In 2011, as their second album, Helplessness Blues, defied convention and actually sold CDs by the tens of thousands, as well as concert tickets, Fleet Foxes were the generation-defining band for folk/pop, for independent music, for long-haired men with sensitive souls.
They had those stacked beatific harmonies and an elegiac pastoral tone, were filling rooms such as the Sydney Opera House with ecstatic fervour, and already inspiring bands such as Boy & Bear. They, in particular songwriter and singer Robin Pecknold, were set.
However, it would be another six years, most of it without any public presence at all, before a third Fleet Foxes album would appear and a return to the Opera House for this year’s Vivid Live Festival was booked.
The departure of drummer/vocalist Josh Tillman (whose subsequent career as the louche alt.pop figure with a Taylor Swift fetish, Father John Misty, has turned him into a central cultural figure in 2017) suggested a band that was falling apart, that was set to Crack-Up maybe, to quote the title of the new album.
But if you want to know why Fleet Foxes haven’t been seen for six year, look to the last comment Pecknold made speaking to me in 2011, when he suggested their disorienting success had arrived almost without effort.
Rather than excite him, fame, which had followed almost immediately on the heels of their self-titled debut in 2008, left Pecknold searching for some balance in his life, something that was “not treating the music like work but leave more room in my mind for non-musical things."
Soon after touring Helplessness Blues, Pecknold left Seattle and moved to New York to Columbia University, studying an undergraduate degree in music and English literature. In between his old style humanities classes, he would go to Long Island to surf.
He’s not finished the degree yet but he’s not in a hurry - “I’m a 31-year-old man, it’s not like it really matters.” – revelling instead in a period of regeneration most of us could benefit from but rarely can indulge.
“I like thinking about life in cycles or phases like that, where there’s periods where you are taking things unintentionally exposing himself to new things,” Pecknold says. “And then a period of processing that and then making something new.”
Coming back to the band he says never actually broke up, Pecknold was determined to have “certain experiences affect the choices I want to make in ways that surprise me”.
So everything he was encountering, from the F. Scott Fitzgerald story which gave him the album’s title to the meandering nature of early demos as the process of making the record over two years, fed in experiences.
“I wanted the album to feel like it begins very fractured and ends very whole,” Pecknold says. “If there is anything that I learned in the last few years of my life and that I hear in the album at times, is that nobody can go it alone.
"No one is an island, even if you try to make yourself that.”
Can we draw a line from that fractured-to-whole structure to what the band experienced in the past few years? Separation, isolation and then a realisation that this was worth putting back together?
“I think over the course of my 20s I was oscillating between extremes: I was extremely in a band and I was extremely in relationship and then I was extremely not any of those things,” says Pecknold.
“In moving to New York and going back to school I was trying to live the opposite life almost as an experiment. And that meant divesting myself of a lot of my relationship and trying to feel more of an individual and to feel more self-sufficient.”
Before coming back to the band’s existence in what he calls “that middle point between co-dependence and independence”, what did he learn?
“You have to wilfully engineer situations of independence,” he says. “So I was trying to humble myself and do things that were really difficult and I’m really bad at, do things that I’m a beginner at all the.
“The more of those things of those things I did the more I proved to myself that I was capable.”
Were there lessons from that when making new Fleet Foxes album which once again feels like a gorgeous but out of its time collection of limpid folk pop?
“I think the main one was this crazy work ethic they instil in you [in college] and I was trying to apply that to something that was self-directed and indulgent, just going to a studio every day and making music,” he says.
“I had endless energy for it and we kept recording, we didn’t stop working and it was really fun. In the past if we had a problem I would just throw my hands up and not really know what to do. But on this one I guess I brought all of my other experiences today and every musical problem felt like there was an answer if we changed our approach. It made it a much more graceful experience.”
To have the confidence that you have the tools to handle any problem is so vital when so much of art creation is about insecurity, about not knowing what will come, when it will come and in what form. But rather than having a fear of failure drive things, this time there was confidence.
“Definitely. I have been motivated by insecurity, or an eagerness to please occasion my: musically as well as personally,” Pecknold says. “How do you find a motivation that isn’t one borne out of self-reproach?
“It’s possible. It doesn’t have to be self-hatred driving you to do better.”