Lindsey Buckingham tells our correspondent how he found happiness after the madness of Fleetwood Mac
Miles beyond Sunset Strip, beyond the Hollywood sign and Laurel Canyon, a familiar sound is coming from a rehearsal stage.
The opening couplet of Go Your Own Way wafts across the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, California: “Loving you/ Isn’t the right thing to do . . .” The Fleetwood Mac legend Lindsey Buckingham is in final rehearsals for a six-week solo tour. A tour de force of Californian angst, the song first appeared on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album – whose smooth curves masked a partner-swapping, drug-snorting epic of dysfunction. Those songs still resonate today – in recent months both Vampire Weekend and Fleet Foxes have covered Mac songs.
“Our first show is in two days, but I don’t feel like we’re quite ready,” he says, but that’s just the perfectionist in him speaking. In truth the show is an exhilarating mix of the old and new, reworked Mac classics combined with lost solo singles and tracks from his new album Gift of Screws. It’s a career-spanning set at a time when Buckingham is, he declares, “the happiest I’ve ever been”.
Buckingham today is a far cry from the hirsute, heartbroken pin-up of 1970s Fleetwood Mac, or even the lone, studio-bound experimental egg-head of the 1980s. He is married to the photographer and LA society belle Kristen Messner (with whom he has three children) and domestic contentment has reinvigorated his erratic solo career. Fourteen years had elapsed between Out of the Cradle (1992) and Under the Skin, and now Gift of Screws appears. His fifth solo album is as dense and engrossing as you would expect.
The best bits are classic Buckingham – mixing arch LA pop with avant-garde touches. The results are even more impressive live. Good Day channels Radiohead’s Idioteque with bluesy licks direct from The Chain, while Love Runs Deeper bops about joyfully, like a reconstructed new wave hit from 1982. His state of mind is reflected in the banter with band-mates. The vibe among the group, he says with a grin, is “camaraderie central”.
We go to chat in his office, which is feng shui-tidy – three identical white shirts are lined up next to three identical black leather jackets. A vintage Beach Boys poster hangs behind his see-through wardrobe. Through the door the bassline of FloRida’s Elevator can be heard.
“Is thatus?” he asks, half-joking, as the track blasts from the adjacent sound stage where the high-octane reality TV show So You Think You Can Dance? is being shot.
He is impressively well preserved for a 58-year-old rock survivor. The “blue-grey” eyes that his former paramour Stevie Nicks longingly sang about in Blue Denim radiate a fresh Californian glow. In conversation he’s forthright and relaxed. Interviews in the past have reflected the self-help books that saw him through the turmoil of Fleetwood Mac. But there is no trace of that now.
A Californian boy through and through, Buckingham was born in Palo Alto. There were early ambitions to be a professional swimmer (his brother Greg won a silver medal in the 1968 Olympics) but he was galvanised by music after hearing his brother Jeff’s copy of Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel.
“I was eight when I first started playing guitar,” he recalls, “because Jeff would bring home all these records. Not much later I got into acoustic, finger pickings, but I couldn’t read music.”
After meeting Stevie Nicks at high school (“I was playing California Dreamin’ and she came along and harmonised”), the two formed a duo, first with the band Fritz (“We opened for Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin”) and then on their own as Buckingham Nicks.
A chance encounter with Mick Fleetwood followed and he asked them to join his faltering British blues band, with Buckingham as lead guitarist. His predecessors had either fallen into drug-induced schizophrenia (Peter Green), left to join cults (Jeremy Spencer) or became violent alcoholics (Danny Kirwan). Was he worried about being afflicted with the “Curse of the Fleetwood Mac Guitarist”?
“I knew about it, it was almost a joke,” he laughs. “I loved Peter’s work but when I met him . . . Well, let’s just say that he was less nice than he could have been. As for me? I’m still here – I didn’t join a cult and I didn’t go crazy. At least I think I didn’t . . .” His solo work has always been an escape from the debauched, multi-platinum madness that Fleetwood Mac involved. He cites Tusk, the eccentric follow-up to Rumours in 1979, as the “lightning bolt” moment.
“I consider it to be my first solo album – I recorded things at my home and brought them in to the band,” including, he says, percussion parts banged out on Kleenex boxes.
“With that album I was trying to accomplish stuff to the left of what Fleetwood Mac had become.”
Today, there is no tension between his solo work and working with Fleetwood Mac. “Being a father and a husband I realised that there are more important things than music. Solo work is a boutique effort for me; it’s a labour of love. I long ago gave up the idea that it would be appreciated on a commercial level. Fleetwood Mac is the golden carrot and my solo work is kind of indulged by the record company.”
And, he says, unlike Nicks, the needs of Fleetwood Mac always came before his solo records. “Stevie was always able to pull back from the Fleetwood Mac machine and say ‘OK, now I’m doing my solo stuff.’ But I wasn’t in a position to do that, nor would I have felt comfortable to do that and call myself a band member – possibly because of my role as an arranger in the band.”
Indeed, Buckingham was twice poised to do albums that became Fleetwood Mac projects instead. “It happened with Tango in the Night  and in 2000 with Say You Will. But this time I put my foot down and said I wanted three years when I’ll make a solo album, tour, then make another solo album.”
So after this six-week solo tour, he is due to reunite with his main band for a tour in 2009 and then possibly an album. “In Fleetwood Mac nothing is certain until you actually see it,” he notes wryly. “But it’s up to us to not shoot ourselves in the foot.” The band is still very much a “work in progress”, by which he means both emotionally and musically.
“Happily they are still part of the fabric of my life,” he says. “I’ve known Stevie since I was 17, which is something to cherish – and why it’s still worth working on getting rid of all the bulls*** between us. Because there still is after all this time, would you believe.”
Bel Air Rain, a song from Gift of Screws, looks back at the decadence of Fleetwood Mac and contrasts it with the relatively calm life he is living now. “I lived in Bel Air for a number of years as a bachelor with some crazy girlfriends. I also built a house there when I started my family. Fame is really funny, it gives you lots of freedom but then at the same time it takes away a lot of yourself.”
After all the madness, it’s good to see that he has managed to retain what made him so special in the first place.
Gift of Screws is released by Warners on Monday 15 September 2008