How Fleet Foxes are handling high expectations second time around

Huge success began a steep learning curve for the Seattle band. Bandleader Robin Pecknold explains how the second album put the band in a 'dark place' and how they came through it

It feels odd to be meeting Robin Pecknold here, in the plainest of rooms backstage at the Hammersmith Apollo; the walls are pale and bare, the tables empty, the sofa curiously shiny. It seems somehow the very antithesis of the rich, adorned, lived-in music Fleet Foxes create. So when Pecknold arrives, he brings a sudden warmth to the room – colours its blankness with the mild scruffiness of baggy coat and woolly hat, a mug of tea to nurse a burgeoning sore throat, and fills the echoey space with a pleasing inarticulacy – sentences that run aground, ideas that seem to beach themselves midway through.

We are here to discuss the band's second album Helplessness Blues, a record eagerly anticipated after the startling success of the band's 2008 self-titled debut, whose unusually pastoral vision and stunning vocal harmonies touched a chord with an unexpectedly large number of people. "It was hard toeing the line between making something that felt like a sequel and a new thing entirely," Pecknold says of the new record. "We didn't set out thinking, 'Let's make it more X or more Y.' It was just what felt intuitive. But I don't think I could have written these songs three years ago."

The three years that have passed have been a steep learning curve for Pecknold. In the beginning, Fleet Foxes had been just him and his best friend, Skyler Skjelset, writing songs influenced by their parents' record collections and, in time, playing them around their hometown of Seattle. They quickly garnered attention from audiences and local press and, by the end of 2007, word had spread sufficiently that the band accrued more than a quarter of a million plays over two months on their Myspace page. At the start of the following year they signed to Bella Union, swiftly followed by Sub Pop for the US, releasing the Sun Giant EP in the spring and their first album at the start of summer.

By the end of 2008, Fleet Foxes had gone gold in the UK, won Uncut's inaugural music award, and notched up the album of the year title awarded by Billboard magazine's critics. The band, now augmented by the addition of Joshua Tillman on drums and Christian Wargo on guitars, had also toured around the world, from Australia to Hyde Park, played on Saturday Night Live, and performed with Neil Young. Pecknold was still only 22.

The end of the tour and the return to writing came as something of a jolt, and was in many ways different to the recording of the first album. "When we were working on the first one, we were happy to be done with it," Pecknold says. "But while we were working on, it there wasn't as much pressure or strife." The pressure, he says, came both from within the band and from elsewhere. "We recorded that record and then you have to live with it for three years, and you just grow and change as a person and as far as the outside world is concerned all you are is just 35 minutes of music," he explains. "So I think we really wanted to put something out there that we could then live with again for three years and be OK with it, not be biting our nails about what it was or wasn't."

While the rest of the band pursued other projects, Pecknold kept himself busy. He supported Joanna Newsom on tour and wrote music for an imagined film score. "Because if you're creative that doesn't just stop," he explains, "and it doesn't schedule in other people's timing, and I was waiting [for the rest of the band] for a while." For a time he moved out to Port Townsend on the north-eastern tip of the Olympic peninsula, rented a house and lived alone. "It was really nice at first," he says, half-smiling behind his tea cup, "but then it became really … tough, because I rented the house intending we could make the record there, but then the house was really noisy and there was no way we could have recorded anything usable there. And then I had intended to live out there with my girlfriend, but we broke up. So it felt like I was living inside my failed record, like the house was a physical manifestation of the record not being finished."

He did, however, succeed in writing several of the album's songs there – Blue Spotted Tail, the Shrine, Bedouin Dress and Battery Kinzie. In one of these tracks, Bedouin Dress, Pecknold sings of Innisfree, a reference to the WB Yeats poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree, in which the poet spoke of living alone in a cabin built of clay and wood.

"That poem is written on the wall …" Pecknold realises he has begun his story backwards and starts again: "In the middle of writing the record, me and my brother went to see my mom's mom," he says. "She lives three hours away in Wenatchee – they have a cabin there out in the Cascades, built in the 70s, and my parents got married there. It's cute, it's all family and extended family and there's a little rock museum upstairs that my grandma set up, and a place where kids can do origami, and we used to go there all the time when we were young. So we went out there to hang out for a few days in the middle of making this record, and she had typed up the Yeats poem and put it on the wall. So to me, the song is more about that place than the Yeats poem. But the thing about that poem is that it feels knowingly unrealistic, which I feel I identify with: thinking about something that you know isn't possible or is naive. I feel there is a lot of knowingly naive stuff on the record. But hopefully not stupidly naive."

There is certainly a naivety, but more than anything Helplessness Blues feels run through with a loneliness, a feeling of a songwriter reassessing his life and questioning just who he is. "I feel like once I started getting into music, that was the path and there was so much there to listen to, and so much historic lifestyle associated with music that made it a really rich world," Pecknold begins his explanation. "And once you jump into it, you can be busy just focusing on music from one city in Ireland for 100 years, you know what I mean? So I was just on that path, the music-obsessive path. And I'm still on that path, but as soon as we finished touring and started having to record again, I began to think about all the things I was missing out on."

I ask what those things might be, and Pecknold sips his tea, looks awkward. "I don't know … There are people who make music and have a complete life as well," he answers quietly, "but I think especially the way we do it, if you aren't careful it can end your …" he tails off, clears his throat. "It can be a really self-obsessed thing, I guess. I have a friend who plays the drums and plays with really awesome musicians, and he took a year off from music to work for the Obama campaign. But I could never do that! I'd be like, 'How many songs are you missing out on writing?'

"You know I think the perspective I've had on it so far is actually not healthy," he continues. "I think it's [manifested itself] mostly in relationship stuff. But it was a combination of touring, in the way we were touring, in a van, where you're sitting in a van for eight hours a day, and so you have no time to do anything. And really wanting to make the second record, and writing these songs, and every spare moment I had felt like it had to be creative time."

The perfectionist streak found its way through to the recording, too. He talks of "recording and rerecording" and of how "everyone was in a dark place". But, he insists: "There were only a couple of things where I was saying: 'I need this to be different, and please just let me do this differently.' Everything else we did, everyone agreed with and everyone was on the same page."

Is there, I wonder, a particular feeling he gets when he writes a song he knows is special, a song that demands a place on the album? He smiles. "Yeah," he says. "I think there are the ones that hold things up and then the ones that are inside there, that aren't like those songs but that have a purpose or were fun to write or that fill a spot."

Which songs on this album, for him, are the props? "The one I listen to the most is the instrumental," he laughs. "But the first and last ones were written specifically to start and end the record." He pauses. "When I say 'prop it up', what I mean is songs like Mykonos, on the EP, or White Winter Hymnal, Blue Ridge Mountain, Ragged Wood on the first album. Basically the 'hits'." Pecknold laughs at the notion of Fleet Foxes as hitmakers. "Actually I don't think there's many songs like that on this album, which is fine – it's more like one whole thing."

The Pecknold of the recording studio, anxious, uncertain, obsessive, is one he is keen to leave behind. He talks of moving on, of his recent relocation from Seattle to Portland, of how this record "marks the end of everything before it: new decisions and new choices." Even touring, this time, will be different. "Because we're staying in hotels, and I can play the guitar there, and I'm happy to take a vacation," he says. "I don't feel that time pressure as much. Before, I was writing songs the whole time, but by the time we got to recording the new record some of those songs were so old that I wasn't even considering them. So why did I even bother freaking out about them for two years?" He already has a clutch of new songs, written during their brief time on the road. "I don't know what they're going to be yet," he adds. "They're just melodies. Just loud and long – I want some distortion next time!"

The band itself is still growing – joined most recently by Morgan Henderson. "I still think everyone's role is developing," Pecknold says. "I think my role even is developing, and where it will be in the future is not where it was at the start. What the band was, making the first record, was you're a guy who plays in a local band – maybe three or four local bands, just playing in Seattle once in a while. It was just one of those things that you're doing. Then then after all this stuff it became the main thing." And of course Pecknold, as lead songwriter and singer, became the main thing of the main thing. "Before the band got successful, I could just be the songwriter and one of the singers," he says. "And now I'm like bandleader. And I'm learning how to do a lot of that stuff, lead the group and be a more even presence."

Before, he says, he was "constantly in retreat mode. And I went from doing nothing to being way busy. But now I feel I have acclimatised to it, to doing this kind of thing. I feel like my perception of how long a day is has changed. And I think the trick is to not wish you were anywhere other than where you are at a certain moment. Otherwise time just stretches into these vast oceans."

He pauses, looks up at the blank room. "I dunno," he says, "it's just a weird feeling to be doing it all again. It's weird that it has a feeling at all. Last time it felt like we were on the run, just scrambling. And now it feels … not that way. It feels like we're battle-ready."

Fleet Foxes play Wolverhampton Civic Hall on 23 June. Then touring. Details:

This article was amended on 17 June 2011. The original said that Fleet Foxes had signed with Sub Pop in 2008. This has been corrected.


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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