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Rush: Real Life in a Rock and Roll Band

Canadian Musician Magazine
February 1988

by Perry Stern

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Geddy Lee, Neil Peart and Alex Lifeson have been playing together in Rush for thirteen years now. Hold Your Fire is their twelfth studio album. As with most of their works, from the early side-long opuses to their current pop-oriented melodies, Rush maintains a stream of consciousness on their albums. Hold Your Fire's theme is Time.

Well, time flies. Rush has been an integral part of the Canadian music scene for so long now that we thought perhaps it was appropriate for them to look back over their career and pass on a few of the lessons they learned along the road.

On the Tuesday after Black Monday, a day as grey as the expression on most stock brokers faces, in the office of Rush's manager Ray Danniels (decorated primarily by a whimsical Mendelson Joe anti-smoking painting), a black clad Geddy Lee sat down to pass on some wisdom about what it's like to spend your life in a rock'n'roll band.

CANADIAN MUSICIAN: At this stage of the game, thirteen years on, how do you distinguish between real life and band life?

GEDDY LEE: Initially you get very caught up in the band being what you are. The band takes priority. Any personal problems or personal growth grew out of being in the band and everything else could wait. Our lifestyle was totally transient then, but not now. Now Rush is just one part of our lives. It's work. It's like you have two identities: you have yourself in this band and you have yourself at home. More and more as we get older we want those identities to be one. It's very much a balancing act. Obviously we want to take our experiences and put them to music but...

The biggest change is that there are things we'd rather do than go out on tour. It's very trying to be wrenched away from my personal life to go out and travel. On the other hand I'm a musician and I like to play. If I go too long without playing I don't feel right. But "playing" isn't the same as playing in Rush. Rush is a big deal, it's not like playing with your pals except for some times when we're on stage.

Life on the road has to be more than playing in a band. On tour I want to use my time and see where I am. I go to museums, art galleries or visit the countryside. I want to make the experience richer than just a bunch of guys travelling on a bus going to an arena playing to some people and going back to a hotel.

It's very weird to grow up in a band. There are very few people who are doing today what they were doing 18 years ago, but I am.

CM: How do you think being a musician is different?

GL: When you're a musician you don't have to choose from all of life's options, like: What the hell am I going to do now? You always know what you're going to do so that takes care of the big questions. You're driven by your obsession.

The first few years are difficult but you believe. You have ambition. Your physical makeup is different. Your recovery time is faster. You can sit in a car for 400 miles, play a gig for 20 minutes opening for Sha Na Na or whatever, get back in the car and drive for another 400 miles. In the morning you don't feel great but you don't feel that bad. You're just happy to be out there. You're genuinely excited because you don't really believe you'll ever be "there" again. You have a very different attitude.

Now you wind the clock ahead a little bit and you find it's your fourth or fifth time through a town and the concerts are getting bigger, the crowds are bigger, and the requirements on your time are heavier. You have to look at yourself and ask what am I doing, why am I here? The answer is: because you love to play.

CM: There must be more than just your love of playing that keeps you out there.

GL: When you have fans you have a responsibility. If you don't come to their town they're disappointed, but if you go to their town and don't play well they're disappointed then, too. You have all those things to deal with. When you become a success, and get all the things that come with it, you ride on that for a while.

But you can't ride on that forever because after a while your success becomes a fact in your life and it's no longer special. Then you turn inward. You start to ask yourself: While I've been on this ride, what have I done about my personal growth? What kind of life have I been leading while I've been doing this? You go back home and realize your personal life is a shambles because you've been ignoring it while you were out there. You don't believe you're ignoring it because you're paying it as much attention as you physically can, but you, physically are gone. Even if you're in the greatest relationship of all time it's going to suffer if you aren't there.

So, now you're older and you're coming back to this community that you live in and you look around at your friends and they're all changing. Some of them still aren't sure what to do with their lives. Some of them are very successful and are getting involved with new people all the time. You realize that you want to live a semi-normal existence and for some reason, as much as you love what you're doing, you'd like to experience some of the adult things you've missed.

You've got to reconcile those things, you have to balance them out. I think what happens in the end is the more and more time you dedicate to those things, the experiences you've felt you've missed, the happier you are, and the happier you are the harder it is to jerk yourself out of it and go back to the road.

CM: What happens when one of you has their feet more in the home camp than in the band camp?

GL: Fortunately that rarely happens. I think the main reason we've kept together for so long is that our musical goals are so closely aligned. It's probably sick. When we get together to write, the kind of stuff we like to play, the kind of thing we like to do, the sound we want to have is really close. There's also such a satisfaction when we see each other again. For example: We won't see each other after we finish a tour so when we get back together to write we're really excited.

CM: What do you do after a tour?

GL: We just float away. During the tour we make our own individual plans. At the end of the tour you're relieved and believe me as much as you might love the people you work with, you want to be apart from them, every day, just for awhile.

All our tastes are different. We don't live right next to each other so you have to pick up the phone and arrange to meet. After you've been together for a long time it doesn't often happen. Alex and I see each other more than Neil because Alex and I play tennis together. Alex and I grew up together so, in the beginning, when we'd get off the road we'd still hang out together. Neil lived in St. Catherines back then so he sort of just left.

You need a block of your time to get away from them because in the back of your mind you know: I'll be seeing these guys in four months to make a record. Making a record is way more intensive than going on tour because you're going to see them every day. When you see each other after a break like that it's like: What did you do on your summer holiday? It's like back to school.

You have to have respect for each other. You used to hear about, say, Band X. They travel to the gigs in separate limousines. The only time they see each other is on stage. When they're off stage they back bite, they really hate each other's guts. They're there for the business, it's a business arrangement.

What we do in this band is not a business arrangement. We happen to be successful at it so that when we go out there, just because there are dollar signs attached to what we do, people view it as a business thing. But it's not. It's a personal expression of what's going on in our lives. Our discussions are very intimate. It's a good healthy situation, but at the same time it's not our whole lives. There are other things that happen, too.

CM: Is that a luxury your success affords you?

GL: It shouldn't be but that's the way it's worked out. When you're struggling you don't think of a lot of things because you don't have time.

CM: What were your concerns after you'd finished recording an album?

GL: You'd think about the tour: What kind of tour will it be? Are you supporting? Who are you supporting? Will we be making enough money? Can we afford to go into debt for this tour? How long will the tour last? But at the same time you're not biting your nails worrying about it because you're going on tour! You're excited 'and happy. You want to get out there, be a goof, have a good time. These are the kind of things we thought about.

CM: And now?

GL: Now you don't have to worry about, the gigs. My worries are all directly related to the performance and getting the show together. The more you rehearse the more comfortable you get. I'd say that most of my thoughts are related to the set.

Before I set out I ask myself: How am I going to spend my time this tour? How can I make this tour meaningful to myself? You know what the performance will be. You know what every gig day is like (except I don't know what it's like before two in the afternoon). The morning before two o'clock is very important to me. Or a day off. Those are the things I think about. You want to have some kind of ongoing project or attitude that keeps you fresh.

CM: There must be some more specific advice you can give than: Use your free time wisely?

GL: Yeah, well that's a personal thing. Some people don't want to use their time wisely. I didn't always.

CM: How unwisely?

GL: You know, there are a lot of things you can do. You can stay up 'til seven in the morning and then you don't have to worry about your day off - you sleep through it. That happened an awful lot. There are clubs around the United States and Canada that stay open very late so there are all kinds of ways you can abuse yourself.

I think that's natural and important at some stage in your life. I don't know what kind of advice to offer a young touring musician. I know physically you have to take care of yourself. I know that Neil takes his bike along and he'll ride every day; He'll ride between cities on his day off even if it's 150 miles. Alex and I play tennis almost every day. Keeping in shape is very important.

CM: How do you deal with the complacency that must inevitably set in after a while?

GL: We tour less than we should. We probably play a third of what we could, if we wanted to get greedy about it. We could play every night like Loverboy. Def Leppard will be on the road for a year and they're not taking a day off every two days like we do. We go out now for three weeks at a time. After three weeks we take a few days off. During those three weeks we take every other day off. We don't have to do that, and it's financially less rewarding for us to do that. If we didn't care about our sanity we would make twice as much as we do now.

As our manager reminds me all the time: You're driving by huge grosses on your day off, why? The reason we do that is so that we won't be complacent on the road. So, like I said, we'll have more time to ourselves but also so that we'll play like we really want to play. I don't want to be like: Mr. Roboto here, it's my 15th gig in a row. When you play that many gigs in a row the show just sort of plays itself and there isn't much feeling. Sometimes there is, but sometimes it's easier to just float away during the show. I think that's a shame. It's not fair to the audience.

CM: When do you decide to play less so that you'll play better?

GL: I don't know ... When you can afford to I guess. For me to advise a musician to take more time and be more aware of the world around you and to not burn yourself out is wrong. It's just that kind of hunger and that kind of drive that makes you successful in the first place. When you're young be hungry. Go for it. If you have to play seventeen nights in a row, play seventeen nights in a row. If you have to drive 400 miles a night to do it, do it. Abuse yourself when your young because you can take it. You can't do it later in life.

That's the advice I would give a young musician. When you're young and you believe in something you're doing, if you have a sound you believe in: Play, play and play. If you can get a gig, no matter how far away, no matter how impractical it seems, do it. That's how you become a successful musician.

Now there are all these people inventing new plans for being successful. How many new plans can they dream up? You come up with something that's good, put it in front of people and they will buy it. I don't think there's any magic to it. I don't think there's any secret. It's like record companies; they like to come up with a secret game plan for selling a record. Come on! Just put it out. Advertise it so people know that it's there. Do your job and get it on the radio. If it's good it will sell. If it's not it won't.

CM: After a while does your job turn into what you imagine other people's jobs are like?

GL: Yeah, I'd say so, except the parameters are so weird for my job. The hours, everything about it is weird. I don't go to the same building every day. It's all so different so it's very difficult to compare. There are certainly days I'd rather sleep in or do something else. For the two hours you're on stage you don't really ever dislike it unless it's just one of those nights or you're really dragged out from the tour. It's the rest of the time, during the day, sound check, and dinner, waiting and waiting around that's tedious.

Any negative things that have to do with the job have really very little to do with playing. I know that when we lock ourselves up for two months to write I always want to go to work. I don't ever have a morning when I don't feel like writing, as painful as it is to write sometimes. And after standing there totally lost in a sea of notes and chords, asking: What the hell is the answer to the problem of this song? It's important. To me everything else is secondary to those moments. Everything else in the band for me is secondary to writing. Those are the most rewarding moments of my life. Everything else is subservient to that. You put up with recording because once you've created a song you have to put up with the reality of putting it on tape. There's a challenge to that, there's a craftsmanship involved, but it's not really as rewarding as writing something on Alex's eight track. That's the big payoff.

The Evolution of Geddy Lee's Basses and Keyboards

GL: At the time of our first record I used a Fender Precision Bass with a Sunn amp. After we signed our first American deal and got some money I was able to buy a Rickenbacker 4001 Bass, and I also added some Ampeg amps. I pretty well used those two basses on stage, though I had a couple of other Rickenbackers for recording purposes.

Then I picked up a Fender Jazz and used it right up until the '80s which is when I started to use a Steinberger. Of course my amps along the way changed to using BGW power amps, an assortment of Furman pre-amps, and some API-550A equalizers. I started using those amps around 1979 and still do.

The biggest change was going from the Rickenbacker to the Steinberger because it has a dramatically different sound, really, and at that stage my keyboard break was getting more complicated so I needed a more compact bass. It was difficult for me to get in and out of things without knocking mic stands over. I really like the warmer sound of the Steinberger. I used that on at least two records (Grace Under Pressure and Power Windows), but during Power Windows I discovered the Wal bass.

The Wal is made by a very small company in England and compared to all the basses I had it suited the sound we wanted more than the others. This time around I had Wal make me a bass and I used it on the entire Hold Your Fire album. Now I use it on most of the songs on the present tour. (I also used a custom 5-string Wal with an extra low B-string on the track "Lock and Key.")

In the future I'm thinking of trying one of the new Steinberger's with a whammy bar.

I didn't start using keyboards until Farewell to Kings. I used a pair of Moog bass pedals, then I got a Mini-Moog and an Oberheim eight voice synthesizer. Then it started getting out of control. Oberheim came out with the OBX-A and then came out with the DSX sequencer. It really opened up the melodies for a three piece so we got heavily into sequencers. Then I got a Roland JP8.

By Grace Under Pressure I started using a PPG and got into sampled sounds. Then we started using DX7s and Super Jupiters and a whole range of things. On Power Windows we used Andy Richards and he was using the PPG quite heavily. By the time we got to Hold Your Fire I think we used every synthesizer known to man. My gear consisted of a Macintosh computer with Performer software, and Emulators, and AKAI S900 samplers, the Prophet VS synthesizer, PPGs, DX-7s, and a Super Jupiter. Andy Richards had a Fairlight 3 in conjunction with his PPG and Super Jupiter and if there was a sequence I had written we'd link my Macintosh to his Fairlight so the two computers were having intercourse on a daily basis. On stage for the Hold Your Fire tour: Six AKAI S900 Samplers, three Roland D50s and DX7s, a PPG, a Prophet VS, and a whole lot of Yamaha KX76s; three sets of Korg MIDI pedal controllers set into a JL Cooper MIDI patch bay; two Yamaha QXl synthesizers.

All the stuff goes into my MIDI patch bay. Each song has a different arrangement configuration so for each song we've predetermined which synthesizers are going to which MIDI controller and which hands and feet are going to control what. That configuration is assigned a particular number and that means every song during the show has a different number in the patch bay and must be changed accordingly.

Also, each song has a different set of Akai discs that must be loaded in advance in order to have the songs ready to play one after the other. That's the reason for having so many Akai samplers, otherwise you'd have to wait for two minutes between songs while the machine reloads.

Now Alex is using pedals and has a key, board on his side of the stage so it gets quite complicated. I really wondered if I would be able to pull this album off live without adding a keyboard player, but I worked very closely with Jim Burgess from Saved By Technology who really is a main factor in designing my keyboard system. He kept on insisting it could be done, and he was right. He basically designs the system, I give him a lot of credit.

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