Q&A with once and future Fleetwood Mac leader Lindsey Buckingham

Lindsey Buckingham.

Lindsey Buckingham, the solo artist and Fleetwood Mac frontman who headlines the Ellie Caulkins Opera House on September 24 (see this Westword profile for the particulars), isn't afraid to share. Unlike those musicians who fear that they'll smother their muse if they speak in too much detail about their creative process, he's ready, willing and able to examine his work, artistry and experiences in public. As a result, he's among the most fascinating interview subjects in rock music, as he proved while chatting for a 1993 article that appears online for the first time. And he does so again in an exceedingly insightful new interview reproduced below in its entirety.

The conversation begins with a discussion of Under the Skin, a 2006 solo album that was as intriguing as it was noncommercial. His responses move from revelations about his longtime label's disinterest in the project to his refusal to chase fame -- a philosophy he established after helping to make the 1977 Fleetwood Mac album Rumours one of the best-selling albums of all-time. From there, he talks about Gift of Screws, his latest release, which contains more accessible material than its predecessor even as it displays Buckingham's trademark idiosyncracy. He digs into a lyric in which he refers to himself as "a whore" and details the origins of the material, some of which recalls his contributions to F-Mac, with which he's reportedly recording a new album likely to be released in 2009. Finally, he breaks down a list of favorite pop singles that he cited in the aforementioned article from fifteen years ago, acknowledging that in some ways, the synthesis of Frank Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin," the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" and the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" define his personal aesthetic.

How? Read on.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Before we start talking about the new disc, I’d like to touch on the previous one, Under the Skin.

Lindsey Buckingham: Sure.

WW: You’ve described it as a “boutique kind of album,” which suggests to me that you knew from the beginning that it would only appeal to a select part of your fan base. [He laughs.] Is that fair to say?

LB: It is – and my fan base is relatively small anyway, no matter what I do. But yeah, it was that, because there was a very specific idea in mind. It didn’t represent any sort of range as far as what I do. It was about taking the energy of something like “Big Love” as it is presented onstage. “Big Love” was originally an ensemble song, but it’s done now as a single guitar piece. Take that kind of energy and maybe have one or maybe two guitars doing the work of the whole track. No bass, no drums, no lead guitar – and still have production values over it. There was a very specific idea over that.

I think I probably also described it as a boutique album because when I gave it to Warner Bros., [chairman and CEO] Tom Whalley said, “We’ll put it out, but don’t expect us to do very much.” And they didn’t. So, you know, it could potentially have reached more of a base, but I don’t know how available it was in a lot of places. I don’t think they did a huge distribution number on it. But you’re right. It’s not everything I do by a long shot. It was just a specific idea.

WW: For you, is presenting yourself with that kind of challenge important when it comes to keeping things fresh, and keeping you artistically engaged?

LB: Well, I think it’s much as was the case a long time ago with something like Tusk. You come off the kind of commercial success that Rumours had, and you see that there are limitations to that as well as freedoms. You may get the freedom of having credibility and having a certain freedom to make choices you want to make. But what are those choices? Are you going to make Rumours II? Are you going to follow through with the formula that was successful before? And if you do that, is that the wrong reason to do something if you find something else more interesting? A long time ago, I drew that line in the sand for myself and I still think that way.

So yes, three years ago, I said to the band, “I want to make two albums. I want to tour behind both of them. I don’t want anyone to come knocking on the door.” And at that time, I really just wanted to approach something that had apparently become very effective onstage, which was a finger style that was very close to the root of what I’ve always done. I did that before I played lead. And just explore it in more depth. I guess the downside would have been if I hadn’t been able to get it put out, because Warner Bros. could just as easily have said, “No, we don’t want this record.” But if you don’t do that, if you just keep pounding the same set of formulas, I think you’re going to eventually paint yourself into a corner.

WW: Your comments about Rumours II tie into some lines from your new song “Bel Air Rain,” and I hope I transcribed them correctly. As I heard them, they went, “In my younger days, I was mistaken for a whore/I guess you could say I lived in chains/But everyone’s peace lives side by side with their war.” It would be easy to interpret that as you suggesting that the popularity of Rumours caused some people to cast you in the guise of a human jukebox, nothing more than a superficial pop guy, but you were much more than that, and you didn’t want to be limited to playing that sort of part. Am I on the right track at all?

LB: Yeah, I think there was a point in time that’s sort of hard to put into context now. But probably before Stevie [Nicks] and I joined Fleetwood Mac, there were many things I was doing as applications musically that got pared way down. You join a band, and you do what you do to fit into that. And Fleetwood Mac was an existing band with a bass player [John McVie] who had a distinctive style and a keyboard player [Christine McVie] who had a distinctive style. And I had to do what I could to fill the holes. By doing that, I was paring back on what I naturally would do by a great deal most of the time.

And so maybe to some degree I was feeling like a whore myself. That’s overstating it, because Fleetwood Mac was a great chemistry of people, and the synergy made it something that was larger than any one person. But then you put yourself a few years later into this really mega-experience that was Rumours, and in my perception, there was a point where the success of that album became not so much about the music but about the success. Or about the musical soap opera that was the subtext. The tabloidism. I’m just glad we weren’t doing that now, at a point where that tabloid machinery would have exploited us to death.

I had some reservations about that kind of success and what it really meant. And then you throw into that the convolution of politics that existed in Fleetwood Mac. There’s a whole range of sensibilities. On some level, we probably didn’t have any business being in a band together, we were so different. But as I said, there was that synergy that made it greater than the sum of its parts.

By the way, the line isn’t “in chains.” It’s “in shame.”

WW: “In shame”? Oh… As you can imagine, when I thought the word was “chains,” I was really thinking about Rumours. [One of the album’s best songs is entitled “The Chain.”]

LB: Yes, I see that. But the allusion is not that different, and what you’re arriving at isn’t different for me by changing that word. It generalizes it out more. But it’s true. And in those days especially, we all had moments of peace, but mostly we had moments of war – and war side by side with peace creates ambiguity. And there was really a great deal of ambiguity in my world during those days.

WW: I’m sure there’s going to be a temptation for people to see Gift of Screws as the yang to the yin of Under the Skin. And yet, to me, like all of your solo work, songs with great, accessible melodies also provide multiple levels that may not kick in until the second listen, or the third, or the fourth. Is that important to you even when you’re writing in a more commercial mode? That you include things that make the song deeper from a sonic perspective than the average pop song?

LB: You know, you just try and make it interesting for yourself. It’s hard for me to analyze what that ultimately does in terms of an effect. To address the first part of what you said, there was no intention to make sort of an opening act for a more commercial or more accessible album this time. I did what I did for the reasons I already stated. I had an interest in that particular thing. And when I started on this album, I actually wasn’t planning on it being quite so rock and roll. But I got together with some of my road band, and we started cutting some tracks – and it just wanted to go to this more rock-and-roll place, and it wanted to have lead guitar, and it wanted to have all these things. And then these couple, three songs that had been stragglers from a body of tunes that had been part of a solo album but then had been folded over into the Fleetwood Mac album in 2003 [Say You Will] – they suddenly wanted to be a part of this grouping of songs. It just became this other thing without me having any control over it. You just want to be receptive to the life they take on.

As far as a production approach and how you get to certain levels, it’s probably almost an insecurity – a sense of wanting to feel that something is complete. That you’ve dotted your i’s, sometimes almost to a fault. I think you can find that in any number of people who have produced rock and roll. Probably Phil Spector’s a great example. I think he came to that sort of Wagneresque approach to production mainly because he wanted to be heard, and he had the idea that, well, “If you didn’t hear it the first time, I’m going to give you two drummers.” It evolved into this thing where he probably didn’t know what he was going for originally either, and it became about the depth, and almost about the lack of clarity.

For me, it’s not that. I just want to make sure that everything feels complete. And sometimes you can go to far doing that. You can make mistakes and do things you don’t need to do. But I think that’s a kind of pattern I’ve fallen into.

WW: At the same time, I’ll bet there have been instances where going too far was going just far enough. Did you think somewhere in the process that you’d gone too far, but in looking back, you realize that you’d gotten to a more interesting place because you kept going?

LB: Yeah. For sure. And if I have a choice, I would rather push the envelope and go too far and either make the mistake of doing that, or at least know that I’ve gone there, and then pull back a little bit than not go far enough. Because I think there’s a tendency in the whole recording process that may be economically based, especially with newer artists, where you want to go in and get it down, and you don’t want to explore too much. You just want to get what you need to get to support the song, period.

WW: I understand that the songs on the album come from a variety of time periods. What’s the oldest composition on the album?

LB: The two that I would put in the same time frame are “Gift of Screws,” the title track, and “Wait For You.” Both of them go back to a time – right about the time that Fleetwood Mac put out The Dance, which was a live CD. [It was released in 1997.] I was in the studio with [producer] Rob Cavallo and with Mick [Fleetwood], and we were cutting those tracks – and that was a point in time when my intention to do a solo album became something else. Once I was in the studio with Mick, somebody got the bright idea – probably Mick – that, hey, there’s something going on here. And something like an intervention happened, and I was asked to put the material on the shelf and do some dates and record a CD. So we did that. And I considered myself to be in the band, and if you’re in a band, a lot of time it’s important to think about the good of the whole.

So those two songs are, like, ten years old, or more. And then there’s one other one called “Right Place to Fade,” which is more from 2002, maybe, or 2000. And those three songs were in a grouping of songs that was going to be a solo album. It was going to be called Gift of Screws, actually. And then again, the band had a sort of intervention and wanted to make a studio album, and the greater part of that body of work got folded over into the album Say You Will. And these were sort of the stragglers waiting to find a home.

WW: They don’t sound like stragglers. They sound like they should have been first in line…

LB: Well, it’s funny, isn’t it? Something like “Gift of Screws” probably scared Stevie a little bit, and probably didn’t fit into the overall fabric of what that album was. I don’t know what happens, but that’s just the way it works sometimes.

WW: In contrast, what are the most recent compositions on the album?

LB: Most of the other stuff – “Great Day,” “Time Precious Time,” which is probably even more recent than “Great Day,” “Did You Miss Me,” which is very recent, “Bel Air Rain,” “Treason,” “Underground” – all of those have been written in the last year and a half, I would say.

WW: You mentioned “Right Place to Fade.” When the song opened up, I thought of “Second Hand News” [from Rumours]…

LB: Yes, yes. Absolutely.

WW: Was that an allusion to your past work? Since so many other folks allude to it all the time, did you feel it was okay to do that as well?

LB: It wasn’t a conscious thing. It’s just the way that song evolved. There are a few songs like that. Not as literally so, but you could probably make some references back to “Go Your Own Way” [also from Rumours] in the song “Love Runs Deeper.” So yeah, there are a few songs that have reference points back to Fleetwood Mac. But it wasn’t intended to be some kind of a riff on the other song. There’s only a certain number of things we do, and that was a song that had Mick playing on it, and subject-matter-wise, it involved the idea of letting down barriers, whether they were barriers toward Fleetwood Mac or they were just personal barriers. The limitations you put on yourself in terms of the way you’ve lived your life. So there may have been some kind of subconscious reason to fall back on that. I’m not really sure.

WW: Speaking of falling back, I wanted to ask you something about an interview I was fortunate enough to do with you fifteen years ago, back in 1993. At the time, I asked you to name the most perfect pop single you’d ever heard, and you named three of them. The first one was “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” by Frank Sinatra – and I must say, I was reminded of that when Under the Skin came out. Then you named “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys and “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen. [He laughs.] And afterward, I thought that your choice of those particular songs said a huge amount about what kind of an artist you are. You could even be considered the link between those three, disparate styles. Am I going off the deep end here? Or can you see a connection, too?

LB: Well, if you go back to “Louie Louie,” there’s the whole element there, where you need to be able to appreciate what “dumb” is in its profoundness. That’s one of the classic songs that was probably cut in a garage, or wherever it was cut, by people who didn’t necessarily know how to record, and it was played by people who maybe didn’t really know how to play – but it didn’t matter. That was one of the attractions of rock and roll – that you didn’t have to be technically proficient as long as you had something to say on an emotional level. That song speaks so much to that idea, and it’s the embodiment of that idea in the same way punk was. In my mind, it’s one of the great rock drum tracks of all time. The fact that you can’t understand more than two or three words speaks to the idea that lyrics are not viscerally important in the rock and roll world.

And then you cut to something like the title track of this album, “Gift of Screws,” where Mick and I got in the studio, and we both share that appreciation for everything I just said. And he took the potential of that track. I think it’s one of Mick’s great drum performances on that song. So that element is very present and is still alive in my world.

Obviously, “God Only Knows” speaks to something completely opposite of that, which is an extremely high level of skill as a composer – something that I will never be, nor do I aspire to be. You have to go with your strengths. I’m more of a stylist, and Brian is maybe the highest level of melodicist that I can think of in all of rock and roll – or with one or two other people, maybe. And that song, to me, is the hallmark of all the songs on Pet Sounds [the landmark Beach Boys album released in 1966]. And certainly, his work informs my sensibilities in terms of not only wanting to approach things with a level of detail and a level of invention on the production level, but also for pushing the envelope.

Brian was someone who was a hero of mine not only for the reasons I already stated, but because he tried to break away from the machinery much as I did in the sense that we had Rumours and then there was Tusk, which was a subversion of that. And he had a very difficult time breaking away from his family in order to try to grow. When he started coming up with Smile [a project begun in the ´60s that was finally completed in 2004] and Pet Sounds and all these things, he had to be out there on a limb, on his own, in order to do that – which probably had something to do with a lot of the psychological problems he’s had. So certainly that will always be present in my lexicon.

And then if you get to “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” the studio version of that is great, and there are a few live versions that are even better. But it’s one of the great arrangements. I believe that’s a Nelson Riddle arrangement; I could be wrong. [He’s right. Riddle did the arrangement on the 1956 album Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, which features what’s considered to be the definitive studio version of the Cole Porter tune.] It’s just an unbelievable explosion of energy that transcends all forms. And of course, you’re talking about Frank Sinatra, who as a singer, to some degree, transcends all of that as well.

I suppose the way that connects with me, or potentially could… Probably, you could look more at Under the Skin as an album and say, “This is someone who’s trying to find a maturity niche. He’s not trying to be something he’s not.” It’s an interesting thing. You get to be a certain age – I am 58 – and it becomes tricky not to become a caricature of yourself. And as much as I love the Rolling Stones or whoever, what they do onstage doesn’t necessarily wear well with their ages and the way they present themselves. Now, Frank Sinatra was a person who was able to get onstage into his eighties and be completely in the context of what he was, and remain so. And after his initial bobby-soxer period, when he came back in the mid-‘50s, he came back as an adult. His model was not for kids; it was for adults. And unless you go to the Neil Diamonds or people who have bodies of work that move in on that, or the Burt Bacharachs, who are brilliant, brilliant writers but aren’t necessarily performers or singers – well, I don’t know where you find that link between rock and roll and Frank Sinatra. But it’s an interesting thing to pose, and it’s possibly an interesting thing to even pursue.

I have thought about Frank Sinatra, in terms of what that means – and is there a way to think in terms of presenting things strictly on a mature level, per say, and to hold that line. It’s kind of a mystery. But I think you may be onto something to make the connection. They are certainly things that all mean a great deal to me.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts