Only a matter of months have passed since I saw Fleet Foxes open for Blitzen Trapper. They played the small, second stage of DC's Black Cat and I stood inches away from Robin Pecknold, who hunched over his acoustic guitar, body wracked with a high fever. Since then, Fleet Foxes have released a very successful self-titled LP and their headlining tour is selling out larger clubs across the country. They have also been invited to open for Wilco.
So what happened? How can a band blow up so fast? Word of mouth certainly helps, but nothing can substitute for quality. Harmonizing is something the Foxes are famous for, and the blend of voices that emanates from the record is nothing less than breathtaking at times. It is even more amazing that these beautiful sounds can be replicated with such ease in a live setting.
As Pecknold fought off another round of the Washington DC blues, bassist Christian Wargo and multi-instrumentalist Casey Wescott were kind enough to meet me backstage before another sold out show. Over slugs of Jack Daniels, we talked about sudden fame, the Pecknold clan, and Indiana Jones.
So the last time I saw you guys, Robin was really, really sick. Is that going to happen again tonight?
Casey: He absolutely is, without fail. We wouldn't disappoint in not bringing an absolutely ill singer to the city. He's completely sick. I think he's tapped out at the hotel right now.
What do you guys do to him to keep him that sick?
Casey: We just try to keep as many active cultures around as possible. Immediately, top of the morning, open a thing of yogurt and set it right by him.
Christian: Refreshing yogurt or a thimble full of Windex.
Does it have anything to do with the beard?
Casey: Honestly, beard sanitizer is something we like to keep around.
Christian: Keep it nice and clean.
Casey: I don't know. He's vegan and it's hard to find vegan places in the South. So yesterday, he ate one Clif Bar, and it's like, “Oh man, you can't. You gotta eat more.” My beast would begin to roar if I was eating one Clif Bar a day. You know what I'm saying?
Last Robin question. His sister Aja is the tour manager and his brother Sean made a video for you guys. Are you guys getting jealous? Is it going to become the Fleet Pecknolds?
Casey: It's just sort of a natural extension. Everyone's really tight-knit. It's advantageous to keep everything family-orientated, because Aja will understand our sensibilities and I know where Sean is coming from. It's not some email correspondence with some person who is never physically there. It's really easy to be on the same page with people that we know and you trust.
If the Fleet Foxes are a family where Robin, Aja and Sean are siblings, what are you guys?
Casey: Um... stepbrothers?
Casey: I met Robin in '06, I met this guy when I was 14 or 15 and Tillman we've all played with to varying degrees. We literally naturally aggregated together. It does feel like that. I was over there Christmas Eve.
Christian: We all get regular emails from Robin's dad. He's a very “dad” dad and he's proud. He gives us hugs when he sees us.
Casey: Not only that, he understands the music. He supports it in a way most parents do not support music just because it's a distraction from jumping into the middle-class borg.
Christian: He's a musician himself. He generally likes the same music as us. Robin will be in the dressing room and his dad will come by to hang out. He showed up in Europe unannounced because he wanted to come to some shows. The next thing you know, he shows up in the back room and he's jamming.
To continue with disbelief as a topic, I checked out your MySpace page, and there's a lot of “How the hell did we get here” type comments on it. Is that a general feeling in the band right now?
Christian: Tillman put it best one day. He said, “I just feel like I'm making shit up in my head and it's coming true.” Because everyday it's just something else that's just mind-blowing. A year ago, if you told me this is where I'd be right now, I wouldn't believe you. It's insane. There's no way to prepare for it. It's just overwhelming.
Casey: It's best not to reflect too heavily on it either. Just do it without much thought. You could probably get into some mind games otherwise.
"We can just sit around talk about whether it's a coincidence or a proximity effect or whatever the fuck it is, but it doesn't really matter. The record is going to be what it is outside of those bands and comparisons."
Christian, when I met you a few months ago, you were an opening act on the second stage at this venue. Now you guys are the headlining show on the big stage here. Does it seem like a blur?
Christian: That seemed like a long time ago, for some reason. We have nothing but more on the horizon. The record has been out a month, at the most. It's definitely not a blur. It's just been a really positive experience.
Before the Fleet Foxes you were in the Crystal Skulls?
Casey: [points to Christian] He's the main songwriter for that, and I helped him out.
Has Indiana Jones helped you guys sell records?
Christian: Fuck you, dude.
Casey: I'll speak for Christian. He has an amazing body of work. There are so many jams. It's uncertain how it's going to take shape. I am equally excited about Christian's music as I am about playing with the Foxes. It's going to happen; it's just a matter of the timing.
Christian, you've come to the Foxes a little later in the game than the rest of the band. How has that been different for you?
Christian: I came in right at the tail end of the full-length. We went directly into recording the EP.
You recorded the full-length before the EP?
Christian: Yeah. I think that was actually helpful at the time. There wasn't a lot of time to finish this thing. I felt a definite connection with the record from having heard all the iterations the band did leading up to the final product. I feel like it helped me and the band make the EP something more than just a single with a B-side on it. It was a pretty seamless transition.
Casey: It has been the most seamless transition. Hands down.
When you guys record the next album, what does Christian bring to the table that you didn't have the first time?
Casey: There's a dynamic shift that happens chemistry-wise. I would say, with certain high harmonies. I feel like everybody has certain strengths. This next record will naturally exploit those strengths.
You guys are an indie/blog critics darling right now. But at the same time, people are comparing your sound with Crosby, Stills and Nash, which in some circles is considered uncool. How do you guys rationalize this indie kid love and then be compared to a group they probably wouldn't listen to?
Casey: Number one, I don't think about those things that often. We can't control it. We make the music and that's the expression we do. Afterward, everyone is going to have a different experience when they listen to it. No doubt, they are an inspiring band for sure. They are great singers and they have some great songs. In general, I think it's wisest to find inspiration in all the music and not so much influence. As far as our creative process goes, it's mainly self-referential. It's based on who we are.
Christian: That's a strange question. Surely we're not expected to bring people up to speed on where we're coming from. It's not like it comes from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. There's more than that, clearly. Comparisons are helpful sometimes to give people a general ballpark of what they can expect.
"When we're recording or working on stuff we're not like, ‘Oh, I'd love to sound like this.' It's not that at all."
That's a necessary evil in some ways. As a music journalist, we almost have to compare bands to give a frame of reference.
Casey: It's not just critics; it's people. If you get excited about something and you want to share it with someone, comparison is a good method. So it makes sense.
Robin has a really beautiful voice. It's unfortunate that he has a similar voice to My Morning Jacket's Jim James and Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell. You are all emerging somewhat at the same time. I don't know how much it affects your band that all three of the singers have similar voices.
Casey: That question is sort of curious because personally I've heard two Band of Horses songs and one pass-through of one My Morning Jacket record. It's weird because they are not a reference point at all. Musically, they seem to have different sensibilities. I guess I'm not very informed. When we're recording or working on stuff we're not like, “Oh, I'd love to sound like this.” It's not that at all. We're not listening to anything else. We're listening to the music of the band.
Christian: You have to realize, that, at the end of the day, no one likes to hear somebody make a comparison when it's that close to home. If Robin hears someone say we sound like My Morning Jacket or Band of Horses, that's not going to make him pumped. But at the same time, you have to take it with a grain of salt. It's not like to be dismissive or to be like an asshole, but that is not what informed his decision to sing the way he sings. That comes from a much bigger and deeper place. To try and narrow it down for him would be death. It would just drive him nuts. He cannot take that into consideration. He just has to do his thing. We can just sit around talk about whether it's a coincidence or a proximity effect or whatever the fuck it is, but it doesn't really matter. The record is going to be what it is outside of those bands and comparisons.
I actually reviewed your record for our website, and the thing that I noticed is that it felt like a field recording. Like something from Harry Smith's Anthology. It had this old, weird America sound, like when Bob Dylan had his motorcycle accident and went looking for that sound of the backwoods and whatnot. It seems like your music has that sound to it. In some ways, it sounds like it was recorded in a vacuum. Uninformed, as you were saying.
Christian: That's very accurate.
Casey: It's kind of true. It's a grey area. Yes, those things exist so they're going to naturally make their way in. The bands that we grew up listening to are going to make their way into the music. As the songwriter or the performer, you're not consciously saying, “I want this drum sound from this record. I want this vocal sound.” But this band doesn't work that way.
Christian: It's pretty intuitive. It's best that way because if you get too referential, it's just not very productive. It's best to have a cap with all kinds of feathers in it that's your thing. It's a collection of all your influences: things you hate about some bands and things that you love about others.