Rsh: Clockwork Angels
Classic Rock Magazine
Welcome Q&A: Neil Peart Track By Track: Geddy Lee Guides Us Through the New Album Working Them Angels: We Meet Producer Nick Raskulinecz Q&A: Geddy Lee Sealed With A Kiss: Gene Simmons on Touring with Rush Afterimage: Rush Remember Their Friend and Photographer Andrew MacNaughtan Q&A: Alex Lifeson Moving Pictures: We Meet the Team Behind Beyond The Lighted Stage Machine Heads: The Men of Rush Talk Instruments and Gear Starmaker: Hugh Syme on 30 Years as Rush's Art Director Archive: An In-depth Tour of Rush's Epic Back Catalogue Farewell by Geddy Lee
I know all about the concept of the fan pack, and for me there's no band more worthy of one than Rush. They inspire real fanaticism and you can definitely count me as a fan; I know all of their stuff!
When I was young I loved Neil Peart and worshipped him. I have a big moustache right now, actually. Maybe it's a subconscious tribute to Neil in his kimono days!
I watched the Exit Stage Lift video millions of times when I was first getting into playing the drums. In fact, I used to play La Villa Strangiato when I was about twelve; to be honest, my version wasn't that good. I hope I did a better job when I performed YYZ with Geddy and Alex onstage in Toronto in 2008. That was an awesome moment, though I know that without Neil it wasn't even fucking close! But if Rush hadn't existed, then I wouldn't have been the drummer I am today. I'd have had less licks to steal from Neil.
Soundgarden, Jane's Addiction and the Foo Fighters would not have sounded the same without Rush. And I know for a fact that Dave Grohl loves Alex's guitar playing. That Foo Fighters song Rope - I mean, come on! That's the hugest Rush influence right there!
I've been lucky enough to hang with the guys and it's magical because I used to idolise them so much, but even more special because they're such great people.
Enjoy your fan pack. I know I will!
Words: Philip Wilding
The hilly residential enclave of California's Topanga Canyon attracts a certain crowd best described as 'well-heeled bohemian'. It's been pulling in the great and the good for years: Neil Young used to live here, as did Marvin Gaye; Stephen Stills too. Taylor Hawkins lives somewhere over the hill. Nancy Wilson is a few miles down the road, and some of the guys from Tool have homes here too.
That said, The Inn Of The Seventh Ray is still something of an eye-opener. The restaurant's generous patio looks out over a small babbling brook, while the speakers overhead play an extraordinary mixture of pan pipes and soothing new age tunes; a particularly 'unique' interpretation of Greensleeves makes us look up sharply from our raw soup. Soup, the menu informs us, that's been 'created through the vibrations of each day'.
Neil Peart's impish grin tells you two things; that he loves this place, and that he's very much enjoying the bemused look on Classic Rock's face. He's just driven up here from his home after a morning workout at the gym and pool in preparation for Rush's next North American tour, which is still some months away. Like the boy scouts, Peart's always prepared. This is the man, after all, who plays drums for an hour to warm up before he goes on stage. As Geddy Lee says: "He drums to drum."
Peart pulls back a chair and peruses the menu. There's that grin again. "I thought we could do a yoga session instead of the interview."
This place is incredible ...
Isn't this good? I'm so glad I thought of it, because you have to take a minute some times. You and I have to do this thing, but I was thinking, what's the best possible way we can do it? It's how I live when we're travelling on the road: if! have a day off, what's the best possible thing that I can do? Can I go to the Grand Canyon? Can I go to a national park? Can I go to the desert? And today was no different, given that I want to talk to you and you want to talk to me for various reasons, but if we have to do that, then why not make it something cool? I love it here.
Let's talk about the new album. It's so full of life, and you improvised a lot of your parts this time, which is a first.
There was so much improvisation, and that makes it all the edgier. As I wrote in my little essay about it for the band biography, I think the listener can feel that. It's like listening to The Who's Live At Leeds; you can feel the band on the edge between total control and total chaos. You only do that kind of performance once; the spontaneity makes it so fresh and thrilling.
A lot of it came from the new freedom you found improvising on this last tour, didn't it?
Yep. All of us in our various solo spots were pushing it and going out there, and it was phenomenal for each of us to share. All unknowing, I started that a few years ago when I studied with Peter Erskine (Weather Report, Steely Dan, Kate Bush); part of what he taught me was with the metronome and hi-hat only, and I came out of that with such a sense of time. I can listen to two things now, and go somewhere really far outside and still draw back and drop in, so there's so much more stuff that I can get away with.
I do that on stage now. On that last tour, I found for the first time that if someone makes a mistake and gets out of time I can hear what's happening and what ought to be happening at the same time. I can step back and see what we need to do until we're tight again. I can figure it out and smooth over those train wrecks. In the forty-five years I've been playing, this is a whole new plateau.
Both Ged and Alex have commented on what Nick as a producer has brought to the band, but it sounds as if the work he's done with you has been especially important.
He goofs around, but the enthusiasm and the energy is fantastic. The first time we worked he'd ask me to play something, and would mimic it and sing the parts, and it would be so over the top, just extraordinary, I'd be ashamed to throw a fill like that in myself. But I'd be like, okay and then I'd pull it off and he'd be, 'That's great!' It's like the Caravan drum fill that I laid out, we went back into the booth to listen and Ged looked over his glasses at me and said, 'Oh, he wants to make you famous.'
This time, it was more immediate. He was in the room with me, not listening to playbacks - he was right there, so that every time we stopped, we'd be conversing over the parts. He was playing along with me, I didn't have to learn the arrangements. He's a generation younger than us too, and that's kind of an important touchstone. We did Snakes & Arrows with him and wanted him back, and he wanted to be back. He's the perfect catalyst, that's the word; he's more than a collaborator...
He brings out the best in you?
I don't know how people work without that sort of honest input that Nick gives us. I remember Stewart Copeland asked me one time about how we work and why we have a co-producer; he couldn't understand the dynamic. It was not the way The Police got things done, but talk about a band that was driven from the beginning by divisions - we've stayed so close, oh, they were so drawn apart and then they had to select a co-producer who was almost a moderator to placate things in the studio. Stewart's memoir, have you read it? It's called Strange Things Happen - it's really good, I highly recommend it. The stories he can tell ...
I was telling him a story about the three of us, about a song we were working on, and he said, 'You guys talk to each other like that?' Reasonably, you know? And he came to see us at the Vegas MGM Grand and came in during the intermission and I said, 'You must have played here: and he said, 'Yeah, a couple of times.' And he said, There's a piece of someone's ear over there; I think I kicked Sting over there.' I understand what some bands can be like. I'm not judging. But how awful. It was funny to me, that just my describing a conversation that Alex, Geddy and I had about our future plans was of total disbelief to him. He couldn't believe that a band could be like that.
It's a very modern sounding record, but you're not afraid to give a nod to the past.
What was it that Oscar Wilde said? 'Self-plagiarism is style.' We certainly do a few tongue-in-cheek nods to Bastille Day on Headlong Flight, that's deliberate.
In the essay you've written for the album you say that these songs, "tell a story set in an alternate timeline, with alchemy, clockwork, and steampunkery." And it also addresses the Meaning of Life. You don't like making things easy for yourself, do you?
I know, I can't help it. The starting point was the steampunk idea. I was aware of it as a reader. My good friend Kevin Anderson - who has done the novelisation of this album - he's so prolific and so skilful, and he was one of the pioneers of the style, for sure. I love how it's a direct counterpoint to cyberpunk, it's like a different vision of the future.
So I was enthralled by that theme, and my character's journey through this world. I also had in mind Voltaire's Candide too, that was a germ of it. Plus, there was so much stuff I'd been reading about the circus stuff, the carnies, from Robertson Davies' novels, and I'd read a lot of history from the south western part of the US, geographically - the most interesting and the most beautiful, too - and that figured into the story of the explorer Coronado who kept going out into the desert to find the fabled cities of gold, but could never quite get there.
And The Wreckers was actually from Daphne Du Maurier, even though they were real. Some would just wait for a ship to wreck and plunder it, but others would set up lights to deliberately draw the ships in so they would wreck. That's been in my mind for thirty years, since I read that story - I guess it's an episode in Jamaica Inn. So all of that coalesced into the character and the history of the story, the whole concept.
Headlong Flight was partly inspired by the death last year of your friend and drum teacher, Freddie Gruber.
Freddie gave me the line in that song, 'I wish I could do it all again'. Because there he is: 84, he grew up in New York in the 40s, worked out through Chicago and Vegas in the 50s, LA in the 60s, and since then his path has crossed with everybody. And his response to it all was: 'I've had quite a ride, I wish I could do it all again.' I don't feel that way. Maybe I will when I'm older. Nevertheless, I respected it so much, and what a great thing for my character to reflect upon.
And anyone who's subject to depression or has suffered grief knows that even sunny days can look dark, right? So that little couplet occurred to me, 'Some days were dark, some nights were bright, I wish I could live it all again'. It worked perfectly for my character, but it's obviously a tribute to Freddie too. I love that I could make it personal as well as universal.
You said that The Anarchist was partly inspired by Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent.
In part. That's where that character comes from, there and Michael Ondaatje's In The Skin Of A Lion. He has a central character who's a committed terrorist/anarchist. Anarchy is an innocent utopian thing for him, an ideal.
But Wish Them Well is more personal, yes?
I have a very large circle of friends, really close friends, and once a year or so I lose one of those. And it's either a succession of unfriendly acts against me, or some betrayal, which is unforgiveable, you know? They're sad in a way, but you have to remove them from your life. I don't hate them, I won't bear a grudge, but you can't be a part of me anymore. So, that sentiment, Geddy really responded to it as well. It's a really humane way to be: 'I don't want to be around people like you, but I wish you well'.
How hard was it to get the whole idea of making a concept album started?
It's funny ... It started with Geddy's suggestion that we make a compilation of all our instrumentals and write a new one to go with it, perhaps something more extended, and that was the trigger for me. Then I got thinking ... I was all hyped on the steampunk aesthetic at the time, you know? What if we went long, and developed it? To paraphrase Caravan, I couldn't stop thinking big, really.
Was there a point where it all came together, or was it more a case that it evolved?
'Process' is probably the right word. I had three titles for chapters: Caravan, Carnival and Caravel. I was going to have them convey the journey, and they all evolved into a much more developed story.
It's a bold undertaking.
We know, it is bold. But we couldn't not do it, once it started to come together. It evolved so beautifully; a few songs came together and then we went out on tour. We couldn't help ourselves, we even used the stage set we'd built for Clockwork Angels.
You've created a whole other world for the album ... How much more will that be developed in the novelisation of the record that Kevin Anderson's working on with you?
The one thing I've learnt from Kevin is that it can be as wild as possible in terms of imagining, but people have to do what people would do. It has to be logically consistent, and Kevin and I have been much more involved in the world building for the novel. Clockwork Angels the novel is very much the notes version, the lyrics are the footnotes.
You and Kevin go back years ...
He sent me his novel, Resurrection, Inc., around the late 80s, and it sat around for years, with a big lurid skull sci-fi cover. But when I finally did read it, I was blown away, because it was a novel of ideas. I went to visit him up in Northern California and we got together pretty much every time I came through. From the beginning we talked about making a project together; he had a novel planned and he wanted us to do an album in tandem way back then, but that never worked out timing-wise and mood-wise and whatever. So, as soon as I saw this coming together, I thought, here's the perfect opportunity.
There's a narrative to the album - a young man's quest across a world of steampunk and alchemy. I'm paraphrasing, obviously, but it's almost deliberately vague in parts. Will the book fill in the gaps?
We did want to leave a bit of mystery to all of it. The book will come out in time for the tour, so people have a few months to dream up that world for themselves. I'm consulting with Kevin all the way along and he's constructing the novel to follow the pattern of the album. But we had to come up with so much else in terms of the world and the characters.
Whittling it all down sounds like a tough undertaking.
It was very difficult, because I wrote reams of lyrics as I had a big story to tell, and then Geddy chiselled it down. He'll have a song that he and Al have constructed and they make it fit, so adjectives go flying out of the window, imagery goes, so it becomes very concise in terms of action and portrayal, which I don't mind. But I worked so hard, syllable by syllable, to get maximum value ...
It feels very distilled, very direct.
Exactly. Distil and compress. There's a lot under the skin, that's to the needs of the music, and we were determined not to be archaic. Some of the shipwreck adventures, the seafaring language that I'd come up with, was deemed not suitable for the streamlined model we were pursuing.
So it all adds to the immediacy of the album?
It's the spontaneity and the craft. I guess the songs started just as jams, and Ged was really responsible for that part of things, sifting and then stitching things together, and then the two of us bringing up the lyrics and hammering - that is the word I'm looking for - and then distilling them down into that fine essence. I wrote little prose interludes between songs to try and clarify the action, some interstitial tissue to join it all together a little bit, which ultimately the book will do, so that's fine. So I made them very minimal, just to give them some colour. I like to give people a hint, if they care. When I was a kid, I never listened to lyrics ...
That's like hearing that Quentin Tarantino doesn't watch violent movies!
Ha! But it's perfectly legitimate not to listen to the lyrics - you just sense they're good, care has been taken here, you know. That's what I always think about drumming: people don't have to know about the technique of drumming or song-writing or arranging, but they can sense that care has been taken, that's the content we receive in certain quarters. 'Can't you see? We're trying hard here ... '
You've introduced alchemy into the story: the 'u' in Rush on the cover is the alchemic sign for amalgamation, right?
That's right. I was just fascinated by the alchemic elements, because they're beautiful. I came across them in the Diane Ackerman's book, An Alchemy Of Mind, a beautiful book in every other way, and I happened to notice that design, and I got curious. What are they? Where are they from? It goes back to Egyptian times and was considered science. It's still practiced in a cultish sort of way; in fact, there was a symbol for silicone that said 'for modern alchemy only'. Now think about those words: boom! 'Modern alchemy' - what?!
And those alchemic elements are repeated on the album cover too.
It's enigmatic. It's one of those things, even in the artwork, we're never going to show the angels. They're going to remain imaginary. Even in the novel we never describe them too much, just to say that they are larger than life and clockwork and hydraulic. There are sounds in the mix, there are all these backward echoes: to me, that evokes the great wings, these figures of such majesty. And then I was thinking, too, of the circle of where you are in your life and what you're learning about and what you're preoccupied with, where you are on your journey.
Also, I love the alchemic idea of the quintessence, that it's the fifth essence, some kind of dark energy; it's so intriguing. And the philosopher's stone [believed by some to be able to turn base metal into gold and silver], the square inside a triangle inside a circle, it means squaring the circle. It's fascinating stuff. You don't have to believe any of it. Fairy tales and religion are fascinating if you don't believe them.
Talking of the journey, you turn 60 this year: how does that feel?
I feel proud as hell. I'm at the height of my powers in one sense, but also I can't help feeling the empathy for someone like Keith Moon; he never got to be 59. Dennis Wilson neither. John Bonham ... These are cautionary tales in a sense, but they break my heart: they had children, they had loved ones, they never got there, they never got this.
This. Our career. By good luck and design, we take the trouble; I'm already in training for the tour in September, I'm physically training now, and in June I'll start the first rehearsals, and then in July we'll rehearse as a band for close to two months, because there's so much new material to develop. So for a tour starting in September, I'm already working on it now.
Do you get glimpses of your younger self when you play the older material? You said as much the first time you went out did 2112 in its entirety.
When I'm relearning the material to tour and I'm playing along with those parts, I'm always in touch with that. We're about to be given the Governor General's Award and they've made a film of us for it, juxtaposing our band with a band of 17 year old aspiring progressive musicians. We've just filmed our part of it, and I was able to say that I very much keep in touch with my inner 17 year old and I'll check in with him about a decision sometimes: 'do you think that's cool?', or 'do you think that's alright?' I had a very strong sense of right and wrong at that age, and a lot of it was good: a sense of the purity of music, that I'll do a lot of things for money but not music. I accepted being semi-pro all those years because I could make a living other ways, but other musicians I knew back then would make that their guiding principle, so they'd play polkas and country. And I just said no ...
There are a lot of people who would pay good money to watch you playa polka.
I could do it too. I'm always glad that when I listen to the early songs and the lyrics and all of that, yeah, maybe the craft is lacking, but the spirit was true. I might have had more energy than control then, and I was aspiring to what I have now - the kind of technique and control - but that's what I was trying to do, even back then. I've mastered what I was aiming for thirty years ago. I hear it in there, all this ambition, all this energy, but without the deeper understanding of time that we as a band have now. There are some dirty grooves on this record, stuff I wanted to do thirty years ago but I would approximate it; now I can deliver it, pull way back on the time and dig in deep, Boosh [sic] [producer Nick Raskulinecz] in front of me conducting, and it's delivered with the most sublime technique. That's what I love.
You can hear all those years of work in this album; the title track is as good as anything you've ever done.
It really is. I hope it's in the live show forever. That song, too, is the oldest piece of music. Alex gave us a little demo way back before we started writing, and right away I pointed at that one and said, 'We've never done anything with that kind of feel: As a drummer I wanted that, it was so good and I wanted so much to play it. It's so unusual for us, but it still has all the intricacies and techniques and the challenge and, obviously, the performance.
And so much melody too, it's a really pleasant surprise.
Listen to The Wreckers. When Ged and Al came out with that, they were really pleased that they'd written a Barenaked Ladies song! That was how they told it. It's so melodic and straightforward, but it's so great to shake it up like that. We weren't afraid to do that.
You were saying earlier that on the last tour the band didn't hit their stride until twenty shows in.
It's true, those first nineteen shows were interesting in their way: they were edgy, and we were all decently well rehearsed, so it's never going to be a disaster. Even though we always think it will.
Oh yeah. All that can go wrong will go wrong, every night going on that stage. But it's like the old jazz thing: there are no mistakes, only new parts.
You played solo on The Late Show With David Letterman last summer, how was that?
I only found out a week before, that I had to cut the solo down. I just thought they wanted me to come on and play. It's like eight and a half minutes, that's not too long, you can get that between commercials. But that wasn't what they had in mind at all. So suddenly I'm frantically, manically editing, and we're on tour, just two days before we started on the next leg. So I flew from Los Angeles to New York to do it, and then on to Charlotte for the next show. They had to hire a truck with two drivers, because my kit had to go straight from that show to the next, so they needed these drivers going non-stop to get there in time. And when I said I'd do it, I said I wanted to use my kit with the rotating riser and my screens to light up like they do on stage.
It was complicated, but ...
Did you enjoy it though?
Let's just say it was hard work. I had to think of all the ways I could compress the eight and a half minutes, or whatever it is, down to three minutes and something. So I had it in my head, an arrangement of my whole solo ... It was too much! [Laughs]
At this stage of your career do you feel like you're in the second act, or has it been more of a continuum?
It's more of a continuum. I love the sense of moving forward that we've built as a band, and in my life personally. The recognition aspect has been grudging, but steadily given over, and receiving the highest honour in your own country is lovely. It's for being good citizens, that's the way I see it, being proud citizens, and citizens of which the country is proud. It's complicated syntax, but you know what I mean.
We know that we've conducted ourselves, as artists and musicians, flawlessly. Nobody's perfect, but when you have the chance to make a decision, you can make perfect decisions. It's a consensus: if the three of us all agree on something with pure motives, then there's nothing to ever feel ashamed of. We never had a disco period, you know?
So there are no regrets, in the truest sense. And also, I hope someone who likes us, our music, or admires us as people can feel that we would never let them down.
The last time we spoke, you still hadn't watched Beyond The Lighted Stage. Has that changed?
I probably won't ever watch it, no. I'm really not interested in it. I like reading my stories over, I listen to our music from time to time, but I never watch DVDs. I don't look at myself, I'm not that kind of narcissist, and also I know everything about it. My parents have seen it, and everybody's told me everything about it, and I'm glad they got that dinner with the three of us, that dinner was incredible ...
The scene where you're all eating together - and the further footage of that meal that's on the DVD - showed your true identity, that the band have real heart.
I agree, I know. I'm glad people saw that because it's real - these three guys have been together all this time, but its warm and friendly as can be. Because we're close, we balance each other. No-one gets away with any of that shit, that's the difference.
When bands start to separate, then each wedge can do whatever it wants, and no one can say anything. If you're going to stay friends then you're going to say something if someone's out of line in anyway and we've kept egos in check all the way because of that. Once you're separated, you can get an elevated opinion of yourself, but you can't be friends and get away with doing that. It's impossible. If you're going to be close then you have to stay level.
You once said that your motorcycle is freedom. What did you mean?
It feeds my desires, in a very true sense. I love mystery. If I'm out walking in the woods and I see a path, then I want to know what's on that path, you know? Roads are just the largest extrapolation of that. If I'm out snowshoeing or cross country skiing and I see another possible route or animal tracks going somewhere, then I want to follow them and I want to know what's over that hill. I started skiing when we first worked in Quebec in 1979, doing Permanent Waves, and I got so entranced by it, and by winter. And because of that, I go every year as long as I can, sometimes as long as a month, and I ski or snowshoe every day.
And what great conditioning it is! But also I love the woods, I love the adventure of getting off the beaten path, the road less travelled, you know? The motorcycle is no clichéd 'easy rider' sort of thing, it's where can it take me ... I look at that map, and every day there's somewhere new I can be. We've already got our itinerary for the fall, and I'm looking at the days off and I just think, look at the places I can go!
You got lost driving to a show in Chile, though.
We did! It was frightening. I was thinking, 'Oh, this is a bad idea'. But the upside of that is the people I meet every single day. The way I travel is so far out of the bubble - I have real conversations with people at gas stations, at rest stops, in cafes and diners, hotels. You name it, I have those and I love them. People think I'm unsociable and I'm not. If we meet as equals, I'm going to be very sociable.
You said the way you travel has made you love America more.
It has. I know it so well now, so many little towns. I met a woman out here in LA who's from a little town in Ohio, and she was talking about growing up on a farm sixty miles south of Cleveland. I said, 'Around Mount Eaton?' And it turned out her mother had gone to school there. The only reason I knew that was because it was the first of my bicycle rides back in 1984 or so, and we had a day off after Indianapolis.
I left the Holiday Inn near Richfield and rode fifty miles south on the little highway through Amish country to this town where I bought a sandwich at the general store and rode back again. It was the 4th July and I didn't know how to change a flat, so I was terrified the whole way there and all the way back, and that was my first hundred mile ride. And I'll never forget it. I retook that route again later, and as it's Amish country, it remains almost unchanged, thirty years on.
In Ghost Rider: Travels On The Healing Road, you talked about the bike saving you.
The bike did save me, absolutely. I had nothing else to do; there was nothing else I could do. The telling episode was on the first day out. I'm in terrible weather, with logging trucks flashing me, and I'm miserable anyway and I'm lacking fortitude of any kind. And I thought, 'I've got to turn around, I don't want to do this.' And then the other voice went: 'Then what?' Because I had nothing else, and the stupid things people say to you at a time like that ... 'Oh, at least you have your music.' Fuck, what?! It's so maddening. I just wish people wouldn't say it, it's so stupid. You don't have anything. But it, the bike and the journey I took, absolutely did save me. But so did the booze and drugs! [Laughs]
You've just published Far And Away, a book of photos and stories from your bike trips.
That didn't start out as a book; it was online pieces. I got so into that: the combining of images and words, and the grafting of a real time travelogue memoir, a letter to a friend - it has the character of all that. So that volume collected the first four years of those, and since then I've published five or six more online. That's me, that's my prose writing, that's what I love to do.
Given the scope of something like Clockwork Angels, have you never thought of turning your hand to writing fiction?
It's not me. Honestly, I did try. But essentially what I want to do is look around and try to put it into words. That became what I want most, what I get the most satisfaction from. I still love to read over that stuff because it's like finding an old diary, the stuff that I was moved to record and then try to describe to others. That's a whole other set of rules and how you bring it alive, not just for your own memory, but how you try to portray this for other people. So that's plenty.
The band's long-term photographer and friend, Andrew MacNaughtan died here in LA during the mix of the album. You were very close to him ...
We were very close to him, my wife Carrie and I, to him and his partner, Alex. It was a heart attack; he was 47. It was devastating, but more disbelief really, shock. It's still setting in. Anyone who's lost someone will know that you keep seeing them. I keep seeing him: 'Wait, there's Andrew ...' It takes so long for the reality to set in and you stop seeing them. You don't believe it yet, and you're worried too, for me, for the survivors.
Here's a provocative statement for you: death is for the survivors, the bell tolls for thee. I guess I didn't come up with anything new there. So, my concern in all of this was to his family, and to Alex - especially Alex, as he's got no rights under Ontario law and they've been together eleven years. Do you know what that is in gay years?! It's like a hundred ... But they were one of our favourite couples. We had so much fun with them, we did so much stuff together.
You've said that the lyrics to Camera Eye are an example of modern poetry. Does that mean they were the lyrical high ground for you?
To me, it's not one of the enduring classics. I think I did what I set out to do there and it's effective, but it's not as powerful as a song like Bravado or Animate, lyrically. There are ones I know that have said something really worthwhile, and maybe in a beautiful way, like Bravado - songs like that have helped me, which is a measure of their worth, I guess.
There have been several times when I've suffered from the hubris of having flown too high. The opening lines to Bravado read 'If we burn our wings flying too close to the sun', which is then resolved in the chorus, 'we'll pay the price, but we will not count the cost'. 'Put it behind you', basically; 'wish them well'. It was an early statement of that viewpoint. Several times those words have come back and soothed me.
As a band, you've never been afraid to evolve and try new things, but the change between Hemispheres and Permanent Waves is profound, like your full stop on the 70s era.
I know what you're saying; we did have several ground shifts like that. The whole 80s thing with Peter Collins and the massively intricate production, we loved all that. Then we kind of stripped down again; by Counterparts we'd gone back to bass, drums, guitar again and that was a direct reflection of the times; the early 90s. I remember the first time I heard Nirvana, and then Temple Of The Dog and Soundgarden and those bands. They influenced us the same way that punk influenced us: in a stylistic and artistic way. I loved the rise of those bands coming out of the northwest and the return of guitar driven rock. We were okay, we're a part of that. We've got guitars.
You say Rush is a continuum, but do you feel re-energised at this point in your careers?
I think so, perhaps. It has to be because we feel that way individually, which is why we are this way as a band. As team players, that's who we are, that's what this is, in the truest sense.
It's quite the team.
I think so.
That came from an idea I had one night when I couldn't sleep. I've started to play with this notion of writing songs and then seeing if they stick with me. Writing melodies in my head, and then if they stay with you over a number of weeks - if they've got some sort of resonance - then when Alex and I get together, I try to get him to make what's in my head come to life. This song is an example of that process, and it just worked. It's a fun song, it's relentless and the new mix we've just done means it's taken on a different character now.
Alex brought me this crazy instrumental when we started writing, and we just added and added to it. I love it so much, and it's the one song I didn't know if people would 'get' the way we get it. I don't know why, maybe because it requires a bit of patience and it's a bit of a journey. But there's something about that melody and the way it came together that really works for me. It was a very difficult song to mix, I think it was the song I was worried about the most.
Alex and I had done a good jam, and I came up with this bass melody in the chorus. We both thought it was really infectious, so we just decided to build around that spirit. That was two years ago that we wrote it. It didn't really change much, that's a nice thing. Nick [Raskulinecz] made his comments about it way back then and we applied those ideas and then just left it. I thought it really lent itself to having strings added in those few sections - an almost Bollywood vibe.
It came from this jam that was done the same time as Headlong Flight, and I had forgotten all about it. I was in the studio and Alex hadn't come in for some reason, and when that happens I either jam on my own or look through the pile of unused stuff. And I found this opening riff, and I thought, 'This is a rhythm that we never play' - like, that slower vibe. But Alex had this melody line and I had this counter line weaving in and out of it and I had Neil's lyrics to work with by then, so it came together relatively quickly.
That's a real change of pace. We wrote that at Revolution in Toronto. We needed something to give people a break, especially if you're talking about a concept of any kind. It just came from an idea Al and I had; the whole song was originally acoustic, and then we decided to darken every other stanza, treat it like a chorus even if the lyrics kept changing. But it worked out, I was really pleased. And Alex is such a nice acoustic player, it's great to get that into the sound. I love the way he does it, he's always sitting around playing the acoustic guitar.
SEVEN CITIES OF GOLD
We needed a keyboard part for this and we were in the mixing stage, and it's always fun to do an overdub when we're not supposed to. So I've got jetlag in LA, it's four in the morning; I called up and got the keyboard ready for later, came in and knocked it off and it worked. It's a huge addition to the song. It felt like it was an opportunity to get that live jam feel that we had on the last tour. This was written wanting to nail the feeling we had then.
I saw this guitar of Al's that's tuned to Nashville settings, which is amazing: play any chord and it sounds like you know what you're doing. I started plunking on it, and I wrote the chorus and the verse, grabbed Al, and he started playing and writing the bass part. I'll be honest; it sounded a little like Barenaked Ladies! So we Rushified it. Al was going to play the bass - he said, 'I want you to play the guitar and I'll do the bass' - but I'm not such a great guitar player.
From a jam that we did between the two legs of the Time Machine tour, written around wintertime 2011. Carnies and this song came from jams Alex and I did at my house. I'll be honest, it's a little bit manic. There's a whole section of Headlong where it's like us jamming Working Man on the Time Machine tour, going, 'How about we have a section where we just fucking go for it?!' It's one of the four solos on the album where Al's playing is brilliant; he really outdid himself.
WISH THEM WELL
I played it for Nick and he went, 'Not so much', so we put it away. Whenever Alex was away, I'd start hammering away at it. I said, 'I'm going to have one more pass at this motherfucker: I spent a couple of days on it, and the next thing you know, it was that song. I was so nervous playing it for the guys, because I'd failed twice with this fucker, and Al came in and loved it. So I felt like we'd saved the song and now it's one of my favourites on the record.
It was one of those few songs that come along where the lyrics just felt perfect. I loved the sentiment of the song, so I wanted the music to be heartfelt. It just flowed, and we had 'a good day at work', as we call it. We wrote The Garden in a very natural way, and when Nick heard it he didn't want to change a note. The only thing he suggested was leaving the drums out of the first part, which I think is great - it lets the song breathe, and then Rush show up. And I think the solo is one of Alex's best pieces of work.
"I said, 'Hey, let's not make a record for radio, let's make a record for ourselves,'" says Raskulinecz, punching his open palm for emphasis.
Neil Peart calls Raskulinecz 'Booujzhe', after the producer suggested a series of near impossible fills that Neil might play. "He'll mime the drum parts with wild physical gestures," says Peart. "And sound effects: 'Bloppida-bloppida-batu-batu-whirrrrr-blop - booujzhe!' The 'booujzhe' being the downbeat, with crash cymbals and bass drum."
Booujzhe and Classic Rock are seated in a small anteroom in Henson Studios in Los Angeles, where Rush have been working on the final mix of their latest album, and you can see what Peart means. It's hard for the producer to contain his excitement at working with Rush, especially on the Clockwork Angels record. The walls and ceiling are covered with patterned red and yellow drapes, but it's Raskulinecz who's the real colour in the room.
"I said, 'Let's not think about traditional arrangements, let's not worry about how long the songs are; let's make a Rush album,'" says Raskulinecz, waving a finger for emphasis. "'I want you guys to be Rush in every sense of the word, and let's see what kind of record we get on the other side of the voyage: Three and a half years later, this is what we've got. There was never a conscious decision to make a concept album, or to have it be full of crazy fills and have the bass licks, you know ... It just evolved. It's Rush, I didn't restrict them in anyway."
Things are busy for Raskulinecz here in Hollywood. He's travelled up from Nashville, where he lives with his wife and children, to finish the mix on Clockwork Angels in the afternoons. His mornings are spent recording tracks for the next Deftones album - he also produced their last album, 2010's Diamond Eyes. Not that he's complaining about his workload.
"I'm busy and I couldn't be happier about it," he asserts. "It's exactly where I've always wanted to be."
Raskulinecz first came west (from Knoxville, Tennessee) in 1995 with his band Hypertribe, who quickly became Monument after they discovered LA already had its own Hypertribe. Like a lot of young band's dreams, theirs died quietly somewhere along the Sunset Strip when their drummer unexpectedly bailed, leaving them with a lease on an apartment that Raskulinecz and the rest of the band couldn't afford. Then an old school friend from back home named Brian Bell, who was now playing in Weezer and recording the Pinkerton record across town in Sound City Studios, called and told him that the studio needed a runner.
"I went straight down there and met the studio manager and got hired on the spot," Raskulinecz says. "My first shift was 19 hours working through the night and that was it. I'd be getting coffee, cleaning toilets, total studio bitch. It was great, I loved it."
He learnt on the job, working his way up to producing his first album, More Than Conquerors, for a band called Dogwood in 1999. It went better than he dared dream; buoyed by his experience, he quit his job and struggled on as a freelance producer, bulking up his portfolio working with artists like Glenn Danzig and Duff McKagan. He was often broke, though, and close to calling it quits when he bumped into Dave Grohl, who he'd assisted at Sound City in 2001 when Foo Fighters recorded A320 for the soundtrack to 1998's Godzilla. Dave and his band were going to Virginia to make a record; did Nick want help them?
"I was like, 'Fucking yeah!'," Raskulinecz remembers. "Producing the One By One album changed my whole life. It took me up to a whole new level, where I'd been trying to be since I moved to LA. Dave, Taylor [Hawkins] and myself were driving down the 101 in Dave's Suburban, on our way to make One By One, and we'd just bought Vapor Trails, and One Little Victory was really big then, and the three of us were air drumming in the car and going, 'Yeah, they're back!' There was an energy and a fire on there that influenced us; the song Low on One By One is really influenced by that - just listen to it!"
Since then, he's produced everyone from Stone Sour to Alice In Chains to Evanescence. His career was already flying high when he read online that Rush were gearing up to record a new album.
"I'm a fan, I grew up listening to Rush; they're part of my musical palette, along with Kiss and Zeppelin and Queen, the Beatles," says Raskulinecz. "That was my music growing up. My then manager sent them some of my stuff and they invited me to meet them. I'll never forget it, I flew up there from LA, and pulled up at Geddy's house, knocked on the door and, boom!, there's Geddy Lee, and then there's Alex. We just talked and talked. I tried to play it cool, but it's Rush. I got excited as soon as I heard the music.
"My first impressions of the material that would feature on Snakes & Arrows? I thought that some of it was a little overblown - a little over-cooked, as Geddy would say - but I was still finding my space. These guys have a history, they know how to make records. I have a lot of respect for them as people, and as players, and their whole experience. I've learnt a lot from them. But to be completely honest, it was really easy for me to sit down with them and tell them exactly what I thought. And I think some of the things I thought might have been a bit shocking."
It was an approach he'd carry into the studio for Snakes, not least telling Neil Peart that he could work some more on his parts.
"I was a fan, but I'm also a producer, and I'm objective, and I've got very aggressive ideas about what I think things should be, and I'm not afraid to tell any of them to do it again," he says, getting to his feet for emphasis. "Case in point: walking into the drum room with Neil after he'd done a take, I turned the volume knob down in the room so no one could hear what I said to him. I got right in his face and went, 'Dude, let's talk about the verse for a second' And he's just sitting there looking at me stone-faced, you know.
"I remember the first time I did that, and turning around and walking back into the control room and inside, it's 'What the fuck just happened?' And Geddy's just sitting there smiling, and going, 'He's going to like you.' And that started my relationship with Neil. I think he was searching for something like that. I broke right through that wall. As a Rush fan, I know what I love about Rush and the things that I felt like had been missing from certain albums and where they were headed."
Raskulinecz even got them to bring their bass pedals back, much to the relief of many Rush fans - though he insists the band never once resisted the idea.
"The hardest part about the bass pedals was finding a set, because they didn't have them anymore," Raskulinecz says. "We called a company in Toronto and rented the bass pedals and had them shipped to the studio and Geddy's sitting there, we take the lid off and he's like, These are the ones we used on the Permanent Waves tour!' I was like, 'You sold these? Are you kidding me?!?"
The thing that Nick and Rush all agreed on from day one for Clockwork Angels was to get back to the basics that made up the band: bass, drums, guitars, vocals and bass pedals. Given, too, the band's desire to extend the jams and embrace the sense of freedom that had become a recurrent highlight (for both band and audience) on the Time Machine tour, Raskulinecz pushed the trio to just get in the studio and play.
"The biggest thing for me was for Rush just to be Rush, no restrictions. Listen to a song like Far Cry from the last album, the energy of it; that was a song I was involved in from the very beginning, and it was all about playing," he says; fingers waving around like two imaginary revolvers. "Play from the gut, don't obsess about it. I want to listen to Geddy Lee play the bass; he didn't write the bass solo at the end of Red Barchetta, he played it.
"That's the essence that I was trying to get at. I just hope that when the Rush fans listen to Clockwork Angels, it makes them feel like they were kids again, because that's what this record makes me feel like. I put it on and I'm young again, and I just hope other people feel the same way."
Twenty minutes later we're walking down the hallway through the studio's labyrinthine maze of corridors and ante-rooms. Along one wall stands a half dozen identical old tape; machines, all seemingly in perfect working order. Out of a door to our left walks Alice In Chains' Jerry Cantrell. He shakes Lee warmly by the hand and, for some reason, pats Classic Rock genially on the back.
"Let's do this outside, it's a beautiful day", says Lee, heading to the sunlit courtyard. He points out Charlie Chaplin's footprints embedded in the concrete - Chaplin originally built the studios and shot both Gold Rush and The Great Dictator here. As we sit blinking in the light, a huge bust of Kermit the Frog bursting through the wall hangs silently over our heads.
Cheerfully, you refer to mixing albums as the 'death of hope'. Are you ready to give up yet?
We got a few segues left, and that's it. This last song, The Garden, was a tough mix because it's such a different song for us, with the textures and the orchestra. Originally we took it in a different direction and it just didn't have the same continuous feel - it started to feel like it was from a different record, so we took a step back and now I'm very happy with it. This side of the band I've always wanted to push more. The melodic side, the orchestration, the possibility of that. I guess you'd call it the softer side, I don't really see it as that - just more thoughtful, reflective maybe. So I'm really happy the way that turned out.
When word filtered down that you'd made a concept album, our first thought was, 'Is it going to be 2112 or Fountain Of Lamneth?'
Ha! Caress Of Steel part II! That's what we've been joking about all this time ... We keep saying, it's Caress Of Steel all over again. Get ready for the 'Down The Tubes Tour' part two!
Alex said that it would take $1,100 to make another concept record; you said you'd want $10 million in 1970s money, what happened?
One of the great things about this band is that we really don't know what we're doing too far ahead; we just let it happen. Whatever's going to happen happens and sometimes it works well and sometimes it's a bit sideways and sometimes it's not so good. But I think that's part of the journey, right? Someone asked us in an interview, who is Rush? And the three of us just had no answer for him. It's such a stupid question in one sense, but it also makes you think about yourself in a kind of existential way, and I realised that we can't answer that question because we're constantly in search of that answer.
It's a strange thing to say, but this album really sounds like Rush...
No, I think that's true. I think this album really sounds like Rush, the essence of who we are. One of the things we agreed upon early was, 'Let's write a trio's album'. We thought we were doing that with Snakes & Arrows, but we didn't; we just made that record a little too dense. Going in to this, we wanted to have moments where it was just the three of us playing the way we play on stage. We had so many amazing jams last tour, like in Working Man, where we allowed ourselves to free form a bit. We enjoyed it so much that I said to the guys after the tour, 'Let's try to be that band sometimes on the next record'. It feels so essential and it's what we're about.
It sounds as though Nick Raskulinecz only encouraged that.
Yeah. We're a bit curmudgeonly, you get tied to your way of doing things, so it's hard to break out of that. But with a producer like Nick that has that kind of enthusiasm and confidence and also knowledge, it works. If any old person came in and started asking us to do some of the things he asks us, I don't think we could pull it off. But because we know where he's coming from and we know that he understands... For instance, he can sing you every note of every drum lick, you know. He's coming from the same place that we're coming from as musicians - he is a musician, he's got legitimate respect from us - so when he comes in the studio and asks us to try something else, we look at each other and go, 'I don't know about this'. We think for a second, and we respect the guy, so we do it.
Plus, Neil has been really open to rhythmic ideas from outside, a lot more open generally. Alex and I put together rough drum ideas when we're writing, and Alex is brilliant at creating rhythms, and so sometimes Neil will just use it, when it's right it's right. Same thing with his approach to Nick this year: rather than go through the whole process of writing the song and then having Nick come in and push him around, he let Nick push him around first.
It took you a while to get the album started, didn't it?
The record began reluctantly, that is true. We had done a long tour and we took a few months off and we were scheduled to start writing September 1, this past year. We'd finished the tour in July, and I went away for a month and came home, and it just felt like the summer had gone away and already we were getting back into work. So I wrote to the guys and said, 'I can't face it right now, I just can't. I just feel like we didn't have enough of a break. I know we wanted to come in straight away and be fresh and have our chops and all that, but I think my heart is just not in it yet: And Neil wrote back and said, 'So glad you said that first!' So we left it for a month, and then we got back in at the beginning of October. Alex and I started, and it was really hard to get going. But we had these jams that we'd done previously, to see if we could stay a step ahead of the game when we finally had to get something done.
I listened to one of the jams that we had, and it was ferocious. They were done when we were fresh from playing live and really in a good place. We just felt like we were communicating on stage, and that jam reflected that. So I said, give me a couple of days with this song, and we wrote this instrumental which we originally called Take That Lampshade Of Your Head. So within two or three days, Al and I were so excited, we were playing all kinds of effects and adding new parts, and all of a sudden we were back. We clicked in, and that song eventually turned into Headlong Flight. I prefer the original title though.
You're singing a lot more on this record, too.
It's just where we're at. The lyrics and the music we were writing lent themselves to melody. It was ironic, because in some of the songs where I was feeling a little bluesy, maybe, and wasn't sure that they were something I could make into a satisfying melody, the exact opposite happened, because it didn't have so many constraints: because it was a loose, bluesy feel. Like in Seven Cities, I could stretch out melodically, I could be a little more that guy, and it kind of put me in mind of the way I used to write when I was just starting. Everything Rush had kind of begun as a band listening to people like John Mayall; we liked American blues reinterpreted by British rock musicians. That was the thing that turned us on. And it kind of took us back there a little bit.
The songs started coming together over two years ago.
They did. We wrote Garden at the same time as BU2B and Caravan; Anarchists and Clockwork Angels, too, they were all two years ago. I'm the kind of person, when we write something, or even when we record, I don't listen to it everyday. Alex is the exact opposite: he's constantly listening to it and driving himself mental. So I didn't listen to those songs for something like a year and a half until we went back last September to start writing again. I hadn't heard them in two years almost, so when I put them on, I was shocked at how well they stood up.
You said that about going back to listen to Permanent Waves.
That doesn't always happen. You have all these reference points when you're working on something; the things that bug you and the things that are successful stay with you, so when you're listening to them constantly, you're reinforcing either one or the other. When you've forgotten about the song, forgotten about what surrounded it, it becomes a new thing again, so you can judge it a lot more clearly. Permanent Waves had shed all those things for me and it sounded great.
It feels like you've gone full circle on this album - back to writing together and jamming, extended pieces, more experimentation. Alex says it's because he's 58 and doesn't care what people think anymore.
He looks 58! I don't know why we took so long to get to that place, you have ways of writing and sometimes you ignore the obvious. And the obvious always comes back to what you are as a band, and we're players first, always. But somewhere along the way we missed that connection on how that playing informs the writing and that's a really big part of it. We changed our approach to song-writing and somehow forgot that's how we used to write in the old days that that's how we wrote Spirit Of Radio, that's how Tom Sawyer was written, all of us together in a room jamming. So without realising it, our playing was
informing our writing right from the get go, and then we went away from that. We separated that from what I guess is essentially Rush.
You've always resisted repeating yourselves; you've been quite dogmatic about it at times...
The one thing that Nick has shown us is to not be afraid to respect our accomplishments of the past. And it's not that we borrow from our past, it's a different thing. It's like saying, That's a thing we know how to do really well'. We spent most of our lives running from anything we'd already done. Some would say it's not a forward move, it's a sideways move, but nonetheless we're trying to learn more, we're trying to get to a better place finally: to write that song that we feel is better, play those pieces that reflect a growth. You get lost along the way, but that's what we've tried to do.
The Time Machine tour obviously energised the three of you, even if you were worn out at the end of it.
It was just a great experience for me. I think it helps, too, to have children that are a little older and feel a little less guilt about being away from them. I think the time of our lives makes us more appreciative of the positive things that we have. I've heard sports guys say this quite often in their last few years, they get invited to an all star game or whatever, and when they were younger, they didn't really experience it with the same emotion that they do later, and I understand that completely. Now, whenever we hit the stage it's like an opportunity and I don't know how many more of those opportunities one has in one's life. So, I think we all feel kind of privileged and I know that Neil has come to a much happier place about touring and playing live. I think he's reconnected with that being an essential part of what a musician is. It was torture for him, and it's still very difficult, just given the kind of person he is, just in his private nature. He's come to terms with the fact that if you are a musician and you are still wanting to hone your craft, you have to play. It's just what you do and that's huge for him and, of course, it reinforces our feelings.
I think that attitude made every night on stage so much more enjoyable, and the way the show was structured was really quite fun, it was really hard. Especially as the tour winds on and you're running out of gas. But we had those moments - Camera Eye was one of those, and Working Man was one of those moments where you just... You could tell everyone was so into it, in that moment and loving the fact. When you start a tour, your chops are decent, but they're a little clumsy and we just got our playing to a point where I don't think we'd ever gotten to before, ever. I don't think we ever have played with as much confidence and fluidity as we did on that last tour, let's hope we can repeat it!
When we spoke to you in London after the O2 show, you talked about pushing boundaries live ... What did you mean?
Parts of the show kept getting better for me, and I felt like we really were playing so well. It got looser and more free, and we were pushing the boundaries and trying to see if we could hit a breaking point almost, just pushing and pushing. It was a great experience, we're trying to make this next tour a little different, to give people a different experience, slightly.
But it'll still feature the Time Machine stage set, all the bells and steam whistles?
There'll be some tweaks. We've got lots of ideas. The steam punk thing is definitely part of it, we just jumped the gun. We got excited about it, which is good at our age.
After years of resisting it, you're finally talking about doing some festival shows.
I think we will do some festivals in the future, because I think it is an interesting way to get across to people who maybe wouldn't come to the oppressive idea of a Rush show ... Three hours of us, some people don't want that! We played more outdoor festivals on the last tour in North America, and we proved to ourselves that we could do it and still maintain our vibe, our thing. It was just a nice experience, so we're learning not to be afraid of those. We were such control freaks for so many years: we didn't want to go anywhere we couldn't control the environment, put on our show. So we're learning that wherever we play, that's our show. And at the end of the day, it's about the playing, and the songs, and it'll be fine.
In the five years since Snakes & Arrows your public persona's changed again, not least because of the Lighted Stage movie. People like you guys ...
There's been a huge shift in perception of us, but just because we're nice doesn't mean you should like our music. The film is very watchable, it's got a great pace to it, and it shows up in all these places where you're trapped, like airplanes or a boring Wednesday night on the movie channel, and people are watching it and they're finding the story interesting and they're corning away with a different impression of us. And I see it on the street, I see it wherever I travel... I'm far more recognisable than I've ever been. It is what is, there's good and bad; I can't accept the good and complain about the bad, that's my attitude. We get into restaurants a little easier.
Neil's never seen the movie, but have you watched it again since it was made?
When I came home from this first part of the mixing session after Andrew [MacNaughtan, the band's long standing photographer and friend] had passed, I couldn't sleep, and so I got up and was nursing a Macallans, flicking through the channels and I saw it was on. So, and I don't know why, but I just started watching it. I started seeing things in it that I hadn't noticed the first time, listening to things a little differently, because when I saw it the first time I really didn't want to, it was hard to watch. Watching yourself talk about your life, it's not for me. But I started watching it again and started thinking, my god, how strange to see your life up there on a television show in the middle of the night. And I thought about all the different people that can't sleep and are having the same experience I am, but they're watching about my life! It's just so bizarre.
But was it a good experience?
It was all good. It was interesting to hear everyone's take on us, the kind of things that the other musicians were saying and how important our music was to them. The stuff we say about ourselves, I hear that all the time. But hearing other people talk about you and seeing what you mean to them ...
Hearing Billy Corgan talking about what the song Entre Nous meant to him was actually quite affecting.
Yeah. Billy blew my mind in that. The things that he was saying about his relationship with his mother, and what that song meant to him... And even Trent Reznor, it meant a lot to me to hear those guys talk about our work. Because you don't start doing this for any other reasons but your own, and, of course, forty years later, you never expected that you'd still be doing it... And then to hear other people describe your work in such a serious light, it just makes you feel like you've lived a life, and that's such a nice feeling. That and getting over the shock that a filmmaker made us interesting ...
When you saw the first edit, you and Alex said you liked it, but asked if there could there be less of you in it.
We meant it! Not that they listened.
One revelation in the film is that your long-standing manager, Ray Danniels, fired you and the band went along with it.
He really did! That was pre-history really. We hadn't recorded yet and were still in our embryonic stage, and he came along. He had no real reputation yet as a manager or anything. He was just kind of an agent working in Toronto back then. So he started directing the band, and he just thought I wasn't suitable for whatever reasons he had. I don't know whether it was the way I looked, or my religious background - who the fuck knew? Anyway, he influenced them and they went along with it, Alex and John [Rutsey], and I was out. I was out! They kicked me out!
We were a four piece at that point. My friend Lindy Young - who is now my brother in law, my wife's brother - he was the piano player in the band, so this is way back, back when we were just playing little drop in centers, that era.
But they basically kicked me out, and I started a blues band, and I was doing gigs and was, frankly speaking, doing better than they were! And then I got a call from John and he said, 'Can we get together? Basically, can you come back? We're sorry.' They had to go through whatever they went through, so we tried it again, and that's really when the band started. Then we became this three piece, and then we were really going in the same direction.
Sam from Banger Films (the company who made Beyond The Lighted Stage) says that if you and Alex hadn't been such outcasts living in the Toronto suburbs, there probably wouldn't have been a Rush. Fair comment?
I think that's pretty true. I think it makes you want to escape your surroundings. I think most musicians and artists probably have that in common, where their art is a vehicle for escape from what they believe is a boring existence.
It was certainly that way for me, and I think that's why a lot of our fans identify with us, because a lot of them are from the suburbs and a lot of them had the same feelings, the same frustrations. And so, to a certain degree, we're one of those people who somehow managed to get away.
Subdivisions crystallises those thoughts into five minutes plus.
On the last tour, Michael Moore came to one of our shows, and we found out that he's a big Rush fan. He was saying that very thing to us about Subdivisions, and he quotes Subdivisions at the top of his last book. And I thought that was fascinating, because I have a lot of respect for him and I love what he does; he's smart, and a moral guy. So Neil says to him, 'Oh yeah, which line?' And he put the poor bugger right on the spot and Moore's going, 'Oh ... I...', and he's sweating and trying to remember exactly which line he used. I just wanted to grab Neil and shake him. Put the guy on the spot or what?!
Your audience really spans generations now: you're talking to dads and their kids these days. That must be a thrill?
It really is amazing, I love it. There's dad and mom and the two kids, and why does that kid not have earplugs on? Why is that guy holding a baby up? Put the baby down! Leave the building with the baby immediately! There are about six people every night that I want to scold - what is wrong with you? This is cruel and inhuman treatment of children!
Talking of cruel and inhuman, you've recently told right-wing American firebrand Rush Limbaugh to stop using your music on his radio show.
I didn't know he was using our music. Apparently, he's been using Spirit Of Radio for quite a few years; we didn't know that. I wouldn't know where to find his radio show, he's such an offensive human being; I try not to bring that into my life. Anyway, this gentleman who worked for The Huffington Post wrote to us and made us aware of it.
We had a similar thing happen with Rand Paul, the Libertarian candidate - he's like a Tea Party guy, he's Ron Paul's son - earlier this year. We heard he was using our music on his campaign and actually quoting lyrics of ours, and we sent him a nice letter saying, 'Please don't do this'.
I don't want to be seen to be sponsoring these guys. A lot of situations you can't control how your music's used. You don't want to get caught up in it too much, but some people put you in a position where you have to separate yourself from it.
On a happier note, your baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays, play Spirit Of Radio through the PA each time they score. Which isn't so often ...
I like that. Sometimes the players choose their walk up music and this catcher, who I've since got to know, Gregg Zaun, he's now retired from the game, but the one experience I had, I came to the game and it was the first time in a while. I'd been on tour for most of the season, and they played Limelight as he came on deck circle, and then he hit a home run. So he walked round, and as he was coming back, he pointed at me as everyone applauded. That was kind of a sweet moment I won't forget.
Something else the film turned up was your room filled with baseball ephemera at home. You just picked up a signed Fidel Castro ball, didn't you?
I did, yeah. No one goes in that room apart from me. I started collecting baseball stuff about twenty-five years ago. I stopped for a while, because things were getting really outrageous. When I started collecting, it wasn't such a big deal to buy somebody's signature. But with the boom of the 90s it got crazy; all these new millionaires were looking for things to collect: wine went crazy, collectibles went nuts, so I kind of came out of that. But in the last few years I've got interested again, because the upside of having a boom market is stuff comes out of the woodwork. So I started noticing rarities that I'd always wanted and had no access to: game balls, different players that you never thought you'd see on a single signed baseball, the kind of thing that was inherited within a family and they now realised they could make a few thousand dollars from it. So it helps them, and then it goes into my glass case.
You've bought the film rights to a book about baseball; you're in the movie business now.
Yeah! It's called Baseballissimo, written by a guy called Dave Bidini. It's non-fiction, and we're kind of fictionalising it, we're taking a lot of liberties with it. I've known Dave for a long time; he's a musician who played in a band called The Rheostatics. Actually, he knew Neil long before he knew me. He went off to live in Italy in order to write the book, and he came back a year or so later and I was so thrilled to read what he'd come up with. I found it to be such a charming story, about something that most people don't realise: that there's such passionate baseball fans in Italy, and how Italy got introduced to the game through the GIs at the end of World War II.
People love books, it doesn't mean they have to option the movie rights ...
I thought it would make a great film. I have this bugaboo about great Canadian books that get optioned and then made into shitty movies. So I just kept saying to him, 'Make sure someone doesn't fuck it up!' And in the meantime I had been talking to a friend of mine here in LA about turning books into films. I find it really interesting ... It's difficult, more unsuccessful than it is successful. I kind of thought, 'What's involved, maybe this is something that I could do?' I had this conversation with Dave at one point and he was having some difficulty in getting someone interested, and so I started putting people together to talk about it. And Dave called me up one day and said, 'I want you involved in this project, you speak for this book way better than I can, why don't you help me get something going?' Long story short, I optioned the book and together we'll find a producer and I hope we'll do it properly.
Will we be seeing a Geddy Lee original soundtrack?
No. It does interest me, but not for something like this. I know Alex has done it numerous times. Plus, he's a great actor too, he has all those tools at his disposal...
His performances in your short films are nothing short of remarkable.
I always think of the most ridiculous get ups for him: 'Hey Al, how about you playa real fat guy?' He really takes to it. [Laughs]
They're brilliant fun, especially as everyone thinks you're so po-faced as a band.
Nobody takes the piss out of themselves to the extremes that we do. The first time I saw Jethro Tull was on the Thick As A Brick tour and their production was so much fun. What a lovely bonus to give an audience that's sitting there for three hours listening to this intense music! And our music is a little on the bombastic side, so I think it's nice to give some candy.
Which is going some, considering just how serious your fans can be.
They've made such a bond emotionally with the music that it's hard for some of them to take it lightly. Some fans were upset that we were on the The Colbert Report and that he interrupted us in the middle of Tom Sawyer. It was funny, and we were obviously in on it, but to them it was sacrilege. Lighten up a bit, would you? We're just having fun. That stuff's harder to come by than you might think sometimes.
"We took Rush out as our opening act on either our first or second tour, I can't remember which," he explains. [The first dates the bands played together were September of 1974, two months before Kiss's second album, Hotter Than Hell, was released]. "We were in a weird situation where we had alreadly started headlining some 3,000 seaters even though we hadn't had a hit record, so some of the dates were pretty big. I'd heard Working Man somewhere or other, and to me Rush sounded like the Canadian Zeppelin."
Simmons breaks off to do a fair-to-middling impression of Geddy's Plant-influenced scream on Finding My Way.
"So they had the kind of leanings that struck a chord with me. Plus they played and sang really well. Our point of view from the very start was that the entire concert experience should be a reflection of the headlining band, so we always took great pride in offering support slots to bands we liked. We were about giving the people who came to the shows a real bang for their buck, so we never worried about money and buy-ons and all the rest of it. The attitude was that if the package was good, then the money would take care of itself. Our opening bands were a reflection of us. We never pulled the sound down on them. We always gave them full lights. It was a cut-throat business, but we never did those things. We gave first tours to AC/DC Judus Priest, Iron Maiden, Bon Jovi, Motley Crue, a whole bunch of acts... Rush was one of the first acts that we gave a break to - and time has judged that we made a good decision."
Neil Peart had already replaced John Rutsey on the Rush drum stool at this point, but hadn't yet shifted the three-piece towards a more progressive style. Yet even at that early juncture, the band seemed pretty, well, 'musicianly'. Didn't that worry Kiss, who for all their many attributes are not and never have been virtuosos?
"They weren't slack," concurs Simmons. "And that was a great thing. Look, if you're in the gym and the guy who's next to you can lift more than you can, then you want to compete with him and you want to be better than him, right? And anyway, you always have to be delusional when you get up on stage. It's what makes you a champion. I was never concerned about who we were putting ourselves up against. You could have had cellist Yo-Yo Ma on the bill, who's a way better musician than I'll eve be, and I would always have backed myself!
"But you'd be surprised! I remember sitting with Geddy one time back then throwing riffs back and forth. I told him about a bass run that I'd discovered that went from a major to a minor, then to a flat third, a kind of a European scale that then switched to a blues scale. But Geddy didn't have a clue what I was talking about! He said 'I don't know what the notes are called. I just know how to play them.' Rush didn't feel like 'musos' at the beginning. They were much more of a 'meat-and-two-veg' rock band at that time. But Neil read lots of books, and started to bring in that sci-fl, Isaac Asimov kind of thing. Plus he knew lots of big words like 'condominium'! That was when things started to change. To be honest I always preferred the meat and potatoes stuff."
Rush toured with Kiss at various points in '74, '75 and '76. Naturally, the two acts grew close. "We were hanging with Rush after the shows, having lots of fun together. I was trying to get them laid ... " With any success? "I'm pleading the fifth on that one to save their reputations! But they really were sweethearts."
Were Kiss's blue collar all-American fans down with Rush? They are Canadians, after all...
"They actually went down very well," says Gene. "They didn't really have their own fans turning up to see them in any numbers at that stage, but they weren't all that different to us, so they appealed. It was all riff-based blues rock with a lot of bombast. They probably already had a few different time signatures by then, but it wasn't progressive like it was to become. It's true that there wasn't really what you'd call a Rush 'live performance', either, because Geddy was stuck to the mic playing bass at the same time as he was singing. So he couldn't do any Robert Plant routines or anything like that. And Alex wasn't exactly pulling any Pete Townshend windmills and splits, you know? The stage show wasn't their focus. But people still liked them a lot."
While Gene's bulging black book attests to the fact that there was plenty of fun to be had back then, touring in the 70s was also reputed to be notoriously hard work. Were those Kiss/Rush tours physically tough?
"It was grueling! All that romantic talk of how amazing it was back in the day is all well and good, but it was demanding and you had to have a work ethic. Before MTV, cellphones and iPads there were only three or four TV stations and a few radio stations. So the only way to get your music out there was to go to the people. I felt privileged to be doing what I was doing, but if you weren't careful you could get beguiled and seduced by the lifestyle. There were chicks everywhere and we were getting paid $5,000 a night, which felt like good money back then. But I always remembered the hunger I had when we started out and I was living in my ma's basement. You have to hand it to the guys in Rush too. They were 'all for one and one for all'. And even with all of the chicks and all the rest of it, they never let it get in the way of what they were doing."
While both bands went their separate ways after those early days together, both Rush and Kiss are confirmed survivors in an industry that notoriously eats its own. It's surely pointless asking Gene whether he thought Kiss would survive for 40 years. But did he ever envisage Rush still being together in 2012 when he first saw the band perform back then in 1974?
"I thought they'd become a big act like Zeppelin or Sabbath," he says. "But when Rush went progressive I didn't know if it would stick, because girls just don't get prog. And there are no girls at Rush shows to this day! But congratulations and kudos to them for making it and doing it the hard way, by getting out there and working. Rush don't hide away in their mansions. They're out there doing it, just like we are." Simmons isn't trying to kid us that the two bands are still best buddies these days, though.
"I went to see Rush a few years ago at the Forum in LA and I enjoyed watching them perform," he explains. "But unfortunately I didn't get to see the guys after the show for whatever reason. In truth it's been a long while since we last saw each other."
We've got one last question. You've got room for just one Rush song on your desert island iPod. What is it? And why that tune?
"Oh, that has to be Working Man. It will always be Working Man for me. Both musically and spiritually, that's the essence of what Rush really are as a band. Those guys are true working men."
A choice memory about working creatively with Andrew dates from 1992, when Rush was preparing for our Roll the Bones tour. My bandmates and I decided to have a little fun with the usual tourbook portraits - beginning a tradition that continued right up to the book for the Time Machine tour, in 2010-11.
All of us lived in Toronto in those days, so it was easy for us to get together with Andrew and plan our "surprises" (sometimes kept secret even from each other). We aimed for something that would show some humor, and also, perhaps, a little ... inner essence.
That first set of three portraits does not disappoint on those levels, I hope, but it is also noteworthy that even these "joke" settings were lighted and framed with artful care. They are light-hearted and silly, but photographed with a professional's craft and an artist's vision.
I once defined the highest possible plane of communication to be "art with jokes." That is a rarefied summit even to attempt, but once in a while, with Andrew, we made it.
Anyone who's seen the band's documentary Beyond The Lighted Stage already knows that Lifeson is the band's class clown, its joker, but - in person - he's drier and much more droll. It's been said that Americans don't 'do' irony, but some Canadian guitarists can clearly dole it out in spades. He plays snatches of the new album on the small speakers set up on the nearby table. During a particularly knotty section of the album's title track, CR suggests how well it might go over in front of an audience, to which Lifeson replies with a grin: "Yeah, like we can play that live!" He's happy. Given the band's latest record, he has every reason to be.
The new album's an anomaly: an immediate sounding concept record. I can imagine you might play in its entirety live. It's early days, but has that conversation come up yet?
I'm still very close to it. But we were talking earlier, about what we want to play live from this record, and I would like to play the whole thing from beginning to end as it is. Once I get away from it, I'm sure that'll change. I don't know. The songs are much more immediate, they're kind of stripped down, certainly compared to Snakes & Arrows, which had a lot of acoustic guitars as well as electric guitars, lots of vocal harmonies. With this record, we really wanted to get away from that...
The shows from the Time Machine tour often saw the three of you jamming on stage and just playing instinctively ... Has this record carried on from that?
That's certainly part of it... It's more about our awareness of where we're going with our sound and our playing. We always have some stuff from soundcheck jams, not that we draw much material from them - though we did use one piece for The Wreckers. When you hear the construction of the jams that we played live on the last tour, it's really just a case of carrying that over to what we were doing in the studio this time. It's very satisfying: you don't listen to it and go, 'I wish I'd had a few more guitars there and maybe Ged could do a harmony there'. It was the opposite: it was all stripped down, and you could really hear everything, and that's the way we wanted it.
Talking of The Wreckers, you and Geddy swapped instruments to write it.
We were on a break time. There was a problem in the studio and Ged picked up one of my guitars, and it was tuned to a Nashville tuning, which is the octave strings of a 12 string - it has a sparkly, bright sound, everything sounds great on it - and he started messing around. I remember he got up and came back with some lyrics and then he sat in the comer playing the melody for the verses, and sang the lyrics, and I thought, 'Wow, this sounds great'. We got back into the studio and he just wanted to put it down very quickly, the guitar part, so he wouldn't forget it. We got set up and he started playing and I grabbed his bass to play along for the fun of it, and we ended up recording the demo with him playing guitar and me playing bass ... It was great! Geddy ended up playing bass on the record, but he learned my bass part and played it, which is really cool.
Your relationship as songwriters and friends has endured for decades. Geddy says that writing at his house for this album was the best fun he's had in years...
Yeah, he's got a little writing room at his place and it's very comfortable and cozy, and we've lived not ten minutes from each other for the last three decades or something. When we first got back together to make this record, we felt a lot of pressure, I think because we were just into other things. We both have fairly robust lives when we're both not working, and you get caught up in your little projects and family and all of that stuff. So the first time, the first three days, I went over there to his place and we ended up just sitting upstairs in his sitting room, drinking coffee and talking for a couple of hours and then I would leave! Our guitars just sat at the top of the stairs, we didn't do anything. Finally, we felt pretty guilty and we went down to the writing room one day. But it was very slow. We went back and forth, but really, the first few days of working were very unproductive ...
But you managed to kick start it somehow.
We did. We listened through some things, and we played a little bit, and all of a sudden we had one of those days where we played like crazy and got a bunch of ideas. And then we found something that we'd done the previous spring, in that very short period in the break after we'd done BU2B and Caravan, between the two halves of the Time Machine tour. The idea was that we were going to do all of our writing then, do the Time Machine tour and then go straight into the studio, one of those big ideas we had. And that was even less productive! That time we didn't even last a couple of days!
Anyway, we found these jams and they ended up becoming The Anarchist and Seven Cities Of Gold. We were thrilled, all of sudden we had three or four new songs, or at least the start of them. Typically, what Neil would do is he would come in when the arrangements were set and he would work on his drum parts, develop them and learn them. That's his way, it's always been that way. This time around, Neil said he was just going to start playing from the first day. The drums were set up to get the sounds and he said, 'Let's get a track up and just go for it. Start fresh, don't think about it, just play it.'
Geddy says that one of Nick's strengths as a producer is that he just wants you to play in the studio and not over-think it.
Certainly. A lot of it is confidence, too. We feel very confident in our playing and where we are and where we're going, our writing. I guess, maybe, at fifty-eight years old you don't give a shit. Like, 'Whatever, I've got nothing to prove, I'm just going to do what I'm going to do and let it go: And that's what happened. Ged and I were listening to Neil's drums, because Neil would do his passes and once he'd consolidated all his parts we would get a stem, just the drums, that we would import into our writing sessions, and we'd re-record things or try different things. It's an organic, gradual build, all these parts.
But we were getting these drum tracks back and we were like, 'My god, that's amazing! He never plays like this - so many parts and so many cool things: And, consequently, that gets you all fired up, and you try a bunch of different things. Ged and I work together in the studio during the day. He likes to go home around early evening. I like to work into the night, when it's quieter, where I can sort of get inside my head and experiment without taking up anyone else's time. Quite often Ged would come in the next morning and be like, 'That's awesome, let me redo the vocal', and I'd give him an hour...
Do you ever clash over which direction a song should take?
We've always had a very good writing relationship. It was probably a little more competitive when we were younger, but now it's nothing like that at all. You know, you work on your individual ideas, put them together, and sometimes you kind of rub, which is totally understandable.
It's creative, and you feel precious about these things, or you did when you were younger. But that's not the case now. There is so much trust with us, the two of us, when we're working now. We both feel completely comfortable leaving any time and letting the other guy do his thing. It's really a nice way to work and we did, like Ged said, we laugh a lot and have a really great time, it's very positive.
Do you always know straight away when or if the ideas that you're working on will become a song?
Not for a while. That's a verse, that's a riff, that's a possible chorus, but it's not a song until you really start putting all the pieces together. And that's a gradual thing, too. It's not just throwing the pieces together. It's massaging them, fiddling around with the order they come in.
What about a song like Limelight? You must have had an idea of its worth pretty early on?
With some songs, yes. That's a good example. It was very straightforward, it was very melodic and it was catchy. It's stood up. I think with something like Caravan, we were excited that it was a long song, because we wanted to get back into writing longer songs. We just wanted to stretch out and play more and have more parts, I guess. It's just a more natural evolution, I don't know how conscious we are of making those sorts of changes, it just kind of happens. 'Wouldn't it be nice if we played more?' And then that becomes a seven minute song, and then our jams can become quite elaborate, and they'll go different places and then you start adding things. It's an interesting process the way you do things now, working with Pro Tools and Logic and all of those platforms, you can cut and paste, move things around and constantly experiment. Which is very handy for a band like us.
Even with modern technology, this album has an 'old school Rush' feel.
Before we went back into the studio, Geddy, Neil and I were talking about having something like the Working Man jam from the last tour on the record, where we're all just playing out for however long. When we got to Headlong Flight we decided to do just that, and it's great that we got that back in. There are flavours on this record of some of our earlier records, not only in melody, but also in approach.
The original vibe's there...
It is. It's more the whole vibe of it than the parts this time, less the Hemispheres chord that we used on Snakes & Arrows, and more to do with the way we recorded it. This album was done the way we recorded Caress Of Steel and 2112. I don't mean in three days, not that part - but the construction of the sound of the songs. There isn't any elaborate overdubbing of guitars and vocals, it's all very straightforward. For the most part it's just two guitars, left and right, which is a typical approach and what we did back in the day and, consequently, you can turn it up and it just sounds better and better. You hear all the instruments very clearly, and they're all loud at the same time. It really works great.
Harold Pinter once said that when people revised his older plays, he didn't recognise the young man that wrote them. Do you still see yourself in those songs you made when you were in your twenties?
I think, from time to time, you go back there and you're aware of it. You're aware of where that source is from. But it's hard to go back, when you're 58, to when you're 22. But in the youthfulness of your thinking and playing and approach, I think I can look back on that period and pick out things that are quite positive about our records, and the way we recorded and what we were trying to do, and implement them sincerely and genuinely in my performances today. But there's the benefit of all that time in between, and everything we've learnt, so I think we're better engineers when it comes to the playing and the understanding, the intuitive understanding of how to inject dynamics without being obvious about it, and how to build melodically in more subtle ways ...
Is that what you draw from those elongated, wrung out live versions of Cygnus-X1 and Working Man: memories of that younger man brought back to life?
Yeah, that moment trapped in time. It's like the fact that we've done a concept album, which is an old idea for us, but it's fresh...
You once said it would cost $1,100 for you to do another concept record. So who came up with the money?
Nobody's come up with the money so far! Should I be speaking to someone about that? You know that all our records are thematic; this is the first time we've dealt with a concept, one fluid idea from beginning to end. We figured that we'd done it all - or at least we'd done enough of it - in the past, but it just seemed like a good idea at the time to approach it as one big piece again. It was sort of fun.
Was it easier than making your more conventional albums?
It wasn't easier. I think when you're working on this sort of thing, you're always aware that you want to connect the songs somehow, so you always have that in the background. So you're not quite as free in your thinking when you're writing - you're looking for the connection to the fourth song, and the eighth song, and how does it resolve at the end, and will it resolve musically as it is lyrically, and is the idea strong enough from beginning to end to be considered rock music lyrics rather than just a condensed novel or something like that? I think that's more of a struggle for Neil, as he has to resolve those issues, and for Ged to feel comfortable with it it also has to have the right kind of tempo and pace...
When we turned up today, you were being filmed for the Governor General's Award. You're quite a big deal.
I am. It's a wonderful honour for a Canadian. It's the Governor General's Performing Arts Award. Historically, we're in great company, and it's a very reverent thing. We're going to be in Ottawa for three days, and there are all sorts of functions attached to it as well as the actual investiture, so it's a really big deal. We shot a film today, the National Film Board of Canada does a short film for all of the inductees for the lifetime achievement award, which is what this is, and there's a dinner with the Governor General. I'm moved by it. When we got the Order of Canada [in 1997], that meant so much to me. I always wear that badge on my lapel. You can call me sir! Actually, you're not Canadian; it doesn't matter to you. But it is a lovely thing, honestly. I'm very proud to accept it.
Looking back now, how do you feel about the recent Time Machine tour? It was hugely successful, but it did seem to take its toll on you at the time.
I think, above all, we played so well, we were in a good space physically. I will say that it was the most tiring tour in a long time for me. I felt worn down, we all did, by halfway through the tour. Typically, it's not until the last third or so that you really start to feel it, but early on in this tour we were exhausted by it, pacing was very important. You know I love playing golf and stuff, it's a time killer for me when I'm on the road. I hardly played, comparatively, and days off for Ged were spent in bed relaxing and not talking. Three hours of singing like that, it's tough. So, in that respect, it was a difficult tour in some ways, but very positive. We were very happy with our level of playing.
You were performing Moving Pictures in full and riding the wave of attention brought about by Beyond The Lighted Stage and your appearance in I Love You Man too...
Yes. Since then there's been a whole new interest in the band from a totally different place, which has blended in well with what already existed. Universes merged. It wasn't planned that way, but we were suddenly out playing our big crossover album, and we had all that attention. It was a joy to play Moving Pictures in its entirety, but it was a little more strenuous, and it took a little more out of us than it had in the past, and I'm sure the next tour will do even more so. It's an age thing for sure: we're almost sixty, Geddy and I are a month apart. Neil will be sixty in September this year.
You almost made another live album after Permanent Waves, didn't you? It was Cliff Bernstein who persuaded you to go back in and make another studio record that became Moving Pictures?
That is true. We had planned another live album to follow Permanent Waves, but were convinced to go back into the studio instead. In hindsight, I think it might have been the right decision.
You first started playing the extended, three hour 'Evening With Rush' shows on the Test For Echo tour. Do you feel you've created a rod for your own back sometimes? Could you ever go back to doing shorter shows now?
I don't see how we could go back and take a support band out with us and do a shorter show now. Here's a new record where we have 65 minutes of new material that we want to play all of, and we have to address our whole history, which only gets longer with each album. And we're already talking about what we want to do on the next tour - which will be here in no time - throwing around a few song ideas. So the list just grows and grows and grows.
Having said that, it gave us that opportunity to air more stuff. We were in control of the show a little better, the visual side of it was changing a little. I do have some regrets about it, probably that it no longer gives an opportunity to some younger bands to get to an audience and get out and play the support a lot. But having the control and having a more seamless show from beginning to end - just creating a whole vibe and attitude ... It's nice to have that control, it makes it more of an event.
Even as far back as the Vapor Trails tour, you and Geddy both said that you couldn't see yourselves doing the long tours again, as you were all so beaten up as a band.
I know. Now that I think about it, we've been saying that for twenty years. I guess we're always having that conversation, and always have had. So maybe it doesn't mean much, maybe we just like complaining! 'I don't like this... I don't like that... I've never liked these shoes ...'
Talking of Vapor Trails, given the tragic circumstances surrounding it, maybe that should have been the album that you titled Grace Under Pressure.
The feel of Vapor Trails is so honest and so sincere, so pure and fragile. In retrospect, I think we had problems with the production, and it started from the very beginning. The way we recorded it, it was just throwaway demo stuff, but that's what's the important thing about it is, that little seed of everything. Our plan is to remix it. We've always planned to remix it, for years; our sound engineer, Rich Chycki, is working on that right now. It's our intention to have it as a bonus on the release of this album. It'll help. A lot of people love the album the way it is, others complain about it. We don't really care what anybody thinks about it. For us, it's always bothered us that the mastering was incorrect and there were a few things that happened that just got in the way of really enjoying that record from our point of view, and I think this will help us to get a little closer to that point.
There was talk at one point of Different Stages being the last ever Rush album ... Neil had all but retired.
I remember going down to listen to the mixes... Geddy was there more than I was; we had a lot of time, and it looked like not a lot of future, so it was almost a matter of, 'No, let me go tonight, I want to go tonight.' That's a bit of an anomaly, that record, because of everything that was happening externally. I can't say that any of us felt a great deal of enthusiasm, just because we didn't feel enthusiastic about anything at that time. It was a bit of a chore, it was hard work; something that needed to be done and we did it. That was... Of all the years we've been recording and doing this, that was certainly part of a whole difficult period.
Geddy says mixing an LP sucks the life from him; you seem to enjoy the process more.
I like mixing the live stuff; I like to work with Rich at my studio in Toronto. Mixing an album is a very, very difficult thing, though. You've gone through so many different stages with it, like you've sewn a seed that was so satisfying in its simplicity: 'this song is great, it doesn't need anything!' Then you get in the studio and you start recording and the drums sounds fantastic, the bass part is awesome, and as for my guitars...! And then you finish recording, and you can't wait to get into mix... And then mixing is a burden of detail and small things that make such a difference, seemingly. But suddenly there's so much detail, there's so much second guessing. It can drive you nuts.
You talked about Beyond The Lighted Stage earlier, and how the movie has brought you a new audience. What did you mean?
I think a lot of people went to see that movie who had no idea who we really are, who've never have had any interest or disinterest in us. Rush has never crossed their path. That film - just as a documentary, as a piece - is really strong, disregarding who the subject is. We've had so many comments, like: 'It's a great film, they're sweet men who grew up together as friends and they had this dream and they're funny and they're family guys.' I think for a lot of women, moms in particular - I know that's a very broad term - they latch on to it, and they're not really Rush music fans and some of them have become Rush fans, but they relate to in terms of their own relationships and their own families and struggles, and things like that.
Geddy says he gets recognised in public so much more now.
We do, but everyone's so polite. For me, the musical peers, that was really the beautiful part of the film, because we weren't privy to any of that stuff. As far as we were concerned it was Sam and Scott's film: we were the subject matter, but we didn't want to have anything to do with it, we didn't want to be perceived as making a movie about ourselves. They brought out a lot of things. I didn't know they'd spoken to Trent Reznor and Kirk Hammett and all those guys and, to be honest, I was really moved and very touched by hearing these comments from these musicians who I totally respect.
Hammett was obviously fired up by your guitar playing...
I know. And it's so crazy to me, we've been around so long that our fans, who were kids or young guys then, have grown up and become professional adults, senators and doctors and pilots and athletes and politicians. And they're all the same: they're all still very fired up about the music.
You really seem to be enjoying it now, this new upsurge of interest in Rush.
Yeah, it's a nice little bit of dessert, you know? The meal's always been there, and we've been eating well for a long time...
This is your last album on this deal, and you've changed record labels. Not thinking of going out on a high, are you?
Oh no. We've changed labels, but it's all for the good. Atlantic's not the same label we signed to in 1989. We had a great run. I was proud to be part of the Atlantic roster - hell, Led Zeppelin were on there - but more recently it's not that same place. It's not a place for a band like us to be.
So there are no plans to retire at this point?
As I said earlier, the age thing is an issue with touring. Touring is very difficult and it takes a lot out of you, so you have to be in shape, you have to be serious about your health. On tour, you have to be vigilant. There are things you have to look out for. It's not staying up until four in the morning and having a few drinks, you just can't... Once in a while that's fine, but on a day to day basis, I got to go to bed early, I've got to rest, I've got to feel strong for the show. And we're all like that. We had so much fun making this record, and we always have fun, but this one has been really, really special. I think we'll make records until we die. I don't think there's anything that will really stop us from doing that. I don't know about touring. I could say we'll tour until we die, but the touring will probably be the cause of our demise.
Perhaps looking after yourselves is why you're still one of the last great live bands standing?
Part of it, sure. I guess it's because it's the thing we've always known, and it's always been the goal... Even in the early days we looked at it like, we want to play, we want to play well, but we're going to be busy playing, so let's have something that people can enjoy watching, kind of like a film. We've always been kind of a cinematic band, we pushed the indoor screens, the animation, as early as we could, so it's second nature to us to develop those ideas and present it that way. I can't wait to see what this next tour will bring.
Outside of the band, you keep up a stream of steady, small acting roles. What does it give you that being a rock star doesn't?
Most of the roles I've played were casual, comedic moments, and they have been fun and comfortable partly because they were light and improvisational. I feel quite comfortable being a bit of a clown and really enjoy the collaborative nature of those roles. I do feel out of my comfort zone with roles that require a more serious and traditional approach, although they're rare for me. After our scene in Ecstasy, Billy [Boyd] told me that every scene can be terrifying for every actor, so take a deep breath and don't let fear get in the way.
Talking of the adaptation of Irvine Welsh's Ecstasy, you play a shrink called Dr. Figg. How did that role come about, and was it much of a stretch for you?
The director Rob Heydon is a friend of a friend of mine; we first met a few years ago, and he asked if I'd be interested in being in the film. Geddy and I were working on this album at the time, but I had a few days free and agreed to go to Sault Ste. Marie, about four hours north of Toronto. It was early winter and about minus one million degrees, but it was exciting to be there and be a part of it. Rob was very passionate about the film. I was so nervous, and even though I had my lines down I felt terribly self-conscious. In addition, I had to deliver my lines in a Scottish accent, when I could barely speak English.
Would it be fair to say that when you appeared on The Colbert Report, that you were the most keen to get a perfect score playing Tom Sawyer on Rock Band, more so than Neil or Geddy? You seemed absolutely insistent that you should get another go...
I always work harder than those guys.
Sam from Banger films says that if you and Ged hadn't been outcasts in the Toronto suburbs then there might not have been a Rush. Is that a fair comment? Were you actually outcasts?
I don't think I was. I had lots of friends from childhood through high school, but I certainly wasn't the 'average' kind of kid. When I met Geddy, we were so outside the rest of our class and didn't relate to anyone particularly, so I suppose we were outcasts by choice. Music had a firm grip on us, and that was all we were interested in, for the most part...
You were in Santiago when the Chilean miners were rescued, and played the show there with a '33' on your guitar, referencing the number of men who trapped. What do you remember about those few days?
It was a very emotional time for the Chileans. What could have been a terrible disaster instead became a great story of perseverance and hope. It was a small token of solidarity that we shared on that night. The Chileans are some of the most generous, kind hearted and hospitable people I've ever met.
You once said that the 2112/starman logo had endured for so long because of the whole fist/bum correlation. Do you still stand by that? I hope so.
In the end, and only because you assed me, I'd be a bugger if I bummed you out by saying no...
The Banger Films directors can laugh about it now, as their film scores accolades across the planet. Back then, McFadyen admits, the universal doubt that Rush were documentary-worthy presented an uphill battle. "That conversation with Geddy happened backstage in Dallas when we first went to meet them," he recalls. "The band were kinda laughing at us. They thought we were ridiculous, trying to make this film, and said we'd regret it. The story wasn't obvious to the people we tried to get financing from, either."
"As film-makers, we were worried there, was no drama in this band," adds Dunn. "This is a group of guys who lead normal middle-class lives and there isn't much that's your typical 'rock star' about them. They haven't always trusted people enough to let into their world, and haven't built their following through being media whores. It took ten months, and when they finally agreed, they said, 'Good luck, but we don't think there's much of a story here'. So we said, 'Well, we disagree'."
The meat of Lighted Stage comes from highlights of 100-plus hours of interview with the Rush triumvirate. "They did get fed up," recalls Dunn. "By the time we'd interviewed them each three times, it was like, 'Come on, don't you have the story yet?' Geddy and Alex have their standard interview answers, and it took more work for them to open up about their personal lives. The most surprising aspect was how open Neil was. Of the three, he's the most reclusive, but the floodgates opened. He doesn't have well-rehearsed answers, so it felt like he was telling these stories for the first time."
The deaths of Peart's wife and daughter in the late-'90s also provide the tragic fulcrum of the Rush story. The Banger directors argue it was thin ice, yet an unavoidable topic. "We didn't want to talk to Neil about the events; obviously that would be way too painful," says McFadyen. "What we focused on was how he healed and came back to the band. But it wasn't the first thing we asked him."
"It's delicate subject matter," agrees Dunn. "What Neil's been through is unthinkable in terms of how painful it must be. We didn't want them to think we were prying for the purposes of getting dirt or drama. The fact of the matter is that what happened to Neil did affect the band. They thought it was over."
Testimony from Lee, Lifeson and Peart wasn't the only source for the two directors; another avenue was the exhuming of "bad haircuts and outfits" from archive footage supplied by fans, family and Rush's late photographer Andrew MacNaughtan. "We got our own hands dirty in the basement at the Anthem offices," recalls McFadyen, "I picked a tape out of a box that literally had a sticky note on it saying, 'What the fuck is this?' It turned out to be a rare high school performance with John Rutsey. That Super 8 stuff of Geddy as a kid trying to play football, he'd never even seen that."
"How did they react to seeing the old footage?" muses Dunn. "With abject discomfort. One time we had Geddy and Alex in the edit room and we said, 'Well, guys, do you have any feedback?' And they say, 'Yeah, we like it... but could we have just a bit less of us?' There's the Rush humour in a nutshell, They take this pretty serious, cerebral, heavy music, y'know, and you'd think they'd be real serious, but they're like the Three Stooges. There's rarely a serious moment."
Another highlight is the starburst of A-list talking heads running the gamut from Billy Corgan to Trent Reznor. "That made up for what we lacked in groupies, drugs and alcohol, smiles Dunn. "I think a lot of these musicians grew up loving Rush and were probably considered totally uncool because of that, so they relished the opportunity to give Rush their due. I remember rolling up to Sebastian Bach's house in suburban New Jersey, and he starts freaking out, in typical Sebastian fashion, pulling out all his ,old Rush t-shirts and bobbleheads."
The Lighted Stage film will be familiar to most from the cinematic release, but it's worth perusing the DVD for candid bonus features that take in everything from Lifeson's golfing skills to extended footage of the aforementioned drunken dinner. "That was funny," agrees McFadyen. "It was so hard to get the essence in the credits, because we were with them for three hours and they kept getting drunker and forgot the cameras were there. That's how they are together: they're goofballs with each other. And they love their red wine."
Dunn was also loath to cut Lifeson and Lee's memories of a tormented adolescence in suburban Toronto: "Geddy and Alex were outcasts, and I think that's why they bonded at a young age, because they weren't jocks or captains of the basketball team. But they loved music, and pretty quickly discovered they could play it. Frankly, I'm pleased they were such outcasts or we'd never have had Rush. But it's weird... It's almost like Rush is cool now."
He should know. Last year, the Banger directors became the first men to truly bottle Rush's live might, throwing 18 cameras and 30-plus personnel at the Time Machine concert filmed at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena. "As with Iron Maiden: Flight 666," says McFadyen, "we try to bring a shooting style that makes you feel like you're onstage, rather than overstating the spectacle and grandeur. I think it's the subtle moments in Time Machine, when you see the band grinning at each other... We tried to bring personality and intimacy to it."
"There's not a lot of bands doing what they do," says Dunn. "The big rock show is sadly fading away. Rush are perfectionists, and they bring production values to their show, so it took a couple of months to prepare. We spent an entire day with the lighting director, Howard Ungerleider, going through all the cues in the different songs to make sure the cameras were gonna respond well to all the different lighting styles and shades and intensities."
All that groundwork, shudder the two directors, was almost scuppered at the eleventh hour. "Geddy was sick," recalls McFadyen, "and there was a thought that he wasn't gonna be able to do it..."
"We were worried," picks up Dunn. "It was the day of the show, just a few hours before, when we got word that Geddy wasn't feeling well and his voice was suffering. A lot of those songs, as you know, the register is really high; it's his trademark voice, and I think it takes its toll. There'd been a weekend before that, back in Toronto, when he had to go and see these crazy witch doctors. There was a lot of voodoo involved! The show really was in jeopardy, but Geddy's been through it before, and he's a trouper."
"Good thing it was Moving Pictures and not Hemispheres they were doing in its entirety!" laughs McFadyen, with evident relief.
Even with the frontman cleared to perform, the directors couldn't entirely relax as the show played out. "There's always that fear until you get back in the edit suite that one person has been asleep at their camera," says McFadyen. "We don't have a live switcher," explains Dunn, "so we don't have anyone monitoring all the cameras on the night. Rather, we hire directors of photography with experience, who know how to work in a live environment. But there's always that worry that if someone maybe didn't capture something; we wouldn't know until the show's over. There's always a bit of anxiety there."
"And the thing is," adds McFadyen, "there's so much detail in the fingerwork and drumming; it's almost like constant soloing back-and-forth, so just capturing the nuances of what they're playing is difficult. And as we said, capturing their personality and communication onstage, for me, is the gold."
The resulting Time Machine is that rare thing: a concert film that sounds as good in your front room as from the front row. Alongside Lighted Stage, it's the rubber stamp on the Banger directors' reputation as men who brought a visual and human aspect to a band previously defined by its music. "And they're actually not very good-looking," laughs a deadpan Dunn, "So it's hard to make them look good!"
And what couldn't you live without?
The crash right in front of me, my 16-inch crash. It's my most important cymbal. It's just got the perfect speak: it's not too long, not too big, I can get at it easily and I have a twin on the left. They're small and quick. Anyway, that's my favourite. That's why I have two, so I can do two-handed stuff.
Has there been a technical revolution that's changed the way you work?
Evolution is probably the right word. People haven't stopped trying to do it better, that's why DW [Drum Workshop] is a miracle, because by the 70s, Japan was taking over the drum world - Yamaha, Tama, they were huge - and the American companies were dying. Ludwig and Gretsch are very much on life support now, but DW came up with uncompromisingly great products, fresh ideas and a tremendous sense of the musical aspect of the instrument, and they've thrived. My drum teacher, Freddie Gruber, introduced me to DW. He came to my house with a foot pedal and said, 'Here, use this.' When I did Burning For Buddy: A Tribute To The Music Of Buddy Rich [an all-star 1994 album produced by Peart] I sat next to Joe Morello - he played with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, he's on Take Five; an amazing drummer. And he was playing these DW drums, and with his touch they sounded so beautiful, and that's what made me switch to them.
How long does it take to set your kit up onstage?
My guy Lorne [Wheaton] can barely do it in an hour, under pressure, with the cases already on stage.
What goes on in the 'Bubba Gump' room?
That's my warm up kit. I have my own dressing room, because of the drums. It's a normal kit, a full-sized thing, but I'm not sure I could play our show on it.
Is it true that your drums have a gate so you can get in and out?
It's like a doorway in there, stage left. Stewart Copeland once said to me, 'I hear you have a trapdoor up the middle of your drums'. [Laughs] No way!
What piece of equipment could you not live without?
The guitars are what I really couldn't live without. I've developed my own model with Gibson that's so very useful. It's a Les Paul Axcess, the Alex Lifeson model. We spent a couple of years developing it. There's a vibrato arm on it, which is unusual. We've scalloped where the body connects with the neck, so that you can comfortably get up high on the fret-board. I'm really proud of that guitar, and it's been a big seller for them. A couple of country artists recently purchased them, and some big name guitar players. It's pretty cool. I'd want to keep that before amps or effects or any of that other stuff.
The ES-Gibson 355 would be your longest serving piece of kit, yes?
Yes, currently, for sure. I have a Les Paul that's a little bit younger than that, a '76. Strangely, I got the 355 late in '76, but I bought the Les Paul in a pawnshop in Atlanta. I love the 355 though, I love playing it and it sounds so great. They're beautiful looking, the lines, and the shape of it... Beautifully balanced.
And what's the latest addition to your arsenal?
What's funny is that I haven't made a lot of changes lately: I'm still using Hughes & Kettner for my amp set-up. I had the cabinets that we designed for the Time Machine tour, they're very cool. It's the first kind of conceptual set-up across the stage we've had in a long time - usually I have my wall of amps and Geddy has his chickens or whatever. I had these cabinets built with video screens placed in them.
Has there been a technological revolution that's changed playing for you?
The in-ear monitors. I resisted them for the first couple of years; I liked the sound of the audience, and I still miss that, that's the one major trade off. My mix is not anywhere near as stripped back as Geddy's is: mine is kind of like a live record sound, but there's not a whole lot of audience in there. It's great to play to, it's very active, but at the end of a song it's like three people are clapping at the rear of the room. And you look out and everyone's freaking out. But you play better, you're more in tune, you play with better dynamics.
What piece of equipment couldn't you live without?
My number one bass, the Fender Jazz from 1972 that I found in a pawn shop in Kalamazoo, Michigan years ago. It cost me $200. I can't live without that bass.
I used four different bass guitars on this album, which is a change for me, but I found another 72 bass, same period as my number one, and it sounds pretty darn good. It's close. I could live without that bass, but not my number one.
What's the latest inclusion in your set-up?
I've been using Orange amplifiers. I used them when I recorded the first two songs from this album in Nashville, because Nick had them in Blackbird studios. He suggested I use them, so we set them to 'destroy', and it just added this crazy, wild distortion that I liked a lot. It seemed so successful that I called them up and asked if they could send me a couple to use live.
Has there been a technical revolution that's enhanced your playing?
I really love in-ear monitors. They have improved my ability to sing 500 per cent. It's hard for me to see myself doing a gig without them ever again. The accuracy and the ease with which you can sing in tune in a terrible arena, it's irreplaceable. Brent, my monitor guy, feeds me a little of the audience from time to time, so I don't feel like I'm playing in a vacuum.
What are the customised 'James Hogg' pick guards?
When we came up with the concept of the steampunk thing, we tried to make all our gear a little steam punk. Once I saw that Neil had developed this theme with Hugh [Syme], using all these alchemic symbols, Scully, my bass tech, suggested his buddy could carve some of those symbols into the pick guards. So we started using different ones for different basses and it's a nice little add-on. Like the devil, it's in the details.
Your backline has included chickens, washing machines and a vending machine. It all looks a little more uniform now.
We have a whole little world going on there, but I'm still making sausages ... Sausages were coming out of the bottom of the amps behind me! It's subtle, but they're constantly pouring out. But I'm going to adapt it further, for the next tour. I have some ideas, we'll see what happens.
"The starman was everywhere!" he remembers. "I was young, and naive about rock and roll iconography and branding, I suppose."
Syme, famously, created the starman as part of the artwork for the band's 2112 album. Three sold out nights at Massey Hall were testimony to that record's appeal, as was the decision to record the three nights for the band's first live album, All The World's A Stage.
"I was never in doubt that they would use the starman design," he says. "I just hadn't dreamed that it would be adopted as such an enduring logo, on jackets and t-shirts, tattoos, Neil's drum heads..."
Attend a Rush show now and the logo still endures; as one of many animated backdrops on the Time Machine tour, it easily garnered one of the biggest cheers of the night. People still buy the t-shirts; you still see the tattoos. Syme even contributed to album itself, cementing his place in Rush's history by appearing on the album's spacey intro, as well as the more sedate Tears on the record's flipside.
"I was in their studio in Toronto - my first ever visit to their legendarily private inner sanctum - and one thing led to another," says Syme. "Geddy and I were huddled on the floor with my Arp Odyssey synth, operating envelope filters and playing notes to produce the soundscape that opened the overture of 2112. I then went down the hall for a few hours, and developed my Mellotron string and horn parts for Geddy's song, Tears. It's still a-very fond memory."
Syme and the band were both part of the SRO management stable. Syme was the keyboard player in the Ian Thomas Band, with whom he would continue for another seven years after beginning work with Rush. He still remembers the day that he was called into manager Ray Danniels' office.
"It was like a visit to the headmaster's chambers," he says. "He asked if I'd consider creating a cover for another band in his management/record company. Little did I know that would mark the beginning of a 36-year collaboration with the boys. None of us did."
Hugh's first project with the band - Caress Of Steel - was almost his last. The album's expansive concept pieces and experimentation proved an anathema to the fans and critics who'd responded so warmly to the more straightforward Fly By Night. As the band headed out on the 'Down The Tubes' tour, they doubted they'd get a chance to make another record. Syme, meanwhile, had created the album's cover from song titles and artistic instinct alone.
"I don't think I remember hearing the music until after the project art was illustrated and delivered," he says. "The music and arrangements are generally being written and rehearsed as I sit down to begin my design process.
"Did I realise how big the band were at the time? I had no idea. But I did know I was working with a really good band. Meeting Neil, I was instantly struck by his love of language, and his broad creative spirit. It was clear that these guys were serious, and seriously gifted musicians."
Caress Of Steel's cover caught the attention of the band and their fans, but it was Syme's work on 2112 that hit the metaphorical ball out of the park, in terms of impact and iconic imagery. His future with the band was assured (and would later help him land work with a roster of bands as diverse as Megadeth - their eyebrow-raising Youthanasia album - Dream Theater and, somewhat surprisingly, Warrant: Syme designed the sleeve for their infamous album Cherry Pie), not that he was taking anything for granted.
"At that time, I couldn't have known - or expected - such an enduring relationship to evolve. To this day, I treat every opportunity to work with Rush as if it were my only opportunity. That creative headspace - and the excited energy I have enjoyed since our first projects - is what I endeavour to bring to each new album. I never hang up the phone from Neil's call with any sense of presumptuousness.
"I'll be honest, taking creative direction from most musicians can quickly turn into a delicate exercise in diplomacy. Not so with Rush. These guys know early on where they are going with both the music and the theme. In the very beginning, I was given handwritten lyrics from Neil, which I still have, and I was left pretty much to my own devices once I understood the concept and had the title in hand. But, as we developed a working dynamic, I found Neil's input invaluable. There's been no need for diplomacy."
Over three decades, some projects have come to fruition more easily than others. Clockwork Angels underwent something of an extended gestation period, not least as it was written and recorded both sides of the Time Machine tour. Signals too underwent something of a difficult birth.
"Angels has been the longest process, partly due to the band's touring interrupts, and the fact I had to produce several illustrations for the songs in the book's interior panels. It's a terrific story, for the album, but also, eventually, the novel too. So, the plates illustrating the songs and the cover have to respond to the story's lavish imagery.
"With Signals, I'd planned to connect each band member to an ECG machine while they were playing, and show those three waves on the cover. Simple and elegant, we thought. Then, the Police album Ghost In The Machine was released with a similar concept, and it was back to the drawing board. Radio towers, Marconi and Tesla inventions, even the classic joke joy buzzer all fell onto the cutting room floor. Then, in a moment of glib frustration, I suggested - to the consternation of Ray Danniels - the dog and hydrant. Who could know, then, how favoured that cover would become?
"There's no real average time span for any one project. Each is unique and has its own challenges. Things like the Presto rabbits were a handful, and they shat all over the studio! The logistics for Moving Pictures were considerable, and I remember cajoling to make my case for that album's artwork. The miniature street scene set for the man juggling fireballs on Hold Your Fire was exhausting, and weeks in construction. Roll The Bones, too, was a pretty huge full-scale set. I spent a considerable number of days in post-production to combine the full scale and miniature elements."
While the band are almost always delighted by Syme's work, he admits to rare instances when they've asked for something more.
"They wouldn't dare reject it!" he laughs. "There have been times when art has been embellished, or revised by the band. Power Windows was one; I was steadfast that the lonely boy trying to control his world with his television remote should be in an empty room. Geddy overruled me on that, and I'm now grateful that I bowed to his convictions. The cover is much more intriguing and engaging for the collection of old Philco TV sets painted into the left side of the canvas. That's probably my favourite cover too, for artistic and personal reasons. The eleven weeks of painting coincided with the death of my father; my work was my solace."
Conversely, the artwork for the album following Neil Peart's family tragedy and the band's extended hiatus came together most quickly.
"Vapor Trails was very immediate," says Syme. "The painting that I did for that was only intended to indicate to Neil the energy and impressionistic feel I thought the comet should convey. We discussed actual NASA images - specifically, a comet, which symbolised how quickly our own lives sparkle and fade - and those photos all felt too Discovery Channel. So, I did the painting the following morning, initially as a study in style. It officially became the cover later that day, before the paint had even actually dried."
And what does Hugh do in his downtime? Just as his long time friend and collaborator, Neil Peart, is never far from his drumkit, Syme feels the lure of the painter's easel.
"I still plan to isolate that ever elusive hiatus to do nothing but paint for myself," he says. "I would like to see where that would take me, and hopefully produce enough work for an exhibit. What can I tell you? I love the smell of turps in the morning!"
Though the keyboard player who stumbled onto a career in album art and design is never too far away. "The other elusive stretch of time would be to write and record enough music for an album, one day."
"I'd just need to find someone to design a good enough cover."
Of all the great hard rock bands that emerged during that golden age of the 1970s, only a few arrived fully formed with a classic debut album, as Boston and Van Halen did. Others, like Rush, took some time to nail their signature sound.
The first Rush album has none of the fancy stuff for which the band would become famous: the 20-minute songs, the bookish lyrics, the progressive rock wizardry. Back in 1973, Rush was still an old-fashioned, no-frills power trio, with a sound that remained firmly rooted in late 60s blues rock - specifically, early Led Zeppelin. Rush had one simple aim: to kick ass.
Having attracted zero interest from major record companies, the band's manager Ray Danniels formed independent label Moon Records to release the album. The recording budget was small, and to minimize costs the band worked the graveyard shift during the first sessions at Toronto's Eastern Sound studio. "We spent two days recording," says guitarist Alex Lifeson. "We'd finish playing in a club at lam and we'd have the studio till 9am, when the next session started. It was the only way we could afford it." However, as Lifeson explains, "There were problems on the original recordings." So producer Dave Stock was ditched, and the band moved to another studio, Toronto Sound, to re-cut some tracks. The finished album, produced by the band, was released on March 1, 1974, and sold a few thousand copies in Canada. But what Rush needed was an opening in the US market. That came when Donna Halper, a DJ at Cleveland radio station WMMS, started playing one of the album's most powerful tracks, Working Man.
This blue-collar heavy metal anthem resonated with Cleveland's factory workers. Some even mistook the song for a new Led Zeppelin record. And Rush had their breakthrough. They promptly signed to Mercury Records for the whole of North America, and the album was re-released on July 1, following a remix by Terry Brown, who would produce Rush for the next eight years.
For all its importance, Working Man isn't the only great song on the album. Finding My Way is another Zep-inspired tour de force, and In The Mood benefits from a stonking cowbell. But after this album - and the replacement of drummer John Rutsey with Neil Peart - Rush would never again rock out in such a simple fashion, and with such joyous, youthful abandon.
"I first got involved with Rush when they were doing their first album [1974's Rush]. They'd recorded a bunch of eight-tracks on the graveyard shift in a studio in Toronto, but they didn't know what to do with them or how to mix it. They called me up; we added three new tunes, What You're Doing, Before And After and Working Man, and mixed the album in three days. We had such a good time they asked me to get involved on a long-term basis.
I always thought they were great. I thought they were new and exciting. I didn't buy into the Led Zeppelin thing, to be honest. I just thought they were great players and characters, and very talented. I remember Alex being an amazing player, doubling his parts. That was a big feature for me at the time. And Ged's voice was astonishing. I'd never heard anyone who sounded quite like it. The writing really impressed me too. Neil had brought a distinct change to them, as well. There was real meaning to the songs, which were in a rock and partly progressive fashion. And I'd always wanted to do this rock music with a real meaning to it... To produce records with substance.
We worked at Toronto Sound Studios, which I owned at the time. The record came together very quickly. They arrived with the tunes they'd written for Fly By Night, and we started work on it that day. It was intense stuff and a lot of work. But the tunes were good quality, and there was lots of scope in terms of arrangement. There was so much enthusiasm around the project. There was fine tuning and subtle little things that I had to do, and we worked very hard for three weeks. Some long hours.
I don't recall anyone song being easier to record than the other. They were all quite different as well. We just went at things individually. By-Tor & The Snow Dog was their first stab at those multi-part epics they became famous for. We took it logically, on a set-by-step basis. We broke it up into sections, dealing with and recording different parts, and then working it altogether. You just dig your heels in and go.
I think the album stands up today. I hear the tracks on rock radio over here in North America and it's nice to know that they still cut it. We had a real blast, and that's why we worked together for so long."
It's hard to imagine anyone choosing Caress Of Steel as their favourite Rush waxing, but the 1975 album was a crucial stepping stone in the band's musical evolution. Sessions began less than six months after its predecessor, Fly By Night, was completed, a punishing work schedule for a three-chord boogie band, let alone a three-piece rock outfit becoming ever more progressive and experimental. But with youthful energy to spare, Rush threw themselves into the job, challenging both themselves and their fans with admirable pig-headedness. The overtly Zeppelin blues metal of the first album had not been completely discarded: the frantic riff sequence that starts Bastille Day and Geddy's histrionic delivery of this first song proved that. But Caress...'s overall feel was of a band quickly tiring of hard rock's limitations and searching for new challenges.
Their metamorphosis into the ethereal was only half-fulfilled, though. I Think I'm Going Bald not only harked back to that Zep-esque riff work, but was also distinctly tongue-in-cheek. Lakeside Park, a song about the Ontario park where Neil worked summers as a youngster, succeeded thanks to its simplicity: 'Lakeside Park/Willows in the breeze/Lakeside Park/So many memories'.
But the real interest of Caress Of Steel lies in its two compositional giants, The Necromancer and The Fountain Of Lamneth. Both songs were mighty in length and big on ideas. Broken down into a number of different parts, each piece stretched listening minds to breaking point, glorying in 'sword and sorcery' lyrics and musical moods that ran all the way from sleepy and dreamy to downright dangerous.
This material wasn't easy to get your head around, and Rush would take the concept and do it better in the future. But knowing what was to come, the way that Lee, Lifeson and Peart were starting to intertwine as musicians here is fascinating to hear.
Caress Of Steel might lack cohesion, but that's understandable. It's the sound of a band emerging from a chrysalis - and into a crisis, as it turned out. Poor sales and a confused public led to the band self-deprecatingly referring to the shows played in support of Caress... as the 'Down The Tubes' tour. Yet sticking to their guns as technically-gifted purveyors of otherworldly prog metal would actually turn out to be Rush's saving grace, as their next album, 2112, fully crystalised Caress Of Steel's latent promise.
Does the world needs as many Rush tomes as currently weigh down the world's bookshelves? Following a thorough trawl through the Rush bibliography, we can confirm that Canadian scribe Martin Popoff's exhaustive Contents Under Pressure: 30 Years Of Rush At Home And Away is the pick if you want to learn everything about these self-professed uncontroversial geeks who have made much endlessly enthralling music.
Popoff shares plenty of his own observations on the trio's ever-evolving oeuvre, but it's the contributions made by Geddy, Alex and Neil themselves that imbue the book with such a wealth of detail. The dazzling array of high quality pictures, too, make this the kind of consistently rewarding coffee table slab that the faithful will pore over with great glee.
The same could easily be said of Jon Collins' Chemistry, which manages to cram a vast amount of information about each Rush album and the band's rise to legendary status. If you've already got the Beyond The Lighted Stage DVD, these tomes might not be essential, but if you love the band as much as these authors clearly do, you'll want to invest regardless.
Oddly, it's the official Rush life and times, written by Bill Banasiewicz and first published in 1988, that is the one to avoid like the clap. At less than 100 pages - riddled with clumsy grammar and the wince-inducing stink of the author's own self-importance - it seems remarkable that it was ever approved by such a cautious and thoughtful group of musicians. Maybe they just signed the contract to shut him up?
Either way, if you want to expand your Rush-related library, the bewildering but endearingly earnest Rush And Philosophy - part of Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series - goes some way to explaining the relationship between Neil Peart's lyrics and right-wing talisman Ayn Rand's squinty-eyed polemic. Similarly, Christopher McDonald's Rush, Rock Music And The Middle Class: Dreaming In Middletown offers academic analysis of the themes of suburban life and societal disquiet that have informed many Rush songs over the years. A barrel of laughs it is not. Finally, for those brave enough to attempt to compete with the technical skills of Messrs Lee, Lifeson and Peart, numerous books of bass, guitar and drum tablature are available. Careful you don't injure yourselves by starting with YYZ though, eh?
"I first heard Rush when the video for Working Man was shown on The Old Grey Whistle Test - I bought every Rush album after that. But 2112 is still my favourite Rush album, and the one that defined their career.
I got it as soon as it was released, and was amazed by the first side - the concept track. I appreciated what it was about straight away. People over the years have accused Rush of being political, and having right wing sympathies, but that's never how I saw it. For me, what they were saying was: do things the way you feel they should be done, and don't listen to what others tell you to do. I was in my early twenties at the time, so that philosophy appealed to me a lot. It still does.
I love the way that The Overture starts everything off. People have compared it to Tchaikovsky, but I'm not enough of a classical music fan to make a judgment on this. But I love the way the instrumental section builds up the anticipation, and the soft way Geddy sings, 'And the meek shall inherit the earth'. Then we're straight into the story.
The musicianship on 2112 complements the emotions in the storyline as it develops. For instance, somebody I played the album to once said, 'That guitar playing is very angry'. But that's because there's one part when everything gets angry and Alex brilliantly reflects the mood. He's also brave enough to actually tune his guitar up in another part, but again that's because it enhances the plot. This just shows how thoughtful the three of them were as musicians. They play what's required and never just to show off their virtuosity.
I know there have been a lot of conspiracy theories over the years as to why Rush chose to call this epic 2112. But I always thought it was a date they chose in the future, and not for any esoteric reason. However, they are clever enough to end it all with 21 words followed by 12 words. They repeat the line 'Attention all planets of the solar federation' three times, then use the phrase We have assumed control' three times. That is just so cunning. I only wish it had all lasted exactly 21 minutes and 12 seconds.
After listening a lot to side one, I flipped the album over and immediately got into Passage To Bangkok, and it was a fantastic tune. But for me, the standout track was Something For Nothing. The fact they were telling people to have dreams and be bold enough to try and make them happen really affected me. I've lived my life that way ever since. Lines like 'Waiting for the rainbow's end to cast its gold your way' make so much sense. I recall Neil Peart once saying that the band would always play Something For Nothing live. So I was upset when they dropped it!
When 2112 came out I had a few friends who were into them. There was one in particular, Neil Purvis... We travelled around Europe together, where I met this Icelandic girl. She embroidered the Starman from the 2112 sleeve onto my denim jacket. I wore that for years!
I'd been to see Rush at Hammersmith Odeon, but couldn't get near the merchandising stand to get a T-shirt, because the crush was incredible. The next day, everyone in Camden Market was wearing a 2112 shirt, so I was delighted to get my jacket embroidered. The overall artwork was stunning and complemented the music brilliantly. And those kimonos the band were wearing in the photo on the sleeve, that seemed to be exactly right for the time.
I used to listen to the album all the time, and then got to a point where taking out the vinyl became a chore and I didn't have it on CD. Now I have it on my MP3 player. It still sounds amazing all the way through. Sometimes you hear albums you loved years ago and they haven't held up. This has, and I'm proud it helped to shape my life."
"I got into Rush through my older brother; A Farewell To Kings was the first Rush album he bought, around 1980. When I first heard it I didn't get it - we'd been more into metal than prog - but the title track that really brought me in. It's one of Neil's greatest lyrics: 'Cities full of hatred, fear and lies/Withered hearts and cruel tormented eyes'. From some bands you might think it was medieval gobbledygook, but I don't think it is. In fact, the whole album deals with some heavy themes. It's almost Nietzschean: God is dead, that's all gone, on to the future. There are a lot of ideas about things fading away, about precious things that are lost.
Closer To The Heart had a big philosophical draw: everybody's good at something, and being a plumber is equally as important as being a politician or musician. And this from a rock drummer who wrote By-Tor & The Snow Dog! In Beyond The Lighted Stage you saw how Neil's notebooks are laid out, and that made me admire him even more. His lyrics are incredibly underrated.
Xanadu's one of the greatest instrumental sections of all time. The bass playing is as funky and cool as anything, the drumming's phenomenal, and I think that the riff is a precursor to Sweet Child O' Mine. Geddy's bass is very direct, not as 'cultured' as on later records. He's got the strongest fingers, and it sounds like he's whacking the shit out of that Rickenbacker, the hardest bass to play.
I can't deny that the album means more to me because it was recorded in Rockfield Studios in Wales. I'm 99 per cent sure we own the very desk they used. It's in our studio now; we recorded our last three albums on it. Kings sounds very earthy, there's an edge to it. Permanent Waves only came out three years later but sounded much more modern, a different kind of feel.
It's my favourite Rush album, alongside Moving Pictures. I remember the cover quite disconcerted me, it's such a bleak landscape. The whole album's imbued with isolation and melancholia, and drenched in intelligence. It's a deep fucking record, like a prog version of The Smiths."
"I got into Rush because Tommy Vance used to do a rundown every Christmas of top tracks on the Friday Rock Show on BBC Radio 1. Every year it was the same thing - Stairway To Heaven was always number one, Supper's Ready was always number two. I was just discovering rock music at the time and the Christmas rundown always featured two tracks by Rush - 2112 and Xanadu - and I loved them both, and totally fell in love with the band as a result. My parents bought me A Farewell To Kings, and I subsequently worked my way backwards and forwards through the catalogue until I got to Hemispheres.
Cygnus X-1 Book 1: The Voyage was always my favourite track on A Farewell To Kings, so I was intrigued to see how this music would be carried on on Hemispheres. If you look at their catalogue as a whole, Hemispheres really is the zenith of Rush as a stereotypical prog rock band. But it was released in 1978 [at the height of punk], so you'd think that would be the worst possible time to be releasing your ultimate prog rock statement. But Rush did cross over into hard rock and metal as well, and of course they completely reinvented themselves after Hemispheres. Within two years they had recorded Moving Pictures!
The first side is a difficult piece of music, to be honest with you - especially if you were so enamoured with Cygnus X-1 from A Farewell To Kings. There's not a lot in it - the first ten or twelve minutes is just two or three riffs circling around each other. And yet side two is so flawlessly perfect that you tend to forget side one; it overshadows side one. But I go back to it and enjoy it, and see it as a totally essential part of Rush's career trajectory.
The closing track La Villa Strangiato is perfect, I think. I've never known how to pronounce it, but it's the height of Rush as a technical rock band, and Alex Lifeson's solo has to be one of my top five guitar solos ever. And yet it never seems like they're showing off. The music always seems to be the main thing for them, rather than the technique.
I was never a big fan of the Roger Dean kind of fantasy artwork, and I suppose at the time even the great gatefold sleeve with all the lyrics must have seemed a bit like a throwback. But at the end of the day, it is what it is: a naked bloke stood on a brain!"
"I missed Permanent Waves when it was first released back in 1980 because I was too young. I was living at Laguna Beach in California around 1982, when I was really starting to get into music, and it was new wave that was hip. The likes of Rush and Zep were definitely not cool! If you had long hair and were into hard rock, then you were a definite dork. Rush and The Police were my two favourite bands at the time, but I kinda had to hide my Rush albums a bit!
The Spirit Of Radio, really changed a lot of people's perceptions of Rush. It was a huge radio hit and I love that it's unashamedly a great, great pop song. I absolutely still don't get the intro at all, the time signature or how it's counted. I've tried to understand it by slowing the tune down, but it's just not within the parameters of the things I do. And yet I can turn on any classic rock radio station, and hear The Spirit Of Radio. How many bands can do something that fucked up and interesting and yet make it totally understandable to a non-musician? Rush showed that they could fuck music up and still make great pop songs!
They were starting to get a little less 'dungeons and dragons' and streamlining the writing, dealing with more realistic stuff than the older tunes had - and that was exactly what I loved about this album. Both Rush and Queen were able to change with the times and the records those bands came out with when new wave was all the rage are some of my favourite albums they ever recorded. In Through The Out Door is one of my favourite Zeppelin albums and Permanent Waves is one of my favourite Rush albums.
Mind you, it wasn't as if they were abandoning their prog roots completely. Natural Science is actually the track I like most on the album and that's much more like old school Rush: over nine minutes long and split into three parts. It has some insane drumming in the middle of that track and it's kind of complicated yet accessible to me at the same time.
So yes, I love Permanent Waves, even down to the cover with the chick standing in front of all the wreckage. It's such a Rush sleeve. Though I have to admit to being slightly disappointed that the traditional naked man logo didn't appear on the front. That's something they need to address in future as far as I'm concerned. Bring back naked man ass!"
South American concert audiences are recognised the world over as some of the most fearsomely passionate on Earth, so what better location for Rush to choose to film their first ever live DVD, Rush In Rio, than on the final date of the Vapor Trails tour, before a bonkers-mad Maracana Stadium audience in Rio de Janeiro? The crowd are behind Rush for every nanosecond of the show's lengthy duration (171 minutes, not including extras), bellowing accompaniment to Geddy Lee's vocals and echoing every nuance of the music. If you haven't seen this little beaut yet, make sure you do as the bonus features - an on-the-road documentary, multi-angle viewing options and a pair of hidden Easter Egg treats (namely a cartoon that runs during By-Tor & The Snow Dog and archive footage of the song Anthem from 1975) - make Rush In Rio an essential purchase.
For many UK-based Rush fans, the group's thirtieth anniversary tour began an intense period of reconnection that continues to the present day. The emotional trek, which in late 2004 saw Rush return to these shores for the first time in 12 years, served to reignite a mutual ardour twixt band and aficionados that had previously seemed doomed. Indeed, R30, a two-disc set, is probably as close as Rush will ever come to filming a sex tape.
Arriving a mere two years after Rush In Rio, the band avoided song duplication with a unique concept for R30, which teamed a Frankfurt performance from the R30 tour with a second disc of goodies exhumed from their historical archive. The embarrassment of riches contained on disc two includes interviews from throughout the band's career and a plethora of live performances. In terms of attempting to shed light upon the group's character, R30 would go unrivalled until the full-length documentary Beyond The Lighted Stage five years later.
Some negativity has attached itself to Time Machine 2011: Live In Cleveland, internet snipers suggesting that it was filmed on a night when Geddy Lee's voice was sounding a little roadworn. Otherwise, the set's winning combination of the Moving Pictures album in its entirety, a smorgasbord of golden oldies and a preview of two tracks from the Clockwork Angels album - BU2B and Caravan - also yet more unseen archive footage (including a super-grainy version of Need Some Love with John Rutsey on drums) is more than worth the money.
I grew up in Victor in New York. My school was very segregated - the jocks, the punks, the metalheads and the smokers - but a lot of people were into Rush. Their first record reminded me of Led Zeppelin - tracks like Working Man and Finding My Way - and I was immediately enthralled. As they developed, we were just amazed at the complexity and progginess. They were playing this sort of math-rock that really spoke to us as kids learning how to play. I started playing guitar aged 15. I had a friend who was a violinist and really musically inclined; he's the one who turned me on to Rush in the mid-80s. We got him a $50 bass and he started working out all Geddy Lee's basslines.
I think Moving Pictures was a very radio-friendly album for such a progressive band. Songs like Tom Sawyer and Red Barchetta were all over the radio when I was a kid - any time you turn on a rock radio station back home you'll still hear Tom Sawyer: it's on every 20 minutes somewhere, and every time I hear it I have to air-drum to it. It's just one of the songs I grew up on at the roller skating rink, or trying to emulate at practice. It's such an in-the-pocket jam, it tells a great story and it's fun to listen to. That's the thing about Rush, they've got great grooves and then they'll change them at the last second.
The one that really sums up that era of the band for me though would have to be YYZ. It was a completely, utterly ridiculous song, there was nothing like it, except maybe Eruption by Van Halen - but that was just guitar. These guys were writing songs that were like organised solos by each member, all three going nuts. It was organised chaos, like a jam session, but totally in a particular order and rhythm. On YYZ they weren't trying to write a hit, they were writing some crazy prog rock. My first band would cover it. I could do all the rhythm stuff, but once the solos came along I'd bow out. I'm trying to get Mastodon to cover it though!
Alex didn't do a lot of overdubbing of rhythm when he played a solo. They were a proper three-piece, not trying to fudge anything. Bands now do all that layering, but with Rush what you hear is what you get. Alex has his own style, a very Gibson/Marshall lead sound, and there's almost a Moroccan, Middle-Eastern or even gypsy sound. They're so full of soul, adding a personal touch without going overboard. I was listening to Witch Hunt in my bunk recently; it has this evil, spooky feel to it. It's heavy, and that's the kind of shit I'm into. Peart's so tasty; the guy can do anything. Brann [Dailor, Mastodon's drummer] writes our lyrics, and Neil's are so good here. That line in Limelight: 'I can't pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend'. Everyone knows who you are if you're in the limelight, but you don't know everybody. I can relate to that - people get upset if they come up to you, shake your hand and talk to you, but you're like, 'I'm not trying to be a dick, but I just don't know you'. They're being really honest on that song. They're telling people that everyone dreams about being this big band, but it's not all it's made out to be.
I grew up close to Canada [Victor lies south of Lake Ontario] so I felt a connection. They just sounded a little more intellectual to us, like they were professors of music. Maybe growing up in rural Canada, there wasn't much else to do when the winter came. I know that's what I did when it got too cold to go outside - I just stayed in and practised my guitar. I started getting more into Rush as I progressed as a guitar player. The little nuances, the integration of keyboards and synths... It was all interesting to me.
It could be argued that Moving Pictures has been watered down because tracks from it have been played on the radio so much. But you have to remember that Rush were pioneers of early prog. Not many people were bringing this kind of music to the airwaves."
"I didn't know that it would be my last album with the band, I was a little concerned about the direction they were heading in.
The keyboard-orientated thing was becoming more of a focus for the group, and it was becoming more of a challenge to make the guitars work along with these massive keyboards. But I think it works, and I'm very happy with the end result of that record.
There was a degree of pressure, coming off the back of Moving Pictures [which had proven to be Rush's biggest selling album to date]. But I always felt very confident with Rush. They always had something new to bring to the table. We'd also done a lot of pre-production with Signals, so we all know where the tunes were going. I certainly didn't have a problem with it.
Did Alex moan about the lack of guitar on the album? Not at the time. We were working with something we'd established. There were no conversations like that in the studio because we knew what we were doing with the guitars within the framework of the songs. It's a case of knowing what you're supposed to be doing and getting on with it. And I never felt there was an issue with the sound while we were recording the album.
It was very different process to Fly By Night. But then it was seven years down the line - everyone had grown up, we were different people entirely, and we were coming off the back of our biggest hit. With Fly By Night we were breaking new ground. With Signals we needed to come up with a great record.
One of the reasons I didn't go on to work with them after this album was that I felt their sound was changing so significantly. Also, Neil was getting into the electronic drum kit as well. And I guess I did have a concern that it wasn't Rush anymore. Although, of course, New World Man gave them their biggest ever hit. And Signals paved the way for the manner in which their career would pan out throughout the rest of the 80s. So I guess I was wrong, ha!
I do believe Signals has held up great. I was a little concerned with the reggae aspect of it. It was a left turn for the band, but hey, you can't be right all the time."
"Grace Under Pressure changed my life. I'd wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. I'd discovered Rush early on, thanks to the obvious science fiction connections, and their music had always given me ideas, inspiring scenes in things I was writing. In 1984, when Grace Under Pressure came out, I was in college dabbling at writing novels, toying with an idea called Resurrection, Inc., where dead people were being brought back to act as servants. The main character had been murdered, but couldn't remember who murdered him.
As I listened to Grace Under Pressure, it seemed it was the soundtrack to the book. The lyrics had so much relevance to this thing that was only in my imagination. 'Someone to talk to and someone to sweep the floors', from Distant Early Warning, seemed to chime with this stratified society with zombie robot servants who weren't supposed to be anything but tools.
Afterimage is this defiant song which seemed to go with the idea of this guy getting his memories back, and Red Sector A fitted with these servants starting to remember who they were. It turns out the main character wasn't a good person, which is why he got murdered - that's The Enemy Within. When I listen to Beneath The Wheels, the movie of the book's grand finale plays in my head, because it's so intertwined with the song and the album.
It gave me a focus for this story, so I wrote it and it became my first published novel. I thanked the band inside, and I signed copies of the book and mailed them to Mercury Records, assuming they'd vanish into this vast warehouse. A year later, I received seven-page letter from Neil Peart. That started a close friendship that's lasted twenty-something years.
I played Grace... just the other day, and it's as good as I remember. It's like looking through the eyepiece of a telescope and seeing all kinds of different things, but if you turn the knob just right, everything comes into focus. It hit me at the right moment, and it helped launch my career. It truly changed my life."
By the mid-1980s, it had become clear that merely rehashing and redressing songs and sounds from previous albums would no longer satisfy Rush. Each album now had to take the band forward, while also nodding back at past achievements. For Power Windows, Rush accommodated a lot more synthesizer motifs into their arrangements, thereby ensuring it was far from being a repetition of previous album, Grace Under Pressure.
At the time, a lot of bands were using synths to give their sound an enigmatic edge. But if they were being tentatively used by others, for Rush embracing synths was like embracing the zeitgeist. Under the guidance of new producer Peter Collins, they expanded their horizons, using the synthesizer not merely to add atmosphere, but to augment their entire approach.
It's a concept album, thematically if not specifically, with many lyrics dealing with the idea of power and way it impacts on people. Manhattan Project delved into the consequences of the development of the atom bomb, while Territories looked at the thorny downside of nationalism. Middletown Dreams read like a Ray Bradbury short story: suburban alienation and the necessity of thinking big if you were to have any hope of breaking away.
Naturally, Peart's lyrics were their usual eloquent, articulate selves, provoking people to think about things for themselves. This sense of encouraging the individual to explore the world around them was accentuated by the music, which was both modern sounding and almost alienating - though not without hints of an underlying warmth.
All of which helped to keep Rush not merely ahead of the pack, but out there somewhere far beyond the curve. Much of hard rock and metal at the time was superficial and image-conscious, predicated on obvious rhythms and melodies, while the lyrics were banal at best. It was the era of big hair and glam metal, but Rush had little in common with those who dominated the charts. Many of their contemporaries were compromising principles to ensure their status. Not so Rush.
The band refused to give up on their musical visions. They were focused on what they should be and where their journey should take them, considered and able as always. Little wonder that Power Windows stands up so well.
"There were, I believe, two reasons I got the job with Rush. One was that they loved the Nik Kershaw record that I'd produced, Human Racing. The other was a re-recorded version of the single Empty Rooms I'd done with Gary Moore. At the time, producers such as Trevor Horn, Rupert Hine and I were all into the hi-tech sounds of the 80s: Fairlights, Synclaviers, all that cutting edge stuff. On the first album we worked on together, Power Windows, they moved completely towards my sound. I asked them what the boundaries were, and they said, 'We have no boundaries'.
It was a huge change of direction, and I'm sure some hardcore purists might not have liked it, but the band were still interested in pushing the envelope. For instance, the original plan for Mission was to use an English colliery band. We tried it, and it didn't quite work, but the spirit of it is embodied in the opening of that song.
For me, the song is where it all begins, and straightaway Mission, Time Stand Still, Open Secrets and Lock And Key all hit me. The melodies and the lyrics all reached out and really touched me. Open Secrets was very poignant in its personal observations about relationships, especially the lyric: 'I was looking out of the window, I should have looked at your face instead'. I could relate to that at that point.
We wanted a female vocalist on Time Stand Still, and the band liked Aimee Mann from 'Til Tuesday. She was very hippy-ish and spoke very quietly. She had a beautiful voice, but it was very quiet and light, and it initially didn't quite blend with Geddy - it was quite shocking to hear. I remember saying to her, 'Aimee, could you sing it with a little more attitude?' There was a pause, and she said, 'What kind of attitude?' Which was exactly the kind of person she was.
In those days, we'd take six months to make a record, and it would all be a great adventure. But I actually felt that I'd somehow failed the band with Hold Your Fire, because it was the first one not to hit platinum. I said to Geddy, 'Perhaps you should try somebody else for the next record' - not that I didn't want to work with them, but because I felt guilty about possibly taking them in the wrong direction. But even then, Geddy said, 'A lot of our hardcore fans really love this record'. And as the years have gone on, he's been proved right. It's held its own extremely well."
Rush's career has taken in many creative twists and turns, each period of change documented via a succession of live releases.
The first - and arguably still the finest - was 1976's All The World's A Stage, a live double album recorded in Toronto while the band were touring 2112. With the bulk of 2112's conceptual title suite taking up most of side two of the original vinyl edition, and tracks from their previous three releases occupying the other three, ATWAS essays Rush's 'sword and sorcery' era. Belters like Working Man, Finding My Way and What You're Doing are classics from the band's power trio days, By-Tor And The Snow Dog a testament to far loftier musical ambitions, and showcasing Neil Peart's drum solo never found on a studio album. Over the years, with the fans' enthusiastic encouragement, Peart would redeem the oft-reviled concept of percussion showcases, his solos growing longer and ever more dramatic.
Thirty-six years later, All The World's A Stage remains an audio adrenaline rush. As the band leave the stage, somebody (Geddy, possibly?) proclaims, "Man, oh man, I think that's just about it", before a door slams loudly. It's hard not to share in that excitement. Go on, dig that kimono out of the wardrobe, send the wife out to bingo for the evening and thrash away at a tennis racket - you know you want to.
Five years later came Exit... Stage Left, including The Spirit Of Radio and crowd favourite Closer To The Heart, and covering a second era of runaway artistic and commercial growth for Rush. Despite twin frustrations of slightly murky sound and the insertion of unnecessary gaps between its tracks (including a classy solo from Peart during the instrumental YYZ), for many Exit... Stage Left has the edge over ATWAS. It placed higher in a 2004 Classic Rock reader-voted poll of the best live albums of all time, finishing ninth while All The World... came seventeenth (Thin Lizzy's Live And Dangerous topped the list).
Partially recorded in the UK, 1989's A Show Of Hands closed the door on a run of releases that ended with the previous year's Peter Collins-produced Hold Your Fire. While some fans had become alienated by their growing reliance upon keyboards, the band had reached an enviable plateau of technical excellence. The subject of whether Rush's records were being overproduced will always polarise opinion but songs such as Subdivisions, Distant Early Warning, Force Ten, Time Stand Still and Red Sector A had all become firm concert favourites, and A Show Of Hands was a fine and unerringly accurate précis of where the band found itself as the new decade dawned.
Given Peart's well-documented personal tragedies, had Different Stages (1998) turned out to be the final Rush album of any kind then few could have complained. Certainly, it offered a mouth-watering mix contemporary music - mostly recorded circa Test For Echo, with some leftovers from the Counterparts tour - and vintage sounds, a third disc chronicling the group's legendary gig at London's Hammersmith Odeon while promoting A Farewell To Kings way back in 1978. This mixture of recent classics, obscurities (Analog Kid, Natural Science) and historical treasures made Different Stages a sure-fire winner.
By 2008, such was their followers' dedication that Rush could issue a studio album and follow it with a live release from the same tour without complaint. Recorded over two nights in Holland, Snakes & Arrows Live is a remarkable document of a resilient group, offering various twists and turns across some 27 tracks. Throughout, Peart's drumming is constantly inventive, really going to town during De Slagwerker which, together with Malignant Narcissism, lasts over ten minutes. Meanwhile, given the way he is expected to perform night after night, Lee's voice is staggering - and not merely for a man of his age. And having spent time occupying the metaphorical back seat to Lee's keyboards, Alex Lifeson's mastery of filling the spaces left by the other two was by now, frankly, mind-boggling.
One era was ending, another beginning. At the close of the band's most commercially successful decade, Rush ended a long relationship with Mercury Records, signing with Atlantic for Presto. Moreover, this thirteenth studio album marked another significant change for the band's music.
Since the Signals album in 1982, Geddy Lee's use of synthesizers had come to dominate the Rush sound, relegating Alex Lifeson to a supporting role that left the guitarist quietly fuming for years. But by the end of the 80s, even Lee had tired of what he calls "the keyboard period".
Rush had been here before. After the Hemispheres album in 1978, the band had collectively decided that complex 20-minute conceptual tracks had become somewhat passé. The result was Permanent Waves, the first 'modern-era' Rush album, with songs that were shorter, more direct.
Likewise, 1987's Hold Your Fire was the tipping point for Lee and his synths. As a consequence, there was a shift back towards a more guitar-centric style on Presto. "This album," Lee said, "was a reaction against technology." Old-school Rush fans were ecstatic: so too was Lifeson.
For an album that represented a return to first principles of rock, the band made an odd choice of producer. Rupert Hine was best known for working with pop artists such as Tina Turner, Howard Jones and Chris de Burgh. But Hine did a good job on Presto, even if Neil Peart has since said that the album, "should have been so much better than it was".
Synthesizers still featured, albeit in a reduced capacity. As Lee conceded: "We couldn't resist using them for colour." But as a whole, Presto was the most guitar-heavy Rush album since Moving Pictures back in 1981, its tone set by opening track Show Don't Tell, on which Lifeson takes the lead with a stinging riff.
On this song and the similarly crunchy Superconductor, the band plays as Lifeson always wanted it to - as a hard rocking, virtuoso power trio. But this album's best song is its most subtle. The Pass is Neil Peart's meditation on teenage suicide. His words are acute: 'No hero in your tragedy/No daring in your escape/No salutes for your surrender/Nothing noble in your fate.' And the music has a perfectly judged emotional pitch. On an album that is much overlooked, this song is one of the finest that Rush have ever recorded.
"Prior to my producing their previous album, Presto, Rush had approached me on more than a couple of occasions. At that time during the 1980s I was working with Howard Jones and the Thompson Twins, so it seemed a bit of an incongruous match. But as the requests continued to arrive I felt it my duty to find out why they were being so persistent. I later learned that Neil Peart was a huge fan of my own Immunity [an album made by Hine as a solo artist in 1981]. He thought that its weird dynamic could be injected into what Rush did.
Meeting them for the first time for Presto, I found three of the most bright-minded musicians I'd ever come across - particularly Neil, who was so well read. Neil wanted me inject them with my way of thinking, as opposed to altering their direction completely.
The first thing I did was to ask Geddy to lower his voice by an octave. It was just too shrill. He looked at me in shock. But I wanted to hear Geddy the man telling me about his experiences, and not some high-pitched whine with little personality. He gave it a try which impressed me, but I expected Rush fans to want to kill me. In fact, like so many of the others we made on Presto, this change was retained on Roll The Bones, which was pretty much like chapter two of Presto. Things that were accepted on Presto we then built upon with Roll The Bones.
For instance, in another early exchange I'd asked: 'Where's the effin' keyboard player?' I didn't like all of that [Rush's experiments with and foregrounding of the synth], and told them they should return to being a power-trio again. It was time to get back to guitar, bass and drums.
I still find Roll The Bones to be a very playful Rush album. It has Bravado, one of my favourite songs by the band, and, of course, the title track. It's well known that we intended to have John Cleese as a guest vocalist on that song, but when he was unavailable, some people assumed I was responsible for its rapped section. The band liked the fact that it was a mystery voice - but, of course, it was Geddy.
We remain in contact and I see them in concert periodically. Would I like to produce Rush again someday? If they wanted another 'new view', so to speak, then I'd never say no to that."
Sandwiched between two albums - Roll The Bones and Test For Echo - that hard core fans often discuss with great affection, 1993's Counterparts tends to get written out of Rush history. And yet it reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts, as grunge was expunging all other forms of rock from the collective memory.
Unconsciously or otherwise, grunge had clearly been assimilated into the collective Rush psyche. Swirling keyboards were still present, but far less integral to the soundscape than previously. Not that Counterparts was some stripped-down, back-to-basics effort, but it somehow captured Rush sounding more urgent than they had in a while. Stick It Out is a case in point, Alex getting re-acquainted with the volume knob while playing the kind of discordant-yet-insistent riff that had made Soundgarden famous.
Let's be clear, though: in no way is this a 'grunge wannabe' record. Not while there's a song like Nobody's Hero on the tracklisting. This was Rush simply being themselves: weirdos with an unfathomable pop sensibility, opening the song with an upbeat acoustic jangle and Neil's entirely comprehensible and open-minded lyrics: 'I knew he was different in his sexuality /I went to his parties as a straight minority/Never seemed a threat to my masculinity/He only introduced me to a wider reality'.
Nonetheless, the hard stuff's here: the main riff of Cut To The Chase acts as a tough counterpoint to the verses' clean picking parts. Between Sun & Moon - co-written with poet and lyricist for Toronto proggers Max Webster, Pye Dubois - has some nasty old licks of its own. And Double Agent features a soaring guitar signature, some ferocious drumming and a frankly scary spoken word section to keep us all on our rock toes.
Yet the best track on Counterparts is album closer Everyday Glory, an anthemic moment that nods heavily in the direction of U2, Simple Minds and even The Police, while still retaining that certain indefinable Rush quintessence.
How much of an influence producer Peter Collins had on Rush's rawer sonic edge is something to ponder. Having not worked with the band since 1987's Hold Your Fire he certainly brought renewed urgency to the recordings. But knowing Lee, Lifeson and Peart and their stubborn refusal to conform, you'd bet that Collins was a catalyst rather than creator of the undeniably fiercer sounding Counterparts.
"I'd started working with Rush again [after a six year hiatus] on Counterparts, the album before Test For Echo. For that record, we'd made a very distinct choice to go as organic as we could. Test For Echo was a natural progression from that.
What I particularly remember is that Alex and Geddy had done a lot more work in preproduction. They would put their ideas down together, record on their own and send it off to Neil, who was in a different room, writing lyrics. They were much more adept at moving things around on the computer - there was much more cerebral work in the laboratory, rather than hammering it all out in a rehearsal environment.
We did the tracking at Bearsville Studios. The Band had recorded there, and so had Dylan, and Test For Echo had a kind of 60s influence. That influence has always been there, but you can really hear it here. Carve Away The Stone has a bit of The Who, a bit of Hendrix, a bit of Jefferson Airplane, but it also has a character all its own. There's humour in there too. Resist opens with an old Oscar Wilde line about learning to resist anything but temptation, and Dog Years is a wonderful example of Neil's humour, and it also shows how you can take a whimsical subject and put in a layer of social commentary too. It was before Neil had the great tragedies in his life, and there's a sense of where his mind was at before it all changed.
We'd bought in Kevin 'Caveman' Shirley as engineer on Counterparts, and he worked on Echo as well. He made Alex go and play in front of his amp instead of in the control room, which Alex really liked, even though he objected at first. And he could get a great drum sound for Neil in 45 minutes, rather than a whole day. Plus Neil had been working extensively with [jazz drummer and teacher] Freddie Gruber to change his style from being on top of the beat to really getting behind it, and by the time of Test For Echo he'd really locked into that - he could easily switch between a more circular motion and a really crisp, precise approach.
It always blew my mind how open Rush were. They wanted to hear what I had to say. They didn't always accept everything, but they were fascinated to know what opinions I had. They were always looking to progress and do something different, and they always succeeded."
That Rush returned at all in 2002 - following a hiatus instigated by the tragic deaths of Neil Peart's daughter in 1997, and his wife in 1998 - is impressive. That the new material was often reminiscent of their more stripped-down work from the 70s and early 80s came as an additional bonus. And that this new material evoked past triumphs while simultaneously achieving an utterly contemporary sound was a neat trick. Peart's lyrical approach was also much more direct and personal, mirroring this 21st Century approach. Yet despite all these pluses, the strength of the material and sturdiness of their methodology, Vapor Trails remains a controversial entry in the Rush canon. It was apparently recorded in a less 'high tech' environment than most of their past offerings and certainly retains at times an almost demo-like feel - albeit an agreeable one. Any perceived technical shortcomings were then compounded at mastering stage, with compression adding to the digital distortion the band have confessed to incurring during the recording process. The result is an album that is, to many ears, occasionally overpowering and lacking in dynamics. At the time of writing, it's being remixed from scratch, and the eventual reissue may sound much clearer by comparison.
But let's judge this decade-old release on its aforementioned and not inconsiderable merits. It roars into life with lead single One Little Victory, as close as Rush are ever likely to come to the surf clatter of Misirlou, the Dick Dale classic that Quentin Tarantino employed on Pulp Fiction: Peart's thundering intro and Lifeson's guitar possess more throbbing buzz than a disturbed and distressed wasp nest. To this listener, then as now, such thrills more than made up for any technical issues, and certainly rebuffed those who'd found some of their mid-period works too clinical in their execution. Ghost Rider details Peart's motorcylcing odysseys around North America, as he sought to make sense of the personal losses he'd suffered: lines like 'Pack up all those phantoms' and 'shoulder that invisible load' feel like therapeutic self-exhortations. Ultimately, his travels contributed to his decision to resume life with Rush, and Lee's impassioned imparting of his bandmate's conclusion on One Little Victory sums up an audible, collective re-invigoration: 'As a certain measure of righteousness/ A certain amount of force/A certain degree of determination/Daring on a different course'. Well said. And whatever its 'loudness' issues, Vapor Trails remains much more than a little victory.
As far as those poor souls in the mainstream are concerned, Rush will forever be the arch wizards of proggy preposterousness, mad-haired lords of the elaborate concept and the widdle-heavy 20-minute freak out. In fairness, that perception has a root or two in reality, but those of us who adore the band and have pored over their vast catalogue at length are just as likely to celebrate them as a great rock'n'roll band, albeit one with a fully functioning and feverishly inventive brain connected to those bluesy below-the-waist (ahem) fundamentals.
If Feedback represents anything - and, perhaps uniquely in Rush history, it really doesn't; it was recorded purely to celebrate their R30 tour - it is a joyous salute to cherished inspirations and the raw building blocks that first set the band on their path to fame and fortune. Recorded in the spring of 2004, Feedback stands purposefully apart from the more cerebral sonic explorations of Rush's regular studio adventures.
As the hulking howl'n'buzz of Summertime Blues - a passionate re-imagining of the bullish Blue Cheer version, rather than the brittle Eddie Cochran original, of course - roars from the speakers, it's virtually impossible to block out mental images of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and original drummer John Rutsey hunched over their respective instruments in some dingy suburban garage back in the late 60s, thrumming with adrenalin and delighting in their first steps as red-blooded rock warriors. That said, the presence of Neil Peart is all-important throughout; his pinpoint-precise percussive instincts adding a muscularity and delicious lightness of touch to a brooding rendition of The Yardbirds' Heart Full Of Soul and a graceful take of Buffalo Springfield's For What It's Worth.
With Lifeson's power chords threatening to breach the speaker cones, Geddy Lee sings beautifully and breathes new life into The Seeker, a slice of power trio perfection that The Who's Pete Townshend may as well have written specifically with Rush in mind. The rest of the album - Neil Young's Mr. Soul, Love's Seven And Seven Is, The Yardbirds' Shapes Of Things and a final, bruising thump through Robert Johnson's Cream-immortalised Crossroads - maintain the formula: classic rock songs played with guile and gusto by true believers with the skill and respect required to make each admiring homage crackle anew. No analysis required: Feedback is the sound of Rush rocking out and sharing the spoils.
The gap between 2007's Snakes & Arrows and 2002's Vapor Trails is only a tad shorter than the hiatus that the group went on following 1996's Test For Echo. Generally considered a much more cohesive project than its predecessor, Snakes & Arrows finds the group playing to what many original fans consider their strengths.
This was a conscious decision on producer Nick Raskulinecz's part. A huge fan of the group for many years, Raskulinecz did for Rush what Rick Rubin would later do for Metallica on their Death Magnetic album, discouraging his charges from worrying unduly about referencing earlier work on their new opus. In Rush's case, this meant embracing again the signature time changes and melodic twists that abounded in their late 70s oeuvre. Peart came up with early lyrical drafts to go with the largely acoustically-written material jammed between Lifeson and Lee, a modus operandi very close to their earlier days as a band.
If Rush are a stately home, then Snakes & Arrows is the equivalent of restoring the original features hidden behind 80s fixtures and fittings, some of which had arguably had their moment. It couldn't have hurt that the likes of The Mars Volta and Coheed And Cambria were offering validation of the trio's earlier achievements, perhaps emboldening feelings of pride in and ownership of their earlier work. For example, Workin' Them Angels mixes chiming electric and acoustic dynamics in a way that wouldn't be remotely out of place on Hemispheres or A Farewell To Kings. Armor And Sword is like a heavier older brother of Cinderella Man, expressing the grittily philosophical sentiment that 'No one gets to their heaven without a fight', a step on again from the bloody but unbowed perspective displayed on their Vapor Trails album.
The style - and indeed very existence - of the three instrumentals (not least The Main Monkey Business) again suggests a band playing in their original configuration and setting aside the pathology of the post-'81 phase of their career, where at least part of their motivation seemed to be to sound consciously different to their earlier releases, in place of exploring a more organic evolution. Album closer We Hold On offers a rousing conclusion to the examinations of determination and faith present in many of Peart's lyrics across the set, with its clarion call of a refrain and Lifeson's nagging Eastern-flavoured phrasing setting the seal on one of the most consistent releases of their glorious career.
Thanks to the good folks of Classic Rock for putting this all together, and more importantly thanks to YOU, our stalwart and dedicated fans, for sticking with us through the absences and the twists and turns of our circuitous and somewhat experimental musical road trip. It's the knowledge that you are all out there and interested in what we do that gives us the confidence to keep pushing ourselves...
So thanks for being there and I hope we will see you all once again down that road...
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