I interviewed a heavily jetlagged Geddy Lee after hearing the new album, Clockwork Angels, just the once. I dislike not being able to really get into an album before interviewing, and I hate short interviews – 30 minutes, unfortunately, leaves little time to pursue lines of enquiry, unless you’re prepared to risk the entire interview being dumped because you failed to get the basics.
Still, Geddy was a perfect gentleman, and suffered my lack of penetrating insight with good humour. It’s tough, but wonderful, to interview someone you’ve listened to for thirty-odd years.
As usual, feel free to steal parts of this article, but have the good grace to cite me if you do.
P: the past/present, old/new dichotomy – how did you see yourselves thirty-odd years ago
GL: first of all, going back 30 years, it was very hard to project what we would become, because odds were that we wouldn’t be round for 30 years, I think, at that time, I think the lifespan of most bands at that time was fairly hard to predict, especially fr us within our own context, I don’t think we really though that far ahead or imagined, it was all about what we were going at the moment and what was the next step could we make a good album could we stay on tour could we get enough gigs to stay afloat that kinda thing – I think you’re kinda more concerned with your immediate circumstance an obviously you are trying to get better and you’re idealistic in your approach to your music and you hope that that’s going to sustain you
P: do you think that’s changed, with regard s writing, recording touring?
GL: in some ways yeah, in some ways no. obviously we have a lot more confidence having had success for many years, and this is good thing when it comes to being a player or being a writer or a producer of music – you’ve passed the test of time in a sense so that you don’t constantly second-guess yourself in your decision making so you have I guess you’re more sure-footed when you’re putting your music together because you have that confidence in your music behind you. In terms of writing music it’s still kinda the same in the sense that you’re still trying to write something that you get off on first, you;’re trying to please each other as you’re first fans of each other and yourselves and you kinda make sure that you dig it, and you also have a bit of faith in the fact that you have a fa base out there that’s interested in what you’re doing and have always grown with you so you’ve got some confidence that if you like it enough then they’ll probably dig it as well.
P: do you think your approach to the bass has changed over the years, and if so, in what way?
GL: I think my playing has evolved sort of unpredictably, and I think partly because i’ve allowed myself to be open to other players, and watch what other players do and appreciate what other players do. When I first started I was very influenced by guys like jack bruce, jack cassidy, john entwhistle, they were, they had an unusual tone for their bass … they had a brighter more visible tone in the context of their bands, and that appealed to me, especially in a three-piece and jack brice and john entwistle 8really played in 3-piece bands so I kinda modelled my thing after what they had successfully achieved, I mimicked them to a certain degree I tried to learn from them. And then as I got a bit older and I started listening to a wider variety of players, jeff berlin and guys from different bands, les claypool from primus, some of these guys were influenced by me and now I was being influenced by them, which was kinda cool. They had taken the approach to bass in quite a different way jeff berlin was a jazz oriented player but he had a remarkable sense of melody to me and his diversity in the way he plucked and used all the strings chordally and from a solo point of view, kinda made me want to woodshed and bring some of that into my playing. And there was a rhythmic element to what les was doing that I found really cool, and it took it to a different kind of instrument, made it into a different instrument, and there lot of guys at the time who were slapping and I would try to slap but I was terrible at slap bass – I could pop but I could not slap so well, so I started mutating what I did and tried to develop a different kind of rhythmic style where I started playing the strings as if I had a pick in my hand or as if I was playing flamenco guitar, that kinda thing, and that led me in a whole different direction, and my playing has really evolved from that point. Somebody asked me yesterday in interview why I didn’t use a pick, and I felt the pick was too limiting, even though it gave me one kind of attitude rhythmically if I wanted it, and I did like the tone of the pick because it gave a nice clear twang, but I felt that it was a bit of a compromise in terms of allowing me to start doing chordal stuff and sometimes I approach the bass very much like you play a nylon string guitar, a classical guitar, I fingerpick like that, so I couldn’t deal with the pick, it was just in the way.
PL: thinking about the tone changing to fit … the days of MP etc, the band very much polyphonic, four voices interweaving but very much independent voices, this more orchestral
GL: interesting – it’s hard to describe this album for me as it’s still kinda fresh, our approach was very much as three players, and there was very much a players’ demand on each other, that we wanted too accomplish, and even though we always say that in a way, I think the songwriting and the songs themselves are of a more singular nature, in the sense that they serve the melody of the song and they serve the driving rhythmic aspect of the song without having too many distracting layers, which is a thing we had fallen into on previous records from vapour trails through to snakes and arrows I think we had unnecessary amount of overdubs that overlayered some of the songs and so we were very much aware of that issue and we tried quite hard to make sure we didn’t overcook these songs in terms of overdubs that the bass, drums, guitar would be clearly seen within the context and yes we did quite a bit of orchestration with real strings etc but we always felt that we kept the clarity between the trio and there’s time that the trio thing had gotten lost in the past and it ‘s something we very much wanted to keep in focus this time
PL: the riffing is classic rush, very tight ,… seems from the biog that the writing process is very much by email, that you and alex writing the music and he was doing the lyrics and you were separated by continents, and wondering how that works and how you can still feel so grounded as a band while doing that
GL: it’s a good question, and I know that at times it’s frustrating for neil because he wants to have more rhythmic input in the initial stages, but we leave the sketchpad pretty open and once we have the initial sketch of the song melodically and the vision of the song his rhythmic input really can turn the song into a different kind of animal and we leave it totally open for that before we get too set in our ways, and a lot of times when he starts developing his parts for those songs, i’ll sit in the control room while he’s working his parts out so that I can get a handle on where he’s going and be considerate of changing my part so that it accommodates his part but it’s true the songs do begin in a separated state of mind, in the sense that he’s a lyricist first and a drummer second in terms of songwriting and his lyrics and us getting a vision for what the song should be do come first
PL: back to the roots of the concept album … concept album in the digital age where attention spans getting shorter, how the writing process changes because red barchetta short directed song, almost pop songs in narrative flow, whereas this album … writing on a longer chronological scale how does that change the way you work melodically
GL: well I broke it down … the one thing we decided, well, the one thing I decided when we decided we were going to go ahead with this concept piece was that we didn’t want it to be in the same mould as hemispheres or 2112 where we had one piece and repeating musical themes that wove throughout. I wanted it to be a collection of songs united by a story. Much in the way that you look at a record like Tommy, there are a few musical pieces that repeat throughout tommy but generally there are these songs that are unrelated to each other except by the story they tell. And that’s kinda what I help up in my mind as an example for this album, and each of these is quite unique and separate from the one that come before or after and so melodically we only had to be true to that individual piece, and the story is what united this collection of individual pieces.
PL: the instrument swap – what do you get fro alex/from neil, how do they cross-fertilise
GL:when alex and I write usually, certainly the way we’re most comfortable, most natural, is alex on guitar, me on bass, I have a mic in front of me. Usually we develop a kinda of rapport by jamming, we kind of jam with each other and very soon we hit on some sort of thread and we stop and we quickly find a tempo of that thread and we play to a simple drum pattern or click, something basic, in order to keep the time for us, and then we pick up that jam and we continue to jam on that thread for quite some time and we see where it goes and we allow it to go wherever it wants to go andsometimesandsometimes it’ll be a five minute jam, sometimes it’ll be a thirty minute jam and we record the whole thing, and then we sit back and we talk about the different movements of that jam and whether there was anything we find inspiring, sometimes, and it’s immediate, that you recognise a piece that has potential, and sometimes during that section I always leave neil’s lyrics in front of me, and i’m always thinking about the different moods in those lyrics and if we suddenly become inspired and jam on that one thing who’s mood is appropriate for something I’ve just read, and if it is I pull it in and I see if there’s a melody that might happen out of this jam – that’s the normal process. That eventually will form some sort of song, and then we become tunesmiths and we hammer that into some sort of song, with this song the wreckers, what happened is that we had a technical interruption in the studio, and both of us were hanging around the drum room where neil’s drums were and alex had about 25 guitars lying around and I was was picking up his different guitars and listening to the tone of them, and I picked up one that had nashville tuning, it was an acoustic that had nashville tuning, and nashville tuning always … for an inept guitarist like myself nashville tuning makes whatever you play sound beautiful, so I picked it up and I started plunking a couple of chords, and I play very differently than alex, I use a lot of upstrokes when I play acoustic and that’s something he never thinks of doing, so I started playing with this little guitar pattern, this chordal structure, and it suddenly came to me that it would suit this lyric that we had for wreckers, and I started writing a melody and before I knew it I had written verse chorus verse chorus. And I played it for al, and it was kinda fresh, and he liked it, and so asa I was playing it to him he picked up my bass and started writing a bass pattern for it, and I really like what he was doing because he went to a place I wouldn’t normally go and so we said as soon as the studio’s up and running let’s put it down like that and we started noticing it had a barenaked ladies feel to it, and that’s when we started joking that when we’re playing the wrong intrsuments we become the barenaked ladies. Anyway, it was quite a melodic tune and quite out of character for what we’d been writing but e thought that was a plus not a negative., it took us to a new place … until we got to the middle section where we started to be more musically adventurous, at which point our failings on the wrong instrument were obvious and we said ok, fuck it, let’s switch back… we switched back and we wrote that middle section that sounds more like rush and that’s kinda how it was born and when we played it for neil he totally got the vibe of it, and I would, even though on record alex would play the guitar part and I would play the bass part we would try to be true to the spirit of what each other had written and that’s how it happened, we were kind of pretending to be each other. So it was really kinda afresh way to work, and to me it’s one of my favourite tunes on the record because of the way it came to be.
PL: your set-up, basses etc.
GL: I used the ricky for years, and I found, the ricky was a fun bass and had an interesting tone, and the main reason I wanted to use it was I think my favourite bass players all played rickies, chris squire and even paul McCartney played a ricky from time to time, but in actual fact to achieve the tome I wanted from the ricky took quite a lot of work I had to run it through various amplifiers various compressors to fine tune the tone I wanted to get out of it, and I guess it was the late 7s early 80s I found this fender jazz bass, and there was something more satisfying about the midrange and bottom end out of the jazz bass, like on the record moving pictures I think half those songs were played on icky, half on jazz, but people assume it was all the ricky. The I got into a period where I was just starting to experiment, and I used the steinberger bass for a while, which again ultimately I found a little dissatisfying, didn’t feel like it had enough range, and then I started playing WAL basses, which I really did like a lot, and for two or three albums, mostly two albums I made like hold your fire and the one before it whatever that”s called I can’t remember now, I used the wal basses, and they had a really even tone, all the way through the range from bottom to top, and the material was taking a slightly jazzier vibe at that time, and much as I liked the wals, as our sound started shifting back to a more aggressive sound, I found the wal didn’t quite live up to it, and with counterparts I went back to the jazz bass, because our intention was to make a more aggressive, driving, kinda more in your face sound, and the jazz really provided that for me, and I went back to using amplifiers like SVTs, we kinda went totally analogue, in recording style, and that brought me back in love with the jazz basses, and I really haven’t gone back since then. I’ve continued to experiment with the jazz since then.
PL: one main instrument?
GL: I have a bunch of them on this recent album, I think I used four different jazz basses, what I call my number one bass is my 72 jazz and that to me is the most satisfying I have, there’s something unique about that instrument, and the custom shop has made me basses that they’ve tried to replicate my tine, and each time they make me a bass it’s sounds really cool , and a little different than mine, and sometimes that’s a real plus, and sometimes it’s not, but I have this red custom shop bass that I use on two tracks of this album for a deeper tone, I use that on the wreckers, for example, I recently found another 72 jazz, a sunburst one, in a music store in toronto, and john my bass tech has cleaned that up and fixed that up and it sounds great. I was hoping it would sound just like my other 72 but it doesn’t, but it sounds close, but it has a unique thing about it …
PL: change pick-ups?
GL: we have. We kept the original pick-ups at first, and then we started using some custom pick-ups, made by some gentleman in the united states, I can’t remember his name now, but I can get you that – he does an amazing job winding pick-ups in the old style. Though we asked him to make some pick-ups he thought would be from that period, so we had a whole bunch of these different pick-ups when we did this album, and four of my basses we were A/Bing, kinda a bind A/B, to see which ones we liked, pretty esoteric in one sense, but interesting from another sense but anyway the sunburst has a different tone, and I use it on tracks like seven cities of gold, that require a bit wilder mid-range, and so I like the tome that i’m getting from it, so in the end you can have everything the same, but the wood is different, the wood ages differently, and it makes it sound different. Every instrument is kinda unique
PL: onstage sound?
GL: my actual rig has … it’s a strange combination. I split my sound into different containers so to speak – I use a palmer speaker simulator for one tone, I use a sansamp rbi unit for another part of the sound, I have a couple of orange amplifiers that I use onstage, really overdriven, that we mic and I use that for another part of the sound, and I use an avalon di, for a very clean direct part of the sound I take the four rails and I create a balance of those signals until i get the tone that I want, and it also gives our front of house guy the flexibility to feature one over the other, depending on the song.
PL: the literature … influences, circularity
GL: well, a good question. When I know that i’m writing or that i’m going to be writing, I don’t listen to much I try not to listen to much, I try to let the thing come from a natural place, and the only thing, the only one band i’ve been constantly coming back to in terms of, that I really enjoy listening to is a band called the fleet foxes, but there’s not much in this record that would reflect that, it’s just a beautiful kind of modern rock music, so I can’t say that I can pinpoint any one contemporary influence right now that directly influenced the writing, this is kinda coming from our own thing which Is evolved after listening to thousands of different bands over the years, all seeking the same thing of course when you look at the lyrics, neil can very directly say ok I was reading candide, this writer, the anarchist, and you can see the literary influence as being boiled down and put in this steampunk context, but musically I can’t pinpoint any direct influence from any contemporary artist right now
PL: daft fact
GL: most people know my random hobbies, i’m a wine collector, i’m a baseball fanatic, I collect baseball memorabilia, I love photography
PL: one bottle
GL: I think I would choose … I had a bottle of wine the other day that I wish I had more of, it was a 1993 Echezeaux by Henri Jaillet (31.54) , so that’s what i’d choose.
PL: favourite song?
GL: my favourite song on this album in the garden, and I think because it’s a song i’ve always wanted to write, I feel like i’ve been trying to rite that song fro many years, trying to find a balance between melody and calm, we’ve written melodic songs before but there’s a confidence and a relaxed nature about that song that’s very natural to me and to me that’s the most successful attempt to write that kind of melodic tune, i’m really happy with the result …
© Pete Langman 2012