Tired of juggling massive amounts of MIDI machinery, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson return to the simple life of guitar gadgetry.
"ALEX AND I WERE FRIENDS and we jammed once in a while," says Geddy Lee, recalling the sequence of events that, 20 years ago, led to the formation of Rush. "He had this other band going, and he used to call me up all the time to borrow my amp. He was a great mooch in those days. He never owned anything. Mooched everything.
"So this one day he called me up, and I was figuring he wanted to mooch my amp again. Turned out the bass player in his band couldn't make the gig at this coffeehouse they were playing at, so he asked if I wanted to come by and play. It was really very loose. God, I can only imagine what it must've sounded like And that was actually the next time we played together--that was the beginning. The original Rush drummer, John Rutsey, was in the band as well. We'd play Cream covers and old blues songs, but not as the old blues players played them. More the way English guys like Clapton and John Mayall interpreted blues songs... kind of third generation."
Geddy worked the Canadian coffeehouse circuit with this jam-oriented 12-bar-based trio until they added a keyboardist, at which point he split. "Those guys drifted around, and then I took up with this other band, which was strictly a bluesy-oriented guitar band, led by this guy who was really quite an amazing guitarist. The tunes were basically excuses for him to solo all night. Must've sounded pretty funny--four white kids from the suburbs of Toronto, playing what they thought was blues. I'm sure it really didn't sound too bluesy at all, but it was fun nonetheless."
When Geddy eventually reunited with Lifeson and Rutsey under the banner of Rush, they began playing a heavier blend of 12-bar blues, influenced most significantly by the music of Led Zeppelin. They became a leading attraction on the Canadian bar-band circuit, a popularity that lead to their eponymously titled 1973 debut album.
Fourteen albums later they're still going at it, though things have changed considerably, musically and personally. Lee, Lifeson, and Rutsey's replacement, Neil Peart, are fathers now, landed gentry and rock royalty by virtue of their seven consecutive to 10 albums in the Billboard standings. They have long since progressed beyond stretching a few 12-bar covers into a full-fledged set. Indeed, their live shows are among the most technically intricate and personally challenging in all of rockdom. To reproduce the sophisticated, heavily produced sound of their studio albums, Geddy and Alex often find themselves forced to cover two and three parts simultaneously, and using every available appendage to do so. On the songs "Open Secrets" and "Force Ten," from their latest studio album, Hold Your Fire, for example, Geddy first plays bass, then switches to keyboards midway through, covering the bass parts with Moog foot pedals--all while singing! Similarly, Alex is called upon to cover bass parts usually played by Geddy during particularly complex passages. All of this task-sharing, while impressive, can ultimately create frustration within the band.
"In the early years, we always wrote our songs with the idea of playing them live in mind," explains Alex. "But with the last couple of records, we decided not to short-change the sound of the records for that reason alone; we wanted to do whatever we wanted to do on record and worry about the physical logistics afterwards. That ultimately required a great deal of precision and concentration on stage. And I guess because of that the last couple of tours have not been as much fun. We were stuck in one area of the stage throughout most of the evening, worrying about the cues. I mean, you have to be absolutely dead-on for everybody else to be dead-on. It's a tremendous amount of hard work. Still, we did it, and I think we did it successfully.
"Now we're talking about the next tour, and for the first time we're actually thinking about the possibility of taking aboard somebody else to play some keyboards and do some backup vocals as well. That would free Geddy and myself a little bit to scoot around the stage and have fun like we used to. Still, I think that it was important for us to have gone out and done it the way we did, just to prove, if for nothing else, that we could. Accomplishing that challenge is satisfying. But I think you come to a point where the balance is tipped a little bit the wrong way and you lose the essence of what the whole thing was about in the first place, and that was to just get out there and have fun."
Utility keyboard artist or not, Geddy and Alex may discover they will have fewer multi-instrument parts to cover this time out. In fact, that's exactly what they had in mind when putting together the pieces for their 15th album, Presto.
"I treated this new album in a very reactionary way," Geddy explains. "I really wanted to get away from using so many keyboards and writing on the computer. I had immersed myself so totally in the world of MIDI that as a matter of course I was going to the keyboards to do all of my writing. And I found that there was something a little passive about the kinds of songs that were being written that way. So this time out, I wanted to do something that was more direct, more hard-hitting--something slightly more visceral."
They accomplished that by going back to what they knew best: composing mainly on guitar and bass, a process that pleased Alex to no end.
"For this reason we decided early on that the guitar was going to be more prominent in the songs. Both Geddy and I discussed it a lot. We sat down and wrote with just bass and guitar, then went to the keyboards for enhancement and color. It's definitely a different approach from Power Windows. And I'm glad we took this approach, because all of the emotional dynamics come from the guitar. You really can't do that with keyboards. You can do some interesting things with keyboards in terms of effects and textures, but they don't really hold the energy of the song like a guitar can."
Consequently, tunes like "Chain Lightning," "War Paint," the revved-up "Superconductor" and the video single, "Show Don't Tell," rock with new found aggression. Power chords set the tone, and Alex's solos burst with conviction, particularly on "Red Tide," a clarion call lamenting the current state of the ecology
"I wanted to get a lot of tension in that solo because the song is quite intense," he explains. "There's a kind of disturbing feeling about that solo which I think ties it all together well. The song is angry. Neil is basically a very ecology-minded person, and he wrote this song dealing with the destruction of our environment. So I wanted the music and especially my solo to reflect that anger."
Though Alex does pull off some impressive solos throughout Presto, he tends to be rather humble concerning his chops, taking greater pride in being a team player. "I do consider myself more of a rhythm guitarist than a lead player," he states. "The important thing for me has always been what the guitar does for a song in the context of the whole hand. That's the quality I've always admired in someone like Steve Hackett, whose work with Genesis really enhanced the overall sound without any sort of grandstanding.
"I certainly didn't start out that way. Like most players, I first concerned myself with trying to play as fast and as flashy as I could. I kept that up for the first five years or so but I don't see the point anymore and haven't for a long time. I'd rather make my playing a little more economical. I mean there are thousands of guitar players who can play a thousand times faster than me, so what would be the point of competing?"
There would be no point. Of course, few speedmongers will ever sell mega-platters, as Lifeson and the Rush boys have consistently done since 1980's Permanent Waves. That was the album with which the hand abandoned the sprawling self-indulgent excess of their earlier efforts, such as the seventies metal tomes, Fly By Night and Caress Of Steel, and the spacey, Floydian sci-fi concept albums, 2112, A Farewell To Kings and Hemispheres. With Permanent Waves Rush adopted a format that called for shorter, tightly arranged songs.
One common thread running through the various phases of Rush's work is Neil Peart's arcane lyrics, which are loaded with rich (sometimes overblown) imagery that offer plenty of food for thought. In a genre populated with countless bands spewing mindless cliches about wanting more, more, more on the floor, floor, floor, Peart is an utter anomaly. On Presto, he tackles such serious topics as teen suicide ("The Pass"), the destruction of our environment ("Red Tide"), adolescent vanity and peer pressure ("War Paint"), and the importance of expanding one's horizons by soaking up as many life experiences as possible ("Available Light"). And he handles each with stunning sensitivity, leaving listeners with more to ponder than the beat and some blazing solos.
Geddy is quick to point out that Neil is also writing with greater attention to melody and phrasing than he did in the past. "We felt that we never really gave the vocals a fair shot, because we had been weighing them down with awkward phrases and lengthy lines. So this time we agreed that we should try to have everything serve the vocal melody. Because of that this record is much more melodic all around, not just vocally. If we were happy with the direction of the melody, but there was still some stumbling around over the lyrics, then we'd change them to whatever sounded best, what rolled most easily off the tongue.
"Still, there are certain songs, like 'The Pass,' where I felt it was more important to keep the lyrics intact and to build up a musical statement that's born out of the message of the song. In a case like that I have to do a lot of thinking before a single note is written and I really immerse myself into the song. I mean if I have to sing Neil's lyrics, I have to feel some sort of relationship with what he's talking about. I have to feel in concert with them in order to make it believable to myself and the listener. So there's a lot of conversation that goes down about each song before I start writing melodies."
He adds, "I think in the early days we all wanted to have a say in what everybody else's role was. And consequently we all became more possessive of what our own role was. That's only natural Now, however, there's a lot more trust and confidence all around in each other and in ourselves. We feel that everybody has a kind of thing that they do best "
What Geddy docs best is play bass and sing the trademark banshee wail that has defined Rush's sound for the past 15 years. Doing both at the same time, however, doesn't always come naturally. It's the kind of double play which Paul McCartney and Sting have gracefully pulled off for years: precision playing that appears effortless and is anything but. For Geddy it means an intensive period of woodshedding prior to each tour in order to get the coordination and feel happening. "Certain songs are a breeze," he explains. "They just click. Though I record the bass and vocal tracks separately, I can put the two together quite easily. There are certain songs though, like "The Page" [sic] (from Hold Your Fire) that are just ridiculous to pull off live because the two parts have nothing to do with each other. So I really have to practice a lot to get something like that down. There's usually a way of feeling them together. It's a process of splitting yourself, really. I'd love to know how that works, but I just know that it does eventually. I guess it's like sports-muscle memory; where the body is moving in all different directions and yet all the muscles know what they're supposed to be doing... like a dancer or an athlete."
On the upcoming Presto tour, Geddy will bring along his usual Moog pedals and array of MIDI keyboards to help cover parts from the record. But, he adds, "Whenever I can, I'm going to try and stay on the bass and let technology provide the rest. Rather than going to the keyboards and using bass pedals to provide the bottom end, I'd prefer to stay on the bass and use MIDI triggers and MIDI mappers to cut up chord pads and sequenced passages. On a tune like 'Available Light,' where the bass just provides some simple, low-end support, I'd rather play the keyboards and sing. It's just a question of what instrument will be rewarding to play from a player's point of view. If the keyboard is simply playing a strict, four-chord repeating pattern, then I'd rather just program it into some MIDI pedal and have some fun playing bass.
"I think this album will be a lot easier from a keyboard point of view because they've taken such a back seat, for the most part. So I'll program those simple four-note chords, trigger them with some MIDI pedal and keep the bass driving. And if it gets too complex, where there's a tricky vocal line and a demanding keyboard part, I can also let Alex cover the bass part with foot pedals. We don't know exactly how to deal with all of this until we go into rehearsals."
On the album. Geddy played his Wal four-string bass (which he first acquired for the Hold Your Fire sessions) on every track. "Time and again it proves to be the best recording bass I've ever owned." Ironically for Rush's video of "Show Don't Tell," he pulled out his old blonde Fender Jazz bass. He also plans to bring the Fender on tour as his backup instrument instead of his Steinberger. He's also thinking of experimenting with his studio amp setup on tour rather than relying on his usual stage gear.
"In the studio I split my bass signal and record both direct and through my little Gallien-Krueger amp simultaneously. That combination for recording is just great because using an amp keeps the bass from sounding too sterile. It gives a bit of space to the track, a bit of air around the notes as opposed to being right in your face. It's so tempting to go D.I. with the Wal, because it sounds so great, but just that little bit of amp in the room makes a lot of difference in the dimension that the bass takes on in the track. I'm going to try and see in rehearsals if I can just use the same setup that I record with instead of having my usual performing amp setup. Besides, much of the live sound is coming out of the PA system anyways, so whatever amp setup I have really just ends up being a monitor for me."
Alex intends to stick with his usual combination of Gallien-Krueger and Mesa/Boogie amps, his trusty bunch of Signature guitars (made by a small company in Canada) and his '62 Fender Stratocaster. He may also bring along an axe that has served him well on record--the infamous Hentor guitar. "Basically it's a Strat with humbuckers on it. It's named after the nickname we had for Peter Henderson [producer of Grace Under Pressure]. We called him 'The Mighty Hentor'! The neck of his guitar came from a company in Ottawa that has since gone out of business. There's no name on it, so during the session I got out some lettraset and slapped down 'Hentor' on the headstock. I get mail about it all the time... 'Where can I get a Hentor?' The answer is you can't."
Alex uses that Hentor hybrid for most of the lead work on Presto. "It has a nice sustain that I really like, which you can hear on 'Show Don't Tell,' 'Superconductor' and the title cut. But I mainly use it to reinforce the toughness in a song. I like to combine guitars to get a variety of tones on a cut. My Signatures, for instance, have a unique character all their own. They're single-coil, active pickups and have a very wirey sound and great clarity. The Hentor has Bill Lawrence pickups, and they have a thickness and depth you usually get from Gibsons, and that low-end warmth you don't get with Signatures. Since I played Gibsons for about 10 years before I ever picked up a Fender, I'm kind of partial to that sound. So between the Signature and the Hentor I get that depth and top-end clarity. Then the '62 Strat seems to have a nice middle ground. It's not as wirey as the Signature but it's not as dirty as the Hentor. I combined the Signature and the Strat on 'The Pass,' and they gave it a good all-around tough sound without getting too heavy, thick or distorted. I'll often play different inversions on the two different guitars to give a more interesting harmonic content to the chording. I think you get more mileage out of simple chord voicings using that approach."
Both Alex and Geddy will carry extensive MIDI gear with them on tour [see sidebar]. Whether Alex will be able to reproduce the studio-enhanced backwards guitar parts on "Chain Lightning" remains to be seen. At press time it had not been determined whether they would recruit a fourth member to the tour or if Geddy would once again spend his evenings tap-dancing on MIDI and Moog pedals all night long.
"We're trying to change a lot of things around on this tour," says Alex. "We've been doing it for so long that a lot of magic has gone out of it, and we'd like to maybe get some of it back. Fifteen years is a lot of time to be away from home so long, and while you're out there you begin to wonder if perhaps there are other things in your life that you might pursue. Yet, at the same time, we really enjoy playing. If we can make it a happier environment on stage then we'll certainly try."
And what exactly is it that would make this tour a more personally satisfying situation for Alex? "If we could do it within 50 miles of my home!" he laughs. "It's just tough to he away for so long. That's really the hardest part. I mean the playing and the actual gig itself aren't problems. It's the sitting in dressing rooms, sitting in hotel rooms, sitting in the bus, sitting around on days off.
"When you're younger and it's your first few tours, it's very exciting because it's something you always dreamed of doing. So when you're actually out there doing it it's a bit of a surprise and you try to take every moment for what it's worth. But after 15 years it's just not that special anymore. The rigors of touring do take their toll. So I guess if we can just balance that out a little more, make it more enjoyable, a little different, so that it doesn't feel like the same old thing, that would please me."
Who knows, if things work out to his satisfaction, Alex and Geddy and Neil may just continue touring until 2112. And selling mega-platters, no doubt.
GEDDY LEE AND Alex Lifeson both firmly subscribe to the dictum "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." As roadie Jim Johnson puts it, "Geddy hasn't changed his setup for as long as I can remember, and I've been with the band for six years, since the Grace Under Pressure tour."
Geddy runs his basses through a Telex wireless unit and into two Furman PQ-3 preamps. From there the signal is fed to an API 550 equalizer and two BGW 750 amps that power an Ampeg V4B bottom and a Tiel double 15-inch bottom. A custom switching system allows Lee to shift between the preamps and the API equalizer for different tones.
Alex, says Johnson, is a bit more loaded up. He runs his Signature and Strat guitars into a Nady 700 wireless system which feeds into two Gallien-Krueger preamps. The signal then goes to two Rane SM-26 splitter mixers and an effects rack, custom-designed by Chops Joneson, consisting of two T.C. Electronics 2290 digital delays, a T.C. Electronics Spatial Expander for chorusing, Roland DEP-5 and Dimension D, and a Yamaha SPX-90. All of Alex's effects are also MIDI-ed via the Yamaha MFC-1 MIDI controller.
A pair of Mesa/Boogie Strategies (200-watts per side) powers two Gallien-Krueger twin 12's with Celestion speakers. Alex's cabinets are miked with Shure SM-57's. The sound goes out to the house, along with two direct lines from out of the back of the preamps and one dry guitar feed from the Rane mixer.