Mac-less Lindsey Buckingham back on road

Minimalist ‘Under the Skin’ departure from singer’s Fleetwood Mac work

Damian Dovarganes

8efac6b0-c5d5-40dd-a5d6-bfa4d26c78aa.grid-4x2Lindsey Buckingham says his decision to produce “Under the Skin” himself and handle almost all of the instrumentation had more to do with the sound he was going for than any desire for total control.

LOS ANGELES — Thirty-one years after he joined a foundering band of British blues rockers and transformed it into one of the biggest hit-making machines of all time, Lindsey Buckingham is still going his own way.

This fall finds Fleetwood Mac’s on-again-off-again lead guitarist and producer back on the road, touring behind his first new solo album in 14 years.

Minimalist and almost entirely acoustic, “Under the Skin,” is a radical departure from nearly everything Buckingham has done. At the same time, it maintains his reputation for creating lushly beautiful instrumental arrangements, not to mention taking control of projects from start to finish, something that hasn’t always endeared him to the other members of Fleetwood Mac.

Soft-spoken and self-deprecating, Buckingham says his decision to produce this album himself and handle almost all of the instrumentation (Fleetwood Mac namesakes Mick Fleetwood and John McVie perform on two tracks) really had more to do with the sound he was going for than any desire for total control.

“I kept thinking of `Blue,’ early Joni Mitchell, where there was nothing going on, there was just a voice and a guitar and it was very pure,” he says of Mitchell’s heralded 1971 album.

“I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to screw it up somehow with some production,” he adds, leaning back in his chair and laughing heartily. “But I wanted the instrumentation on which that production was going to live to be very simple and very minimal and basically be guitar. And — you know — I’m the guitar player.”

Indeed, he was the guitar player who transformed Fleetwood Mac when he joined the group in 1975, along with then-girlfriend and vocal partner Stevie Nicks. Founded in London eight years earlier, the band had grown out of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to become one of Britain’s most popular groups before almost self destructing amid drugs, alcohol and mental illness.

Drummer Fleetwood, bass player McVie and his wife, keyboardist Christine McVie, had moved to the United States in search of a new guitar player when Fleetwood ran across Buckingham in a recording studio.

Making a-go of it in L.A.
Self-taught and schooled on music ranging from old Elvis records to folkie banjo pickers, he had only recently moved to Los Angeles with Nicks, where the two had recorded one album. Out of circulation for years, “Buckingham Nicks” is now a prized collector’s item as much for its cover, on which the two appear shirtless, as for the music inside.

Ironically, Buckingham says “Under the Skin” may be the closest he has ever gotten back to that stripped-down style of playing.

It comes after a lifetime of changes that have seen him travel full circle, from upper-middle-class kid and youngest of three siblings growing up in the suburban San Francisco Bay area to rock ‘n’ roll hell-raiser to upper-middle-class family man living in L.A. with a wife and three young children.

“God, you get to be a parent and you realize what you put your own parents through,” he says, laughing again and shaking his head.

Describing home life these days, he says, “I don’t eat much. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs anymore. It’s kind of boring.”

Dressed in old blue jeans and a well-worn leather jacket over a white, v-necked shirt, the 57-year-old musician is still trim and looks very much like he did when he joined Fleetwood Mac, although his hair, thick and curly as ever, is much shorter and grayer these days.

He is building a new home on Los Angeles’ trendy west side, his family having outgrown the hillside “bachelor pad” he had lived in for decades and his children — ages 8, 6 and 2 — having found the hills too steep to play on.

For the moment, he has rendezvoused with a reporter and photographer at a studio in a nondescript industrial section of the city’s San Fernando Valley. There, in the green room, Buckingham is friendly and inquisitive, as likely to ask for an opinion on music or raising kids as he is to venture one of his own.

But when it comes time to offer those opinions, he holds back on no subject, a trait that one can imagine led to numerous creative differences within Fleetwood Mac.

Asked how his relationship with the others is these days, he beams, replying cheerfully, “It’s good.”

So good there is talk of another reunion toward the end of next year, after he’s finished his “Under the Skin” tour and knocked out another album, a hard rocker. He’s been carrying the tunes for it around in his head for some time now.

“Obviously it would take a few more tours to regain the sense of trust and unity” that the band once had, Buckingham says, adding he and Nicks, who have known each other since junior high school, still have differences.

“She has a lot of issues with my style, not musically but just as a person,” he says. “I get things done but it’s not always in the most diplomatic way.”

It was Nicks’ ethereal vocals and seductive stage presence, coupled with Buckingham’s sense of orchestration and swift, finger-picking guitar playing (a style rarely heard in rock) that propelled Fleetwood Mac to superstar status almost overnight.

“Rumours,” the group’s second album with the newcomers, was one of the most popular recordings ever made, selling nearly 20 million copies and producing such hits as the anthemic “Go Your Own Way” and “Don’t Stop.” Bill Clinton appropriated the latter for his 1992 presidential campaign song, something that led to the group’s first reunion, at Clinton’s 1993 inauguration.

‘Tusk’ an experiment gone bad
Buckingham had bolted Fleetwood Mac in 1987, unable to tolerate the creative differences he says began after “Tusk,” the experimental, heavily orchestrated follow-up to “Rumours.”

Although critically praised, the album sold only 2 million copies, and Buckingham says he has heard that the first time the record label’s executives played it they talked of having visions of their Christmas bonuses flying out the window.

“We had a meeting,” he says of the band. “And they were saying, ‘Well, Lindsey, you’re still producing, but we’re not going to let you do that anymore.”

Several hit albums and tours followed, but Buckingham never got over the reaction. He mentions musicians like the Beatles and Brian Wilson when he speculates what the band might have achieved had it stayed on the experimental path he had taken with “Tusk.”

“It certainly kept me from staying in the band longer,” he says.

Nearly 20 years later, he’s witnessed two successful reunion albums and tours, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and released a handful of acclaimed albums of his own.

Still, the thought of another Fleetwood Mac tour excites him as much as anything.

“I think there’s quite a long run left in the band,” he says. “It would be a shame to come to the end of our time as a band — whenever that would be — and not have it be a proper finish.”

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