“Have I ever what?” Robin Pecknold, frontman with Seattle four-piece Fleet Foxes, smiles to conceal his embarrassment that I might even think him capable of such a thing. He heard me perfectly the first time, but I nonetheless repeat the question. Has he ever used his music to make himself more attractive to a woman? Finally, he gathers his thoughts. “No, no… I mean, I’m the wrong guy to ask that question to. That’s the last thing I would ever do. In the big debate about what music is and how it evolved, some people reduce it to a mating call – just like a bird has a mating call. You know, I’ve heard that a couple of times. Me, personally? I think music happens because our brains are too complicated to be still all the time, you know?”
Some half an hour after coming off stage to a rapturous ovation at Brighton’s Audio club, the bearded, blue-eyed Pecknold is too distracted to appreciate the irony of his utterances. Outside the venue, as he faces the lights of the pier, two young Japanese Fleet Foxes fans stare at him with an air of respectful adoration. If truth be told, it’s a reaction that isn’t restricted to the other sex. It’s hard to recall the last time a recorded noise elicited the sort of praise reserved for Fleet Foxes’ celestial four part harmonies. You must know you’re onto something pretty special when the worst reviews elicited by your eponymous debut album stop short of meting out a fifth star.
And yet the nearest Fleet Foxes get to arrogance comes during the actual show itself, when the freewheeling backwoods canter of Ragged Wood comes to an end and bassist Christian Wargo and drummer Joshua Tillman exchange high-fives. While they, along with Pecknold’s childhood friend and guitarist Skye Skjelset retreat to another corner of the bar, Pecknold points out that, often Fleet Foxes, are no less startled by their vocal chemistry – Crosby Stills Nash and Young quietly rejoicing at the bottom of a well barely begins to do it justice – than the rest of us are. Only twelve months have elapsed since Pecknold wrote Quiet Houses – the song that prompted him to junk everything they had previously worked on and start again. In the ensuing purple patch, the basis of the current set – the choral campfire reverie of White Winter Hymnal to the tense folk balladry of Oliver James – tumbled into his arms. What changed, exactly?
“Prior to that, there were a few songs we were working on that were very much focused on the lead vocal, you know?” He almost baulks at the apparent gaucheness of such a conceit. “And I wanted to do a song that was the extreme opposite of that – where the vocals were just part of the music, and not just a platform for this guy, you know?” Not for Pecknold then, the ego-massaging benefits of lead-singerdom? The license to be just that little bit more cocksure than the rest of us? Fleet Foxes’, well… let’s call him their primary songwriter finds himself getting embarrassed “very quickly” by the mildest of misunderstandings. At some length, he relates a story about a show in Oklahoma with bucolic freak-folkers Blitzen Trapper, in which the venue owner’s wife served up separate meals for both bands. Pecknold asked if there might be any vegan food available, and when he returned to eat it, he recalls that “some guy who looked like me had been given the food.” At this point, all parties realised what had happened. Not a major faux, pas you would think – but Pecknold recalls feeling so embarrassed, he had to run back and hide in the van. It’s a tendency, he says, that his girlfriend finds exasperating at times. “If I order a coffee and they give me the wrong one, I would rather throw it away and buy a new one,” he smiles, “It drives her nuts.”
If the tics and traits of an “inward looking” childhood, remain mostly intact, it’s perhaps not so surprising. “By the time I was dressing myself,” says Pecknold, “I was uncomfortably overweight to the point where I would want to wear a t-shirt in the water when I was a kid.” It was by deciding to cut animal and dairy products from his diet at the age of 14 that the pounds started to fall off. “I went on a big bicycle trip – like, a summer camp thing – and decided I didn’t want t eat all the crappy food that everyone else had. At the same time, I had just heard about what a vegan was, so I told everyone that I was a vegan so I could eat special food.”
By the end of the summer, Pecknold returned home 30lb lighter. In keeping with what we already know about him, he says he’s thankful that his parents withheld from making a big deal of the transformation. “I think they knew to not make a big stink about it, so it’s not like you feel that they’re suddenly into you now. You know that they love you no matter what, you know?”
By this time, Pecknold – whose father builds boats and guitars for a living – was writing his own songs. Despite growing up in the town where grunge took off, Pecknold – just seven when Kurt Cobain died – found his inspirations elsewhere. His obsession with Bob Dylan made the life of a lone troubadour seem like a viable vocation. “The first time I heard Boots of Spanish Leather,” recalled his older sister Aja (yes, as in the Steely Dan album) “it was as if all of the oxygen had been drained from the room, suddenly replaced with the wavering golden longing of this one song. “Only it wasn’t Dylan singing, it was my 14 year-old brother.”
Written shortly after his return from that momentous camp expedition, his first song Sarah Jane was “just some story about a girl whose dad hated her and kicked her out, so she had to become a prostitute, then she became pregnant. A sob story, basically.” Looking back, Pecknold characterizes his early songs as attempts to write songs like his other musical role model Elliott Smith – “to see how he does it, you know?”
Perhaps a touch facetiously, I suggest that having a massive heroin problem seemed to help in that particular instance. Pecknold remembers being desperate to go and see Smith on his last ever Seattle show, but being too young to go. “That was the last chance I could have seen him, and I heard that tour was terrible. He could barely remember the words to his songs.”
Any worries that Pecknold may seek to lubricate the cogs of creativity in a similar way are without foundation on the basis of tonight’s encounter. Supping water from a polystyrene cup, he responds to a question about sharing drugs with his baby boomer dad by saying, “That has never come up. I don’t smoke weed. And I don’t think he does, either… although maybe he did at some point. Besides, having a drug habit implies you have money to spend on drugs. As it is, I might have to take a job when I get back to Seattle. I was a cook in a restaurant kitchen, so I’ll probably go back to doing that.” Having made the most unanimously feted album of 2008, it seems incredible that this even constitutes a possibility – but Pecknold says his band wouldn’t even be here in Europe had their label not advanced them £20,000 to finance these shows.
Far from complaining, however, Pecknold’s tone, in fact, is one more of gratitude that someone advanced his band the money in the first place. As if to mitigate any accidental negativity, he adds, “Maybe I’ll just be able to do get part-time work when I return. But hey, I don’t want to sound like a grouch. There’s nothing I really long for right now.” He pauses briefly. “Well, maybe nothing except for a list of countries where it’s acceptable to tip taxi drivers… That’s another source of continual awkwardness.”