Like floating between groups of friends, "White Winter Hymnal" shifts between and stacks several musical themes over its two-plus minutes: A simple round opens but quickly resolves, coalescing over trebly guitars and surefooted drums. The words return in round as the musical backdrop shifts behind them. Eventually, it all falls out one final time to reveal nothing but the words—and one of the best band of voices indie rock's ever had.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: The song itself is probably 50 words, but it's stretched and been manipulated. And it has the canon. When you have an idea like that, do you first have the idea to do a song structure that way from this song, or did you first have the lyrics and they lent themselves to that structure?
ROBIN PECKNOLD: The idea was a song like "Whistle While You Work," from Snow White, you know? So it started with that very beginning thing, the first kind of like, melody. And then once the verse was done, it just seemed like it ... lent itself to the repetition, you know? I felt like to have the music be changing and then the vocals staying the same ... it felt appropriate to that idea.
Do you mean the lyrical idea itself?
Just like the idea of like a song you would sing while cleaning or something.
Sure. What was the hardest part getting that done, actually doing this in a recording studio?
The thing with that song is that we didn't record it in a recording studio at all. Some songs we go to the recording studio to record drums or bass or something and spend a couple days there and hammer stuff out. But that song was just like straight recording at home. That one was interesting. The guitar line that you're hearing being played is like the first time that line was ever played. It wasn't like a song that we have a live version of and then went in to record it. That was one of the ones like took a few days at home just to flesh it out.
When you record tracks like this at home, is the full band at work or just a few of you?
A couple of us will go in—you know, it's usually like at my house—or somebody will come over and I'll dick around playing stuff for a while, and then someone else will do something and we'll kind of build it from there. There are a couple of days where it'll just be me—because it's at my house, you know, and other people would be busy—so I'd just go downstairs and then start goin' to town.
How many hours—based off sheer estimation, unless you're a savant—would you say go into this track, these 147 seconds?
You know, that's the funny thing. It seems like the songs that take the least amount of effort—you know like there's a song called "Blue Ridge Mountains," and that song took like six months, took forever. And it's like those are the songs that you're most attached to because you spent the most time on them. But "White Winter Hymnal" took like ten hours maybe.
What was the most labor intensive part of that process?
Probably the mixing of it because we recorded it at home, and it sounded awful. It took a long time to get everything in the right spot [with Phil Ek].
Something I think I heard—and I thought I heard it in headphones and I haven't been able to pick it out since—but is there a synthesizer really far back in that track or not?
Uh, no there's not. Just guitars, I think.
Lyrically, there's sort of an idea of following the leader, but you play that ambiguously. How do you see it?
I mean a lot of the record is about family and friends, very little of it is... I don't think there's any real love song that's on the record, but that one is just like about my experience when I was a kid, you know, like I had my really tight group of friends. But as we grew up from grade school to junior high to high school, everybody just kind of split off, and everybody kind of changed. I went from like this tight-knit group to, seemingly for no reason, everybody was kind of going their own way. That song is just about that feeling.
It is definitely interesting that this group of people that you know really well is suddenly not together just because of geography. Do you feel the urge to fight that or did you just go with it?
For me, I ended up growing more isolated as childhood went on or whatever. My siblings were enough older than me that by the time I was in proper school, they were off at college. I didn't see them as much as I used to, and then my friends all got into different things. It kind of became something to deal with, but it takes time.
How old are your siblings. What's the age difference?
I'm 22, and my brother's 27, and my sister's 29.
The song references a person named Michael. Is that someone specific, or is that just a name for a feeling?
A person named Michael.
[Laughs.] Yeah. Michael is a great buddy of mine from back when. We just totally, I don't know, he was one of the kids I knew from grade school on. If I saw him now, I really don't know what we would talk about. It's just kind of that same thing that kind of happened really gradually.
Your band may be reaching a point where, before long, he could be watching late-night television and just say, "Holy shit, that's Robin!"
[Laughs.] I think that happens more through MySpace and Facebook now a days. It's pretty hard to stay hidden when you have one of those things.
Have you ever had the urge to look him up on Facebook?
No, I've never found anyone through those things. I have a Facebook account and I never really check it, but a couple old friends, like—it sends notifications to your e-mail— and it'll be like, "Long lost buddy wants to be your friend." They found me somehow.
Yeah, it's kind of a weird system that we have now for extending friendships.
Maybe that song could be considered pre-Facebook.
Fleet Foxes plays Sunday, July 6, with The Dutchess & The Duke and Barghest at Local 506. The 9 p.m. show costs $8.