Filmed in 2009 for Nigel Godrich’s “From the Basement” series, and drawing from their debut LP and second EP, Fleet Foxes perform an intimate set of harmony-based music that conjures the vibes and sounds of an ancient rural church.
It was early 2008 when I first met Robin Pecknold, Fleet Foxes’ founder, lead singer and songwriter. I’d been dispatched to Seattle by the U.K. Guardian newspaper to find out more about this band who’d just released a five-song EP, “Sun Giant,” that had British rock critics swooning. The group, barely two years old, was on the verge of releasing a debut album that would be hailed as an American classic. Quite a feat for an indie band whose first two records were largely made in the members’ various apartments and Pecknold’s parents’ basement.
The band had signed to Sub Pop, the Seattle indie label famous for discovering Mudhoney and Nirvana. Fleet Foxes couldn’t have been less grunge. Their music, as they described it on their MySpace page, was “Baroque pop, music from fantasy movies [and] hymns.” Which tells part of the story but doesn’t describe quite how complex, expansive and — there’s no other word for it — sublime their harmony-heavy songs were. Nor, though you could trace some of their musical roots and influences, how entirely unique. A heady mix of old, dark American folk and gospel, older, darker pagan English folk, and sun-drenched, ‘60s and ‘70s harmony pop and rock from both sides of the Atlantic — all filtered through the mind of a computer-literate young musician in the Pacific Northwest.
Home for Pecknold when we met was a little rented wooden house painted Teletubby purple, with tulips in the front yard and tufts of grass on the roof. Inside, on the floor beneath a turntable, were stacks of vinyl he’d found in thrift shops and underground record stores. While we talked, Pecknold rifled through them, pulling out and eulogizing one LP after another: Karen Dalton; Simon & Garfunkel; Renaissance Harp Music; Bob Dylan; Beach Boys; Zombies; David Crosby; the Trees Community, a religious commune from the ‘70s. All these albums were released before Pecknold, then just 22 years old, was born. Because he’d discovered them outside of their chronological time, for him they were timeless. He wasn’t cowed by their status in music history; they were collections of sounds and colors.
Fleet Foxes released their self-titled debut album a couple of months after our interview. Hugely acclaimed, particularly in the U.K., it topped numerous “Best Album of 2008” lists and — to the bewilderment of the shy and humble frontman — was certified platinum. This half-hour video, shot in 2009 for the British music series “From the Basement,” features the band in a West London studio performing songs from “Sun Giant” and “The Fleet Foxes.” There’s no MC, no interviews or outside interruptions, just the spellbinding sight of Pecknold, Skyler Skjelset (Robin’s best friend and collaborator since 7th grade), Christian Wargo, Casey Wescott and Josh Tillman (who would later reinvent himself as Father John Misty) recreating the records’ rich, sweeping melodies and sublime four- or five-part harmonies live, without overdubs or studio trickery.
There’s a real intimacy to the performance — close your eyes and you’re in an ancient rural church, empty but for a five-piece choir — and a great insight into how the band interacts. “Singing with people is so super fun,” Pecknold told me. “It’s...human. Because a guitar is like your hands and your brain, but four people singing is just as close as you can get musically. Because you’re all standing next to each other and you’re all just an interval away, there’s a sense of togetherness. It just reminds me of family.”
Fleet Foxes “From the Basement” Setlist
Sun It Rises
Drops in the River
Blue Ridge Mountains
Sylvie Simmons has been writing about music since 1977, when she left her native London for California to become a rock journalist; the BBC made a documentary on her, “The Rock Chick.” An award-winning journalist, Sylvie’s work has appeared in countless publications around the world, from legendary U.S. magazine Creem to the leading U.K. music magazine Mojo, as well as in a number of books. Her own books include the best-sellers “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” and Debbie Harry’s memoir “Face It.” Sylvie is also a singer-songwriter. Her latest album, “Blue on Blue,” was released mid-pandemic on Compass Records.