A Conversation With Lindsey Buckingham

There’s Lindsey Buckingham, contributor of meticulous production, searing guitar and one of the all-time great musical kiss-offs (“Go Your Own Way”) to the soon-to-be-on-again Fleetwood Mac. Then there’s Lindsey Buckingham, the enigmatic eccentric behind celebrated solo efforts such as 2006’s acoustic-based Under The Skin and 1983’s bouncy “Holiday Road” (of National Lampoon’s Vacation fame), not to mention one of the most influential commercial flops in rock history, Fleetwood Mac’s 1979 double album Tusk, which has been covered in its entirety by Camper Van Beethoven and cited by Stephin Merritt and Matthew Sweet as a misjudged masterpiece. Buckingham’s latest solo album, Gift Of Screws (Reprise), is made palatable to the Mac-loving masses by buoyant pop songs such as “The Right Place To Fade” (a dead ringer for Rumours opener “Second Hand News”) and the breezy “Did You Miss Me.” They provide a radio-friendly counterpoint to the batshit-crazy yelps and drummer Mick Fleetwood’s caveman stomp on the title track and the cut-and-paste electro clatter pulsing through opener “Great Day.” While his classic-rock peers have opted for the safety of summer shed tours and Wal-Mart partnerships, the 59-year-old Buckingham has spent the last several years crafting self-described “boutique” albums, mostly by his lonesome, then taking them on the road to entertain a devoted cult following.

Your musical approach seems at odds with the fact that you came of age in the suburbs of San Francisco during the ’60s. Your style encompasses varied bits of what came before and after the Summer of Love, the psychedelic explosion and all that.
I took all of that in. But I had been playing guitar since I was about seven, and many of my sensibilities were intact already. Most of the people I knew were picking up a guitar for the first time because of the 1967 scene, so there was a difference between how I was looking at the stuff and what I was pulling from it. The other thing is that by the time I got into a band—and because my sensibilities were somewhere between folk and (Elvis Presley guitarist) Scotty Moore and whatever else—I couldn’t play lead. I didn’t have the gear to play lead. [Laughs] I played bass in my first band.

So you were more of an observer than a gleaner of what was going on around you musically?
Yeah. I saw a lot of people—Zeppelin, the Who, Janis Joplin—at the Fillmore. And what was so great was the intimacy in which you got to see these people. The scene was so ripe at that time. It hadn’t quite gotten to the level of exploitation that it soon got to. There was innocence about all of that. The idealism was so intact.

What attracted you to folk music as a kid?
In the early ’60s, when that first wave of rock ’n’ roll started to become less interesting, I looked to folk. The Kingston Trio were a group I liked because they were taking folk to a commercial, dare I say produced, level. There was something interesting about that to me. They were not Pete Seeger doing some extension of Woody Guthrie; they were interested in making records.

Prior to joining Fleetwood Mac, you got to work with Don Everly.
Economics entered into the situation, and Stevie (Nicks) and I were trying to do whatever we could to pay our rent. We had not made any substantial money from [1973’s] Buckingham Nicks album. Our management company had the Carpenters and Jim Croce; they had some pretty big acts and weren’t too interested in us. [Laughs] I knew Warren Zevon, who had been playing with Don. There was an opening for a guitar player, and I got the gig. But the problem with that situation was that Don was wrestling with this idea of wanting to be Don Everly on his own, which is understandable. We were playing clubs, and everywhere we would go it was heartbreaking. All we would get was people yelling, “Play ‘Bye Bye Love,’ ‘Wake Up Little Susie.’” He was coming right out of being [in the Everly Brothers] and couldn’t take it. After about three cities, he pulled the plug on the tour. He said, “I can’t do this.”

Did those kind of music-biz setbacks have an impact on the decision for you and Stevie to join Fleetwood Mac
Around the time we were asked to join Fleetwood Mac, we had started to do some shows based on the regional popularity of the Buckingham Nicks album. And it blew our minds, because we would go to fairly obscure places like Tuscaloosa, Ala., and would be able to headline for 3,000 or 4,000 people. Yet we couldn’t fill a club in L.A. It sort of gave us a little pause as to whether we were doing the right thing (by joining Fleetwood Mac), because there was this inkling that maybe something might’ve taken hold if we had seen it through.

Your recent solo records have a hushed feel that’s not dissimilar to younger artists like M. Ward and Iron And Wine. Are you familiar with them?
I’m not familiar with anything that new, really. You get to a certain point with your method and in your personal life—when you’re a father—where your context of things moves a little more to the right, shall we say. In my younger days, there was a communication of what to listen to based on what a group of people had. A lot of that’s gone away. I think the need to seek things out becomes a little less important when you’ve defined a way of working, something that’s more internally based. I try to listen to things that are fresh. Radiohead and Thom Yorke’s solo album I really love. Death Cab For Cutie, too; I love how they use 6ths and 9ths a lot in their melody lines.

Legend has it that in your thirst to check out the punk scene in the late ’70s while Fleetwood Mac was on tour in the U.K., you would venture out to clubs on your own to see gigs.
Yeah, but probably not as much as it’s been portrayed.

Do you recall seeing anyone specifically?
I can’t say I do, but man, I sure wish I’d seen the Clash back then. Maybe the Pretenders? I really can’t recall. Bands like that played a role in the motivation behind Tusk. There was the reaction to avoid making Rumours II. But there was the fact that there was a ton of new stuff coming out that felt closer to my heart. It was ballsier, it was chancier. It felt more in the spirit of what rock ’n’ roll began as. That helped to inspire the confidence to do Tusk.

Tusk has taken on a life of its own among a younger generation of artists who identify with its avant-garde slant and the integrity in not making a safe follow-up to Rumours. What does the album represent to you 30 years on?
It was the beginning of everything for me. You could look at that almost as a first solo album. Certainly it was the setting of a tone to which I still try to adhere. A point of departure in terms of what I think is important. I don’t think I would’ve gotten to that point had we not had this hugely successful album preceding Tusk. I gained perspective on the lack of freedom that success can give you.

I’m of a mind that it’s not as “weird” a record as it’s usually portrayed once you get past the sonic presentation. You went from these pristine sounds on Rumours to some fairly crude production techniques and loosely played parts with Tusk, especially the drums.
Yeah, real loose. [Laughs] Much of that was a byproduct of the band allowing me to work on my own and bring in these finished tracks. On “Save Me A Place,” the rhythm track is a box of two-inch tape hit with a hand. I had a lot of fun, at some degree to Mick’s discomfort, because I was really into making sloppy drum statements. Obviously, that was his area.

How do Fleetwood Mac records like (1982’s) Mirage and (1987’s) Tango In The Night sit with you? They both definitely have their moments.
Mirage kind of represents a treading-water period for me. What happened in the wake of Tusk not selling 16 million albums or whatever, this dictum came down from the whole band that we weren’t going to engage in that kind of experimentalism anymore. And the time right after Mirage and through Tango In The Night was just the craziest time as far as the band goes. The lack of discipline, the personal habits, the alienation, everything. Making Tango, which was largely done in my garage, was almost impossible. Out of a year of working, we probably saw Stevie for maybe three weeks. It was smoke and mirrors. At the end of that album, I just couldn’t contemplate going out on the road with that. That was the beginning of me trying to pull back and regain some of my sense of self and sanity, which was not really too present within the microcosm I was living. [Laughs] But that’s showbiz.

—Patrick Berkery