Lindsey Buckingham Holds Forth On His New Self-Titled Album, How He Really Feels About Fleetwood Mac Touring Without Him
by Morgan Enos
September 16, 2021
Lindsey Buckingham has taken some life situations on the chin lately, from bypass surgery to Fleetwood Mac removing him. But as his new self-titled record attests, almost nobody is better at flipping awkwardness and darkness into joyous melodies.
Lindsey Buckingham's new album comes prepackaged with obvious talking points. Crane your ear, and you can faintly hear the click-clack of MacBook keys assembling the following lede: Open-heart surgery (opens in a new tab), almost losing his voice forever(opens in a new tab), a looming divorce(opens in a new tab) (they've since thrown that into reverse(opens in a new tab)—love never fails!) and a certain über-dramatic rock institution handing him the pink slip.
But that readymade narrative leaves out the most important part, which is how it all comes out the other side of Buckingham's brain. For decades, the two-time GRAMMY winner alchemized pain and awkwardness into effervescent pop music like almost nobody else—and sold millions and millions of records as a result. How does he keep that psychological and spiritual mechanism well-oiled?
Perhaps the answer is best articulated in good ol' music: His new album, Lindsey Buckingham, which arrives September 17, is permeated with this big-picture thinking. And everything he's been through since he recorded tunes like "Scream," "I Don't Mind" and "On the Wrong Side"—honestly, the album is three years old now after a comical number of delays—gives the tunes added heft, import and longevity.
But for now, the singer/songwriter and guitarist can give it the old college try. "It's not like I'm attracted to any of the dark at all. It's just that I think it exists hand-in-hand with the light," he says over FaceTime. "There's nothing you can do about that." That was the attitude he maintained during the Jerry Springer-style lovers' fiascos that fueled Rumours, and it's how he feels today, when predicaments and headaches that "weren't on the radar" blindside him.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Buckingham during rehearsals for his current U.S. tour to discuss the long road to the new album and how he maintains a PMA (opens in a new tab) with the Sword of Damocles over his head. Near the end, he spills the tea about why he's really no longer in Fleetwood Mac.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
How's it feel to be rehearsing with your bandmates?
It's great! The camaraderie can't be beat. There's none of the politics that always were there with Fleetwood Mac. We had several attempts to get this album out over the last three years because it's been ready to go for over three years. Certain things kept getting in the way. So, we're finally here and it's good to be playing. I love it.
Is it weird to be promoting music you made a while ago? I didn't know it was so old.
You know, it's funny: When I did that duet album with Christine [McVie], my original intention—because I was working on this simultaneously—was to put it out back-to-back with that. Because of Fleetwood Mac politics, that didn't happen.
And then, after all the stuff we'd done with Fleetwood Mac, I thought "Well, rather than put the album out then, I thought I'd put out the anthology"—the best-of [compilation album] that I did in 2018, which was great fun and it was sort of cathartic to revisit all that.
And then [Wry chuckle] we really were starting to get ready to rehearse and then I had this bypass I had in 2019. That took some recovery. And then, we started to begin to rehearse—and then the COVID hit! So it's been kind of a running gag of trying to get this thing out and having to kick it down the road.
I think, in the process, the material itself—and certainly the subject matter—has taken on a somewhat deeper meaning given all that's happened over the last few years, you know?
You seem like you're in a great mood despite the turmoil.
Well, I mean, you know, stuff happens. Rock 'n' roll bands are rock 'n' roll bands. Health issues are going to come and go. So it's all good! I didn't know how I was going to feel at the beginning of rehearsals—whether doing a set twice a day was something I was even up for—but it all turned out to be great. I'm looking forward to it.
I remember seeing the news about the bypass surgery. I was so worried. Music fans worldwide were so worried. I'm so happy you made it back to 100 percent.
Oh, yeah. There was this moment that lasted for a few months because, in the process of doing that, somebody, I guess, a little overzealously jammed a breathing tube down my throat when they were about to do the thing. It kind of damaged my vocal cords for a while, but they came back. That was the other thing: I didn't know how my voice was going to be, putting it to the test, doing a set twice a day in rehearsal. But it's been pretty good, so I'm happy.
In general, what's your life been like since exiting the band?
Well, there have been a lot of things that weren't on the radar, that just sort of showed up like that. And, of course, the whole COVID experience was something nobody saw coming. That wasn't so difficult for me, in a lot of ways, because I lead a fairly insular life anyway. I'm somewhat of a loner. And when I'm working, I'm working by myself most of the time. Certainly, on solo work, all of the time.
You know, we've gotten through that, and I think that was harder on my kids than it was on me. I think there's been a lesson in there somewhere, although I'm not sure what it is. Now, I mean, my god. Everyone wants to go out and tour, but now we've got this Delta variant, and who knows where that's going?
In the meantime, you just sort of look at all the things you didn't see coming over the last few years and put them in context with where you are now, and it actually provides a little more meaning, I think, for the tour and putting the album out now as opposed to putting it out three years ago. I think the subject matter and the music itself probably resonates a little more because of all that, too.
You've always had a knack for making effervescent music out of difficult or stressful topics. What about this contrast, or this tension, continues to attract you all these decades later?
[Long chuckle.] Wow. I don't know! It's not something I wish on myself. Whether it's a band or a family or a long-term marriage, there are going to be challenges that come up that require not only that you adapt, but accept things that you can't change. You have to come to the realization there's only so much you can control—to try to concentrate on what is positive and try to keep your wits about you in a situation that can lead you off in not-very-constructive directions.
That's something on a more general level that goes back to Rumours, even—where we had this huge test and were maybe poised to fall prey to all the external expectations that there were out there. To make a Rumours II and to become a piece of product that had been formulized. Obviously, I made the choice to go another route. So much of it is about the choices you make with the challenges that come along and how you choose to process them.
I don't know. It's not like I'm attracted to any of the dark at all. It's just that I think it exists hand-in-hand with the light, and there's nothing you can do about that.
To qualify my question, it's not like you're wishing pain on yourself as grist for the mill for songs. Everyone deals with the awkwardness and darkness of life to one degree or another. But it's rare that someone like yourself can flip it, or alchemize it, into something joyous.
Right. Well, I think you've got to try to keep the overview. And, again, in the same way, to go back to Fleetwood Mac and the Rumours album and how we were going through all this stuff as couples and breaking up and not being able to get closure. I was dealing with a lot of pain at Stevie having moved away from me and yet I was producing the band and was the bandleader—you've got to make choices for the bigger picture, so you've got to rise above all of that.
I think that's something you learn how to do. You try to transform that into something more transcendent.
Back in that bacchanalian era of Rumours, how did you guys survive compounding, compounding, compounding crises where one of them would have ruined any other band? As you say, were you guys just seeing the big picture through all of it?
Well, I don't know! I'll take some of the credit for that, but I think you're talking about people who, on paper, don't even belong in the same band together. But the synergy we created because of what was greater than the sum of the parts, and I think underneath all that darkness, there was a lot of love for each other. There was certainly a huge amount of chemistry.
I think it's just what you try to do. You can choose to react darkly to a dark situation or you can choose to react in a way that is somewhat cathartic or transformative and gets you away from that—without denying it, but just sort of contextualizing it.
With all the highs and lows, do you remember that as a particularly happy time, or in some other way?
Both. But even so, obviously, you can concentrate on the musical soap opera that was so much the subtext of our success back then, but I think you just move on.
In your solo work, what do you feel you can say that you can't with Fleetwood Mac? You touched on the politics and how it's easy-breezy in this format, but from a songwriting perspective, do you write in one box or the other?
I think my lyrics have gotten better—I would like to think—over the years because they've become less and less literal. Some of that has been arrived at because the process I use to record solo albums is far more—I've said this many times—but like painting. Because I'm playing everything and engineering it, it's basically you and your work. It's you and your canvas, so to speak. A musical canvas.
I think the solo work has just allowed me to continue to improve, because that process has allowed for risk and pushing the envelope and discovery in a way that the political process of Fleetwood Mac sometimes disallowed. It allowed it during the Tusk album, but then there was kind of a backlash politically when Tusk didn't sell 16 million albums. Mick [Fleetwood] comes to me and says, "Well, we're not going to do that again."
That's when I started making solo albums, because I realized if I was going to aspire to be an artist in the long term and continue to take those risks—and, to some degree, continue to thwart people's expectations of what they thought we were or I was—then I was going to have to do it with solo work. That's always where I've continued to grow as an artist, I think.
So, the songwriting has gotten, I think, more interesting and has more depth. It's also become somewhat indistinguishable from the production process, whereas with a band, you've got to bring in a complete song and bring it from point A to point B and it requires a lot more verbalization and politics. It's probably more like moviemaking.
The painting process is really something you can build and build and build off of. It's been an interesting sense of forward motion over the years.
It's fascinating that you've had this whole arc parallel to your journey in a major rock institution. This is your first solo album in a decade. What was your vision for it as opposed to the others, in any regard?
I think much of it was, again, subject-matter-wise: My kids are all basically grown up. I still have a 17-year-old daughter, but they're basically not children anymore. My wife and I have been together for 24 years. You start to have to—again, as I said—accept things and adapt to a thing you, perhaps, at one time, earlier on, you thought you'd never have to adapt to.
And yet I think you need to look at that with an acceptance and almost a celebration that that's just part of what it takes to keep learning and growing as a couple. To have your relationship continue to build on itself. Much of the album, lyric-wise, the content is addressing that: Lamenting it, but also celebrating it.
On a musical level, what I wanted to say, really, is something very simple and fundamental. I thought it'd be very cool to make more of a pop album than I've made before—maybe ever. But certainly since [1992's] Out of the Cradle. There was a sense of referring back to pop sensibilities that existed in Fleetwood Mac and in solo work, but probably in Fleetwood Mac to the point where you could probably connect the dots to a song like "On the Wrong Side" and "Go Your Own Way."
There was a conscious desire to circle back on something and revisit it. I wanted to make a pop album, and of course, there are a few tracks on there that represent the leftest edges of that. "Power Down" is one song that comes to mind. But generally speaking, the album has pop accessibility that I wanted to achieve, and I think, for the most part, I got there.
I definitely think of you as a melodist first and foremost. As opposed to favorite writers or musicians, per se, who are your favorite melodists out in the ether?
Well, obviously, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach. Geez, I don't know. Henry Mancini. How's that?
Back to your recovery from the heart surgery. Was it scary to think that you might not get to sing again? I mean, that's your whole livelihood.
Well, you know, it was interesting, because there was only so much I could control about it and I was also, in a larger sense, just dealing with recovering from the bypass, which took a few months.
I was probably more concerned with the specifics of what I had to do just to recover from such an invasive procedure, but yes—there was a point where we first saw someone in Los Angeles, a doctor. She turned me on to a voice therapist who would come to the house and have me do exercises. None of that seemed to do anything.
Eventually, she referred me to someone in Boston, who I guess is the guy who deals with singers who have voice problems. My wife and I flew to Boston a couple of times and he looked me over and said, "Look, this is going to take care of itself. I can't guarantee you that your voice is going to come back 100 percent."
And it probably hasn't, really, quite honestly. It's probably come back 95 percent. In rehearsals, we decided to lower the keys of a couple of songs a half step because I was having trouble hitting the notes I used to hit. But some of that just comes along with getting older. That's something we've done continuously over the years anyway, so that's all there is to say about that.
But at the point where this doctor says to me, "I can't guarantee you it's going to come back to 100 percent, but there's nothing you can do. You've just got to wait and it'll do what it's going to do," I just stopped worrying about it because I realized it was just a waiting game I had to play. Again, over a period of months, my voice returned and it seems to be working quite well now, so we're good.
Did you have to carry around a notepad and the whole bit?
No, no, no. I could talk, but it was [Affects rasp] kind of like that for a while. It just was not clear for a month and a half or two months, and then I started to get better.
Now that you're back in fighting shape, have you been writing any?
Well, when COVID hit, we had just moved from the house the kids were raised in to a slightly smaller house that we built. Right after that move, COVID hit, and the studio was still in the process of being finished up. It's downstairs in sort of a guest house in the backyard, and it's in the basement of that.
It was funny: I didn't have any great motivation to go down and work when COVID hit. I'm not sure why. But after a few months, I said to myself "I've got to force myself to go down there." So I did, and I got into a routine for a few months down there where I ended up starting and finishing maybe three new songs. There is something to pick up from whenever it's time to make another album, but I haven't done a huge amount of writing, no.
Well, it's not a very inspiring time.
It's pretty strange, yeah.
I must ask: What went through your head when you heard that Peter Green had died?
Well, when I heard about Peter Green, the first thing I said was, "I've got to call Mick," which I did. Mick and I had probably talked once before that since all the Fleetwood Mac stuff went down. He texted and emailed with me and stuff, but we hadn't had a lot of conversations. He and I were obviously on completely good terms at that point and I think he felt bad about that whole thing.
He didn't really want that to happen, but that's another conversation. But he and I commiserated about Peter. He was actually way more [undeterred] about it than I would have expected because I think the term he used was "He died a king's death," which means you go to sleep at night and you don't wake up. That's what happened to Peter, but it was sad. It was quite sad, obviously.
He wasn't really on the scene for very long, but he left quite a mark. Mick and I were able to share our sadness about that, for sure.
Do you remember the last time you saw Peter or spoke to him?
I think the last time would have been in 2015—the last time we toured in the U.K. with Fleetwood Mac after Christine came back. He was a funny guy when it came to interacting with me. Obviously, he wasn't maybe in the best mental shape anyway; I don't really know the finer points of that. He was always a bit standoffish with me; I'm not sure why.
Maybe he felt, as John McVie once said to Mick, that what we were doing was a long way from the blues. It could have been that, or maybe it was the other way: Maybe he was slightly threatened by it. I don't really know. But he was never overly warm to me for some reason.
But it was in 2015, probably. He used to come to our shows.
Feel free to not broach this at all, but is there anything you can share about where you stand with the rest of Fleetwood Mac at this time?
Look, that whole thing was really something that Stevie wanted to do. It was her doing. It wasn't Mick's doing or Christine's doing or John's.
Whatever she used as a pretense for my behavior in terms of saying she never wanted to work with me again was so minimal by comparison with what we'd been through over the previous 43 years that it didn't ring true at all to me. But on some level, I think she was a bit unhappy in her own life and was trying to remake the band slightly more in own image.
Again, this is all me theorizing—I don't know why—but I think over the last x number of tours, even going back to the Say You Will tour back in 2003, but certainly 2008 and '09, 2013, 2014 and '15, after Christine came back, my moments on stage were quite peak. I had many peak moments.
I had "The Chain"; I had "Tusk"; I had "Never Going Back Again"; I had "Big Love"; I had "So Afraid." I think my evolvement as a stage presence over time had sort of enlarged, and I think her—if you want to call it devolvement—as a stage presence over time had diminished a little bit. I think that was hard for her.
Obviously, she will be and was always the figurehead singer out there, but in terms of those peak moments, I don't think she enjoyed as many. And maybe she just didn't want to be around that anymore! I don't know. I don't blame her for anything, but I haven't really spoken with her about it.
As far as the others go, you know—Mick and Christine—I was a little disappointed with their lack of strength in terms of not standing up for me at the time, but I think they all had reasons they felt they couldn't stand up to Stevie, because she basically gave them an ultimatum: "Either Lindsey goes or I go."
It's a ridiculous ultimatum. It would be like Mick Jagger saying "Well, either Keith goes or I go." I mean, come on! It's not going to happen! But if you've got to choose one, I guess you've got to choose the singer! [Edgy laugh.] I got a text or an email from Christine not long after that apologizing: "I'm sorry I didn't stand up for you. I just bought a house." So, that pretty much says it all, you know?
In the ensuing years, I certainly have had good conversations with Christine and everything is great, but mostly with Mick. He and I were and will always be soulmates and he's said "I'd love to get the five of us back together." Of course, he knows I would come back like a shot if that was something that were politically feasible. It remains to be seen whether that is or not.
But one thing I will say is that when all of that went down, I didn't necessarily feel left out because I didn't get to do that tour. The only thing that really got to me is—as I mentioned a second ago—we spent 43 years rising above so many difficulties in order to fulfill our destiny, you know. That has always been the legacy of Fleetwood Mac beyond the music: We always got to do that. For 43 years.
I did not see the show they did with Mike Campbell and Neil Finn, but I did see the setlist. It had Peter Green and Bob Welch songs and it had Crowded House [breaks into a giggle] and Tom Petty songs! I thought, "Well, it's awfully generic at this point. Some might even call it a cover band to some degree." It's probably not a fair term to use, but even so, I don't think it did anything but dishonor that legacy that we had built for those 43 years. That was the only thing that bothered me.
So, to be able to come back and reestablish that legacy would be quite meaningful, I think. Whether or not that's possible remains to be seen, you know? I don't blame anybody or hold a grudge against any of them, including Stevie. I know what she did, she did it out of unhappiness or perhaps out of weakness. It's all part of being in a rock 'n' roll band, I guess.
I don't know who really knows who in this circle of musicians, but I hope there wasn't any awkwardness regarding Mike and Neil joining the band.
Well, it wasn't with me because I never really interacted with them. I think there probably was in terms of coming to the band. I know Stevie was not happy with Mike Campbell later on because it was a "He's not playing that part right!" kind of thing. I've always been a fan of Neil Finn anyway, but, you know, it's a strange situation to come in like that.
When you made that point about Mike, my first thought was "Hmm... I think there's a guy who knows how to play those parts just right!"
You're very much an artist in the now and you have a whole creative future ahead of you. But when you look back on the arc of your career—all of it so far—is there anything you'd do differently or tell yourself as a younger man?
Oh, boy. I don't think so! Whatever my part was in making Stevie feel the way she did in order to have to give the band an ultimatum, I would obviously not do that.
I think one of the things that maybe has been a good thing for me over the last three or four years since that happened—and not directly because of that—but because of that and the bypass and perhaps COVID and whatever else, I've gotten a little less self-involved, maybe, and looked around me a little more. Maybe that's something I could have done better from time to time.