An Intimate Interview with Geddy Lee of Rush
The following is pretty much what came straight off my digital recorder with some minimal tweaking. Conversations don’t typically play out like polished up print interviews, so you’ll find some rough bits as far as continuity goes, some repetition and perhaps some half-formed questions and answers (not to mention a few typos). However, if you’re interested in reading the entire two-hour interview, complete with what was ultimately left on the editing room floor, I offer you this. Cheers. – Tod Stewart, Contributing Editor
Tidings: So I have to ask you about the chickens; I mean, you tour with three massive rotisseries…
Geddy Lee: Not anymore. I’ve retired the chickens; I’ve moved on.
Tidings: What are we into now?
Lee: I’m into sausages right now. I’ve got some steampunk sausage manufacturing going on. It’s pretty fun.
Tidings: When you’re touring with this stuff to you have a single supplier or do you just call up the local purveyors?
Lee: Well my crew is responsible for dealing with the whims and vagaries of my backline inventions. Not always with a smile. No, they get into the whole spirit of it and they take good care of me.
Tidings: I think the live lobster tanks are gonna freak them out a bit when you move to that one.
Lee: Live lobster tanks; that’s a good idea, I never thought of that. I haven’t had anyone upset yet about all the meat I’ve been using but maybe I can avoid that but having some seafood in the mix. Maybe a move to seafood is in the offing!
Tidings: As long is it’s sustainable stuff…
Lee: Good idea. Lobster tanks…
Tidings: I’m always curious about how people get into wine; when they actually think, “hey, this stuff is worth looking into.” Was there a particular defining moment for you?
Lee: It was a bit of an evolution. I would say in late ‘70s and early ‘80s Alex got into wine quite heavily. At the time he was into Gewurztraminer and Californian wines quite a lot and Rhône wines. He was very passionate about it. I had always enjoyed wine but I didn’t have the bug for it yet. Sometimes, as we were touring, promoters would give us gifts; they’d leave a bottle of Margaux or something in the dressing room. I remember once a promoter in Milwaukee took us out to a sort of classic German restaurant. He ordered a really nice Bordeaux and I was really struck by the earthy, foresty flavours; I was really kind of shocked by the uptick in quality from what we’d usually been drinking. Our manager would mention to promoters that we liked wine and we started to be given more and more bottles when we were on the road which we ended up bringing to Canada. At the time I would just collect them and hold them for special occasions. Then I started reading about wine, and when you do this you get very thirsty. Quickly. So I started to get a bit of a bug. A friend of mine in Toronto was a big wine guy and he started to see that I was getting into it and started bringing me to tastings and giving me bottles of this and that to check out. So I gradually started to get into it.
Tidings: And before you knew it…
Lee: Well when I bought my current house about 15 years ago I made sure I put in a proper cellar, which has since turned into two proper cellars. I’m a collector by nature of all manner of things. So it’s a dangerous combination when you love wine and have that flaw in your personality that needs to hoard things. But the great thing about being a collector, in my case, is that being involved with Grapes For Humanity allows me to share my wine within a more global perspective. Grapes For Humanity holds these wonderful dinners and I donate a lot of my wines to sell at these dinners and make money for worthy causes. All the people involved are very generous with their wine cellars
Tidings: How did you first get involved with Grapes For Humanity?
Lee: Tony Aspler called me just kinda out of the blue; I had met him at a few tastings and I knew of him and he knew of me, with the idea of raising money for charities via the organization’s events. I get approached by a lot of different charities but this one hit the right note for me.
Tidings: Does the money raised go to any one particular charity or do you sort of divvy it up.
Lee: Well, Grapes For Humanity began as a project to assist land mine victims. We’d go into Cambodia, Honduras or where ever there were land mine victims and give the money we raised to the local people involved on the ground who would, for example, build a prosthetic clinic and train some of the victims to actually work in the clinic, so it would become a self-sustaining kind of thing. The nice thing about working with a smaller charity is that you can have a project, you can raise money for the project, you can see the money go to the project and you get that great feeling of accomplishment when you see the results. We just try and help people in need that are being overlooked by governments or who are just missing the big payout somehow.
Tidings: Changing directions just a bit, I’m assuming that life on the road these days is a bit different than what it might have been in the beginning. What’s your rider look like these days, is it Montrachet and lobster tails in the dressing room rather than, say, a bowl of M&Ms and a forty pounder of JD?
Lee: (laughs) Well, you know, that whole part of the industry has changed to the point where we kinda bring what we need with us. In the old days there was a promoter and it was you as the band and you had this outrageous rider. These days you still have a rider but it’s mostly technical demands to make the show go right. We have our own nutritionist who travels with us and cooks for us and he kinda takes care of all our needs, so we don’t make any outrageous demands. We have wine every night and it has to be a great bottle of wine, but it’s usually something that comes from my cellar or Alex’s cellar.
Tidings: So you actually bring along your own stash?
Lee: Or we pick up wine along the way depending on how far we’re travelling, One of my day off hobbies is to source a good wine store or good restaurant. The only thing I look forward to on my day off, ‘cause I generally stay in my room on my day off sleeping and resting my voice – is going out to dinner. That’s my big day off event. But I’ve met so many great wine merchants around the world that I can call and say, ‘I’m coming into town, what do you have in your cellar?’ and I can pick up a good bottle and we’ll have it that night after the show. It’s nice ‘cause Alex and I come off stage – Neil’s on the road right away ‘cause he’s doing a sort of motorcycle journey – but more often than not Alex and I are still at the venue having our dinner at that time. You can’t eat too much before a three hour show – it just doesn’t go down too well.
Tidings: Or stay down…
Lee: Exactly. So I try to have a nice bottle of wine for Alex and I. The chef usually prepares some wine-friendly food and we have our moment, wiping off the sweat and drinking a fine Burgundy.
Tidings: Sounds like a good way to wind down.
Lee: It’s ridiculously civilized.
Tidings: Have you toured with or met any other musicians who share your passion for wine?
Lee: There are many, but I can think of two guys right off hand who got bitten by the bug and started their own wineries. There’s Maynard from the band Tool who has started a winery in Arizona. Also, Les Claypool from Primus is now making his own wine as well. Pinot Noir, I think, from his winery in Sonoma.
Tidings: Have you ever considered anything like that?
Lee: Definitely. A friend of mine and myself spent a couple years going to the Hospice de Beaune with a view to buying a few barrels and having them vinified. We finally did it in 2005 – which was good timing for us since it was such a sensational vintage – and we bought five barrels that Mounir Saouma from Lucien La Moine did the elevage and vinification. The wines turned out terrific so we bough another barrel in 2009. I do have a little retirement plan in the back of my head of getting a place in the south of France and doing a métayage with a local winemaker. The idea of finding a local winemaker who needs access to a great vineyard and being able to purchase that vineyard and work out a deal with him would be a very positive event.
Tidings: Has there been any wine region you’ve toured that has really caught your interest?
Lee: Well, my family and I for a number of years when I wasn’t touring would rent a house in a different part of the south of France. I mean, to me, France is the pinnacle location for wine. My favourite wines are Burgundy wines and Rhone wines, but Burgundy far and away is my very favourite wine, so those regions hold a lot of magic for me. I think northern Italy is fantastic. And of course Germany is a fun challenge to try and understand. What’s wonderful about wine, for me, is that it creates a multifaceted fascination. You become fascinated with the wine which leads you to become fascinated with the region which turns you into a bit of geologist and geography freak. Then you start reading about the history of these regions. Then you get to know the people of these regions. Then you learn about the history of the food of the region and how the wines developed to accommodate the food or vice versa. It’s a fantastic, multi-level trip. I love California, but I’m a Euro wine nut, so that’s where my heart really lies.
Tidings: The music Rush writes and plays is – and this is an understatement – relatively complex stuff. When it comes to wine, are you always after the complex and profound or can you enjoy simple stuff? In other words, is it always 7/8 or can you have an “oenophilic jam” in 4/4?
Lee: My favourite table wine at home is Beaujolais Cru, which is not an expensive wine. It’s a beautiful region and the wines are wonderful for everyday drinking.
Tidings: That might be segue into another question about critics, both of the wine and music variety. Beaujolais has never been a wine that has really enthralled the critics. It’s not big enough or extracted enough or complex enough or whatever. But it is nonetheless very popular critics be damned. Rush has never really been a darling of the music critics but this hasn’t stood in your way at all as far as I can tell. What’s your take on critics?
Lee: I hate the 100 point scale. It’s done a huge disservice to the wine world. It’s taken all the thinking away from wine. That being said, Robert Parker has probably been more influential than any other critic in any other industry and he’s done an incredible favour to wine lovers and the wine world and he’s coming from a very good place, I think. But the fact of the matter is that his palate is his palate and his style is his style….
Tidings: …and my ears are my ears….
Lee: …and like with wine, critics are helpful. But you don’t always agree with them. I mean in my industry, critics can’t stop you, but they can certainly make your job harder. They can piss on you all they want, but if somebody hears your music and likes it, they are going to like it whether a particular critic does or not. There’s an emotional reaction to both wine and music and you respond to what tastes or sounds good to you, it’s really not that complex. The distortion with wine is that the critics have become very powerful to the point where winemakers have started to change their style to please the critics.
Years ago I went on a hiking trip with my wife to Argentina and I remember the wines having a very European influence about them – distinctly different from Chilean. We went back there recently and I tried all these wines that are getting these huge scores and I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s all changed.’ They were enormo-wines; monstrously huge wines and not very satisfying for me to drink. I appreciate the accomplishment but at the same time my palate has just moved away from there.
Tidings: Have you ever organized a tour to deliberately put you close to wine producing regions?
Lee: No, that’s pretty hard to do. The closest I ever got was organizing a warm-up tour during Spring training one year in Florida, so I could go to a lot of ball games. That’s about the only thing that works in my favour; my passion for baseball works out pretty well with touring. But I love touring Europe because I love European wines and they taste better over there. Much like when I go to California. When I’m there I really get into those wines, but I don’t drink them much when I come home. They’re beautiful wines but just not really to my taste. However, when you can enjoy them in situ…
Tidings: Any standout wine and food moments?
Lee: Well, there’s been so many…I remember going to visit Grace Family Vineyard and Dick Grace and his wife did a tasting with us. We were just sitting in the backyard and the aromas of the wine were the aromas of where we were – there was such a strong connection. Then they called up Bo Barrett over at Chateau Montelena and told him we were coming over. Bo joined us for a lunch we picked up and we were drinking these great cabernets with this really humble food and it was just a great afternoon. It was one of those situations that’s easy to romanticize, but we experienced it.
Tidings: One thing I’ve noticed is that, given your love of wine and Alex’s love of wine, I don’t notice any wine references in your songs. Since Neil is the lyricist, can I assume that he’s not a wine buff?
Lee: He loves wine and he loves food. He’s not as mental as I am, but he’s always happy to come out and eat and drink with us. He also loves to cook. But he’s got so many interests I don’t know if he would have room to become a serious wine nut.
Tidings: Outside of wine, any other libations that you indulge in?
Lee: I love scotch. Macallan, Johnny Walker Green and Blue…but I’m kinda all over the map – I like the really peaty ones and the richer ones. I find scotch to be more medicinal. After a touch gig or a long exhausting day when we need fast effective relief, I have to have a scotch. And I don’t like having wine on the plane. Something about the air in the plane f**ks up the wine. So I’ll resort to a glass of beer or a glass of scotch.
Tidings: How do you guys stay healthy on the road? Where does the discipline come from.
Lee: Well, it’s a 365-days-a-year thing. I work out a lot. When I’m on tour I have a very restrictive diet…
Tidings: What do you avoid?
Lee: Um, I don’t eat any spicy foods. I don’t eat any dairy products…all things that are considered mucolytic – anything that promotes the formation of mucous I avoid completely. I’m not supposed to have white wine for that reason, but I ignore that one…some rules are made to be broken. I work hard at keeping in shape but after a three hour show I’m beat, even the next day. I think it has something to do with the singing. I talked to Sebastian Bach, another singer who really belts, and he mentioned the same thing. Which was a bit of a relief ‘cause he’s a lot younger than me! We certainly have to be careful. There’s no way to survive rock ‘n roll without being smart about it.
Tidings: Which is I guess why a large number of rock musicians don’t. It’s kinda funny when you consider the amount of discipline and physical care that you need to put into it compared to the general perception of rock musicians.
Lee: I don’t know how Neil does it, frankly. I mean, he rides, like, two to three hundred miles a day on his motorcycle, which is a very physical thing. He’s up early, he’s riding, he gets to the venue, he cleans his motorcycle, he warms up for twenty minutes – after we’ve already done a half-hour sound check – and he does a three hour show. Then he does it all over again, day after day after day. So he’s a monster of a different kind.
Tidings: Anything in the realm of wine and food that you haven’t experienced but would like to?
Lee: Hmmm, let’s see…well, I don’t have much of a feel for Brunello, I’m afraid. I love Barolo and Barbaresco and the Nebbiolo grape is one of my faves, but there are some regions of the world that are still a mystery to me, and Brunello is one of those. I’d love to know more about that area ‘cause I know people who are just freaks for Brunello. But every time I’ve gone there I haven’t got it. But the great thing about wine and food is that you’re always learning, right?
Tidings: Any aspirations towards culinary greatness?
Lee: I’ve taken a few a few courses but I’m just pretty lazy. If I put my mind to making food I can do it, but I’d much rather be in the cellar pulling bottles and pouring wine. My wife is a fabulous cook and that helps a lot. So I end up being the cork-puller and raconteur, that’s my roll. When I cook I drive my wife insane ‘cause I’m so slow – ‘cause I don’t do it that often. She just wants to come in and get it all done.
Tidings: As a band, you guys certainly have a sense of humour about you. I mean, you’ve had washers and dryers and vending machines and chicken roasters on stage with you not to mention your individual humorous contributions to the shows, but do you think there’s a certain amount of humour that’s lacking in the wine world today? Is it too serious?
Lee: It’s pretty serious, but there are very few winemakers I’ve met who are that serious – they all like to have a good time. I mean, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the Guigals – very serious, very hard-working people…until you have dinner with them, then the music goes on, and then they’re dancing and a whole other side of them comes out. You can make a generous wine without having a generous heart. Sooner or later the personality of the winemaker imposes itself on the product.
Tidings: Which is another neat analogy between wine and music in that a technical, disciplined side that has to be there, but if you’re not having fun, the audience, or consumer, is sooner or later going to know.
Lee: I think the wine world is serious, and because it was the playground of wealthy people for a long time, and this caused a certain formality to develop around wine events and things like that. But I think it’s misplaced, ‘cause if you talk to the great winemakers – or wine lovers – they’re pretty laid-back people who just want to have a good time. So the winemaker is playing a bit of a charade, as are the experts, trying to show respect for the trade and so on. But after a few glasses of Champagne….They take their work seriously, but not themselves. The Californians certainly appreciate the concept of balancing work and fun.
Tidings: It seems, from what you’re telling me, that you’ve noticed a real break between the seriousness of getting the job done and then partaking in the fruits of the labour, so to speak. I mean, there’s a real split between the fun and the formality where wine is concerned.
Lee: Yeah, and I’m curious as to where that came from. The Brits were the first real wine connoisseurs and offered the first marketplace for French wine outside of France and I’m wondering if that came from that old British upper crust formality that’s just been carried down from generation to generation – and it really doesn’t fit anymore.
Tidings: Considering you’re talking about one of the simplest, in terms of production, consumables on earth, it’s amazing to see the level to which wine has been raised when sharing a glass of wine is such a basic, uncomplicated pleasure.
Lee: When we were kids we shared joints, now were share glasses, right? (laughs). It’s an evolution of that whole communal thing.
Tidings: Yeah, and also the food you gravitate towards when enjoying either tends to be somewhat different.
Lee: (loud laugh) You’re not after potato chips and burgers in the middle of the night!
Tidings: You’re typically not going to be having a craving for jujubes after a couple glasses of Vosne-Romaneé.
Lee: It’s funny, when you’re first getting into wine it’s this hallowed, serious f**king thing, the glasses are all laid out and everything’s pristine and there’s a protocol and you don’t want to do the wrong thing and you’re taking notes; and it takes you fifteen or twenty years of that before you are comfortable enough to pour a glass of La Tâche in a casual environment and not worry the f**k about the fact that it’s this hallowed wine. My friends always as me, “so when do you open a special bottle of wine?” I say whenever you open a good bottle it’s a special moment. Don’t save it for the special moments, enjoy it with those who appreciate it. Don’t get me wrong, I love the formal tasting thing with a certain agenda, with perfect glassware and a certain structure – it’s the best way to learn. But there’s also the moment where you open a bottle with three people and pull out some bread and cheese and salami without really caring that someone might thing, “you can’t have salami with that wine…”
Tidings: At which point you say, “watch me.”
Tidings: Considering that you guys really are ambassadors for all things Canadian, what’s your take on the domestic wine scene?
Lee: I think this is the most exciting time ever for the Canadian wine industry. I think, for the first time, people can come to Canada, be poured a Canadian wine and not be horrified. I think they still have a ways to go but there are some very good chardonnay being made in Ontario. I can’t speak for the west coast ‘cause I don’t really know them all that well. Certainly speaking for Ontario I think the industry is being revolutionized by people with great passion and a willingness to invest. We need great winemakers from the outside to assist and give direction. I think the reds have a way to go, but they’re on the right path. We have all the ingredients to make it work.
Tidings: Given the choices you no doubt have, what has kept you in Ontario and, specifically, in Toronto?
Lee: Well, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Torontonian. I love the city. And Canada is a great place to raise a family. It’s a very livable country. I support the social net and I’d like to see Canada really become a leader. Because I travel so much and live abroad so much I’m not solely dependant on Toronto. But as a base, it’s where my family is, my mom’s still here and my kids have certainly benefited from being raised here.
Tidings: What does the future hold? You mentioned you had a retirement plan.
Lee: My retirement plan keeps getting pushed back. I we’ll just keep playing it by ear. What we’ve learned over the last ten years in particular is just how unpredictable life is. So when it’s good you just ride it. And right now things are very good for us. I don’t think we’ve ever had an audience as big as we have now or been as well received around the world. And I don’t think we’ve ever enjoyed playing as much as we do now. So we are really having a lot of fun right now. We’re really luck and we do really like what we do and we like just hanging out with each other. I hadn’t seen Alex in about a month and we got together the other day to work on some new stuff and just had the best time. We’re all just natural friends and the relationship between the three of us is very much one of being three equals.
Tidings: There was a point there, not that long ago, were it was looking like it just might be the end of the road. Is the situation such that if any one of you, for whatever reason, decided to bow out, that would be the end of it?
Lee: Oh yeah, that would be the end of it. If it gets to the point where one of us has had enough or we look at each other and kinda decide we’ve got nothing, we’re out. I don’t see that happening, but obviously there’s gonna come a time when we don’t feel we’re playing as well as we have, and that will probably be the sign that says to hang it up. Neil had a bit of a revelation not long ago. He’d always been hesitant to tour but realized that as long as he can play the way he plays, he should be doing it, ‘cause he wouldn’t be able to play that way forever. And I think that’s what’s motivated us all to get out there and keep touring – do it while we can do it this well.
People associate rock and roll with a particular lifespan that they wouldn’t attribute to say a painter or a writer. In rock and roll the clock seems to be always ticking and everyone seems to be waiting for you to run out of juice, declare you’re old age and fly the flag. But I think this is an outdated way of looking at rock and roll that has largely been transcended now. It is now an art form as legitimate as every other art form and those involved in the industry should be allowed to play until they are no longer creative.
Tidings: And to steer that observation back to the world of wine, you have domains and estates that have been functioning for hundreds of years in some cases that are churning out wine that’s every bit as good, if not better, than what they did a few years back.
Lee: Look a Jean-Louis Chave, carrying on a tradition that’s been going for 500 years now and the wines are probably better than they’ve ever been.
Tidings: In both wine and music, the technology has improved to the point where the musician and winemaker can spend more time concentrating on the playing or crafting rather than screwing around with the things that need to be screwed around with to make the whole thing work.
Lee: Yeah, it’s funny. On the way down here I was listening to a radio show where the host mentioned they were going to be having a panel discussion on the topic of whether rock was dying or is dead. And I thought, what a f**king stupid topic.
Tidings: Didn’t they have the same discussion when Elvis died, or Buddy Holly or when the Beatles split up?
Lee: Every five years! It’s such a f**king useless conversation. How can you possibly even think that. We may currently be living in a rather shallow period for rock music. But these things are cyclical and it’s gonna come around. We react to the conditions of the world and depending on what forces push us, we react more loudly with more rock, more metal.
Tidings: Musically speaking, we may be in a Malbec moment.
Lee: (Laughing) Let’s hope it’s not over-oaked!
The DVD Rush Time Machine: Live in Cleveland should be in stores by now. The band’s next album, Clockwork Angels may (or may not) get finished if the guys ever decide to stop touring.