Geddy Lee: Head Music

By John Stix, Guitar For The Practicing Musician, July 1989, transcribed by Mental Vortex

Vocalist, keyboardist, composer, Geddy Lee prefers the bass. His instinct for melodic yet supportive bass lines earned him a special place in the history of the electric bass guitar, while at the same time his songs have made Rush the premiere progressive metal band, father to groups like Queensryche and Dream Theater. With their third live album, Show of Hands, giving the group a natural break to head off in new directions, Geddy Lee, articulate and cordial as ever, came out to examine the past, present and future of what he likes to do best.

Do you fall in and out of love with playing bass or Rush music?

I always love playing bass. The times I like playing bass the least is at the end of a tour when I'm burnt out on it. It's a great instrument to play and I like playing different things. Unfortunately, playing the same songs over and over again is good for your fingers but sometimes not good for your spirit and your outlook on the instrument. You have to look at it from a different point of view. You can hit your tone, your consistency. You train yourself to be consistently accurate and correct. It's a necessary part of being a performing musician.

Do you recognize plateaus in yourself as a player?

Oh yeah, there is so much about my instrument I don't know and if I wasn't as lazy I would probably push myself harder and bring myself further as a bass player. I have all these other things I think about with keyboards and synthesizers. In a way it's a shame, because they detract from my bass playing. Now I'm very much interested in studying classical piano. I'm finally learning how to read music at this late date in my musical career. There's other things that excite me and take my mind off my bass playing. When I do get a chance to immerse myself in being what I really feel I am - a bass player - I enjoy it quite a lot.

Have any of those outside classical piano influences come out on a recording?

Not as yet; it's early for that. My interest in piano is purely for my own entertainment. I listen to a lot of classical piano players and I get a buzz from Vladimir Horowitz. Inevitably, because it's music and I'm a musician, it's going to overlap and I'm going to pick up something and it's going to connect and will cross over into the music that I write in some way - if only in my live keyboard playing getting better. My fingers will probably be in the right positions. It's a hobby, and something that I love to listen to and imagine myself playing well. It's like I used to be with bass playing, and still am, when I hear guys like Jaco Pastorius and Jeff Berlin. Jeff especially makes me want to pick up my instrument and smash my fingers.

Stadiums and arenas are to see performances, but not to hear music. Where is the place to hear music?

For me the place to hear music is headphones. To me the ideal thing would be to go into the concert hall, sit down in your chair and put on a pair of headphones. Have everybody wired in and you're playing it live but they can all hear it and it sounds great. That is the ideal circumstance. You've got your live performance so you can feel the music coming out of the P.A.; the P.A. is pumping in the room, so you can feel sound rolling you around, but you've got all the clarity and detail. I liken it to when we finish a mix. The way I like to listen back is with the loud speakers cranked in the control room, but not super loud. Then I put a pair of headphones on as well. I'm hearing all the clarity and feeling and all the balls coming from the room shaking you around. It doesn't sound anything like the record will sound anywhere else ever again. It's a very real possibility in the age in which we live, with wireless headphones.

Rush has been accused of being too studied in performance. Do you ever want to jam?

I think it's sort of the wrong place to jam in the context of our band jamming on stage during a performance. We're too structure-oriented to allow ourselves to do that. We get our ya ya's out by coming to soundcheck half an hour early, when nobody is there, and everyone is clowning around on stage. Almost on a daily basis, we jam for 20 to 40 minutes nonstop. Sometimes we just improvise and we record all of those jams. Some of the songs we write in the studio come out of those jams. We'll get into playing songs like "My Generation." I don't particularly like jamming with musicians I don't know. Usually bass players are relegated to a fundamental role. To tell you the truth, I find jamming so that some guitar player can play a solo, really boring. I don't want to go play a 12-bar for two hours at three different tempos.

What about sitting in? Is there something to be said about not having to be Geddy Lee of Rush?

Yeah, I think that's a great thing and from time to time I'll play on demos for friends and help out. Every time I do, I enjoy it - even if it's country music, where the bass playing is so basic. You can only play it one time, because to play it twice is a snoozeful. It's nice to play somebody else's song, to not have to worry about the fact that I wrote it. I like not to have to be compositional in any other sense than my instrument. I find that really refreshing. I'd like to do more of it. I'd like to do it as a vocalist as well. At some point, I'd like to be able to sing somebody else's song. I'd like to sing a melody I knew was great without having to worry about writing it and just be purely technical as a vocalist. Those kinds of things interest me a lot. I should do more of them.

What song do you wish you had written or played bass on?

"Won't Get Fooled Again," or the title cut from the Vienna album, by Ultravox. That's a beautiful song, great vocal melody, very emotional. When I listen to Jeff Berlin play "Dixie," I wish that were me. That's an inspired piece.

Would you like to see the band rock out a little more, play less pastel colors and washed chords that hang in the air, any perhaps be a little more like the Who?

"Force of Hand" and "Turn the Page" were done because we felt ourselves going in the direction you were describing and we don't feel that's a total Rush picture. We felt it would be unfair to do the whole album in, as you described it, pastels. The band very much wants to rock and very much feels like rocking. Those songs were written to satisfy that I think that part of us is always alive. Sometimes I feel like rocking more, too, but when you sit down and you don't contrive what you're doing, and it happens naturally, you write what comes out. I don't think any one style we do on a particular record indicates what we're necessarily going to do next time.

Most of your vocal phrasing is short. You seem to be more rhythmic and stacatto.

I never noticed that. I'd better check that out. It's probably because I'm a bass player. Probably because I keep bass parts in mind when I'm writing, or maybe I keep my vocal parts in mind when I'm writing my bass parts so I can play them and sing them at the same time. The important thing is to make sure the lyrics roll, that they're singable, they feel comfortable, they sound comfortable. The words have to feel right.

"Turn the Page" was certainly bass dominated.

The original writing of that song for the bass wasn't nearly as busy. When I was in the studio I was getting lots of encouragement to go for it. That's all I need to hear. So I went for it. The intro was there - that came out of a jam. The spark of that whole song was a soundcheck jam. I was playing that intro bass lick, which everyone thinks is an acoustic guitar. It's a bass. That's what spurred the whole song.

You're free to be as busy as you want. On Hold Your Fire you played more bass than usual.

On this album, a lot of times where I would normally play keyboards for the first run, I played bass. I was still a little hesitant to go all-out crazy, so I did try to lock in with the rhythm section with an occasional uncontrollable burst of exhibitionism.

Did you use the Wal bass for the last studio album?

Yeah, for the whole album. Last album I used Peter Collins's Wal bass and now they made me my own. I took it on the road, but it's a big bass and I've got so much keyboards to do that the Steinberger works much better and I love the sound of it as well.

I'm intrigued by the way you travel all over to record. Does it keep you fresh?

I think it keeps the album fresh. A studio is a studio, it's not a lot different, but different enough to keep it fresh. It gives us a new place to listen to it every three weeks. You hear it on a different set of speakers, sometimes people speak a different language. You're constantly examining it from a different point of view, not all together.

Where is the biggest thrill for you in music?

The biggest kick for me is that moment in the early stages of pre-production, when the song is just written, when all those possibilities are open to me. You hear the basic structure come back and in your head you know what you can do with it, you know how good it can be. It's such a rewarding moment. It's hard to beat. Obviously, after you've labored on a bass part and put the bass track down and you're hearing it back for the first time as bass and drums with nobody else on the track, it sounds so great. Neil and I look at each other and say, "What else does this track need? We're going to cover all this stuff up now with other junk. Let's put the vocals on and go home." "Open Secrets" has a lot of great interaction. The middle eight and the solo following "Open Secrets" are two of my favorite moments on that album for what Neil is playing and for what I'm playing. I love the interaction of what we're doing. I don't think that kind of feel comes unless you've played with somebody for a long time. To me that sounds like two guys who know wt each other is playing.

Does the keyboard tell the guitar what chords to play?

No, the guitar chords come first, but how exactly the guitar arrangement going to end up within that chord structure is a matter of experimentation. There is a basic structure that Alex and I do and it's all drawn out on guitar and bass patterns. It's sort of arranged, but sometimes by the time you get to the guitar you want to change something. Still, he has a structure to work within. He will change his part, only he'll change it internally, not structurally. He will change the passing notes. He has such a big role in the band, at the same time having keyboards takes some pressure off him. Still, the guitar is the more expressive of the two instruments. We try to use the keyboards as events rather than big blocks of keyboards.

Does Alex put his colors over you or you put yours into him?

He is the last guy. He hears drums, bass and keyboards, then he puts in his stuff. You have to go back a step. There is so much pre-production that you sort of have an idea of where the guitar is to be going, so you don't fill up the spaces that the guitar should fill up. Even if I fill up the space with keyboards, I always say to myself, the option is if the guitar can do that part better, we erase the keyboard.

It sounds like Alex just interacts with the tape.

Pretty much. Guitar players are used that. Soloists solo on top of the band. Often when you're jamming with a guitar player, he isn't listening to you. He's listening to himself play. The rhythm section listens to each other playing.

By playing bass and singing you are always playing a counterpoint.

Yeah. I think melody and know the bass knows where to go. I'm training my bass part to work on instinct. I'm thinking about the vocal. It's hard to sing in to and play in tune. I have to concentrate more on my vocals, controlling my voice, especially in an arena situation, where the monitors are sometint dreadfully imperfect.

Did you have a role model for somebody who did that very well?

Jack Bruce was strong and melody both ways. Jack was pretty busy and a very outside bass player. His vocal melodies were very passionate, too.

Where does the melody come from when you're given a set of lyrics?

These days I write the vocal melody first. Sometimes in the past I would have a chord progression first and try to fit the vocal melody into it, or have a riff I was working to use. A lot of times I think of a feel and what kind of a melody I can work out and start putting them together at the same time, looking for chords to hang the melody on. Sometimes it comes quickly and sometimes it's a real labor. Usually when you find the right chords, the vocal melody pops right out of it.

Has MIDI made life easier but academically harder?

Absolutely,and well put. MIDI has made life a lot easier in that way, especially getting into the Macintosh computer, being able to sequence all those things.

Would you be willing to have a stagehand push the right button at the right time?

I feel pretty strongly that I have to start it, even if a machine is going to play it. I have to turn it on at the right time. I don't feel any hesitation letting someone offstage load the discs, the sounds, and prepare everything. When it comes to that crucial moment in the song, I'm turning it on or it feels outside the band.

What do you hear when the radio comes on? Do you hear a song, a bass part, a rhythm section?

It depends. I can divorce myself from being too analytical more today than I could two or three years ago. The result is that I can listen to records for a lot of different reasons. I can listen for technical reasons or I can listen to record which are more entertaining, music that I would never dream of playing. Now I'Il listen to the occasional country song. I'll listen to Patsy Cline or Nat King Cole. I can listen to it without being influenced by it and appreciate it for what it is. I think people are capable of liking more than they realize.

Can you move yourself with your own playing?

I don't know if move is the right word You can get lost inside of it. What you want from every song is that feeling that.your fingers are like feathers and the move through every moment of your song like butter. Even to the point where your playing is so smooth that you start playing more than you have to play. You go beyond what you have to play. If you're having a good night you don't stick to the rigid thing. Because our structures are the same, for me to start playing outside of that is hard to notice; but there are moments when you do and you're feeling good.

Would you ever want to write lyrics and have somebody else come up with the bass part?

I most often want to play bass. I don't always want to play the keyboard part. Lately I fantasize about playing very difficult keyboard parts.