Fleet Foxes Made the Perfect Album for This Moment

“It was such a joy to be back to work after three months of lockdown,” says Fleet Foxes singer Robin Pecknold. Photo: Andrew Benge/Redferns

Today — on a single day’s notice, just in time for the autumnal equinox — Seattle folk ensemble Fleet Foxes released its long-awaited fourth album Shore, a product of two years of hard work and unexpected twists. Initial writing for the album began as touring for 2017’s Crack-Up wrapped in 2018, and recording started in earnest a year ago but slowed in February — chief singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Robin Pecknold struggled to find words to match his new songs’ rustic highs — before coming to a halt in March along with much of the country, as shutdown procedures began to combat COVID-19. Pecknold dropped everything and decamped to New York, figuring the city that got hit first would also get through the worst of it first, then eased into the unsettling quiet of quarantine, periodically taking daylong drives without a set destination as the restrictions loosened and participating in marches in the summer as they passed his door.

It was in those aimless drives that lyrics for the instrumentals took shape. They’re achingly sentimental, borne out of missing friends and the comforting rhythms of a life that now seems forever changed. “May the last long year be forgiven,” Pecknold sings in “Featherweight,” “all that war left within it.” “I’ll be better off in a year or in two,” he says at the close of “A Long Way Past the Past.” Shore’s 15 songs are a gearshift from the longer compositions and brash textures of Crack-Up, though they’re no less elemental and transportive. The bustling “Can I Believe You?” is one of the finest Fleet Foxes rockers to date; the opener “Wading in Waist-High Water” is a sweeping sendoff to a summer we barely knew but will never forget. Accompanying Shore is an hour-long nature documentary shot by Pecknold’s friend Kersti Jan Werdal around Seattle and Washington State. Together, he hopes the film and album will provide comfort to anyone understandably having a rough year.

On a Zoom call in mid-September, I caught up with Robin Pecknold about the arduous trek to the watery Shore and how the new work fits into his quest to build a career without following predictable paths.

You’ve just dropped a new album on extremely short notice. You’ve never done that before. What made you want to forgo the rollout and lead single pageantry this time?
The album came together in August. In July, I was like, “I know I can get this done.” I felt like November is a question mark. 2021 is a question mark. Since we have so much time to make music, because there’s no touring to worry about, it was like, “Well, what if we put this stuff out digitally on the equinox?” [I’m] not trying to drum up too many articles over an extended period of time about it, because there’s so much else to pay attention to right now. Better to be like, “Hey, here’s the thing” and leave room for music to be released in the coming year in addition to the album than to have people sick of this long campaign.

Shore, the latest album from Fleet Foxes.

Talk about the significance of the autumn equinox. Why did the date appeal to you?
I liked that it’s this celestial thing that’s not tied to current events. The first lyric of the album is “Summer all over,” and the last lyric is “Now the quarter moon is out.” There’ll be a quarter moon rising on the 23rd. Those were weird cosmic coincidences that made it feel almost inevitable, like it had to be that day. Sometimes you get a notion like that, and if you stick with it, it’ll pay off.

With the last album, Crack-Up, you shredded a lot of people’s expectations for what your band was capable of. This one might be a little more straightforward structurally, but there’s a lot of depth and intricacy in the arrangements. What changed about your approach?
Crack-Up was “mission accomplished” on that sort of vinyl-forward, long songs, worlds-to-get-lost-in thing. Doing the opposite of that became this fun challenge. I feel like I learned a lot about production and arranging on that record that carried over to this one. If Crack-Up is long songs that have these jagged transitions, this would be shorter songs with really smooth ones. If it was kind of a stark album, this was attempting to be a little funnier or a little brighter or more playful. We’re really trying for a yin-yang kind of feeling with the two albums together, because they’re the same length, and they’re kind of like two sides of the same coin or two shores on either side of an ocean. The next one will be its own world.

You’re already conceptualizing the next Fleet Foxes release, and interested in democratizing the songwriting process a little bit more going forward, as you wrote in the statement you put out with the new album. What inspired that change in process?
That’s what we’re doing for the next set of songs we’re working on. With this one, I wrote all the songs and the lyrics and recorded all the vocals. That’s always been the case in Fleet Foxes. Because we can’t tour, we’re gonna experiment with different ways of working together and actually co-writing from the ground up, which is something I really want to get more into in general.

It seems important to you to approach new projects differently than the last time.
Yeah, but hopefully not in arbitrary ways. I feel like there’s a natural progression. It hasn’t been … “And now, here’s the house remix.” Or the country album. I’ve tried to find the weird intuitive path that led to new areas of growth, that wasn’t arbitrary genre-hopping — but that also sounds fun. I love the idea of being tasked to write something for someone in a certain style. I would love to try more stuff like that in the future.

On the song “Crading Mother, Cradling Woman,” you sample the Beach Boys. How much of an inspiration was Pet Sounds on the way you’re stacking sounds on the new album?
Pet Sounds is a big influence generally speaking. This is definitely the most studio rat, Brian Wilson-y, overdub-y of any of our records. That approach is what made me want to get into the music in general. The little bits of Brian Wilson dialogue on that song are taken from my favorite piece of music ever, which is this a cappella clip of him laying vocal after vocal for this idea for “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder).” That piece of music is what made me want to be a musician, hearing him, just with his voice, building this whole world and how magical that felt, how he didn’t even need a guitar. It had this egalitarian wonder that was super inspiring to me as a teenager. Same thing with growing up in Seattle and having Kurt Cobain nearby making us all think we could do that too.

I don’t know if people who aren’t in their 30s quite grasp how much of a bombshell Nirvana was for kids at the time.
I was 6 when Nevermind came out, but I was aware of it because I had older siblings and I was listening with them. I remember In Utero and Unplugged in New York coming out, which I loved. I remember him dying and hearing about it on the radio. Sometimes people will be like, “Was it weird growing up in Seattle since grunge is so different from the music you make?” But [Kurt] was the most melodic songwriter. His chord ideas were always super interesting. They’re as complex and as engaging as anything regardless of how quiet or not the arrangements are. It was like, “Here’s the next Beatles, and they’re from Seattle.”

Who are your other Seattle music heroes?
Calvin Johnson and Phil Elverum and K Records stuff. Kill Rock Stars was Portland, but Elliott Smith and Halo Benders and Built to Spill … that was the control. Everything I did or wanted to do had to be judged by that. That was the canon.

You worked on Shore for two years. How do you know when you’re done writing a song?
I think you just stop working at some point. I would love to still be tweaking this stuff. Some of these songs were recorded and rerecorded three or four times, and then different parts were Frankensteined together for the final product at three or four different studios. You just give it all you got while you have gas in the tank and hope that when you run out of gas, it’s close enough.

“Sunblind” is a great addition to the pantheon of songs about listening to other songs. Am I right to see Shore as a kind of exercise in the healing power of music?
I was so overcome by that idea when I was finishing it in July and August. It was such a joy to be back to work after three months of lockdown. I was meeting new people, and ideas were flowing. I was making sure lyrics had references to musicians or music itself as this healing source of energy and stability and comfort. Something about making the record put me in that state of mind, of loving music and missing live music.

Will it be a new experience to be sitting at home when the album drops?
I’m curious about it. We were on tour when the first album came out, and for the second and third ones, there were these campaigns planned around them that involved tours and press trips. I’ve always finished an album and then had an expectation of what the next year and a half of my life would look like, so to finish one and get it out without that is a new feeling for me. There’s an element of your brain that turns off when you know the next two years of your life are planned, and what you’re gonna be doing work-wise. To have that not happen … I’m actually kind of excited to see what ideas come out of that, what new potential. This could come out, and someone loves it and wants to work with me, and I’d have the time, because I’m not otherwise engaged. It could be positive.

What music have you been into this year outside of your own?
One of the reasons I wanted to finish [Shore] this year is that I’ve been kind of incurious over the last few months, musically. I love the Fiona Apple album and the Waxahatchee album, but a lot of stuff that’s come out this year, I haven’t spent a lot of time with because I was uncurious since the album was unfinished. I was in that phase where I’d absorbed a lot of stuff, but now you’re putting energy into something, so you’re not as receptive or as much of a sponge. I feel excited to be a sponge again.

Making music in challenging times, are you consciously trying to put people at ease with your art?
The record was pretty well mapped out, in terms of what the energy of it would be, back in February. By March, April, and May, it was so intense and it felt like … Maybe it’s so off the mark emotionally for what’s going on in the world right now that I should just abandon it. That changed in the last couple months. There’s a kind of nature documentary attached to the album that hits at the same time. So I was like “Hey, here’s a free hour of therapy” or something. If you like it, enjoy it. I hope you enjoy it.

Do you feel the need to make your art conversant to the times it’s being released into?
Yeah. There are songs about missing my friends and missing the dead. There are songs about feeling grateful for having a roof over my head and talking myself out of being dissatisfied. In the past, I’ve felt dissatisfied about wanting to be a better musician or wanting to have more life experiences, things never being sufficient. I don’t feel that way anymore, and that made its way into the lyrics. All the lyrics grew out of realizations or observations about this thing we’re all going through together. There’s no song that’s about lockdown, but all of the ideas are completely related to this year.

Is that nagging feeling of wanting to improve yourself how the band got from the straightforward folk songs of the early EPs to the proggier turn on the last album?
Yeah. I still want to improve and get better at things. But you can confuse complexity with improvement sometimes. I have done that, where as long as a song has 400 instruments, then it’s an improvement. On this record, as long as this song evokes something or makes someone feel a nice way or takes them somewhere or communicates something in a clear way, that’s as much an accomplishment as a prog odyssey.

That’s the trajectory of a lot of great bands. It’s how Steely Dan gets to Aja and Yes starts making pop music in the ’80s. There’s difficulty in making something relatable and simply constructed.
You push your limits to a certain degree, and you have enough inner strength as a result of doing that to be a little more playful with it. I was thinking of [Neutral Milk Hotel’s] In the Aeroplane Over the Sea the other day. It’s not necessarily interesting chord-wise or structurally, but the melodies are so incredible that it doesn’t matter. Only one person could have done that.

As someone who has written more than one song named after a mountain, how important are nature and travel to your work?
At different times it’s more important than others. With Crack-Up, I was into all these contrasts living in New York City and how it’s such a collage of a place. With this album, the lyrics all came out of taking these really long drives in the country and being in lockdown, remembering times when I was doing backpacking trips and traveling around the world to weird, far-flung hiking trails, remembering those times with some wistfulness from not being able to do it. I loved growing up in the Northwest, but I love the city as well. I need some form of stimulation. I have trouble after two weeks anywhere. I get a little bored. As far as making music that has a pastoral quality, something about that feels timeless to me. Judee Sill and Joanna Newsom’s music has this sylvan quality. Pastoral music doesn’t feel as tied to time.

For me, Fleet Foxes has always been this transportive experience. The world around me dissolves when I settle into a record. Is that by design?
For sure. I love escapism. I love Chrono Trigger. That’s a world to escape into. I’ve always loved music as this escapist thing. That’s an important function that it serves. And then I love music that’s this communal thing, like at a show when people are feeling inspired, and you’re inspired by them.

Is that escapist urge the reason you’re releasing a nature documentary alongside the new album?
It’s kind of a road-trip movie. My friend Kersti Jan Werdal is a filmmaker who recently graduated from CalArts. We’ve known each other for a long time. She told me she’d be going back to Seattle to see her family for the month of August. I asked if she could shoot some footage for the album along the way. She dove into it and ended up building an hour-long movie that’s beautifully shot all on Super 16, and it’s fairly meditative, not as dense as the album is. She went all over Washington State to some of the most beautiful areas and got these interesting long shots, closeups, landscapes, narrative, and figures and built this great film to accompany the record.

You stayed in New York City in the spring, right? I feel like some of the unique horror of that season here might be lost on a lot of people who didn’t live through it.
I’ll never forget being here in the spring. That was the most intense few weeks that I’ve ever experienced. I’ll never forget being in an empty Manhattan, empty of cars, parked or on the street. All you heard was constant ambulance sirens. I live fairly close to a hospital, and there were two temporary morgues set up next to it, just refrigerated semitrucks parked right outside my door. I wanted to stick around. It was really intense, and it would pass through here the fastest. Population density is high here. Potentially, it could get back to normal here sooner than it did in other places. I didn’t want to relocate and then have to deal with it if it showed up wherever I ended up. I wanted to stay put, and I had this half-finished album. Beatriz Artola, who engineered the whole thing, lives here, and I wanted to stay close to her so she didn’t have to travel. I haven’t really fully processed the intense shock of those early weeks. But a lot has happened since then in terms of meeting new people and feeling a stronger sense of community that I’m grateful for.

You got involved in some of the activism in the streets this summer, right?
That felt good … Well not, like, good. I’m glad it was and is happening. I felt lucky to live in an area where marches passed through pretty frequently, so I was able to walk out my door and join in. I’m still one of those people who wants to stay socially distanced, but the energy was and is completely justified, and the opportunity to be among people is helpful for everyone. Another wild part of being in Manhattan for all this was having that right outside your door.

There’s so much to freak out about these days before we get to the mental health implications, before we get to even mourn people. How are you doing on that front?
The album has been a wonderful distraction for me. I was definitely struggling before that. Once it’s out, there’ll be a bit of whiplash and a processing of some stuff. It’s just been one thing after another. All my friends and family on the West Coast the last couple weeks, and how they’re doing with the fires and things, have been a source of anxiety. I’ve been lucky to have this album distracting me for the last couple months. I’m probably in a bad place, but I don’t know it quite yet.

I feel that. There’s no time to figure out what kind of a place we’re in. You mention David Berman a few times on the album along with other lost legends like Arthur Russell and Arthur Lee. What did they mean to you, and what made you want to say their names in a song?
I didn’t really want this record to be about my problems, or existential anxieties I had. I wanted it to have songs about people I loved and people I was a fan of. I guess it’s a way of literalizing the act of what happens when you’re making music. You have this raft of heroes inspiring you to do what you want to do, and you are hopefully doing something with it that’s fresh enough that people are then inspired by that and helping to perpetuate these collective memories and myths, just kicking that can down the road a little bit. That’s what you’re doing when you’re making an album or writing songs, at least in my experience. I think so much about someone like Elliott Smith and what it’d be like if he were alive still making music. The fact that he’s had this resurgence the last couple years, as a superfan of his since I was a teenager, that’s been amazing to see. How someone lives on through their music, and how their lessons carry though, is super inspiring. I wanted to highlight that at the top of the album and say who it was about and who it’s for.

I don’t know how closely you follow music debates on the internet, but recently there was this dialogue about “landfill indie” and bands that got swept up and left behind in the rock resurgence of the 2000s. You escaped that fate and made one of the more ambitious major label albums, I’d say, of the last few years. Talk about maintaining integrity while navigating the music business.
That’s always on my mind, especially after the first record, which was made in a very naïve state. We were in Seattle doing what sounded fun, in a slightly transgressive context. Elf music. That felt funny and fun and the tiniest bit punk in the context we were coming from. Everything that happened after that, the folk boom thing. I was having to reckon with what to do about that. Do we try and ride that wave and get as big as possible off the back of this thing that we didn’t start out wanting to be a part of? Or do we find another path making stuff that’s closer to what I wanted to do with the first album, like with Helplessness Blues, which explored more nuanced branches of the genre, or with Crack-Up, making this big odyssey. It was conscious, continuing to find lanes that felt a little more timeless, or for their own sake, rather than trying to capitalize as much as possible on success.

The last five years kinda delivered on the promise of the internet in terms of breaking barriers and genres blending and multiplying. It might be the only way the future turned out how we imagined.
I agree. Like, the Taylor Swift album Aaron Dessner produced. Genres are completely collapsing, and folklore is a special expression of that to me. The music has this placeless quality but then it’s also very identifiable. Her voice and her songwriting are distinctive. Someone like Post Malone is super post-genre. I’m a big fan of his. I’m not super involved in it, but I think it’s cool if it’s done right. But then you’ll hear, like, a rock band using trap beats, and it sounds corny. It just has to be done right, I guess. I’m stoked to have some time to experiment. There’s certain types of albums that I, as a 34-year-old guy, feel like I just need to have done. I needed to have that vinyl odyssey and that Pet Sounds kind of thing. There’s so many new potential things to try that don’t feel out of bounds to me, so that feels fun to think about.

There’s a song on Shore called “Young Man’s Game” where you sing about getting older and finding peace in your limitations. Are you moving differently in your 30s than you did in your 20s?
I feel like I don’t know what age I am. I spent seven or eight years on tour. I don’t own a house. I’m not married. There’s certain ways I feel a little undeveloped and there’s ways I feel 60 years old and things I’ve been through that forced me to grow up. I’m definitely ready to get a dog and to find a new way to think about aging into music.

I think it’s an older millennial feeling, this agelessness. We’re trapped between generations. We grew up before the internet but have had to acclimate to a quickly changing world on the fly.
We’re all engaged in this stuff that people 10 to 20 years younger than us are now in real time. We’re kinda staying that age in some ways. It’s an interesting time for sure.

Fleet Foxes Made the Perfect Album for This Moment