This Week In History: Fleet Foxes Reinvent Folk with Debut Album

June 3, 2008: Fleet Foxes self-titled debut album was an immediate an unexpected success for the band, whose catalog has reinvented folk music for the modern era.

Fleet Foxes emerged 10 years ago with their debut self-titled album. A record that reached seemingly universal acclaim, it evoked classic rock and folk acts like the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills & Nash, while simultaneously embodying a completely unique sound. The band was lauded for their impressive vocal harmonies and flawless musicianship, and were taken completely by surprise by the albums rapid ascent.

While attending Lake Washington High School in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, frontman Robin Pecknold and guitarist Skyler Skjelset met and bonded over a mutual love of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Brian Wilson. With Pecknold as the principal songwriter, the two formed a band in 2005, calling themselves “Fleet Foxes” in an attempt to evoke “some weird English activity like fox hunting.”

Soon their music landed in the ears of producer Phil Ek, whose resume included Band of Horses, The Shins, Modest Mouse and Built to Spill. Ek loved their music, and together they recorded the band’s first demo in 2006. They spent the year touring, and quickly building a buzz before recording their first album early in 2007, again with Phil Ek. Due to a lack of money, the band couldn’t afford enough time in the studio, and would end up recording a majority of the tracks in their apartments and Pecknold’s parents’ house.

Their early recordings made waves on Myspace, and by the end of 2007 they garnered over a quarter of a million plays on their page – enough to earn them a record deal with Sub Pop on January 18, 2008. They quickly put out an EP, Sun Giant, so they would have something to sell on tour. The EP included the track “Mykonos”, which to this day is still considered by Pecknold to be Fleet Foxes best song.

The EP was met with critical praise, but the band had their sights set even higher for their proper debut album. On June 3rd the band finally released the Fleet Foxes LP, an album the Guardian called “a landmark in American music – an instant classic.” Within just a couple of weeks, the album was No. 1 on the CMJ Radio 200 Chart, with an aggregate rating of 87/100 on Metacritic. By the end of 2008, Fleet Foxes was rated album of the year by Billboard’s Critic’s Choice, and selling over 408,000 copies in North America. They earned the musical guest spot on SNL in December 2008, and were selected by Neil Young to perform at his Bridge School Benefit concert in October 2009, and by Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel to perform at his All Tomorrow’s Parties festival.

After a line-up change that saw drummer Nicholas Peterson replaced by Josh Tillman (who would soon leave the band to re-emerge as Father John Misty), Fleet Foxes went on to record their second LP Helplessness Blues. Again they were met with unending praise and critical acclaim, including a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album. But the process of recording their second album was incredibly grueling, and soon after the band went on hiatus. Pecknold moved to New York to pursue an undergraduate degree in English literature at Columbia.

After a long three years the band announced the release of a new record, Crack-Up, released on June 16th on Nonesuch Records. The album continued their tradition of earning widespread approval. Timothy Monger’s review on AllMusic described Crack-Up as “a shift away from their more idyllic early days into a period of artistic growth and sophistication.” Pitchfork characterized the band’s trajectory, stating that “Fleet Foxes are still a folk act, though one that’s absorbed far-flung versions of the term.”

Fleet Foxes helped bring about a rebirth for modern folk music, managing to maintain a rare balance between their influences and the creation of a completely new interpretation of the genre, all the while earning both commercial and critical achievements.