The Consummate Geddy Lee Interview

By Christopher Buttner, Global Bass Online, December 1, 2000

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Each of the three members of RUSH, drummer Neil Peart, bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson is considered a Maestro of his respective instrument. Induction into a number of magazines' 'Halls of Fame' throughout the world for Best Guitarist, Bassist, Keyboardist, Drummer, and Band, attests to Rush's "musician's musician" status.

RUSH is renowned for their complex, sprawling, and epic song arrangements, featuring intricate time, tempo and key changes and deeply philosophical, mystical, political and scientific lyrics and messages.

The band's virtual hero status in Canada is further born out by a place on Canada's Walk of Fame and for being the first rock group recipient of the prestigious Order of Canada medal. Created in 1967 to recognize "significant achievement in important fields of human endeavor, the trio received that award as much for their community service - raising over $1 million for food banks and the United Way - as for their contribution to the arts. Closing out the century on a high-note, RUSH, by a two-to-one margin, won the JAM! ShowBiz online poll as Canada's "most important musicians of all-time."

Singer/Bassist Geddy Lee's in-your-face approach to the instrument has probably impacted more bassists on a grand scale then any other bassist, in the last 20 years.

Beyond being recognized by a prodigal singer/bassist, Geddy has evolved into a multi-talented musician and instrumentalist who just happens to make the bass guitar his primary instrument on record and on-stage. As RUSH's music became increasingly more intricate, layered and grandiose, Geddy quickly evolved into the band's resident multi-keyboardist and synthesist, on album and on-stage. Regarding the latter, Geddy's dexterity to operate "all this machinery making modern music", and sing, and play the bass (in and out of varying time signatures I think the band must have invented), is second to none.

With the inception of the internet, I wouldn't hesitate to doubt that the very first topic to be posted to the very first fan-supported RUSH site was probably, "When do you think Geddy will put out a solo album?"

Guitarist Alex Lifeson released his solo project, entitled VICTOR, in January 1996. Drummer Neil Peart has produced several solo projects, including the lauded BURNING FOR BUDDY concerts, recordings and videos, as well as other recording and video side projects, including working with Jeff Berlin in 1985, and the 1996 two video set entitled, NEIL PEART: A WORK IN PROGRESS. A WORK IN PROGRESS documents the recording of RUSH's TEST FOR ECHO album, as well as the "work in progress" of Neil himself, and his "endless apprenticeship" to the art of drumming.

And the world waited for Geddy's solo effort....

Finally, on November 14, 2000, Geddy Lee released that first solo album, MY FAVORITE HEADACHE. Geddy was joined by long-time pal, co-collaborator and multi-instrumentalist Ben Mink for this highly anticipated effort. Ben has earned great renown for his Grammy Award-winning work with k.d. lang, but somewhat lessor known is his role as a member of famed Canadian pro-rockers FM, where Ben played - among other instruments - electric mandolin, which Geddy says, "He made sound like he was Jeff Beck."

Drummers Matt Cameron (Pearl Jam and Soundgarden) and Jeremy Taggart (Our Lady Peace), provide the driving percussion behind MY FAVORITE HEADACHE's 11 tracks.

Geddy called me on November 13, 2000, at 7:30 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time), and I am sure he was grateful this was going to be the last interview of the day. He had begun his promotional tour along the east coast of the USA on, or about, November 9, and I could tell he was really tired from several days of answering a cornucopia of repetitive, if not inane, questions. Not realizing he could be so tired he was starting to get slap-happy, I thought I should ease him into the interview with some self-deprecating humor.

"I know you're totally burnt out from answering a lot of incessantly repetitive questions for the past several days, so if mine are either too philosophical or just out right too dopey, let me know."

Geddy snickers, "Dope, dope, dope away. Be as dopey as you like."

I didn't want to dwell on questions only anal bassists would be interested in, such as, "So what kind of strings do you use?, Do you prefer Rosewood or Maple fingerboards? What pick-ups are in your main axe?", etc. Many consider Geddy Lee one of the most well-rounded musicians, on par with Sting and John Paul Jones, plus he is a well thought-out, cerebral guy with a great, dry sense of humor. I put together a list of 'outside of the box' questions with two friends of mine, keyboardist Jordan Rudess and bassist John Myung, both members of Dream Theater and both incredibly talented musicians who site RUSH as a major influence.

Geddy chooses his words carefully and was kind enough to answer questions that should enlighten all musicians, not just bassists. Almost immediately, a weak connection forces Geddy to switch phones so I can accurately record the conversation. He puts me on hold and switches to the other phone in his hotel room. When he picks up, he states, "I'm going to have to sit on the toilet and talk. I'm sitting at an interesting body angle here... you should see this."

I reply, "You will spare me any and all sound effects, won't you!?"

We're both laughing and quickly relaxed once we find our common ground: Bathroom and toilet humor.

What are the emotions right now? Is your anxiety level running higher then if this were the release of another RUSH album?

It definitely feels different. Mostly because if it were a RUSH album, I would be in rehearsal for an upcoming tour, designing some stage gear or rear screen projection multimedia materials. I would be in a very different mode and I wouldn't have the same available time to be so aware of the CD release. I'm excited. The feedback I have been getting is overwhelmingly positive and I am starting to feel like it was definitely worth doing. (Laughs). So, I don't know what is going to happen when the CD comes out, how well it will sell, etc. But, from a personal point of view, it was a very worthwhile endeavor.

There are those fans who would have anticipated, or hoped for, a 'lead bass' album; a blatant, sell-indulgent display of your bass playing prowess. When you realized that the evolution of what you were putting together would result in a record, did you give any thought as to how you wanted to be seen as an artist?

I had offers to do an album as you just described: 'Bassist running up and down scales'. It really didn't interest me very much. I am moved more by melodies, song structure, and evocative textures. That is what intrigues me; songwriting and song structure and expression. There was a time when fast playing and fretboard pyrotechnics on the bass were important to me and when I am recording a bass track, that is still very important to me. I like to be obnoxious and insistent and take some chances with the bass. When I do a take, I very often try things that I haven't planned to try to see if I can pull it off. I feel safe and comfortable to do that once I know that the song structure around the bass part is very interesting and it satisfies me in a compositional sense.

As a musician, are you the entrepreneurial type who has to create a little bit every day, whether it's a line of a song in a notebook, recording a few measures of a track or do you just tune it all out for periods of time and create when the mood strikes?

I have a lot of hobbies and I can be very remiss in reminding myself to go down to the basement to work. When I usually go to my studio to work, I start with something that is going to take two minutes just to put some idea down and the next thing I know, ten hours have gone by and my family is screaming at me because they want me to come up to have dinner with them. I have such an extreme attitude about work, where I can just completely be derelict of my responsibilities and then when I am not derelict, I am completely indulged in it. I swing pretty wildly from the two extremes.

Speaking of 'dereliction of duties', do you ever just sit down to practice any one instrument, be it the bass, guitar or the piano, getting lost in playing twiddly-bits, or does the bulk of your practice come from the creative process?

I like to practice on the bass, but I don't do it as often as I should. I do go downstairs, plug in, fiddle around and have some fun with it. Always, invariably, it leads me to just start writing something. It's hard for me to just practice without writing something. As far as my keyboard playing goes... I'm really just an adequate keyboard player, I'm a really good bluffer! With the help of modern technology, I can compose intricate keyboard parts and then I have to go back and learn them in order to perform them properly. (Laughs). So, I really don't consider myself a fabulous keyboard player. To me, that's not an issue, it's more of using the instrument to get ideas or support the atmosphere of the song. I do love using keyboards and I love writing keyboard parts, but I am not a player in the true sense of the word. I definably do not look at that instrument the same way as I do the bass guitar. I have a piano in the house and I was playing with my young daughter the other day and I realized what a lazy bastard I am. I really love the sound of the piano and it's so gratifying to sit down and play... I should really spend more time with it.

The lion's share of RUSH lyrics come from Neil, so was there a feeling of artistic vulnerability in finally committing your own lyrics, thoughts, observations and emotions to your own music?

Sure! It was a very exposing process. I think that is what I liked about it. I liked the fact that I was forced to get inside of my emotions and to really try to figure out a lot of what I was going through. Most people are like this: They think of stuff during the day. The mind goes to certain places, they remember things, and they try to figure things out. To remind yourself to write that stuff down is a great benefit. Then you come back to it and you analyze it days later, and lyrically shape what you felt when you wrote it down. For me, how I feel about what I wrote down turns into a song. Above all, forget the songwriter, forget the end result. That was a very interesting learning process for me as a person! Just to learn how to do that was something that was pretty key for me. Then, once I have lyrics, being able to shape them around a song is nothing new for me, I've been doing that for 25 years. The soul searching part of it, the spontaneous part of it, that was, and remains, a really terrific process.

You're revered as a bassist, a singer and a multi-instrumentalist 'deity' by many musicians all over the world. To many, you are the bassist by which all others are judged. At this point in your life, from what artists do you draw inspiration; what bass players take your breathe away when you hear or see them perform?

Well, certainly there is the whole 'old school' of them who were the bass players set in my mind. John Entwhistle, Chris Squire, John Paul Jones, and Jack Bruce. These days, I think Les Claypool is a brilliant bassist, of course Jeff Berlin is still out there and playing... he's a remarkable talent.

What songwriters make the hair on your arm stand-up? What bands and what artists are in your CD player these days?

If I hear STATE OF EMERGENCY by Bjork, that really blows my mind. It's a brilliant song, she's awesome. She is not for everyone's taste, but she is damn well for my taste, I love her. She is a real artist, she's deeply talented and her voice is as compelling as any voice as I have ever heard. I like the music that RADIO HEAD is putting together. I love Thom Yorke's singing, I love their song structures. They're a very interesting band. I like the TRAGICALLY HIP, if we're talking about Rock or Pop music. But there are a whole range of other things, and things from the past, of course, that I still find very inspiring. Every time SOLSBURY HILL, by Peter Gabriel, comes on the radio I remember where I was when I first heard it, that song doesn't age because it's so well written - there is something so right about it.

Even 10,000 listens later, there is something still fresh about it.

Absolutely! When I hear songs like that, I want to go down to my studio and work.

RUSH has been considered a Progressive Rock Band for a long time, therefore, do you consider yourself a Progressive Rock Musician or has the tag of 'Progressive' worn out?

Well, I certainly identify with Progressive Rock and I certainly don't mind RUSH being labeled as a Progressive Rock group. I have always felt I was more accurately a Hard Rock musician. I don't know that such a thing as Progressive Rock really exists anymore. If it does, it's being reinvented by bands like RADIO HEAD and artists like that who are pushing the envelope a little bit. So, it's a somewhat dated phrase, but I don't think that it's an objectionable phrase.

So Progressive Bands that are still out there, those who attribute so much of their influence to bands like RUSH, YES and ELP, those who are keeping the genre alive. Do you listen to them, and if so, what are your thoughts?

I am not really familiar with them, to be honest, and I have never really spent much time paying much attention. But I would always be interested in hearing what they do. I probably don't go to the record stores as much as I should to find out what is new. Someone was telling me about this whole new MATH ROCK thing that is starting to happen.

(I spell it out) M-A-T-H? MATH ROCK?

Ya, it's this whole genre that is born out of ProgRock, where they take all the weird time signature stuff and construct their songs, like math equations. (Laughs). I can identify with that. RUSH used to do some of that stuff ourselves.

Sure gives 'Numerology' a whole new twist.

(Laughs again) Obviously, there is a need, from time to time, for music that is complex. That's a good thing. Maybe we're musically coming back around to a time like that.

Step out of the role of Geddy Lee for a second to answer this one: Do you consider yourself an influential musician?

(Sighs). I always feel a little arrogant to think of myself like that. I prefer to think of myself as a musician who is still learning and trying to do something every time out. But, I would be naïve not to recognize the number of musicians who tell me they have been influenced by me and sight me - as well as Alex and Neil - as a musician who has been a positive influence on their playing. I don't think you can ignore the facts.

Tell me about your home studio. What's in the signal chain?

My studio is designed for atmosphere. I have a really cozy, comfortable room that has a great, huge glass door that views my backyard. I'm a big believer of daylight in the studio. I have my Mackie 32/8 console and I am a big believer in using Emagic Logic Audio. I run the full 24-bit system - the whole deal. I'm running it on a Macintosh 9600, the workhorse. Plus, I have a multitude of hard drives. I am in the process of gathering together old compressors: LA4s, 1176s, those kind of things. I have been using LA4s in the studio, that kind of stuff - high quality compression equipment. I also used four Empirical Labs Distressors on mixing the album. They are very useful. After the experience of making this record, I am in the process now of trying to gather a few bits of gear, Neve and other old compressors. The more I work in the digital domain, the more I realize those pieces of gear are essential. Then there is my bass gear which consists of a bunch of Demeter, SansAmp, Palmerson, and Avalon equipment. The bass was recorded direct onto three tracks and I didn't really use any 'real' bass amps, per se.

How much of what was produced for MY FAVORITE HEADACHE was tracked at your home or Ben's home and how much, if any, of what was recorded at home made it to the record?

Quite a bit of it really. Almost the entire song, ?STILL?, was recorded at both of our homes. We added and replaced some of the original guitars, except the drums, of course. None of the drums were recorded at home. The drum recording sessions were moved to Studio X in Seattle. Almost all of the vocals on ?STILL?, and a lot of the backing vocals, in general, were kept from what was recorded in my home studio. The entire bass track for ?MOVING TO BOHEMIA? and ?ANGEL'S SHARE?, was recorded at my home and the bass track for ?STILL? was recorded at Ben's house... recalling just a few parts.

Ben lives in Vancouver and you live in Toronto. How did you guys swap files? Were you sending DATs back and forth, were you e-mailing files?

Both Ben and I have built identical systems. Basically, when I would go to see Ben, I would take a DVD RAM back-up all of my files and, occasionally, just take the hard drive on the plane with me. I would walk into Ben's place and away we'd go.

In the process of tracking the record, how often were you in Vancouver and how often was Ben in Toronto? How long did the whole process of tracking the record take before the two of you went into a pro studio?

We spent a couple of years working back and forth.


Ya, we would do seven to ten days working at my house and then we wouldn't do anything for two or three months. (Pauses, then laughs). Then I would go to Vancouver and work for seven to ten days at Ben's house and then we wouldn't do anything for two to three months. And that went on for way too long! Then, one day, I finally said, 'Ben, c'mon! We have gotta' get this together here, Buddy! It's just dragging.'

(Now we're both laughing).

Finally, earlier in 2000, we said, 'Okay, this is it, we're going for it.' And that's when we got serious and Ben came to my house and we brainstormed for a few weeks and got everything pretty well ready-to-rock. Then, Matt Cameron (former Soundgarden drummer), came along and we went into the studio and recorded the drums, replacing the tracks that were not standing up to scratch.

After playing with Neil for so many years, a drummer by which all other drummers are judged, what was it like playing with a guy like Matt Cameron, who is more of a straight ahead rock/pocket player? How was your playing style effected? As a bassist, was there more freedom of creativity, inspiration and experimentation to go crazy on the bass?

Matt really slotted in very well. A lot of the song structures were fairly together when he added his drum parts. I was so impressed with him, I can't begin to tell you. He has such a great sound and impeccable taste and such a strong groove, he is really fun to play with. So, from a bassist point-of-view, it was a really great experience locking in with him. A different experience then with Neil, but none the less, very inspiring.

So he came in to lay down the drums after you guys had the basic tracks laid down?

We wrote these songs, and took so long recording them in our home studios, that we had pretty final structures by the time Matt was available. So many of his drum parts took the songs to a new place! He would play to these song structures and afterwards I would like what he played so much, I would go back in and redo my bass parts, because I wanted to play along with him.

Your producer, David Leonard (PRINCE, SANTANA, BARENAKED LADIES, JOHN MELLENCAMP), who is more a 'go with the vibe' guy, got you and Ben out of 'micro-managing each note.' So, as an attention to detail kind of guy, was there any kind of a creativity catharsis - if you will - in terms of making MY FAVORITE HEADACHE, compared to how you would go about making a RUSH album?

David was great and that is a great question, because David had a very definitive effect on us. He's so experienced and loves the idea of being in a collaborative situation. He instinctively focused on a lot of things that I found important: in the way the groove of a song works that I don't think I would have thought of being so inside of it all. And, he's a very talented technician and a great engineer. The other thing he brought to the table was, rather then approach these songs in a manner that was more 'assembly line', where you lay the bass down for ten days, guitar for three weeks, vocals for however long... he basically introduced the concept of, 'Let's put the song up and let's just work on it and we'll mix it up.'

If you got tired of it, put it aside and move on to something else, right? So, the creative juices were constantly flowing and getting triggered through other stimulation, style and input?

Exactly! He always made you feel connected to the song! I don't know why I have never worked that way! I guess, it's just a band routine you get into: Okay, it's the bassist's turn, and then you give the other guys a day or a week off when it's the guitarist's turn. But you know what?! It's much more interesting to watch a song come to full fruition the way I did it on my solo album... because the way this record was recorded was the way you write the songs. So why not take that same approach in the studio? I guess he used to work that way with Prince for many years. Prince would even take it one step further where Prince would mix it! He would write it, arrange it, put some overdubs on it, mix it and... BOOM! There is your song. To me, that's a really kinda' cool way to work.

There is a big difference between touring and performing. Touring is a necessary evil and the two are truly at the opposite ends of the like/dislike emotional scale. How highly unlikely is it that you will get a bunch of guys together and do a few gigs in support of MY FAVORITE HEADACHE, outside of an obligatory one-off gig at Alex Lifeson's ORBIT ROOM? Will there be, maybe, a regional tour or a few major city gigs in the near future?

Ya, there is a chance. Of course, it's a slim chance, depending upon if the 'Gods Of Scheduling' are working WITH me, but it's something I am thinking about. It would take a lot of effort, I think, to get together, but... it would probably be an experience that would be worth doing. But, you never know! There are a lot of demands on everyone's time right now.

If you had to put together the consummate back-up band to do a tour to promote MY FAVORITE HEADACHE, who would you want in the line-up, for whatever the name of the band would be: Geddy Lee and the Press-on Nails?

(Laughing) Yea!!! That's a really good title!

You can send me the royalty check on that one!

Awright, give me your address later. Well, I would definitely want Ben there and either Matt or Jeremy... I would love to have both Matt and Jeremy in the band, but either one would be an honor to play with. I have a good friend, Jason Sniderman in Toronto, who is an excellent keyboardist who I would want to bring with me. And, I would try to find a couple of guitarists. It would be great to bring the guys from THE TRAGICALLY HIP out on the road, Paul Langlois and Bobby Baker. Both of those guys are very good guitar players and that would make a pretty cool band!

As a professional musician, where do you prefer to be? The studio or the stage?

I like them both, but I like writing more than anything.

Do you miss the roar of the crowds after four years? Is there still - pardon the pun - a 'rush' of emotion when you get on stage, the lights go up and the crowd goes wild?

There totally is! I think the most enjoyable tour I have ever done in a long, long time was the last tour, TEST FOR ECHO. Do I miss it when I am not there? Ummm.... In an abstract way, I do. But, in a wearying way, I don't. I could easily see myself doing another tour and enjoying it, and if that did not happen, I don't think I would cry about it.

Do you envision yourself getting more and more into the business end of things, possibly management or the production end of the music business to share your wealth of knowledge with other up-and-coming talent, or would you always need to be the creative type, writing and recording your own words and music?

I would like to shift more into writing for and producing people. I love to write. It's my first love. I would like to think that Ben and myself have begun a partnership that will take us into different areas of music that we can continue to write, enjoy and keep me involved with music other then what I do with RUSH. Of course, I love what I do with RUSH and I will continue to do it as long as we all believe it is all worthwhile to do. These things are all finite and there will come a day when that will end. Some writing and production projects will be a great way to spend my elderly rock years.

'Geezer Rock'?

I'm not sure what the formal title will be... (laughs).

You and Jeff Berlin are pretty tight. The last time we spoke, four years ago, you mentioned that he is a bassist that you really respect and someone who you would like to study with. Have you had the chance to study with Jeff at all?

No, I haven't. I went to visit him about a year ago, just hanging out in Florida, but we came very close to working together. He's putting an album together right now and we're trying to make our schedules work so I can do something with him for that record. But, something happened... and it never happened. We're destined, someday, to do something together. But, I have not studied with him and it's something that I would like to do. (Editor?s Note: There will be a special in-depth interview with Jeff Berlin in Global Bass Magazine when his new CD is released early next year.)

RUSH, according to the record company, has sold 35 million records world wide, which is nothing to sneeze at and I am sure makes you very proud. But, moreover, Rush was the first rock group recipient of the prestigious Order of Canada medal, therefore you were one of the first rock musicians to receive the award. Being honored by one's country in such a way is something that very few people will ever experience. Can you verbalize what you, personally and professionally felt in receiving that award, and possibly can you verbalize the feelings the three members of RUSH experienced as a collective?

First of all, when you live in a country like Canada, it's quite different from America in the sense that it's very tied to traditions that were born in Britain. To be called upon by your government or by your representative of the Queen, to be given an award like that, which amounts to a good citizenship award in the highest sense of the term, it's really a pretty tremendous honor. It's your country's way of acknowledging your contribution of betterment to your society. We've never really been big 'flag wavers' or nationalistic, but we've all stayed in Canada, so there is some sense of national pride. To be given that award was a very big thing for all three of us. I don't think there was a cynical remark from any of us, during the whole plane trip, when we received the award and when we went through the whole pomp and ceremony. It was a pretty special time, so it means something very special to all of us.

Were any of the politicians wondering who you were, possibly scratching their heads when the three of you showed up for the award ceremony, saying, 'Huh? RUSH who?!'

(Laughs) They're politicians, they would never let you know if they were wondering!

Touché! I've always appreciated RUSH's very dry sense of humor. I was very surprised when I saw that you and Alex (Lifeson) contributed a song to the soundtrack of the SOUTH PARK movie, BIGGER, LONGER AND UNCUT. How were you approached by the SOUTH PARK producers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, to do the tune?

Matt Stone is a major punter. He's a big RUSH fan and he actually got a hold of us through our band photographer, Andrew McNaughton. They bumped into each other at a party. I got a call when I was at Ben's house as we were laying down tracks that they wanted us to record the Canadian National Anthem for the movie. It was the whole 'Blame Canada' thing, so we called them back, had a funny conversation, agreed to do the project and Alex and I spent two days in his home studio and we put it together.

Long after we are all gone, how would you want Geddy Lee, singer, songwriter, and musician, to be remembered in the music history books, and how do you want RUSH to be remembered?

As a comic in all seriousness, I have to say... that is a very hard question to answer. I guess, we were people who just dedicated to trying to get better. Music is all about wanting to be better at it. If you have some magical chemistry that actually find the music you make compelling, that is a big bonus. It's elusive and it's hard to know when that is going to happen. But, I think how I feel about it. Boy, that's a nice philosophical way to end the interview.

Christopher Buttner is a Northern California-based music industry publicist. Christopher's company, Aarvak Marketing Communications, specializes in public relations and marketing communications services for entertainment technology manufacturing industries: musical instruments, professional audio, recording, video, broadcast, lighting and stage equipment.

Christopher's articles are published in numerous professional recording and sound trade magazines, as well as music enthusiast magazines, all over the world, including Russia, Poland, Singapore, Australia, China, Canada, Mexico, Germany, India and South America. He can usually be found glued to his Apple G4 "pumping out verbiage".