Lindsey Buckingham goes his own way on Under the Skin, his most acoustic album to date
GUITAR WORLD ACOUSTIC
By: MAC RANDALL
by Kevin Scanlon
“I’m not a finesse guy,” says Lindsey Buckingham. “I’m more damn-the-torpedoes.” He’s actually referring the the way he deals with others, but you could argue that same applies to his guitar style. Anyone who’s seen the hyper-aggressive way his right hand claws at the strings of his Turner Model 1 electric would have a hard time describing him as a “finesse” player. At the same time, it’s equally difficult to claim that Buckingham’s unique fingerstyle approach (he’s never used a pick) lacks precision or taste. And it’s impossible to deny the dazzling musical results. Just listen to any of the albums he’s made during his two tenures with Fleetwood Mac, from 1975 to 1987 and from 1997 to the present. Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks may have written more of the band’s biggest hits, but Buckingham’s playing-along with his backup singing, arranging and production genius-is the magic ingredient that helped make songs like “Rhiannon,” “Say You Love Me,” “Dreams,” “You Make Loving Fun,” “Think About Me” and “Gypsy” so memorable, and so successful.
Of course, Buckingham’s own songbook is also studded with gems-“Monday Morning,” “World Turning,” “Never Going Back Again,” “Go Your Own Way,” “Second Hand News” and “Big Love,” to name just a few. But his pop sensibilities have always coexisted with that “damn-the-torpedoes” spirit, which has propelled him into plenty of left-field ventures. First there were the songs he cut by himself in his home studio and contributed to Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk (1979), twisted lo-fi rock oddities like “Not That Funny” and “The Ledge.” Then there were his solo releases-Law and Order (1981), Go Insane (1984), and Out of the Cradle (1992)–on which he backed up his alternately howling and cooing vocals with an army of varispeeded guitars that sounded like they’d been injected with performance-enhancing drugs.
You won’t find anything quite as bizarre on Buckingham’s new CD, Under the Skin (Reprise), his first solo album in nearly 15 years. (His previous two attempts to make a solo record turned into full-blown Fleetwood Mac projects). The primary instruments are acoustic guitar and voice, and overt studio trickery is shelved in favor of stripped-down songcraft. But stripped-down doesn’t mean conservative-Buckingham goes for broke the same way he always has, only more quietly. All 11 tracks have a dark, almost creepy vibe, with lyrics so personal that you feel you shouldn’t be listening to them. And yet you’re somehow compelled to do so. A big part of the draw is Buckingham’s intricate fingerpicking, which he showcases on the hair-raising opener “Not Too Late” and a drastically altered version of Donovan’s “Try for the Sun.”
Between rehearsals with a four-piece band for a fall tour to promote Under the Skin, Buckingham chatted with Guitar World Acoustic about his new material. His modesty regarding his own abilities comes as a surprise; his obvious devotion to his art does not.
GUITAR WORLD ACOUSTIC Why did you decide to make such a predominantly acoustic album? There’s hardly an electric guitar to be found on the record.
LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM Well, there are a couple, but certainly no leads [laughs]. It’s because I have plans to put out a more rock album in the near future, probably about 10 months from now-a fairly close amount of time and, given my track record, way closer than normal. So I’ve actually been working on a pair of albums. And for this one, I really wanted it to hold a certain line. I’ve been interested for quite a white in trying to distill my fingerpicking style down to its bare essentials, and the album is very much about keeping the production as minimal as possible while style having it sound like a record.
GWA You play the great majority of the instruments on Under the Skin, but not all of them. Who else was involved?
BUCKINGHAM Mick Fleetwood played percussion on “Down on Rodeo” and “Someone’s Gotta Change Your Mind,” John McVie played bass on “Down on Rodeo” and David Campbell did some orchestration on “Someone’s Gotta Change Your Mind.”
those two songs were recorded quite a long time ago, almost 10 years ago, at Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood, and they were under consideration for [the 2003 Fleetwood Mac album] Say You Will. But that’s really it. The other songs are all from the last three years. I recorded them by myself, either at home or on the road with Fleetwood Mac, and they’re mostly guitars and vocals with a little rhythmic support. And lots of echo.
GWA For sure. One song, among many, with “lots of echo” is “I Am Waiting.” How did you get that pretty, filtered delay-type sound on the acoustic guitar?
BUCKINGHAM That’s an old Roland synth, driven by one nice-sounding Turner thin-bodied acoustic rather than one of those cruddy Strats that you might normally plug into a Roland. The guitar sound is clean, but the synth give it a chamber-orchestra effect.
GWA “I Am Waiting” is a Rolling Stones tune, and you also do a cover of Donovan’s “Try for the Sun” on the new album. Any particular reason you recorded those songs?
BUCKINGHAM As far as the Stones song goes, there was actually a point where I went through this whole spate of Stones songs that I loved from a certain period-mainly ’65 and ’66-and tried recording them. All obscure stuff: “The Singer Not the Song,” “Gotta Get Away,” which will be on the next album, “She Smiled Sweetly,” which was another one I cut with Mick [Fleetwood]. They all turned out fine, but I was looking for vehicles for a certain kind of acoustic playing, and “I Am Waiting” seemed the most successful. It was more about the arrangement than the song itself. And the Donovan song was just something I remembered fondly from when it came out, when I was 14 or 15. Its melodic structure is very generic folk-song, but it was close to my heart, and it was a reference point for what I later ended up writing.
GWA You arrangement of it is very different from the original, the most obvious change being that it’s in 6/8 time instead 4/4.
BUCKINGHAM That was to suit my own petty guitar needs. It’s funny-one of the guys I work with was also working with Donovan at the time I was cutting it, and he mentioned to Donovan that I was doing one of his songs. When he heard which one it was, he said [imitating an angry Scotsman], “‘Try for the Sun’? What’s he doing that one for?” So if he ever hears my version, he’ll probably go, “He fucked it up!” I don’t know how well I succeeded in putting it together.
GWA It sounds like you wrote it, which must qualify as some kind of success.
BUCKINGHAM Gotta get away from that 6/8 thing, though. Been doing that too long.
GWA What about those crazed arpeggios you play throughout the first track, “Not Too Late”? How do you play those?
BUCKINGHAM It’s my usual extended Travis picking kind of thing. It sounds rapid-fire, but it’s really not that hard to play. I’ve done it live a couple of times in very small settings, and so far I haven’t screwed it up.
GWA I imagine that it’s difficult to sing while playing that part.
BUCKINGHAM No, because first of all, that guitar sticks to the same pattern all the way through, and I’m almost talking through the verse. And the chorus is basically one note. With a lot of these songs, I didn’t want to get too coy with brining more instrumentation in on the chorus and then taking it out for the verse, because if you were sitting around, playing the song on the guitar for somebody, that wouldn’t be happening. So I was trying to make the music be produced but more real, if that word even applies in this day and age.
GWA The chord progression in “Not Too Late” somehow reminds me of music by French Impressionist composers like Debussy and Ravel. Have you listened to a lot of classical music? Many of your songs-“Eyes of the World,” for example, and the instrumental segments on Out of the Cradle-suggest that you have.
BUCKINGHAM Well, that influence is in there, but I’m far from being well-versed in any kind of classical music. It’s more like I heard a piece here and there and got a
flavor for it. Someone who’s played guitar by himself in his room for years will tend to come across things and find ways to incorporate them into his style. But because I was never formally taught on anything, I’m basically a refined primitive. I don’t read music, and I just found my own way on guitar. I’m more knowledgeable about rock music than any other kind, but even there it’s only to a point. By no means am I a musicologist.
GWA The sound of the acoustic nylon-string continues to be central to your music. Are you still using the same Rick Turner guitars?
BUCKINGHAM Yes, and a couple of Chet Atkins models that Rick modified, along with the occasional Taylor. My setup’s never been too elaborate. I’m not trying out new guitars or looking at what else is out there. I tend to find things that work and stick with them for a long period of time, as long as I can get to what I want to get to. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
GWA Is that rhythm part in “Under the Skin” played on a Taylor?
BUCKINGHAM Can’t say for sure, but I think that was recorded on one of those ¾-size Baby Taylors in a hotel room while I was on tour with Fleetwood Mac. It’s in open G, and I used a bunch of maj7 chords.
GWA The chords sound very high and sparkly, as though the guitar was in Nashville tuning. Were you using a capo?
BUCKINGHAM Yes. It’s probably moved up [three frets] to Bb or… or whatever. I don’t know what key it’s in. That’s where my skill ends. I’m not someone who can transpose into different keys all over the place. I just have my things that I do. I’m sort of like Irving Berlin in that way. He could play in only one key, so he had his piano customised so that he could turn a crank and change the key even though he was still playing the same chords. It’s a little easier to do that with guitars.
GWA The last tune, “Juniper,” has a slight Brazilian feel to it.
BUCKINGHAM My wife calls it the Love Boat song. Thank you, dear [laughs]. It was originally written in a much slower, straighter tempo, and it wasn’t something I’d planned to put on this record. But when I was finishing the album I went back to it, and the lyric struck me as more appropriate than it had been when I wrote it. It was a remembrance of growing up [in Palo Alto, California]. Juniper is the name of a street that ran right into the street my family lived on; we used to ride our bikes down Juniper when I was a kid. Not I’m a father, and when you become a parent you see your own parents differently-you can maybe see them in a wiser light. Also, because it was another maj7 song, I thought it would be a nice mate to “Under the Skin.” A lot of people said, “Don’t put that on there, it’s terrible!” And I thought, Well, okay, maybe it is, but you can get away with a lot when it’s the last song on the record.
GWA Parts of the new album are so self-revealing that they make the listener feel like he’s eavesdropping on a private conversation. The lyrics cut pretty close to the bone.
BUCKINGHAM Very much so. But there was certainly a precedent set for that kind of writing during a certain time with Fleetwood Mac, and back then I don’t think anyone thought about what the specifics of any given song were or what the overall effect on anyone else would be. The aim was just to make it as true as we could and as skillful as we could, and the same holds true here. My life has changed so drastically since the last time I made a solo record. If you go back three years to the last Fleetwood Mac album, there was such a lag time for my material on that because it was all a holdover from what was supposed to be my own electric solo album. I got that off the books, and started fresh and addressed my life as it is now-I’m finally married after so many years of living in a semi-dysfunctional social world, with three beautiful children and the kind of perspective that gives you, combined with whatever goes on in the mind of someone who can see himself healthily, as a mature artist, not trying to be someone he’s not. That’s what came out on the album. Many of these songs seem more truthful to me than anything I’ve ever done.
GWA Say You Will wasn’t the first Fleetwood Mac album that started out as a Lindsey Buckingham solo project. There’s a long history of that kind of band usurpation, starting in the mid-80s with Tango in the Night. It reminds me of Michael Corleone in the Godfather movies: Every time you want to go off and do your own thing…
BUCKINGHAM They pull me back in! [laughs uproariously] Before we got back together for The Dance [in 1997], they even performed what might be called an intervention. We were over at Christine [McVie]’s hosue, and everyone was literally standing around me in a circle saying, “You’ve got to put the solo work down and do this with us.”
GWA Was there any danger of that this time?
BUCKINGHAM There wasn’t in terms of the material getting folded over. There was a little bit of pressure about my carving out a sufficient time frame to do this album, tour it, then finish the other one and, in all likelihood, tour that one too. But I talked to Stevie [Nicks] and everybody about it, and I don’t think anyone at the end of the day begrudged me the time to do what I felt I needed to do. The way they’re looking at it, I think is that at least I’ll get it out of my system: “He’ll be a nicer guy after he finishes this.” [laughs]
GWA You mentioned your tendency to allow many years to pass between solo albums. Is that because you find it hard to let things go? You’re certainly fond of recycling parts of songs. For instance, some sections of “Not That Funny” and “I Know I’m Not Wrong,” both on Tusk, are nearly identical; one of the verses in “You Do or You Don’t” on Out of the Cradle shows up again-words and music-as the bridge in “Bleed to Love Her” from Say You Will…
BUCKINGHAM And the acoustic guitar line in “Eyes of the World” [from 1982’s Mirage] came out of an instrumental piece on Buckingham Nicks [recorded in 1973 before the duo joined Fleetwood Mac]. That’s almost like a running gag, though it’s not meant to be. I’ve never had a problem with taking an element from another song-as long as it’s my song and I’m not gonna get sued for it-and reusing it in a different way, if if it has its own integrity in the new context. It’s like leaving little clues for the people who are really paying attention. Again, I don’t set out intentionally to do this. I hate to admit it, but it’s about expediency. I say, “Oh, that old bit would be cool there.” Some people might think it’s not cool to use it again, but my feeling is, as long as you don’t do it all the time, who cares?
GWA So that has nothing to do with some obsessive need you have to keep tinkering with a part until it’s perfect?
BUCKINGHAM Oh, not at all. It’s more just being lazy. [laughs]
GWA Speaking of Buckingham Nicks, will it ever be reissued? At this point, it’s got to be one of the most famous albums to have never been released on CD.
BUCKINGHAM I know, isn’t it ridiculous? Stevie and I own the 24-track masters, and one of Stevie’s managers has them at her house. I actually didn’t know where they were for a while; that’s one of those little power plays that goes on. It’s become almost an extension of Fleetwood Mac politics, convoluted as they are. Everyone agrees that the record needs to come out, but everyone also agrees that it needs to come out at a time when there can be some kind of event to promote it, and no one knows what that is. Do Stevie and I go out and do dates as a duo? What are we talking about here? So it’s in the ether. But the thing is, we’d better hurry up, because pretty soon it’s going to be a little late.
GWA You’re very much a pop songwriter, but at the same time you have this radical experimental streak. Has it been difficult for you to strike a balance between your two
BUCKINGHAM It has been, in the past. Say we’d done Tusk, never mind how much it sold or didn’t sell, and the rest of the band had been on the same page about the musical
results-because believe me, they weren’t enchanted with the music, it was only years later that people started to acknowledge that it had some worth-I probably would never have
even thought about making solo albums. The palette would’ve been so wide at that point that we would’ve felt there was room for everything within Fleetwood Mac. As it was, Tusk didn’t sell 16 million [as its predecessor, 1977’s Rumours, had], and I’d set the stage for the backlash that occurred within the band to disallow that experimental mindset.
So, to answer your question, yes, that kind of backlash put me in the position of having to be a bit bipolar, and that wasn’t always easy. When I listen to the Go Insane album, where you’ve got all these things right off the Firelight [synthesizer] like “Play in the Rain”–I love it, but the gesture of it is what you notice more than the actual music. What I’m trying to do now is keep the experimentalism in play, but in as much of a personal and centered context as possible. There’s a lot of room for experimentation without having to go out and wear it on your sleeve.
GWA Where do things stand with the other solo record?
BUCKINGHAM I have nine songs that I consider finished tracks, which were done at my house in the last year and a half. And I’ve also got a ton of new material that hasn’t been formally cut. During the next month we’ll try to set up a game plan, and then when I get off the road we’ll start working on it. After that, we’ll hopefully get it out in a remarkably short amount of time, for me. That would be the hook: What’s he been doing all this time? Answer: Putting two albums out within the course of a year. And then after that… [sighs] I think it’s just Fleetwood Mac for a whole. That’s what I’m hearing, anyway. We’ll see. Nice to keep busy, though-gotta pay for my kids’ private schools and all that!