“A certain methodic sensibility”

Fleet, but not fleeting: Singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold says of writing the band’s second album, "a lot of metal gamesmanship goes on that wasn't there the first time and won't be there the third time." Now-completed sophomore effort Helplessness Blues proves Fleet Foxes has staying power. Photo by Sean Pecknold

"My brother where do you intend to go tonight? I heard that you missed your connecting flight, to the Blue Ridge Mountains, over near Tennessee." So begins the song "Blue Ridge Mountains" from Fleet Foxes' 2008 self-titled debut. The song is set close to Asheville, and while singer/songwriter/Fleet Foxes-frontman Robin Pecknold doesn't like to discuss the lyrics too much ("It's kind of stupid to deconstruct it"), he says it was written for his brother after their grandfather had died. And, "being from Seattle that is, in the song, a place removed. That's where he's trying to get but he doesn't."

Pecknold and Fleet Foxes have barely touched down in Asheville, either. The band last passed through town in 2008, opening for indie-rockers Blitzen Trapper at the Grey Eagle. That was in March. Fleet Foxes' self-titled album dropped in early June and by the end of the month it had hit No. 1 on the CMJ radio chart. The days of opening small listening venues were quickly behind the Seattle-based quintet (now sextet). This week they return to Asheville to headline the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium.

"That was literally our first tour we'd ever done," Pecknold tells Xpress. "We were really pumped because we were fans of [Blitzen Trapper's], but for our first tour to be two months was insane."

Touring these days, says Pecknold, is "about as different as it can get." The band members determine how long they want to stay on the road. They have a bus and a crew and "we're playing these places where we have more of a stage element." Also, it’s easier for Pecknold, a vegan, to find decent meals since higher-level clubs provide catering. (Nonetheless, speaking with the voice of experience, Pecknold says, “I'd rather be in a good mood than vegan, sometimes.”)

Fleet Foxes have also moved beyond their debut album, releasing sophomore effort Helplessness Blues this past May. The new album is still rich in Fleet Foxes’ trademark harmonies, complexly layered instrumentation and Phil Ek production, but there are departures: Gone are the Baroque-flavored romps through primal forests. Instead there are hints of psychedelia and tinges of darkness — "pretty much a folk album," says Pecknold. "There are a lot of different elements to the music. Stuff like The Zombies, stuff that has a certain methodic sensibility that recalls different counterpoint writing."

The songwriter's struggles with Helplessness have been well documented — initial songs were abandoned at a financial loss to the band and Pecknold told Pitchfork in a 2009 interview that "The last year has been a really trying creative process where I've not been knowing what to write or how to write."

These days, with the album safely delivered to largely positive reviews, Pecknold is almost sanguine. He says that in writing a second album, with the added pressure of the "sophomore curse" looming, "a lot of metal gamesmanship goes on that wasn't there the first time and won't be there the third time."

He continues, "From a songwriting perspective I wanted to hit these different marks and I was always second-guessing and doubting different stuff. But I don't really feel like that now." Ironically, the band's popularity and busy schedule means Pecknold has little time to spend writing — now that he’s on amicable terms with the craft again — "but when I do, I feel positive about it," he says. "I don't have the same set of neuroses about it that I did when I was writing those albums a year or a couple years ago."

And there's this: "Records are just the evidence of whatever state of mind you were in musically and creatively and personally at the time you were making it, by extension of the choices you made or the sounds you got," says Pecknold. "It's all reflective of that certain period, for better or worse." On the other hand, Pecknold does entertain the idea of getting away from his current process of sending a song “through the whole machine of arranging and recording.” He says, “I think it would be really fun to write way more free-form stuff. Where there's a set of marks you have to hit in a song, but everything else can be decided on a whim.”

In an interview with The A.V. Club, Pecknold mentioned that "In addition to being great musicians, everyone in the band can write really good songs," and suggested that future Fleet Foxes albums might see multiple writers. Currently, the band is sticking to its known catalog on stage. Even covers (while touring with Joanna Newsom, Pecknold dueted with the songstress on a rendition of Kid Rock's "Picture") are relegated to sound checks. Barring "some totally incredible, unexpected version” of a cover, Pecknold says Fleet Foxes want to play their own songs — and those from Helplessness have been evolving with the band's tour.

"Musically they've all taken on a new life live, which is really cool and feels really fresh," says Pecknold. The band is a no longer as concerned with replicating the album note-for-note, he says. Instead, "we're doing things in there that flesh them out. Not changing them drastically, but there's room in there for embellishment." And his songwriting this time around — judicious themes of getting older and one's place in life — allows for ongoing intellectual exploration. "Some [songs], as far as topics go, are pretty broad and some of those things in those songs remain questions for me," says the singer. "It's interesting to sing them every night and still be in a similar state of mind as when they were written."

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

who: Fleet Foxes (Van Dyke Parks opens)
where: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium
when: Tuesday, Oct. 4 (8 p.m., $45.65. http://fleetfoxes.com)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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