Fleetwood Mac front man Lindsey Buckingham shows off his solo Skin at the Ryman
BY PETER GILSTRAP
Somewhere, presumably, a man named Fritz Rabyne still exists. He’s of German descent, roughly 57 years old, and, many years ago, as a joke, some high school classmates named their band after shy, quiet Fritz.
In 2006 in Nashville, there is no reason why you would know of this individual. However, in 1966 in Atherton, Calif., chances are the name was not so foreign, courtesy of something called The Fritz Rabyne Memorial Band. If you’d seen the group — they opened up for Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, among others — you would have been watching what was to become the core of one of the biggest groups in rock.
Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, to be precise. To fast forward to the present: The pair quit the Fritz combo, recorded demos, moved to Los Angeles, got a deal, got dropped, joined Fleetwood Mac, made millions.
Now, as Herr Rabyne continues to keep a low profile, Buckingham has released his third solo effort. Under the Skin, his first solo recording in 14 years, is a stunning example of the offbeat pop that the singer/songwriter/ producer creates by himself when he’s not making not-so-offbeat pop for Fleetwood Mac. The 11 songs (recorded mainly in hotel rooms) are spare, and the structures deceptively simple. The arrangements consist largely of guitar and vocals, the latter layered and awash with effects. In other words, Under the Skin may not get under everybody’s skin, but Buckingham’s goal was not to plop out a batch of hits
“I don’t even know what that means now, with Top-40 radio doing mainly hip hop and Aguilera kind of stuff,” he says. “I haven’t geared the album to that, and I’m really not interested so much in that. You have to go into it with realistic expectations, especially with an album like this. If something nice happens, that’s great. You’re dealing with the masses out there, and there’s a certain boutique echelon of people who are going to appreciate what I do, and if that’s what it is, then that’s fine. I can’t worry about that at this point.”
Over the years, most of what Buckingham has written for solo projects has found its way onto Mac albums. When he started writing the Under the Skin material some two years ago, the music flowed — “It was like taking a laxative,” he reveals. A brain laxative; as opposed to some writers who jot constantly, that’s where the musician keeps his ideas.
“I do think a lot of the difference between writing a song and not writing a song is committing the seed to a tape or to something,” says the California native. “Then again, I would never want to be one of those guy who walks around with a little recorder saying, ‘Idea to myself!’ I carry ideas around in my head, and when it’s time to go in and actually commit stuff to recording, you trust that there’s going to be stuff there. There usually is.”
Buckingham’s lo-fi recording ethos — an inexpensive portable 16-track Korg, in this case — is part of the charm of Under the Skin.
“If you have something in your head, you can get to it any number of ways,” he offers. “One may be cleaner than the other, but it’s my belief that people are probably going to like dirty before they’re going to like clean. Yeah, you can hear some hiss on some of the vocals and stuff, but that’s what it is, and certainly, it doesn’t get into the way of anything. That’s always been my approach, make it have soul, and make it feel good and the rest will follow.”
Buckingham has a voice to be reckoned with, as all those millions of Mac fans know, but in his solo work, he coats his pipes in echo, reverb and delay. It may seem odd, but another guy with a great voice, John Lennon, used to demand that producer George Martin drench his vocals with effects. Why?
“Well, it’s the same problem. John Lennon and I are both Libras, and we both have low self-esteem, and I don’t like the sound of my voice,” Buckingham states. “But it’s not just that. I think on some level I find the manipulation of voice interesting. And this particular collection of tunes, probably because there was so much space — I wanted to make it really just guitar and not much else — part of the theory was to make it sound like you were playing in the living room. In order to do that, one of the things was putting various delays on the voice, which come through a crappy stage delay pedal you should be running a guitar through, not your voice. But it was something I tried and I liked it and it took on its own life, so of course I used it beyond any level of taste.”
Buckingham’s signature finger picking guitar style displays a level of wonderfully economical taste, and owes a debt to Nashville. “You could say that a lot of the finger style that I do on guitar is based in the Merle Travis pick, which is a standard rolling folk pick,” says Buckingham, who also admits considerable admiration for Chet Atkins. “I started playing guitar soon after my older brother brought home ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ and when that first wave of rock and roll started turning into Fabian or whatever, I started getting into folk, and also some pedestrian level of bluegrass banjo; all those things relate to the way I play.”
Is he a country fan? “Not in the current sense,” Buckingham admits, “but I am in the Hank Williams sense, and Ferlin Husky and people that go back a ways, though you start to sound like an old fart when you date yourself like that. But I don’t know how you top Hank Williams.”