Geddy Lee is a man who needs very little introduction. With just over three decades as the unmistakable lead vocalist, bassist, and keyboardist in Rush, Lee has forged a potent legacy in progressive rock. After creating 22 records with Rush, Lee decided to take a break and step out on his own with his first-ever solo album, My Favorite Headache (Atlantic). This project provided Lee with a new opportunity to stretch out musically and push himself to create music in ways he had not attempted while working with Rush.
As a musician, Lee discovered unexplored territory. And as a bassist, he found a new voice; using it differently and experimenting with layering several parts, as a guitarist would. As a result, bass is the prominent instrument on many of the tracks. Lee also had a chance to play guitar on a few tracks, and to write lyrics. Making My Favorite Headache, Lee worked closely with guitarist Ben Mink (K.D. Lang), and drummer Matt Cameron (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden). In short, Lee called all the shots. He sat with VG and explained how this solo project came to fruition, and reveals what he learned in the process.
Vintage Guitar: Tell us about making My Favorite Headache. How was your approach to making a solo record different from a Rush record?
With Rush, things are very organized and very scheduled. We get together as an entire band and set up at a small studio. Alex [Lifeson, Rush guitarist] and I set up in one room to do some writing and demo recording and Neil [Peart, Rush drummer] is in another part of the house working on lyrics. Then we get together and form the songs. This was quite different because there was no "machinery," meaning no band, per say, and no predetermined "band" points of reference.
So musically, it was much freer and in terms of the actual method of working, it took place over a longer period of time. Some of these songs were started in solitude and some the result of working with my collaborator, Ben Mink, where we would work together to come up with ideas for them. We had a lot more time to live with every part of these songs than I have with Rush. As we'd write something, I would record it in my home studio, which has a digital hard-disk recording setup. Ben has the same setup in his studio in Vancouver. Since I live in Toronto, which is 3,000 miles away, we made sure that our home setups were similar so we could just walk into either studio, pick up a hard disk and put it into a hard drive, then carry on. I was using a 24-bit Logic Audio setup, and Ben has the same. We used that, in combination with various outboard gear and a lot of plug-ins.
So the style of recording really was a lot more casual than working with Rush. What was nice about it was that we would work on a bunch of songs for a week to 10 days, then I'd come back from Vancouver and we would have all that time to live with what we'd done and decide whether we liked it or not, then get together again later.
So the songs were constructed over a much longer period of time. That way, the cream sort of rises to the top. I would never have that luxury in the context of Rush because we have these deadlines, which are mostly self-enforced, and our records are much more of a time capsule than this one.
How long was this concept in the works before becoming a reality?
Probably about two and a half years.
Had you previously desired doing a solo album?
I really had no desire to do a solo record before this. I never felt musically frustrated in the context of Rush. I can write whatever I please, as long as the other guys like it, in the context of Rush. And I get enough attention in the context of Rush, so I don't really have any need for more attention. I don't care if I'm on television every week. I'm not motivated by those things, so it was not such a big thing to me to step out on my own.
This project came about as a result of a long layoff from Rush, and my need to do some writing. I was very thirsty, creatively. I had an opportunity to work with a very dear friend and we discovered we really like working together and that we had a remarkably similar sensibility when writing together. So those things made it fun to do, and I really believed in the music that was starting to come out of the collaboration. Once that happens, there's no turning back.
How did working with Ben affect you, as a musician and songwriter?
He comes from a very different background, musically. He's brought up in the realm of rock, originally, then he got heavily in folk and began studying obscure folk violin stylings. It's a very different school of music than I came up through, which was basically rock – hard rock, metal, and progressive rock. It's a very unlikely combination, but we found that we responded melodically to the same things and we enjoyed playing the same kind of things together.
When we started writing together, we noticed that we had the same sense of what we each thought was the logical next step for a particular melody – and it was almost a contest of who would say it first. It was really unusual that we were so in sync in the way that we believed songs should be put together. That's very different from writing in the context of Rush, because Alex and I could have very different approaches. He's a much more off-the-cuff type of writer, and much more spontaneous, while I'm much more methodical. So it was different to work with someone else who was methodical, like me, and it brought a whole different range of musical understanding. It was really a great experience, musically, and we have really warped sense of humor together, so the sessions were sometimes ridiculously funny.
What was your process for creating the material? What instrument do you favor for writing?
I write a lot on bass and I play a lot of bass chords when I'm writing. Basically, I'd use my bass like a guitar and I'd have a mic to sing into. Many times, I'd find myself writing a lot of music in my head, as strange as it sounds. Sometimes I'd be thinking about a particular type of song. The night before, I would just lie in bed and I'd start putting the chords together in my head, and imagine a sound. Then I'd come in the next day and sit down with Ben, describe what I was hearing, and start pointing the way on my bass. Then he'd pick up on my vision and add something to it. But generally, what he added would be pretty much in the ballpark of what I'd see. It was really fun to do it that way because I had never written music in that manner.
Obviously, my experience with the guitar is very limited, so if I imagine a particular song in my head, I don't have the facility to play that every time. So I have to have some way to communicate with someone else so I can describe what I'm hearing and he will have a similar enough sensibility to provide it. Ben is very much like that; we'd talk very freely, and it was a really interesting way to go about writing songs. We didn't write everything that way, but some things were born of just he and I jamming together, but some things were born of having a piece of lyric that would inspire me to write a particular melody. Generally, it was a pretty varied session and I'd use various techniques, depending on what the idea was. I did write a few things on piano, too. It all really depended on what we were looking for.
When you're working with Rush, do you typically write on bass and keyboards?
It has changed in so many ways over the years. But more recently, it's been done in a similar way. With Rush, I generally have lyrics from Neil, and I have my bass, a mic and keyboards, while Alex has his guitar. We talk to each other and put our parts together. First, I try to get inside Neil's lyrics and draw an image of the music that would be appropriate for those lyrics. Then we go on from there.
Did you find it difficult to write lyrics on your own?
It was a challenge because I was definitely out of practice. I attempted the first couple of songs rather gingerly. After those songs had passed the test of time, I started getting more confident about it. By the middle of the project, I was just loving doing it. It was probably the most profound aspect of experimentation for me – attacking the lyrical job. I was very pleased that it came out sounding reasonable.
How much guitar did you play on the record?
Not a lot. I played a little bit of acoustic on "My Favorite Headache" and "Runaway Train." I played some of the more absurd guitar licks – the wilder stuff – on "My Favorite Headache." That was about it. Ben played almost all of the other guitar parts.
How has your approach to playing bass and writing songs evolved through this project, as compared to your early days with Rush?
I think that I experimented with different ways of playing bass. I played a lot more rhythmically on this record, but it's a road I had been going down for a while. I also experimented a lot with multi-tracking basses, which I really enjoy doing. Sometimes I'll write a song using bass chords and structure the song that way, with several bass parts. Then I'll come back to it realizing there's no true bottom end, so I'll go back and add another track of bottom that fits better with the bass track. I experimented with bass lead lines a lot, where in certain choruses, I would add a melody line that was played in upper ranges of the bass so that it would just add more harmonics. Rather than to do it on guitar, I would do it on bass. It was really kind of interesting and a lot of fun to do it that way. For a song like "Home On The Strange," I plugged in a wah-wah pedal and a fuzz box, and a lot of the lead lines were played on bass. I really used it more as a lead instrument on this record.
There were a lot of parts on the record where it was difficult to decipher whether it was a bass or guitar playing.
It's a lot of fun when that happens.
How has your interpretation of great tone changed?
That's a good question. Ben and I hear things very differently. He's a violinist, so he basically lives from the neck up, because his hearing in the top end is frighteningly acute – as it has to be to play violin. The difference between notes on the violin is the width of a fingernail. In my case, I've lived from the neck down all of my life. I'm very much into the realm of the murky and that's why he and I are an interesting combination.
As far as bass sound goes, these days I'm looking for a richer tone – one that can still drive and be expressive in the top end, but has a rich, luxuriant, deep bottom end that's comfortable pumping with the bass drum, but not masking it. It's kind of a tall order, but that's what I'm after. I think it's very achievable with all of the DI-type speaker simulators out there. It's much easier to do that with a speaker simulator than with an amp.
What was your setup for the record? Did you have one core setup, or a variety for different sounds?
I used my old Jazz Bass on every song. I brought other basses, but they never got used. It's a '72 Jazz Bass I found in a pawn shop in either Kalamazoo or Flint, Michigan. I bought it for $200 with no case. It's got a maple fingerboard and I think the body is made of alder. There are cigarette burns on it and it's just the best-sounding Jazz Bass I've ever picked up. The Fender Custom Shop has been trying to duplicate it and they do a great job – they've made me some amazing Jazz Basses. They get close, but nothing they've built has sounded exactly the same. So I have to think it has to do with the wood, as far as age and a particular resonance it has. But then again, maybe it's the pickups – maybe there's something wrong with the pickups in my '72 that's making them sound different. There may be something that's incorrectly wired, but I don't want to touch it. I don't want to know about it if there is something wrong, and I won't let anybody open it up because if they change it, I'll be crying!
What did you use for amplification and outboard gear?
Basically, I use no real amps – only speaker simulators and DIs. I started the project using a Demeter Tube DI, then halfway through switched to an Avalon U5, which has a slightly deeper bottom. So for the songs that required deeper bottom, I used the Avalon. I also used a Palmer Speaker Simulator and two kinds of SansAmps - one is a guitar SansAmp and one is specifically a bass driver. The bass one is a pedal and the guitar one is a rackmount unit.
I used three bass tracks so, during the mix, I'd have the flexibility to feature just the straight DI sound or the different kinds of distortion, depending on how the track is growing since it was in the bed-track stage. I'd record all three sounds at once, all onto separate tracks. Of course, if I'm adding more bass overdubs, then I just add more tracks. On some songs, we have approximately five bass tracks, which is really cool, especially for a bass player.
Tell us about the other outboard effects.
The only time I really put an effect on the bass was one track where I used the overdrive on the SansAmp and I put it through a Crybaby wah. I had a lot of fun with that.
Did you experiment with any low tunings?
I don't think there was a song on this record where I detuned. I just used the Avalon U5 on that for a DI sound, and it really goes down pretty low.
What are you using in your live rig? How does your live setup differ from the gear you used in the studio?
On the last Rush tour I used a very similar setup. I used all the DIs live, except I drove them. To have speakers onstage, I'd put them into Trace Elliott speaker cabs to give me some fill onstage. But basically, that's my setup.
I don't really use any live mics. I used to, but I get a more precise sound using the speaker simulators. I use several together in basically the same setup.
How do you like your basses to be set up?
I use light-gauge Rotosound roundwounds, as I have forever. I like the action set pretty low and buzzy, but there's a fine line to how much buzz I can stand, although I don't mind a little bit of rattle. I hit the bass really hard and if the strings are set too low, I don't get any tone or sustain. So, it's a fine line between rattle and high-end to where I get a nice, rich tone out of it.
Do you have a collection of instruments that's compiled over the years?
It's a moderate collection. I've never been a big collector of instruments, but once in a while I'll find a guitar or bass I love and have to have. Interestingly enough, most of the guitars Ben used on this record were guitars I had bought over the years while I was on the road. One of them is a Les Paul Junior, a vintage one, which is just a beautiful-sounding guitar. I remember buying it at a gig. It was brought in for Alex to check out. He didn't want it, so I grabbed it. It was the best investment I could have ever made. At the time, it was like $350. It is a great-sounding guitar and it was used on most of the album. Ben played it on a lot of his parts. I also have a great ES-335, which I love.
We also used a guitar that Alex gave to Ben years ago. It's in the shape of Budweiser can and has these really hot DiMarzio pickups. It's the ugliest guitar you've ever seen, but it has sustain for days. It just sounds great, and for the studio, that's what matters most.
What tips would you give to another player on improving their dexterity and tone?
That's a toughie! For dexterity, I think just playing does that, but it happens by playing when you're relaxed. I find it's easier to play with better dexterity with the volume set a little bit lower. For someone recording in the studio, if they find themselves tightening up, turn the monitors way down and try to hear the strings flap off the instrument. Sometimes that puts you more in touch with the instrument.
I've noticed most players play more fluidly in the dressing room. Then they go out onstage and stiffen up. Part of it is from nerves, but part it's also because of sheer volume. So, as a tip for somebody to improve their dexterity - relax and play at a lower volume.
As far as tone goes, I think everybody has a different inherent tone that comes from the way you use your fingers on the instrument. What they have to do is to really cue in on what tone is most expressive for them and how to get it from the amp. If I'm producing somebody and they bring me a guitar sound and say they want to sound like this guy, I tell them that they can't sound like this guy because he sounds like that. He sounds like that not just because of the guitar and amp he's using, but because that's just the sound that comes off his fingers. That's the developmental part of playing style.
Do you keep up a regular practice routine?
I practice for a particular project.
What do you work on when you're practicing?
When I'm writing, then I'll just work on fluidity and rhythmic fluidity, and try to explore areas of the neck where I don't normally go to. If I look at the neck, I often see blank spots and wonder why I'm not working in that range. Am I falling into a trap and only using certain progressions? By going to those spots in the neck that are unfamiliar, you push yourself into improving your playing and you're bridging into new areas.
What kinds of music do you listen to for inspiration and enjoyment?
I prefer newer rock and older jazz, but I listen to a variety stuff. I listen to classical music, and I love Bjork - she blows my mind! I also like Radiohead, Tom Waits, and Billie Holiday, so my tastes are pretty much all over the map.
Do you enjoy listening to your own music?
What are your plans for the solo project? Will you be touring?
To be honest, I'm not sure yet. I'm trying to figure that out. I'd really like to bring it onstage to a live audience.
With this, his first solo album, Rush bassist/vocalist/keyboardist Geddy Lee offers up a good dose of just what you'd expect - but with enough new context to be very satisfying.
The question, of course, is whether Lee's relationship with Rush, his band of 30-plus years, is so deep that he can function outside of it with any sense of independence and/or notoriety. And while this album doesn't necessarily provide an answer, anyone expecting an album that sounds like typical Rush will be left waiting for its next release.
What Headache does best is show how well Lee can extend his songwriting abilities to blend with today's musical playing field. Rush's '90s releases did fit the times in their own way, but here Lee's evolution from the wailing bassist of yore to smooth-but-edgy songwriter is more apparent, and with the compositional help of guitarist/co-writer Ben Mink (K.D. Lang), the disc offers track after track of commanding bass lines, substantial guitar leads, and a consistent drumbeat supplied by Matt Cameron (Pearl Jam/Soundgarden) on 10 of the 11 tracks (Jeremy Taggart provides it for the other).
The album kicks off in thundering form with the bass-driven title track, which will remind fans of work from Test For Echo, and continues with "The Present Tense," a forceful cut with excellent rhythm guitar and cooling vocal work. "Window to the World" slows the tempo and is underscored with excellent guitar. "Working at Perfekt" is one of the stronger songs, with superb lyrics and dominant bass lines.
"Runaway Train" is one of the speedier tracks, and although one hears distictive Rush sounds in it, it's hard to trace its origin to any one Rush song. "Moving to Bohemia" keeps Lee's fingers warm with a Counterparts sort of sound and prepares the listener for the offbeat and funky "Home On The Strange." "Slipping" and "Still" are laced with piano (keyboard) and acoustic guitar. The final track, "Grace to Grace," bears resemblance to "Force Ten" and "Time Stands Still" from 1987′s Hold Your Fire, and offers fitting conclusion to a very nice first solo attempt.
The production on Headache is excellent, with engineering most akin to Rush's latest effort, Test For Echo. Perhaps the only noticeable absence from the disc is the obligatory instrumental track or bass solo fans might expect. Maybe next time? - Rich Hetzler