BACK IN MAC!
His Brilliant Return To Fleetwood Mac
By James Rotondi
Pictures: Stephen Stickler
Table of contents description:
32: Lindsey Buckingham
Fleetwood Mac’s got a new album! Guitarist, songwriter, producer and all-around guiding force Lindsey Buckingham reflects on his return to the band after 16 years.
Going Back Again
Lindsey Buckingham reunites with Fleetwood Mac on Say You Will, his first album with the band in 16 years.
Slowly, slowly, an unusual-looking acoustic guitar comes into view around a corner in the Gold-record-lined hallway of Fleetwood Mac’s management building in sunny Studio California. First to emerge is the head, then the neck and upper bout of a nicely weathered Martin 0-18T four-string tenor guitar, all character and warmth, the genuine acoustic article—with a pretty little musical figure emanating from it to boot. Then there appears hands, a human head and neck, and finally, a whole person is attached, as if it was all one organism of steel, wood and flesh.
In a sense, it is. After all, this particular guitar man is Lindsey Buckingham: nicely weathered, all character and warmth, the genuine acoustic and electric guitar article. The man whose songwriting, instrumental and production brilliance is most responsible for the phenomenal success story that is Fleetwood Mac. Though this member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an acknowledged pop music renaissance man, leave it to the picking savant Buckingham to introduce his guitar half first.
Like the tenor guitar he embraces so lovingly, there’s something grainy and pure about Buckingham, and the hand he extends in greeting, with its strong, callused fingers and rough-hewn picking nails, betrays a life spent searching for a lost chord in countless control rooms and touring buses. Now 52, Buckingham, a recently married father of two, is as chiseled and handsome as ever, although he’s a bit grayer than he appeared in 1997, the year of Fleetwood Mac’s successful live reunion tour and album, The Dance.
But kids will do that to you, and so—if history is any barometer—should the process of recording and producing his first new Fleetwood Mac album in 16 years. [Guitarist Rick Vito appeared on the band’s 1990 opus, Behind The Mask, while 1995’s Time featured Billy Burnette and Bekka Bramlett in the place of Buckingham and Stevie Nicks—GWA Ed.] The revelation is that recording the new Say You Will (REPRISE), according to Buckingham, was an absolute Venice Beach breeze compared to the intense, cocaine-and-cognac-fueled Mac sessions of the Seventies and Eighties, whose undercurrent of failed relationships (both band couples, Buckingham and Nicks, and Christine and John McVie, had broken up by the time of Rumours appeared in 1977) finally led to the guitarist throwing in the towel in 1987 not long after the release and short tour in support of the very successful Tango In The Night.
Recorded over a year’s time in a rented house in Bel-Air, the new album is just bursting with a revived communal spirit and spirited ensemble playing. From the survivor-story subtext of many of the lyrics, it’s not hard to get a feel for what Buckingham likes to refer to as the “healing” of Fleetwood Mac. That healing took place without one powerful member of the band’s classic lineup. Christine McVie, whose clear, bell-like voice and simple effective songs (e.g. “Over And Over,” “Think About Me” and “Spare Me A Little”) had been a key component of the Fleetwood Mac sound since even before the days of Buckingham and Nicks, is no longer in the band.
Not only did McVie’s departure alter the musical chemistry of Fleetwood Mac, it changed the sexual polarity as well: Suddenly the boys are running the joint, and the reconfigured house is very much rocking. Drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist (and Christine’s ex) John McVie—the twin towers who’ve been the Mac’s only constant members since the group’s inception in 1968—sound particularly energized, playing with an aggression and deep groove pocket that recalls the hungry jams of the band’s classic late Sixties blues sides with legendary guitarists Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer.
Compared to past Mac albums, Say You Will is thicker, harder and edgier sounding, with more than a hint of alt-rock dirt, and it swims in trippy effects that wouldn’t have fit in at all on a slick Eighties disc like Tango In The Night. Ironically, a better comparison might be to the Mac’s 1972 Bare Trees, featuring guitarists Bob Welch and Danny Kirwan, which also struck a cool balance between pop jewels (Welch’s “Sentimental Lady” and McVie’s “Spare Me A Little”) and psychedelic blues-rockers like Kirwan’s “Danny’s Chant.”
While fans of the Stevie Nicks side of the Mac equation will certainly be pleased with Say You Will, which includes such pagan-goddess, characteristically world-weary Nicksian pop tunes as “Goodbye Baby” and the title track—it’ll be equally satisfying to students of Buckingham’s eclectic guitar playing, which was perhaps most explicitly and broadly demonstrated on the 1979’s Tusk and his 1992 solo album, Out Of The Cradle. Like some kind of “Tusk 2003,” Say You Will ably showcases Buckingham’s command of and continued devotion to his roots in country blues fingerstyle guitar, old time frailed banjo, rockabilly pluck, folk strumming, psychedelic rock wailing and Brian-Wilson-approved California pop harmonies.
Particularly striking is Buckingham’s liberal use of Travis picking and frailing styles, two techniques which served him well on classics like “Never Going Back Again” and “The Chain,” and appears here in fresh rhythmic contexts on “Red Rover” and “Smile At You.” Using everything from Dobros to Strats to his signature Rick Turner electric—with a little Roland VG-8 guitar processor for good measure—Buckingham exploits his full range of six-string skills and broad mastery of many styles, and the result is a tone textbook of roots-powered guitarophilia, from a man who, even in the context of Fleetwood Mac, is still very much determined to go his own way.
Guitar World Acoustic In an interview that you appeared in this magazine in 1997, you said that one day, while sitting in your studio, you had a turning point in which you were able to come to grips with a lot of the emotional baggage and resentment that Fleetwood Mac had built up in you. That you were able to forgive, and to accept that “everyone did the best they could.”
Lindsey Buckingham That was certainly the beginning. When I left in 1987, it was just so crazy. Trying to get Tango In The Night made was very difficult, and the road is usually even crazier than the studio. I just felt that I needed to get my bearing back, artistically and personally. A few years later, I released Out Of The Cradle and did a tour behind it. Once I did something musically for myself, and got my sensibilities more intact by getting off that big machine for a while, it was easier to look at all of what had gone on without judging anyone—and that means without judging Stevie, or myself, certainly, or anyone, particularly in terms of all those things that had made Fleetwood Mac so interesting to the public—the soap opera aspects. That made it a very fertile time for me.
Mick Fleetwood showed up around that time, and we started cutting some tracks, supposedly for my next solo album, with producer Rob Cavallo. Suddenly Mick and I had a lot to talk about, because I had been through my personal journey and he was also conducting his life very differently. That, and then doing The Dance album and that tour, really set up an atmosphere that reestablished the fact that there really was a lot of care and a lot of love that we still had for each other—somehow!—through all the turmoil we’d been through. It made this project finally seem possible.
GWA Although, I understand, a certain portion of this new album was already done by then.
Buckingham Well, the songs of mine that are on Say You Will started out as a solo album, and for all intents and purposes most of the work on those had been completed before we did The Dance tour. When I finally got around to putting it all together, there was so much turmoil at Warner Bros., with the changing of the guard, that it just didn’t seem like a good time to put out a Lindsey Buckingham solo album. And in the meantime we reconnected with Stevie and got this larger idea going. So this music has been the soundtrack of my life for the last five or six years, a time in which many other things in my personal life have changed, too. I got married, I had two kids, and I’m building a house. So it’s great to be done with this.
GWA Wasn’t your solo album, Out Of The Cradle, almost a Fleetwood Mac album, which you reeled back in?
Buckingham Sure. You could also make a case for saying that Tusk was really my first solo album within a Fleetwood Mac album. There’s a lot of gravity in Fleetwood Mac that tends to pull me back in. Part of that is that you tend to make solo albums that are for a more specific listener, or are more esoteric—whatever you want to call it—the label machinery is not really there for you in the same way, so a lot of time it’s just not as easy to get things going, unless your expectations are really scaled down.
GWA So the pieces were fitting back together again—but evidently Christine wasn’t part of the equation anymore. What happened?
Buckingham When we were touring behind The Dance album, you could see that Christine wasn’t very happy on the road. When it got to the point where we were making a decision about doing more dates—going to other places in the world and then maybe coming back and doing more stuff in the States—she really just pulled the plug. She didn’t want to do it. And I have to say, I was maybe the only person that wasn’t giving her a hard time about that, because in some ways I was ambivalent about being up there too, for different reasons. I had once again been sucked back into the black hole of Fleetwood Mac. At some point, for my own desires, I wanted to get back to the body of work that is now the new Fleetwood Mac album, but at the time appeared to be a solo album. I didn’t want to languish forever.
So I understood her [Christine’s] need to do what she wanted to do, even though she was being pressured to continue. In some ways I probably helped enable her to make that decision, which didn’t exactly make me very popular at the time. But she just had to pull out, the same way I did in ’87. There was a kinship between us in terms of having to make a decision for your own survival. With the band coming back without her, you could say, “Oh, there’s a large piece missing”—and in some ways there is. But it also opened up new possibilities for setting an overall tone for the album.
I think it allowed us to make, certainly, a much ballsier album, and allowed Stevie and myself to at least begin rediscovering our dynamic as a two-part vocal group. Now I don’t think that’s so well represented on the new album, because a lot of the stuff that’s mine was already set, and a lot of her songs were already written along certain lines as well. When we do this again—and I hope we do, in a year or so—and we write from the ground up, I hope we do them as two-part harmony songs. So, really, there’s been a whole realm that’s opened up by virtue of Christine not being here.
GWA Well, perhaps it has shifted the balance of the band toward the masculine; you, Mick and John do seem to be having an awfully good time on this record!
Buckingham [laughs] That’s true! I think Mick would say that his playing here is probably the best he’s ever done. To some degree, Stevie, left to her own devices—not necessarily on her solo albums, but in the context of Fleetwood Mac—is, if not a more masculine presence, then certainly a more aggressive presence than when she’s tempered by what Christine would bring to her songs. But I think the biggest difference has been for John, who’s really playing great stuff here. Obviously, Stevie and I pushed each other’s buttons over the years, and although we functioned in the band well enough, it wasn’t always as comfortable as it could have been. There was always this tension.
And that was also true with John and Christine. All those years go by and still there’s some residue there. So suddenly she’s not there, and it’s like half of what he probably spent his energy on at any given time in the studio, he doesn’t have to do anymore. I felt that he had a really satisfying experience doing this. Because of that, he and Mick seemed like they were able to catch up on a lot of stuff that they should have talked about years ago. There was a lot of healing going on, and that was good for John.
GWA Well, if it’s any indication, the grooves are just amazing, and they sound very live and very heavily hit.
Buckingham They do. Part of that is the way we played it—all in the same room together—and part of that is this great sense of an unleashing. It’s been 16 years since I’ve been in the band, so there was a huge sense of celebration. We were also in a house, so it was very safe. There was a quasi-garage atmosphere to it, which probably led to everyone feeling a little less inhibited than if, say, Pater Gabriel was across the hall in a studio complex. There was a real sense of us staking out our turf and getting it out there. And most importantly, it’s a three piece, man! Mick and I have always kidded about the three-piece, and how it changed what’s possible. We still have electric piano in there as an overdub, but in terms of how things were played live, everyone had a little more room to maneuver.
Look, I hope that everyone feels this way, and I guess it would depend on how the politics and the chemistry and everything else goes on the road, but I would like to think that this is just the first of at least a few more Fleetwood Mac albums. It’s kind of profound, if you think about it: A group that already has such a body of work and that’s taken quite a long time to come back, has redefined itself in a way not just by resting on it’s laurels, or by doing something predictable. Plus, we’re all in our fifties, so that’s quite possibly uncharted territory. We’re bringing in the maturity, the self-confidence and the self-esteem that maybe wasn’t there in the Seventies. You can be a famous person and still be as insecure as anyone. We have all become more whole as people.
GWA In keeping with that, your lyrics have become more philosophical, more ideas-oriented, and not just about people or relationships. For instance, “Change Your Mind” seems to ask a lot of questions about the future of the planet.
Buckingham A lot of the things I say there came from visualizing if there were, not a God, but a bunch of gods, in the Greek sense, looking down on these people really going off the track down here and saying, “What are we going to do about this? Are we going to cut them loose?” And there’s also a personal vibe. It’s sort of a memory about my childhood in the second verse, things I did with my family, and how much I valued them.
It seems to me that the functional family that turns out healthy, grounded kids has become a rarer species. It all seems to be going off the track. When I sing, in that context, “Someone’s got to change your mind,” I don’t know who that is—perhaps I’m speaking to myself or perhaps the outside world.
GWACan you point to any overarching theme to the new record?
Buckingham That’s a tough one. Even on an album as uncryptic, apparently, as Rumours, I don’t think that at the time we were very in touch with how obvious the personal side of that was to everyone else. In some ways you want an album to be a bit of a Rorschach test for whoever’s listening. I can’t honestly say exactly how Stevie’s subject matter and mine tie together, but to some degree Say You Will seems to be about healing.
As it neared its conclusion it started to get—for lack of a better phrase—kind of warm and fuzzy, and reflective of this whole journey that the band has been on, including the mistakes that we’ve made. Without getting into specific lyrical interpretations, the tone of the album seems to be about resiliency, about valuing things that at certain points in time seem like they’re easy to devalue—people, relationships. In some ways, it’s a little bit of a miracle that we did this at all—especially with the kind of resolve and regeneration and energy that there seems to be. I think that’s what people seem to be responding to when they hear it.
Lindsey’s Guitars, Techniques and Tunings
Like Queen’s Brian May, Prince and Phish’s Trey Anastasio, Lindsey Buckingham is known for his use of a one-of-a-kind electric ax: the distinctive Rick Turner custom instrument he’s been playing since the late Seventies. But while the Turner has been his beast of burden in the amplified realm, he does rely on a variety of traditonal planks—and a few ultra-modern tech tricks—to come up with his daily allowance of acoustic tones. Equally traditional has been his choice of tunings—generally open G and dropped D—and his fingerstyle technique, a hybrid of the Travis picking and frailing styles he cut his teeth on while learning old-timey guitar and banjo as a kid.
Still, when it comes to defining his technique, he’s as mystified as the rest of us. “There are the obvious things that you can go back to, like the Travis and banjo styles,” he says, “and before that I picked up on the Scotty Moore stuff which, in terms of its orchestration possibilities, is not dissimilar from a folk pick. But my hybrid style is probably a result of the fact that I started playing so young, and that I never took any lessons. All of the playing I did was based around learning songs. I wasn’t interested in learning scales; I couldn’t do a scale for you now. It was all about listening to songs, learning the chords and then coming up with interpretations out of that.”
Watching Buckingham’s unorthodox fingerstyle approach from a distance of two feet is instructive, even inspiring. “I put the heel of my hand down on the body of the guitar,” he explains, “resting my wrist just behind and above the soundhole—which I guess means I don’t have very good technique. If you were really interested in keeping a fine line of intensity, like a classical guitar player, you’d probably want to curl the fingers and keep your wrist off the guitar, but I’m not good at that. I’m actually pretty sloppy!” Buckingham says he often uses different hand positions during recording—one, for instance, designed to capture that nice lower mid-range tone that comes from picking above the soundhole close to the neck—but, he explains, “That’s partly a way of dealing with hand fatigue and other issues. I don’t think I would ever be playing like that up there onstage.”
A central “live issue” for Buckingham has been how to capture the spread-out, often multilayered acoustic tones he achieves in the studio. It can often be quite challenging. Say You Will, for instance, features a wide variety of acoustic guitars, including a carved-top Dobro, a Takamine nylon-string, a National resonator guitar, a gorgeous 1965 Martin D-18, an Alvarez dread-nought, and even a Baby Taylor. But the problem of replicating those tones live was actually solved by Buckingham’s longtime guitar maker, Rick Turner, who came up with a cool new method for creating novel sounds in the studio. Turned pulled the stock pickups out of a Gibson Chet Atkins nylon string and refitted it with his own Hexaphonic-Piezo pickups. A bit to his surprise, these worked exceptionally well at driving the Roland GR-50 guitar synth and the Roland VG-8 modeling processor, a high-tech device for recreating acoustic and electric guitar tones much prized even by acoustic purists like Joni Mitchell.
Turner also built for Buckingham three semi-hollow steel string Renaissance guitars—cedar or spruce top instruments that Turner describes as “a cross between a Tele, a Ramirez classical guitar and a 335,” – which the Renaissance’s were Roland’s own GK guitar synth pickups. Each string has, in effect, its own output, and those outputs can be individually panned in stereo, or easily summed to mono, allowing the Renaissance guitars to drive a guitar synth—where each string is “tracked” by the synth—while simultaneously sending a straight audio signal to a mixing board. The guitars also boast bandpass filters for each string, which filters out unnecessary high frequencies that can cause guitar synths to have trouble “reading” the incoming pitch information.
“We began experimenting with the modified nylon-string on the Out Of The Cradle solo tour ten years ago,” says Buckingham’s long time tech, Ray Lindsey. “We still wanted the nylon-string to be the primary sound on songs like “Never Going Back Again,” but we wanted to fill out the sound live. When we started driving the Roland GR-50 synth with the Hex pickups, we found that we could get a doubling sound, or add a steel-string patch, and then even put an effect on rearranging songs like “Big Love,” originally a band number, for solo guitar. Adding the synth patches gave more ambience and more meat to the sound, and that, combined with Lindsey’s fingerstyle approach, brought in this orchestra quality that made it possible for him to stand alone and play instruments that held up without the entire band. That basic approach is slowly getting juicier!”
Of course, not all of Buckingham’s sonic tricks require cutting-edge technology. One of his simplest tone-tweaking techniques involves varying the speed of his tape machines, which enables him to goose the high end of an acoustic track or create a very subtle Chipmunks effect, as he does on two of the remarkable instrumental intro cuts from Out Of The Cradle, and on the new album’s frenetic “Red Rover.”
“Yeah, that one’s probably sped up a little,” he says with a smile. “People either like that or they don’t. My attitude is that my miniaturizing things slightly, they become a little more perfect, more jewel-like; harmonics tighten up and sound more pure. Even if you play something just a half-step down, bringing it up to pitch is going to make it smaller, shinier. And you can do that for two reasons: to play something technically faster than you really can, or for the quality of the tones. For me, it’s usually just for the tones.”
(Thanks SO much to blackcat for transcribing this article)