Rush's Front Man Flies Solo

By Jeff Pearce, Canadian Musician, September/October 2000, Vol. XXII No.5, transcribed by

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In a career spanning almost 30 years, Rush has emerged as one of world's most respected and influential hard rock bands. With 22 gold and platinum records they are Canada's most internationally successful band, and recently Rush was inducted into the Order of Canada, the first music group to receive this honour. Most importantly, they have inspired and influenced the imaginations of millions of fans and musicians all over the world, and inspired many young Canadians to pick up instruments and form rock bands. I became a fan when I was 10. I have been trying to learn the bass licks in "YYZ" ever since.

In early June, Geddy Lee, bassist and singer for Rush, called me to talk about his first solo album. The past few months have been very busy for him, and this day was no exception. His backyard was being used for a White Ribbon Campaign function, and he was only a few hours away from being whisked away on a much needed month long holiday. For most of the past several months Geddy had been spending all his time in studios in Vancouver, Seattle and Toronto, working on the new record.

The last Rush studio album, Test For Echo, was released in 1996. A year later the band decided to take a hiatus, but it wasn't long before Geddy started writing again. "I found that I needed to exercise my creative muscle so I started going down into my home studio, which is a small digital writing room, and just started writing some music."

Soon, Geddy realized that this would be a great opportunity to collaborate with his friend Ben Mink, a producer and songwriter best known for his work with k.d. lang.

"Whenever we jammed we had so much fun, and our musical sensibilities seemed remarkably similar for two guys that were from such diverse backgrounds. So we decided to get together and start writing. We were hoping it would be awful, so we would never have to talk about it again, we could just put it away. But we liked what we were writing, so of course that's when all the trouble began."

He sent a bunch of songs to Val Azzoli, the head of Atlantic Records. "I said 'Look Val, here are some songs that we are doing. I don't know what the hell to do with them, so if you have any bright ideas, give me a call. So of course, he called, and he said, 'Look, go make a record', and I said 'Yeah?', and he said 'Yeah, go make a record'. So we did."

In The Studio...

The record began as detailed sketches of the songs, recorded in Geddy's computer-based home studio in Toronto, using Emagic's Logic software. The next step was to record live drums onto the demos. For this, the recording sessions were moved to Studio X, in Seattle.

Geddy Lee: We wanted to record with Matt Cameron (Soundgarden, Pearl Jam), who is a great guy and a wonderful drummer. So we went there to record the drums with engineer Adam Casper who has worked with Matt for years, and who was also a lot of fun to work with. We recorded the drums on an SSL console, but all the essential stuff like kick and snare went through Neve rails. We used a lot of Neve stuff to do the bed tracks."

Canadian Musician: Did you stick to digital formats, or did you record to tape?

GL: All the drums, and some of the bass and some guitar went to tape. I am running Logic synced to analog, so we can make decisions about whether we want each particular instrument to go to analog or digital, and it depends on the type of saturation we wanted from the analog. It is a nice way to work, because it is the best of both worlds. So with drums, we went to tape and then dumped it to the hard-disk - basically just photographed that sound.

When the drums were complete, the process of overdubs began starting at Factory Studios in Vancouver, then moving to Reaction Studios in Toronto. Geddy played the basses, some guitars, piano and programming, while Ben recorded most of the guitars and strings, opting to do the orchestrated sections himself, one part at a time. Later in the project, producer David Leonard (Prince, Barenaked Ladies, Moist, Wide Mouth Mason) was brought in as an engineer and co-producer.

CM: I have always assumed that the process of making a Rush record is very exacting, but David Leonard's production style is more about vibe. How has that benefited the record?

GL: There is a certain attention to detail that is in my nature that I can't let go of and that is just the way I am, and so is Ben. The two of us can be very microscopic, if allowed to be, which is why David has been very good for us, because he is so loose. Ben and I will be slaving over some moment of minutia, and we will look over at David and ask him what he thinks and he will be like 'what are you guys doing over there! Pull back from the microscope! The thing was good when you started with it!' Part of the reason why I didn't want to work with anyone that I had worked with before, was that I wanted to make sure my approach wasn't falling into patterns. To quote my old friend Joe Mendelson, I wanted to be free to make new mistakes, rather than just doing things the way I have always done them.

Geddy's Gear

One thing that didn't change was the way Geddy chose to record his bass parts. Most of the playing was done using his old Fender Jazz bass. "I brought all these other basses out to test, and my particular old Jazz just beats them all, I can't stop it from sounding awesome."

CM: Do you prefer to record bass direct to the board, or do you like to mic an amp and cabinet?

GL: I record iny bass to three tracks. The first is a direct line that goes through a Demeter, or all Avalon tube D.I. The Avalon is a really cool instrument with a deep, round sound that I have been preferring lately, although the Demeter also sounds cool. Then the D.I. runs through a Palmerson speaker simulator, and that gives me some bizarre speaker air movement, and a really controllable distortion. Then I have been experimenting with a third track where I use different varieties of distortion units, such as SansAmps and things like that. And I just take a mix of those three. I don't use any real amps at all.

CM: When you tour, do you try to emulate that sound using amps on stage?

GL: Because I am just using these small boxes, I can take them anywhere. So onstage, I just pump that sound through some speakers, and the Front of House loves it, because there is no stage volume. Basically whatever I have on stage is just for my monitoring purposes. The backline doesn't project very far into an arena, it's only for my own personal comfort level, and those 20 bass geeks that are standing right in front of me in line with my amp, and we are the only people in the building that are hearing my speakers. Everyone else is hearing that combination of little boxes.

CM: Which vocal mics do you like?

GL: I try different things. I have been using one of the smaller unidirectional Neumanns. The older Neumanns always sound good. Sometimes I use an AKG 414, but it seems like the more digital technology comes into play, the older the mic I want to use. The old mics and old compressors seem to be in essential combination with hard-disk recording because you need that warm old Stuff in context with the nuclear efficiency of hard-disk recording.

For the guitar parts, Geddy opted to use an old Gibson Les Paul Junior, one of his favourite instruments. "The guitars, on this album are much different than on a Rush record, much more experimenting, much smaller amplification. We used various amps. We had great success using a Vox AC30, and a couple of older Marshalls and little National amps served us well. And Ben has this great old Vega amp. It looks like an old wooden radio, a beautiful thing to look at. And we would run a line to that, and run a line to the SansAmp and mix the two to get a really interesting sound.

CM: It's different from a Rush album, but is it a rock record?

GL: I would say it is a rock record. There are some hard rock tunes on it, songs that obviously betray my past. You can't stop being you just because you are doing something in a different context. And I didn't want to go out and intentionally try not to sound like what I do, and because I am a part of the writing core of my group, a lot of that sound is the way I like to write. There are songs where that is clearly the case, and there are songs that are much more diverse. Orchestrated is kind of a good term for it. There is a lot of variety and a lot of melody on the record and I feel like I have really stretched out vocally. It has been a great vocal experience for me.

Bass Playing

CM: How do you feel your bass technique has evolved with the recording of this record?

GL: On this record I recorded lots of different bass parts and there are quite a few songs with more than one bass track, but I used the bass doing different jobs. I play a lot of bass chords these days. I really love experimenting with bass chords. People might expect a bass player's album to be really fast licks top to bottom but that doesn't interest me much. I was more interested in experimenting with tone and rhythm.

CM: A lot of harmonic chords as well?

GL: Sometimes, but I am more likely to create something like a weird rhythm guitar pattern. The strings are bigger and thicker and they take up a bigger block of space. I started that on a song called "Dreamline". Jeff Berlin, who is a good friend of mine, and really the master bass player of the universe, is always playing bass like he is Andres Segovia, with three parts going at the same time. So bass parts really fascinate me. Sometimes I will play a song where I will do a part through the whole song that is like a rhythm guitar part, then I will go back afterwards and add all the low end. And sometimes in the chorus or somewhere like that, I might add a really distorted melody line, as if it were a lead guitar. So there is a lot of bass going on that I don't think people would recognize as bass.

CM: What is the most important thing for you when you are writing bass parts?

GL: To master feel and rhythm is the bass player's job. I like to pretend I am a lead guitar player but I also like to be part of the rhythm section, so walking the line between those things. I like my bass to propel the music, but to propel it in a musical way as well as a rhythmic way. There are times when I like the tone to rip your head off, to be very obnoxious, but there are other times when I like the tone to be deep and rich. Those long luxuriant notes. It's all about rhythm and tone.

CM: Did you make a lot of musical discoveries about yourself, making this record outside of the band?

GL: Totally. This was really a good adventure, and one that has changed me forever. I was able to indulge the melodic side of what I do, and I learned how much I love writing melodies, and also the fact that it was suddenly my job to do the lyrics opened up a whole new side of expression to me. I always knew it was something I could do, but I had kind of relinquished it to Neil in lieu of his fine lyric writing abilities. So I have really enjoyed that aspect of songwriting a lot and it's nice to sing my own words. I think it has affected the way my voice sounds. There is a different kind of expression coming from it. So this is a bass player's album, but I didn't approach it like it was a bass player's album. It's about songs.


CM: Are you more proud of your accomplishments as a bass player, or as a songwriter?

GL: Well, it's writing that turns me on, but I love playing. When the guys are in the studio and I bring in my demos, they will say the bass parts are fine, that I don't need to redo any of them, and I look at them like they are nuts! I just blew it off, this is distorted and that's distorted, and they go 'you are just a typical musician you always want to try it one more time, and always think you can get it better'. I love writing, and these days it is the main thing for me, but when the writing is done, and it's my turn to play bass, boy I love it so much.

CM: Writing the songs for the new record. Do you have to step away from your playing style to try to write differently? Do you try writing on different instruments?

GL: I do write on different instruments, but I don't know how to separate how you write from your playing style. Sometimes I write on keyboards, sometimes on guitar, but my favourite way to write is on bass with a mic. I sing and sketch out melodies and chord patterns and song structures very easily on bass and I make the bass talk like any guitar, at least enough to write with. The sketches are primal, but they get the message across about where the song could go.

CM: When you are sketching out songs do lyrics come at the same time?

GL: Oh yeah, all the time, and I have a little work book that I carry around, jotting things down all the time. Lyric writing is a bit of natural extension for me, because I am pretty damn opinionated.

CM: What themes come up in your lyrics?

GL: Sometimes it's personal things. Sometimes it's anger about philosophical differences. Sometimes it's things I see in the universe that perplex me, attitudes that anger me, and things that I ponder. What are the things that you think about in the course of your life? You read a book and you are moved by it and it sends you off thinking about some aspect of that, or some character. Some of them are autobiographical and some are not. They are cinematic, imagining yourself being a character in a particular circumstance. If you have time to do it, it can be fun to imagine you are the most depressing guy in the world for five minutes and how would he write a song about how he views his world.

CM: After writing and singing your own lyrics, will it be difficult to start singing the words that Neil (Peart) writes again?

GL: I don't think so. I have great respect for him, and he is a very professional guy to work with. Over the last couple of years we have gotten very close, and because I have to sing his lyrics he is very amenable to what I need and happy to let me be the sounding board to discuss alternatives that are easier for me to sing. But, I am not going to stop writing lyrics, whether I write lyrics for Rush or not is beside the point. Working in Rush can be a separate outlet for me. It's all positive. They are all different jobs for different times of the day.

CM: Do you set time aside for writing lyrics?

GL: No, lyrics don't work that way for me. You could send me downstairs, to write something musical any time and I could do it, but lyrics don't work that way for me. I need to have the right kind of quiet, the right time of day. I write in bed a lot when the house is quiet and I have been thinking about stuff all day and at the end of the day there are conclusions and realizations. I look for that sudden clarity, and I put it down so when I come back later I can see if it still makes any sense.

The Future...

CM: Do you think you might tour with this record?

GL: I think it would be fun to, but it depends on how the record is received and what my time availabilty is. How much time I can beg off from my day job! I think it would be fun to grab five or six musicians and do some shows in small venues.

CM: Have you, Alex (Lifeson) and Neil (Peart) started talking about when you will regroup to record as Rush again?

GL: Yeah, we have talked about getting together sometime next year. I would say that early next year we will get together and just feel each other out. It's nice to get together any time because we are friends, but we have to take it all one step at a time.

Jeff Pearce is bassist for Moist. He bought 2112 (with his own money) when he was 10 years old.