The Fleet Foxes, a Seattle-based indie-folk fivesome, have found a way to capture the slippery yellowness of an old photograph. Their echoing guitars and lilting harmonies make you nostalgic for memories you've never had, trees you've never climbed and records you probably didn't listen to until college. Though their debut LP, Fleet Foxes gets constant comparisons to Crosby Stills & Nash, the Band, Fleetwood Mac and the Beach Boys, they prefer to credit present experience over past influence with helping form their sound.
"In general, none of us are like, 'God, I can't wait to give everybody a taste of my parents' record collection,'" jokes keyboardist Casey Wescott. "I got asked the question, 'do you prefer Beach Boys or Beach House?' And I'm like, 'right now, I'm listening to Beach House more.'"
When BW caught up with Wescott, on a rare pause in the band's tour schedule that has them booked through December, he was happy to talk about Fleet Foxes' escalating success, the fallacies inherent in nostalgia and futurism, and the tragic demise of David the Gnome.
The Fleet Foxes formed in 2006 when childhood friends Robin Pecknold and Skye Skjelset linked arms with Wescott, bassist Christian Wargo and drummer Joshua Tillman. The group began playing shows around the Seattle area and soon released a demo. After casting off a lot of their old material and deciding to focus more on vocal harmonies, the Fleet Foxes found a sound that resonated with Seattle indie rock giant, Sup Pop Records. In a testament to the immediacy of the post-Internet music industry, Sub Pop signed the band in January then released their EP Sun Giant in February to coincide with a national tour with labelmates Blitzen Trapper. But it was the group's showcase at industry schmooze-fest South by Southwest that tipped off the blog buzz machine, making the band a favorite of everyone from college radio DJs to NPR's Bob Boilen.
And their rocketing ascent up the fickle, wooden rails of the indie music rollercoaster doesn't seem to have crested yet. Fleet Foxes have been asked to play with Wilco in some upcoming West Coast tour dates—including a show at the Wood River Cellars winery in Boise—and the band just recently made an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman where they played the lovely and dew-drenched "Blue Ridge Mountains."
"'Blue Ridge' is definitely one of the more visceral ones for me to play, so I really enjoy that," notes Wescott. "A lot of the songs, just because we approach the writing so differently, they each sort of present their own challenges that we're still getting to know."
Those challenges weren't evident during their Late Show performance, which found lead singer Pecknold seated for the four-minute song, belting out lyrics like, "In the quivering forest / where the shivering dog rests." Skjelset strummed a mandolin while Tillman shook tambourines, Wargo wielded maracas, and Wescott tapped out a piano melody that sounded equal parts East Asian and Appalachian. Though Wescott, prone to meandering tangents, is hesitant to attach meaning to Pecknold's imagery-laden lyrics, he does acknowledge their narrative nature.
"In general, there's things that [Pecknold's] sort of pulling from his personal life and things that he's pulling from archetypes or fables that he can use with personal experiences and sort of map them together," says Wescott.
Another of the band's recordings, "White Winter Hymnal," has the same fabled feeling. The song starts with Pecknold singing a capella, repeating the words "I was following the ... ," joined by the band harmoniously finishing out the line "I was following the pack / all swallowed in their coats / with scarves of red tied 'round their throats / to keep their little heads / from fallin' in the snow / and I turned 'round and there you go." The song is powerfully evocative with visual and aural elements blending Grimm's fairytales with Alan Lomax's field recordings. Pecknold's brother, Sean Pecknold, created a claymation video for the song featuring a bearded old man, physically turning back the wheel of time as snow melts and flowers flush back with color. When BW compared the video to the Nickelodeon Jr. show David the Gnome, Wescott wandered off on an excited aside about the cartoon's final episode in which David goes to die in the woods. It seems, with the band's constant touring, Wescott and Skjelset have taken to quizzing each other on random TV trivia to pass the time.
"Skye, he is a television archivist at this point. He chooses to retain that knowledge by quizzing me ... We're talking very specific references from the entire Cosby catalog. He can instantly humble you very quickly," Wescott says. "[David the Gnome] is the only one that I've actually been able to beat him on. We're talking like season one Taxi, very obscure, non sequitur kind of stuff."
In a similar way, it's the band's seemingly archival reverence for past music that has led many to label Fleet Foxes a nostalgic, or backward-looking, indie folk band. Though all music is derivative, in some sense, it's the band's welling vocal harmonies and pleasant cadences that have formed the rich soil from which their original sound sprouted. These same euphonic elements have also helped distance Fleet Foxes from their more discordant bearded folk brethren, like Devendra Banhart or Animal Collective.
"One thing that's curious to me is that there has been a preponderance of people thinking that we are nostalgic people, but if you actually met us, I think you'd be very surprised to not find us nostalgic. When we were writing and working on the record, it felt very much like present-day activities as opposed to sort of like digging up graves."
Though Wescott acknowledges the influence that music has had shaping his personal worldview, he's adamant that his current life experiences on the West Coast are a much deeper well of inspiration than the tattered vinyl records he grew up with. And though that sense of modernity might be buried under old gospel harmonies and folksy banjo strums, the entire Fleet Foxes album somehow remains jaw-droppingly sincere and uncontrived.
"I don't think people that only listen to old music are to be trusted. Nostalgia to me isn't any different than futurism, they're both representing a desire to experience an idealized sense of reality that they feel is lacking from their own."
Fleet Foxes open for Wilco, Wednesday, Aug. 20, 7:30 p.m., $28. Wood River Cellars, 3705 N. Highway 16, Eagle, 208-286-9463. Read a review of Fleet Foxes' debut LP here.