Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes talks about making 'Shore'

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Mary Lucia interviews Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes (MPR Video)
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Mary Lucia interviews Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes about his latest release, Shore, which came out on Sept. 22, 2020 — the Autumnal Equinox. Pecknold talks about what it was like to work with a range of different artists, and how the pandemic changed his mindset about this album release.

You can watch video of the interview above and read a transcript of the interview below.

Interview Transcript

MARY LUCIA: Robin, let's talk about the new Fleet Foxes record, Shore, because I certainly know enough that, I think when you think, "I'm making my next record," you gather your ideas, you have your sort of general outline, and then the world implodes—

ROBIN PECKNOLD: Yeah.

And you have to rethink. Yeah! Rethink pretty much everything you've known.

Mm-hm.

What was the first place you started to go, "OK, I have to do this completely differently."

Yeah, it was, like you're saying, it was a total … for me, the three months of March, April, May, that was a very confusing time. I mean, I was, the main focus in those months was just paying attention to what was going on and being a good citizen.

And then there was this albatross of this half-finished album that I had already spent a lot of money on, a lot of time on, I was really unclear on how it was going to get finished, you know?

But it wasn't really like, the music didn't really change that much from where it was at in February. Some of the songs got expanded, for sure, but it was really in the lyrics because I hadn't really written any lyrics for the album.

Right!

I had made the decision of not finishing any lyrics, so getting to, you know, have that three months of reflection and just be kind of like letting that inform the words was a huge bonus, really, in terms of guiding the record to the finish line, because it was, like, I had freedom there. It wasn't like I had to change anything about the music to bring it more in line with what was going on in the world because I could do that by the lyrics.

And then, like you were saying about rethinking everything, this was finally, you know, the opportunity presented itself to just release an album two weeks after it was finished, which I've always wanted to do. Nobody likes sitting on an album for four months after you've been working on it for two years, you know?

No.

That's typically how it goes, and so finally, there was this tiny silver lining that in the middle of all this chaos, the best thing that made sense to do was just get it out there. You know?

And then I would imagine, I don't know if it influenced the writing of the lyrics, but I also wonder how, is it just an extra challenge to not be — you're writing during a pandemic and civil unrest — to not go overly obvious. You know, I mean, and no shade meant at all, but just in the last couple of months, people have been releasing songs called "Quarantine," and you know, it's weird, because it's interesting how that will hold up in maybe 12, 15 years, to a new audience who doesn't even know what we're living through.

Yeah, for sure. I think that's always the balance. You know, you want to be taking, you know — there's so much about what we've been going through that it's, for me, it was more about, for example, a song like "Featherweight," where that lyric is kind of recognizing that in comparison to what's going on, my problems are fairly small, and feeling appreciative of that.

And I think that kind of perspective, for me, was triggered by the events of 2020, but that kind of perspective doesn't need to be triggered by the events of 2020. I could have come to that, you know, if I'd been wise enough in 2019. You know?

So I think things like that, I was grateful to be kind of building songs around ideas like that, that felt like triggered by the times but not tied explicitly to the times.

Well, and I know a whole lot of introverts who, at the beginning of all this, thought, "You know, I can deal with all this, just staying home and not going out" or doing this and that. But then, yeah, by month three, month four, you hit the road, right? You just got in your car and started driving north?

Yeah, I just couldn't be in the apartment anymore, and I just took my car on these eight- to 12-hour drives through, you know, various scenic parts of upstate New York once the weather was kind of warming up and there were leaves on the trees and—

Yeah, signs of life!

And that was a godsend.

Yeah, I think it's interesting because, and I don't know if people took this out of context, but I read that you had said that this was maybe your least-personal album.

Well, I wanted another singer to open the album, and then I wanted my first lyric to be for Richard Swift; you know, I had that in place for a long time. For me, it just felt like, kind of like what I was saying about the song "Featherweight"; it just felt like the time to put some solipsism aside and just kind of feature other artists in the music and refer to them explicitly. That's actually a much easier space for me to be in than the kind of existential singer-songwriter kind of typical space, maybe. It's much easier for me — I'll light up if I'm being a cheerleader for someone else sooner than I'll light up kind of being a cheerleader for myself, you know?

Right.

So I guess that just brought a different kind of energy to the recording. The last record was pretty personal, but I wasn't being that direct. It had fairly encoded lyrics, and that was, I felt, like a missed opportunity. So I wanted this to be direct and kind of outward looking. And that ended up being such an easier and more, like, healing kind of approach.

The translation of it for me is that it just sounds like you're in love with music, and that's what you're writing about. Like, "I'm in love with music! That's my relationship that I'm writing about."

That's entirely true.

I think the last few months of working on this — June, July, August — that was the most kind of charmed and magic recording period I've ever had, and I've never felt that kind of lovestruck by just working on music and having ideas come to you and having them work, and just being kind of back. And knowing that when it came out, it wasn't going to be tied to some big tour.

Right!

Those things just came to seem like such creative blessings to me, that I did really work that into the lyrics: this kind of love of music and kind of you know, feeling saved by music in a lot of ways, and I was so lucky to have that to be going through that experience in those months, you know?

And when it became apparent that you weren't going to have to go out on tour with these songs, did it almost make the songwriting feel a little bit more intimate because I know a lot of people that when they're writing their tunes and making a record, they're thinking about the live experience, and it kind of pushes some people to make some things a little bit bigger than they would normally do, and I just wonder if it had the inverse effect on you.

Yeah, that's a great point, because that's totally true. I think that,

you know, I mean, it's sort of ironic because some of the songs were written from the ground up with the idea that they would be fun to play live with consistent drum parts and, you know, kind of "groovier" songs for lack of a better word.

But then everything that got finished in July, August, musically, all that stuff ended up a lot smaller than how I was demo-ing it before.

Like the song, "I'm Not My Season," before it was kind of this grand — like, I was singing it super high and kind of loud, and it was this, like, operatic, like, I don't know, kind of over-the-top musical-type song, and it was never really, like, working, and I never had the lyrics for it. But then once I was like, "Oh yeah, this isn't going to be on tour," and then I just dropped the key like six semitones! And then I was like, "This is going to be listened to only in intimate environments for the next two years," so I can just make this an intimate song, and then the lyrics flowed very easily once that conclusion was reached.

Right.

And so you're totally right. There were definitely things on the album that got… some things didn't because they just were what they were, and they were far enough along. But then some things got scaled back to their betterment, for sure.

And you know, it's as old as time, people will always want to interpret and figure out, you know, "What are you singing about, exactly?" Like, "What does this exactly mean?" And it kind of made me think because you're sort of writing about being in love with music, and yet I think of a lot of artists who were writing songs that sort of appeared as love songs but they were maybe love songs to drugs. You know, like heroin; you know, and it's always so interesting to me that people's need to know — but in your case, and I think with this record, I think, "I get it."

Yeah, I'm glad it's coming across that way. I think that there are no love letters to drugs on this album, I don't think. But music is like the best drug of all. I mean, you're making a song and you're kind of making, you're kind of making a drug.

Yeah.

You're making this thing that's going to induce this effect, and it wears off after a while and then you have to make another one.

But really, it's not that different than, I don't know, synthesizing some new compound. I don't do drugs, so I don't know, but that's what it's always been for me, is my drugs. Yeah.

And you worked with three different drummers on this particular project?

Yeah. Yeah. Chris Bear of Grizzly Bear did the lion's share of the work, and I think he did an amazing job. Someone I've always admired, and you know, they're on a bit of a break right now, so it was, I just felt like, you know, my one window of time when I could ask Chris and he would be available and it wouldn't be like some weird conflict-of-interest thing, and he did an amazing job. And then Homer Steinweiss, who is an incredible soul drummer, and he played on four or five songs, and he did a great job. And then Joshua Jaeger, who's played with Angel Olsen and Kevin Morby and other friends of ours; working with him was great. He's a great dude, and he's on two or three songs.

I knew I wanted drums to be a focus, but I didn't want it to be this — it ended up being nice that there was some variety in terms of who was doing what, because they all have such different styles and different strengths.

Yeah!

Yeah. You know, I like being able to take advantage of that when making an album, for sure.

I know this is a loaded question: What did you learn from John Prine? What did you learn from God?

Yeah.

You know, he … I think, you know, growing up, I loved Brian Wilson. I loved those complex chord worlds; you know, these kinds of searching lyrics and these Baroque arrangements. That's what spoke to me and kind of changed my life.

And then I think, getting to John Prine, you know, I loved Townes Van Zandt growing up, too, and that kind of outlaw country. You know, he had that kind of, some of his Dylanesque records really spoke to me.

And then, Prine, I guess I got into in the last six or seven years, and just really appreciating looking past the genre somewhat, and not needing there to be, you know, an oboe coming in on bar eight, and just kind of understanding how that style is such a, you know, it's a medium in which a person is able to express themselves in a pretty, pretty unbelievable way, and I think I just learned from him that you can change someone's life with three chords, for sure, just by being yourself. And you know, he has so much personality and so much — his humor is so warm, and his songwriting is so human, and it's, I think it's only in the last six or seven years that stuff started to speak to me in a new way.

And because it's of such a high quality, someone like that.

Yeah, he taught me to loosen up a little bit, I think.

Yeah. And people say sometimes this or that artist makes things seem effortless. And with all the complete craziness of this summer, losing Justin Townes Earle, who I think is like a crazy-talented, amazing songwriter. He'd come into The Current studios a lot, and I felt like he could do that in his sleep.

Yep. Definitely.

And I'm sure that's not the case at all, but that is the perception, that it was the easiest — plus, just to chat with him was easy as anything, and I just felt that it translated in his music, too, and I can hear that in John Prine.

Definitely.

It's interesting, because I was just laughing with somebody the other day, because one of the worst things you can tell a person is, "Relax!" Especially in that tone: "Just relax!" That does nothing for me. And I mean, with everybody having their own methodology of, "How do I wrap my mind around what this new life we've been living," I envy those who can meditate.

Yes.

Do you meditate at all?

I spent like a month at a Zen monastery a few years ago, and we had to meditate three or four hours a day. We got to meditate three or four hours a day. That was a very intense experience, and I had some incredible, like, mental events happen during that time, for sure.

I think lately I haven't really kept up— There were a couple apps I was using to do that for 10 minutes a day for a while last year, but I guess being back recording a lot of music, that feels so meditative to me. Like, your brain is totally empty of thought when you're working on a song. You know, I don't feel a need for those things. There's so much mental-health stuff that I don't feel the need for unless I'm not working on music.

Well, yeah.

Because I get so much of that from music. You know, "flow" state, or separation of thinker from the thought, or you know, just these… it can be very meditative, very healing, and when music is missing, that's when I turn to stuff like that, I think.

Yeah, I used to always gauge my level of depression by how much change was on my floor of my apartment that I could seemingly not pick up. I'd walk past and be like, "Well, there's that nickel that's been there since '99."

I totally understand!

That is my litmus. It's like, "How much loose change has been on my floor."

Yeah, for sure. For me, it was like, I got to watch my coffee-making game, like, completely erode. To the point it went from, like, pour-over artisanal whatever, to Starbucks to like gas-station coffee to like day-old gas-station coffee, and then I was like, "OK, things are… this is my metric here. Things are a little bleak."

We all have that. I want to know who, as a New Yorker, what stranger that you probably see every day do you miss seeing?

You know, that's a good question.

Like, who's your favorite stranger? You may never have spoken to them or know their name.

OK, well, I've developed better relationships — these aren't strangers — but I've developed better relationships with my superintendent Romesh, the laundry man, Keith, and the gentleman at the bodega. We're much tighter now than we've ever been. So I like my little community of those guys.

And then my favorite stranger in New York City is the bald man who I see sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park or on the corner of Sixth Avenue or down off the Bowery. There's this one man that I will see frequently with a knowing smile on his face, just sitting alone on a bench, all over lower Manhattan.

He makes me feel like maybe he's a time traveler from the future and he's keeping an eye on me or something, and he's my favorite stranger, yeah.

I love strangers, because I love to be so bold as to pretend I can create what their life actually is when I don't see them. But it is, having lived in New York myself, I used to do that constantly. There were people — and then I would always think, "Why don't I go up to this person and go, 'How's your day going?' " or, you know, "What are you reading?" or whatever! But for whatever reason, that mystery of, like, "No, I'm just going to say, 'There's the bald guy.' " Or, you know.

Yeah. There's a new guy that I've noticed. At 4 p.m., he's always at the same coffee shop. He gets an espresso and he reads a physical magazine about trains, and he just sits there reading this train magazine. He looks quite old; like maybe 75 or 80 or even older.

And so I finally asked the coffee shop, "Do you know his story?" And they were like, "Oh, that's Ted. You should talk to him sometime." But I'm still too nervous to get up the—

Right.

But he's a great New York stranger.

You could maybe learn as much from Ted as you have from John Prine. You never know.

Oh, for sure. Ted has all the answers, I can feel it.

Clearly. So I'm just wondering now if you're going to have to do these things, Robin, where you're going to have to do these Zoom interviews for, you know, promotion of the record.

And I want to see your background change. What's behind you. I want to see it staged with things that are going to be so questionable that the person who's interviewing is going to have to bit their tongue from going, "What the f*** is that in the corner, man?"

You could really f*** with people if you think about it, you know?

That's a great idea. Yeah. You know, if I turned the thing, who knows? Maybe I'd get arrested.

Oh boy.

You don't know what's in here.

I don't! There could be a dead body on the floor. And yeah, that's just… that's just a thought just to make these Zoom interviews more interesting for me.

Sure. I mean, I'll take you up on it. I haven't talked to more than two people, really, in the last few months. So these have all been really fun. Yeah.

Good! How many people have you hugged?

Oh… one.

Yeah. Me too.

And I felt kind of guilty.

I know!

I tried to hug Beatrice at the end of finishing the album because it was like, "We have to hug! You know? Come on."

But then it was like… but we'd been recording together, socially distanced, for like three months at that point. But in the end, it was worth it.

How's your coffee game now that you've sort of have had that lightening of spirit, finishing the record. Is your coffee game back on?

I, you know, I'm even using the scale. I'm measuring the beans down to the gram. So, I am in a very — I don't even need therapy right now. You know? Because I've got the scale.

I'm not worried about you.

Yeah.

Well, Robin, thank you so much for taking the time. The new album is called Shore, and yeah, we'll see you on the other side.

Thank you so much. I love the station and I appreciate the time, so thank you. Keep doing what you're doing.

Thank you.

External Link

Fleet Foxes - official site

6 Photos

  • Fleet Foxes, 'Shore'
    Fleet Foxes, 'Shore,' was released on Sept. 22, 2020, on the Autumnal Equinox. (Anti/Epitaph)
  • Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes
    Fleet Foxes have announced their fourth album 'Shore,' which will be released, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, at 13:31 Universal Coordinated Time, the autumnal equinox. (Emily Johnston)
  • Drummer Chris Bear of Grizzly Bear
    Chris Bear of Grizzly Bear worked with Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes on 'Shore.' (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)
  • Drummer Homer Steinweiss
    Drummer Homer Steinweiss also worked with Pecknold on this album. (Mike Windle/Getty Images)
  • Drummer Joshua Jaeger
    Drummer Joshua Jaeger, who has performed with Angel Olsen, Kevin Morby and others, was the third of three drummers Pecknold recruited to work on 'Shore.' (courtesy the artist)
  • Mary Lucia interviews Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes
    Mary Lucia interviews Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes. (MPR video/Veronica Rodriguez)