Interview

Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes

Wednesday 31st August, 2011 12:39PM

Seattle-based Fleet Foxes have found themselves with considerable success and critical acclaim rather soon – two EPs (2006's self-titled and 2008's Sun Giant) and two LPs (2008's self titled and 2011's Helplessness Blues). I talk to Casey Wescott about the hype, the new album and plans to come down to New Zealand again.

How are you?

Doing good, just hanging out in Seattle. This is my last day in town before I head over to Europe. I'm going to hang out in Paris for a couple of days before we go back on the road again.

I thought I'd start off with a basic question: why music?

For me, I don't know why. I've always interested in it, and executing and conceiving music ideas is probably where I find life's greatest thrills. But as far as why I'm doing, just luck. I was a software developer, doing consultant stuff for all of the big tech corporations around the greater Seattle area, and I was working in Microsoft when I was recording the first Fleet Foxes record, and I played in lots of bands before. It's a lot of luck why I'm playing music now, it's a lottery.

You guys benefitted from a word of mouth before you even released anything, were you able to control how people viewed you from the outset?

You can never control. It's so difficult to control what people say about you. I don't think you have any control unless you're a government or a corporation. We're not that persuasive, and when it comes to that word of mouth stuff, this whole thing took us by surprise. We recorded this in our bedrooms, and unless you're a sociopath, you don't have expectations for success.

Did it rush you as a band, and do things much earlier than you expected to?

No, not really. We took our time with the first record. The first record took as long as the second record – nine months to a year, really solid work, and so we handed labels a finished product, so that's what labels were hearing, the record already done. So we were aesthetically, already developed by the time there was interest in the band.

Were you surprised by the reaction by Sun Giant and Fleet Foxes?

Oh yeah, sure, who expects people to like what you do. Certainly in my life, given my previous experience in bands, there's no precedence for that kind of enthusiasm.

Was it a hard thing to deal with – when you get hyped, there must be a few knockers who come out pretty quickly…

It's weird. The more you do something, we just play shows and tour a lot, I definitely felt a lot higher expectations on myself. I think we had higher expectations of ourselves as a band when you do something and you look at the next thing to do. As far as pressure, I don't know, as far as external pressure I don't think that compares to pressure an individual puts on oneself.

Did you approach Helplessness Blues in quite a different way to the first?

There weren't too many guiding principles going into the second album, kind of like the first one. They're songs, and you're exploring them until you figure out the right way to present them. We definitely had more resources to work on it, and more time to work on it, I think that we were all committed to spending a tonne of time digging in and exploring every nook and cranny of the songs. I think that was the only assumption going into the record. It's so weird, collaboration is so chaotic, and creating music is so chaotic. It's hard to tell where things are going and if you're really letting things go wherever they're going, it's difficult to predict. We didn't know what we were making until it was done.

How hard was the editing process?

There were always songs being re-written and re-recorded, and that's just part of the process of rehearsing over material and making sure you're comfortable with how things are presented.

The band's music is quite emotionally open – do you think that's part of the band's success?

I think the second record is maybe a bit more direct lyrically than the first record. I think on Robin's [Pecknold's] part that was a conscious and deliberate direction to take. I think that he was interested in expanding the emotional dynamic scope of the songs he was writing. He definitely took that upon himself to evolve lyrically from the first record.

People seem to focus so much on harmonies for you guys – do the lyrics get lost a bit?

Well, not really, we were different people in 2007 when we were working on that stuff. That was what occurred to us at the time. The lyrics were there at the same rate, those variables were the same. Sometimes lyrics come first, sometimes lyrics come later. On the first record, there's a lot more of the harmonies singing the lyrics than on this new record; where everybody is singing the same lyric as opposed to people singing a different phoneme or a vowel shape or something behind what Robin was singing. There is a difference in how the vocals are presented. On the new record, you get the sense of an individual singing a song, rather than a chorus of people singing a lyric. But definitely, an ear interprets it differently when an individual sings something, it has a bit more of a personal interpretation, or more personal projection rather than a group projection of an idea or sentiment.

How do you view your role in the song-writing process?

Robin writes the songs and the vocal melody, and then he'll probably have a guitar part. When he came in with material this time around, most of it on acoustic guitar, him singing, because he wanted it to stand on its own, it would sound full and interesting and complete with just a voice and guitar.

I read somewhere that he paid tribute to you with the vocals and harmonies

Yeah we all help out. This process for this record, I worked as an individual alone with his songs that he would send that he did on the computer. I would take that and come up with different ideas and different snippets, and harmonic ideas, and I would try to come up with as much as I could. I would then send it. If they didn't respond, then you knew the idea wasn't going to make it, and wasn't necessarily an area worth exploring; it was trying to find things that would be appealing to the other guys, and even if it was divergent in aesthetic sensibilities. You try it out, and start to develop a space around a song and different directions it could go, and different potentialities on what the song could be, and collapse that down into something you can live with or rings true to you.

You guys have a few terms thrown around – Appalachian, folk etc. – does it get irritating the labels that seem to get stuck, especially for a band that has released only two albums.

Oh yeah. Whenever you're the subject of a reductionist judgement, or your work is, that's something you have to deal with when you're making things. I don't get too hung up on that stuff. At the end of the day, I'm trying to come up with musical ideas that are thrilling to me and the rest of the guys. I know when I'm chasing the thrill and I can get it and sustain for musical sections, I can stand by that on whatever criticism, because that's what I came up with, with what I had. There's an honesty in that, even if it is deficient aesthetically or philosophically in some way or parameter.

Has the new album translated well to being played live being a bit freer?

We've definitely changed it up quite a bit. When you're thinking in the context of an album, it's all the songs linking together. But when you're playing a live set, you're playing different material from different records, and trying to come up with a dynamic experience with nice transitions that's interesting in itself. You're trying to adapt things to the performance, whether that's changing the dynamic scope of the song, or adding harmonies, or taking them away. We vary the songs what would fit our live performances, and even our live performances are different from when we play in festivals or in a theatre.

What's the plan after Europe?

We're going to be hitting this for a while. We've got it scheduled out for a year, different tours all the way through 2012. I think we've announced the dates– we're definitely going to New Zealand, December, January.

Excellent!

Yeah, dude we were so charmed by New Zealand and Australia, and it was such an incredible time we had there. We're all really excited to go back. Some of us are going to go early, and record some new ideas there, it's pretty cool. I love it there. I'm going to try to go surfing – it's something I've never done before, and it's something I'd really like to do.

Brannavan Gnanlingam




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