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Traditional but Personal: Q&A with Robin Pecknold

Tonight, Fleet Foxes play the second of two sold-out concerts at the Moore Theatre. Below is the full transcription of my interview with Robin Pecknold from two weeks ago, wherein Pecknold discusses the origin of the title to Fleet Foxes new album, Helplessness Blues, his thoughts on Van Morrison, and the details of a marxophone.

City Arts: It warms my heart to see an artist I respect cite Astral Weeks as an influence. It’s one of my all-time most cherished albums. To this day it hits me so profoundly I can only listen to it once or twice a year.  What is it about that album that makes it so special? What do you think the song “Astral Weeks” is about? 

Robin Pecknold: I don't know how much I have to add to the reams of writing out there about Astral Weeks, especially the famous Lester Bangs piece about it, but to me it feels like a very unlikely album, you know what I mean?  One of those records where all the stars aligned and made something completely unique out of fairly common elements. I think that's incredibly rare. Like the way some people talk about Kind of Blue as this serendipitous record, that's how I feel about Astral Weeks. I just feel lucky that it was made and that we can listen to it! Beyond the quality of the playing, the lyrics, the recording, the singing etc, it feels unlikely that it ever could've happened and that's part of what makes it so special.

Despite the angst it seems to cause you, your love/hate relationship with technology is inspiring--at least as it plays out on Twitter. You articulate the depersonalization wrought by the Internet very well, as well as its semi-miraculousness. Does that conflict play into “Helplessness Blues”?

I haven't really thought about in that way, the record or lyrics referencing technology. I guess in some way it must. I think there's a lot of isolation and some yearning for community on the album, and maybe those feelings were exacerbated by engaging with technology, or looking at screens too much. There are so many places to look now it's hard to know if you're looking at what you should be looking at, if you know what I mean. But maybe it's really good. Twitter is kind of therapeutic for me, or was when I started using it, I just felt really isolated while finishing the record and needed somebody to talk to kind of.  So that's the flipside of it -- it works both ways.  I think "Get Off the Internet" by Mt. Eerie is the best song I've heard recently.                                                                                                                                                             

Same could be said about your relationship with the industry/media side of music. (IE. “Good luck working that into something intriguing”; recent flabbergastation over stupid interview questions). Do you think media scrutiny lessens the music’s impact?

I don't know that I have an interesting opinion on that topic. I think the media definitely colors the music, especially in terms of where you're hearing about something. Like if the first place I hear about something is NPR, without even hearing a note of the music, I'll have put that music in a different box than if I heard about it on say Altered Zones (though I don't often go to either of those sources). You know what I mean? In that way, these media sources that ostensibly exist to give exposure to music they are excited about are also sort of branding the bands they cover with a stamp that the band didn't necessarily ask for. So in that way it's weird -- it can make it harder for me as a listener to look past the media noise and just listen to what the band is trying to do. I think one positive about listening to older music is the lack of a current cultural context. While context is really important and can make some things more resonant and interesting than if they lacked context, it's also nice to listen to stuff without thinking about what media gimmick the band was up to the week before. And mostly I find myself just listening to stuff that friends recommend!

 

What a thought-provoking title, btw. Seems to pertain to every one of my questions.  Do you remember when that phrase hit you? Was it in response to something specific? 

Thanks!  I think the title came for the song first and the record very late.  I don't remember it being some eureka moment -- I thought it was more of a funny phrase than anything else and in terms of writing like a really personal song that fit into an older context, that seemed like an appropriate way to title it. I don't think it was a response to anything in specific, maybe the oil spill or something. I wrote that song while that was all going on, and that sinking, disgusting feeling that this was happening for so long, with nothing that anyone could do probably nudged that title a bit!

It recalls some of Dylan’s song titles, which were meant to recall older folk tune titles… It establishes a lineage, even though that phraseology isn’t used much today. It seems pure blues hasn’t fared well in the modern age. Do you agree? If so, why is that the case?

I think it's sort of meant to have one personal element, which would be the first word of it, and then a traditional element, the second word, and that would be the marching orders for the rest of the album as well. I'm not sure why the "blues" has fallen out of favor.  The song isn't a Blues though, I thought about it more like Birthday Blues by Bert Jansch,which is a classical guitar piece, or McGoohan's Blues by Roy Harper, or Inner City Blues, or Blues Run the Game, or Tangled Up in Blue,  etc. This is not "blues" music. BUT! I think the blues is probably now uncool enough to be cool again, and a friend of mine was working on some tweaked blues stuff that probably would get some attention if he finished it, but I don't think he will!

One last, very practical question: Did the bandmembers learn new instruments for this record, or are there a slew of guests? I see Morgan in the vid playing flute, but what about,say, the marxophone? And what the heck is a marxophone??

I don't think any of learned any instrument specifically because it needed to be played on the record.  I was trying to learn the violin and ended up playing it on a couple of songs, “Sim Sala Bim” and “The Cascades,” but that was more just for fun than like "gotta make my violin debut."  And a lot of those small weird instruments like the marxophone or the tremeloa or the singing bowls, Casey learned how to play those and they're meant to be sort of easy to pick up and play, it's not like mastering the cello or something. And like with the hammer dulcimer parts, you're just hitting the strings with a stick basically. There's no hammer dulcimer mastery on the record.  A marxophone is like an old zither type thing that is played by pushing these flexible hammers down onto the strings, so the hammers sort of bounce up and down really fast and produce this rapid attack kind of machine gun sound.

Photo by Josh Bis