Geddy Lee: Organic

By John Stix, Guitar For The Practicing Musician, June 1990, transcribed by Mental Vortex

Re-evaluate. Explore. Change.

This is not exactly the credo you'd expect of a band that's been a million-seller Lp headline act for the last decade. Then again, Rush have never been known for partaking of the expected. A rarity on the rock scene, they remain commercially successful while artfully pursuing a uniquely personal muse. Seemingly an island unto themselves, the brothers of Rush, with their re-energized approach to the trio format, stripping away most of the keyboard colors they had added on recent recordings, prove, in Presto, that precise musicianship and probing lyrics has its place in rock 'n' roll in the 90s. We asked their bassist and vocalist, Geddy Lee, for a tour behind the inner door of the Rush sanctuary.

You've been on top for quite a while now. Do you feel it's harder to reach success or maintain it?

I think it's a lot harder on the way up. It's a lot less fun on the way up. You've got all those people to convince and because you're trying so hard, you're concerned about survival, and you're concerned about convincing people, and showing people, and proving yourself, improving yourself, day in, day out. Sometimes you have a tendency to try too hard, as opposed to being yourself as a player or a writer.

Isn't there also somewhat of a 'hungry energy' thing that works for you?

That's true, and many people get 'fat' when they get successful. I know a lot of people don't do their best work after that, but I don't think it's true with everybody. Some people do better work after they get up there. Some people can then just focus on what they always wanted to focus on, and that's just creating. It's such a personality thing, that I don't think it's a rule across the board. People who need that struggle can always find it. You can always put yourself in a position where you think you're still struggling. You can always make it tough on yourself. I know people who do that, and it doesn't matter how good things are going, they look for problems to keep solving, to keep themselves in that fight.

Where do you sit on this scale?

I never feel like it's easy. It's always a tough job going in to write a record. It's always a major challenge, but I like the fact that now all I have to worry about is making the record and writing the songs. That challenge is enough for me without having to juggle survival things at the same time. You always have stuff going on in your life, and unless you live in kind of an ice palace things happen that you have to deal with. Life isn't easy all the time just because you suddenly aren't struggling up the ladder. So, it depends whether the person stays in tune, making sure they're aware of what's going on around them, as opposed to those who block out what goes on around them, and say, "I'm the star, don't want to deal with this anymore This is all I deal with." That's kind of false, and maybe, when you cut yourself off like that, you lose inspiration, because you're not connected anymore. Maybe there isn't any kind of struggle, and maybe that shows in your music. Maybe that's where it's tough. But I think it's always tough at every level.

I get the feeling that the band never had swelled heads.

We've had such a slow climb. Look at our career. Like they say, it usually takes 10 to 15 years to make an overnight sensation. It's such a slow climb, and we always kept our priorities musical, for the most part. Sure we went off the deep end from time to time, and I think it was probably more early in our career, around the second or third album, and maybe we thought we were pretty hot back then. All it takes is a couple of not-too-successful records to correct that attitude pretty quick.

Are people a good measure of what's successful? If they decide that this record wasn't as successful, does that mean that you just didn't connect, or that they didn't get it?

This is what happens whenever something doesn't connect: Immediately, people start passing the buck, laying the blame, and then you get the people who come out and say, "Well, people know. If it's a great record, they'll find it. They'll seek it out." I think that's true to a degree, but you can definitely help things to be more successful if you make sure they know about it, so, I don't know where you lay blame. Do you then say, "Well, the record sold what it should have sold. It sold what it deserved to sell." Or, the record company 'dropped the ball.' What does that mean? It's such a vague thing. The bottom line is that, before the record comes out, you sort of have to look at the way you've spent your last six or eight months, and decide if that was worth it to you, decide if you're happy with it. It's so hard to know what you've got, and what people will like at that stage, because you've been working on something for so long.

How does all of this apply to you as a bass player? Your relationship with the instrument itself changes, as all of this stuff happens, the struggle, the business, the success.

It shouldn't really take much away from your playing. It depends on the kind of player you are. If you don't write the material, and you're the kind of guy who just plays on the tracks, then you just gotta make sure you're in shape, you gotta keep playing regardless of what happens. You look for as many gigs as you can. When you are in a position of being in a band that writes the material, and you're one of the writers, then suddenly you split yourself up into all these different categories. For myself, for example, I split myself up into bass player, writer, singer, arranger, and co-producer, and try to divide all those priorities. At the same time, you don't want to let anything be sacrificed. And that's really how I view my role, as all those different things in this band, and there are different moments when different priorities take their place. It's kind of like compartmentalizing your different jobs. When we first walk into the rehearsal studio to start writing, I don't look at myself primarily as a bass player. I look at myself as a writer. But once I have a seed for a song, and if I know the song is gonna be very up-front, and very riff-oriented, then I write as a bass player. I become that bass player again, and I try to think like that, and at the same time, I've got to maintain this arranger overview, while we're putting the songs together. So, for me as a bass player, I don't really come into full force until the songs are all written, and I have confidence that everybody's parts are going to work overall, and I have a general kind of thread for each song. Once I'm confident that the songs are good, and they've been arranged, and it's ready to go, then I become the indulgent bass player, and that's where a producer is very important. I don't want to be the arranger anymore, and I don't want to be the producer. I don't want to be any of those things when it's time to do my parts. I want to be the indulgent bass player. I want to go into the sessions, that time after the drums are done, and I want to be purely a bass player, and that's when I click into my playing role, and I let somebody else do the judgments on whether it's tasteful or not, or whether I should play more or not. I let myself be produced, and be arranged by somebody who's objective, at that point.

Do you ever watch your step, because you know you'll have to sing over a line?

No. I wish I could say yes, but I'll tell you one thing; a lot of times during writing, you're playing and singing, and sometimes those things evolve together, so it's not a problem, because they evolve hand-in-hand. But on this record, a lot of the music was melodically written, and the vocal melodies came first on a lot of these songs. The bass nuances were one of the last things in the rhythm section being put together, so, I had no idea what would happen when it came time to reproduce all those things.

Both you and Alex always speak of playing more, and on Presto you finally do. You are more aggressive with the bass. Alex played more guitaristically, less pastels, as it were. Why did this finally happen?

It was kind of a reactionary record for me. This record was a reaction against five years of being involved with synthesizers and drum machines and computer writing tools, and sequencers and samplers. I think we were kind of like up to our eyebrows with all that technology, and by the end of the last tour, I felt like I was kind of trapped, a victim of my own design. Alex felt a bit of that too, because so much of my keyboard responsibilities were overspilling to his side of the stage. He was having to do more and more to give me a break, so I could play more bass. He was doing more keyboard stuff. We became so locked into this thing that when it came time to take a break from it, we took a good long break after releasing the live album, and I really think we reacted against it. We didn't want to put ourselves in that trap again. We had this rebellious kind of spirit and a little anger, which is really healthy. We said, screw it, let's do a rock record. Let's try to do a record that pulls the trio back into focus, and have more fun with it. I think that was really the goal, and the first song that we wrote for the record was "Show, Don't Tell." It really set us off, because it was exactly what we talked about doing. That song accomplished exactly what our frustrations led to. We said, "OK, here's this track," and we went with it, and we got off so much listening back to it, that we just kept going in that direction. There were a couple of tunes that, for variety's sake, we started falling into saying "Let's throw a few more keyboards here, let's not be ridiculous. We know how to use all these colors, let's have some in this song." So we didn't completely ignore it, and I think for dynamics it's good to have that, to be able to go to it, but generally the attitude was, let's keep technology and use it to make backdrops for us, and let's keep the trio a little more up front.

In "Show, Don't Tell," you even take a bass solo.

They made me do it. I never intended on doing it, and, you know, that was a whole section that we had planned to do a lot of guitar soloing, and at one point we talked about a twin lead-solo thing, and so we kept leaving the space empty. When it came to the demo stage, we said, OK, because Alex seldom puts any solos on the demos; he just leaves some space so he can work on it. So, while the space was there, just for fun, I kept diddling, and every time we would rehearse the song in a demo stage, or different form, I would throw a different kind of bass solo in there, just for something to do. When it came time to actually produce the song, we were in the studio doing the bed tracks with Rupert and Neil. Neil is always my biggest fan when it comes to doing bed tracks, and he said, "Well, why don't you throw it on there? You can always simplify it if you don't want it. Why don't you put something on?" So I did, and they all seemed to like it, and they seemed to want to keep it, and I kept double-checking, "You're sure you want to do this? Maybe something else would sound better there." And they thought no.

Now, is that your lack of ego? I mean, did you secretly want them to say yeah, keep it, or did you just say, OK, you know, I'm selfless.

I just try to be objective.

Did you like it?

Oh yeah, I liked it, but at the same time, that's where I stop. I try not to be a bass player, but rather I try to be an arranger, and think, as an arranger, is the best possible moment here? Are we using this time in the best possible way? Here's 20 seconds, or whatever; would the song be more emotional if it was a lead solo? I'm always second-guessing. I'm always making sure that the right thing is in the right place. So, sure, as a bass player, I'm sitting there going, well, great, I love to play. I have no problem with putting this on here, but as an arranger, I'm. making sure, 'cause I can't be objective about it, 'cause it's my playing. So as an arranger, I keep poking these guys, going, "You guys on drugs or what? You sure this is gonna work?"

It's also a surprise, because it was a slapping, popping solo.

It's got quite a few little jiggles here and there. I mean, it's a lot of fun to do, and I loved playing it. It's the kind of thing that once you've played it, and you know it works, it almost doesn't matter if you keep it anymore, because doing it is the thrill. I loved doing it, and in the demo stages I loved playing that every time it came by, but if they had said to me, "I think a guitar solo might be better here," I would have gone, "Fine."

Was "Scars" a sequencer?

Yeah, that's a sequenced bass pattern. It's probably the first time I've used one and it's for the whole song. That's because the song was written on keyboard. I wrote the bass pattern on the keyboard, and I edited it on keyboard, too. I had a lot of fun with it. I used a computer editing system, and kept cutting up and reassembling that little bass pattern, all these different ways. I got this really complex cycle, and if you listen to the whole length of one cycle, it's very hard to learn, and hard to reproduce, because it keeps changing, and when you think it's gonna go to one note it goes to the other note. The pattern's real bizarre. I had a lot of fun, and it almost seems random, but it's not. I like the repetitiveness, and I think the machine-like repetitiveness of it is important to the song.

Are there any other songs that stand out for you, bass-wise, as a bass player?

One song, "War Paint," I'm really pleased with, and it's not that it's a real complex song. It started as a real simple song. Again, this is where having objective outside people pushing me to a different direction, makes a difference. It helped that song a lot. In particular, in verse one. It was always a very basic bass pattern, very simple, and again, Neil and Rupert pushed me to be more adventurous melodically. At first, I thought it was really an odd idea, but I kept trying it, and experimenting, and before I knew it, it's become one of my favorite bass melodies that I've ever written. There's an example of where you can't be objective while you're the player. You need that person to push you, so you don't say, that's OK, but maybe you can do something that's more outside here that may not end up sounding more outside. Maybe it's going to end up sounding more melodic. What sounds like an odd idea to you, as a player, in the context of the whole picture, might just simply be a better melody.

The gang background vocals on "War Paint" is not something you've done a lot.

A bunch of screaming people singing along, no. On this album, we wanted to dive into that area. I loved doing those harmonies. There's a lot of harmonies for a Rush record, and I thought it was great. It was great fun picking them up, putting a tape in the car, and driving around, listening to the arrangement, and thinking up harmonies. So now I do it to everybody's record.

Do you actually spend time listening to bed tracks in the car?

Yeah. I just listen to them in the car, because sometimes it seems to be the most solitary place you get to listen to anything. I've got to drive back and forth to the studio every day, so I like to hear it in a different environment. Late at night, after a session, is the worst time to listen to anything in your car. Your ears are tired, and you're tired, and the more tired you get, the faster everything sounds. It's just a weird thing that happens.

When you're listening to a track to change it, is the process intuitive, or is it more mechanical-putting it down on paper and saying, "Hmmm."

I think that the paper thing happens during the writing stage, where you kind of block out the song and get an idea of where all the pieces are fitting. Once you're convinced that it works, then, when it's time to do the bass parts in the bed track stage, it's a lot more intuitive. First of all, when the song is written, Alex and I put it down on an 8-track with a drum machine to provide some rhythm and tempo for us. I'll put up a guide bass, which is the first version of the bass part, and kind of a direction where I think it could go. This is bearing in mind that I'm playing with a drum machine. Then once the arrangement of the song is kind of complete, in a fundamental sense, once we know where the song is going to be, structurally, with voices on there and melodies, then we'll bump that up to 24 track. Then Neil will play along with that existing 8-track thing, and he'll start playing around with it rhythmically. He'll get to a point rhythmically, and then I'll come back in, listen to where he's at, and see how much the rhythm aspect has changed from the original basic. It's usually just a bass drum and snare pounding away. So he'll have that rhythmic tilt, and then I'll listen to that, and I'll see if there's any direction he's pushing it that I think the bass could learn from, and maybe I'll put down another bass track that's got a few alterations. Maybe I'll suggest something to him, or he'll suggest something to me at that time. That's how we kind of evolve our parts together. But when it comes right down to the final bed track, I've got a basic organization in my head, but now I can hear the final drum track. I can hear all the little nuances. That's where you can really focus in, and detail it.

What's the physical and emotional thing that's going on when you're making the final record?

Usually I'll be standing up behind the console, and I don't like to work on big speakers. I like to work on little speakers, because the quieter it is in the studio, the more connected I feel to the bass, and the easier it is to play. It's kind of like sitting in a dressing room, warming up before a gig. Before you plug in, your fingers feel like they're just butter. You're not hearing any loud reproduction of what you're playing coming back at you, so you feel more connected and fluid somehow, and I find that crosses over to recording.

How loud's the track, compared to the rest of the guys?

It's probably louder than your average listener would listen to it. I don't know, but it's not as loud as it can be in a studio. It's not on big speakers, and it's not screaming down at you. It's on little speakers, and it's substantial.

When you're doing the track, do you want yourself to be louder than the track, or do you want to record it, and be in the track?

I like to be in the track. I like to hear the drums up pretty loud.

Do you listen to the guitar at all while you're recording? I know people who just listen to the drums and do their thing.

I don't listen to much of the guitar unless I have to. Unless it's a part that we're playing in concert. If there's two parts we've written together, then I have to listen to it, so we put that up. Usually there's a lot of drums, a little guitar, a little keyboards, and I like to have a voice in there, too.

Are you recording direct or into an amplifier?

On this album I used the Wal again, and it's just the greatest bass on earth for me. So I used that DI, but I also send to one of those GK bass amps, to get a bit of space and room around the bottomend sounds, so there's not just one dimension. It adds another dimension, a deeper dimension to the track, and also added some extra low bottom, which I think is easier to get with a speaker. I'll stand up behind the thing and I'll just go for it. If it comes to a complex part, it seems like I have to get a bit more focused on it, or, let's say I'm working on just a verse, to try to write a part around something, then I will sit down and concentrate on it. I always prefer standing.

Do you record dry?

Yeah, I rarely use any reverb on bass. Since I've gotten the Wal, it really is a simple recording process. You plug the thing in, the engineer gets the sound in about two minutes, and go for it. Part of the Wal is also just the sound of that particular bass, the wood, the whole thing. The wood, in combination with the lighter gauge strings that I use. I use the Funkmaster Strings. They're round wound and thinner. Rotosound used to make them. I don't know who makes them now.

Has anything changed with your live gear?

Nothing's changed. I'd like to see if I can get away, live, using the same thing I used in the studio. I think my live setup really is nothing more than a sophisticated monitor, because what people hear out front is really the DI bass with a little bit of amp mixed in, like you hear in the studio. We have a different sound mixer on this tour, so probably things will sound a little different.

I'm not hearing as many time changes in the songs.

They're still in there. There may not be as many. I think the transitions are a lot more subtle now, so that we can slip into it without it sounding awkward. It's funny to hear people react to a song like "Superconductor." The verses are all in seven, but it doesn't feel like it, because Neil plays across the seven. We're so comfortable with some of those time signatures that we can just slip into them, or slip into them for a moment. But, there's probably not as many as there used to be. They're probably not as obvious. We used to try to be very obvious when we went into a time change. We would announce it musically, somehow. "Here comes the time change-BOOM. This is hard to play-HERE." And now, we just worry about making the song work, and if it feels good in a seven, then we'll play it in a seven. As long as it feels good. It's actually a shift in priority. We're not so determined to prove anything. I guess we got a lot of that out of our system. I still think of it as a kind of personal victory when a song gets touted as something that the masses may like and I know there's an odd time signature in there. It was like when "Spirit of Radio" got a lot of airplay, years ago, and there's a couple of passages of seven there. I think that's great. If you can sneak an odd time on the radio, that's really a good thing.

The last time we spoke, you were saying you were learning how to play piano, and how much you enjoyed Horowitz, and I said, "Is it on a record yet?" And you said, "No." I think it's on this one. I don't think it's necessarily classical piano, but it's the first time you've used an acoustic piano.

It's real acoustic piano on the album. We had a couple of people playing, including myself, but my piano chops are still a little rough, so a lot of the piano is played by guest musicians. Two people in particular, Jason Snyderman, a friend of mine from Toronto, and Rupert Hine, our producer.

Was the use of the acoustic piano any sort of direct point from your studying?

I think so, because my ear is more attuned to that kind of organic keyboard sound. It was very much a production motto that we wanted to keep the pieces kind of organic, leaning away from the multi-super-digital, keyboard-affected sounds. Now I've fallen completely in love with the sound of the piano, too. We got a gorgeous one to do in the sessions, too. It was really a thrill. It was a huge concert Bosendorf. I got a few chops in. It was a little intimidating, because it was such a magnificent piano.

Is there any sound, or physical relationship between the bass and the piano?

I think so. The bottom end of the piano, at least the kind of sounds that I like at the bottom of the piano, very much relate to the kind of bass sound I like. I like deep resonance; the sustain is just so wonderful. And this Bosendorf had that extra octave at the bottom, too, which was really funny to play with. It sounded completely unearthly. We actually stuck one note from that section of the piano on the album, towards the end of "Chain Lightning." It was fun to have that in the studio, and it was fun to have these people playing, to watch their technique. It's also interesting to listen to the same piano played by three different people, because it sounded very different with whoever played it.

Is that true of your rig as well?

I think it's true. I know some of the guys set up and they jam before we get in. I come in sometimes, and it sounds real different. A lot of the sound comes with your fingers.

Does playing piano energize playing the bass, or is it just wholly satisfying by itself?

It energizes it in the sense that when I pick the bass up, I feel so accomplished after struggling through a piano piece where I really feel like a rookie. I really feel like a kid learning an instrument.

How are your sight-reading chops? They must be a thousand times better than they were in '83.

Yeah, but all through the making of this record, my lessons stopped, so, I'm out of practice.

So you take a weekly lesson?

I was. When you're traveling a lot, it really screws that up, and so whenever I get really super-busy I stop, 'cause I just can't handle everything at once. I'll wait till I have another gap, and then I'll call up the piano teacher and say, 'let's get going again.' I'm sure he's sitting there wondering where the hell I am now, because since I started this record, I haven't taken the time to get back into it.

I know that you're a big fan of Jeff Berlin.

He's untouchable. If I was to compare myself, I don't think I could ever play like him. His knowledge of the instrument is staggering - his physical capability, fluidity and range.

If you had all those things going for you, would it make Rush sound much better?

Well, it's all context. And in the context of the kind of music I play, I think I've got pretty good range, I think my knowledge of what works and what doesn't work is fairly good, but obviously it's something you keep pushing toward.

Is that something that you strive for? Do you feel like the best bass part in a song makes it come alive?

Yeah, in the context of the job of trying to drive a song, I believe that the bassist is required to provide a lot of propulsion. At times: my job is to root everything, when the drums aren't rooting it, and when the guitar is kind of up there, and when things are well rooted, then I try to provide a bit more propulsion, a bit more elasticity, in terms of trying to move around things. An example that comes to mind immediately is "Superconductor," where it's such a ferocious pace, that I'm trying to keep rooted, and there's not a whole lot of different notes in that song, but there's a lot of notes being played. If I got paid by the beat, I would be rich off of that song. On the other end, if you go back to the first verse of "War Paint," I think you get an example of where I don't really have to root it, so I can be a little more melodic and lyrical, and wrap around that.

If there was something you added to rock bass playing, what would it be?

That's kind of a hard thing for me to judge. It's so serious. I don't know. I guess a kind of an attitude about the bass, probably a little more adventurous than the norm, and maybe not as adventurous as some. It's all in the context of a hard rock band, which I think is really the only way to talk about my playing ing properly. It has to be really connected to the kind of music that I play, because cause my playing, compared to a Jeff Berlin, or a jazz-fusion kind of playing, is not adventurous. But in the context of hard rock playing, and hard rock arrangement, maybe I'm a little more adventurous.