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Rush: The How And Why Of Their Long Climb To The Top
By Jon Sutherland
Transcribed by Eric Hansen
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When Permanent Waves was making its way up the charts and Rush was firmly establishing itself as one of the most successful of the progressive rock bands Geddy Lee had the time to stop and speak to Record Review (June 1980 V. IV, No. 3). His insight and dedication to his total evolvement as a musician was inspiring and refreshing. On the Moving Pictures tour Alex Lifeson served as our gracious host in the quest for knowledge about this brilliant world class band from Canada. His modest demeanor on the telephone was delightful in the world of ego, Hollywood and media hype. He is, for all who are familiar with his work, a brilliant player who has grown through many of rock's standard stages. Rush was originally a power trio but has expanded horizons to include some of the most sweeping passages in the rock spectrum. The precision with which they play together suggests that Geddy Lee, Neil Peart, and Alex Lifeson were destined to meet in this life and make wonderfully clean, clear, and magical music. Moving Pictures is a peak in the band's development as musicians and there is no end in sight for three such inspired songsmiths.
Alex was polite enough to return the request for an interview and provided us with many interesting visions of what makes Rush the amazing band they are.
Thanks a lot for returning the call Alex. I'm glad we're getting a chance to talk. Where are you calling from?
I'm calling from Glenn Falls, New York.
Is that where you're staying or is it the site of a concert?
We're playing here, but we're about an hour and a half from Albany, New York.
I've never heard of the town.
Neither did I until I got up here, it's beautiful here.
What is the tour like as far as the halls you're playing?
It's been pretty much the same. We play halls that average between thirteen and fifteen thousand seats. I don't know what it is tonight but most of the others are big halls that have sold out.
You sold out the Los Angeles dates in three hours.
I'd heard that.
Are you surprised that the band has gotten this big? Did you ever envision that Rush would be as popular as it is today?
Sort of. Permanent Waves really took a big step but when we started if we could play at a high school we thought it was great. It's all relative to what you're used to.
I suppose I never really thought about playing in places like this (big halls) until we actually started playing in them with other bands. It never really was a goal to become the biggest group in the world or anything like that. We just were having fun doing what we really liked to do and it grew from there.
Rush has never been an overnight sensation.
No not at all. The band's been together for a long time and it's definitely been an uphill battle.
It's not uphill anymore ...
Actually it's quite different now. You don't have to fight for it so much but you'd really like to have a little more free time.
In the past didn't you have to try and make the record company happy and now everything you do makes the record company happy?
Actually we never felt like that. We felt that we had to make ourselves happy and that's what came first, Sometimes we got flak from the record company, even on occasion from management, to make career moves but we always felt that we had to really satisfy ourselves first. We wanted to be very honest with ourselves musically.
And not compromise too much ...
And not compromise at all. We came up against some static but around 2112 everything started to really move. The record company couldn't really complain about too much. It definitely was our breakthrough, especially after Caress of Steel because that was the least successful of all our albums. It frightened the record company and management.
How does touring fit in Rush's picture?
First of all it is important to tour to support an album and we're the type of band that never got a lot of airplay so we had to tour an awful lot; now we just tour a lot. (Laughs) After this tour I'd like to take a little time off. I think we all would, to pursue different things. Possibly a solo album, play with some other people, sailing, or writing a book, whatever just to get into something different for a while. When you tour so much of the year you don't have any block time to start any long range projects.
Neil has aspirations to write a novel or some short stories. He'd also like to get into sailing. Geddy would like to get into producing more, think about a solo effort. He'd like to get to know his newborn son a little better (laughs). I'm into flying and I'd like to pursue that a little more. And I'm thinking about a solo album as well.
Ah, a scoop! Solo albums, 'ey?
When the three of us are together we really work very well together, we live well together but it's also nice to push yourself and work with other people to come up with your own musical ideas.
Do you have anything that's stockpiled for your own album or is everything you've done been directly for Rush?
Not really. I'll hack around in the dressing room for a couple of hours and come up with some ideas, sort of work on it, but it's nothing I really hang onto. I may save a part that I'll bring up later when we are writing material and I'll say "hey Ged. I got this". .. I'll play it, sort of develop it, he'll add his ideas to it.
When you're writing do you take his (Neil's) lyrics and put music to it or do you try and fit his lyrics to your musical ideas?
It really works either way. Most often we get a set of lyrics from Neil, we'll go over them, if there aren't any problems with them we'll start writing. Well not problems, changes, that Geddy may like to see. From there we'll work on chords and really develop the song. Usually by the time we have one song done Neil will have a few other things written and we'll just carry on.
When you get his lyrics can you tell from the subject matter exactly what color, tone, and tempo should be the best for it? Since you write a lot independently the music and the lyrics can be conflicting.
I know what you mean. Neil is usually around when we are finishing the song and rehearsing it.
Do you ever get stuck where he'll say "I kinda thought it should go like this"? What I'm getting at really is having two childs from different mothers being one song. For example Michael Schenker will write an incredible guitar part and completely surrender the lyrics without any recourse to the singer. Do you guys ever have that problem?
I know it really doesn't matter to him. No we really don't have that problem. It does have to be taken into consideration because you couldn't put major chords to "Oh I'm dying today (laughs), the world's blowing up and every one's on fire."
We look at the lyrics and we work with the lyrics. We always have.
How come you never put your pictures on the covers? There's always some kind of theme. I'm not so sure I understand the new one.
Basically it's a play on the words "moving pictures."
I thought it signifies that your picture (the Rush logo) was now big enough stuff that you could get in the gallery like good art finally makes the gallery.
That's really interesting. We never looked at it that way at all. We just thought of it as a play on the words.
We just don't like to put the pictures on the cover. It's not aesthetically pleasing to us. There are usually pictures on the inside or on the liner. On the cover we like to get into a theme and carry on from front to back. Most of our covers go like that.
It's such a marketing concept to sell these people on the cover.
It's much more pleasant to pick up an album jacket and really enjoy looking at it. I don't think we'd get a really good feeling seeing our pictures on the cover.
Our earlier albums had our pictures on the cover for that reason; marketing, but we changed that a while ago. (laughs)
You have always stuck to your integrity as artists and musicians.
Being a fan and spinning every record that could get my grubby little hands on I have been really impressed how every member of Rush has improved. How much more you've taken on. Where will this all end? How much more can you do live?
It doesn't seem to be a problem. As long as you get a bit of exercise, your balance is OK, you're all right.
Last time around I said to Geddy 'you guys sure are ambitious buggers' and he said 'that isn't a bad way to be is it?'.
It's a good way to be. Each time you go into a studio to record you say to yourself 'I don't know if I can do this all over again'. Then you go in and you come up with something. And the ideas are better ideas. I think as musicians we have really improved; we are getting better. When you play 200 dates a year there's no way you can't get any better (laughs). That is the best kind of practice you can do. I can't put any kind of limits on us, we'll keep doing it until we run out of those ideas. Unless we feel strongly about moving on to some other field or arena.
Out of all the different styles Rush has played are you the most happy where you are now?
It was much heavier earlier, then Hemispheres was so detailed and technical as a work. The last two albums have been more melodic. Farewell to Kings had some great melodies.
Much more melodic for my ears too. Hemispheres was kind of a dark album for me.
It's a hard album to listen to.
Yeah it is. It was a hard album to make. We really bit off a lot on the album. It was the first time we did that long of an instrumental passage. We worked on that album for three months which for us is a long time.
What is normal time allotment for recording an album?
Anywhere from six to eight weeks. Two months is the maximum. We finished Permanent Waves in five weeks and it shows on the album. We had fun. We enjoyed making that record and it sounds and feels that way. We had two weeks booked for mixing and we finished in nine days.
How much rehearsing goes on before you go into the studio? Are your ideas really concrete before you go in?
Hemispheres was written two weeks before we recorded it. We went to England, wrote, rehearsed, and went directly into the studio the following day. Permanent Waves we decided to approach in a different way. We took a summer holiday off, no one did any writing, even thinking about it. Then we went up north, rented a farm for a couple of weeks, and started writing. We wrote almost the whole album - everything except "Natural Science" there. It was all ready to go. Then we went on tour for three weeks just to get back in shape. We were in top form playing when we went in. Everything just breezed by and it was so much more fun.
Moving Pictures was pretty much the same way. We took time off, went back on the road for a month, and into the studio. We had everything except for "Witch Hunt" already worked out. We had a basic idea for that song. It was also a song we decided to do a bit of a production piece on, put keyboards on it, all kinds of stuff without worrying about doing it live.
Does that inhibit you thinking about how you will perform the song live?
No. not at all, because in the studio you can get into all sorts of different things, be really creative. It doesn't inhibit us.
There are a lot of parts on Moving Pictures where there are several instruments going on at the same time, much more than it would seem possible to perform on stage.
It's not a problem especially with all of the electronic equipment now. You can program sequencers to play back, switch them, and it's not really cheating because you program them yourself; you played the notes.
You must have a really good crew with all of these electronic devices. I keep seeing the list on the inside of the album getting longer and longer.
The touring aspect is thirty people on the road. That includes all drivers and crew, on top of that there's management and the girls in the office...it stretches out to about forty people.
Rush's set up seems so much more complicated than say just a power trio that sets the amps on ten and cranks away.
That's true. We use a sound company called National Sound. They're based just outside of Washington and we've used them in all of the time we've been touring. They've been doing our PA for about seven years now.
How about live mixing?
We use a guy on our crew, John Erickson. He started working with us on this tour but we've known him for a long time.
I read quite awhile ago that you had ambitions of playing classical guitar, perhaps in an orchestra setting?
I think that was a thing in Circus. No, I really don't want to do that. The quote was taken out of context, it was a silly question.
I'd like to learn to play classical a lot better. I'd love to learn to read a lot better just for my own satisfaction. I really love the instrument very much and I enjoy playing that kind of music but playing with an orchestra just doesn't fit in.
As far as guitars go I've always seen you with a Gibson 355 and most recently with a white Strat. What all do you use?
I have the 355, a fairly new model from Gibson. I have a Howard Roberts Fusion which is a cross between a Les Paul and a Howard Roberts, a big jazzy acoustic Guitar.
I've got a couple of Strats and I'm playing them a lot more. I'm finally broken of the fear of a Fender neck. It took me about a year to get over it. I also have a double neck and I use some Ovations for acoustic stuff. That's about it really.
Then you're not a real hoarder of guitars.
I have a lot of guitars but not any real old guitars. My oldest guitar is a '68 355. I'm not a collector in that sense of it but every time I go into Gibson, when we play Kalamazoo for a couple of dates, I can't leave there without getting a couple of guitars.
Does Gibson sponsor you so-to-speak? Do they provide you with guitars?
No. it doesn't work like that. We get like an artist's consideration. I don't know that anyone gets free guitars. You get a break and they can use your name in advertising.
Your sound with the Gibsons always seemed to mesh so well with Geddy's Rickenbacker. I was a little surprised to see you with the white Strat.
I think it is nice in a way though, that all three players in Rush are "lead" players as opposed to rhythm players. No one really is a straight rhythm player.
That's true. It's great to listen to the two of them play.
Neil is a very interesting player. Does it help to have someone play like that or is it distracting?
It's not distracting at all, it's rather interesting. Actually it pushes you a lot more while you're playing. Neil is always on the go. He doesn't really like to repeat himself so every time he plays a different fill or break it will be different. And with the way Geddy plays, the two of them together make an excellent and tight rhythm section which pushes a lead player a lot more to play along.
How much of your live show is improvised?
Nothing. Maybe twenty or thirty seconds, if that.
Do you like to improvise?
No, not really. We haven't done it. I prefer to be safe and know what's going on and to play something the way it was originally written and intended. We may change a piece. Neil may play with a little different inflection and we'll all go 'yeah, great, we'll do it like that' then the song will evolve in that sense. But there's no space anywhere where we just let it go.
That's just not the way your music is.
That's not the way we are.
I want to bring up Michael because I know he's a friend of yours and I know you are familiar with him. He said he was not as good a player live as he could be rehearsing because when he practices he will take more chances and come up with some incredible things. But playing live he tends to play more safe.
When did you talk to him?
A couple of months ago.
He is very, very good. Michael will get a couple of basic tracks down on a cassette and for two weeks he'll work on a solo and develop it. He'll practice it until he has it perfectly in his mind. When he plays you can hear that well rehearsed sound to it.
Do you take chances practicing at sound checks?
Soundchecks tend to be a little sloppier where we'll play a couple of songs just looking around while you're playing the song. You aren't really concentrating and some improvising goes on, trying out different sounds. I'll get my Strat and fool around with the vibrato arm. You aren't concentrating so much. During the show it's not so much playing safe as it is a concerted effort to really be aware of your playing. It just flows. I don't think it's really a matter of safety for us as much as it is just wanting each night to be as perfect as possible. You want to deliver to your audience.
The artistic definition is that you just want to be as good as you can be to please yourself. The fact that it pleases the audience is good but it's secondary.
That's very true.
The fact still remains that you've never ever done cover material, it's always been your own original material and you've hung in there with your guns for all of the years against the pressure. It would almost be like selling out if you compromise just to make the audience happy.
Pretty lousy question 'ey?
(laughs) It's very accurate though.
But in being "selfish" you're not cheating anybody because you're doing the best you can.
You're not. It's not really a selfish attitude to have. You have to please yourself first because if you don't you're fooling the audience.
Do you ever have shows where everyone tells you it was great but you know you weren't as good as you could have been?
All the time. I could count on one hand the times on our last tour where we came off and we said 'that was great.' You know if the sound is bad it can distract you the whole night. It may be great out in the hall but right where you are it may not be good. One or two small mistakes which no one else picks up on could ruin the whole night for you.
Rush is right on the edge, because of all of the technology employed, of being devoured by all of the technology instead of feeling and melody. You have to be constantly aware of that the way the last two albums have been so melodic with all of the embellishments. "Vital Signs" and "Limelight" are great melodies. Hell they would sound good with one acoustic guitar and one voice.
There are a lot of convenient additions you can make with electronics, the sequencers, synthesizers, that can broaden the dimension of the sound. But you're right the melody is the most important.
I love how the guitar solo in "Limelight" breaks that song in half. It's like having the wind knocked out of you and getting pumped back up again. Where did you get that idea?
I picked up the Strat in the studio. The song was pretty bare, just basic tracks, Geddy had to do the keyboards still and I decided to start working on the solo. We were looking for "that" sound. I think it is a great sound.
I don't know if you've noticed but there are some great warbles in the cycle of phasing. If you listen to it closely it goes (wrbwrbwrrb). During the recording of the solos I really spent a lot of time trying not to repeat myself. I wanted to get a very different solo every time I did one. I think to an extent I did that.
Is it harder to write the solos than to write the songs?
I really don't have any idea where the solo is going to come from until I start to do it. Depending on how fast it comes I can spend as much time on a solo as a song. I like to be spontaneous. I play better that way. Sometimes in the space of say two hours I may have a couple of sections of solos that have worked out. The rest may be trying this and trying that. You just work on a section until you develop one continuous solo or a composite solo.
Mark Knofler once said the trick is to get your best licks then get the best patches you can to put them together with.
Yeah. I think so. I trust myself just going into the studio. In fact I look forward to it. It's a really neat feeling for me. Once we have the basic tracks out of the way it's relaxing and I know I can really get creative and get into the solo. I feel very optimistic and very, very energetic. It puts me in a good space of pure concentration.
Now jump back; here's my trick question I like to ask guitarists. Sometimes you can hear something in your head and translating from your head to your fingers and out the instrument has road blocks; can you without physical or technical limitations play exactly what you want on your guitar?
I think I've reached the point where I can. That's a really good question because that's a point that everybody has to deal with for a long time because of the efforts in getting better as a player. Every new idea you have is a little harder to play. I think now I've reached a point where if I have any idea in my head I can play it.
That just makes everything so much more available. If you can translate everything you want the possibilities are so much more limitless.
It's great. I'll have something pop into my head. I'll go into the tuning room, pick up the guitar and play it.
That's what I call the gift. There are a lot of people just walking down the street that can make a great melody but they can't transcribe it.
Geddy is incredible, he can hear things and play them instantly. For me I hear something, I start to play it and work it out. He can hear a melody and just play it. It's really a neat gift and he's always had it.
He has to have that to play all of the things he does live. I can never understand how someone can play something that's completely independent from the vocals. I remember seeing Steve Winwood with Traffic in 1971 when he was playing chords on the organ with his left hand, lead with his right, the bass pedals with his foot and was singing. Geddy is tackling the same responsibilities.
It's especially incredible on Geddy's part considering Neil's lyrics. They can be quite wordy.
It's also the inflection of certain words that make them more than perfunctory.
Right, I don't know how he does it... I'm just glad I don't have to do it. I'll just play my guitar, thanks.
Sometimes I'll go see a show ... a blues player who's not all that complicated and I'll come home and dig out the guitars and say "I can do that." Then I'll go see somebody really incredible and I feel like throwing the guitar out right away because I know I can't do that... Like when I see Schenker I just stare and say 'how does he do that?'
I used to do the same thing. I'd see Michael play and I knew I should be in the dressing room practicing. He got me into practicing. We'd come in at 4:30 for sound check and UFO wouldn't have to be there till about 7:00 and he'd be there at 5:00 practicing for two or three hours. It started making me feel guilty. Here I am the headlining act and this guy's playing like a maniac. I should be doing it too; playing a couple of hours before we go on.
Does it help?
Oh it helps immensely. You are so much more ready and you tend to push yourself. Things are so much more easy to play.
Do you ever get stuck as a guitar player for ideas and directions in your playing?
I can't say that I do because of the nature of our material. I often hear another player and something they do that is nice and I will apply it to my playing however I can.
You know the tendency towards extremes in guitarists, listening or not listening to other players.
I don't think it's right to shut yourself off. I don't go out and listen to every new player but there are a few in particular that I like to listen to, one in particular is Alan Holdsworth. Any guitar player will put him on top of the list it seems. The guy is so amazing and his whole attitude towards the instrument is fantastic. You can learn a lot from him. I never used to get into the vibrato arm until I got this Fender because I really liked what he was doing with it and I really thought I could develop something with it. It has changed my playing.
Well I've bogged a lot of your time on the telephone. Don't you have anything else better to do than talking to low-life journalists on the telephone?
I might (laughs).
Hey, I want to say thanks for the time and best wishes for you and Rush.
You got enough for your story?
Stick a fork in - I'm done. Many thanks.