Inside Fleet Foxes' Disappearance and Rebirth

Robin Pecknold made two highly influential folk-rock albums and then left the music scene altogether. Now, he's back with an adventurous new sound

Fleet Foxes leader Robin Pecknold (center) opens up about leaving music to attend college – and what drew him back.

Robin Pecknold stands outside a pagoda-roofed building in Los Angeles' Chinatown, admiring the beautiful old sign affixed to the facade: "BLACK DRAGON WU-SHU KUNG FU SOCIETY," it reads in sharp-edged black-and-red letters. "This is an artist's space now," the Fleet Foxes frontman says. Last year, it came on the rental market, and for a moment, Pecknold, who lives in New York, fantasized about turning the Black Dragon into the new Fleet Foxes HQ. But it wasn't to be. 

"I tried to move out here, and there was a whole debacle – I had an apartment lined up, then it went to somebody else. I was already in transit." It was "just some sketchy real-estate shit," he explains. Pecknold, who's 31, spent the better part of a month crashing here and there, suffering through a 105-degree heatwave, before he hit undo and returned east. "That was kind of a disappointing trip," he says.

If the years since Fleet Foxes put out their stellar self-titled 2008 debut have proved anything, it's that Pecknold is ready to uproot himself and veer into unknown terrain. That influential LP, full of skyscraping riffs and gospel-steeped harmonies, updated Laurel Canyon rock for the new millennium and helped usher in a folk-rock wave. Fleet Foxes sold of thousands of albums and sold out huge venues around the world, from L.A.'s Greek Theater to the Sydney Opera House. 

Then, in 2012, after the end of touring for 2011's Helplessness Blues, Pecknold, a Seattle native who at that time lived in Portland, decided that he was going to put the band on hold. He'd been making music since his teens, and "I felt one-dimensional," he says. "I thought, 'We kind of did this.' If people wanted to see us, they saw us. There was no reason to milk it. I was curious what else there is to do in life." With that, he moved to a place in Manhattan's East Village and quietly enrolled as an undergraduate at Columbia. "I had kind of an identity crisis," he says. "I'd built this one identity, then I tore it down and built another." Whereas he'd been a "hairy and unshowered" rocker, he notes with a laugh, in New York he shaved his head and transformed himself into "like, 'clean-cut school guy.' It was, 'Going back to school feels like the most boring thing I can do.' I got a kick out of that."

It's early May. Next month, after a six-year pause, Fleet Foxes will finally return with their excellent third album, Crack-Up. Pecknold is wearing a tattered white T-shirt under an army jacket, strolling down Chinatown back alleys. He's in L.A. to hang with some friends, do some interviews and see his brother, an artist named Sean, who lives here and has his own studio close to the Black Dragon. ("We would have been neighbors," Robin notes wistfully outside.)

He tells me about the long path that led him to the new album. At Columbia he took humanities classes – studying 20th-century art, 20th-century literature – but music was never far from his mind. "I liked writing papers, but I sort of noticed that they were always like, 'The role of music in Ulysses,' you know? Every class." In between coursework, he got into surfing, heading out to the Rockaways, Montauk and Fire Island. At first, "I'd drive out in the middle of February, in a blizzard, to learn without other people there. You don't want to hit someone with your flailing board, and you kind of have to work your way up to earning a spot in the line-up." 

In surf culture, the term for a novice who makes dumb, dangerous mistakes and violates the unwritten rules of etiquette is a "kook" – "You don't want to be a kook," Pecknold says, laughing. "It took me two years of just eating shit, never catching any waves. I'm still pretty bad at it, but I think it's good to be bad at things – it's good to be humbled. People are like, 'Surfing's a metaphor for life – you've just got to, like, be in the right position, wait for the right wave, blah, blah, blah.' I think that's true. That's a cool mindset to end up in. You're new when you get out of the water."

When Pecknold wasn't writing papers and eating shit in the water, he managed to fit in a solo hiking trip to base camp at Mount Everest – "beyond that point you need crampons and pickaxes," he says, "but it was still, like, the hardest thing I've ever done." He also tried writing songs, but "things were out of alignment. If the spark had hit, I would have given up going to school. I didn't need to be there for three years. If it had been two semesters and I felt I had the songs, I'd have left. But that just didn't happen, so I kept enrolling, semester to semester." 

His bandmates kept busy – guitarist Skyler Skjelset put out solo music and toured with Beach House; keyboardist multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson played and toured with Shabazz Palaces. Meanwhile, the band's drummer of three years, Josh Tillman, quit the band and got famous in his own right as Father John Misty. When I ask Pecknold if he likes Tillman's stuff, he replies, "I haven't listened to it. Like, intentionally. I've heard it in passing." Of Tillman's departure, which wasn't entirely amicable, he adds, "I think it's for the best," acknowledging that Tillman's ambitions clearly outgrew his role in Fleet Foxes: "The only problem is that it probably should have happened sooner."

In July 2016, during Columbia's summer break, a songwriting spark finally struck, and Pecknold and Skjelset, who've been playing with one another since they were kids, booked studio time at a converted church in rural Washington, hunkering down to hash out ideas. "I had these demos I'd been working on, and it was just the two of us for five days," Pecknold says. One of the demos was downtempo, morose – "a sad-sack ballad," he says. Another was loud and boisterous. Neither was quite thrilling him on its own. "I was just like, 'What if we put those two songs together, with a hard cut?' Cut the sad one off, like the band is kicking me off the stage. That made me excited. The writing had been kind of arduous, squeezing blood from a stone – but the process of producing and editing it became really fun." The resulting assemblage became "I Am All that I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar," which opens the album.

Pecknold decided that Crack-Up would be full of those kinds of 180-degree shifts, internal contradictions and bipolar leaps – the album title comes from a 1936 essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald, in which the author memorably declares that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Pecknold ran with that notion on Crack-Up in all sorts of ways, constructing lyrics around homophones ("heatless"/"heedless") and devising "competing polyrhythms, where there's, say, a four pattern on one instrument and a three pattern on the other." He adds: "Having done this for a long time, we're trying to find new ways to keep it interesting. All good songwriting is about contrast – setting up an expectation and subverting it."

Fitzgerald's essay also touches on depression, which Pecknold says resonated with him, too, but only to a degree. "I can't say I know what clinical depression is. I've been dissatisfied in my life. Sometimes I think I've made myself sad because I wanted to be. But there's stuff in that essay where he describes having had a break, a psychic loosening, and I recognized that: I think it was just all the touring, powering through that, 'I can do this, I can do this,' and realizing after the fact that maybe it took a deeper toll than I thought." This connected to strains in his relationship with his bandmates. "As I get older, I have more empathy for people," Pecknold says. "I think less about what's bothering me and more about 'how is this person feeling?' We're kind of an extended family, and people have their needs and eccentricities. I'm trying to make sure everyone is having a good experience."

We pop into the Gregorio Escalante art gallery, down the block from the Black Dragon, where there's an exhibition of art inspired by, and connected to, the Black Panthers. Off in the corner, a small drawing catches Pecknold's eye: Across a torn folder, hundreds of dots apparently made with black Sharpie surround two stick figures facing off in combat. The piece is entitled "The Ring" – the artist is listed as Muhammad Ali. "Holy shit," Pecknold says. He takes out his iPhone to snap a picture, but the shutter sound is still on and reverberates, across the dead-quiet gallery, at an embarrassingly high volume. Patrons and a gallery attendant look over at us as Pecknold lowers his head. "Ugh," he says. "Total kook move."