Lindsey Buckingham: Staying Grounded & Creative
BY LARRY CRANE - NOVEMBER, 2021
Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours came out right before I started high school. I remember most of my graduating class (not including me!) singing “Dreams” at our ceremony in a park by a local creek. Growing up in Northern California, we knew that two members of the band, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, had come from our neck of the woods, and watching the group become one of the biggest selling rock bands ever was dizzying. When they came out with Tusk a little over two years later, I bought the double LP and absorbed it like teenagers do. I knew something different was going on with these songs, but it was years before I realized what Lindsey Buckingham was doing, and why someone would find creativity in a home studio they might not otherwise. Lindsey’s new self-titled album, written, produced, mixed, and recorded in his home studio, is another classic example of his best work, and it was an honor to talk to him about his process.
Tape Op is about music recording in all kinds of scenarios. Ever since I started it, you’ve been in the back of my mind as the perfect interview.
Well, I do have my own methods; that’s for sure! [laughter]
Exactly. I wanted to talk to you a bit about all of your various personal recording scenarios.
It’s well-known that a lot of home recording happened around the Tusk era, but did you have home recording setups before that, in the Buckingham/Nicks era, or in the Bay Area before that?
I did. When I was a late teenager and was in the band [Fritz] up in Northern California – that Stevie [Nicks] and I were both in, I was playing bass – I had an old commercial Sony 2-track. It had that sound-on-sound feature, where you could take one recording, say on the left channel, and then bounce it over to the right channel as you were recording something over it. I could begin to get a multitrack effect, one track at a time, which is pretty much the way that Les Paul [Tape Op #50] did it. That was his method and example that probably hit home with me. Then, a little bit later, probably about when I was 20 or 21, I acquired an Ampex AG-440 4-track, which obviously still had limitations. But hey, The Beatles cut Sgt. Pepper’s… on those, so it opened up the whole idea. It gave me much more flexibility. I was already into what I would call that “painting process” as early as that point, where I was putting things down all by myself, and doing the architecture around a song.
Did that influence the way you arrange guitars? I’ve interviewed Ken Caillat [Tape Op #96] before about how you put little filigrees and figures in; sometimes they are very simple parts to build a whole.
Right. Well, so much of my function in Fleetwood Mac was to take raw material and fashion it into a sound. I had the vision to do that, and I apparently had the tools to do that. Much of that was based around having a ground-up familiarity with a self-sufficiency, if you will; doing it myself and then bringing that into a more communal arena, for sure. So yeah, absolutely.
Did you have a home setup around the time of the self-titled Fleetwood Mac album?
When we first joined Fleetwood Mac, all of Stevie’s songs and my songs were already demoed out on my AG-440. That album only took a few months to do, and part of that was Keith Olsen [Tape Op #33] being in control of the engineering, as well as overseeing that things didn’t get too – shall we say? – self-indulgent. There was a lot at stake for them, because they were almost ready to be booted by Warner [Bros.] before we joined. They’d had so many non sequitur albums. The ability to make that album so quickly was largely due to the fact that all of Stevie’s and my material had been blocked out. What you hear on the record would be very close to what the demos were like, of course without John [McVie] and Mick [Fleetwood] as the rhythm section. I didn’t get a 24-track until a bit later, until there was a little bit more money coming in. Somewhere in the middle of the Rumours process is when I probably got one.
Right. That must have been a big step. A 24-track tape deck is nothing without a console, and then you need speakers and something to mix to.
I first got a 24-track and the machine at my house, [the one] that I did most of the work on my songs that ended up on Tusk. I would start these tracks as paintings, and then discover and find something which was a little bit more to the left. Then I’d bring them in for the band to add to. What’s funny is that I did not have a proper console at that time. I had enough channels to be able to play everything [back] at once, but it wasn’t a large thing. It was more or less something you’d take on the road. I didn’t get a proper console until maybe 1985 or ‘86, when I put one into my studio in my house up in Bel Air, and that’s the console I still have.
A Neotek. It still sounds great and still works great. That’s what we cut Tango in the Night on. It took me a while to get there.
Your engineering chops obviously kept improving. A lot of this was a necessity, but were you observing engineers in the studio?
Well, some of it was learning the specifics of EQ and understanding what that was. But so much of it, as with everything else I’ve done – like with my learning to play guitar – was all self-taught. It was intuitive. Yes, of course being around other engineers had some influence. But I think it was more that my method flourished. If you track the solo work, it seemed to unfold over time and the writing process became increasingly intertwined with the recording process. Unlike making an album with Fleetwood Mac, where I’ve gotta go in with more or less a complete idea, everything is more conscious and political, and getting from point A to point B has to be verbalized. It’s probably a bit more like making a movie. What I was doing, as I say, was like painting. It’s the one-on-one I get with the canvas. The better painter you become, the more it all starts to become one thing. The engineering skills fell into place as an aspect of everything else improving as I went along. Including my writing, hopefully.
Is that painter version of recording and creating the reason that you did so much instigation of ideas and working at home around the Tusk era, even though the studio at The Village [Recorder] was ready for you to work in?
Well, there was also a kind of work ethic and philosophy that kicked in at that point in the post-Rumours environment that we were living in. I think when Rumours was finished, everyone assumed that it would be successful, because we knew we’d made a good album. We knew we’d made a truthful album. Clearly the first album before, that had sold multi-millions of copies by the end of the day. But no one could have predicted the scale that it eventually got to, where the success becomes less about the music than about the success itself.
You find yourself potentially in a place now poised to begin to buckle to the external influences and expectations that are now completely surrounding you. Those are expectations from fans, maybe even from within the band to some degree, and certainly from the record label. You see so many artists who may start to paint themselves into the corner. We could have said, “Let’s make Rumours 2, and let’s do it to try to repeat the commercial outcome,” which could never have been repeated anyway. I was going completely the other way, thinking, “No, I’ve got choices to make here for myself and for the band.” I don’t think we wanted to become a piece of product or to fall prey to the corporate formula, which is: If something works, run it into the ground until it’s dead and then move on. We wanted to continue to do things on our own terms, to be spontaneous, and to take risks. That was the mindset. If you’re going to try to define yourself in the long term as an artist and not just as a piece of product, that’s where you’ve got to go. You can take examples where it was done far more incrementally, like The Beatles, where they took the whole world along with them. We made a complete left turn because that’s where the music took me. It ended up being a completely different scenario for making an album. It was great. The band might have been a little skeptical or worried about it at first, and then they eventually got totally drawn into the spirit of it.
Yeah, definitely. And considering you’ve got three songwriters in the band, it gave a lot of room for everyone to have different songs and vibes going on on that whole record.
Right. Obviously, Rumours was all about the two couples, and the dynamic and dysfunction. I think there was something about the post-Rumours environment that invited that kind of breadth that you found, and the slightly more – well, more than slightly – esoteric approach you find on Tusk.
Following that, you expanded your studio with the Neotek console. Was it taking over your home at this point? Did you have enough space?
No, it wasn’t. It was a relatively small studio. It’s not like I had a control room with glass and then a recording room. It was all in what had been a three-car garage. But there was still plenty of room to set up a kit of drums and to track. It was all in an external building from the house proper. I’ll tell you what did take over the home, in a sense, was just the presence of the band being up there for so long. The reason that I took leave of Fleetwood Mac after making that album – and didn’t want to do the tour – was because everyone, certainly the other four, had hit critical mass in terms of their lifestyle and the alcohol and substance intake. It had gotten pretty unfocused and dysfunctional. One of the triumphs of Tango in the Night was that we were able to again prevail in a fairly chaotic environment, where we only saw Stevie for a few weeks out of a year. Mick was living in a trailer in my front yard. That did begin to impinge on the home scene, having those two things in one place. But, other than that, when the band was not there, it was just a logical extension of my psyche, and it was an important thing to have nearby.
Did you use a lot of the same equipment to do the new self-titled solo record too?
Well, yes. I still have that console. Back then I probably had a Studer 48 [track digital deck] maybe. But now, I’m not working off of Pro Tools. I’m still working off of an old Sony digital 48-track, reel-to-reel, and it’s still the process that I use, using the VSO [variable speed oscillator]. My method hasn’t been screaming for the need for Pro Tools. Not that I don’t think Pro Tools wouldn’t open up new things. Part of me thinks it might open up too many possibilities.
Oh, it’s true. We all know now! [laughter]
Well, again you go back to The Beatles doing Sgt. Pepper’s… on a 4-track. I had to make decisions that were going to be written in stone as I went along, as I began to combine stuff. “Okay, the drums and the bass and the rhythm guitar are right there.” You can’t change that. The linearity of that had a validity that sometimes gets lost in the sea of possibilities now.
On the new album, you did all the engineering besides Mark Needham mixing a song.
The record sounds fantastic too.
Well, thank you. Coming from you, I really appreciate that. I don’t know what I’m doing. Again, it’s all by intuition and feel.
Some of your projects recently have been more minimal, like a sort of guitar orchestra.
Yeah. Under the Skin was very much that way, for sure. Even some of the music on the album with Christine [Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie] was a little bit that way. I will say – that even on albums that were largely ensembles – that since Under the Skin, I’ve always tried to include a good representation of that element because of the orchestral guitar work. I wasn’t that concerned with that on this album, for some reason. Part of me wanted to refer back to an earlier set of reference points, many of which were Fleetwood Mac reference points.
I said to myself, “I want to make a pop album,” whatever that means. It was a way of circling back, hopefully in a timely and appropriate way.
Working on your own like this, what boundary defines when a project or song is finished?
Oh, good question! Well, I love to go out to the car constantly. Long before mixing, almost with every creative decision, I might have to make, I take it out to the car and drive around. If I’ve got three options, put them all on a CD. I get myself out of my working environment to have more objectivity. That goes along with the idea of knowing when I’m finished or knowing when a mix is finished. Keep going with it until it feels it’s the way it’s supposed to be, or that it’s good enough. There’s always more you can do, but at some point, you’ve got to say, “Okay, that’s good. That’s fine.” Part of the mixing for me comes from the fact that I’m mixing to an Ampex 2-track analog. I will run one section, get that the way I want it, and then – say I’m going from a verse to a chorus – then I’ll stop the tape and work on the chorus, work on the level changes, and then I’ll get out the razor blade and cut them together. So, I’ve got this sequential thing that I’m working on, much like editing a film. As I start to see the sequence unfold properly, that gives me an in-the-moment confidence that the mix is going the way I want it, because I’m making decisions from section to section that I’m comfortable with.
Do you ever find yourself re-mixing a section and cutting it back into the tape?
Sometimes. But usually I get to a point where it seems to work. The only tricky part of that is like when I get to a chorus; I may want to pump up the level a little bit, which is fine. But if I keep doing that then the song’s going to ramp up. Sometimes it gives whoever’s mastering it a bit of a headache to try to get it in control, because I might have something that’s a little unruly by the end of the song in terms of the overall level.
With Fleetwood Mac’s Say You Will, Mark Needham did most of the mixing on that with you. I thought his, and your, work on that record was interesting.
Well, that was so all over the map, in terms of who was involved at various times. Most of my material on that was begun as a solo album. Much of it was done with Mick and an engineer named Ken Allardyce – at a time before I rejoined Fleetwood Mac – with producer Rob Cavallo, who was still a staff producer at Warner Bros. at that time. When the band came to me, I think my being in the studio with Mick acted as the catalyst for them to get interested in urging me to come back – which they did rather aggressively – and I agreed. Much of that work got put aside while we did The Dance album, which was a live album – something we could do quickly to get out on the road and reestablish the band as a fivesome. After that, Christine decided that she wanted to take a break from the band, so we went on as a four-piece. At that point, in terms of what I had to offer for the Say You Will album, this is what I had sitting on the shelf; all this music that had meant to be a solo album. So, I’ve got to start with it being stuff that was engineered by Ken Allardyce in the studio and co-produced by Rob Cavallo, and then take it to my house. We cut songs with Stevie in a house, and we finished my songs. I added a couple of new ones. Then it finally got turned over to Mark to mix the whole thing.
On a lot of your work, including the new record, there’s a use of drum machines or looped percussion. Is that how you start composing or building tracks, then adding on top?
Well, it depends. There are a couple of songs where I was using a multitrack drum loop that I had. I actually used the same loop for two of the songs, “Power Down” and “Swan Song,” although I used different parts of the loop for that. Those are clearly tracks that are twins with each other in a way; even the use of their background vocals. Most of the other tracks on there, the drums are played by hand off of a keyboard.
Oh, okay. Right.
Something like “On the Wrong Side” is just me. Basically, I’m putting down a guitar, and I’ve got the form of the track laid out, at least. I’d probably start with something like a hi-hat, because that’s going to be sitting on the top side. Then I want to try and maybe do a kick, which might be sitting close to where the hi-hat is, and then a snare I want to be a little bit behind if I can. I try to make that all happen by hand as an overdub. I think it worked all right. I thought to myself, “Gee, there’s really no performance spontaneity on the drums on these tracks.” Then I rationalized my way out of it, thinking, “Well, Empire of the Sun’s never used a drum fill.” It’s like that; thinking about whether that’s even important. I thought, “Well, it really isn’t, in this context.”
What’s the state of your studio now? It’s still at your home?
Well, it’s the same. It’s funny, because we were living five houses down the street in a house we built. I had a studio down there, and all of the work since 2006 has been done in that studio, including the new album. Then we bought a piece of property up the street in order to tear down the old house and build a new house as a spec project; to turn it over. At some point during that process, we realized that we didn’t really need the space where we were five houses down. So, we decided to sell that and move into this house. We have one child who’s still in high school at Brentwood, which is very close to here, so we wanted to stay in the neighborhood.
And you’ve moved the studio as well?
Yeah. We moved it up the street. It was funny, we moved in here not very long before COVID hit. For some reason I wasn’t that inspired to go down there, because we’d made two false starts to try to get this album out. One was around the time I had my bypass, and that put things on hold. Then I was auditioning drummers when COVID hit, and we had to kick it down the road again. So, I was like, “Eh...” But after a while I forced myself to go down there. Eventually, I did start and finish three new tracks. There’s something to refer back to when it’s time to think about another album. A thread to pick up on.
You’ve always got to have a little bit of seed to start the next one. I want you to know that you’re inspiring. You’ve shown a way to be artistic, to be an artist, and jump into the recording part.
Well, it really helps define who I am, and it helps me to stay grounded in a creative process, which is something a lot of people lose over time. I feel lucky. I think that some of it was just luck, but some of it was about the choices that I made. I’m happy.