is ambivalent to our existence.

[Werner Herzog accent] “The birds do not sing, they scream in pain. I do not hate the jungle. I love it, against my better judgement.” 

There’s a video that I took of him in “Grizzly Man” where he was like, “This man, he thinks that harmony is the way of nature. I think that the thing that connects us is murder.”

“Overwhelming and collective murder.”

Last time that we talked I asked you to pick a song or an artist, and you talked about “Emergency Ward” from Nina Simone. I bought the album two days later. That album overtook me for a good four weeks. I was wondering what you’re listening to now?

I’ve been listening to the radio a lot, honestly, since quarantine just for the company. Just to hear someone’s voice chime in every once in a while to say, “Hey, that was such and such.” Or I’ve been listening to classical radio, which I’ve never really done before. I made a big playlist a couple of years ago with seventeen hours of songs, stuff like “Emergency Ward” or Arthur Russel, Sibylle Baier, Ethiopian music, stuff that I love a lot. This year I’ve been too focused on working to open up my ears and be a sponge for new stuff again. That was another reason that I wanted to get it done. I don’t like being in that phase of being incurious. I love the phase when you’re absorbing as much as you can, just enjoying music and not worrying that it’ll throw you off track if you get super into some different thing that what you’re working on.

Now that it’s out, have you felt like you can do that again?

I’m feeling it more and more. This fall I can dig back into some of the stuff that came out this year that I didn’t give much time to. I was pretty into Brazilian music, and I made a couple of friends down there who have sent me dozens of hours of stuff that I didn’t have time to dig through at all. That’s going to be exciting this fall, digging into that stuff. 

What else have you been curious about lately? That’s our lives, for people who love things that are creative. It’s a constant uncovering of those curiosities.

I did get pretty curious about sourdough like everyone else. It was fascinating because it was so scientific but so feel-based. I came to learn that you have to be listening to the dough and it’s never going to be the same process because the humidity and the temperature in the air are going to be different. The state of the starter is going to be different. There are all of these factors that you have to pay attention to. That was cool. I’ve been cooking a lot as well. I love cooking and relating that to music in some way. I was super curious about all of the coronavirus stuff in the beginning. It was horrifying but following along with all of the epidemiology was fascinating to me. Trying to learn as much as possible about the virus and following different people, different scientists and different doctors and getting the lowdown on all of that was fascinating. The financial crises that were happening made me want to learn what ETFs [exchange-traded funds] were and what the commercial paper market was. All of those blinds spots that I had I became curious about.

I bought a book on economics two weeks ago. 

How are we going to deal with this insane amount of debt that we’re carrying? We’ll be watching the ramifications of all of these things in the coming years. That has all piqued my curiosity for sure, but there is only so much of that you can hold on a day to day basis.

I was listening to Van Morrison’s “Saint Dominic’s Preview” today and there is a weird tangential line to Fleet Foxes. The way that he brings out his soul and carries those notes for a long time made me think, I see this in Robin.

For sure. 

Have you ever gotten into Van?

Totally. I love him. When I sing along with him it’s never as high as I think it is. He’s just singing it with so much passion. He’s never singing that loud. I always think that I need to write at the top of my range to get it across that this is a passionate song. But you don’t. The most passionate vocal on this album is on the song “Sunblind,” but it’s not high in my register at all. That is a total Van Morrison thing, finding those zones in your register where you can be emotive as you want to, and that is not always the highest area. 

I think his key is that he goes low. 

It’s all about the contrast. Any note can sound high if you start low enough.

What is the most passionate line on “Sunblind”?

That is a weird song because it only came together about six weeks ago. It was a charmed feeling, like, where is this song even coming from? It is a keystone song for the album that was missing for so long. A song like “Can I Believe You,” that existed for a long time. It was one where we were like, we have this jam in our back pocket. Then “Sunblind” was like, damn, we have this one? This is such a good way to start the album. I still get choked up seeing people cover it. It’s still really fresh for me emotionally, “Sunblind” is. Singing, “And in your rarified air I feel sunblind / I’m looking up at you there high in my mind / Only way that I made it for a long time,” all the stuff at the end of the last chorus, even though I wrote it, still really affects me hearing it or singing it. That’s never the case. I don’t usually feel that way about the music that I make. There’s something about that song, because it’s about so many of my heroes, about missing them but wanting to carry them forward, there’s something in that lyric that gets me.

Wow. Thank you for sharing that, and thank you for talking about the album. “Crack-Up” and “Shore” have taken Fleet Foxes to that everlasting level. There was a precarious position where it was like, what’s going to happen to Fleet Foxes? Where are they going to go? You released these last two albums and you’re a forever band. You’ve solidified it.

Thank you so much. That is stuff I would think about too. I didn’t want to get swept up in a certain fad. I want to make music I’m proud of and share it with people. It’s very gratifying to hear you say that because it’s definitely on my mind and I am very proud of these albums for that reason, and for their own sake.

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