The renowned Rush bassist/vocalist on the R30 anniversary DVD, band history, cool covers, "flamenco bass," the Fender Jazz and more …
Happy 30th anniversary: Lee onstage with an old friend.
Photo by Andrew MacNaughtan
Geddy Lee’s inventive, kinetic bass lines and distinctive vocals have been the foundation of Rush’s decade-spanning career since he and childhood friend Alex Lifeson formed the band in the Toronto area in 1968.
It’s been quite a journey since then, and Lee, Lifeson and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart continue to do it their way today, as they always have. Through the prog ’70s, synth ’80s, alt ’90s and on through to today, Rush has remained a hard-working, top-selling act, loved by devout legions of fans and revered as highly influential musician’s musicians. They have done so with a fierce work ethic, an uncompromising devotion to their craft, a constant will to challenge themselves, and a quirky and hilarious sense of humor.
The middle of the decade finds Rush older, wiser, and, thankfully, not the least bit toned down. They’ve returned to their stripped-down, bass/drums/guitar roots for a while now, and are playing to universal acclaim and with renewed vigor. Last year’s Rush In Rio was a smash; one of the year’s top-selling concert DVDs, and the band gave an affectionate and rocking nod to their early influences with a covers disc, Feedback, containing volcanic versions of songs by the Who, the Yardbirds, Cream, Buffalo Springfield and others.
Thirty years of touring is a long time, to be sure, but Rush’s vitality and longevity is no big mystery; these guys still love music with the zeal of teenage fans. And, maybe more importantly, they still really like each other.
Simply put, Rush flat out rocks. Still. More than ever, in fact.
The journey is celebrated in the just-released R30 DVD set, a double-disc feast that captures the band’s $21 million-grossing, sell-out 30th Anniversary World Tour, filmed in high-def, wide-screen glory at Frankfurt, Germany’s Festhalle on Sept. 24, 2004. Also included is a Rush retrospective featuring rare and classic performance footage dating from the ’70s to their 2005 tsunami relief benefit concert, and interview footage from the past three decades.
Lee, a noted Fender Jazz® Bass aficionado whose own very-successful signature model was introduced in 1998, checked in with Fender News in mid-December. With customary dry wit and much self-effacing humor, he talked about R30 and his band’s long history, plus some favorite artists, video stardom, that groovy flamenco bass style, outside interests, his love of Jazz basses and the possibility of R40 …
The R30 double-DVD set.
FN: How important has Rush’s sense of humor been to its longevity?
GL: Well, I would think that—from an insider’s point of view—it’s extremely important from a not-so-overt point of view, in the sense that I think the basis of our friendship is the sense of humor that we share, and the way that we’re able to deal with all the various aspects of the music business and the interpersonal stuff.
And that’s always been the case, and it’s always been a means of us bonding with each other on a personal level. And it’s always crept into our music, but for many, many years we were accused of being deadly serious and humorless.
FN: But that’s clearly not the case. You guys are a riot.
GL: I guess you can look at our music and see what you want to see in it. I know our hardcore fans have always detected it, although as we get older—and maybe this is just another sign of senility (grins)—our sense of humor has become a bit more obvious.
FN: You have two clothes dryers and a snack machine behind you onstage in lieu of amps, a concert intro film starring Jerry Stiller, a website feature called Big Al’s Tiki Bar, and an animated mid-concert episode of That Darn Dragon starring bobble-head versions of yourselves. That’s not deadly serious.
GL: Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. I look at it like, when you come to a Rush show, it’s over three hours long, and, you know, you need comic relief. Every form of entertainment can use a little comic relief. So we try to throw some of that in there to make people walk away with smiles on their faces.
FN: With several long periods of nearly constant recording and touring, it seems like your career has also been fueled by a fairly insane work ethic.
GL: (laughs) Yeah …
FN: Does it work the same now as it did 30 years ago?
GL: Yes and no. It doesn’t work the same now, because we take a lot more time away from it.
I feel very strongly that, you know, when one says “I’m exhausted” at the end of a long tour, it’s not really just the tour—the tour itself—that has made you exhausted, because the tour is the last piece of what was a two-year process before it, including, usually, about a year in prepping and recording an album, and then a couple of months of rehearsal and planning a tour, and then three to six months of touring. So by the time you’re at the end of that whole program, it’s a couple of years down the road, and you are exhausted. And we’re no spring chickens anymore (grins again).
So we need some time to recover from that; to reintegrate into our families, our social lives, our other interests. More importantly, I think we need some time to lay fallow so that when we do get together, we’re really excited to do the next thing.
Sofa, so good: Lifeson, Lee and Peart.
Photo by Andrew MacNaughtan
FN: So, between the spectacular success of Rush In Rio and what will certainly be great success for R30, how does it feel to be a genuine video star?
GL: (laughs) Well, I can’t really make that a convincing statement, in my mind! I don’t really look at it like that …
FN: But Rush In Rio did sell about a gazillion copies …
GL: Yeah, that’s true …
FN: Choosing archival footage for R30 must have evoked all sorts of memories. Was there anything in particular that really grabbed you?
GL: (sighs) Well, yeah, lots of things grabbed me in the wrong way—bad hair, bad clothes, bad glasses …
From the performance side, I found it very funny, and I think fans will find it funny, too. From the interview side of things, it was really curious to me to look back at this person talking as if he knew what he was talking about when he was so young. Some of the early footage was really interesting; kind of a self-examination as to how much you thought you knew 30 years ago, and how little you really did know 30 years ago. It was strange.
FN: After so many years together, is it inevitable that you take each other’s talent for granted? Meaning, do you ever sit back and think something like, “Wow, my buddy Neil really is one of the greatest drummers in rock,” or “My childhood pal Alex really is one of rock’s best guitarists?”
GL: I don’t look at it in that context; I just know that they’re awesome players. Every night, I listen to Neil’s drum solo. I mean, I’m catching my breath at that time of the night, and I just enjoy it. I just appreciate his ability.
I don’t know that I take it for granted; I guess I do, in a way—because I expect him to show up and be that good every time, and when we write a song together, I just expect him to pull it off, regardless of how complicated it is. And the same goes for Alex—I just expect him to deliver. So maybe that’s taking them for granted, but, at the same time, I never lose my respect for those guys. Maybe as human beings, from time to time (laughs heartily), but never as players!
FN: Your covers album, Feedback, was a lot of fun. What songs would you choose if you were to do a second one; say, Son of Feedback?
GL: (chuckles) I don’t know … I think it’s my manager’s dream, that we would do that. I don’t know; there are lots of songs. There are so many great songs by other guys. The whole process of recording Feedback was so much fun, and so easy, relatively, compared to a Rush album, that I would love to do it again, to be honest. But I think it would be a bit cheeky to keep doing that kind of thing. Maybe at our fortieth we’ll do that …
But I don’t know—there are Zeppelin songs that we wanted to do, but we felt that you just can’t touch Zeppelin, in some ways. Same with Yes. There are more old Yardbirds songs that we could’ve done, I suppose. And the Who songs go on forever—just the greatest songs ever. We toyed with the idea of doing “I Can See For Miles.” We toyed with the idea of doing (Zep’s) “Good Times, Bad Times.”
Rush: Out standing in their field.
Photo by Andrew MacNaughtan
FN: Oh, man, “Evil-Hearted You” by the Yardbirds …
GL: Ah, didn’t think of that one, but we went back to “I’m Not Talking’”—we almost did that song. A great tune.
FN: Jeff Beck’s first single with them.
GL: Yeah. He’s amazing. We toyed with some songs from that first Jeff Beck album, too.
Some of those songs are just so … there’s so much personality in them. Like Hendrix—we did a version of “Manic Depression,” and we could do the music no problem, but, you know, me singing Jimi’s lyrics just does not work. Jimi is Jimi is Jimi is Jimi, and the way he breathes—his breaths between words are huge! There’s so much of his personality imbued in those songs that any other version of it just felt messed up to me. So, some artists, I just think you better have respect, and you just don’t touch.
FN: You’re often mentioned in the same breath as players whom you’ve long cited as influences—guys like Jack Bruce, John Entwhistle and Chris Squire. Did you ever meet any of them?
GL: No, I never met any of them. The only real bass god that I got to hang with—and we’ve become good friends—is Jeff Berlin. I didn’t see the Cream (reunion) show; I have the CD, though. Pretty cool. It’s nice to see them back.
FN: Alex flies airplanes and Neil writes books. In addition to family life, what are your interests outside Rush?
GL: Aside from the family stuff, I have a ton of different hobbies. I like long-distance cycling; I do that. Big tennis guy. I play a lot of tennis. I’m a collector—I collect baseball ephemera; I collect art. And I’m a big wine nut. So a lot of those things inspire different kinds of travel, and I do a lot of traveling.
FN: R30 concert footage shows a great close-up look at your playing style, and your playing seems almost flamenco-ish. Where did that come from?
GL: Yes, that’s right (laughs)! My friend (guitarist) Ben Mink calls me the only living flamenco bassist in rock today. I don’t know if it’s a compliment or not (laughs again)!
I think what happened was that I wanted to “funk up” our music more, and I found, when I tried slapping, that it ended up being very “click-y” and not very meaty. But I wanted to try to develop a way of getting the funk—that kind of double-hit thing—out of the bass without losing the meatiness, so I started just “flicking” the strings in that way. And it seemed to accomplish what I wanted to do, because I could double my notes-per-second and funk it in a way that fit in with a lot of Neil’s drum patterns, and together we would create a new kind of attitude for the rhythm section.
“Caught in the camera eye.”
Photo by Andrew MacNaughtan
That was really kind of satisfying, and once you do something like that, there’s kind of no turning back. So now it has become a real important part of the signature of the way I play, with Neil in particular.
FN: After having used basses by several makers, were you surprised to find that a sound and feel that really grabbed you came from a stock, circa-’72 Fender Jazz that you found in a pawnshop?
GL: Yeah, it did surprise me. I was shocked that the sound that I was looking for was always in my bass collection.
I credit Kevin Shirley a little bit—he was the engineer who did Counterparts with us. He’s a big analog guy; a big promoter of old gear. And he kept saying, “Try the Fender; let’s get some old SVTs; let’s record the way you would’ve recorded 20 years ago.”
And when I pulled that instrument out, man, it just gave me this missing bottom end that I’d been looking for. That particular one—I don’t know if the wiring is wrong, or if it’s just the way the wood has aged, or something like that, but it has a healthier bump in the bottom end than even my other Fenders. So it just stuck with me, and it’s an incredibly flexible instrument, tonally, to work with. I can shift it and move it in any direction I need to.
FN: Think we’ll see an R40?
GL: Oh jeez, who knows (laughs)? That’s scary, but anything’s possible—look at the Stones. They’re about 100 now …
Vist Rush online at www.rush.com, and be sure to watch the interviews with Lee conducted by his terrier, Dukey.