Back in Mac
Lindsey Buckingham Rejoins Fleetwood Mac for Say You Will,
"You sense that, in a weird way, we belong together," says Lindsey Buckingham of his fellow members in Fleetwood Mac. "And people who feel like they don"t belong anywhere else can at least feel good about that. I think that's one factor in the band"s longevity."
After a long hiatus, Fleetwood Mac are back with their first studio album in eight years (and their first with Buckingham in more than 15). It's called Say You Will (Warner Bros.), and it artfully blends the sleek pop songcraft of Fleetwood Mac's Seventies heyday with the edgy guitar experimentalism of Buckingham solo albums like 1992's Out of the Cradle.
"One of the big questions on our minds was, Do we want to this in a safe way or do we want to go for an element of surprise?" says Buckingham, who produced Say You Will as well as played guitar and sang on the album and wrote about half its songs. "I think we"ve been able to do a bit of both. We"ve been able to get in those radio-friendly elements and still have room to look into the arty side of things."
The time seems right for Fleetwood Mac' reentry into the pop marketplace. The stage was set in 1997, when the classic Fleetwood Mac lineup -- Buckingham, singer Stevie Nicks, drummer Mick Fleetwood, bassist John McVie and singer/keyboardist Christine McVie -- reunited for The Dance. An MTV special, home video, live album and concert tour. The Dance found the group revisiting blockbuster hits like 'The Chain,' 'Dreams,' 'Rhiannon,' 'Say You Love Me' and 'You Make Loving Fun,' bringing these tunes to a new generation and rekindling the fondness of older fans. And just this past year the Dixie Chicks have had a monster hit with Fleetwood Mac"s 'Landslide' -- a development that Buckingham views as a mixed blessing.
'Landslide' is a great song, but I don"t want anyone to get the funny idea about Fleetwood Mac and country. Somebody at our label was talking about how we should broaden our audience, and they started talking about putting us on Country Music Television. I had to say, "Whoa! Stop right there." There's a certain kind of profile you want to put out there. And that isn't it."
Fleetwood Mac's career to date has been more akin to a soap opera than a country music video. The group"s defining moment was 1977"s Rumours album, which was recorded amid the very public breakup of John and Christine McVie's marriage and the romantic split between Buckingham and Nicks, who had been a couple since '71. The album's songs were a direct reflection of these turbulent life changes.
"I don't think you can discount the importance of that whole subtext to what we were doing in the Seventies," says Buckingham. "That was our real lives out there, laid bare for people to see. It made an appealing selling element."
Ever since then, Fleetwood Mac have been a pop culture emblem for the convoluted difficulties of adult relationships. The band's constant personnel changes, breakups and reunions have made Fleetwood Mac seem like some charming yet emotionally unstable couple who keep getting divorced and remarried. And, true to form, the story behind the making of Say You Will is filled with complicated twists and turns. The album actually started life circa 1994 as a Lindsey Buckingham solo record. By this point, Buckingham had been out of Fleetwood Mac for seven years, having left the group largely out of frustration over the drug excesses that hobbled the making of 1987"s Tango in the Night. But in the mid Nineties he renewed his friendship with Mick Fleetwood, who was, as Buckingham puts it, "conducting his life differently by then."
It wasn't long before Fleetwood began contributing drum tracks to the solo album Buckingham had in progress. One by one, Nicks and the McVies also got involved. Realizing that the classic Fleetwood Mac lineup had, in effect, gotten back together, Warner Bros. persuaded the group members to participate in the aforementioned reunion MTV special The Dance. While all this was taking place, Buckingham shelved the solo album he"d been trying to make since '94. "I was once again sucked into the gravity of the black hole that is Fleetwood Mac," he says laughing.
After the first leg of the Dance tour, Christine McVie decided to leave Fleetwood Mac and devote herself to restoring a stately old home that she"d bought in England. "Christine just was not very happy being out on the road," says Buckingham. "We got to the point where we could have made the decision to do more dates--to go over to Europe, Japan or Australia--but she really didn"t want to do that. I didn't have a problem with that, because I had all this solo stuff sitting on the shelf and I didn"t want to see it languish for another five years."
But as the time approached for Buckingham to release his solo opus, his record label was in the throes of a major reorganization. "All the people that I had known at Warner Bros. for quite some time were on their way out," Buckingham explains. "It was a lame-duck situation over there. And I was thinking, Oh, I'm not gonna put this out now. And as that was happening, somehow that old gravity presented itself once again and we thought about making it into a Fleetwood Mac album instead."
Since Mick Fleetwood and John McVie were the rhythm section on all the tracks, the idea made a lot of sense. Stevie Nicks has a whole cache of songs that she"d already written, so it was largely a matter of recording her material in a way that would mesh with the music Buckingham had in the can. In the process of becoming a Fleetwood Mac album, the project moved from Buckingham"s home studio to Oceanway Recording in Los Angeles (which has since become Cello), finally settling down in a rented house near Buckingham"s home in L.A.'s posh Bel Air suburb.
"It was kind of a luxurious garage situation," the guitarist jokes. "The living room was the control room, and it was also where we cut a lot of the tracks. We had the drums isolated just 10 feet away from the console. And I was engineering most of that, which was a good thing for me. I"ve engineered my own overdubs at home, but never Mick's drums or anything like that. So I got my hands in a lot of areas that I hadn't gotten them in before."
Christine McVie's departure affected the group dynamic in several ways. For one, basic tracks were now being cut as a rock and roll three-piece, with plenty of sonic space for Buckingham, Fleetwood and John McVie to stake as their own. As a result, Buckingham really comes forward as a rock guitar soloist on this disc. His solo albums are more about meticulously crafted guitar overdubs, generally recorded direct and carefully manipulated via analogue tape varispeeding. But the Say You Will sessions found him blasting through an amp. Tracks like 'Come,' 'Running Through the Garden' and 'Murrow Turning Over in His Grave' contain some of the most aggressive riff slinging he"s ever committed to disc.
"When Mick and I started working in the studio, there was this incredible release of energy between the two of us," Buckingham says. "I guess it was because we hadn't played together in a long time, and my last few years in Fleetwood Mac, before '87, hadn"t been much fun. so when we got in the studio this time, there was just this great energy there to kick it. There"s a real live feel to the tracks, and in many ways my guitar playing was just a response to that."
In the past, songwriting in Fleetwood Mac had been a three-way split, with Buckingham, Nicks and Christine McVie all contributing songs. But with Christine out of the picture, the emphasis falls more squarely on the Buckingham/Nicks dynamic. There's an element of historical irony in this, as Lindsey and Stevie were an up-and-coming duo act when they joined forces with Fleetwood Mac in 1974.
"Now Stevie and I joke about having played this exquisite waiting game to go back to being Buckingham/Nicks again," the guitarist says with a laugh. "And in some ways, the differences between Stevie"s style and mine are actually more marked by having only the two of us writing songs for this album."
Indeed, the duo has always been one of the greatest yin/yang acts in pop. "She's always been more the romantic and the poet," says Buckingham. "She romanticizes her own romanticism. That's what makes her Stevie. I tend to be more of a realist in my lyrics. She's more up in the clouds with her vision, and I"m tending to be more on the ground."
Many of Buckingham"s songs on the album have a topical bent. 'What"s the world coming to?' The title of the opening track frankly asks. And 'Murrow Turning Over in His Grave' envisions the reaction that the late pioneering new broadcaster Edward R. Murrow might have if he could see the current state of the mass media. "Murrow gave that famous parting speech when he left CBS, warning what would happen if we didn"t take responsibility for TV and use it in the right way," Buckingham explains. "Obviously, we haven't. So "Murrow" is just a song about how the media gets abused and how it is used for propaganda. Even the fact that somebody like GE would own NBC. That whole connection--down to the agendas that go into what you see on NBC, because it is owned by a weapons maker. It"s just kind of weird and not very good. Not good for the kids. It diverts and deludes."
Like many a maturing rock and roller, Buckingham finds the experience of parenthood has made him especially apprehensive about the future course of world events. "The whole album has been the soundtrack to what"s been happening in my life over the past six years--getting married, having two children, tearing down the house on the property I live on and building a new one. And when you have children, you do get more concerned about the world. Songs like 'What's the World coming To' probably seem more literal since 9/11. But all of these things were written before then. And they"re all probably more about my personal world.
While some of Nicks' material also has a topical slant, many of her songs seem to exude a mood of romantic embitterment. "Well, I never know what the hell she"s talking about," Buckingham says. "Sometimes I think she's writing about me. I never know who she"s writing about. But it always seems that she"s writing about somebody with whom she has, or has had, a relationship. She and I never really talk about that. She"s very private about that. But I wouldn"t be surprised if some of that stuff is still about me. I think quite often she'll write a song and part of it is about one person and then it shifts to someone else. Kind of a stream-of-consciousness style."
There's something endearing in the idea that, nearly 30 years after Buckingham and Nicks split romantically, her lyrics still have the power to evoke in him the emotions of their relationship. Creatively as well, the tensions that have always existed between the duo are still as alive as ever. Typically, he has always pushed for experimentation in the studio, while she's always been more of a traditionalist.
"Stevie sees herself as being defined within a certain set of boundaries, outside of which things probably don't ring true to her, or to the people who listen to what she does," Buckingham theorizes. "But at the same time, I think she's intrigued by the idea of pushing the envelope, especially on this album. She never wants to go too far with it, though. For example, I asked her to sing on the song 'Come' and she wouldn't. I think she thought it was dirty. That tells you something about someone who has been a rock icon but in some ways is still quite a conservative person. And I don't see her as someone who has lived her life very conservatively. So there's an interesting dichotomy there."
The aforementioned 'Come' is a prime example of the kind of innovative production that Buckingham brings to the new Fleetwood Mac album. Vocal and guitar tracks zip back and forth across the stereo field like shuttlecocks in some aural badminton game. Buckingham says he took his inspiration from Cubist painting for that track.
"It's all based on the idea of trying to break vocal lines down into facets, the same way Cubism breaks down a visual line. Each part of each vocal line was sung separately and recorded on a separate track. Then each track was processed a little differently. So one part of the line might have a flangy effect, and the next part a wet reverb. So you"re making the whole thing more artificial, in the way Cubism does, but it gives you a whole spatial world. A few of the guitar tracks also have that give-and-take quality that runs across from left to right."
Buckingham also draw on the analogy between pop music and the fine arts to explain the enduring presence of fifty-something rockers like Fleetwood Mac on the music scene. "There was never any dictum that said painters or composers were never going to do their best work over age 30 or 40" he says. "When rock and roll first came up, it was in the context of rebellious youth. But in the context in which we now see rock and roll, there"s no reason why people can"t be coming into their most fruitful creative phase at age 40 or 50 or older. I don't think anyone's ever done that before. Most successful rock bands who reach this age have either lost interest or have been corrupted by the lifestyle that success can afford you. But I feel like we're starting a second phase of Fleetwood Mac's career in a potent way that has nothing to do with resting on our laurels. It's exciting. This is the best time of my life."