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Indie folk's best band wrestles with being popular

Robin Pecknold's speaking voice is more tentative than his singing one, which soars high and crisp, often over layered strings. This might have something to do with catching Fleet Foxes' frontman in the middle of his band's longest tour ever. "I think playing a show is enjoyable," he says with a sigh. "But playing a hundred shows is pretty crazy."

Soon after Fleet Foxes released their self-titled debut album in 2008, they went from a sizable following in their hometown of Seattle to widespread international fame. And sometime during the three-year gap between Fleet Foxes and this year's Helplessness Blues, they became one of the biggest indie bands on the planet.

There's no doubt that all six members of the band are massively talented, but there's also no question that the group's success was a matter of excellent timing. Their debut broke at the start of the indie-folk revival, and with their beards, hats, and hippie aesthetics, they've come to define the movement. Pecknold's sweet voice, traditional folk instruments, gorgeous ballads, and tight harmonies combine for an Americana cocktail that sounds simultaneously new and old, and now and then.

But Pecknold flinches when it comes to the classification. "I don't view us as a strict folk band," he says. "To me, folk plainly means a song with a simple melody that has a clear message, like a Pete Seeger song. The most popular stuff is whatever has the catchiest melody and the most driving beat."

Whatever the case, Fleet Foxes became the band indie rockers didn't know they needed three years ago. Helplessness Blues, which debuted at No. 4 in May, retains the vast pop-folk sound of the debut. But things get more personal on the new album. "It's very much a reaction to the first record and touring the first record and playing those songs for so long," says Pecknold. "It made me want to write something more explicit, something I could feel more of a personal connection to."

With achingly naked lyrics and a sound that's decidedly more rhythm driven, Helplessness Blues is drawing more and more people to the Foxes' music and shows. But Pecknold says that mass acceptance doesn't really matter much. "It was the first record where I felt it was really unsettling — the whole process of going from a local band to this other thing, with all these pressures and expectations and obligations. It took a while to get comfortable with that. I'm already sort of through the phase where you start letting people's opinions about you dictate what you make."

Still, Pecknold is tentative about the future. He sounds doubtful and just a little ambivalent about the band at this point. "If it all went away tomorrow, I'd be bummed that I have to get a normal job," he says. "But it wouldn't change my passion for music or anything."

Ask more pointedly about where the band is headed, and Pecknold pauses. Eventually he conjures up a response, though not so surprisingly, he doesn't readily commit himself in any particular way.

"I wish I had an answer to that," he finally offers. "Just for my own peace of mind."

More by Lydia Munnell


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