Geddy Lee: His Favorite Music

An interview with Geddy Lee about the making of his solo album, My Favorite Headache. A bass icon? You bet! A "bass record?" No way! A great record? Way!

By Christopher Buttner, Bassics, March/April 2001, transcribed by John Patuto

click to enlarge

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.

As Rush's epic compositions evolved, so did the talents of the three members of the band - drummer Neil Peart, bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson. Each member is considered to be a maestro of his respective instrument and induction into a number of magazines' 'Hall of Fame' throughout the world for Best Guitarist, Bassist, Keyboardist, Drummer, and Band attests to Rush's "musician's musician" status. 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 arguably impacted more bassists on a grand scale than any other bassist in the last 20 years. Face it, ask any salesman in any music store's guitar department and he'll tell you the same thing. The bass solo from "Freewill" (Permanent Waves) is as overplayed as the intro to "Stairway to Heaven."

But, beyond being 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. It's hard to picture Geddy as just another singing bassist. Since Permanent Waves was released in 1979, I certainly haven't. 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 God-knows-how-many varying time signatures), is second to none.

At a Rush performance during the 1979 Permanent Waves tour, I remember discussing with several of my philosophical 'Rush Observer Compatriots' how "a Geddy Lee solo record would alter musical history." 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 recording with Jeff Berlin in 1985, and the 1996 video entitled, Neil Pearl: A Work in Progress.

And the world waited with baited breath for Geddy's solo effort...

Finally, on November 14, 2000 (21 years after I first broached the topic with friends and associates), Geddy Lee released his 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 prog-rockers FM, where Ben played electric mandolin and violin, as well as multi-keyboards.

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 recently took some time out to talk about his solo album and future plans. Since many consider Geddy Lee one of the most well-rounded musicians - on par with Sting and John Paul Jones - I didn't want to dwell on questions only anal bassists would be interested in, such as, "What kind of strings do you use?," "Do you prefer rosewood or maple fingerboards?" or "What pickups are in your main axe?"

Geddy is a well thought-out, cerebral guy with a great, dry sense of humor. He chooses his words carefully and was kind enough to answer some 'outside of the box' questions that should enlighten all musicians, not just bassists.

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 hit every day, whether it a line of a song in a notebook, recording a new 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 writing something. It's hard for me to 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 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 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 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.
click to enlarge

Tell me about your home studio.

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 kinds 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 on 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 was 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 emailing files?

Both Ben and I have built identical systems. Basically, when I would go to see Ben, I would take a DVD RAM backup of 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. 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.

What was it like playing with a guy like Matt Cameron, who is more of a straight-ahead rock/pocket player? 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.

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's 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 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? To me, that's a really cool way to work.

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 naive 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.

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 and enjoy and keep me involved with music other than 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).

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's a very hard question to answer. I guess we were people who (were) 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 makes people find the music you make compelling, that's a big bonus. It's elusive and it's hard to know when that is going to happen. But I think (that's) how I feel about it. Boy, that's a nice philosophical way to end the interview!