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Fleet Foxes, After the Crack-Up - April 18, 2018 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Fleet Foxes, After the Crack-Up

Fleet Foxes. Photo by Shawn Brackbill

You can be forgiven for mistaking Robin Pecknold as some sort of rock deity dreamed up by the management of Rolling Stone.

Possessing an angelic voice and some serious counterculture looks — the dude used to be a dead ringer for Jesus Christ — Pecknold was something from a different generation altogether when he arrived on the music scene in the early aughts, and Fleet Foxes, his band, sounded completely timeless.

Although buttressed by the burgeoning Freak Folk movement, Fleet Foxes were unique at the time, extolling the virtues of pristinely tuned harmonies and gorgeous melodies. They felt like a secular band emulating the piety of a holy gospel unit. Music had rarely sounded this intentionally lovely before. Fleet Foxes were church for hippies, and at the centerpiece was Pecknold, a congenial figure who seemed wise well beyond his years as the group’s precocious bandleader (still a teenager when the band formed).

As the praise and plaudits rolled in — Pitchfork named the group’s lush, layered debut album record of the year in 2008 — Pecknold grew increasingly uncomfortable with his iconic status. He never asked to be revered, and he certainly didn’t feel comfortable being the focal point of some imagined movement.

“For a while, I felt like I was on this crazy ride at Disneyland,” says Pecknold, whose group plays at the Greek Theater on Friday, April 20. “It was like I was shot out of some tube. Everything kind of got flipped upside down. I just didn’t feel comfortable with how my life was going.”

At the height of the group’s visibility, and following another critically acclaimed album, 2011’s Helplessness Blues, Pecknold stepped away. For the most part, he wanted to be a regular dude. He attended college — it was Columbia University, so he wasn’t quite a regular dude — travelled all over the world, and generally just left all the madness.

It wasn’t an unprecedented move — plenty of musicians have sought comfort in the shadows — but in the age of ubiquitous social media, Pecknold’s absence was pretty notable. For a solid five years, from 2012 to 2017, there was scant evidence of his existence, fueling rumors that Fleet Foxes would be disbanding after a brief, illustrious career. Every one of his rare public moments fueled speculation about his next move.

And then he returned as if nothing had changed at all.

Last year, Fleet Foxes released its third album, Crack-Up, another peerless collection of rolling, bucolic folk. Filled with complex, multi-suite songs and idiosyncratic titles (“– Naiads, Cassadies,” “Third of May / Ōdaigahara”), the album feels like an opera production fronted by a Dust Bowl migrant. Listening to it transports you to landscapes of golden wheat fields or to the verdant mountains of the Pacific Northwest, the group’s home. Despite the long gap between albums and the personal changes in his life, Pecknold managed to connect his discography seamlessly.

“I thought about coming back with some radical remake, and I think that would have made sense if we only had a two- or three-year break between albums,” he says. “But as the years went on, it seems more interesting and necessary to have this album be in the lineage of the other ones.”

With that return to form widely accepted, Pecknold said the group is now exploring the possibility of a more radical revamp. And, comforting for fans, he says that Fleet Foxes already have new material lined up, meaning there will not be another six-year gap between albums.

“I almost expect this next album to be like our second debut album,” Pecknold says. “I’m really excited about the possibilities of stepping outside our comfort zone.”

For someone so preternaturally gifted, Pecknold is quick to admit that he still has evolving and growing left to do. One of the main reasons he cited for the band’s hiatus was the grueling life on the road. Spending six months touring left him in an almost infantilized state relative to his non-musician peers: While they were starting families and buying homes, he was stuck in a state of arrested development.

He says that his time away from music taught him a lot, but not every question he had was answered — not by a longshot. In many ways, Pecknold’s current life is one of contradiction, exploring wild possibilities in the studio while playing music that rings familiar to his fans onstage. He’s embarking on a massive tour while understanding the inherent pitfalls of that accompany that lifestyle. He is a complicated person with flaws — essentially, a lot like the rest of us.

“When I describe myself, I often say that ‘I’m not me yet,’ ” Pecknold says. “I’m not ready to say who I am and these are my habits. It feels like that’s defeatist, but it still sounds like me. I understand that you can’t just keep trying on identities all the time.”

Yep. Robin Pecknold is just a regular dude after all, still trying to figure out things after all these years. And we are all fortunate for that.

Fleet Foxes With Amen Dunes, Friday, April 20, 8 p.m., at the Greek Theater, 2001 Gayley Road, Berkeley. $49.50; thegreekberkeley.com