How Time Off — And Surfing — Influenced Fleet Foxes' 'Crack-Up'

Aug 19, 2017
Originally published on October 4, 2017 7:25 am

If you've ever undertaken a creative endeavor, you may have found that inspiration doesn't always come when you're creating; sometimes, it strikes when you put your work down and walk away.

That's what indie-folk singer Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes discovered during his six-year hiatus from making music. The band's newest album, Crack-Up, came out this summer.

In the late 2000s, Fleet Foxes quickly rose to become one of the biggest indie-folk acts of the decade with its layered harmonies and resonant soundscapes.

But after the release of their Grammy-nominated second album, Helplessness Blues, in 2011, Pecknold decided to step away from the limelight to pursue the things he simply couldn't do as a full-time touring musician.

"There was this Anton Chekhov quote that I took as gospel for a while," Pecknold says, "which was: 'If you want to work on your art, work on your life.'"

He spent his days backpacking, cooking, woodworking and eventually going to college in New York City. And it was there — when he wasn't studying — that he found inspiration in an unlikely place.

"I got into surfing while I was studying at Columbia, because there's a surf break just 45 minutes from downtown Manhattan," he says. "So on days off from school, or in the winter time, I would just go out by myself in a wet suit and figure it out."

On the water, Pecknold would often think about his music. He says you can hear that on Fleet Foxes' latest album — not only in the sounds of lapping water, but in the expansiveness and pacing of the songs.

"Sometimes on this record there are just these moments of stillness," he says. "You're out there surfing, waiting for a wave, and there's nothing happening for a while. And then sometimes this set will come through where the waves are just way too big and you're just getting pummeled — things just crash in out of nowhere. And then there are times when a perfect set is coming through and you're able to catch these great waves."

Pecknold says he always knew he'd return to making music, but the time away helped him grow as a songwriter.

"Anything can teach you lessons that you can apply to what you make," he says. "And I still feel that way — I still feel like the more experience I have outside of music, the closer my music is to what I want it to be. It's just about chasing those experiences, and applying that to what you do."

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DWANE BROWN, HOST:

If you've ever undertaken a creative endeavor, you may have found that inspiration doesn't always come while you're creating but rather when you put it down and walk away. That's something singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold of the indie folk band Fleet Foxes discovered during his six-year hiatus from making music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIGER MOUNTAIN PEASANT SONG")

FLEET FOXES: (Singing) Wanderers, this morning, came by. Where did they go, graceful in the morning light?

BROWN: Fleet Foxes was one of the hottest indie folk acts in the late-2000s with their blend of reverberant vocals and resonant soundscapes. But at the height of their success, Pecknold decided to step away from the limelight to pursue the things he simply couldn't do as a full-time touring musician.

ROBIN PECKNOLD: Well, there is this Anton Chekhov quote that I took as gospel for a while which was just, if you want to work on your art, work on your life.

BROWN: Pecknold spent his newly found free time backpacking, cooking, woodworking and eventually going to college in New York City, where he discovered an unlikely hobby.

PECKNOLD: I got into surfing while I was studying at Columbia because there's a surf break just 45 minutes from downtown Manhattan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON ANOTHER OCEAN (JANUARY/JUNE)")

FLEET FOXES: (Singing) Biding your time on the other ocean.

PECKNOLD: So on days off from school, or in the wintertime, I'd just go by myself in a wetsuit and figure it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM ALL THAT I NEED/ARROYO SECO/THUMBPRINT SCAR")

FLEET FOXES: (Singing) I was a child in the ivy then. I never knew you. You knew me.

BROWN: On the water, Pecknold says he would often think about his music. And he says you can hear that on Fleet Foxes new album "Crack-Up," which came out earlier this summer, not only in the sounds of lapping water but in the expansiveness and pacing of the songs.

PECKNOLD: Sometimes, on this record, there are, like, just these moments of stillness. You're out there surfing, waiting for a wave. You know, nothing happening for a while.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM ALL THAT I NEED/ARROYO SECO/THUMBPRINT SCAR")

FLEET FOXES: (Singing) Off on the other ocean now. All is behind you. All is sea.

PECKNOLD: And then sometimes, this set will come through that - where the waves are just way too big and you're just getting pummeled, things just crashing out of nowhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEET FOXES SONG, "I AM ALL THAT I NEED/ARROYO SECO/THUMBPRINT SCAR")

PECKNOLD: And then there are times when, you know, a perfect set is coming through, and you're able to catch these great waves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAIADS, CASSADIES")

FLEET FOXES: (Singing) Water can't doubt its power. You're not adrift. You're not a gift.

PECKNOLD: Anything can teach you a lesson that you apply to what you make. And I still feel that way. I still feel like the more experience I have outside music, the closer my music is to what I want it to be. And it's just about chasing those experiences.

BROWN: Robin Pecknold is the lead singer-songwriter of the band Fleet Foxes. Their new album "Crack-Up" is out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.