Fleet Foxes are anything but flashy.
Rusted, maybe. Rustic, definitely. Rural, pastoral, verdant, earthbound but spiritual and beautifully anachronistic — the harmony-drenched folk-rock quintet from Seattle that is Sub Pop's anniversary gift to the world may not be shiny, but that's not to say they don't shine.
"We did this record on our own, paid for it ourselves, with no expectations of what was going to happen with it — if it was even going to be finished, let alone released," keyboardist Casey Wescott said the day after the band's second-ever New York show. "So, I mean, this is completely overwhelming."
"Overwhelming" is a pretty fair description of the rapturous reception Fleet Foxes received at that Bowery Ballroom show — one I saw repeated 10 days later by a crowd at least 10 times the size at Chicago's Pitchfork Festival, as they delivered one of the most talked-about performances of that weekend. Mind you, this is following a ton of glowing reviews from sea to shining sea for Fleet Foxes' recent, self-titled debut album and for an EP, Sun Giant, that was released six months ago.
It's all left singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold a bit taken aback and, at times onstage, at a loss for words.
"I still see myself as more of a music fan than a professional musician," he explained, "so yeah, it's all flabbergasting."
Or, another way of putting it, "WTF?" — which is exactly how Pecknold puts it on the band's tour itinerary on their MySpace page, next to every item they can hardly believe is happening, including Monday's appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman" and upcoming dates opening for Wilco.
"To get to play with Wilco, as a Wilco fan?" the singer asked. "I mean, we're not Wilco's peers at all, you know?"
Maybe not yet. But attention is growing by the day, and really, how unexpected is that? In a year in which bratty, sassy, clever and even preppy seem to be the indie-pop zeitgeist (see: Ting Tings, Katy Perry, Vampire Weekend), along comes a rootsy band grounded in the power of the voice. Fleet Foxes can play, but more than anything, what you notice is they can sing.
"Speaking for myself," said Pecknold, "that kind of vocal-based music is what I've most listened to since I was a tot. I mean, I've gone through periods of writing that weren't as harmony-based, but just in terms of recording this LP, the process kind of determined what the band is, almost. We were just laying down all these ideas straight to tape, some songs never having played live, and we just determined it made sense to have the whole record come from this same place and have a lot of similar singing things going on."
Those "singing things" have gotten Fleet Foxes repeatedly likened to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young or dubbed "the Beach Boys in flannel" — hardly contemporary comparisons. Evidently we are so unaccustomed in the 21st century to hearing four-part harmonies in pop music (guitarist and founding member Skyler Skjelset is the only nonsinger in the group) that the soaring waves of choral vocals generated by these gents can at times seem of another time and place — say, a 1960s commune or an 1860s frontier town. Check out the addictive, round-the-campfire-like "White Winter Hymnal" (see an exclusive live performance of it here), with its Colin Meloy-esque lyric of "scarves of red tied round their throats to keep their little heads from falling in the snow," the gorgeous "He Doesn't Know Why" or "Blue Ridge Mountains," and prepare to be transported.
Already a fan favorite is "Oliver James" — a "fable song," according to Pecknold, one of many tracks about death on the record, something the singer attributes to feeling "morbid" at the time he wrote them. Other common Fleet Foxes themes are family, redemption, nostalgia and change, but little or no romance. If none of that sounds particularly modern, Fleet Foxes don't accept that they are a throwback band.
"To me one of the pitfalls of revivalism is that you're speaking outside your own experience," said Wescott, "and we get inspiration from everywhere, but we are mindful of expressing ourselves and our own ideas. Some people may interpret it as old or new, but it's just coming from us."
In terms of songwriting, Pecknold says he can't worry about coming off as brand-new.
"I've found that if I tried to write something specifically new-sounding, it somehow diluted what I was doing. If you are not the lucky dude with the right sensibility that you're totally brand-new and everyone hears it as new, then the best thing to do, I've found, is to write songs you think are OK and not really worry about sounding old or new."
Pecknold should know. At the young age of 22, he's been at this writing thing for a while.
"Robin's been writing songs since he was born," Skjelset joked.
Not quite, but the two met at age 12, and only a couple of years later, Pecknold was learning guitar. Admittedly, the son of "hippie parents," he was immersed early and often in '60s music, and like a good Pacific Northwesterner, took to the Elliott Smith songbook and began initially modeling his own songs after the indie hero.
It wasn't long before Pecknold and Skjelset had the nucleus of a band, one that's seen an ever-evolving lineup over the years, with musicians coming onboard from such noted Seattle acts as Pedro the Lion and Crystal Skulls. First, there was Wescott, who brought on bassist Christian Wargo, and most recently drummer Josh Tillman.
"There have been a lot of transitions," Wescott admitted, "but I really feel like this current group of people feels like the creative beings that should be doing this. I've never been part of a creative synergy that's this strong, ever."
It's a formula that seems to be working at the moment, whether measured in sales — 43K and counting, per SoundScan — press or word of mouth ... and even measured in detractors. Fleet Foxes may love harmony, but the blog world doesn't, and out there, among a few, "Fox hunting" has already become a sport. But you're nothing until you've got haters, right guys?
"Yeah well, we have a backlash strategy," Wargo said.
Pecknold: "We have a manila envelope in the van."
Tillman: "Casey and I are both wearing keys that go into the death switch."
Wescott: "Yeah, it's the kill switch for Robin, so when it's that time, it's like, it's over."
Wargo: "It'll be, like, 'Robin, the backlash has begun!' "
Hopefully, not too soon. Fleet Foxes play those Northwest dates with Wilco beginning August 18. See more of our interview with the band, and a live performance, at Rhapsody.com.