Geddy Lee's My Favorite Headache Turns 20

A Conversation With Guitarist/Collaborator Ben Mink

Gearphoria, Vol. 9 No. 2, November 2020, transcribed by

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BEN MINK had been friends with Rush frontman Geddy Lee for years before getting together with the accomplished bassist/vocalist to undertake what would be his first (and only, to date) solo record. Over the course of several months, the duo would convene at their respective home studios to create what would become the 11 tracks on the record. The pair would handle the bulk of music on the record themselves, but recruited drummers Matt Cameron (Soundgarden, Pearl Jam) and Jeremy Taggart (Our Lady Peace) to complement Lee's driving bass, which is ever-present across the album. Gearphoria caught up with Mink, now living outside Vancouver, British Columbia, to chat about the making of My Favorite Headache.

GEARPHORIA: My Favorite Headache turns 20 years old this month. Can you wrap your head around that?

BEN: It's hard to believe. I remember my daughter being like two years old at the time. We had to get daycare help for her during the days in Toronto. Here she is grown up. It really goes fast. It's interesting. Geddy had it remastered for vinyl. We were going through looking for the originals and I think there was some confusion from the record company and he and I listening to it, I hadn't listened to it in a couple of years as well, and listening back there were a couple of songs that were, both Geddy and I, we were scratching our heads going 'How did we come up with that?' It is really... we don't remember much of doing it. Some of the tracks are very dense and not even that typical of our own personal styles really, but we were pleasantly surprised by how good a couple of things sounded. I really like the title track myself, 'My Favorite Headache'. It really, really held up.
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Looking back, this project didn't really start off as a Geddy Lee solo album. There was talk of the initial meeting being centered around the possible formation of a publishing company.

I don't know if it was publishing. In all of the years we had known each other we had never really sat down and - we were at my place for one moment - we just had a couple of guitars and just started playing and we were really surprised at how well we jibed playing-wise - our touches and approaches, sense of timing, were really similar. I think it kind of grew from there. We just started jamming. We didn't really have an intention for it. Then the tragedy of Neil's first catastrophic situation happened and I think for Geddy it gave him an outlet as well. We both very naturally felt good about it. We wouldn't have done it for any other reason. We enjoy the creative side and we enjoy hanging whether we're playing music or not. At one point we just kind of looked at each other and said this is good, we should pursue it as a project of some sort. He talked to his label and they said, yeah go for it... so we did.

It was recorded at quite a few different spots.

We started at Geddy's place. We both use Logic. If we didn't use the same audio platform it was going to be pretty much unworkable. We can both man the controls and we both understand and have similar approaches to how we work. So we started at his place and started framing up the songs, much like anybody would. We would jam and cut/edit what we thought were the good spots and turn those into songs. Geddy did the lyrics. He would bounce them off of me, but it was his vision pretty much, lyrically. We would frame up the songs. Then we would come out to Vancouver. I had little kids and he had a young daughter and we would trade off. It cuts into family time... the immersion, the time it takes was a lot harder at that point in our lives than it is even now. So, he'd come out to Vancouver and we'd do about the same thing. I have sort of a parallel recording setup there and we would trade files a little bit when we weren't together. Then at some point you've got to track real drums and really play, so we used a studio in Toronto for some things. We loved Matt Cameron's playing, of course. We worked with Adam Kasper in Seattle. We mixed in Toronto at Metalworks. David Leonard came up from Nashville, I believe. We did whatever the project required really, being fair to each of us geographically. It was a long process. Geddy is very detail oriented and has fantastic instincts. The whole thing takes time. It was his first solo record and naturally he wanted it to feel right.

What do you recall about recording the bass for the record? There were some levels of experimentation with stereo bass tracks and the like. Were there a lot of different pieces of kit used?

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No, not at all, really. He mostly used that Jazz Bass he's had forever, that Fender has now taken all of the dimensions of and created the Geddy Lee model. He used that bass primarily. He may have used a couple of others that I don't really recall, but do recall at least one track where he doubled the bass over this certain section. I remember being stunned at how he was able to do that. I double stuff all of the time, but I didn't know he was keeping track of what he was playing there to be able to do that. It wasn't a bar by bar thing. For about thirty seconds he'd play exactly what he did before, which sounded like this off the cuff thing. He is so gifted in terms of, and the way that he grew up in Rush, being forced to memorize long phrases collectively. Because they don't really read. His understanding of music theory the way that conventionally the average musician would learn it isn't really what you would think. He really doesn't function that way because he never had to do sessions or learn the usual jargon. He only had to communicate with Alex and Neil. They created their own system that was almost like something you would find in Indian music - long, long phrases they would memorize, incredible dexterity and wonderful ideas - and they worked intuitively after that many years. To watch him double his own part was pretty amazing. You know the way George Benson would whistle along with his guitar solos? It was that kind of thing. I don't know many people who could do that.

If I remember, you used Gibsons on the record.

Those were mostly Geddy's guitars. I just sort of grabbed whatever was close. I'm much more of a Gibson person than a Fender guy. The main part of the electric guitar was done on a little red Les Paul. I used that on most of the tunes. There was a white Fender Strat of some sort that I brought from Vancouver and used on a few things. I used it on 'My Favorite Headache'. Those were the two main ones that I used. There was a Gibson 12-string acoustic that we had strung as a six. It sounded really good. That was the main acoustic guitar. I'm not sure of the model, but I do remember it being a sunburst. There was a 335 too. I think that was his. We didn't care too much. There was always a good guitar around. I've always been a believer that it is in the hands, and the parts. It's the way you arrange the tune. We used that red Gibson and used an Amplitube plug-in just for convenience when we were writing. It was set up to imitate a Marshall Plexi. When you are writing something and in the early stages of recording you often get a feel that is hard to get back. I remember being in Seattle and we had a Plexi there, and the same guitar... and we plugged it in and A/B'd. The difference was so small that we just decided to stick with the plug-in. There was really no point... and that was 20 years ago! Today, there truly is no point. It's whatever works. It's primarily the part. With the guitar, you know how to get a decent sound out of it. If you can't have a good part and play it well then you are chasing something that you shouldn't be chasing.
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Not everything was done with plug-ins. We used amps on overdubs. When we were back in Toronto and did 'Home On The Strange' and 'Window To The World', we took the Gibson 12-string with the six strings and put a pick-up on it and played some slide. You'd never know that it wasn't a good Strat on the bass pick-up. I remember amping that, or we'd re-amp stuff if needed. We also had a Miller steel guitar in the studio that we used at the beginning of 'Window To The World'.

Geddy goes direct a lot.

He does. He uses the SansAmp... at the time, this pre-amp, and now I think he endorses them and has his own Geddy Lee signature model. They put his sound into the unit with a mix control. I think he goes direct live too. There were washing machines behind him on stage, not amps.

What song came first in the writing process that made it on the record?

I remember 'Slipping' coming pretty early. I think 'Window...' was pretty early. I'm not sure which was first. A lot of them came fast. 'Runaway Train' we had this joke that we thought we needed another song and I said theoretically you just need a good six minutes. It can happen that fast. So we jammed, and it was probably nine minutes altogether, but the song was essentially there. It's the working of the song that takes forever.

There is a lot of acoustic on the record, acting as sort of the bed or foundation to everything else happening in songs like 'Angel's Share', 'Slipping', 'Still' and others. Was that a conscious thing or just designed to give the songs a bit more body?

We probably started writing on acoustics. That usually sets the palette for the tone. It has to reflect lyrically too, but generally lyrics come later. It is really just a mix and match thing. I'm known for, and feel very comfortable with, acoustic instruments. Sometimes I'd just grab a guitar and start strumming, and sometimes he would too. He played guitar parts on the album as well. It's very organic. It is like going to the fridge and pulling something out that looks good. It is more about the idea than it is the instruments. You get the job done somehow.
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What were your impressions of Geddy the lyricist?

He's an excellent writer. He is very articulate. He kept a notebook of song ideas and a diary of notes. Even when he'd get Neil's lyrics I'm sure he shuffled them around and edit them to fit the rhythms of what he has to sing, the same way Elton John would with Bernie Taupin. He had to stand alone on this, and I think it all came from an honest place. I think every one of those lyrics came from a personalized, diary of a place. He'd run them by me and I might make a suggestion, but it was primarily him. I knew it was his statement. It was a Geddy Lee record. It wasn't a duo of another name. My primary job was to support his vision. I understood the setting.

Making the record, the process, took a while, several months...

I was so sleep deprived because I had two small kids. I know there were large gaps in time... a couple of months that we really couldn't do anything. So we would wait. It was never two years of working nine hours a day. It just takes that long because your lives get more complicated. I think we had to wait for it to mix and then we remixed a few things and then it was off to mastering. Plus the record company might wait a while to release it because of competition and what have you. All-in-all we probably could have done it all in six months, at a reasonable pace. It is fascinating to go back and listen to it. It really is. It is amazing how many parts I really don't remember ever being done. Then I look back at our original notes.
Geddy asked me to look back at the notes and see if I had any pictures from the time when he was releasing the vinyl. Just to go back and look at the effort that went into it. It was a tremendous amount of work. I think we would have loved to tour it at some point.

That was my next question. I know it wasn't long after the release that Rush regrouped and got that machine rolling again. Was there ever any talk of taking it on the road?

I don't think Geddy wanted to do a whole tour. I think some showcase shows would have been great. It probably has been floating around in Geddy's mind for years to do something like that. It never happened because like you said Rush got back into it and that was the thrust of their lives, so...

Is the title track your favorite tune on the record?

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CREW: (L to R) Geddy Lee, Ben Mink, Sam Hofstead, Adam Kasper and Matt Cameron.

Yeah, probably. But '...Bohemia' and 'Window To The World' are close. We put an instrumental version of 'Home On The Strange' as a downloadable bonus track with the vinyl and I thought that was hilarious. It was just so Three Stooges, so silly to listen to, especially without the vocals, but I loved it. The album is something I'm very proud of in retrospect. It really holds up. I was quite surprised how impressed I was after all of these years. I don't really listen to things I've done. In my own house, I never do. Once it's done, it's closed. I don't bask in what is supposed to be the glory of that moment, but it is fascinating to look at it.

Given the status of the Rush camp and the passing of Neil earlier this year, do you think Geddy will do it again?

I think, like he's said himself, he's not done with music. He loves music. Whatever his secondary projects are, like that wonderful bass book he did, it is the thrust of who he is. I have no doubt something will happen in the future. I know he talks to Alex all of the time. The world is what it is right now. It's a very, very difficult time to think about those things, let alone launch them. Every musician I know is keeping a diary, and woodshedding - including myself - a large notebook of ideas and songs. It may not be the best time to put it out there, but it is a wonderful time to collect them.

Would you be up for Round 2 if the phone rang?

Oh, of course! I talk with him a fair bit. I think if you can have a good cup of coffee and a good laugh with a person you are probably going to be able to write some good songs with them too. Musically we have very similar sensibilities. A major part of my life was not 100% rock. I grew up like that, and I understand it. It is the differences that make the strengths too.