Snugly situated in the canon of '70s pop music, Fleetwood Mac are a band gifted with longevity but plagued with very public interpersonal entanglements that at times eclipsed the sheer musicality of their famous lo-fi folk rock.
At the forefront of their creative direction throughout much of their critically acclaimed and debated Tusk album, guitarist/singer Lindsey Buckingham brought much vitality to the group alongside former romantic partner and vocalist Stevie Nicks -- a storied pairing that at points both invigorated and strained the band throughout the years.
Now equipped with perspective only time can bestow, Buckingham reflects with Gimme Noise on some of the choices he's made in life throughout his career with Fleetwood Mac and also as a solo artist, having just released his latest, Seeds We Sow, featuring his brilliant quick-sticks style of guitar playing. He talked to us about the duality he feels as a major player in both his large and smaller projects, his relationship with Stevie now, and whether a Mac reunion is planned for the near future.
You've said you feel like you've lived a double creative life. Can you expound on that feeling?
Stevie and I found ourselves in this band Fleetwood Mac in '75, and we had been down a slightly different road, and of course there were immediately things to adapt to and things to discard that were important to me as a player in order to be part of a band. We had to concentrate on things that were useful to the larger picture. And we immediately had success. I guess the double life is really about when you have a large-scale success and also the elements that tend to step up to the plate when commerce is robust, shall we say, you find this big machine you're in works under a set of conditions and limitations. You try to work against the brand -- I did try to to that on the Tusk album, but politics dictated that we weren't going to continue that far to the left. On the one hand I've had this big machine called Fleetwood Mac that feeds the politics and finances of things, but I have this small machine on the other hand. That's the double life.
Because the large-scale projects tend to get branded and there's a pressure to repeat a formula, you find it's the small-scale projects that allow you to keep growing as an artist and allow you to aspire to keep thinking of yourself as an artist in the long room. It allows you to keep taking risks and get in touch with your heart. One of the things I would say about this new album is that it seems to represent what I've learned on solo projects and with Fleetwood Mac in the last seven years, it seems to represent the culmination of choices I"ve made, some of which were not popular back in the day. It goes back 20 years, and sometimes you don't know if the choices you've made are good ones until you get the perspective of time.
Would you say the solo projects are more satisfying?
It's two different things. I wouldn't have one without the other. I do see a lot of people who have been doing this as long as me but haven't held on to their ideals as much as I have. They don't remember who they are or why they got into this business. I can bring a lot of that back to Fleetwood Mac, whose story is strangely still unfinished. There are a couple of chapters left for Stevie and me to live out. I think the band is still in a place after all this time where there are lessons to be learned and things to be shared, cycles need to be completed. It's all very sweet for a group that's been doing this for so long.
Some of the band's early struggles were very publicized -- and even still are today. Do you have any certain timeframe or memories that make you happy when you think of the band?
What I feel good about is not just some sort of inside-joke memory I have, though there are a lot of those. When I think about the time when Stevie and I had recently broken up -- and you have to remember Stevie and I were a couple and John and Christine McVie were married when we joined the band. There's nothing like success to bust things up. So you cut to maybe two years later and we're up in Sausalito beginning to make Rumours. Stevie and I are not together anymore and I"m basically trying to produce. It was really, really difficult to make the right choices and to do the right thing for her in particular as a producer, musician and band mate. We all had to live lives of denial because we had this calling. We knew we had to fulfill that. I can look back and smile on the fact that despite the fact that it wasn't particularly healthy on an emotional level, I can categorically say as the cliche goes, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. In a convoluted way, it helped make me the person I am today. I feel happy that I did the right thing in a difficult situation.
Most people know of your past relationship with Stevie Nicks, but what's your current one like? Would you call yourselves friends?
Oh sure, it's sort of elastic. We have times when we don't speak or see each other much. A little goes a long way. I've known Stevie since high school and you know ... [laughs]... we have a lot of reference points we remember -- and some we've forgotten too! I spent some time with her when she was completing her solo album and we had the best time together. That's one reason I say there's still a few chapters left there. I think it's reassuring to know that we both still care about each other.
I'd like to talk about Tusk vs. Rumors -- there seems to be this very widespread, very odd debate even today about which is better.
Oh, you can't even say! But I do think it's nice that people even bother to talk about it. It's nice to know we've worked our way into the fabric of the culture, but it's a fruitless argument. There are reasons why the Tusk album got made -- again you go back to this post-Rumors environment where the success at some point had detached from the music and had become about just the success and about the subtext of our personal lives. Of course we were poised to make Rumors II, and of course the record company wanted us to do just that. There's that axiom that's there from the companies. I was really interested in exploring a farther left side of my music palate at that time but avoiding getting painted into a corner by the business side of things.
For me, the Tusk album was the most important album we made but only because it drew a line in the sand that for me defined the way I still think today. Probably the real bummer with that album wasn't that it didn't sell 16M albums, but because it didn't, there was backlash. The band was really quite engaged with making the album and it was only until the sales stats came that they said, 'Well, we have to backtrack into more mainstream turf.' I don't begrudge anyone for feeling that way. I was trying to pave some new territory for us but another way of looking at it is that I was causing trouble. Had we all wanted the same thing for the same reason I probably never would have made solo albums.
You'd probably be a different band altogether.
Yes, and if we'd made something that followed in the wake of Tusk, that was comfortable with what Tusk was, we'd be a different band, too. There's a whole series of ways of looking at it. A lot of the young bands seem to respond to Tusk because it's more cutting edge, but it's just hard even think in terms of which is better.
Obviously your guitar playing is highly lauded and you've got a plethora of songs to pick favorites from. What's one track that still resonates with you today?
There's one that I love playing on stage and that's the song "Big Love", and I'll tell you why. It started off as an ensemble piece, it was not a guitar piece. It was the first single from an album called Tango In The Night from 1987. The lyric of that song takes on more of a sense of the power of change. So there's that, but I think probably from a guitar-playing point of view, it was a bit of a template that happened for me. I don't even remember why that song evolved into a single guitar piece but when I started doing that on stage by myself it went down well. It's not that I haven't done single guitar pieces on stage before, but this covered more ground and open up a whole new landscape for the potential use of one guitar through a whole track. So back in the late '90s when I started doing that, I have consistently tried to do those kind of approaches on recorded work. It's been a touchstone for me.
What was a pivotal point when you knew you could break away and do this on your own?
It was a matter of survival because after Tusk, and after everyone wanted to go back to a Rumors formula, the whole left side of my musical landscape knew it was going to get unattended to if I didn't start doing solo stuff. In 1991, I came out with my first solo work. The irony with it is that you look at the big and small machine but Warner Bros. never really got behind the solo stuff because they thought it was too esoteric. They were always thinking, "Let's get back to what's really important here!" But again, it's all about the choices you make, and sometimes it takes 20-some-odd-years before things are fully played out in front of you an you can take stock.
Your new album seems clearly inspired by family life and a bit by being in love. Can you talk about that?
It's funny because my lyrics have improved, but back in previous days I think all of our lyrics were more literal and not particularly open to interpretation. What's happened over the years is that the process by which I arrive at a set of lyrics has gotten just a bit more poetic and mysterious. So when I did look at the lyrics collectively, I perceived a thread that ran through it all and it seemed to go back to the choices that we make. Actions have outcomes, and choices are sometimes left for years before they can be really fully apprised. There's a karmic element to all of this - they do reflect the sense of being grounded in family life. There are songs about the microcosm of family or of relationships. There's songs more about the world in general, but it does seem to reflect the balance of creative life and personal life. I think I've been lucky enough to find that. It reflects the nice balance that seems to come into play with the big machine and the small machine.
How do you rank this new work among all the rest of the albums you've done?
I think this could be the best piece of work I've done because I didn't really plan on doing it. Under the Skin and Gift Of Screws were back to back and I toured behind both of them; I had to say to Fleetwood Mac, 'Don't bother me for three years!' I had to put some boundaries around some time and I learned a lot and brought a lot of what I learned back into the last Fleetwood Mac tour. I had no agenda to make this album, the time just opened up and I said, "I better fill it." There was an off-hand quality to the whole process. Everything but the Rolling Stones cover -- "She Smiled Sweetly', which had been looking for a home for a few years -- is brand new.
You're on tour to support the new album but of course everyone wants to know if Fleetwood Mac are going to tour together again.
I know Stevie has been talking a lot about getting back together. I would be shocked if something didn't happen. There's nothing on the books -- this is part of the deal with Fleetwood Mac: you can't get everybody to commit too far ahead of time and it's hard to get everyone to want everything at the same time. Without knowing anything specific, I would say I'd be very surprised if something didn't happen with Fleetwood Mac next year.
Lindsey Buckingham plays the Pantages Theater on Friday, September 16 at 8 p.m. Tickets $40-$50.
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