Published Apr 24, 2011When Fleet Foxes released their debut album in mid-2008, the plan was to do a few modest U.S. tours then return home to start the follow-up by year's end. They'd been building buzz in Seattle throughout 2007, when they independently recorded an album with friend and respected producer Phil Ek (Built to Spill, the Shins). By January 2008, before the band had put the album out, indie institution Sup Pop took notice of the local hype — and the mystifying word-of-mouth six-figure MySpace plays — and added the band's harmonic folk-pop to their roster.
By December, they still hadn't returned to the studio — instead, they'd become an unlikely commercial and critical hit, invited to perform on Letterman and with Wilco, and gracing nearly every year-end best-of list. Released in April and June, the Sun Giant EP and Fleet Foxes album were already dubbed modern classics.
It wouldn't be until May 2010 that the second album was started. Pretty quickly, the weight of the music world's expectations set in. "It made us really want to do something good on its own terms," singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold says on the phone from Portland, OR, his new home base. "It was kind of hard to get to that place. There were times I wanted to do something completely different and just mess with people's expectations, but that ended up being less fulfilling than doing something that was just good regardless of what it was."
Recording again with Ek, the album took more than seven months. It didn't come easy. But the result, Helplessness Blues, is as meticulously serene as you'd expect. Not only did the band master another round of rich folk, classic pop, and modern mini-psych-jams, but they subtly expand to include twelve-string guitar, stirring country slide, and — less subtly but still seamlessly — stadium-sized bombast on the eight-minute "The Shrine/An Argument," a dramatic two-parter that ends in a stampede of skronking horns and fluttering strings.
"Anything you notice about it was probably intentional just because we spent so much fucking time [on it] and thought about it so much," Pecknold says through a weary laugh. "Too much thought, probably. Stupid stuff like, 'should there even be a chorus in that song? Is that cheap? Are choruses cheap?' That level of weird music analysis conversation. We didn't take it lightly, but we tried to have fun with it too."
Despite the setbacks, the album is unaffected; Fleet Foxes again sound intangibly out-of-time, like they exist in a vacuum. It's enough to make you forget that they are indeed young and modern, though an obvious reminder is the band's Twitter. Pecknold, himself just 25, uses it for music geekery and complaining about life like the rest of us, but he's also using it to sidestep some outdated industry practices — he encouraged someone to leak the record and, just recently, offered up a free solo EP.
I just wanted a different experience than the record," he says of the solo recording. "And I'd like to continue doing that. I think for Fleet Foxes we'll try to put things out more frequently as they're written, instead of waiting to put an album together."
Fleet Foxes may still be surprised to find themselves world famous and navigating the rules that go with it, but Pecknold won't lose the music to an old machine along the way. "Music should be something of a conversation, not just a monolithic album every four years or something," he says. "You can minimize how much of the game you're playing, which, for me, is kind of nice."