Fleetwood Mac Is Back!

Jul 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson

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“Things are good,” Lindsey Buckingham says cheerily on the eve of Fleetwood Mac's cross-country tour. “We've got a nice fresh set going and a fresh album that we all like. The band sounds really good. I've got two great kids [both under 5]. It's really a nice time for me.”

On this evening in early May, Buckingham is ensconced with engineer Mark Needham at Cornerstone Studios in Chatsworth (in the North Valley, adjacent to L.A.) working on a radio mix for Stevie Nicks' song “Say You Will,” which is also the title of Fleetwood Mac's new album: the first studio disc to feature Buckingham and Nicks since Tango In the Night in 1987. Missing in action from Fleetwood Mac this time around is singer/songwriter/keyboardist Christine McVie, who left the group during the 1997 reunion tour, which produced the multi-Platinum live “hits” album and video, The Dance. (McVie does appear on a couple of tunes but has no songs or lead vocals.) Of course, drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie are still on hand to anchor the band; they are the remaining links to the group's distant past as a British blues band and to the multitude of incarnations since.

Say You Will really feels like three albums in one. During the course of 18 songs and 76 minutes, there are a number of tunes that have that classic, unmistakable Fleetwood Mac sound: the soaring harmonies, the glistening acoustic and churning electric guitars, the rock-solid rhythm section. Songs such as “What's the World Coming to,” “Say You Will,” “Thrown Down,” “Steal Your Heart Away” and “Bleed to Love Her” are sure to please the millions of fans who loved Rumours and Mirage and the more commercial side of the group. But there's always been an idiosyncratic — even eccentric — edge to this band, too, and Say You Will offers plenty of that. Nicks' tunes have always sounded like they come from her own singular universe. And left to his own devices, Buckingham will, more often than not, come up with songs and musical textures that fall outside of mainstream tastes. In a sense, Say You Will is a glorious compromise: It began its life as a Buckingham solo album but morphed into a Fleetwood Mac album over time, taking on more of the other members' musical personalities. In overall feeling and flavor, it most resembles Tusk, the group's alternately puzzling and pleasing follow-up to the giga-selling Rumours.

I spoke with Buckingham about the recording of Say You Will, and then followed up with a call to Mark Needham (see sidebar), who recorded many of the overdubs and mixed the album on the Neve VR at Cornerstone.

I'm intrigued by this photo on the center of the album, which shows you and Stevie and Mick and John all recording in a single room; no isolated control room. What's going on there and where is that?
That's totally unfraudulent, really. [Laughs] That is the room in which, not the whole album was recorded — because all of my songs were already done for the most part — but a lot was recorded there. We got Stevie on there.

Is that the “Bellagio House” mentioned in the credits?
Yes. I was basically done with a solo album [a couple of years ago] and I took it over to Warner [Bros.] and they were kind of in a period of transition where pretty much the whole regime was going to be leaving because they'd been bought by AOL. So it was not a good time to be thinking about putting out the album. So I said, “Mick, why don't we rent a house and see if we can record some of Stevie's songs, and either this will morph into a bigger situation or it won't. At least we will have started some material for a possible [Fleetwood Mac] album.” So we found this nice house up in Bel Air and set up shop in the living room, and that's what that photo is. It went really, really well, so eventually I dropped the idea of doing my solo album and a lot of it became part of a new Fleetwood Mac album. Stevie sent over a bunch of songs — she was on the road at the time — and we worked on those. A lot of what you see in the picture is my gear. I have an old Neotek Elite console and a whole bunch of other stuff I've had for years. Those songs were all cut on a Sony 48-track reel-to-reel and that was it. It was a very low-key situation; I did a lot of the engineering myself.

So John and Mick were already part of the solo album?
Yeah. There were a couple of stray bass parts that aren't John's, I guess, but for all of the other things that got done later that didn't have them on it, we recut the tracks and then flew the parts in. So it's all John and Mick. So the stuff that was cut in that room [Bellagio House] was basically Stevie.

Can you talk about the transformation of your tracks that you'd done for your album into Fleetwood Mac tracks?
There really wasn't much to do because so much of it had John and Mick already [on it]. There wasn't the sense that you had to open up my tracks and shift them one way or the other. They were pretty much already there. The only thing we did was recall most of them and get Stevie's voice on them.

What we ended up doing with Stevie's songs was not dissimilar to my own process. I guess that was one of the things that was satisfying for me. It was a more solitary thing of dabbling and trying things out; it's a more personal and subconscious process. And during a lot of that, I would also engineer, which became very natural for me. It was the whole connection between the songs and the technology for capturing the songs, as an artist would have his brush. When you work like that, it gets harder to find someone else to intuitively find these musical ideas that are so specific and elusive and abstract until you find them. So I tended to work best alone.

One of the things that was significant about using this process [on Say You Will] was that I was applying this over Stevie's songs for the first time, because there was not an engineer there and there was not the sort of politics that goes along with that or even the verbalizing. It was just a direct connection with that intuition. So the process of making her songs was very similar to the process of making my songs.

Did you do the work on your own album at home?
Actually, Mick and I started at Ocean Way, where the basic tracks were mixed by Ken Allardyce. And we had [producer] Rob Cavallo down there for some of that. I had just met Rob and we wanted to work together. Anyway, at the end of cutting those tracks and doing some of the basic fill-ins, which would be bass and rough vocals, there was a push to put that album down and do [Fleetwood Mac], which is what I did.

On your solo albums, you're free to explore any style you choose and work with whatever players you want. Did working with Fleetwood Mac again feel limiting in any way?
Less so this time. I think it might've felt more like that had we, say, made a single album that had 12 songs on it. You would have really had to marginalize so much of the landscape that was on the esoteric side. But by having nine songs of mine that really run the gamut, it was not that much of an adjustment for me. It didn't feel like what was wanting to be heard was not being heard.

Obviously, though, you're also working with another writer who's going to have a different sensibility, and there can be a push-pull in terms of the end selection of those tunes or how they all add up. Stevie's sensibilities are always going to be a little more mainstream than mine, but that's part of being in a band. I think it worked out very well for both of us.

When you put together a song and layer it with dozens of parts and use half-speed guitars and various artificial enhancements, do you ever think about whether it's going to be performable or is that something you worry about later, like right now when you're about to go on tour?
[Laughs] I don't worry about it too much. You have to take a song for what it is; you have to be excited about it on its own terms. You can't think, “Well, gee, this is a nice piece of studio music, but we shouldn't be doing this, or we should change it because it's possibly not lending itself to a live situation.” You have to get past that first and deal with the whole act of making an album and not think too much beyond that; or I do, anyway. Usually, even in the most complicated arrangement, there's a song underneath that you could perform. Finding that and developing that becomes another challenge and a new way to think about the song. But not everything works live.

You're famous for being a tinkerer in the studio. Is it hard to know when to stop and when a song is done?
Oh, yeah! [Laughs] There's always one more thing you can try.

Of course if you're not using zillion tracks of Pro Tools, I guess maybe you're a little more limited.
You have to prioritize after you run out of tracks. [Laughs] Actually, I'm getting better about knowing when to stop, and then, of course in a band, it's a bit easier to stop because there is “x” amount of the musicality and the rhythm and the style and the color that's already been covered by this fantastic rhythm section. That's different than working a more overdub-y musician-esque approach, which I have done also. It wasn't too hard this time, plus there were other people to tell me when to stop. [Laughs]

What was the mix like? Obviously, there are a lot of vocal effects, guitar effects, interesting reverbs and the like. Was most of that done at the mix stage?
Well, it depends. I predid a lot of that as an aspect of defining the style, really. On songs like “Miranda” and “Come,” one of the things I was interested in was breaking up the line of singing so you are aware that the sound is changing, and it becomes dimensional in an artificial way and you are aware of the artificiality of it. The idea was to sort of create facets, as if you were viewing, say, a Cubist painting where the surface had been broken up and made artificial by painting it from different angles or just by breaking it up. It was an idea from [Cubism] to make something more surreal and stylistic, and yet also interesting. So a few of those [effects] were done during the tracking, some as part of the overdub process, and then Mark [Needham] had a few of his own tricks.

Is it fair to say that this album has more in common with Tusk than other Fleetwood Mac albums?
Absolutely. After we'd done Rumours and it was a big success and all that, and we toured a lot, I went to the band before we made Tusk and said, “Look, when we record this album, I want to spend a lot of time at home and I want to try some different things. I want to try to expand our recording process and our songwriting.” And, obviously, try to undermine the status quo a little bit, too. So that was an idea that was understood and really embraced quite well by the band at the time, and that was kind of a victory for me.

Then what happened was, when Tusk didn't sell 16 million copies like Rumours

When it failed to sell 16 million copies!
Right! It was just a horrible situation! [Laughs] It clearly wasn't as commercial and there was kind of this backlash that came down and everyone sort of said, “Well, we're not going to do that anymore.” So Mirage and Tango were situations where I was, to varying degrees, cut off at the knees in terms of the whole possibility of working that way. And that's one reason I started doing solo albums.

Anyway, working on [Say You Will] was more like the Tusk model. Of course, things were different: The dynamic had changed, my skills had changed, the times had changed and the context of what we were doing had changed. But given all of that, it was satisfying to me, personally, to be able to get back to what was Tusk-like about the process, but also have it be much more inclusive in some ways; not just of the people, but of a [musical] style, which was not just esoteric but also somewhat mainstream. For years, I was very schizoid about the Tusk-side of what I wanted to pursue and the Rumours side, if you want to pick two albums. And I think this album does really quite well at kind of marrying those two things.

Visit Needham online at www.markneedham.com.

DIGGING DEEPER

MARK NEEDHAM MIXES THE MAC

Over the course of two decades as an engineer and mixer, Mark Needham has worked with a wide variety of acts, including rockers such as Chris Isaak (eight albums), Bruce Hornsby, Cake and the Red House Painters, blues legend Charles Brown, and jazz greats Pharoah Sanders, Nat Adderley and Cedar Walton. He first met Lindsey Buckingham two-and-a-half years ago when he was brought in at the suggestion of Rob Cavallo to mix what was then to be a solo album for the guitarist at Conway in L.A. The two hit it off, and when the solo album turned into a Fleetwood Mac disc, Needham came onboard to help with some overdubs and mixing.

Needham says that the mixes he'd worked on for the solo album didn't change much when the project changed: “We'd put a lot of time into those already. I guess we reined a few of them in slightly. On the lead vocals on his original stuff, we really kept the vocal pretty buried in, with a lot of effects. When we worked on the mixes again later [for Fleetwood Mac], we brought some of those vocals out a little; maybe another 10 percent closer to the front.”

Whereas Buckingham used his Neotek console and Sony 3348 2-inch to cut tracks at the Bellagio House, Needham and Buckingham mixed at Cornerstone, feeding DAW tracks through the studio's Neve VR console, plus racks of his own outboard gear. Additionally, there were some tracks from the solo project that were on analog reels. “For most of the stuff, we're using a 64-channel Pro Tools rig, and then I have probably four or five racks of outboard gear that travel with me. On a couple of tunes, we actually had 128 channels; we brought in a [Pro Tools] HD system. But mostly we were just using my [Pro Tools] 888 24-bit system with the dB Technologies converters on the output. We added some parts in the studio while we were mixing, and then I like to add in additional stuff, as well. I usually add in several more drum sounds. And I like to have the ability to be able to split the vocal off onto maybe three or four returns.”

While he used “quite a few” plug-ins on the project, Needham notes that “all of my compression and EQs are outboard analog. I have several Neve pre's and EQs and API 550s and 560s. I also use Jeff Daking EQs, Focusrite Reds, 1176s, 1178s. I have a bunch of Manleys that I like. I use the Drawmer 1969 [compressor] on background vocals. Recently, I've been using some SPL [Sound Performance Labs] things that I got hooked up with on some projects I did over in Amsterdam. One is a piece called a Transient Designer, which I love on drums. Then there's the cool [Charisma] Tube [processor] and their Qure EQ. I love what that does for acoustic instruments that have been processed through the mill on digital gear; the top end can get a little dull and hard to fit into a mix, but I've been very happy with what [the Qure] did. I have stacks and stacks of gear, and we used a lot of it on this album.”

Needham says that he enjoyed the challenge of making a coherent mix out of the many layers of tracks Buckingham delivered. “The goal, of course, is to be able to actually distinguish all the parts. Sometimes you have 20 or 30 vocals going and seven or eight percussion tracks and numerous guitar parts; really, a lot of information.”

I asked Needham the same question I'd asked Buckingham: How do you know when it's done? He, too, laughed. “When we've tried every possibility that we can imagine?” He notes that on the two songs that used 128 tracks — “Peacekeeper” and “What's the World Coming to” — “I took two older versions of each [from the solo sessions] and the new versions that the band had recorded, which were in slightly different tempos and keys, and combined all that together, pulling out parts from both; I made a hybrid of them.”

One challenge Needham faced was dealing with Buckingham's beloved half-speed guitar parts: “The tempo variations made it a little difficult to transfer it over to Pro Tools because his VSO speeds range from two whole steps up to a whole step down, which caused some problems with the Pro Tools clock,” he says.

Needham and Buckingham spent close to four months working on the album, including time spent mixing a 5.1 version. Not surprisingly, the surround medium opened up a lot of possibilities for Needham, because there were so many layers of information available to be spread around. “I tried not to go overboard with things spinning around,” he says. “I still like to keep a fairly direct sound up front. I think if you split off too many things, you start to lose the focus of the band's upfront playing.”

Asked if he was very conscious of Fleetwood Mac's impressive track record as he mixed the album, Needham says, “It's hard not to be aware of their history and have that make some impression on how you're approaching your mixes. For at least 50 percent of it, we were trying to keep the classic, fat Fleetwood Mac sound, but with a few experimental edges on it, à la Tusk. It was a really interesting experience. I've always loved the band, and it was fascinating to go in and mix their album. I can't thank them enough for the opportunity.”
Blair Jackson

The year was 1989, the studio was the Complex, the album was Behind the Mask. It's Fleetwood Mac, in their own words, from the Mix archives.






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