Vintage Interview: Rush’s Geddy Lee from 1996
In my career, I’ve interviewed a lot of interesting musicians and actors. But since many of the magazines and websites that originally published those stories aren’t around anymore, I’ve decided to pull some of the more interesting interviews out of my archive.
The following interview with Rush bassist, keyboardist, and singer Geddy Lee took place in July of 1996, at the offices of his manager when the band were gearing up to release their album Test For Echo. Parts of this interview were used in a piece I did on him for the music magazine Huh.
(I also did an interview with Rush’s Alex Lifeson for the same story, which you can read here.)
People who don’t follow Rush always think you guys are so serious. But you guys are actually kind of goofy.
Our jokes have been pretty inside. We have a lot of fun doing what we do, but when we talk about our music, we talk in very serious tones, and that’s an image that has lived with us. Though as we’ve grown, as we’ve moved along, there’s been more and more humor injected into our music. But we’re not doing it to say, “Look, look, we can be funny, too.” It’s an internal thing; sometimes people get the jokes and sometimes they don’t.
But there’s also meaning behind this stuff. The song “Dog Years,” for instance, is kind of goofy, but has a deeper meaning.
Well, it’s a metaphor, isn’t it? Though it’s also about a dog. [laughs]
Since [1975’s] Fly By Night, Neil has written all of the band’s lyrics. Is it still weird singing someone else’s words?
Sometimes it’s weird and sometimes it isn’t. But a lot of conversation, a lot of thought, goes into any song we write, lyrical or musical. Any particular lyric, it’s something that I have to sing, and I have to sing convincingly. I have to sound like I wrote it, even if I didn’t, because that’s what makes the music compelling, that degree of conviction. So obviously there a lot of discussion that goes on, and if I’m not comfortable with something then I won’t sing it. Not everything Neil’s written has been used. I look at myself as his editor to a certain degree. “Is this what you are trying to get across? If that is, I don’t think it’s coming across.” Some songs require a lot of conversation.
Do you ever push each other?
Rather than jump on each other right off the bat, we allow each other the good manners to develop our parts on our own. This never used to happen in the early days, everybody was so full of ideas and always making suggestions right away. I would say that our comments are more measured now. You’ve been playing with the guy for twenty years, the guy’s an accomplished guy, give him a few minutes to get his shit together. And invariably, it arrives at a point that you want it to arrive at, and when it doesn’t, if you feel strongly about that, then you make a comment. There’s a lot more trust and a lot more respect for everybody’s role in the band, so that if somebody feels very strongly about something going a particular way, unless you have a moral objection to it, you just let it go.
Is that a function of how long you’ve been playing together, or does it stem from a single event?
I think it’s partly to do with the fact that we have worked so closely for so many years, and party to do with the fact that as you get a little bit older, you become less possessive about your music, and that allows more respect for each other to creep in. I think that’s an evolutionary thing, something that comes out of having a life outside of your music that’s satisfying to a certain degree so you don’t come into the studio with all these frustrations.
You guys have always been very private. In fact, I don’t think I knew if any of you guys were married until recently. Was this a conscious decision on your part, or just something that developed over time?
Early on we just didn’t think about it very often, but then we got to a point where we started getting successful and we got really kind of…paranoid about our private lives. We had this kind of attitude, “It’s about our music, it’s not about us.” And that’s kind of a youthful, full-of-yourself attitude. So we structured our organization around that attitude. But that was a period, and that period came and went, and since that time everybody’s way more relaxed about that stuff. Still, we don’t go out of our ways to discuss our families.
You recently took a bit of time off. What effect did time off have on the new album?
Personally, I was at a point where my private life, my family life, over the last ten years, has become increasingly more important to me. When I found out that another child was coming along, I was adamant that I would be around more for that whole experience, for the sake of my child, for the sake of myself.
The other thing is, when I’m involved in Rush, I’m involved in a very total sense, and there’s certain responsibilities that fall on my shoulders that I take very seriously. So it never really becomes time off. You take a few months off between album and tour, but I know I’ll be meeting with production people and film people, getting the next tour started. So I’m on holiday but I’m not really on holiday.
This break allowed me that to stop, and I think it was a necessary time for me to reevaluate what I wanted to do, whether I wanted to keep going in this band, whether it made any sense to make more Rush albums, whether Rush’s music mean anything to anybody any more. These are questions that are really hard to answer when you’re right in the middle of it. They’re hard to answer anyway, and I can’t say that I’ve answered all of them. But when it came time to start the band up again, and it had been almost two years, I was really kind of excited about it, and I was really happy that I feeling that way. I was really feeling a need to express myself, and really wanted to do some writing, but I wasn’t sure when the three of us got down whether it would be fun. But it was a lot of fun, and it was very rewarding. That answered a lot of questions.
Have you guys been inspired by how influential you’ve been on other bands, especially lately?
Yeah, I would say there is some truth to that. Certainly you’re always impressed with the energy, and the way they’ve kind of absorbed things from my generation or my period of bands and kind of thrown it together in their own stew, which is what we used to do. So there is a certain appreciation for the energy and the musical exuberance with which that whole process goes down. At the same time, there’s rhythmic attitudes that I find contemporary music brings to hard rock that didn’t exist to that degree when we were first starting, or ten years ago. I think that’s a very intriguing part of contemporary hard rock or progressive rock, and that has influenced me, certainly.
So what are your other favorite new bands?
I like some of what Primus does, and they’re great to watch live. I like listening to Soundgarden, I like the Garbage album [their eponymous debut], I liked Björk’s last album [Post] a lot, Massive Attack. I kind of bounce around.
Do your kids ever introduce you to stuff?
Yeah, my son likes Stone Temple Pilots a lot, and The Smashing Pumpkins.
Have you turned your kids onto anything?
I’m very careful where I tread in that realm. I don’t really want to sit there and go, “Hey, listen to this.” My son finds his own way. Though every once in a while I’ll pick him up a CD and just leave it for him.
Unlike a lot of bands, I don’t think you’ve ever had musicians from other groups come up and jam with you, nor have you guys jumped up on stage with other bands. Is there a reason for that?
Yeah, it’s because jamming, to me, is so boring. When you get musicians from all who have never played together before, they always settle on a blues progression. And as the bass player, it’s like, “Oh please, just shoot me if I have to play another blues progression.”
In the early days you debated, but always rejected, the idea of bringing in other musicians to fill out your live sound. Do you still have those conversations?
Not anymore. That’s long gone. We satisfied ourselves that we could do it. And actually our music is becoming easier to perform live because there’s less keyboards every album we make.
What about adding musicians, like a horn section?
Nah, to me most horn sections in rock sound pretty crappy. [laughs] We’ve used horns occasionally, but it just doesn’t work.
Power Windows and Hold Your Fire were just drowning in keyboards because we found that to be a really interesting time for that kind of music. We seem to gravitate towards something, like keyboards, and then we reject them violently on the next couple of albums. There’s little rebellions going on all the time. Like right now we’re just not interested in doing anything that isn’t really guitar, bass, and drums oriented.
When I interviewed Sonny Rollins, he told me, “I haven’t made my masterpiece yet.” Would you say the same?
I would say that’s true. But I don’t look at it from an album point of view, I look at it from a song point of view. I’m always looking to write that amazing song. To me, writing is what it’s all about, more than playing. It used to be playing on stage was what it was all about to me, but that’s not true anymore, it’s all writing. I’m really intrigued by it, I’m intrigued by the possibilities.
Though when I finish an album, I’m really high on it to a certain degree, and I’m really pissed off at it.
Why would you be pissed off at it?
Because it didn’t go exactly where I heard it go in my head sometimes [taps his temples]. That’s partially due to the democratic process, and partially due to the fact that it takes six months to make a bloody album, so by the time you’ve finished it you’ve already gone somewhere else.
Since writing is more important to you than playing, have you ever thought of not touring behind an album, like R.E.M. have?
Yeah, I have, but I don’t think it would be Rush without touring because we’re kind of created on tour, so much of our sound is born in that kind of venue. It just seem weird to me, the thought of not touring makes me panic. Even though it becomes really difficult the longer a tour gets, I’m still excited by the prospect of getting out there and playing this material live and hearing what it sounds like live because a lot of the songs we write in the studio are never really played live until we get out there.
Well, you guys have done tours where you’ve played songs before you recorded them.
We did that a couple times in the late-’70s/early-’80s, that’s when we were touring all the time and it was easy to slip in new material. But now, to get everybody to agree to tour is like a monumental feat, so touring just to play new songs before we record them just isn’t practical anymore, I don’t think anybody would be into doing it. Even when we know we have an album coming out it’s still not easy, there has to be some convincing done in certain places to make sure that everybody is agreeable to tour.
But then, it’s not like we’re twenty-five anymore. We’re in our early forties, and everybody’s got a lot of crap going on. Touring is just one of those things. Trying to get everybody’s schedule to coordinate is just mental. And in some ways it’s a shame because part of being in a band is the touring aspect, you should be free to go play some dates for fun. It just doesn’t seem to happen that way for us.
I mentioned Sonny Rollins earlier. He says he still practices every day. Do you?
Individually, we all practice. And as the older we get, strangely enough, the more we practice. I never thought I’d see myself sitting in my basement playing my bass for an hour or two on my own ’cause I used to think that was the most boring thing I could do. I’m a very lazy guy in some ways, and I hate the fact that I’ve proven to myself that practice makes you better because now I’m fucked. It was different when we toured ten months a year, you didn’t have to practice because you were playing two hours every night.
So have you guys ever almost broken up?
Nah. We’re not a storming out band; this is not a band that explodes in a fit of anger, “Fuck you, I’m out of here.” It’s the kind of thing where you just…it’s a very internal thing where you’re not happy and you need to sort out how you want to continue in this situation, whether it’s through your own meditations on the subject, or whether it’s through conversion. One way or another it’s always resolved itself in a positive light.
Y’know it’s weird, we have a really good time making albums. That sounds bullshitty and hokey, but it’s not. We really have a lot of fun. It’s the weird little relationship that we have, it’s very humorous and very creative and very…democratic. I’m not saying it’s perfect, there’s certainly bumps in the road, and we do argue, but I think it keeps us going. I think the vibe when we’re hanging and all the stupid jokes and weird lexicon of words…I think every band is like that. Most bands are like that, they have their own language, their own words, it’s like being in a little club, and I don’t think anyone wants to quit the club yet.
You guys are all friends. Are your kids friends, too?
They rarely see each other. When we’re not on tour or recording, we have very separate lives. Alex and I try to get together once a week for tennis or golf or something stupid like that. Neil? I don’t see him at all when we’re not working.
Well, it’s always seemed like the relationship between you and Alex has always been stronger than either of you and Neil.
I’ve known Alex since I was like fourteen years old, he’s like my brother. Or a weird cousin. He’s family to a large degree. And even though we’re really close with Neil, and I’ve known him for twenty-two years now, we didn’t hang out together when we were fifteen years old. When you have friends from back then it’s always a little different. He’s still the new guy.
To read my vintage interview with Rush’s Alex Lifeson, which was done for the same article but happened the next day, click here.
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