Interview: Lindsey Buckingham
This coming Sunday at the Nokia Theater, guitarist Lindsey Buckingham will bring to a close not only a six-week solo tour, but a requested three-year respite from the machine that is Fleetwood Mac.
Midway through that tour, at the beginning of his last day on earth as a 58-year-old, we talked with Buckingham about the almost decade long history of his latest album Gift of Screws, his relatively late start to life as a husband and father, and whether or not "control freak" is an acceptable term for a man with such a musically determined drive. — Rob Trucks
You’ve held onto the Gift of Screws title for eight years, but your life has changed quite a bit over that time.
Yes it has.
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So what does Gift of Screws mean to you that allows it to remain relevant eight years after you originally started?
Well, if you look at where the title comes from, which is from an Emily Dickinson poem, you know, she’s basically talking about turning the screws of a press in order to get the oil that gives you the fragrance out of the flower petal. And I guess, you know, she’s trying to say that you can’t just sit there and watch the flower grow. You’ve got to apply your own love and effort and vision to something. And obviously that is something that I’ve always tried to buy into, you know, even sometimes at the expense of the commercial machinery. Do I think that there is a kind of a theme that runs through all of that in terms of someone who even had to kind of submerge emotionally, and maybe even, you know, socially for a period of time in order to get to a point where he was ready to make a turn and to make some profound changes.
But, you know, having said all of that, I think there’s also an element where when a process begins you just have to let go of it and let it go where it wants to go. So when I first began work on this album, I was not intending it to be necessarily as rock and roll as it ended up being. I had been quite happy with the result, the artistic result of Under the Skin, and I was sort of intending to take the next album up a couple of steps, but not necessarily go up to the full bore, you know. And it’s just that the songs and the interpretation that were given to them by my bandmates, it all seemed to want to go there. So, you know, you have to think of the song “Gift of Screws” and the other couple of songs that were older as being songs that were stragglers waiting to find a home. They wouldn’t have found a home had this album been a little mellower, because they wouldn’t have fit. But once the other material led me to a certain conclusion that I didn’t have much control over what it wanted to be, then those songs seem to have suddenly found a home because they did fit with what the newer stuff wanted to be. And so, you know, there’s an element of just being passive and allowing something to sort of fall together on its own terms that has to do with the relevance and presence of those songs today, I think. If that makes sense.
Sure it does. But things have changed. Family has a greater importance in your life now than it did 20, 30 years ago. You’ve got three kids now. Your son and your wife have co-write credits on the new album, you can’t watch a Lindsey Buckingham video on You Tube without seeing some kind of familial reference, and a couple of family members even got up onstage with you California. And that all makes sense with Under the Skin and its subject matter, but as you mentioned this album is more rock-oriented. Are family and rock and roll not as oppositional as we might have once believed?
Well, I think that’s become sort of a cliché, you know, the whole idea that, you know, sex, drugs and rock and roll, or children, are death to the artist. Or any number of sort of call phrases that you could use. Or even the fact that, you know, to some degree, rock and roll as it was originally kind of pitted against the establishment had an element of . . . I mean, there was this whole underpinning of a kind of a Kerouac sensibility that was rejecting, you know, traditional family values. Well, all of that had a validity in terms of questioning what was important then, but it doesn’t in any absolute sense seem to be opposed diametrically to the sensibility of going out and expressing yourself through a rock and roll medium. In fact, for me it was the thing that got me re-energized and kind of have a new sense of resolve to be optimistic and positive about continuing to look into new things as an artist. And, you know, so far anyway, there has been no conflict at all. It’s all been kind of harmonious, and part of that is reflected in the fact that I’ve got my son writing a chorus to one song and my wife writing some lyrics and, you know, it’s just been a gift really.
Well, not that it has to be either/or, but we’ve talked previously about how maybe Mick [Fleetwood] and John [McVie] might be ready to start rehearsals the day that your tour is over, but that’s time you want to spend with your family since you’ve been out on the road for six weeks. So there is a balance that has to be worked toward, isn’t there?
Yes there is. On a logistic level, sure. In terms of time management, absolutely there is. And it doesn’t really come into play so much with solo work because, you know, that whole machinery tends to be scaled down and therefore the time frames tend to be more scaled down. But, you know, Fleetwood Mac, in January, is going to start rehearsing, and one of the things my wife and I had to do right away was to establish certain boundaries around obvious periods of time that I didn’t want to be working. One of those was spring break, you know, for the kids. The other was a period of time, a month period of time during the summer when we traditionally will take a vacation together. So we’ve started with that, and that’s been met with, you know, understanding and respect so that’s going to happen. And then the smaller points, and probably the more difficult ones are how you manage not to be away for too long at any one stretch in between. It’s going to be challenging for Kristen and me because Stevie obviously doesn’t have children and I think to some degree Mick’s outlook on the sanctity of family life, and maybe because his twin girls are only 6, but partly also because I think he would probably be willing to yank them out of school and give them a tutor on the road, things I would not be willing to do, to get them with them. It does become a challenge, and we’re just going to have to see how that works as it goes along.
Whether rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, your public persona is something close to the term “control freak.” Tusk, obviously, has a lot to do with that since you’re seen as the driving force. You wrote ten of the 20 songs on that album. You produced it in a certain way. And your solo work is certainly more avant-garde than the more mainstream Fleetwood Mac. Do you have to give up a certain amount of control to be a part of the machine that is Fleetwood Mac?
Well, I mean, if there’s a perception . . . What was the term you used? A what control freak?
No, just control freak. I thought that was plenty strong enough without adding an adjective.
[laughs] You know, in terms of being someone who has tried to inject a sense of possibility into the band, there needs to be a certain aggressiveness in order to do that because I think there tends to be a kind of complacency to sort of remain with the status quo, you know. And so there has always been that. So that’s one thing.
Certainly on the Tusk album that was an effort to try to, you know, broaden out the palette and it was, in retrospect, as you know, that process became something which was disallowed by the band on future albums, not because there was any lack of artistic success but because there was a certain lack of commercial success. And so, you know, that’s always been something that I’ve had to pit myself against, like it or not. Even making solo albums probably is an outgrowth of not being able to do a slightly more esoteric thing within the band because of that. And so, you know, having the taste that I have and having the impulses I have, that’s just been the situation I’ve found myself in. So that’s one thing that takes a certain amount of aggressiveness, or if you want to call it control.
But the other thing you have to remember about all of that is that when I became a member of Fleetwood Mac I did exactly what you said. I gave up a lot of what I was about in order to look for what I was good at contributing in the context of the band, which was like producing, you know, helping with song structure for the other members. And I really had to pare back on my style as a player because there was a pre-existing style in terms of the amount of space that was left for me to play in, because John was a very melodic bass player, Christine was taking up a lot of space on the keyboard, and so I had to completely retool my style in order to fit in with that. So there were adaptations and things that were immediately compromises for me on the other side of the coin. So you have to look at it in a broader context.
Should I have suggested a term other than control freak?
No, I don’t mind control freak, if that’s something that you think is accurate in terms of a perception out there. You know, people write all sorts of things about you.
But you understand where I’m coming from. I mean, even if you’re not behind the wheel driving Fleetwood Mac, at the very least you’re in the front seat with the map.
Coming out of this three-year period, is there any nervousness? Is there any trepidation that now you have to play well with others rather than getting to do whatever you want to do musically however you want to do it for this three years gone by?
No, I don’t think so. I mean, you have to remember that over the years there have been many points in time where it was a frustration, to be where I was, actually poised to put out solo work, and then the band came in and said, ‘Hey, you know, we want to . . .’ I mean, in retrospect it was almost orchestrated. It was very ironic, you know, that there would be points in time where the band would come in right when I was ready to do something and say, ‘Let’s do this instead.’ And because I thought of myself as a band member, I would either shelve a project I was working on or, in the case of Say You Will, fold that material into a Fleetwood Mac album. So, you know, that has been sort of a running gag almost, a theme that has been frustrating for me. So one of the things that was significant about the last three years was the fact that I did put this boundary around it and did ask that the band not come knocking and I had a clear goal in mind which I was able to achieve, and so, you know, on some level it’s kind of put right something which I’d been waiting to do for quite a while. And it does put you in the frame of mind of wanting to, you know, enjoy yourself in the band a little more. Because, you know, I mean, you can talk about control freaks. I suppose you could say Mick is a control freak, too, you know.
In another sense, but absolutely.
Yeah, I mean, all of those orchestrations were his, you know, so I think the important thing now, because we are different people than we were even four years ago, I think we all are looking at this next phase of Fleetwood Mac as something which needs to be dealt with from a more personal standpoint, where anything musical takes a backseat to, you know, the fact that we need to enjoy each other and enjoy the situation, acknowledge that we have care for each other and that we have been down a road, that we are, in a sense, family who have been through things that no one else has been through, and have everything else follow that sensibility, you know. And yes, there will be disagreements, but let’s work them out in an adult fashion [laughs] and move on. So that becomes something not to be fearful of in my mind, but actually look forward to.
You asked for three years to do your own solo work. Has the band been respectful of that time? And in those three years have you accomplished everything that you wanted to?
Well, sure. I mean, I think the band has been respectful of it because they haven’t, you know, they did not force the issue on anything. Have I accomplished everything? Sure. I mean, again, because I have the luxury of being in a group which is a larger machine and what I do is going to inherently appeal to a fewer number of ears, I think, I don’t ever have an expectation of making an album that it’s going to be a big seller, you know. It’s just not part of the equation for me. And it’s not the validity of what I’m doing. The people who want to hear it and who are interested in it will hear it. And I think there’s kind of a trickle down from there which probably isn’t necessarily reflective in anything like charts or, you know, absolute sales figures. And so on that level I think I have accomplished everything that I wanted to. The only thing I can say maybe is I would hope that . . . there were quite a few primary markets that we were not able to route in this particular tour. If there were a way to go out and sort of be a little more thorough about that—that would be the only thing I would think of doing behind this tour. But in a larger sense, absolutely. I mean, I did it. I got it done in the requisite amount of time and I’m quite happy with just basically everything that’s happened.
You used the word “esoteric” earlier when we were discussing how your musical taste is likely a little different than the band as a whole. But on Gift of Screws Mick plays on three songs. John plays on two songs. And that’s after a lot of the original Gift of Screws material was sucked into Say You Will. If Stevie had been present for “Wait for You” and “Gift of Screws” and if John and Stevie had been present for “Right Place to Fade,” could these have been Fleetwood Mac songs or would the arrangement and production have to change?
Oh, I think they could easily have been. There’s never been any one thing that defines something as a Fleetwood Mac song or a solo song other than . . . well, I mean, maybe occasionally, you know, the politics will dictate the taste but mostly it’s just about what project you’re doing. And certainly maybe some of the finer points of production might’ve changed a little bit, but I don’t think too much. I mean, I hear a lot about this particular album, that it does seem to refer back to Fleetwood Mac. I think that’s one of the things that Warner Brothers likes about it is that they can see it as something which people are going to see as familiar. And I don’t have a problem with that. And I think that probably because of that there would’ve been no problem, you know, having this be some part of a Fleetwood Mac album. I know for sure Mick would’ve loved to have the song “Gift of Screws” on a Fleetwood Mac album so could’ve played it on stage [laughs].
But if these songs could’ve been Fleetwood Mac songs, and given the vast disparity between solo sales figures and band sales figures, that seems to make it almost nothing more than packaging. That if we call it Fleetwood Mac it sells and if we call it Lindsey Buckingham then it’s ‘Oh, this is Lindsey’s solo thing. That’s a little more weird than what I’m used to hearing on the radio.’ But it’s not. It sounds like it’s just a matter of what wrapper you put on it.
Well, that’s a comment, isn’t it? You know, brand names sell. Brand names . . . they not only tend to induce the buyer to come to the table because it’s a brand name but they induce the company that’s marketing it to come to the table with marketing dollars. And, you know, there is a kind of an irony in all of that and I think . . . I mean, I learned that years ago. Often it’s not about the music, you know. But there again you can’t worry about that. I’ve gotten so far past worrying about that, or the fact that, you know, in this case it’s even more ironic than usual. I mean, you know, it just is what it is. People are not going to . . . It’s not going to change, especially in this environment, I don’t think. I mean, if this album were to somehow catch and, you know, get some momentum, I would be pleasantly surprised. I’m not discounting it by any means. It could easily happen, but I don’t go in with that expectation.
I’m cynical enough as well to believe that it’s not going to change. But it seems like it might be kind of tempting to hold solo material, wait two years, call it Fleetwood Mac and cash a publishing check for four times as much money.
[laughs] Yeah. It would, maybe on some level, but you also have a creative life that has its own rhythm, too. You know, it’s only a monetary benefit you’re talking about. And possibly the knowledge that quite a few more people are going to enjoy it. But, you know, the process of doing it and going out on the road and being able to express in its pure form, those have benefits of their own that, you know, offset any of the downside.
I understand, but we just talked about similar production values, and so basically we’re just going to throw on a Stevie backing vocal.
I’m not suggesting here. I’m just positing.
Well, I mean, that’s exactly what happened in 2003. You know, those songs were done. They were produced. Oddly enough, you know, most of those had Mick playing on them already. On some of those we had to get John playing bass and we had to get Stevie singing on them. It was exactly the scenario you’re talking about. And those became, you know, part of Say You Will, so it’s certainly something I have done before.
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