The Geddy Lee Interview

By Paul Cantin, Jam!Showbiz, November 8, 2000

TORONTO -- As Geddy Lee neared completion of his debut solo album, "My Favourite Headache," Rush's bassist-singer found himself stricken not with a throbbing cranium, but a wrenched back and shoulder pain.

"The last month of the project, I had a spasm in my neck that would just not go," Lee recently told JAM! Music.

"At times, I found myself in quite a stressed-out state of mind. I had to learn how to de-stress myself," he said of his work on the solo album, which arrives in stores on Tuesday (Nov. 14).

"I am very passionate about what I do. I throw myself into it 150 per cent. And that means I take my responsibilities very seriously and the deadlines and everything that goes along with having to make sure an album project gets done.

"I become like I am at home. I am that father figure, making sure everything is taken care of, and that wore me out a little bit. That was really exhausting.

I don't think it was any coincidence that when the project was over, (the shoulder pain) went away and it has not come back."

As he conducted his media interviews, there was little evidence of any physical manifestation of the stress he felt about stepping out on his own, 30 years into a career with Rush.

Lee sat sprawled across a love-seat in the basement of his management's office, his legs dangling over the arm-rest, a plate of fruit and bottles of water sitting untouched on the low coffee table at his side.

He spoke with ease and good humour about everything from the Toronto Blue Jays' signing of Carlos Delgado ("Nobody is worth $17 million ... If someone is going to get it, he certainly should be one of those guys, though. But it is a bit crazy") to the possibility of a Rush box set ("There is almost no material that we have recorded that we haven't released").

But there is a bit of pathetic fallacy in Lee's physical ailment resulting from the pressure of flying solo. "My Favourite Headache" is an album that repeatedly returns to the theme of facing everything life has to offer -- both good and bad -- and getting through it.

"My relationship with music, I think, is one of the reasons I wanted that as a title (for the album)," Lee said.

"I am very passionate about what I do, but (music) is not easy, and it makes me nuts. I think a lot of people feel that way about their job, or the person they live with, or whatever. To me it was a very interesting, yin-and-yang phrase.

"'My Favourite Headache' is really investigating this attitude that can happen, and happens to most people in small moments. Life is overwhelming for you, because something has happened. One of the answers is to just hide from it. The intellectual side is interfering and saying, you can't hide from life. So you rationalize it with bleak, nihilistic phrases like: Who cares anyway? The ice age is coming in another 50 years."

Rush has been on a hiatus since July 4, 1997, when they performed the last show of the "Test For Echo" tour at Ottawa's Corel Centre. Since that time, Lee hooked up with his old pal Ben Mink, best known for his fiddle skill and collaboration with K.D. Lang. But it was Mink's early work as a multi-instrumentalist in the Toronto prog-rock band FM that recommended him as a collaborator for Lee.

Together, they began writing material, which turned into an album. Working in Seattle and Toronto with producer David Leonard and drummers Matt Cameron (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden) and Jeremy Taggart (Our Lady Peace), they fashioned the songs that would become "My Favourite Headache."

It's an album that will almost certainly be embraced by fans starved for new Rush material but also stakes out distinctive ground for Lee, who is the last member of the band to release his own project (guitarist Alex Lifeson recorded an album under the name Victor, while drummer Neil Peart released two albums in tribute to jazz drummer Buddy Rich).

Lee said he is adopting a wait-and-see attitude about touring and making videos in support of "My Favourite Headache."

"I'm a little confused about what to do there," he said.

"I think it would be cool to put a band together and do some very small shows. Nothing big at all. To do it the way I want to do it, would be a very expensive, tiny tour. That is not the most practical thing to go out there and deal with ... It sure would be fun to go out and do some very small venues and have a good time with those guys. And they are all totally up for it."

Meanwhile, here's what Lee had to say about the making of "My Favourite Headache":

Last January, after JAM! readers selected Rush as the most important Canadian band of the millennium, you told us you were writing songs, but you weren't quite sure if they would end up as a solo album. At what point did you figure out this is where it was all going?

A: About halfway through the writing. We gathered enough songs and we had to make a commitment one way or another as to what we were doing. I was very reluctant to do my own record, for a couple of reasons. To attach my name to it seemed unnecessarily attention-getting. But I think, at the end, I believed in the songs and liked the songs too much to leave them languishing on the shelf. It seemed unfair to the music.

For me, it was a matter of trying to figure out some purpose, aside from my own publicity, to do this. Once I could say to myself, "I believe in the songs", that gave me something to fight for.

When you are in a band, it is never that issue. It's THE BAND. There's that fighting, team spirit. But for some reason, maybe I am too Canadian, it seemed kind of embarrassing, to toot your own horn. For me, I had to have the added justification of really believing in the music, and really thinking these are great songs that on some level deserved to be on record. That seemed to be the difference.

After all this time making records with Rush, you still aren't comfortable with the fact that, at some level, it is going to involve you going, "Ta da! Here I am!". That is still unappetizing for you?

A: It's a weird thing. After 30 years of being in a fairly anonymous band, really, where we always put the band before us as individuals, to step out of that wasn't something I seemed to need. But once I thought it through and I realized what was going to be involved and how interesting it would be for me to go through this process, I just made the commitment to do it, and what will be will be.

Working for the first time in so long in a different creative configuration, did you learn something about yourself?

A: Totally. I learned the pros and cons of myself when I am only responsible to myself.

Was the stress you spoke of a result of not having the safety net of Alex and Neil to help you get through making a record?

A: Musically, there was always a partnership between myself and Ben Mink, in partnership with (producer) David Leonard. Those decisions are not stressful. They were fun decisions. Creative decisions.

But just the responsibility of getting it done and making sure it was done properly and saying: "Is this mix good enough? Do we remix this? Do I delay the release date because I have got to do this or I am not happy with this?" Those are things that wore me out. That is when I had my partners to turn to and say, "Guys, am I nuts about this? Do we need to redo this, or is it fine?"

Did you start writing with a blank slate, or was any of this material kicking around that could have turned into a Rush song?

A: I have one or two, but not many. What turned into "My Favourite Headache" was something I had written on my own, a skeleton already laid out. Whether it was for a potential Rush song, I don't know, but it was something that got me going way back when. Ironically, it was one of the last things we pulled up to work on. So really, we started from scratch. It was all pretty fresh.

While the sound of the album is pretty distinctive from Rush, it's not like you made a klezmer album. It has a sound to it that Rush fans will be able to warm to pretty easily. But is there any sense that because this was a solo project, you got to try things you wouldn't normally get to do?

A: There was a different symbiosis there, a different marriage of melodic desire, as strange as that phrase may sound. I have a particular love for writing melodies. I found it unusual that Ben had a very similar point of view on that. We both, when writing together, would arrive at the same place very naturally. That was a bit startling from time to time. The desire, of how we would like to shape music, was very similar.

With Alex, we come at it from very different ways, and there is a lot more tension in the writing process because of that. We don't always arrive at the same place at the same time, and then it is a process of trial and error. That is still a very satisfying way to work but quite different than this, and to me, it is a very fundamental difference between this project and a typical Rush project.

Because I wrote the lyrics, the way the vocals were developed and the way they fall on the line, rhythmically, I think, is an aspect that sets it apart from a Rush record quite dramatically. I think there is a groove factor that exists between myself and Matt Cameron and is inferred through the guitar playing of Ben, where those grooves came from between him and myself anyway. Again, it is quite different.

I could take strokes that I could never do in Rush. I could get rid of the drums for the whole bridge. I could pull them out and construct a techno rhythm for that. These are small issues, but they add up to make the nuances of this project exist in a very different space than a Rush project.

You have written lyrics from time-to-time for Rush. What's your approach to writing lyrics?

A: I keep a book, and I have for quite a while. I just got lazy about looking into the book. I write things down and think about stuff. I write what I think about and I come back to it. You know, I don't ever sit down to write a song, per se.

I just sit down and write something that is driving me crazy to think about or when the light bulb goes off some time, I write that down and I think back to it later, and I think back to whether that statement hits me still. Sometimes, when I do that, it forces me to write more about how I feel about that line I wrote down.

Eventually, I get a volume of thoughts and opinions based on that one little thing I was thinking about. I keep those around the studio and when a piece of music comes along that matches what I was thinking about or (have) written about, then I pull it out. That is when it is like being in Rush again -- I shape the vocal around the music. That is when I become an editor.

It seems to me the theme running through the entire album is facing reality, getting beyond illusions or delusions and dealing with reality in a more honest way.

A: I would say that is true. I think there are a lot of things lyrically on this record that are dealing with what is imperfect about life -- kind of getting over that.

Okay, life is messy, sometimes life can overwhelm you, sometimes there are small moments in life that set you off track. But dealing with them is what is life. Those are things that are very inspired by what I go through as a person, and a lot of people feel the same way. It is very much what keeps popping up in these songs.

On the song "My Favourite Headache," there's a reference to the Plains Of Abraham, which in this country is a place loaded with meaning, but I'm not sure how that jibes with the rest of the song. Is it a historical reference?

A: No (laughs). I needed a destination or starting-off point that was very evocative. And I always thought that phrase was very evocative. Something about the Biblical reference takes you back to something fundamental, about the beginning of everything. That is a little black comedy, that song. It is probably the least autobiographical song, and in some ways it is the most.

It is not about me, it is about a character. So that is kind of a mini-drama. The title of the song relates to this character. His favourite headache is this recurring intelligence he has. But I think the phrase itself is very transferrable to describe one's relationship to a lot of different things.

Speaking of characters, the song "Home On The Strange" describes a pretty unusual individual: "He's a Canadian icon/He sleeps with his clothes on/He likes to work with his hands/He's an apolitical man/And he doesn't like to change." Anyone in particular?

A: It was inspired by someone I worked with along the way. It is just somebody who had these very defined habits.

"He sleeps with a chainsaw." For real?

A: He actually does when he's camping!

It got me thinking of a type of Canadian that I have met, that is very upright, hard-working and not at all ambitious. It is just a character study in a way, but it got me thinking of that type of person, and how many of them I have met in my 40-odd years.

There's an ambiguity in the lyrics, though ...

A: Oh no, I think these are the characters that make up the human race. I am all for this guy. He is part of our fabric. You need that in the context of whatever else we have in terms of personalities we live with. It is not a criticism. It is an odd thing to look at, but to me, it is the individuals who make up a country and the unique characters that make the world go round.

You want to tell me who the song is about?

A: Nah. I don't want to embarrass him.

Does he know you wrote a song about him?

A: He will when he hears it. It's too much fun not to say.

On "Present Tense," you sing "When you lose the past, the future makes no sense."

A: When you forget what you have gone through, when you forget what has made you what you are -- your past guides you. Your past is what guides you, what forms you. But it can't help you become what you want to become unless you accept what today is.

That song is very much about accepting existence, accepting reality, and stepping outside the distractions. Humans love to distract themselves, and that way they don't have to deal with the unanswerable questions. That song is saying it is all about existential angst. I have it, and I am sure there are other people out there who have it. We can't run from it. That is a healthy part of self-awareness.

You and Ben obviously go back a bit, but I was thinking about working with Matt Cameron and Jeremy Taggart. They come from a generation of music fans that, for musicians especially, reveres Rush. And being drummers, was it at all daunting for them to fill in for a real "drummer's drummer" like Neil Peart? Did you have to kind of break the ice and get them over any sense of reverence?

A: They are both pros, you know? There was a sheepish smile that I would detect on Matt's face from time to time. I think he was having fun doing it. But I was having fun doing it, too. It works both ways. He was a fan of Rush at some point, I'm sure the buddies he hung out with were Rush fans.

How can you be a drummer in the '70s and '80s and not be a fan of Neil Peart? It is what you did. You had to go through that. I detected that with him and Jeremy. But they are both seasoned guys. They are total pros, and they are both confident. So if they were at all daunted by working with me, they didn't really show it. And, you know, we had a really nice time. It was really probably the most enjoyable part of the whole process. Recording Matt and Jeremy and playing with them, it was great.

I wanted to ask you about the song "Runaway Train." Soul Asylum, Eric Clapton, *NSync, Rosanne Cash, Tom Petty ...

A: All have songs called "Runaway Train."

It is a pretty popular metaphor.

A: It was originally called "Requiem," but I thought that was too heavy for most people to swallow. So I changed it to "Runaway Train," because it was the one image that was kind of profoundly existent in the lyrics. The song is about a different kind of self-abuse than one normally associates with that phrase.

The song is about victimizing yourself, and the concept that you can live in an intolerable environment only with your own permission, and that you have to activate yourself to remove yourself from harm's way. And when you don't, the thing becomes this runaway experience, where no good can come of it, and you can only stop it with your own insistence. That is what the song is about, that insistence.

I think the strongest song on the record is "Grace To Grace."

A: That song is kind of personal to me. It is about this type of human being that has suffered and whose lives have been changed by things beyond their control. And yet, rather than caving in, they have adapted to an entirely new existence with grace and dignity and succeeded in creating new lives for themselves.

It is very much inspired by my mother and what she has gone through and people like her, who were victims of the war and had parts of their lives stolen from them. But they don't complain about the stealing. They don't complain about the evil. They accept that they are still here, and they have gone on with their lives and created wonderful possibilities, as difficult as it has been.

It is about the evil that fails to recognize the theft of possibilities.

Any sense that the song was inspired by what Neil Peart went through, losing his wife (to cancer) and daughter (to a car accident) so close together?

A: Partially. Sure. But these were things that I was pondering long before that. But certainly it applies to anyone who has to survive the twist of fate.

Is "My Favourite Headache" the kind of record you can see yourself doing videos for?

A: No. I mean, if there is one song that becomes very popular and requires me to do a video, then I will do it. But I like to think I can try not to do it. In Canada, it is different. If I did a video here, it would get a lot of attention. In America, it is so strange, the video scenario there. People spend so much money producing these videos. It is so expensive to do. MTV has turned into this lifestyle network that doesn't have much to do with music anymore. There are very few outlets for that kind of thing.

I think MuchMusic is much more of a real live music station. I wouldn't have a problem doing a video for Much, but it is tough to justify the expense just for that. Also, do I want to go down that road? I'm not sure I do at this point.

I guess it might take the record to a new level of expectation ...

A: I'm not afraid of that. I have never shied away from doing videos. I love working with animators, directors. I love being involved in that, and it has always been my role in Rush to deal with the rear screen and that stuff. It would be fun to experiment with different things, maybe some animated impressions of certain things.

Right when the song "My Favourite Headache" went out as a single, it showed up on Napster, well ahead of the album's release. How do you feel about that?

A: I hate it. I think it is evil. I think it is theft. It is unethical behaviour. I am ashamed at the way people have tried to justify it and rationalize it by saying what they do in the privacy of their own home, with no one looking, is fine. Someone should ask me first if I want my song posted there. That is what it is all about to me, doing it without the artist's permission. An artist who is happy with it, by all means, give it away.

Whether I believe in giving away my music or not is not someone else's decision to make. It is my decision to make, and that is what I object to vehemently. I object to the artists who have gone out in support of Napster, as a very thinly veiled excuse to garner more street credibility and more populist adoration.

It pisses the hell out of me. It just gets my goat. Like (Metallica's) Lars Ulrich or not, he has gone out there and taken a lot of shots, and all he is doing is standing up for all the musicians out there who haven't been asked whether they want their music to be published for free or not.

Rush is scheduled to get together and start writing new material in January. Will having the experience of making "My Favourite Headache" under your belt change the group dynamic at all?

A: Probably in some way. Everything you do changes you. That is not to be shied away from, it is to be embraced. The other guys have done projects on their own. I don't see it as that big a deal effecting my relationship with Alex and Neil. I talk to Alex on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. And they are very supportive. Very supportive. I can't see it bringing any negative impact.

I wasn't necessarily talking about a negative impact. Change can be good or bad.

A: I think it is going to be an interesting meeting, when we first sit down to work together again. A lot of stuff has gone down since then.

Who knows? Ask me after and I'll tell you.