30 Days Out Interview: Ken Caillat (Producer of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’)
by Denny Angelle
Fleetwood Mac was one of the most successful and unique rock bands of the 1970s. After toiling for nearly a decade as a journeyman British blues-rock band, the Mac exploded into mainstream consciousness when they added American pop rockers Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks to the lineup.
The peak came in 1977 when Fleetwood Mac released the album Rumours, which yielded four Top 10 singles, sold more than 40 million copies and won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. The band took almost a year to cut Rumours and while doing so lived a rock and roll soap opera marked by divorce, infidelity and constant drug use, all of which threatened to tear the band apart.
Buckingham and Nicks were no longer a couple, and they wrote thinly disguised songs about their failed relationship. Christine and John McVie were in the throes of their own divorce, as was drummer Mick Fleetwood. And all the while, the drugs and booze flowed freely.
Ken Caillat, as one of the producers of Rumours, had a ringside seat to the drama. He’s written a book, Making Rumours: The Inside Story of the Classic Fleetwood Mac Album, that pulls back the curtain on the making of this masterpiece rock album. We caught up with him after he visited Austin to talk about his book at the Texas Book Festival.
30 Days Out: How did you come to write the book?
Caillat: It was a time and an event that means a lot to many people. It was extraordinary to be a part of this album. I’m one of the only people who can write about how this great album was made. It’s kind of my responsibility to tell the story, I wish somebody had done that with the Beatles. While we were making Rumours I wanted to try and jot it all down, and I have extensive records and track sheets of everything we did. Not only was I a producer, I was also a kind of documentarian, I knew the facts of everything we did and when we did it.
Caillat: Actually when I began writing the book I had the intention of going to the band and getting their perspective. So I started trying to set up the interviews with the band, telling them I wanted to make sure it’s 100 percent correct and accurate. And after a while I got this phone call … They declined! They said they don’t help people, that’s not what they do.
30 Days Out: What does that mean?
Caillat: You got me!
30 Days Out: We really like the way you did it, sticking only to your point of view. You really didn’t need the band, right?
Caillat: Well, I am sure there was something they could have enlightened me on … the type of guitar strings they used, or some trick they did that I didn’t know about. I made a rule I wasn’t going to speculate on what they did when they went home. What I knew, what I saw, that’s what I wrote about. It would have been cool to have some of the intrigue that went on, that I only heard about. For example with Christine (McVie) … John (McVie) kept sniffing around the hotel, she didn’t want anything to do with him. Christine had to hide in Stevie’s room.
Caillat: Um, you know, sort of, but not necessarily. She was constant, she could be (unreasonable) at times, but most of the time you could just talk to her. Mick and the others, it wasn’t so easy. Sometimes you didn’t know what was going on and where you stood with them. If they were too high, you couldn’t talk to them.
30 Days Out: Were the members of Fleetwood Mac upset when they learned you were going to write this book?
Caillat: I don’t know … the funny thing is, I have done two DVDs about Rumours for two different companies at two different times. I interviewed the band for each one, and there was no problem. This time, though, after about two months of not getting any answers, I get a phone call saying the band has decided not to participate in my book. I think it was because Lindsey Buckingham may want to write his own book at some point. So he doesn’t want the band helping.
30 Days Out: You had a few problems with Lindsey down the road. How was he to work with?
Caillat: He was just a real nervous, intense guy. I used to say he’d walk in and suck the fun out of the room. There was an engineer who worked on the album after Mirage – Tango In The Night – the engineer read my book and called me up. He said ‘it’s so true. Whenever everyone walked out of the room and I was alone with Lindsey, it was very uncomfortable.’ You know he’s judging you, he’s thinking about something. He’s thinking that you are thinking something about him. At that point, while we were doing Rumours, he was a nervous nellie. He’s just like that: he’d come in in the morning, always rubbing his hands together. He kept a big tape box full of pot, and he was always rolling a joint. Nonstop, rolling a joint. One time I got into an argument with Lindsey in Reno at a casino … he starting yelling at this dealer. I said you don’t treat people like that, you are just a fucking asshole.
30 Days Out: But musically, he’s a genius …
Caillat: Absolutely, he’s a genius.
30 Days Out: When we look back at 1977 and Rumours, there really was nothing like that album or anything that even sounded like it at the time. When you were making that album, did you have a sense you were doing something really special?
Caillat: Never got that idea. We were all so tired, we were exhausted. If you go to my website and listen to some of these songs in their original form, you’d probably say this is not very good. How those songs grew over 12 months to become these amazing things, it’s truly astonishing. We didn’t know!
Caillat: A friend of mine got to listen to Rumours when it was almost done. He said “I don’t hear a hit.” And we were totally devastated. It’s astonishing to me, that album had 10 radio hits out of the 11 songs. But at the time it came out we were so tired, working 15-18 hours a day on it for the good part of an entire year. I remember at one point driving into the studio in Hollywood, and I saw Christmas decorations on Hollywood Boulevard. And I said ‘Oh, is it Christmas again already?’
30 Days Out: There must have been incredible pressure from the record company to follow up their “white album” (Fleetwood Mac from 1975) with another hit.
Caillat: Just the opposite, no pressure. The record company was sitting back smoking big cigars, they weren’t in our face. I guarantee it would not be like that if we did the same record today. With a record already sliding down the charts, they’d come in and say who the hell are these new guys? We’re going to use our ‘genius’ which they don’t have to try and make it more commercial. They would ask, why don’t you make it more like Adele?
Caillat: My daughter (singer Colbie Caillat) is going through that now. On her second album the label had a whole team, they came in … and said you should try everything, do some hip hop, do some rap stuff. I said, ‘would you like it if we dyed her hair red and got her a boob job? Would you like that too?’
30 Days Out: With that kind of atmosphere, could you make another Rumours today?
Caillat: Sure! The thing that was amazing was that budgets were big then, and costs were relatively small. We were able to spend 12 months in the studio perfecting every little bit. Analog tape was our tool at the time, it rolled on a heavy reel, and you built a song from top to bottom. When it came time to rewind the tape it may take 2-3 minutes to rewind. While you’re doing it the artist sitting in the studio at the microphone, and you end up talking, you talk about what you did, you played this, I thought you were going to go here … you get this kind of conversation which doesn’t happen in today’s digital world. Now you instantaneously you go back to the top. I have to tell my engineer don’t press play every time, so we can have that time to communicate with each other.
30 Days Out: Rumours is about to come out in a 35th anniversary edition. Are you involved with that reissue?
Caillat: No. Why not? I don’t know, it always astounds me. I’m sure it’s the money. I would have done it for nothing! There was some of that in the first two years, but as time has passed I have really nothing to do with it anymore.
30 Days Out: Going beyond the scope of the book a bit, how did you get to Tusk (1979)? It was so different than Rumours.
Caillat: Yeah, well that’s Lindsey Buckingham. I had full intentions of improving our work on Rumours and making Tusk be Rumours II . Do better on everything. But the second or third day Lindsey came in, he had a bunch of home recordings all full of distortion and grunge. Punk was getting big then, and he was into all of that. He had this big hairdo during and after Rumours …, but now he had freaked out in the shower and cut all his hair off with scissors. It was really weird looking. He said OK, we’re going to do everything different. He made me take all the edge off the guitars, saying that’s how we are going to make this record. It wasn’t what I wanted. Tusk became something totally different, kind of experimental. I said to Lindsey, so you want a darker album? There was a lot of decadence at the time … a lot of drugs, excessive living. It was tough to work with Lindsey at that point. He was just a pain in the ass.
30 Days Out: Do you think you’ll write another book, maybe about Tusk and beyond?
Caillat: You’re the fourth guy to ask me that just today! I have all the information … I went through the tape vaults, all the scans of all the track sheets, instrumentation, date they were recorded. I’ve got all that … I was ready to go, ready to write a Tusk book. In fact, I got about a quarter of the way through. But I stopped because I’m not sure there’s a market for it. This book has only had modest success … for us to get another book out it’s gonna take somebody to come in and say we can do better with a second book. Rumours is a pleasant story, it has a happy ending. I don’t think books about Tusk and Mirage are gonna have happy endings.
30 Days Out: Tell us a little about working with John McVie.
Caillat: It’s weird, John was kind of like Jekyll and Hyde, he was the greatest guy in the world. So soft spoken, then all of a sudden he’d turn on you. Mostly he’d do that when he was drinking, he was a closet drinker. Ninety percent of the time he was just great. Great bass player. He was always complaining I never had the bass loud enough. He made me very conscious of the bass, so I’d leave it up in the mix. One time Gary Katz, Steely Dan’s producer, came in and said you have the best bass sound – how do you do it? I told him, bitching! Have your bass player complain to you all the time!
30 Days Out: What about Stevie Nicks?
Caillat: Back then she was just the cutest little hippie chick. Adorable! She was funny, she had a cute giggle. She loved music, she only knew about three chords on the piano but she could make about 30 songs out of them. Her quirky side was she was always thinking about herself. I learned not to ask how she was doing that day. You’d spend 10 minutes just listening to her talk about herself.
Caillat: I always thought it was amazing, Lindsey and Stevie could never pass a mirror without looking at themselves. That’s just the kind of people they are. They are the kind of people who see a stage and want to be up there. They want the limelight. It’s kind of a double-edged sword … I’ve seen this sweet picture of Lindsey, taken right before Rumours, he’s sitting on the floor in an airport playing guitar. That guy’s gone. As they grew, as the Tusk album got really difficult for me, everybody became an asshole, really decadent, rather full of themselves. Not saying that’s a bad thing, it’s natural. But it wasn’t pleasant.
30 Days Out: How did it end with you and Fleetwood Mac?
Caillat: I had done Mirage (1982) and the live album, and they were gonna do Tango In The Night (1987). It was taking about a year to do and I just said, you know I’m gonna bow out this time. It ended great. I’m still friends with them, I think.
30 Days Out: So what’s next for you?
Caillat: I am starting a new label, Sleeping Giant records. Gonna be working with new artists, our main thrust will be artist development. And I’m going to continue working with my daughter Colbie. I can take no credit for her, she was born with this perfect voice and she loves to sing. She’s the nicest person in the world, she’d rather roll on the floor with the dogs and do just about anything else. And right now I’m working on on Spanish, Japanese and Portugese translations of Making Rumours. The audio book comes out in April, paperback comes out in April too. And I’m going to keep producing, all the time. Making the best music I can.
YouTube: Fleetwood Mac playing “Go Your Own Way” in 1977