Grammys 2012: Fleet Foxes has foot in folk past, ear for today
Until Fleet Foxes won a contemporary folk nomination this year for “Helplessness Blues,” the band’s singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold’s association with the Grammys was like most young people’s — if you watched the telecast at all, you were happy for your dad when his band won and miffed when your own heroes didn’t take the crown.
“I remember feeling really conflicted,” said Pecknold, 25, recalling a particularly painful Grammy win in 2001. Radiohead’s “Kid A” was pitted against Steely Dan’s comeback, “Two Against Nature” for album of the year, not to mention Eminem’s critically adored “The Marshall Mathers LP.” In the end, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s jazzy licks triumphed over the scribbly electronics of “Kid A.” “My dad is a huge Steely Dan fan, and he was so excited that they’d come back on the scene. But I really wanted ‘Kid A’ to win, and they deserved to win. I haven’t paid a ton of attention to the Grammys since then.”
Except for last fall, when the 2012 nominations came rolling in. “I was definitely curious to see if we’d be nominated for anything,” said Pecknold from his home in Portland, Ore. “Then the nominations came out and we weren’t part of the main ones, but when you scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page,” his voice trails off.
When Fleet Foxes released its debut in 2008, the band instantly garnered attention for its crystalline vocals couched in songwriting that was stripped down and rich with fantasy. With elements of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the Beach Boys, the Fleet Foxes tapped into a desire for escapism, for the simple pleasures of three voices singing in harmony, unfettered by digital clutter.
Though the Fleet Foxes share traits with other folk-leaning artists, including Bon Iver, Band of Horses and the more woodsy sides of Animal Collective, its sound is the most classically Americana, the most purely folk. Still, Pecknold was happy to see his band in the fray for contemporary folk album — a quiet and gentle category where Eddie Vedder’s ukulele is the fiercest weapon in the bunch. Alongside the Fleet Foxes and fellow Northwesterner Vedder, other nominees include newcomers the Civil Wars, Americana alchemist Gillian Welch, and the wizened Steve Earle.
The competition is formidable, and clearly Pecknold has his ideas on who should win. “I would give this award to Gillian Welch for how it updates and reframes more folk themes than our record does, but it’s cool to be part of the group.”
Welch’s “The Harrow & the Harvest” does etch an intricate portrait of porch light folk, but the Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues,” released by former grunge label Sub Pop last spring, has a different mission. Drawing folk out of its sometimes-hermetic recesses, the band combines it with psychedelic rock, touches of baroque pop in the fashion of Van Dyke Parks, and a certain dogged sense of composition that reworks the same grooves of melody over and over again.
The range of influences is also reflected in the album’s lush and varied instrumentation by the band’s six members (including drummer Josh Tillman, who just left the band to focus more on his solo career) and several outside contributions. Tibetan singing bowls, Moog synthesizer, lap and pedal steel guitar and a clarinet are also part of the mix.
Though woven with many musical strands, the band’s second album was consciously conceived as a record “with a good foot in the folk music we love, more than with our first album. Those elements of folk music are there on purpose, out of love and respect.”
In fact, some of the songs were written with classics of the genre in mind, like the title track, envisioned as an “echo” of the unifying work song written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, “If I Had a Hammer,” but for the generation raised to prize their own individuality.
“Katie Cruel,” a Scottish American folk song that the Fleet Foxes have been covering in concert the last few years, is addressed in part of “The Plains / Bitter Dancer” but “spoken,” Pecknold said, “from the opposite point of view.”
Connecting so directly with the ghosts of folk past has its risks. “I wouldn’t consider myself a folk historian.... I think I have musical interests aside from that. I don’t know; it’s weird. You don’t want to feel like a Civil War reenactor.”
“I can only do what appeals to me and expresses my own character,” Pecknold said, “no matter how it's viewed in 30 years.”
Photo: Fleet Foxes, with Robin Pecknold first from the left. Credit: Sean Pecknold / Sub Pop Records