Guitar For The Practicing Musician
by John Stix
18 albums into its career, Rush continues to explore new sounds and styles. Roll the Bones has a taste of rap, a bit of funk, and a bigger "groove" than we've come to expect from this Canadian trio. Neil Peart has chosen to be more straight-ahead, leaving room for Geddy Lee's bass playing to be more aggressive. And while he's stepping out on the bass, the absence of keyboards puts Alex Lifeson's guitar on center stage for the first time in a long while. As the band prepared for a major tour, Geddy was eager to talk about how all these changes have occurred.
Roll the Bones is your clearest example of a rock trio record, damn the keyboards. There's also more bass playing.
Right. Well, that's interesting. I went with such a different bass tone on this album. I use a new WAL bass. It's got a slightly richer tone. I decided to get rid of some of the twang and get into being in the lower ranges, just grooving with the bass drum a bit more. I've gone back and forth as to whether people would take it as not enough bass on this record, or 'where did the twang go?' I was hoping that people would appreciate the fact that it's a more subtle approach. But at the same time, there's a lot of real activity going on, and grooving with the bass drum. I have a lot of fun playing bass on this record, and there's a lot of stuff happening with the drums. It's interesting that you honed in on that.
You filled a lot more holes than you have in the recent past.
I really got into grooving on this record. There are a few times where the bass approach is more subtle, to let the song be, rather than to push myself up too forward. There are other times where we just ram it.
The clarity of the mix is excellent. Everybody has his own sonic space. Alex said a lot of it was designed into the songs.
To me, that's the way to do it. If you have to fix something in the mix, that means there's something wrong with the arrangement. The more experienced we get at making records, the more we appreciate the placements. That's also something that we learned a lot from Steven Tayler, the engineer we've worked with on the last two records. That is, when you're doing an overdub, really examine its purpose. What is the range, musically? Where is it going to slot in? Not only the part, but the sound of it. Does it have its own place? Is it serving enough of a purpose to take up that much space on the track? It's about building the track up so that everything does have its own place, and it becomes an arrangement thing. In the past, we've put all kinds of cool stuff on, and then tried to juggle to get it all in there, and sometimes you just can't, because you've got too many things sharing the same place. It's like, there's not enough room for all you guys in here! It's very hard, at one stage in your life, to accept that you can't put five great ideas on one song, 'cause if they're all great ideas, why shouldn't you be able to use them all? The fact of the matter is, you can only appreciate maybe two of the five, so don't get precious about it, and make sure that the fundamental things are there, and the things that really serve the song best are there. Remove the other ones. It's not a crime to remove them.
Will you save those for a rainy day, or try to place them elsewhere, 'cause they were great ideas?
No. You've got to have confidence that there'll always be another great idea coming down the road, so don't worry about it. Make sure the song sounds great, and you've accomplished the goal.
Was there a reason you felt that you groove more with the drums on this? Is that something that you knew going in? Is it something you wanted to do that you haven't in a while?
No, it just happened. Obviously, the tempos the songs were written at, and the way the drum parts developed, go hand in hand into making the song groove the way it did. But I didn't really expect it to be such an easy groove, especially considering how quickly everything came together. The rhythm tracks of bass and drums were basically done in four days, which is unheard of for us, and unheard of for a lot of bands. That, again, was the result of having solid rehearsal time beforehand. Pre-production paid off in spades for us. We spent ten weeks pre-producing, got all our arrangements and writing done in advance, had time left over for just plain rehearsal, where I would take the drum tracks and be able to play on my own, and we were playing real well just grooving together. When the tracks went down so quickly, we looked at each other, 'Uh-oh, something's wrong. We recorded too quickly. That must mean the songs were too simple.' But I think it was that we were just more prepared than we expected ourselves to be.
Where did the funk of "Roll the Bones" come from?
I think there are grooves that you always want to play with, and I intentionally wanted to write a few more than usual songs at a kind of mid-tempo. I think that was a good kind of limitation, because in a way, it forces you to examine that tempo, more than we have in the past. To keep every song different from the other, you've got to play around with slightly different feels, and Alex and I locked into this funk, and I use the word very tentatively. We're talking about three white guys from Canada, you know. So we have this section that was relatively funky for a rock context, and we really liked the way it grooved. Neil had also given me some samples to work with in my drum machine. He assembled a few rhythmic patterns that were very funky, 'cause we talked about at some point doing something that had a bit of that kind of edge to it. So we used them when writing the song, and it really paid off.
You played with funk ideas on the instrumental, "Where's My Thing."
That was actually written to a basic four on the floor bass drum beat.
I heard Neil was asking for an instrumental.
We kept saying to him, "We're gonna write an instrumental on this record," and he goes, "Great!" That started on Presto. Every time we got halfway through it, I could see in the corner of my eyes this lyric that really suited the part, so it's like, 'All right, never mine, the instrumental can wait.' So this time, we kept it up and finally he said, 'Look guys, no more lyrics until you write it. Get it together!" So we said, "All right." It could have been a song, but we kind of left it as a challenge of being a good instrumental track.
Is this your WAL bass? At one point you used the producer's bass.
That was way back on Power Windows. I used Peter Collins' WAL. That was the first time I used it. Subsequently, every record past that was my own WAL. But this time, we had another WAL that I had ordered, and it had a slightly larger body, and I figured the biggest sound difference is 'cause it's a red color (laughter). I plugged in, and it sounded different. It still had all the right WAL characteristics, but it had a little deeper, more resonant bottom end. I loved playing it. It felt really good and gave instant gratification on the bottom end. So I thought, 'Screw it, let's go in this direction, sound-wise. Let's have a slightly thicker sound.'
Is the basis of the sound direct to the board with a bit of cabinet?
Most of the sound is DI, and I used the small Gallien-Krueger amp, miked. Surprisingly, I used that for more bottom than for top, because I find that WAL has top to spare, and with a little bit of EQ magic you can get all the twang you need. I used the little amp just to get the air moving, so you've got that kind of 'real' bottom end, air moving.
Why wouldn't you use a 15 or 18 inch speaker?
It's excessive. I don't think you need that. You just need a little bit of air movement. With a good engineer, you can get it out of a small speaker. I think it's too out of control to try to record those huge speakers, myself. You get a lot of overtones, undertones, and all kind of stuff moving around.
When you're recording your bass and drums, is Alex also playing in the room?
No. Usually we build a bed track of guides, where I'll lay my SMPTE keyboard track down, beginning to end. Actually, this time we saved a lot of trouble and a lot of time because the arrangements changed so little from the demo stage to the album. We actually used the demos, stripped them on a piece of digital tape, and had the demo bass, guitar and keyboards and vocals all on a couple tracks, and Neil played to the tracks. Then I'd go in and redo my bass.
You don't have to worry about live headphone mixes and you have a solid thing going through for Neil.
Yeah. The three of us haven't played live since Power Windows, and even on Power Windows it lasted about two songs, and then we decided to go this other route. Peter Collins introduced this technique to us, that is by far, from Neil's point of view, the best way to record Neil. He works much better under pressure, and he's so prepared that it's a lot more concentrated to be able to just focus on him. Give him the track, and nine times out of ten, he does it on one take. It's like, 'Here's your track. You don't have to worry about how the bass performance was, or if the guitarist screwed up, or whatever. Just go for it.' He really likes that. If he screws up in one section, he can easily drop in and drop out.
On the liner notes you give thanks to the birds. What's that?
I've become a birdwatcher in the last few years. Outside of our window at the rehearsal hall, there were some dilapidated birdfeeders, and I made sure we fixed them up, and started putting feed in them. It was just a glorious thing to look at, as you're writing.
Do you guys write on command more than waiting for the bubble of inspiration?
I work best under pressure, and I don't mind doing it like that. For me, it's important to have my batteries charged. Writing on the road used to be a necessity. To do it now would be really hard. It could be done if I had to do it. I feel much better having a break from everything. It's a motivational thing. When you finish a tour and come home to a couple months of rest, you're dying to get back to work. To me, that enthusiasm is worth its weight in gold. So give me a couple months off, give me a date to go in, and I'll just start writing. Then, to me, the whole album becomes a time capsule, a photograph of that point in your life, musically and emotionally. I really like that idea. It's like a test. What are you going to do? What have you been going through; how will it come out? From now on, when I hear those songs, I think back to what we were going through as people, as musicians, where our influences were, what we were thinking. Sometimes you think, 'How could I have been thinking that?'
Do you work on one song at a time, as opposed to finding a cool part, but it worked better in song D?
Sometimes that happens, and sometimes you get the verse and the chorus, and you leave it, because you've got that song so far. I like things to happen naturally. In the past, I used to sit with a song that was cleverly arranged and had a lot of work done on it, but it sounded like you had a lot of work done on it. Most of Hemispheres is like that. It's hard to think of one off the top of my head, but there are a number of songs that have been like that. Whereas now, I think we have a little more confident and relaxed approach. We'll go 'I'm happy with the way this verse is working. It's going in the right direction. Let's put it back and get something else started.' The we come back to it with a fresh ear, and suddenly it seem very obvious. One thing Neil always says, "When you know what you've got to do next, it's a great time to stop." It's great to come back into it the next day with a real good starting point, and you're fresh. I like to work first thing in the morning. To me, the most creative time is after breakfast. I'm just chomping at the bit to get in there and start working.
Does Alex work at that time, too?
Usually I'm sitting in the studio waiting for him to finish his exercises, so I get a head start on it.
He told me he thinks he's waited about five six days for all the 10 or 15 minutes you're late.
It's a combination, because when a song starts taking a particular direction, he's got to take a break. I'm usually doing all the computer operating, so when I'm doing an arrangement, the poor guy usually gets a half an hour of inspiration, and then he has to go out and watch TV for 20 minutes. He can't stand to sit in there while I'm organizing all this stuff.
What are you putting on computer?
I put the entire arrangement on. I use a drum machine for setting a very basic drum pattern, for verse, chorus, and bridge for the whole song. I have it arranged from beginning to end, and whether it's got keyboards in it or not, I put down SMPTE code. We tie that to an 8-track tape recorder, and that's how we write. We've got the entire arrangement on 8-track. Once we decide where the verses, bridges, choruses all go, I spend the next hour pulling my hair out using computer arranging to actually throw the arrangement down there so that we have it. Now we can work on the guitar parts, bass parts and vocal parts in detail. Once the fundamental is written, we go back and rewrite, to make sure, 'Okay, this IV chord inversion could be more interesting,' or 'The vocal could be layered here. I'll try double-tracking, or some harmonies.' We basically build the whole arrangement. On this album, it changed surprisingly little from that 8-track version to the final album version.
Historically, keyboards have been much stronger in Rush. Alex said the keyboards would be all on there, and he had to find a spot around them. Were you aware the keys once took up so much space?
Not to the degree that we became aware of it later. To me it was a new toy, a new texture. It was very much a contemporary attitude in record making at the time, and something that I was interested in and wanted to learn from, and that we all wanted to have on the record. The mistake we made was not in getting into keyboards that heavily; the mistake was doing them first. The mistake Alex made at that time was not being prepared with solid guitar parts before we did the keyboard overdubs. You have to realize that he would write a very basic way, so he would have temporary parts worked out by the time we went in to record the keyboards. That was his mistake, because there was too much open in the music. If he would have done the preparation back then that he does now, which is an incredible amount of preparation, there would have been less room to do keyboard stuff on, because that would have been a definite part. There were a lot of things that were indefinite coming from his side of things. He wasn't prepared enough, early on. Whereas everybody else had their parts worked out. That left it open for this onslaught of keyboards. So, it was a two-way street there. The mistake was not having the guitar parts more definite. Part of the responsibility lies on the band for not doing things differently, part of it lies on him for leaving things till later. But when we realized that, we changed the approach, because all along, we considered ourselves very much a guitar band, and there definitely was no way we wanted to push the guitars out. It just kind of happened.
Roll the Bones makes use of keyboards for textures, to smooth it out at some points, or add tension and release.
That's what we were after. I'm glad it came off that way. When Alex and I are writing, we generally write the bass, guitar, and vocals. That's generally our way of writing, and if the song starts becoming monotonous, we go, 'Okay, let's pull out another thing from our arsenal. Let's try the same thing, but let's try it from to keyboard point of view. Maybe it'll give us another place to go to.' I feel good about the way we've been working.
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