SEATTLE — It's been more than a decade since a hot-out-the-gate band of folk rockers helped define an era of Seattle rock music. Much has changed for Fleet Foxes main man Robin Pecknold since his band's Sub Pop debut became the talk of the indie-rock world, emerging as psych-folk leaders of the second wave of Seattle and Northwest indie-rock acts making a splash nationally in the 2000s.
After its Grammy-nominated sophomore album, Pecknold recoiled from the spotlight at the height of the band's success. The Kirkland-reared songsmith, whose delicately constructed folk songs are as lush as a rainforest, moved to the Big Apple, his home since 2013, and enrolled at Columbia University. Pecknold broke his indie-rock sabbatical with a more experimental record in 2017. But it wasn't until working on its follow-up, last month's surprise-released "Shore," that Pecknold felt as in love with making music as he was back in those early Seattle days.
Apparently, all it took was an economy-ravaging global health crisis that threw the music industry into a tailspin to rekindle that flame.
"I think it was really just some of those business things being put on hold due to the pandemic that just lightened the consequences of (the album)," Pecknold said in a phone interview. "And that's the stuff that wears you down, I think, or it can wear you down if you let it."
His accountant might be less thrilled. For bands like Fleet Foxes, touring is generally where they earn back the money spent making a record. Still, there was some relief in not having to spend the next two years in hotel rooms. Plus, it alleviated any concerns over how the band would pull off Pecknold's increasingly layered compositions live. And the surprise drop — which in a subtle way made the album's emergence feel like more of an event — meant no big publicity lead up.
For now, the extent of the release hoopla involves a companion film that shows the now-Manhattanite hasn't forgotten his Northwest roots. Pecknold's filmmaker pal Kersti Jan Werdal, whom he met in Seattle, spent August shooting a 16mm "road trip travelogue" throughout Washington, including footage from the Hoh Rainforest, Hood Canal and the Palouse. Vasa Park Resort on Lake Sammamish hosts a sold-out drive-in screening Oct. 24.
"A lot of the album is kinda pining for nature, the Northwest to some degree, from stuck inside lockdown mode," said Pecknold, a backpacker and surfer in his downtime. "To have her be able to go out there and do it was perfect for my own mental health to be able to see that stuff."
While much of the music had been finished before New York became America's coronavirus epicenter, the singer/multi-instrumentalist was struggling with his lyrics. Pecknold had been sweating over how he was going to finish the record, but the pandemic and uprising against systemic racism put those anxieties in perspective. Long summer drives to upstate New York helped him find the words for the warm, bright music he wrote to combat the melancholy he found himself in after an "exhausting" last tour.
Between Fleet Foxes' 2017 album "Crack-Up" and "Shore," Pecknold had been listening to a fair amount of classic soul, including artists like Sam Cooke, Nina Simone and Curtis Mayfield. While often sonically soothing, these records were also socially and politically engaged during turbulent times in American history, a trait "Shore" has in common.
"Remembering that as such a big component of that music helped me finish the lyrics, rather than just put some hedonistic lyrics on there and call it a day or something," Pecknold said.
The resplendent "Shore" builds on the ambitious arrangements Pecknold charted on "Crack-Up," with longtime collaborators (and fellow Seattle expats) The Westerlies recording horn arrangements during the album's formative sessions. As a songwriter, Pecknold has a knack for slyly weaving at-times unexpected musical references into the album's immersive sonic universe.
"One of the things with this record, was I would have a demo and I could be like 'I can see how this could be a good song, but I can also see how this will be a very bad song,'" he said, laughing. "Because they were kinda toeing the line, certain minefields, like you want to evoke Sly Stone, but you don't want to evoke, I don't know, Rick Astley or something. There are certain genres if you dip your toe into, it's just kinda dangerous territory."
Rick Astley disaster averted. Pecknold's soulful, morning-stroll crooning on "Can I Believe You" feels more like a subtle nod to Cooke, or perhaps the great Bill Withers, one of the late musical greats name-checked in the song "Sunblind" (along with beloved Northwest musician and producer Richard Swift). It was the last song Pecknold wrote and it helped him contextualize the rest of the album while serving as its thesis statement of sorts.
"Part of the point of being inspired by artists is to keep their memory alive and make them immortal in a certain way," Pecknold said. "What an artist is doing is playing their part in that chain of transference."
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