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Phil Ek: Recording Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues

Interview | Producer By Tom Doyle
Published August 2011

Hampered by high expectations and an unhealthy obsession with vintage gear, Fleet Foxes' second album took a year to make, in five different studios...

Phil Ek (left) helped Fleet Foxes to record their first album, and took a more hands‑on role in producing Helplessness Blues. Phil Ek (left) helped Fleet Foxes to record their first album, and took a more hands‑on role in producing Helplessness Blues. Photo: Sean Pecknold

If any band were ever likely to suffer from the dreaded 'second album syndrome', it was Fleet Foxes. Their eponymous debut proved the sleeper indie hit of 2008, turning gold in the UK and racking up more than half a million sales worldwide. For a time, their dreamy, '70s‑fashioned folk‑rock, topped with reverb‑heavy harmonies, was everywhere.

Blindsided by their success, frontman and songwriter Robin Pecknold — always a self‑questioning individual — returned to his native Seattle to begin to sketch out its successor, Helplessness Blues. Its gestation was to prove an epic, almost year‑long endeavour involving five studios, scrapped songs, scrapped mixes, and much in the way of creative soul‑searching.

Having isolated himself in a cabin in Port Townsend, 50 miles outside Seattle, in late 2008, Pecknold completed nine songs — of which all but two snippets would eventually be ditched. As the band's long‑term producer, Phil Ek (Band Of Horses, the Shins, Modest Mouse) has his own views as to why the songwriter was so brutally self‑critical.

"When anybody writes,” he says, "especially a prolific songwriter, they often write a lot in the same time. They can have all of these songs, but they all sound kind of similar, they're all from the same mindset. That's kind of what it was. But the first incarnation of 'Lorelai' was there, and there was the little ending bit of 'The Plains/Bitter Dancer'. He took his Pro Tools up to the cabin with the idea that he was gonna set up shop and record in this space. But it wasn't happening. It was noisy and creaky, and he wasn't really ready to make a record quite yet anyway.”

Romantic Ideals

Fleet Foxes, with Robin Pecknold front left, listen back to their work at the end of a long day.Fleet Foxes, with Robin Pecknold front left, listen back to their work at the end of a long day.

Going into Helplessness Blues, in thrall to the recording techniques of the early 1970s, Pecknold had a grand vision: researching and buying vintage microphones for the project, recording his vocals live and even leave in mistakes to make them sound altogether human. Is that how it panned out?

"No, of course not,” Ek laughs. "We're not keeping mistakes. Robin is a young, excited kid about music and recording, so he will romanticise the idea of going into the studio and think, 'I'm just gonna sing!' and, 'Ah, I don't care about mistakes, they don't really matter.' The reality is they do matter and he knows that.”

Instead, the plan became to record — mistakes aside — as naturally as possible, with the producer using very little EQ throughout and capturing sounds through judicious mic positioning. "Natural sounds are hard to capture if they're gonna work throughout the process of a whole record,” Ek points out. "Unnatural sounds are easy to do — y'know, manipulated tones or sounds heavily EQ'ed or massively compressed. There was certainly some EQ towards the mixing end of it. But for almost all of the tracking, it was pretty much just a cool mic and a cool sound source. This record was designed to be a really beautiful, huge, natural‑sounding record. That was what we tried to do from the get‑go.”

For the making of Helplessness Blues, Ek's role as producer was very different from his involvement in its predecessor. Having first met the 16‑year‑old Robin Pecknold through his sister and manager Aja Pecknold, Ek had been so impressed by the teenager's talents that he took his nascent band into the studio to record preliminary album sessions for their debut, funded on the singer's credit card. The tracks were subsequently reworked and rebuilt by the band themselves in various domestic environments, including keyboardist Casey Wescott's living room and the basement of the Pecknolds' parents' house, with Ek being brought in a year later to mix the results.

"They had no money, so I would say to Robin, 'Take this microphone, take this preamp, take this compressor. I'll show you how to set it up and don't change anything and just sing or play guitar and it'll be fine.' They did the bulk of the stuff on their own. I did a bunch of guitars and vocals, but lots of the overdubbing was done by the band and then they came to me and we mixed it.” Given its subsequent success, Ek now regrets not having had more hands‑on participation in the making of Fleet Foxes. "Now I wish I had been there the entire time,” he laughs.

Problematic Tapes

Josh Tillman, Robin Pecknold and Christian Wargo record harmony vocals around a single microphone: in practice, most of their harmonies were overdubbed individually.Josh Tillman, Robin Pecknold and Christian Wargo record harmony vocals around a single microphone: in practice, most of their harmonies were overdubbed individually.

When it came to the early sessions for the finally written songs for Helplessness Blues, in line with the current vogue, Pecknold was keen to record them entirely on tape. Ek was less so, agreeing with the common complaint amongst today's producers that tape isn't what it used to be. "I mean, we used tape on the first one to some degree, and we used tape on this one to some degree as well,” he points out. "Mostly drums, and then after that you dump it into Pro Tools and you start overdubbing on it. Robin's more romantic about tape than I am, mostly because of his age. I know what tape used to be like. Tape sucks now. It's poorly made, it's unreliable. It's just not as good these days. It's a problematic thing. You don't get the cool sound of tape that you used to get, the real rich low end and more silky highs. There's certain things that tape's still kinda cool for, like the compression and the transient reduction for drums. But it's more of a headache than anything these days. You're always worrying that it's gonna drop out or it's gonna distort randomly.”

For the drum sessions for the album, Ek, Pecknold and drummer Josh Tillman decamped to Dreamland Studios in upstate New York. "We just wanted to get out of town, try some place new,” the producer says. "It's this beautiful old church. For the size of the studio, which was quite large, it wasn't very much money. The other guys came in later to hear what was going on, but the idea was just to go there and record drums. Robin was playing a guitar to guide Josh through the parts, so that meant I guess maybe it needed a little more guidance from me to Josh. He's not hearing a band, he's hearing acoustic guitar and vocals. So I'd have to say, 'You're gonna have to hit a lot harder here 'cause there's gonna be so much more stuff around this.' Josh is phenomenally good in the studio. He's so focused and he knows what he needs to do. And he has really good tempo, 'cause there's no click track.”

As ambitious as ever, Robin Pecknold planned to nail some of the final vocals and acoustic guitar parts in these early sessions. "But then Robin got sick, so he didn't do the vocals,” says Ek. "And eventually with the guitar, we just got better sounds and better performances. And things change as you make a record as to what works and what doesn't work. Some picking styles changed and all that stuff. Most of it was not used, but there's a couple that were used, like the very first part of 'The Shrine/An Argument' and the little acoustic guitar melody line that's going on in 'Lorelai'.”

In terms of drum miking, Ek kept it fairly simple, mainly using a pair of Coles 4038s. "Those big ribbon mics, but kind of positioned further away,” he explains. "They sounded super cool and really big and full. The kick drum actually had four mics on it: a Neumann M269, a Neumann 47FET, an NS10 speaker and Robin's AKG D36. Then we had a couple of Neumann 47s for the overheads.”

At Dreamland, Ek was particularly enamoured of the studio's 48‑channel API desk. "It has a kind of open clarity that a Trident has,” he says, "and the kind of depthy balls and toughness that a Neve has. So I think they have the best of both worlds. For the drums, I don't think I did any EQ'ing at all.”

Despite his reservations about tape, the drums were simultaneously recorded onto Pro Tools and Dreamland's Studer A820 two‑inch. "We did it on tape without a click and then dumped it back into Pro Tools, so we'd have a pure analogue, a pure digital and then a transfer of the analogue. There were a couple of things I edited in Pro Tools from the tape transfer, but there was no tape editing.”

Reciprocal Arrangements

Despite Robin Pecknold's attachment to the medium, producer Phil Ek believes that mixing to tape made little difference to the end result.Despite Robin Pecknold's attachment to the medium, producer Phil Ek believes that mixing to tape made little difference to the end result.

From here, the project then moved back to Seattle, to Pecknold's Reciprocal Studios. The triangular corner building, which was formerly a grocery, is a local musical landmark that was the scene of the recording of Nirvana's debut album Bleach. The singer had recently taken over the facility, and upon moving in, decided to utilise the control room as a storage area, while using the live room as a group hangout‑cum‑recording area.

"We went to his studio and did stuff for just forever,” Ek laughs. "It's always been this kind of little dumpy studio that you can get cool recordings out of. But it's more about the convenience and the price and the chill factor than it is, 'Oh my God, it sounds so incredible in here.' When we were recording, we had to turn off the speakers and wear headphones.”

At Reciprocal, Pecknold had installed his Neve BCM10 desk, used in conjunction with his ever‑growing collection of microphones, including the aforementioned AKG D36, along with his Neumann U47 and KM56 and what became the team's favourite mic for the sessions, the stereo Neumann SM2. "We used one at Dreamland and just kind of fell in love with it. So he bought one and we used it a ton on the record.”

When it came to recording the majority of bassist Christian Wargo's parts, Pecknold wanted a Beach Boys‑style sound, as played through a Fender Super Reverb amp. "That worked on some stuff,” Ek points out, "but ultimately, I don't think we got enough low end, so at the mixing I had to play around with the bass a bit more than normal. But we did some stuff through an Ampeg SVT as well.”

For the electric guitar tracks, Ek says, guitarist Skye Skjelset used mostly a Fender Super Reverb or Pro Reverb. For the acoustic guitar tracks, Pecknold played either his '60s Martin 12‑string or his Gibson six‑string, miked using various combinations of the Neumann UM56, U67, U48 and Coles 4038. The producer points out that the process was greatly aided by Pecknold's increasingly skilful playing. "He knows how to play acoustic properly — volume, fingering. He knows how to play it open tuning or barred, depending on how big it needs to sound. That's really grown a lot, which is so helpful when you want a big tone.”

A Bigger Sound

After months of fairly leisurely recording, Fleet Foxes and Phil Ek finally got itchy feet and decided to move the album sessions on to Bear Creek Studios, outside Seattle. "It's a big barn, a huge room,” the producer says. "We started getting to an area when we wanted to do some vocals and have more of a bigger sound. We originally recorded the basic tracks for 'Sim Sala Bim' at Dreamland and Robin decided it was too slow, so he wanted to go into a big studio to get a big sound for that. 'Cause his studio Reciprocal is small‑sounding and it's also right on a bus line, there's outside noise and you can't do super intimate‑sounding stuff.”

At Bear Creek, Ek decided against using the studio's Trident TSM desk, in favour of the Neve BCM10. "I really like those Trident boards,” he stresses, "but I didn't use it for more than just monitoring. We really like the sound of the BCM10 and Robin has this really great LaChapell tube pre that we brought in.”

After a week at Bear Creek, the team moved on to Seattle's Avast Studios, where Ek had previously worked with the Shins and Band Of Horses. "It's a nice‑sounding space,” he says. "Big room, not too expensive. They have a killer Trident A‑Range and there was only something like 13 of those ever made.” It was during the Avast sessions that keyboardist Casey Westcott added most of his parts. "He recorded his upright piano there,” the producer adds. "Then we did some pump organ and some harmonium.”

During the recording of Helpnessless Blues, the band fell in love with the vintage Neumann SM2 small‑diaphragm stereo mic (akin to a stereo version of the KM56) and used it extensively.During the recording of Helpnessless Blues, the band fell in love with the vintage Neumann SM2 small‑diaphragm stereo mic (akin to a stereo version of the KM56) and used it extensively.By this point, it was time to record Robin Pecknold's final vocals. "Robin sounds good on a Neumann U67,” says Ek. "We tried a bunch of different mics on his voice — different 47s, I even tried an AKG 414, just to see if we could go for different characters. But we always came back to a 67. For the vocal chain, we had a Neve 1073 or Robin has a 1079. A couple of times for some really soft vocals, I used some API preamps because they had a lower noise floor. It was pretty much always compressed with a [Urei] 1176 or a [Teletronix] LA2A. There's a lot dynamic range in his voice, so I try not to compress it too much, cause that's kind of a part of it.”

While Ek is happy to employ the trusty method of taking a singer through three or four takes and then comping the results, he says he often preferred to direct Pecknold through one master take, punching in various sections as they went. "The way I like to work with a singer, production‑wise, is to get them on a path,” he explains. "Singing at a certain volume with a certain clarity. Getting the general presentation and then guiding them through the process.”

In crafting Fleet Foxes' trademark harmonies, keyboard player Casey Wescott acts as the vocal arranger, while Pecknold, drummer Josh Tillman and bassist Christian Wargo record the results. "Casey being so knowledgeable in so much theory and being a piano player,” Ek says, "he just knows how to put those harmonies together so much faster than any of us. So he'll come up with some pretty cool arrangements pretty quickly. Robin, Christian and Josh did the harmonies, or sometimes it'd just be all Robin, or sometimes it'd be Robin and Josh and no Christian, just kind of depending on how those vocals all fit together. We did a little bit of them all around one mic, but that became more of a problem, so we ended up doing it individually. It just didn't really blend as well as we wanted it to, live, as opposed to individual tracks. For Josh and Christian, their voices were cooler with a 47, but Robin was a 67 again.”

Impressively, Robin Pecknold contributed the string parts to 'Sim Sala Bim' himself, multitracking his violin. "Robin did the super‑small, little shakey part on 'Sim Sala Bim'. Then the other stuff was done by this woman in town [Hanna Benn]. She's a friend of Robin's and she did the stuff on 'The Shrine' and on 'Bedouin Dress'. I'm sure Robin wouldn't call himself a violinist, but if he needs to hold one or two notes, he can do it. The part on 'Sim Sala Bim' was supposed to be creepy and intense, so that was totally fine. For him to do a melody like there is on 'The Shrine', he couldn't do that. At least not very well…”

The Home Strait

Phil Ek: Recording Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues

Broach the subject of the mixing of Helplessness Blues to Phil Ek and he instantly laughs. "We went to Sear Sound in New York and it was kinda awful and we actually scrapped it all,” he admits. The band had ensconced themselves in the facility's Studio C, home to a custom Sear‑Avalon desk. "Totally one‑of‑a‑kind,” says the producer. "They had an old one‑inch Studer [C37] two‑track that was one of the things we wanted. But the very first day, the mixing just wasn't really happening for us. I didn't really like the way the studio was sounding for Fleet Foxes. At that studio, they're very nicely accommodating, but it just wasn't truly sounding how I wanted it. Four or five days in, it was only sort of seeming like it was sounding cool, which is not a good sign.

"There were a few things like 'Bedouin Dress' and 'Grown Ocean', where there's a lot of stuff on there, a lot of sound, and it was really reliant on the mix to present that properly. I remember saying to Robin, 'I don't think this is really happening for us, studio‑wise.' That triggered his thoughts and he was like, 'Oh well, I think there's a few of these other things still need to be changed musically with the overdubs.' So eventually that gave us a chance to go back to Seattle, finish 'Bedouin Dress' and actually add 'Battery Kinzie', which hadn't been recorded at all.”

Back in Seattle, Ek and the band settled into the more familiar surroundings of Avast Studios. "We looked at a bunch of other studios to mix at,” the producer says, "but it just came down to, 'Y'know what, man? Let's just mix here in Seattle. We've got a beautiful 64‑channel API Legacy board.' I said to Robin, 'Let's just stay here in Seattle and mix and mix and mix until we're stoked. It's easier and we get to stay in our own houses and we can listen to it in our cars, we can listen to it on our home stereos.' So eventually we just did that. We'd already spent nine months on the record, so I didn't want to throw any more curveballs in there.”

From here on in, says Ek, the process was fairly painless, with the band mixing the final tracks down to Avast's Ampex ATR102 two‑track. "I'd do a dump into Pro Tools at the same time as doing a pure dump onto tape. So there'd be pure analogue tape, a pure digital copy and then I'd do a backup of the analogue back into Pro Tools, so there'd be three copies.”

But for all Pecknold's insistence that as much of the process as possible was done in analogue, Ek argues that it probably made little difference to the finished product. "I still think we could have done this record entirely digitally,” he says. "Minus the tape hiss, I don't really think it would've sounded that much different. Robin likes the sound of the noise, the sound of an old plate. It's inherent to this style of music, but I could go either way on that. I think the presentation of a little more grain is totally cool and also not 100 percent necessary.”

Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound in New York, finally, did the mastering of the album. "I love the guy,” says Ek. "He makes big‑sounding modern records without putting in all the bullshit that people do in mastering. His inherent idea is not to go crushing it down and brickwalling it and all that kind of stuff. It sounds like the record. He lets the dynamics be the dynamics, which was important to me.”

Ultimately, although it involved Ek and Fleet Foxes travelling down a long, twisty path, all involved are delighted with Helplessness Blues. "I think it's awesome,” the producer enthuses. "The basic cheerleading thing that I did the entire time was I said, 'No matter how long it takes to make this record, it's an awesome record that needs to be made. So if we need to spend 'X' amount of time on it, it doesn't matter, we've just gotta do it.' I feel like we made a really cool record that's important for many different reasons. We worked hard on it, and I think it shows.”  

Gold Plates

Fleet Foxes' debut album quite possibly set new records for the amount of vocal reverb applied, and while there's still plenty of reverb on Helplessness Blues, it sounds as if it has been scaled back in comparison. A conscious decision? "Well, in my personal opinion,” says Ek, "I think with some of the stuff on the first record, there was a little bit too much reverb. I thought it started to cloud his voice, as opposed to just sounding cool and big. He was more demanding on having more reverb on the last record. With this one, when it came to mixing, I thought, I'm just gonna do my thing. And I think it came out kinda clearer and it still had the same effect.”

Given the fact that the band are keen on recording in large spaces, it seems reasonable to assume that at least some of the characteristic reverb on the vocals is natural. Not so, says Ek. "Nope, there's no natural reverb at all. Not one single bit. It's just an EMT plate. There were a couple of times where a little digital was thrown in here and there for a different effect or maybe a little spring of some kind. Y'know, I've never used Pro Tools reverbs, I never really mess with them. I use outboard Lexicons and things of that nature. But a lot of the time they sound too good or too glossy. They're not crappy or grainy enough. They just seem so separate from the music. I have a hard time kind of tucking them in the right place where they don't sound like there's too little or too much. Older digitals sit in the mix cooler. But for the most part it's just a good old noisy plate.”

Fox Chops

Like Fleet Foxes' debut, the songs on Helplessness Blues are characterised by multiple movements and complex arrangements. How much editing was involved in all of this? "Everything you hear that goes into multiple parts is recorded separately and edited together,” Phil Ek says. "It's easy. It can be kind of like, 'Oh, it'll sound good in a couple of days, dudes [laughs].' There's that kind of talk. But we all knew it was good. The drop in 'Bedouin Dress', that was recorded separately and edited in. 'Helplessness Blues' was recorded in different sections, as was 'The Plains/Bitter Dancer' and 'The Shrine/An Argument'. All of those bits were recorded totally separately, with the idea of how to make them make sense in their own world and how they're gonna connect to each other. That was the dialogue the entire time. So they were like, 'I hope this works.' And I was like, 'No, it'll work.' Every now and then we'd kind of do fake edits just to see if we were on the right path.”

While most of the creative turmoil in the making of Helplessness Blues came from Robin Pecknold being tough on himself in terms of his songwriting, Phil Ek admits that two tracks in particular — 'The Shrine/An Argument' and 'Bedouin Dress' — were tricky to piece together in the studio. "Well, they were all fairly easy and complex at the same time,” he says. "But the middle of 'The Shrine', that kind of heavier drum part, that was a little bit of a chore to get to the right place. The drums were fairly easy, but we tried so many different ways to approach that song. There were so many different tracks put on there. That was a difficult one and 'Bedouin Dress' was a difficult one. With that, there was a lot of adding and subtracting, adding and subtracting, 'til we got to where we are with what's on the record. I mean, there was a full string section recorded on that that we eventually didn't use.”