Geddy Lee Flexes His Muscles In A Powerful Solo Debut
Bass Player Magazine
by Chris Jisi
Photos by Andrew MacNaughton
During Geddy Lee's 32 years as the frontman of Rush, what fan hasn't imagined his lofty vocals or grinding bass lines in a setting other than the Toronto super-trio? It took an aligning of events both serious and frivolous, but Geddy has at long last made his solo debut with My Favorite Headache.
The 11-track CD is actually a collaboration with composer/multi instrumentalist and fellow Canadian Ben Mink, best known for his work with k.d. lang. The pair combines singer/songwriter craft with raw rock adrenaline-thanks in part to Soundgarden/Pearl Jam stickman Matt Cameron-wrapping it in a package with big, sparkling production. The result is likely to intrigue old fans and garner new ones. We met Geddy on a late afternoon at Atlantic Records' midtown Manhattan offices. It may have been Rush hour outside, but inside it was clearly Geddy's moment.
After all these years, what made you finally decide to record a solo project?
While Rush was touring in 1997, I went to Vancouver to hang out with my longtime pal Ben Mink. We had always joked about playing together to see if anything would come of it, so we went into his home studio and started jamming. After a few minutes we looked at each other in disbelief and both said, "Hey-you play like me!" We made a commitment, and over the next year and a half we got together every three months to write. Eventually we put five songs in reasonable shape to see what we could do with them. At the time, we were thinking along the lines of finding another artist to produce and write for. I didn't have a taste for my own record; I didn't want to step outside of Rush, and I didn't want all the attention it would draw to me. Finally I sent the songs to my buddy at Atlantic, Val Azzoli, who said, "Don't be an idiot-make a record." Ben, who prefers a low-profile collaborator role, felt it was most practical to put out the album in my name. So based on my belief in the material, I agreed to do it.
How did that change the project's direction?
With a label in place we got much more serious about writing, and I wrote more on bass. As a result, the new songs had a raw, edgier feel. We decided to co-produce the record ourselves, later bringing in David Leonard to help, which meant the next step was finding the right drummer. Engineer Adam Casper suggested Matt Cameron. After listening to Soundgarden's albums we agreed wholeheartedly.
We had recorded the basic song structures on a Logic Audio 24-bit hard-disk system, including scratch bass and vocals, so we took that to Matt in Seattle. He was amazing-he nailed every song. Then I went back in and played my final bass tracks to Mail's drums, although I kept some of my original parts that Matt brought to life.
What gear did you use?
The only bass 1 played was my 72 Fender Jazz. It has a maple neck, a Badass bridge, and the original pickups, which I keep full-on, occasionally backing off the neck pickup a bit. Fender made me a really nice reproduction of the bass, but nothing sounds quite as good as the original. My strings are Rotosound Swing Bass long-scale roundwounds, which I changed about every other song. I laid down my initial bass part the same way on every tune, using three tracks: One was straight from an Avalon U5 direct box, the second was from a Palmer PDI-05 Speaker Simulator to get the low-end punch of a miked amp, and the third was from either a Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver DI or a SansAmp PSA-1 guitar unit, depending on what kind of distortion I wanted. That enabled me to favor whichever sound I wanted in the final mix, instead of having to get insane with EQ. I also added bass overdubs on many of the songs.
What was your bass approach to the music?
It began with actually writing a lot on bass-using the instrument in a guitar-like way to come up with chordal patterns, song sections, and forms. Jeff Berlin has always blown me away with his ability to use chords, so he was my inspiration in that way. It took me away from Rush's riff-oriented material to a more meaty, singer/songwriter place.
From there I could take a textural approach to the bass via layering parts, as opposed to having one obvious part noodling up and down the fretboard. If I started with a distorted rhythm guitar-type line, it would call for low-end support, and then maybe some high-end melodic stuff. My ultimate goal was to serve the songs by adding width and depth to them.
The album opens with a lone bass riff on the title track.
At the end of the day I am a bass player before anything, so I thought it was an appropriate way to kick things off. But then I add an overdriven, bolero-like bass chord track sent through the SansAmp Bass Driver. [See music, page 62.] The song has a dark, brooding, atonal quality.
"The Angel's Share" highlights a recurring theme, your soaring melodic bass work.
Throughout the process I'd sometimes get an idea for a melody and think, Let's try it on bass. I'd use smooth distortion from the SansAmp for a nice, sweet sustain and overdub the idea on an extra track. Later, as we were mixing and calling up all the tracks on each song, some of those ideas worked and some were unnecessary-but it was important to make sure I had tried all the melodic possibilities. "Angel's Share" is a good example: I kept my demo part, and because Matt played all those bombastic drum patterns in the choruses, I overdubbed some outrageous, zooming bass lines to fit. Then, just as we were about to put away the track, I added the high melodic line halfway through the last chorus, which reprises itself during the outro solo.
Your tone is especially big on "Runaway Train " and "Grace to Grace."
On those songs I played only one bass part and used the three-track recording method. We went for a huge bottom end in both cases, and that's where the digital side really came through. We ran 24-track analog in sync with the Logic Audio system, and a lot of times the digital side just seemed to have more depth. The Avalon U5 helped as well, as did playing with the soft part of my fingertips and using less fingernail. On "Train" I had a good part down originally, but after hearing Matt groove so hard I went back in to really lock with his drums. As with a lot of the album's songs, these two tunes have a feel that's different from anything Rush would ever do. That's largely because Matt is happy to nail down the groove, whereas [Rush drummer/lyricist] Neil Peart is constantly looking to build complexity.
"Moving to Bohemia" probably comes the closest to a Rush vibe.
I guess you could say that. I basically decided to have a gargantuan pig-out on bass, playing all over the place and letting the song feed off it. It's only one bass part tracked three ways, but I added plenty of the guitar SansAmp track, which is heavily distorted. I plunk away kind of relentlessly through the extended ending, where we really rock out.
"Home on the Strange" has a similarly reckless bass attitude.
That was cut live in the 11th hour with myself, Ben, and [Our Lady Peace drummer] Jeremy Taggart. After spending so much time polishing and orchestrating the other songs, I wanted something more spontaneous and loose. So Ben and I went in one weekend, wrote the song, brought in Jeremy, and recorded it. Then I plugged the Fender into a heavily distorted SansAmp Bass Driver and a Vox wah pedal and overdubbed two more tracks. They double some of the bass and rhythm guitar lines, and in the instrumental bridge I have them panned left and right, trading licks and answering each other.
"Present Tense" and "Window to the World" bring out a fresh vocal approach to go with your multi-bass concept.
Yes, the vocals are somewhat different from what I do in Rush. It's the first album in a while where I sing very high. 1 experimented with stacked vocals and various harmony shadings, because my voice has a sweeter tone as it goes higher, but that didn't suit all the songs. The lyrics also had a big affect on the vocals, particularly rhythmically.
Why did it take you so long to return to writing words?
Basically because Neil is so good at it. I hadn't written lyrics since Rush's early days, so 1 was self-conscious at first-but once I got over the initial shock of hearing my words coming back at me, it was great. It turned out to be a very important process personally; it allowed me to work through a lot of things that have been on my mind. I want to keep doing it, because it's a more complete way to express myself.
Your use of a string section is a key sonic thread throughout-especially on "Working at Perfekt" and "Moving to Bohemia."
Ben and I heard strings as an important color. Interestingly, some songs sounded better with real strings, while synth strings worked better on others. I also learned that by adding a bit of synth strings to real strings, you can get a full-blown orchestral sound. For "Bohemia" we wanted an aggressive, sort of Russian attitude from real strings, so Ben studied the works of Russian composers before he wrote the parts.
Are those loops on "Slipping"?
Yes-that song has some techno loop pulses and a morse code-like pattern I did on my Virus synthesizer. If you listen closely, throughout the album you can hear collages of layered sounds, like wind noises and subtle techno beats, which we mixed in to keep everything moving forward.
"Still" stands a bit apart from the rest of the songs musically.
That was one of the first ones we wrote, and we weren't sure if it was strong enough for the album, but everyone seems to love it. It has a pop aspect. Matt listened to it and demanded to play on it-and then [producer] David Leonard told us we'd be crazy to leave it off. I play an arpeggio chordal part, a low-end part, and a melody part.
Where did the album's title come from?
Ben's dad was telling him a story about something that happened to his mother, and he said, in his Polish accent, "and right away, she gets the favorite headache." Once I stopped laughing, I realized what a great phrase that is, and I became determined to use it. It represents my sort of reluctant relationship with making music: I love it passionately, but it drives me crazy, because once I get into a project I'm completely consumed by it.
What music has caught your ear lately?
I love the Chili Peppers' Californication, and I saw Pearl Jam live recently for the first time. Both Flea and Jeff Ament are great. I also like Radiohead's Colin Greenwood; his parts are basic but melodically interesting. I dig Bjork's Homogenic, especially her use of strings and electronic percussion. I listen to some of the drum-n-bass and trip-hop stuff. And I always keep an ear on the players who influenced me: Jack Bruce, Jack Casady, John Entwistle, Chris Squire, and Phil Lesh. Jeff Berlin has asked me to do a vocal track on his upcoming album, which should be fun.
What's the status of Rush?
Our last tour was in spring 1997, and we've been on hiatus since '98 for a number of reasons. I talk to Alex [Lifeson] once a week-he's been producing artists and writing for the TV show Andromeda-and Neil and I stay in touch through letters or e-mail. We're definitely getting together in early 2001 to write and record our next album; that's my next major project.
What's the remedy for My Favorite Headache?
We're going to wait and see how it's received. Initially I'll do a tour around the U.S. and maybe do a few small gigs. This was a nice start to a co-writing relationship with Ben, and hopefully with others. More than anything, it has opened new possibilities for me.
Geddy Lee's layered bass concept on My Favorite Headache has roots: "It's the same principal as what I've been doing for years onstage with Rush - simultaneously playing bass, keyboards, and stomping on bass pedals." Ex. 1a shows the opening solo riff of the title-track opener. Geddy reports, "To add attitude, I bend the G's and A's slightly sharp by pulling downward on the E string. On my right hand, to get a little rattle, I whack the string back and forth with my index fingertip and fingernail up near the neck." Ex. 1b shows the fourbar distorted, rhythm-guitar-like pattern that enters at 0:15. "I used the same back-and-forth index-finger technique, while anchoring my thumb on the E or A string."
Ex. 2 shows the guitar-doubled "Working @ Perfekt" main verse bass-line. Geddy used his index and middle fingers to pluck the figure. "Ben Mink and I tried to come up with a cool combination of an arpeggio and a riff. Generally my index finger provides the high end-since I use the fingertip along with the back of the nail-while my middle finger adds a darker, fuller tone because I use only the fleshy tip."
A trademark Geddy sub-hooklcountermelody can be found in Ex. 3, from the chorus of "The Angel's Share" (at 0:30). "The Fender's tone is so strong. I love that I can play in the middle of the neck, as I did here, and not feel like the bottom has completely dropped out."
Ex. 4a shows the tricky guitar-doubled opening riff of "Home on the Strange." "It's almost like a warmup exercise-I'm playing the open string, 5th fret, and 7th fret across the A, D, and G strings." Anchoring his thumb between the pickups on the E string, Geddy plucks with his index finger while his left-hand hammer-ons do most of the work. Ex. 4b's funky verse line at 0:13 follows. Using a combination of left-handed deadening and right-palm muting, Geddy adds grease with the hammer-ons and ghost-notes. Lee laughs, "I wouldn't call it real funk-it's more Canadian white-boy rockfunk!" In Example 4c, taken from the chorus at 0:44, he raises the intensity with straight 16ths and a double-stop, again using his favored back-and-forth index-finger motion.
Ex. 5 shows the four-bar verse arpeggio pattern from "Still," at 0:15. "I'm sort of fingerpicking with my right hand, using my thumb, index, and middle or ring fingers. My left hand is positioned almost like I'm playing three barre chords- but the pattern changes after each root note, which creates an interesting little melody of its own to counter what I'm singing."
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