The first thing you notice upon entering the Toronto offices of Anthem Records is the gleam of its walls. It's not that they're particularly clean (although they're probably spotless)--it's the scads of platinum and gold record awards adorning the walls that provides the glare. And while the group responsible for racking up this phenomenal track record, Canadian prog-rock legends Rush, are currently nearing the end of a hiatus, there may well be a new plaque to hang on the wall very soon.
That would be the first solo effort from Rush bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee, the interestingly titled My Favourite Headache. Talking about the new album a few weeks before its release, it becomes obvious that the 'headache' portion of the music business for Lee is not the music making, but the accompanying hoopla that can engulf it. The prospect of talking about oneself ad infinitum might be the perfect pasttime for some--for Lee, the idea of it almost put him off the notion of making a solo record.
"It's a big responsibility to draw attention to yourself," he says. "You have to accept that once you make a record like this, you can't just go and throw it out there and leave the record company at their own mercy.
You're asking people to make a commitment to your music outside of yourself. I'm asking the record company to make a commitment, I'm asking publicity people in Des Moines, Iowa or wherever to make a commitment to me. So I have to make the commitment back to them, and that's to do whatever I can to help them do their job. And that requires some involvement from me, and that's a bit daunting. It can be all-encompassing. It drains you and it also finds you in the spotlight a lot. Now I've been fortunate in my life--I've been in the spotlight a lot. And when this project began I was reluctant to draw more attention to myself because I was happy with the amount of attention I've had on the planet thus far."
Even though it may seem more daunting to attempt to follow up Rush's incredible string of successes--Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart have made 22 albums together that have sold over 35 million copies worldwide--that wasn't even an issue. The ideas were there, and eventually the desire to create overshadowed the desire to avoid the spotlight. And with longtime friend and multi-instrumentalist Ben Mink offering his expertise as a co-writer and co-producer (with Lee and Barenaked Ladies producer David Leonard) , the opportunity had to be taken. But in opening himself to the possibility, Lee's most important goal from the outset was distinctly non-musical. "For our friendship to be damaged over this would be too high a price, so I'm glad it's survived," he says.
"When you work with a friend you run that risk. We were a bit nervous at first, but before we knew it we were writing. And the places we were going musically were strangely similar. We discovered, to no great surprise, that as comfortable as we were as people together, we were equally as comfortable writing together. Just when we would be on some diatribe about some humorous piece of esoterica, friend to friend, once the music came into play, we'd relate to each other the same way--a continuation of the same thought almost. I think our friendship was a definite benefit in terms of writing the music."
"It became a little more difficult in the production and sharing of responsibilities--that's when it became a test of the collaboration. I can be very intense when I'm working and sometimes that can be strange for a friend to deal with," he admits with a laugh. " We had our moments in the studio that were a little heated from time to time, but the good thing always was that when we got in the car to drive back to my house afterwards we would be laughing--hysterically sometimes, and we'd have to pull over. So that's when we knew we were okay."
Listening to the new album, it's clear that the pairing was an inspired choice. While Lee's voice will forever be associated with Rush and all of its complexities, fans should be pleasantly surprised to hear the directness employed with his new material. From the opening distorted bass riffage of the title track to the modern-rock flourishes adorning tracks like 'The Present Tense' and 'Home On The Strange,' elements of Lee's new music can be heard in latter-day Rush material, but here they take front and centre. Some of the record's immediacy can be attributed to its supporting players--besides Lee and Mink, drummers Matt Cameron (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden) and Jeremy Taggart (Our Lady Peace) lend their talents to the proceedings. But the main difference in the creative engine came from the attitude behind the writing process.
"Certain musical desires of mine were cemented in a cathartic way by working this way," he recalls. "When we were writing, let's say we'd have three-quarters of a melody written, it would just be a matter of who got there first because both of us would naturally go to the same note. And that happened so often...The differences are that Ben's background is completely foreign to mine. He's got folk, country, classical, and over here I've got pure rock, blues, and progressive rock. So that's where the differences came out, in the execution, but the mindset was similar. With Alex and I our backgrounds are identical--we grew up together. But our desires, our emotional goals, are quite different. So what we put together has a tension in it that doesn't exist with Ben and I."
But lest anyone think Lee is stating a preference for one method over another, he's quick to add that such 'tension' is an integral, and positive part of the Rush work ethic. And, much to the delight of fans, the band is reconvening in the new year to work on their first record since 1997's Test For Echo. Much has gone on since then--Lee and Lifeson have released solo records, and Peart has endured tragedy (losing his daughter in a car accident and his first wife a year later to cancer) and reclaimed joy (he remarried this past September). Life has given the longtime friends and colleagues new challenges--now the band must see how they've been affected.
"This kind of experience (making a solo record) opens you up to possibilities," says Lee thoughtfully. "It's hard to say how that will impact itself with my buddies there when we get back together. It's hard to guess. I would assume that everybody will want it to be great. Everybody will have a different idea about how to make it great. I'm sure what will happen is that there will be some territorial staking out that will go on and then we'll find a new equilibrium.
"It's a matter of compromise to a certain degree, because it's a democracy, and we've all got to share the load, share the responsibility and temper one's vision, to make sure it's acceptable to the other members. That's art by committee, and it's the only way it can be. And that's why not many people choose to go down that road, because they don't want to compromise. But 'compromise' is a dirty word, and I don't really mean that it feels like a compromise. But you do have to be respectful of everybody's take on what you're doing. Usually the strongest passion is what wins. I think now though, I'll be pretty happy to share some of the responsibility," he says with a laugh.
But for now, there's the present tense to deal with, and the immediate future. Lee is looking forward to seeing the response to his hard work, leaving open the possibility of a small tour to spread the word.
Indeed, a select few (most of them journalists) have actually heard 'Headache,' as Lee has been reluctant to play the finished work to many in his circle. It's not that he's not proud of it, mind you.
'I'm very secretive about what I'm working on.," he says, peering over his dark glasses as the interview winds down. "The couple of friends who have heard this material have been very supportive. Alex has heard it, and he called me the other day and told me he was proud of me, and Neil hasn't heard it yet. So really, more press people have heard it than any friends. I find it very awkward--I'm not the sort of person who goes around saying 'Here's my latest piece of work!' When I get together with my friends for a drink or dinner I don't want to talk about what I do." He smiles, and adds with a laugh, "If someone wants to hear it then they can take it home and listen to it, but it's not a prerequisite of my friendship that you like what I do."