interview by MATT SWEENEY
portraits by ANNABEL MEHRAN
In the late ’60s Fleetwood Mac, the band led by the guitarist and singer Peter Green, was one of the most influential groups in Britain. Their music was dark, heavy, haunted, minimal, hypnotic,
and sexy. In 1970 Peter Green quit the band due to a nervous breakdown,but he left behind a template for his bandmates. In the following five years, during which the band made six albums, drummer Mick Fleetwood, bassist John McVie, and keyboardist/vocalist Christine McVie maintained the Fleetwood Mac sound using various front men.
In 1975 they hooked up with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks in Los Angeles and within weeks recorded one of the biggest-selling rock records of all time. Amazingly, the band achieved great success without having any management: Mick Fleetwood and John McVie steered the band through the ’70s, cocktails in hand. Fleetwood Mac never had a stylist-assisted image or a management company’s plan. Yet their music and visual style continues to inspire and influence young people. I was lucky enough to talk to Mick Fleetwood about the elements that comprise the Fleetwood Mac style.
MATT SWEENEY — Where are you leaving most of the time?
MICK FLEETWOOD — Maybe in LA. But I also live in Hawaii, on Maui. That’s definitely where my home is.
MATT SWEENEY — Do you play gigs over there?
MICK FLEETWOOD — Yeah, I’m quietly active. I have two rotating bands. One is called Island Rumours Band. The other is a full-on blues band. We mainly do private stuff on the island, from time to time. There are a lot of great players living on the island. Michael McDonald just moved there. And there’s Willie Nelson, Pat Simmons of the Doobie Brothers, and Nickelback.
MATT SWEENEY — The Nickelback guys live there?
MICK FLEETWOOD — One of the guys from Nickelback. And James Hetfield, of Metallica, lives on the big island, Oahu.
MATT SWEENEY — Have you jammed with Hetfield?
MICK FLEETWOOD — I did, last New Year’s Eve. I had them all up to my house in the mountains, which I consider a jam space — or the scene where the music is committed.
MATT SWEENEY — Which drummers did you study or admire when you were a kid? I ask because I can’t think of a single other drummer who plays like you.
MICK FLEETWOOD — That’s probably because I still don’t know what I’m doing. But when I was teaching myself to play — on my little toy drum kit up in the attic — I listened to Tony Meehan, the drummer in the British instrumental band, The Shadows. He was my original drum hero. I also loved all the stuff that Buddy Holly and The Crickets did, that sort of “Wipe Out” tom-tom type stuff, which was often not really drums, but someone banging on cardboard boxes and things. After that I just played along with records. I didn’t really know what they were. I always liked that childlike tom-tom jungle-gym stuff, probably because it was the easiest thing to do. Duane Eddy, Sandy Nelson…
MATT SWEENEY — Oh, he’s awesome.
MICK FLEETWOOD — I really can’t learn, which is why I love to play drums. [Laughs] I developed a sort of spastic style, which, on paper, doesn’t make any sense, but people seem to like what I do. It’s basically the best way I can express my feelings. Drums are the tools I use to express myself. So I listen like a hawk to feel what’s going on in the front line. That comes from playing blues, which is all about doing a lot with very little. You become a trained listener to stuff that is beautifully simple. It all comes from nurturing dynamics with other players.
MATT SWEENEY — Did Peter Green’s restraint inform you? He struck me as one of the first guys who could say a lot with very little — with a single note, even.
MICK FLEETWOOD — Completely. He was my mentor, my partner, and my friend. That was my training ground. I didn’t really have a lot of confidence. I was going around with Aynsley Dunbar, the drummer of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, who was an incredible drummer, and still is. I had sort of a humorous self-defacing element to me, and Peter was a great encourager of it. He told me that it was one of the best things about my playing. I’m a bit of a child, really, but so are Stevie and Lindsey. John is more of a real player, someone who gets in the trenches. But the truth is, none of us have tremendous confidence. And I think that’s part of the band’s charm. We’re petrified getting up on a stage. I’m better now at throwing myself in the deep end, but we’re not slick at all.
MATT SWEENEY — I can relate to that. During the last few years I’ve done studio work and sometimes I’ve found that I’m almost just pretending.
MICK FLEETWOOD — So you put love into it.
MATT SWEENEY — Yeah. But as far as your drumming goes, it sounds like you listen and react to the moment.
MICK FLEETWOOD — Absolutely. I’m like a lemming going to the slaughter. I don’t know verses and choruses. [Laughs] When Lindsey joined Fleetwood Mac he was very aware of Then Play On, the last album that Peter played on, and the other albums the band had done. In our rehearsals Lindsey would ask me to do such-and-such in the chorus. I’d say, well, I actually don’t know where that is, but I’ll listen to the words, and when it comes to that bit I’ll have Lindsey kick his foot twice on the floor to let me know. I’m still like that. I have moments onstage when it feels like I’m playing a song for the first time — one that I’ve actually played for 40 years — because I’m on the edge of panicking, thinking that I don’t know it. It’s the same feeling of being slightly on the edge of a disaster, like being a dyslexic at school. But, in fact, it’s all about dynamics.
MATT SWEENEY — Looking back at the history of Fleetwood Mac, it seems like that kind of openness is one of the defining things about the band.
MICK FLEETWOOD — It’s magic for someone like Lindsey, whose guitar playing took years to develop — it’s only in the last ten years that he’s taken stock of the fact that he’s a great guitar player!
MATT SWEENEY — He’s one of my favorites.
MICK FLEETWOOD — He’s totally unique — and he has great technique. And I do the best I can for a song, with the tools I’ve got.
MATT SWEENEY — How did you meet Lindsey?
MICK FLEETWOOD — Before Lindsey and Stevie joined the band, Bob Welch was our front man. Near the end of a tour, on rather short notice, Bob said, “I’m done.” He had personal issues and was frustrated with the last album he did with us, Heroes Are Hard To Find. I was in LA, ostensibly looking for a studio to cut the next album — for Warner Bros. I met someone in a coffee shop who was working at a studio in Sound City, where Stevie and Lindsey were rehearsing, trying out some new Buckingham Nicks songs. Their producer, Keith Olsen, was in the studio and he played me a few tracks.
MATT SWEENEY — Every time I play that Buckingham Nicks album for people, it blows their minds. It isn’t available anymore — what’s up with that?
MICK FLEETWOOD — They don’t want it out.
MATT SWEENEY — That’s crazy.
MICK FLEETWOOD — It is crazy. They mumble about putting it out but they never do. Anyway, during the half an hour or so that I was in the studio with them their music made an impression on me. I met Lindsey very briefly, and I remember seeing Stevie, who was singing something. The whole thing happened in that one afternoon. Then off I went, back out on the road. Two or three weeks later the tour ended and Bob quit. I thought, Oh shit, we’re supposed to go into the studio. And as you know — if you’re well versed in the history of Fleetwood Mac — I’ve always been the gatekeeper.
MATT SWEENEY — Yeah, you were the manager of the definitive giant ’70s band. It was a self-managed band, which is a mind-blower. People always assume there’s somebody guiding musicians. But you managed to do Rumours and Tusk, two of the greatest records ever, by yourselves.
MICK FLEETWOOD — I agree. But I got too crazy and the others all got separate managers. Then we were in hell. But ever since Peter left the band my instinct has been selfish: I have to keep the band together or I don’t have a gig. So I had my A ha! moment, and thought, What about those guys I heard at Sound City!? Something profound happened that afternoon. They played “Crystal,” a very haunting guitar track. It sounded so different — not bluesy. I’m a sucker for great guitar players. I phoned Keith Olson, who warned me that they were almost married and probably wouldn’t be interested. I was just looking for a guitar player, which, I might add, is something Stevie won’t let me live down. She still says, “You didn’t want me in the band, but you couldn’t get Lindsey without me.” Which turned out not to be the case — I realized that Stevie wrote the lion’s share of the songs. So I said, “Let’s just find out.” [Laughs]
MATT SWEENEY — So that’s when Stevie and Lindsey joined the band.
MICK FLEETWOOD — I went back to LA and it became very apparent that Lindsey wasn’t keen on making the move. He has a very strong vision of what he wants, which isn’t always compliant with being in a band. Even when we were making Tusk he went completely against the grain, but I was really happy with what he did. That album is probably my favorite Fleetwood Mac album.
MATT SWEENEY — It’s the one that keeps on giving.
MICK FLEETWOOD — Elton John and Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam were just in Hawaii, and Elton told me that he thinks Tusk is one of the top 20 most important albums ever made. It’s always nice to get a compliment like that. Eddie said he knew all the fucking songs. The point being that Lindsey’s influence was very strong. But Lindsey wasn’t sure about joining Fleetwood Mac. He wanted to do what he set out to do with Stevie. But Stevie was fed up being the only one making money — by working at a coffee shop. Anyway, she won the day and they both joined Fleetwood Mac.
MATT SWEENEY — Since Peter Green’s departure, it seems like you put a lot of faith in guitar players. Like Danny Kirwan. I mean, Kiln House is an amazing album. “Station Man” is my jam.
MICK FLEETWOOD — “Station Man” is sort of a “Go Your Own Way” song. But losing Peter Green to illness was devastating to me. I was very, very close to him. John McVie was more of a mate. But by circumstance, my dear friend and partner John has been there through it all with me — and he’s still there. Peter and I started the band together. One of the things about Peter that rubbed off on me was his graciousness. He so wanted to be in a band, but he didn’t want the whole guitar-god thing — hence the name Fleetwood Mac. Peter was the band’s musical leader, but he gave half of the album Then Play On to Danny Kirwan, a teenager off the street. He gave Danny, an unknown entity, an equal share of the album, musically and songwriting-wise. He could have just had him play the fucking guitar and the guy would’ve been fucking lucky just to be been in the band.
MATT SWEENEY — That’s incredible.
MICK FLEETWOOD — There are bands with a specific, locked-in style and whoever comes in really just clones it. Our musical history isn’t like that at all.
MATT SWEENEY — I can’t think of any other bands that are like that.
MICK FLEETWOOD — There’s always a segue, especially when we play live, into the old days. If you look at the history of what John and I did, there has always been a solid platform for people to perform on. That’s really the story of Fleetwood Mac. A new lead actor could come in and actually own part of it, and wouldn’t have to be a clone of someone else. People were brought in because they had a spark of individuality, and I truly believe the blessing was that John, Chris, and I were a stage that needed actors. People were truly welcomed by us because we were only too aware that we were dead in the water unless we had someone who could really do something. The luck of it was that John and I didn’t go for the cheap fix.
MATT SWEENEY — Did Peter Green give you the confidence to do that?
MICK FLEETWOOD — Absolutely, bless his heart. From the beginning he was a stickler about it not being all about him, but all about the band. That spirit was so important. I remember one afternoon we were talking about the name. He’d written an instrumental and he called it “Fleetwood Mac” after John and I. The recording was a birthday present from John Mayall — this was when we were all in John Mayall’s band. John gave Peter three hours of studio time at Decca, with Gus Dudgeon, who went on to do Elton John’s Yellow Brick Road.
MATT SWEENEY — Is a recording of “Fleetwood Mac” still available?
MICK FLEETWOOD — Yes, it’s around.
MATT SWEENEY — Most people don’t know about Peter Green, or about “The Green Manalishi,” which is considered the first heavy metal song. You know, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons loves Peter Green. I had the opportunity to work with Billy, and we listened to the half-hour version of “Rattlesnake Shake.” He’s obsessed with the break in “Oh Well.”
MICK FLEETWOOD — I still have a nervous breakdown when I play that song. I think, “Oh god, I’m never going to get that cowbell.” We were a blues band that went on Top of the Pops and did that song. There were so many parts to it that I panicked. But I had an old tape recorder that I stuck in an old camera case — like the first Walkman ever invented, probably — and I stuck headphones into the speaker socket and walked around London for about two weeks listening to it. So I went on Top of the Pops sort of knowing it. But there you have the angst of doing something and not knowing what you’ve done.
MATT SWEENEY — A punk rock kid once asked me, “Have you heard Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked in Tonight’?”
MICK FLEETWOOD — Yeah, it was a B-side.
MATT SWEENEY — You can lay claim to punk rock and heavy metal in those two songs.
MICK FLEETWOOD — We were all blues, but we had humor. There were so many awful blues bands around — out of tune, Marshall amps… We had fun because Jeremy Spencer basically stayed in the Elmore James/Ricky Nelson/Elvis Presley ballpark. It could have been nothing but blues. The only recordings of all that sort of funky stuff are the BBC tapes, where you do get an idea of what our live shows were like. The unique thing about us was that the band could entirely change not only its personnel but also its style and still survive. And people generally really like what we’ve done. Look what happened when Lindsey and Stevie blossomed. It’s a happy story, but I don’t think the consummate document has ever really been produced about it. It’s fairly obvious that we’re not going to do too much more, but it doesn’t matter.
MATT SWEENEY — Speaking of style, it seems like everybody in the band has his or her own thing, which includes a fashion sense.
MICK FLEETWOOD — Stevie was like a pig in shit when she got the opportunity. Even before Fleetwood Mac, when she was still a dance student, she was wearing secondhand clothes. She lives it and has fun with it. And
I always fancied myself a bit of a dresser. With Lindsey, it was all about the playing.
MATT SWEENEY — What was London in the ’60s like, fashion-wise?
MICK FLEETWOOD — I was around for Mary Quant, all the early Vidal Sassoon people, and all the swinging London fashion. My sister Sally and her husband were in the middle of all of those people. They were artists and they hung out in Notting Hill Gate. I lived in my sister’s attic. I had a terrible problem, being so tall. Trousers were never cut long enough for me. At boarding school I always had my hair cut short, which I hated. But I left school when I was 14.
MATT SWEENEY — Whoa.
MICK FLEETWOOD — I had a chip on my shoulder, even before I went to London. So with the first money I got I went to the military stores and bought all those lovely jackets that were so nicely tailored and I cut off the arms. That was the theme in London. We were aspiring dandies. Then I met Rod Stewart and Long John Baldry and, well, forget it. [Laughs] They were so into clothes. My dream was to go to a tailor and have trousers made, which was unheard of. Rod and Long John turned me on to that. And Long John was, like, seven feet tall. I sort of vaguely knew him through Rod — I played with Rod for two years.
MATT SWEENEY — I didn’t know that.
MICK FLEETWOOD — Yeah, in a band called Shotgun Express, with Peter Bardens and Dave Ambrose. We were like another version of what Rod did with Long John Baldry, an R&B band.
MATT SWEENEY — Did you know Terry Reid?
MICK FLEETWOOD — I got to know him a bit later on. He was a singer who should’ve made it, but didn’t.
MATT SWEENEY — He told me about the time Vidal Sassoon gave him a haircut.
MICK FLEETWOOD — We were all about velvet jackets and the Chelsea set, aspiring to look like Eric Clapton — Eric is a fashion dude, a chameleon, and an image-maker. I pushed John and Peter into getting tailored coats — that was my doing, for better or worse. I did that with Lindsey, too. I told him to go to my tailor and have a black velvet jacket made, to wear with a cool shirt and some jeans.
MATT SWEENEY — So I can credit you with the velvet jacket and beat-up jeans look.
MICK FLEETWOOD — Between Stevie and me, everyone got the gist of coming up with something. I’m like a Renaissance man, which might be a carryover from the fencing I did as a kid. That’s where the knickerbockers came from. I had no money, and I realized my legs could move unrestricted in them. So I put on my old fencing gear. I cut off the arms of the jacket, which was made of canvas. Of course, when you sweat, canvas stinks. So I’d pour cologne over it every night. I didn’t know what dry cleaning was, and I didn’t want to wash it because it was already shrinking. I wore that thing for, like, two years. That’s how the whole Rumours thing happened. My arms were free, but I wanted to keep warm, so I wore a waistcoat. I like sweating. It was all really practical. Everyone thought it was a kooky look, so I never changed it.
MATT SWEENEY — One thing that I’ve noticed from living in New York, playing music there, and knowing fashion people, is that for the last 20 years, with the rise of the stylist, someone tells bands what to wear. Which to me seems completely against what rock and roll is all about. Did anybody ever try to push a stylist on you guys?
MICK FLEETWOOD — [Laughs] No. For years and years we managed ourselves. Consequently, we never had any whispering person puffing us up. We also did all the album covers ourselves.
MATT SWEENEY — That can’t be emphasized enough — making your own image and believing in yourself.
MICK FLEETWOOD — Despite all of the craziness and substance abuse, I thank the day we decided to manage ourselves. I mean, we had the rock and roll lifestyle, but, mercifully, we had a sense of humor about not being divas. And I think that came from the fact that we were handling our own affairs. When you don’t have someone manipulating you, you can’t hide anything. I couldn’t hide anything from the band. I was the guy who knew all the shit and I would tell the band everything, because I’m in the fucking band. They knew that, so they had to tell me the truth, because I wasn’t going to hold anything back from them. It was very unique, and, inadvertently, it was a blessing. We got a little crazy, but we were able to survive things that could have destroyed us. We all came from decent families and I think we reined ourselves in — not always with complete success, but we were responsible to ourselves. We weren’t Svengalis, which kept us somewhat real in a very unreal world, if that makes sense.
MATT SWEENEY — Again, being in New York, being around photographers and fashion people, I’ve noticed that every time there’s a photo shoot, the stylist brings in a picture of Fleetwood Mac from the Lindsey/Stevie era and tells people they should look like you. Of course, the great irony of it is that nobody was ever telling you how to look.
MICK FLEETWOOD — There you go. In fact, no one — including, mercifully, the record company — told us to do anything. To their credit, they kept out of the way. They really wanted us to have a manager and I said that that wasn’t going to happen, because we’d already been fucked by someone. It freaked them out because they had to deal directly with the band — there was no cushion between the band and themselves. It was an interesting situation. They soon learned that none of their business trickery would work so they stopped trying to use it. To their credit, they respected us. And we did OK. It became a team effort. The road managers became more important. They became part of this huge family. The only thing that went wrong was that after years and years changes had to be made — and were made. Some people got really confused because they weren’t part of the family anymore and they fell by the wayside. There are things I feel sad about — but not responsible for.
MATT SWEENEY — Thanks very much for this.
MICK FLEETWOOD — You’re very welcome.
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