After decades of playing Rickenbackers, inspired by his hero Chris Squire, Lee adopted the Fender Jazz bass as his instrument of choice. Here, he wields one of his favorite J basses at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Michigan, on June 14, 2015. Photo by Ken Settle
You were called in to play in stay of your hero, the late Chris Squire, when Yes was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What was that like?
Chris Squire was a hugely influential bass player in my life. He’s the reason I started playing Rickenbackers, and it was a combination of Chris Squire and John Entwistle, with a little bit of Jack Casady thrown in, that really led me down the sonic path I chose. So when I was asked to play with Yes, it was an incredible experience. I was blown away to be asked, and when I heard the lineup for the set included Rick Wakeman, Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, and Alan White—as close as you could get to the most profound version of Yes, in my world—it was such a huge thrill. It was also a real challenge, because we did “Roundabout,” which is one of the greatest bass songs ever written. I practiced the shit out of that song before I met up with the guys in New York, and it was just a real thrill.
It was also bittersweet, because Chris Squire passing so early in his life left a huge, gaping hole in my world. Between Chris, Jack Bruce, Greg Lake, and John Wetton all being gone, we’ve lost a lot of amazing bass players in the last 10 years. It’s really sad, and playing with Yes was a reminder that Chris wasn’t there to enjoy that moment himself. I felt like I just wanted to do right by him and honor him and really play the song properly. It was a great experience meeting the guys at the Hall of Fame induction, and they were very kind to me and very respectful, and just being onstage and looking over and getting nods from Steve Howe was a very cool moment in my life.
I’ve heard that Chris Squire was in the running to produce a Rush album at one point, but when he showed up to a gig at Wembley, he was seated next to Trevor Horn, who was also being considered, and things got awkward between the two of them. What’s the reality of that story?
That’s not exactly how it went, but they did both come to see us play on the same night! We were due to interview Trevor to potentially be a producer, but I think Chris had come to the gig just to check us out. The sad thing is there were a few producer/engineers in the building that day, and I never got to talk to Chris, despite him being so close. By the time we had looked around and finished chatting with everyone, he wasn’t there. I actually never got to meet him face-to-face.
Do you know what you’re interested in doing next?
I’m afraid I don’t really have a plan at this stage. I don’t know where I’m headed musically. My attitude is that I’ve been part of an amazing collaboration with two guys that I have so much respect for and for so many years, and we were very purposeful in our time together. The book has been a very cool way for me to transition out of that scenario, and now I feel like I’m in a position to truly clear the deck and hit the reset button, and see what I have to say musically. I need to give myself time to experiment with that and see what comes out that I feel strong enough to be a worthy thing to do next. I have no idea where that’s going to take me.
When I mess around at home, I’m sort of all over the map. But that’s also usually how a Rush album starts. I don’t imagine that whatever I do next will be drastically different, but because I have more guitars now, I’m playing more guitar in the studio and getting ideas that way. Stylistically speaking, I never felt like I was missing anything in the context of Rush because anything goes in that group. When I jam, I jam all over the place, but whether or not I’m going to follow it any one specific direction in the future, I have no idea. I never had any musical frustrations in Rush. It was a totally fulfilling experience for me.
One of the hallmarks of Rush’s music is its technicality. Is there anything from the band’s catalog that you recall being particularly challenging?
There’s quite a few that were very much a pain in the ass to play! There are songs on Clockwork Angels that were very difficult. A song like “The Anarchist” doesn’t seem that complicated, but requires almost complete rhythmic independence between your voice and hands in order to play that bass part and sing that vocal part at once. A lot of the Hemispheres album was really hard to play live because my vocal parts were recorded in such a high key that it was really taxing—not my ideal key. Other songs, like “The Main Monkey Business” were really tough because every time you play that song, you play it sort of on a knife edge because there’s so many goofy changes. If you sleepwalk through that song, you’re going to be in big trouble. “One Little Victory” was also a really tough song to play. Not so much as a player, but as a band. Fitting into that song’s groove and coming out of the indulgent parts at the same time is tough. I like that about playing live, and I like being on that bit of a knife edge—the stuff that requires a panicked look between each other as we’re coming out of the harder passages. Songs like “Working Man” are fun to play, and there’s all kinds of improv going on but it’s a fairly straightforward song. The highly structured songs, like “Mission,” really keep you on your toes.
The instrumental stuff is always so precision-oriented that it really came down to being well-rehearsed, and Rush was a fanatical rehearsal band. Many people would consider Rush’s rehearsal schedule over-rehearsing, but we didn’t feel that way because we wanted to be able to relax into our parts, and in order to do that, you have to know those parts inside out.
Do you have a favorite recorded bass tone from Rush’s discography, and has that changed now that you’ve experienced so many world-class instruments?
That’s a really tough one. I think the bass sound on “Tom Sawyer” is pretty ideal, and “Red Barchetta” as well. There are so many records to go through, and I was always fucking around with my sound in one way or another. Every time I thought I was plateauing, I would change something about it … which can be good and bad. That’s one of the dangers of being a progressive musician: You move past something you maybe should stick around in a bit longer because you’re busy searching for that next thing, that improvement. So always, as a band, the three of us were looking to improve from the last piece of recorded work.
Among the many things I’ve learned through this process of collecting is an appreciation for instruments and sounds that don’t necessarily fit in my typical soundscape. I avoided those instruments for over 40 years, and on the last tour I brought some of them out with us. Gibson Thunderbirds, for example. I never wanted anything to do with a Gibson Thunderbird because I always felt like they were antithetical to my sound in Rush, but I found moments that I could play those instruments in the context of Rush and really make it work. That was really enlightening for me, and I hope to play around with more of those particular instruments.
How would you like Rush’s music to be seen and remembered by future generations?
Obviously Rush was, in many ways, an ongoing experiment, so there were moments where the experiment achieved a kind of synchronicity and there are some albums that end up being arrival points. Moving Pictures, Permanent Waves, and even Clockwork Angels to a large degree are those kinds of albums. Someone once said that every artist deserves to be judged by their best work, and I sort of agree with it and would ask that we’re remembered by our best work and really our spirit, and that we had a willingness to experiment publicly. When you experiment publicly, you have to be willing to fail publicly and I think that’s an important thing for young musicians to appreciate and understand, and I think it went hand-in-hand with the successes of our career.
Geddy Lee speaks with Tom Power, host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s arts and culture show q, about his experiences hunting for, and playing, some of the instruments in his Big Beautiful Book of Bass.