It's hard to write a strong prologue to this interview because Geddy Lee is someone who barely even needs an introduction. His work with Rush has had such an impact on our instrument that fluffing around with superlatives only cheapens his importance so I'll try and keep this brief and to the point.
I recently got word that Geddy was about to release a solo album and would be in New York doing interviews. Luckily I was going to be in New York the same week so we set an appointment.
I found Geddy to be easy to talk to and quite friendly. His demeanor was a great help because I found myself surprisingly nervous. The fan in me kept whispering into my ear "Holy crap, this is Geddy Lee you're talking to don't be an idiot!" Luckily I held it together long enough to talk about the CD, life, bass playing and gear. As you read this imagine yourself sitting in a posh hotel suite on a beautiful New York fall day, sipping Perrier with Geddy.
Well the first question is, what prompted you to do a solo album?
Well let me see if I can think of an inventive way to answer these questions. I never had any real desire to make my own record. I always found Rush to be a more than adequate creative outlet for me as a writer. And stylistically what I want to do is really allowable in the context of Rush. I like my part. I don't have any deep seeded resentment, so in that area doing solo work was never a consideration. From the area of trying to step out and get more attention for myself, I always thought I got plenty of attention and my life was busy enough, and those are really the two main reasons people do solo work.
I found myself in amidst of a long hiatus from Rush and I found two things happening to me, one I needed to work, I needed to write, I was missing writing music, I love to write music so I started finding myself going down to my studio and puttering. At the same time I have a very dear friend named Ben Mink who for years we've toyed with the idea of getting something together musically and eventually through this period we decided to get together sporadically and start accumulating songs. It started as an excuse for us to hang out together - he lives in Vancouver, I in Toronto, so it's always nice to spend a week together. To make a long story short, having the time and the need to write and finding myself in the context of a writing with a good friend make this a reality.
How did Matt Cameron come in?
Once we had the songs written and we had a very clear direction of the record we recognized that we had built these songs up around drum machines. Then we realized that we needed a drummer. There were two people that we were considering. I was speaking with Adam Casper, someone we were trying to work with at the time and he had suggested Matt. After I went back and checked all those great Sound Garden records that I love so much, I listened to his playing and so did Ben and we realized that, boy, he was just the right guy. So I called him up and he was totally into it. He was great to work with.
The album has a different sort of edge - it's a little bit more raw - and I was wondering if that was more what you were doing regarding the songwriting or is it more working with the people you are working with. Did they bring that out in your or was it something you were meandering towards?
I think there are some tracks on the record that have that very edgy sound. And I think that was just a natural place I went to when I started writing. And there are some songs that are quite intimate in some ways and much more textural. And that is a place I think Ben and I gravitate to naturally. So the album proceeded very much in two directions simultaneously, basically kind of more personal singer songwriter style of song gathering and then there was this more rock animal that still needed to be satisfied a little bit. I love writing melodies and I live writing atmospheric passages but as a bass player I really like to rock out.
Who do you see connecting to this album in addition to Rush fans?
It's still rock and roll and it still has some angst and anger in there. So I think it can appeal to a variety of people. Probably it's going to appeal to the people who have a slightly more mature rock sensibility.
Taking it back to the long absence with Rush, what is going on right now?
Well basically we've been on an extended hiatus. I think at some point early in the year next year, we'll sit down and start writing together. I'm optimistic that will lead us down the road to make another record.
When you were recording My Favorite Headache, how did you record the bass?
Well, I have a way I like working at home because a lot of this material was written in my home studio or Ben's home studio I've developed a kind of way of accomplishing my bass sound that I didn't have to spend largely on big amplification. My home studio is a small, comfortable writing environment and I record largely using hard disc recording. So I use a lot of software programs like logicaudio. So I set up my bass with a combination of DI equipment, and by that I mean I would use either a Demeter, tube DI or an Avalon U5 to the board as my kind of control track, my safe, clean track. And then I would have two different types of distortion tracks. I would use a Palmer speaker simulator, it gives me a warmer more bottomey distortion and goes quite deep. And then I would have another track which I would use a more outrageous distortion device. I would use either one of two different kinds of Sansamps depending on the song and depending on how obnoxious I wanted to be. And so when it comes to mix time I have a lot of flexibility between those three instruments and I never felt like I was missing a mic in front of an amp, which is much harder to control and much harder to eq. It's harder to change horses in midstream when you're using mic'ed amplification. I find it's more important for guitars than it is for the bass. And speaker simulators do that job where it does feel amped. So that was the basic technique I used throughout making the songs.
Did you record a lot of the bass tracks at home?
Initially yes. I recorded everything either at my studio or at Ben's studio. But once I got Matt's drums on there, its kind of interesting because Matt played to the bass track that I had already laid down and so he was trying to lock to those bass tracks and he did a great job, but once I head them, I felt that I could do a better job locking to him and really improve the feel of the song. I redid a lot of them and just basically got in a groove with him and it was just like I was working with Neil or any other drummer. I just locked in with him and had fun with some of the new directions that he pushed the songs. It was a lot of fun to do. There are about two or three songs that the bass tracks have remained from my home recording. I think "Angel Share", "Bohemia" and "Still" are all songs that I recorded at home and I kept those bass tracks. All the others, once Matt got on them I redid them. Now of course the one song that I did with Jeremy Taggart that was recorded live, he played and I jammed with him. That was fun and it was quite a different kind of approach than the other songs.
Do you think that working at home has had a large impact on the way this album sounds?
I do. Working in my home and in Ben's home has had good and bad impact. But I'll take the good and bad because I cannot be estranged from my life and be a musician anymore. My work is a part of my life, I just prefer to integrate what I do as a part of my life and not to separate it.
What basses did you use for the recording process?
I use one bass. I use my Fender Jazz - my old one and that's the bass I use. Can't beat that bass. I try, I've brought all kinds of basses to the studio but the Jazz just sounds awesome, so I use it.
It's funny, that you've played different basses; the Rickenbacker, the Steinberger, the Wal Bass but you always sound like you, you always have your sound and tone.
Well, that's an important point. I work with young musicians from time to time producing and writing and doing things like that and the most common thing that a yound musician will say whether they are a guitarist or bassist, they'll say, okay you hear this sound and they'll bring in a record and say I want to sound like that. And so, you try to approximate the sound, and analyze the tone a little, and the artist says look, it still doesn't sound like that. I have to turn to them and say, well that's because the sound isn't really coming from the amp and the guitar, it's coming from his fingers, the way he plays. That's where the identifiable character of the performance comes from. You could take someone and you could give them my bass and my amp set up, and they're not going to sound like me because they don't play like me and I think what you say is important. The thing for young musicians to remember is that "their" sound is theirs. When they go into the studio with different engineers they shouldn't be paranoid about losing their sound. Because if they have a sound, it will shine through regardless of who's recording. That is their identifiable thing.
You were talking about the old jazz bass, and I know Fender released a signature model a few years ago, which wasn't around for a little while but now it's back in production. Is the bass they are making fairly similar to yours?
It's fairly similar, but it's not exact. We did all kinds of studies on it, the same kind of neck. I don't think they use the same wood anymore that they did in the early 70's. But all the specs are pretty much identical, the same bridges, the same distance between the bridge and pickups and all that stuff. It's pretty close. The Custom Shop has made me a couple of basses where they have tried to approximate my bass to - maybe there is just something about the age of the bass and maybe the way the wood has cured over the years or something like that, but the new basses just don't sound exactly the same. They sound as close as humanly possible though.
What year is your Fender?
Mine is a '72 and I don't know whether it's broken or something, or whether it's miswired, but it just sounds a little richer than most of those other basses I've played. If I take mine out of the mix those basses sound great and I have no complaints about them. And as a matter of fact, I use them live and I've used them on Rush records. Actually now that I think about it, I think one of the songs on this record does not have my old black bass, I just realized that one of the songs I did in Vancouver is one of the basses that Fender made. I leave one bass in Vancouver at Ben's house and it's actually got really fine tone to it but it's only when you compare them In like studio where you can pull one out and pull another out and say I like that one a little better, I think they do a great job making instruments but there is something maybe idiosyncratic about the old one that I have.
One of your identifying qualities as a bass player was the sound of the Rickenbacker.
The Rickie was great for a while, but the sound I used to get out of the Rickie was just a lot of work, a lot of work. People often assumed that it was the Rickie in Tom Sawyer, but it's not the Rickie on that song, it's my black Jazz. The Rickie just has a different sound.
Have you had the '72 jazz most of it's life?
No, I bought it in a pawn shop in Michigan for two hundred bucks. It was just hanging on the wall with no case. Totally a great score!
Because you are a singer and a writer, and all the stuff you've done with keys, you are such an eclectic artist. I was wondering how much of a roll the bass plays in you as an artist.
The bass is my grounding stake. I find that I write much better with my bass than I write with any other instrument. I write more from my heart with my bass. On this record I experiennt a lot with using bass to write on it. When I play bass to write a song, I play chords and I do a whole rhythm structure in a chordal sense and I add the vocals and use that as a kind of a scratch version of the song. Then, if I'm working with Ben, he's obviously writing with me at the same time and we work out chords out together but usually I'm not playing a deep low bass part while that's happening. He's strumming on acoustic guitar, electric and I'm acting as another rhythm guitar really. So a lot of times what I'll do on this record, once it's structured, I kind of leave that rhythm in there and I go back in and add a subsonic bass, like a low bass part so the rhythm bass becomes a particular kind of rhythm guitars. There are a lot of tracks on this record, that have two, three, four maybe five overdubbed tracks of different bass parts. So, there's really a lot of bass going on in not very obvious or histrionic ways. Like sometimes during the chorus of a song, I'll go in and overdub a kind of melodic bass line that's got a long sustaining sound so I can put some really interesting beautiful notes and try to expand the width of the melody of the song. Rather than do it overtly like in a vocal range, it's a little lower down and somewhere apart from the guitar range. So it actually adds a really nice texture.
Who influenced your style and your conception of music?
Lots, Jack Bruce, the first guy to put me over the edge as a bass player, a genius bass player as far as I'm concerned, he was the most important bass player of a band, a rock band. And, Jack Cassidy from the Jefferson Airplane. He was a very underrated bass player of that period. John Entwistle, Chris Squire - these were the guys that inspired me and taught me what I do. What I do could not have come without those guys. So I just felt myself as a part of that tradition as those kinds of bass players. I still see myself in that line and carrying on that tradition, those really pioneer rock bass players.
Have you experimented with other things outside the rock genre?
Well just within the context of what I do. I've played on a few other records with people. I actually do like doing that when I get the casual invite from a friend or someone I know to sit in or something. But going in and just being a bass player on someone's record is really a lot of fun for me. I like to be able to experiment and try to give somebody what they want without having to worry about dealing with the arrangement. Of course, I always want to go in there and rearrange the song. [laughs] I've never delved into classical or jazz.
How old were you when you picked up the bass?
I think I was three years old. No, I was about fifteen. I started playing with Alex quite early as a garage band and that really became a part of Rush. On a non professional and kind of amateur level for many years we floated around the suburbs of Toronto playing coffee houses and high schools. I've been doing it for quite a long time.
What is your advice to young, practicing musicians or just musicians on their path?
First of all, it's a personal decision involved with what kind of musician you want to be and how much of your life you are willing to risk. Most musicians know it can be a real thankless job and it requires a lot of practice. But I think if you know what you want to get out of it, it's a lot easier. I have friends that play in progressive rock or jazz things and they still have visions of super stardom. These are esoteric styles of music these days, so that is pretty much a long shot. But, if you accept that it is a long shot and you are just doing it for the joy of your art and getting a great amount of satisfaction from playing that music, and you believe in that music then that should be your reward and anything that happens above and beyond that is a bonus. As for rock players, that's a different story. That is a more ambitious venue and there is always the chance for greater success in that style music. You kind of have to know what you are after in order to be the best that you can be. Then you'll be the best that you can be going in, in an honest way. I think that one area that people overlook in why people respond to other musicians is conviction.
I think when you listen to an artist and you know that they believe in what they are doing, there is something about their music that is more hard hitting. That something seems to come through in performance, song writing or whatever. It's kind of a band attitude, and there are not so many bands anymore that last for a super, super long time and I think there are a lot of reasons for that. But I think that's a really healthy attitude to have. When you pick up a jazz record or a rock record and you know those guys love what they are doing, and they are doing it for that reason primarily, that will come through to you. It kind of means more to you. It's certainly not the only attitude to have, but I've always found that as a musician when you like what you are doing it is much more believable and as a result, it is much more accepted. Our ambitions came in steps, but we believed if we played better we'd be more accepted.
Now, my interests have expanded into composition and song writing, craftsmanship, emotional response. We were fortunate in that small goals were achievable.
In the context of songwriting, what would you say is your muse?
I don't know, things come to me. What I started doing on this record, which I've never done before was writing inside my head for a while to a large degree. I always thought it was necessary to have an instrument in hand to write something and I remember a friend of mine who was a keyboard player about ten years ago, telling me that he always wrote in his head all the time. I thought that was just so bizarre and I wondered how you could do that. Now I realize how you can do that with a solid memory of all the structures and notations and you can put riffs together without having your instrument in our hand, or put instrumental segments or have a vision for what a part of a song should sound like. Then I just go downstairs and I recreate that and that is really kind of fun. Then you are always writing in a way, when the moment takes you and not just when you happen to be sitting in front of your guitar or your recording equipment. I do the same thing with lyrics, I don't care where I am, and I take a little book around with me all the time. When I'm thinking about something and know that it will eventually be important to me, I just write it down and I come back to it in peaceful moments in my day and expand upon that. Basically, I take a stream of consciousness attitude with it. When it's time to put songs together, I just keep those notes around and when a piece of music comes across that seems to remind me of some lyrical idea I had, then I bridge the two together and start forming a song. It's a nice way to work. It's more natural and it's a matter of expressing yourself when the moment takes you.
Do you have a family and how has the life of a professional musician blended with it?
Yeas I have a family, kids, dog, everything. Life and music and life at home is hard to orchestrate in a normal manner so it's always a little messy, and that's okay. The older I get the more I combine the two. I like to be around my family, I like to be around my kids so I like to work at home whereas for some people it's a nightmare. I don't want constant interruptions when I'm working in the studio but it makes my day when my daughter comes home from school and runs into the studio to see me. My family has great respect for me when I'm working in a do not disturb mode, but there are some things I just can't get upset about, like my dog or daughter coming in the room. I couldn't go back to a residential studio and be isolated, I just couldn't do it, and I couldn't survive. I'm much happier not doing things that way, I have no interest to go to a residential studio and bury myself away for six months away from my family.