Ahead of a gig in Bexhill, Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold tells EDWIN GILSON about his group's eagerly anticipated return

I WAS really worried about doing this whole thing again,” says Robin Pecknold, singer and creative brain of Fleet Foxes.

He’s talking about touring, but in truth he could be referring to the general day-to-day existence of being in a band; the recording process, the delicate intra-band relationships, the obligatory press interviews. After all, Fleet Foxes are still getting used to life back on the pop music treadmill.

It’s their first time in England since the touring for their second album, Helplessness Blues, released in 2011. At that time, Pecknold and co found themselves in a rut, lacking inspiration. They took a hiatus. Pecknold enrolled for an English literature degree at Colombia University in New York. What’s the difference between then and now?

“Time, maturity,” he says. “Before, we were all swept up in it – now it’s a choice. We’re not hanging on for dear life this time. Releasing an album is basically a two-year commitment. I just wanted to make sure we were all ready for that.”

Pecknold is the songwriting maestro who beguiled alternative musos and drive-time radio listeners alike with Fleet Foxes’ breakout single White Winter Hymnal in 2008, from their self-titled debut album. Like most of the best folk songs, the track did a lot with a little. Over minimal instrumentation, Pecknold’s now distinctive vocal delivered a chorus that conjured images of childhood wintertime glee and cosy hearthsides. “I was following the pack all swallowed in their coats/with scarves of red tied ‘round their throats.”

Listen more closely, however, and the song had a strange, slightly sinister edge.  This subversive touch – Pecknold’s willingness to send up folk tropes – would manifest itself on Helplessness Blues, and, especially, on third album Crack-Up, released earlier this year.

Its name is taken from a collection of essays by F Scott Fitzgerald. In the title essay, Fitzgerald penned a line that would become a sort of mantra for Pecknold’s album. The great American writer wrote that the test of a brilliant mind was “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”.

At times on Crack-Up, Pecknold seems to have taken that message as a challenge; the record is wildly ambitious, swinging from meandering, bewildering experimental passages to moments of perfect harmony and back again. Lyrically, Pecknold mentions Knut Hamson, ancient Egypt and the US Civil War, to name a few reference points.

“For a long time i was trying to come up with some really good reason to do...things,” laughs Pecknold, when explaining his creative inspiration. Anything. So, looking forward, I focused on things that seemed exciting for their own sake. Spending this much time working on a record, you have to believe in it for its own sake.”

It sounds like it could be a slightly maddening process, working with two or more contrasting ideas at the same time. Was it not draining, at the very least? “I think it’s pretty freeing, letting things change,” says Pecknold. “Just watching different writers change their minds all the time is reassuring to me. How they feel about life when they’re 25 is completely different to how they feel at 55.”

At one point soon after the album release, Pecknold took to the website Genious.com to digitally annotate the words to new song Third of May/ Odaigahara. Typically, the song is lyrically dense. Even while Pecknold was wrapped up in the thematic touchstones of his creation, he was aware that his riddles might be slightly impenetrable to the listener.

“I think by the end of recording that song I thought, ‘this makes sense to me, but will it make sense to anyone else?' When recording this album I wasn’t very conscious of an audience, as opposed to the last album where I was very conscience of an audience.”

There, in a nutshell, lies one of the main reasons behind Fleet Foxes’ hiatus. While Helplessness Blues was wellreceived by critics and helped boost the band’s profile even further than their popular debut effort, the process of writing and touring left the singer feeling creatively inhibited.

“It was a symptom of having toured a lot – really for the first time,” says Pecknold. “I mean, the first album was me playing fantasy music in my parent’s basement when I was 20. Then with the second record there this idea of, like, ‘Oh there’s all these people watching me’. “That results in a certain kind of writing that I didn’t want to repeat this time. The benefit of the break was a dissipation of any concept of an audience."

Pecknold didn’t exactly put Fleet Foxes to the back of his mind while he was at Colombia, but they were far from the priority in his life. For instance, the Fitzgerald reference didn’t even come directly from his studies. Instead, the frontman was “taking it semester by semester and writing songs in my own time”.

In another interview, Pecknold said he thought going to school was the most “boring” thing he could think to do. Today, he clarifies: “It wasn’t boring to me, it was really exciting, but I thought it was boring in the context of, like, ‘band guy goes to school’ in a press release’.” A lot of people look back on their student days in middle age and claim it was ‘the time of my life’ or ‘character forming’. What was Pecknold’s experience of attending university slightly later in life?

“It was more seeing what I had missed. I left high school and started playing music straight away. When I was back at school this time around I saw similarities between that life and the musician’s life. Like relating oral examinations to interviews, say. I was trying to make connections between that experience of growth you have in school and what you have in music.”

Pecknold also got into surfing. “I would go to school and then surf at the weekend,” he says. “It was great, I loved it. I wish I had more time to do it more now.”

Perhaps he can resume his newfound hobby in Bexhill. Fans of Fleet Foxes’ first album who are going to the De La Warr Pavilion gig can rest assured that the band still relish playing their earlier songs. Crack-Up might be a sprawling behemoth of a record in its own right but Pecknold have skilfully weaved the likes of White Winter Hymnal into their set.

“Our voices are more athletic now, which benefits the early tracks,” says Pecknold. “I’m treating it more like an athlete than a musician.” Such is the creative energy in the Fleet Foxes camp that Pecknold and co are already embarking on new material. The frontman says the group plan to head into the studio next year with an album release date slated for 2019. The concerns that Pecknold had at the start of this whole process have, happily, turned out to be unfounded. Pecknold is content at being proved wrong.

“I thought it would be the same experience again, so I was in the mindset of ‘I can tough this out’”, he says. “I was expecting it to be an endurance test to the point that I’d need to have another break. But so far it’s been different in terms of how everyone is interacting and how seriously things are taken. It’s just not the same. I think I was overly worried.”

FLEET FOXES, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, November 28, visit dlwp.com