"When I work alone, Lindsey Buckingham says, "my process is like painting. With Fleetwood Mac, it's more like movie making." The movie-making analogy is fitting just now; as I speak with him he's in the process of directing Fleetwood Mac's rehearsal for an upcoming multi-city U.S. tour on a gargantuan movie soundstage in Los Angeles. He's spent the past several solitary years like a painter, however, crafting tracks in his home studio for what was intended to be an epic solo album. He wound up donating nine of those tracks to the Fleetwood Mac album Say You Will, Buckingham's first new recording of new material with the band in 16 years.
Buckingham is a dedicated and gifted guitarist who has found his own way around the instrument. He's known for his distinctively clean and fast fingerstyle playing on both electric and acoustic guitars, influenced by childhood banjo playing and Travis-style guitar picking. His astounding speed and agility can be heard on the new album on such songs as "Red Rover," "Miranda," and "Say Goodbye." It's some of his most impressive playing in a long and impressive career.
Born in 1947 in Palo Alto, California, Buckingham started playing guitar about as soon as he could lift one. "I started at six or seven, and I didn't take any lessons," he recalls. "All of my style came from listening to records." After high school he played bass in a band "because the guy who played guitar had all the gear" and then met Stevie Nicks and began writing his own songs. But playing guitar has always been his main love.
Fleetwood Mac was founded in 1967 as an English blues band. When Buckingham was invited to join in 1974 as guitarist, he accepted on the condition that the band also take his girlfriend Stevie Nicks, with whom he'd already recorded one classic album, Buckingham Nicks. When he joined the band, Buckingham found it necessary to simplify his full-fingered folk guitar style to fit into the existing musical matrix of the band, which consisted of Mick Fleetwood on drums, John McVie on bass, and Christine McVie on keyboards. "There was only a certain amount of space," Buckingham recalls. "So I had to pare down, adapt from what my tendencies would have been."
Buckingham left the band in 1987 to work on solo albums Go Insane, Law and Order, and Out of the Cradle. All were critically embraced, but none approached the kind of sales garnered by Fleetwood Mac albums. He returned to the band in 1997 for The Dance, which he describes as a "restatement of a body of work" and is now reveling in a new era for Fleetwood Mac, one that does not include Christine McVie's beautiful but complex keyboard lines, leaving Buckingham more musical space in which to flourish. He is exhilarated by the band's new guitar-centered format, and that exhilaration is captured in his rich, invigorating playing on the new album and his brilliant onstage performances.
I met with Buckingham—now 53, newly married, and the father of two young kidsÐin a sun-filled cottage on the back lot of the L.A. movie studio where Fleetwood Mac was rehearsing. In the midst of discussing the facets of his work within and without Fleetwood Mac, he picked up one of his nearby Turner custom-made semi-hollow-body guitars to show off the distinctive tuning he invented for "Say Goodbye." His fingers were all motion as he played the song's lightning-fast guitar passages, amazing everyone within earshot.
Say You Will started as a solo album?
Buckingham It did. We did that live album, The Dance, and preceding that, Mick and I had gone into the studio to cut tracks for a solo album after Out of the Cradle. I hadn't seen Mick much since leaving the band in 1987. He had cleaned up his act, and we had all this stuff to talk about. We started cutting tracks, and we got John in to play a little bass. We had all these tracks, and it was going great. And then these forces started to move in from the wings saying, "You guys are together. Why don't you get Stevie in, and why don't we do a reunion or a live thing?"
So Mick and I decided we would rent a house, and we called up Stevie, who was on the road, and got her to send over a bunch of material—most of it was not new at the time. We started cutting tracks as a three-piece. Everyone had a little more room to maneuver. That's part of the reason the playing is more aggressive—not just the guitar playing, but the drumming. It's a more masculine, aggressive thing that's going on. It was like a Robert Bly seminar! We were male bonding all over the place. And it was great. Stevie showed up after she finished her tour and realized something very potent was going on. Then she went home and wrote four new songs, and that led us to this.
You said your own work is like painting, but with Fleetwood Mac it's more like movie making.
Buckingham When I work alone, it can be like dabbling with a canvas. Maybe you paint over bits, and it starts to form its own life and lead you off in a direction. It becomes an intuitive, subconscious process. Working with the band, you're in a room with three other people and you're more verbal. It requires the other side of the brain. The writing is all done, so it's all about verbalizing everything from point A to point B, and certainly there's a bit of politics involved, so it's a different thing.
When producing Stevie's songs, do you change them at all?
Buckingham Sure. I try to make them as far to the left as possible [laughs]. I try to put as much of an artistic, modern spin on them, an edge on them. Because she's very romantic, and that's her strength. Her songs are great, but they can be interpreted in an overly sentimental way or in a more taut way, and I tend to go for the latter.
Does she generally agree with your production approaches to her songs?
Buckingham I hope so. She's pretty complimentary about this group of tunes. But I was working hard! Some days I would be there at ten in the morning and wouldn't leave till ten at night, and the others would waltz in for a couple of hours and then leave, because I was doing that painting thing. And they were happy to see that being done. And I was happy to be able to do it. It was really quite a unique thing to be in a house, which is a very safe environment. You don't have some other band walking down the hall, outside your door. I could show up anytime I wanted.
Another thing that was unique about working on this stuff was that I was engineering it. I used many of the things I had learned while I was away from the band. It sort of vindicated my decision to leave in '87. Not that I ever felt that I had made the wrong decision, but sometimes you wonder if you could have worked it out. But by taking the time away, getting myself off the treadmill, and just slowing down and learning, I felt I had so much more to give back. And maybe that was something that needed to happen for all of us.
What were you learning when you were on your own?
Buckingham I was learning how to engineer, more about production, more about my own abilities to write lyrics and melody. And improving my guitar playing, in terms of how it relates to the record-making process. A very interesting thing happened when I went out on the road with my own band. I started doing the song "Big Love" as it is in The Dance, just with an acoustic guitar, and it got such a tremendous response that I realized I should scale down the sense of the band and try to find as many ways as possible to make one guitar do the work within the context of a production. To make a record—not just a guitar and a voice—and have everything else be subservient to that. Many of the songs on this album, such as "Say Goodbye" and "Red Rover," are based on that approach.
I also learned to be more confident, to trust my instincts more. The 12 years I was in Fleetwood Mac before were not particularly happy years. I was not in a very good place, psychologically, when I left. I didn't have a lot of confidence in what I was doing. Even though I had pushed through the Tango album, it was just not a very good environment to be in on a daily basis. In many ways, this is the best time of my life.
You weren't musically satisfied before?
Buckingham At times I was. The Tusk thing was musically satisfying. But because it wasn't selling 60 million albums, there was this dictum that said we're not going to do that anymore. So there were moments that didn't lead to other moments. There were a lot of stops and starts. Those 12 years, they were ambiguous at best. I think now we're doing the best work we've ever done. Whether or not that's recognized yet is irrelevant to me. I know how I feel about it. I'm also married for the first time, and I have two kids. So there's some kind of good karma right now.
It's reflected in the new music. The songs are so strong, and your guitar playing is unbelievable. There are many really fast passages on the guitar.
Buckingham That's a banjo thing brought to the guitar. I played banjo for a while. I tried to copy John [Stewart] and Dave [Guard, of the Kingston Trio] a little bit. But I could never get beyond a certain level. I'd see these guys who would work their way up and down the neck. Any of those guys—Scruggs, even Steve Martin! BŽla Fleck? Forget it! It's like—why would you want to be that good on the banjo, you know? Come on. I never got that fast, though. I was just doing my triplets.
"Say Goodbye" connects a strong guitar piece with a great song.
Buckingham Yeah, it's Charles Aznavour meets Leo Kottke. That is a song about Stevie, and it reflects just what I was talking about. The lyric came first, which is unusual for me. I tried to do that song for a number of years and couldn't quite figure out how to do it. After a couple of failed attempts, I came up with a weird tuning where I was dropping the G string down a step so that it became a seventh, and it got me to a place where I could play all these figures fairly easily. It was not an easy thing to work out.
What other tunings do you use?
Buckingham I use dropped D quite often and open G and open E sometimes. And sometimes I make up things, like dropping the G string down a step.
"Bleed to Love Her" is in G#. Did you capo for that one?
Buckingham No. I was actually playing in A, tuned down a half step. I do whatever it takes. I can only play well in a few keys. I didn't take lessons, and I don't know my scales. I just find things that work and embellish them. I try to work within the limitations that I've got. "Bleed to Love Her" started with the guitar part. And there were three or four different melodies in the verse over that. I couldn't figure it out. We had to take a poll [laughs]. The verse in there is a rip-off of an old Dean Martin song, "Memories Are Made of This."
Do your songs usually start with guitar parts?
Buckingham Yeah. I've tried, as a writer, to work out of that. It can be too much. That's one strength that Stevie has. She's really not a strong instrumentalist in any way. Her instrument is her voice and her words. And it keeps her focused on the very center of that. You see a lot of instrumentalists who get locked into a part, which then becomes very constricting in terms of what you actually can put around it. And I am definitely guilty of that.
Did "Red Rover" start as a guitar piece?
Buckingham Yes. It's another one about looking for a guitar part that would cover so much ground that I didn't have to do much else. There's a lot of stuff going on, but it's not too loud. It's kind of a rumble underneath. It's all about letting the guitar part have so much presence and melodicism on its own that I just let it do its thing and then find a melody to go over that.
The guitar part on "Miranda" does that. That's another very banjo-like part.
Buckingham Yes. I hammer on. That's one of the things I do, hammer-ons and pull-offs. There are only a few things I do! [Laughs.]
Do you always use your fingers on the strings instead of a pick?
Buckingham Almost always. Sometimes I use a flatpick in the studio on acoustic. If I need to get a nice clear strumming sound, it's a good idea. But I don't use a pick onstage at all. When I play banjo, I use fingerpicks. In the last tour, we did "Say You Love Me" in a very sort of camp, hootenanny way where we were all standing in the front, and I was playing a five-string banjo. And I hadn't had those fingerpicks on for years. It was a mess. Those are cumbersome! But you can't get that speed without them. You can't get that sound.
They tried to get me to use a pick when I first joined the band. They had certain things they thought were appropriate. I tried to adapt as much as I could. I was playing a Fender Telecaster when I first joined. And I started playing a Les Paul, because it was somehow more appropriate to the pre-existing Fleetwood Mac sound, kind of a fatter sound. That wasn't an appropriate guitar for the way that I played. But you do what you can.
How do you position your hand to get such a strong attack without using picks?
Buckingham I basically rest my wrist above the soundhole, with the heel of my hand down on the body of the guitar. It gives me a firm foundation. It's not acceptable classical technique, but most of what I do isn't. You do what you can to get the sound you want.
Your solos on the new album are amazing. Do you play more than one solo and combine them?
Buckingham Absolutely. That's the only way to do it. Just like an actor. You can get a great performance if you do a bunch of takes and edit it. You find the moments and string them together.
Mick's sound on drums is perfect for your songs.
Buckingham Yeah. There's a chemistry. Fleetwood Mac is a band of chemistry. It always has been. None of us are schooled; we're a bunch of primitives who have honed their art by doing it a long time and by having sensibilities that oddly mesh in a way you wouldn't expect. It just works.
Did engineering the album yourself change your feel for the tracks?
Buckingham Yes. My sound was different. I made the drums a little smaller: a slightly tighter-sounding kit. I thought that was a little more modern-sounding and more musical. This is where it crosses the line between the painting and the movie making. Because what makes it a painting is that you're not taking someone else's hand with the brush. You're doing it yourself, so there's a direct line from you to the work. It's all kind of a meditation. When you're engineering, there's a direct meditative Zen thing you get into. Every move is part of a dance that becomes an extension of your own impulses. When you are working with an engineer, you have to explain every impulse, and half the time you get second-guessed out of all of your impulses by someone's response. And the other half of the time, whatever it is that you might be trying to get them to do, they're not going to do. Getting someone else to do what I hear in my head is a whole other proposition. So cutting out that element is not just about how it changes the sound, in terms of the confines of engineering, it actually expands the whole creative process because everything starts to connect more.
So, you're doing everything now—engineering, producing, writing, arranging, singing, and playing.
Buckingham Control! [Laughs.] It's not really about control. In a way, my mantra has been backing off from control. Which is ironic, because in a way, there is more control. But I'm not grabbing at it. I'm just letting it be there.
Did you write the bass parts?
Buckingham No. You don't tell John what to play. He doesn't need it. He's a master at what he does. He's a great bass player. Somewhere between McCartney and Mingus. He's way up there in terms of what he's been influenced by and what he tries to funnel into a pop genre.
The song "Miranda" has a different structure, almost like a question-and-answer section.
Buckingham Yeah. There are a few songs like that where I tried to break the melody down into facets. The analogy would be cubism, where you have an image, but you've broken it all down into smaller bits from different points of view. You're not trying to create something that looks real; you're accentuating the artificiality of it. And that's what I was trying to do. On "Come" I also did that, where you have half of a line that's here, and it has a certain vocal effect on it, and then the second half of the line has a totally different sound on it. So it has this forced dimensional thing.
Do you foresee this as the first of many new Fleetwood Mac albums?
Buckingham I hope so. When I started making solo albums it was because I had done Tusk. Tusk was a reaction to some of the more questionable aspects of the kind of success that Rumours brought. A lot of people wanted us to do Rumours II. And there was a real need to break that mold right away, so we didn't fall into that trap, and that's what Tusk was about. Unfortunately, when we didn't sell 60 million albums, the band said, "We're not going to do that anymore. You're not going to go back to your house and work on stuff by yourself." And that's when I started making solo albums. That dilemma doesn't exist anymore. The Tusk process, for lack of a better term, is so present in what we're doing now, that my need to work outside of the band doesn't seem that pressing.
If you look at what I dealt with when I tried to deliver the solo album, it's scary, how the same group of songs will suddenly be embraced and thought of as being wonderful when it's called Fleetwood Mac. When it's Lindsey Buckingham, it's not so easy. I'm 53. I try to strike a balance between my family life and my work. I feel I'm at the height of my creative powers. But I don't want to fight that fight anymore than I have to. I don't want to have to deal with a corporate world that is more or less insensitive to what I'm doing. I will go out and make solo albums if we can't hold Fleetwood Mac together for political reasons, or for personal reasons. As long as I have a deal. Even if they only sell that 300,000 or 400,000, which is what I was selling before. But if not, why not share the whole thing with everybody?
This is a group of people that I love dearly, and maybe for the first time in years we can acknowledge that. It's one of the greatest rhythm sections in the world. But it's a volatile group of people. We've all got large egos. All I can do is try not to make the mistakes I've made before with the band members.
I'm very proud of this album. I feel this is the best work I've ever done. And I think Stevie's songs enrich that. The whole subtext of sweetness is what the album is about. It's about a circular karma. We wouldn't be doing this if there wasn't something drawing the four of us together, in a kind of a love and a destiny. This is a very special time for us. Let's just hope I don't blow it.