Oyster #96: Fleet Foxes
I think the one difference is that Fleet Foxes has fans; my other bands didn't and don't.
For Oyster issue #96 Ariane Halls caught up with Casey Wescott from Fleet Foxes. Here is an excerpt from our interview:
Fleet Foxes' debut album sold over 400,000 copies in the US alone - not bad for a folk band from Seattle who, by their own admission, owe much of their success to word-of-mouth and illegal file-sharing. Their second album, Helplessness Blues, was released to universal acclaim, and is sure to be atop many Best of 2011 lists. I spoke with keyboardist Casey Wescott on the last day of a month-long US tour, resulting in what may be the only music interview ever to encompass computer programming, medieval re-enactments and R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet.
Ariane Halls: Fleet Foxes' initial success was helped along by a few happy accidents - like filling in for The National when their bus broke down on the way to a festival. What other things like that have contributed to your success?
Casey Wescott: I don't know... Maybe living in an internet age? I think that was a primary factor for people in countries that we hadn't been to, far away from where we were playing shows and stuff, who were able to hear us. I think that was, as far as an external factor, probably the primary one.
Do you ever Google yourself?
You know, I don't think that's a very good thing to do [laughs]. The explanation behind that sort of stuff is essentially vanity - even if it's self-loathing vanity, it's still vanity ... It's still spending time focused on yourself in a way that I just don't think is very productive ... You know, if you want to do something creative, and you're trying to be yourself while you're doing that, you almost by definition have to not listen to what other people are saying because, at the end of the day, it doesn't really speak to why you're making it in the first place - I mean, at least for me. So, that's sort of the roundabout way...
Of saying no.
Yes [laughs]. But that's essentially where I'm coming from.
Have you been in many other bands of different genres?
Yes, that is sort of an odd thing ... Over the course of my life I've sort of been a person without, like, an identity in some ways, because for some reason I chose to find it valuable to try to be a chameleon, as opposed to maybe focusing on a singular identity. So, I think that it was an odd choice that I made early on that kind of put me on a path to play with quite a few different people, and different musical styles, and stuff like that.
Do you find that different genres of bands attract different kinds of groupies or fans?
[Laughs] I think the one difference is that Fleet Foxes has fans; my other bands didn't and don't.
I think that it's hard for groupies to exist now, because things are so much more structured. They can't get backstage, so something like what happened in Almost Famous will never happen again.
I think a more apt description of a backstage environment is in This Is Spinal Tap, when they're searching for the stage from their dressing room and they can't find it [laughs]. It's interesting, playing festivals and things like that - there are certainly a lot of barriers, a lot of walls, and that does have an impact on how people experience the music. I mean, when you're playing places where you need a laminate that says you're this person so that you can get into a certain area and these other people can't, that definitely has an effect on the audience as well.
So, you've played in lots of different bands - do you listen to a wide range of music?
Yeah. I think that's another consequence of having the history of recorded music in a digestible database, where you can access all that stuff really quickly. I mean, I've always been searching for music that I find thrilling and exciting and new or different. For a long time I would search for it in different places, whether it be in orchestral music or music of different cultures; things like that. But now there's a new ability to micro-analyse entire periods of music, entire styles or genres; mainly because it's so available.
Speaking of music on the internet, do you know about Trapped in the Closet?
Trapped in the Closet?
Like, R. Kelly?
Yeah! Are you a fan?
Yeah, I am, actually. In fact, it's kind of funny that you say that, because he is somebody that I really grew up with - as early as [Kelly's first band] Public Announcement - and I went to Catholic middle-school dances, and so a lot of his songs were, like, the soundtrack to my early romantic encounters. I think that, aside from him just being, like, an insane singer and a really creative musician, there's just enough peculiarities about his music that make it constantly interesting ... What he's doing is at a standard of quality that by far surpasses his peers, by any measurement, in my view. I mean, he's absolutely incredible.
When I was doing my research, I came across an article where the interviewer was speaking with you about how to classify Fleet Foxes' music...
Oh! And what was the genre? What did he compare it to?
Ren faire. Is that a genre? I think he was likening it to music that would be played at a Renaissance fair.
Oh, OK! Gotcha. Yeah, that's funny.
Have you ever been to a medieval re-enactment?
No, I haven't. I went to university and I saw a lot of those people and I found it very curious to be passionate about something like that. It kind of reminded me of being passionate about sports, in the way that, you know, winning and losing don't really matter unless you think it's important enough to care. Those things are sort of peculiar. Plus, there's an escapist element to it that I found somewhat, I don't know ... I think it seems like a way to leave the self, but I may just be reading into it too much.
If you had to go to one, what costume do you think you would wear?
Um, gosh. You know what, I don't know! Maybe just... Armour is too heavy; chain mail ? it might breathe, but it might be a little too heavy too. Maybe I'd be, like, the cheerleader of whatever battle...
Of the jousting?
You could be the cheerleader for the jousting competition.
Oh no, I don't have that competitive spirit in me. I would have to be doing something different; I wouldn't be on the front line.
So, we've established that you're not into medieval re-enactments or sports, but do you have a strange hobby?
One thing that I do enjoy is that I program - I'm, like, a computer programmer, software developer, or whatever. I do a lot of music programming where I'll write algorithms that generate music, or generate different timbres or sounds; that's something I've been doing for about ten years ... There are certainly things that you can do in that environment that you cannot easily do anywhere else.
So, do you have a secret hope that Fleet Foxes will make the equivalent of Neil Young's [electronic] Trans album?
Oh, no no no... Well, now that I think about it, I do have a set of programs that write harmonies and write chord progressions and stuff, and to write harmonies on the back half of Helplessness Blues I used stuff that I generated with some algorithms, as far as the way the other harmonies would go against [frontman and lead vocalist] Robin's voice. So, it does make it onto the record, it's just in an acoustic form - you don't quite see the electronics. But, when it comes to the future, nothing's written, and I don't think any one of us takes things off the table when we're working on music, so you never know how it's going to end up.
Wait - you wrote a computer program that creates harmonies? You just give it a base note and it creates the rest - is that how it works?
Well, yeah. You give it a melody, a key, and then you give it the number of voices you want and which voices you want, and then the program will just generate hundreds of different harmonies based on possibilities of where the voices can go and based on logic that you define.
That's amazing! Do you ever feel like you're cheating?
No, because at the end of the day a song can be considered to be a series of decisions, and I'm trying to choose from a wider set of decisions. It was just a way of streamlining the creative process, but still leaving opportunity for random things to happen. It's not cheating, because if you write the program you're ultimately directing what that program is doing - it's up to you to be eloquent enough to actually code what you mean. But I do know there are people that people feel ambivalent about these sort of processes because they feel like it's really cold, and nothing like nature can come from a computer - though when you listen to that song you wouldn't necessarily think of a cold, sterile place.
Well, thank you so much for your time.
Yeah, no sweat. Thanks so much for listening to me ramble - and have fun editing this down into something coherent!
Photography: Sean Pecknold