The band just ended up mutating into what that record turned out to be.
story by Don Bartlett
photo by David Belisle
When most bands get characterized as “kind of ass-backwards”, such a statement tends to emanate from the lips of a disgruntled ex-member. Josh Tillman, drummer in Seattle upstart rockers Fleet Foxes, may be the new guy in the band — but he means it as a most sincere compliment. In their unlikely run as one of indie-rock’s biggest breakout bands of this year, Fleet Foxes hasn’t followed many traditional paths. With a record deal from the seminal Sub Pop Records, a tour with Wilco and a parade of high-profile festival slots already in the bank, it would seem that their internal compass is usually right on the money.
While Tillman is a relative newcomer to the band (joining earlier this year), as a member of the tightly-knit Seattle music scene he afforded himself a unique look into the evolution of Fleet Foxes. What began largely as a vehicle for singer Robin Pecknold’s songs has developed into a full band project that produced the 2008 self-titled album Fleet Foxes, one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year, and a record which was crafted in a most unconventional (or “ass-backward”) manner.
“They made a full record…and then decided to scrap 80 percent of it,” Tillman explains. “That to me is indicative of the spirit and the creative process or zeitgeist of this band. It’s just constant reevaluation. For Robin it was just sort of ‘This isn’t the kind of record I would listen to, so I’m just going to make a record that is the kind of material that I’d want to listen to’ and the album just ended up dictating what the band was. The record wasn’t made under the pretense of having four really strong voices in the band, because at that point there weren’t. The band just ended up mutating into what that record turned out to be.”
Part of that direction was the haunting 4-part harmonies that have become the band’s trademark. A successful singer in his own right under the name J. Tillman, Tillman was a natural fit to join the band. “They just asked me, and they were really sweet about it and very considerate about the fact that I do solo stuff too. But at this stage in the game I was more than ready to do something else,” Tillman says. “And I had been a fan of theirs. I loved Robin’s tunes and had been to a few shows. They were one of the first Seattle bands in a long time that you’d go to a show and be like ‘What the fuck???’ And this is before the material from the full-length even came out. From the earliest manifestations of the band it was just like, ‘Dude can write some fucking songs!’ So it was sort of a no-brainer.”
As their star continues to rise, Fleet Foxes are going out of their way to keep things interesting. They’re already beginning work on their follow-up record and aren’t particularly eager to rest on their laurels. “We could tour on this record for another year but nobody’s interested in doing that,” says Tillman. “We’re trying to get new songs worked up for this tour. We don’t want to just become like a traveling cabaret act. It will be nice to mess with things a bit, and having new material breathes life into the old material too. If you have new material you’re excited about, you don’t feel as belabored by the old material.”
And excitement is in no short supply as Fleet Foxes charts its next move. “It’s sort of like there is a larger pot to draw from now,” Tillman explains. “After playing like 100 shows, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re working with. It’s super-exciting. The new jams are pretty exciting to me, and to everyone else as well.”
Fleet Foxes :: with Frank Fairfield :: Metro :: October 12.