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Rush: an epic interview with Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson

In 2015, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of prog legends Rush sat down with Classic Rock to talk about the band’s past and its future – if there is one

On the eve of a US tour that may be their last, Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson and bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee talk to Classic Rock in a wide-ranging interview covering their entire career. They discuss their greatest work – from their zinging, Zeppelin-influenced debut album through to epic masterpieces such as Xanadu and La Villa Strangiato and on to their 2012 concept album Clockwork Angels. They talk about the complexities in drummer Neil Peart’s lyrics, the obsessive nature of their fans, and the good times and the bad times in their long history together. They also address the question that all Rush fans in the UK want answered: will they ever play here again? But first we take them back to 1974 and that first album, Rush.

When you think of the time when you made that record, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

Alex Lifeson: I remember how exciting it was to be in the studio – even thought we could barely afford it.

Geddy Lee: It was a great time for us, and there’s some great raw stuff on that record. The first Rush album really stands up better in some ways than some of the later things.

That album was the only one the band made with drummer John Rutsey, who left Rush in 1974 and was replaced by Neil Peart. It’s now seven years since John Rutsey died. How do you remember him?

Geddy: John was an odd gentleman. A difficult person, in the sense that he had a hard time dealing with himself. He was not a happy guy, and had demons that he wrestled with. And when you’re that kind of person it’s hard for you to deal with other people. There was a lot of conflict and secrecy in the band when John was in it. We couldn’t really read him and he didn’t really care to share that much with us. And when Alex and I started pushing the music in a new direction, he eventually said: “I can’t get behind this.” That was the end.

Alex: John left before the album was released in the United States. But he was part of this thing. He had the same dreams that we had.

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In those early days, did you always believe that Rush would be successful?

Alex: I don’t think we ever thought we would be big. The dreams we had then were of making more records and touring; playing in front of bigger audiences. We were playing high schools and bars. That was our world for six years. As a Canadian band your chances of getting a record deal were slim, and getting out of Canada even slimmer.

Geddy: We were never that kind of obnoxious band that said: “We’re gonna be huge!” We just hoped we could be as good as bands we thought were good – Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and Yes and Genesis. When we toured with Kiss in 1975 we couldn’t believe we were playing in America and travelling around. It was all so new and exciting to us. And we honestly thought it was probably the last time this would ever happen to us, so we should enjoy it. I think I still have the keys to every hotel room from that tour. I kept them because I never thought I’d ever be in Lubbock, Texas again. And in fact I haven’t been to Lubbock, Texas again.

For all the success that you’ve had since then, were there times when you felt that – outside of your core fan base – nobody gave a shit about Rush?

Geddy: Oh, there were lots of times in our career when we felt it was such an uphill struggle. Many years ago, before we did 2112 [in 1976], we thought we were going nowhere fast.

And later on?

Geddy: There were times when we didn’t feel we were getting mass appeal, but it wasn’t something we were looking for.

Alex: We’ve always been aware of the loyalty of our fan base. And it’s shifted over the years, of course. In the eighties we lost some of the older fans from the seventies. And with all the stuff that’s been happening in the past five or six years there’s been another shift, with a whole new segment of younger fans plus all our older fans. There have been points where there’s been less interest in general. But we continued to tour through those times and we’ve always done well touring.

The mid-nineties seemed to be a difficult time for Rush; the albums Counterparts and Test For Echo were widely ignored at a time when alternative rock had changed the musical landscape. Did you feel, deep down, that Rush had become irrelevant?

Alex: With every new era of music, whether it was punk or the whole Seattle scene in the nineties, it was supposed to have carried a nail for our coffin. But we’ve ploughed through those times. Yeah, there have been times when maybe in a broader sense we seemed irrelevant. But we’ve always managed to continue. And really, we never cared whether we were relevant or not.

Rush are a progressive rock band in the broadest sense; the music has constantly developed across the years.

Geddy: I think that’s true. In a way, we’ve always been searching for a new us. That’s been our curse and our blessing – we always think there’s a better version of us to be done on the next record.

Alex: I don’t think all our records are completely successful, from a creative standpoint. But we always tried with each record to do exactly what we wanted to do.

Geddy: And really, any criticism we’ve had was fair game for the time [laughs]. When you’ve been a band as long as we have, and been through the ups and downs we’ve been through, you take everything in its stride. We’ve made a lot of mistakes on record, but we’ve been able to learn from them and move forward. We’ve aged well because we’ve been able to apply the things we’ve learned. It’s all part of evolution.

What are those mistakes you’ve made on record?

Geddy: I don’t know if entire albums fall into that category, but certainly there are songs that I don’t feel great about.

For example?

Geddy: Just recently I listened to the song Neurotica [from 1991’s Roll The Bones) and I thought, what the fuck was that? It’s just a strange tune. I feel we’ve had a very up-and-down career as songwriters, but one thing that’s always held true is our honesty about what we’re doing. Like it or not, this is what we are [laughs].

Certainly you’re renowned as a group of virtuoso musicians. And if there is one Rush song, above all others, that captures you all playing at the top of your game, it has to be the classic La Villa Strangiato, the nine-minute instrumental tour de force from 1978’s Hemispheres.

Alex: It absolutely is. It’s epic. There are so many parts to that song, and everybody shines on it. My recollection is that it was only a few takes to record the song. In fact if you listen closely during the guitar solo you can hear the previous solo ghosting underneath. I remember us playing the whole song in one piece and then we dropped in for that solo.

There’s another epic – Xanadu, from the previous album, A Farewell To Kings – that you also recorded in one take.

Alex: With Xanadu, we ran that down once to get the sound and levels, and then we hit ‘record’ and played the song and it was done. Pat Moran, the engineer on that record, was shocked. Seldom did a rock band do one take of a song that’s eleven minutes long. He was blown away.

It was after those landmark albums of the late seventies that the modern Rush was born, with songs that were shorter and more direct. And from Neil Peart there was a new approach to lyrics, in which he ditched the fantasy and sci-fi themes of 2112, A Farewell To Kings and Hemispheres.

Alex: We just felt we were working to a formula that was a little stale. Hemispheres was really a difficult record to make. It was written in a key that was very difficult for Geddy to sing, in a really high register, the whole record. It was time to move on.

Geddy: For some of our fans, records like Hemispheres, that’s their favourite Rush. And when we started changing and our songs got shorter and more tuneful we lost those fans.

The 1980 album Permanent Waves was really the bridge between the old Rush and the new Rush, the link between Hemispheres and the modern rock of 1981’s Moving Pictures.

Geddy: Permanent Waves really is kind of a bridge album, and a hugely important record for us.

Alex: I don’t know what it is about the chemistry between us, but I think without Hemispheres we wouldn’t have gone to Permanent Waves the way we did. Permanent Waves was really a hybrid of Hemispheres and Moving Pictures. We still had some long tracks on there – Jacob’s Ladder and Natural Science – but also shorter songs like The Spirit Of Radio and Free Will.

Which do you think is the unsung classic in the Rush catalogue? For some fans it’s the 1984 album Grace Under Pressure.

Alex: Grace Under Pressure is a good choice. Signals is a bit like that too – overlooked because it came after Moving Pictures. Looking back, I think Grace Under Pressure suffered in production, but the songs are really strong and there’s great diversity on that record. Counterparts is another one. There’s a lot that I really like about that record. There’s a feel about it, a tone and a mood.

Geddy: When we were doing Grace Under Pressure it was a pretty low time for us. We weren’t sure of the kind of band we wanted to be. There was a lot of experimenting. And there was rejection from different producers that we’d hoped to work with – that was a bit of a reality sandwich we had to swallow [laughs]. We ended up pretty much producing that record on our own, and it was hard.

On the albums that followed Grace Under Pressure – Power Windows in in eighty-five and Hold Your Fire in eighty-seven – the band’s sound became increasingly dominated by Geddy’s use of synthesisers. How do you feel about those albums now?

Geddy: Those records were also experimental. Power Windows was a high note. That was a great record. Some of the work we did on Hold Your Fire was very positive, some of it less successful. So there were a lot of ups and downs in those years. But the cumulative body of work, the best from those years, stands up pretty well.

Alex, you’ve said in the past that you felt marginalised in thas period, your role as guitarist limited. You said you were frustrated. Were you also depressed?

Alex: Honestly, no. I’ve been fortunate that way. I’ve been down at times, yeah, because I’ve felt trapped or bored. But depressed? Not really. It’s not in my nature.

Geddy: It was a difficult time for us. Alex was resistant, of course, because more and more keyboards were coming into the band.

Did that lead to arguments between you?

Geddy: I think it’s more in our nature to quietly harbour resentments than to go on attack mode. But we had some pretty bold conversations, I’d say. All the cards were on the table.

Toto guitarist Steve Lukather says that his band used to fight over music. Did that happen with you?

Alex: I can’t say we ever did. There was never a personal issue. If we had a disagreement over something, whether it was musical or otherwise, we always talked it out.

Is Rush is a genuine working democracy?

Alex: It always has been. And it wasn’t just a majority that ruled, it had to be unanimous in any decision. So if two guys wanted to do something and one didn’t, then you talked about it, you worked out the pros and cons, and at the end of it, if there was still that one that didn’t want to do it, it didn’t get done. It wasn’t worth having the bitterness over some seemingly meaningless decision.

Is Neil equally open to discussion about the lyrics he writes?

Geddy: I am a fan of Neil’s, and I love being a collaborator with him, because he is so objective and easy to work with. We’ll be recording songs, and stumbling over a word or something, and if Neil is not in the studio we’ll get him on the phone and discuss it. He’ll even allow me to suggest lyrics – a word that might work well – and he’ll accept it or he’ll come up with a better one. He’s really a pleasure to work with. With Neil there are no hissy fits, ever. And also, over the years he’s become more and more sensitive about shaping the lyrics to make my job as a singer easier. He looks back at some of his lyrics from the past, the things he’s given me to sing, and he doesn’t know how I did it [laughs].

Alex: When it comes to lyrics, Geddy is very free with the scalpel. He does severe editing, because he wants to be able to know clearly what the idea of a song is. Ged’s got a great sense of what the presentation of those lyrics needs to be for everyone to have an understanding of what’s going on. Ged’s got this way of paring it down to its essence. And it makes the delivery more convincing for him, and that’s what he’s all about. And Neil’s really good about that.

Geddy: You focus on what works, not what doesn’t work. And if it was ever something that meant a lot to him, we’d have to discuss it conceptually: why is it not working for me?

Have there been times when Neil has written a lyric that you don’t understand?

Alex: His lyrics are not easy. A lot of times I have no idea what he’s talking about [laughs].

A lot of people were baffled by the story Neil wrote for the Rush’s 2012 concept album Clockwork Angels. Did you get it?

Alex: Oh, with Clockwork Angels I was probably more confused than ever.

Geddy: I understand it quite fine. I spent months working on those lyrics and discussing them with Neil. We went back and forth with some aspects of Clockwork Angels quite a lot, to make sure that it came off more universal and less overtly proggy.

Alex: Neil is so patient with that sort of thing. If I’d written a song and it was being dissected the way his lyrics are dissected, and then rewritten and rewritten, I don’t think I could do it. Especially with ten or eleven songs on the record. I think I’d have strangled Ged. And then strangled myself.

If you were to pick one song to illustrate how great a lyricist Neil is, which would it be?

Geddy: I love Bravado, from the Roll The Bones album. That’s a song in which very little was changed in the lyrics from its original inception to the final version.

Alex: I think The Pass is really beautiful. That was one of those songs that happened very quickly. Resist is another one. I love the lyrics in that song, they really speak.

As a Rush nerd of thirty-five years’ standing, I’d say that this band, more than any other, brings out the geek in its fans.

Geddy: I think there’s truth in that, for sure [laughs].

Do you understand why?

Alex: Maybe because we take it more seriously in one way. Maybe our music, and the lyrics, are geeky?

Maybe it’s the detail in your work. There’s so much of it to obsess over.

Geddy: The fans love detail. As we do. We put a lot of detail into our music and our album covers and the film and our live show. We try to have a lot of stuff to keep people amused and entertained.

Alex: There is certainly a lot of detail to obsess over [laughs]. It’s not just shallow music to make you feel good, that’s for sure! It’s serious music. And I guess we’ve been doing it for so long, that is the label we’ve earned.

Rush are also, for many fans, a lifetime obsession – once you’re in, there’s no getting out again.

Geddy: Ha ha. Yeah, that’s also very true.

Some fans – myself included – like to savour the moment whenever a clock ticks over to 21:12. The last time I did this, holding up my phone to show my wife as I declared: “It’s Rush o’clock!”, she rolled her eyes.

Alex: I think your wife and my wife would get along really well [laughs].

Have you ever done that?

Geddy: I haven’t. But maybe if I’m in an airport at that time of the evening and I see a digital clock...

You allow yourself a little smile?

Geddy: Yes, I do.

It’s this level of geekiness in the fans that was so well-portrayed in that famous scene from the film I Love You, Man, when two buddies are at a Rush show, watching you play the song Limelight, and singing every word to each other. It’s all rather embarrassing, and we’ve all done it.

Geddy: Well, that movie definitely hit upon that thing of going to a show and letting go and enjoying the moment. And I think that’s an important thing to remember when you love rock music: that there is a sort of freedom in allowing yourself that sense of abandon, and digging your band. From the outside looking in it can be embarrassing, for sure.

With such a loyal fan base, Rush are the biggest cult band in the world. Is that, for you, the perfect scenario?

Geddy: Pretty much, yeah. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Alex: For us, having that cult status for so long was a real safety net. You could be sort of famous, really well-known to a small pocket of people, and carry on an existence that was perfectly normal. There is a degree of discomfort that comes with being famous, but it’s part of the job. And, hey, there are worse problems.

Geddy: I think for many years people didn’t know much about us, and we were never crazy about doing a lot of press. But as time has gone on we’ve grown more comfortable with ourselves, more comfortable in our role as a band and more comfortable around people, and I think that has contributed to our appeal. When people see this band, how we’ve stuck together and remained friends for all this time, I think that makes people feel good about the possibility of long-term relationships [laughs].

Alex: And despite the success and the fame that comes with it, I think you can balance it. With fame you can’t just shut it off and be a dick. You have to be at least a little bit open and gracious. I think you have to give some time to people that support you, who care about what you’re doing and are moved by it. It’s a matter of courtesy. I was raised by my parents to be very courteous. It’s in me, and I’d feel badly if I brushed somebody off or was rude to somebody.

You’ve talked about this band being in its final stages. When it’s finally all over, will you stay active in music?

Geddy: Most definitely. It’s in my nature to be productive. I like to be active. So music will always be something I hope to do in whatever context it is. Also, musicians and artists don’t retire. You either work or you stop working. When people talk about retirement it infers punching the clock, and I don’t like to look at my life like that.

Alex: The idea of retiring – sitting on a beach in Florida, that sense of retirement – is not what I would do. I would travel. And I would be as active as I could be. I get these offers to play on people’s records, do some production, and I would pursue that even more. I love writing. I’m always writing music when I’m home. And I always want to play guitar as long as I can.

Clockwork Angels was such a big success. It was number one in Canada, number two in the US, and was widely acclaimed as one of the best albums Rush have ever made.

Alex: I felt like we’d really accomplished something with Clockwork Angels – a record that did really well at this late stage of our career.

Geddy: I wanted to tour that album forever. I had so much fun on that tour.

Are you already thinking about another album?

Alex: Geddy and I have talked about getting together on our next time off and just writing for the fun of it. Neil loves recording and always has.

Geddy: But to do another record, it has to have that one hundred per cent commitment from all of us. I don’t think you can go into a Rush record, or any Rush project, half-assed. You’ve got to really want to do it.

So...

Geddy: The conversation about future albums has to wait until after this current tour. But there is no negativity about it.

You’ve said there will be no big tours for Rush in the future. Could you envisage making an album but not touring with it?

Geddy: I can see us making a record and playing live but not playing a lot of shows. I can see us doing a record but not doing a tour.

Alex: I could see us doing two or three weeks of dates. A few years back I saw David Gilmour, the On An Island tour. I think he did eighteen dates on that tour. He was out for a few weeks, and that was it. When I saw that show, oh my God, it was so amazing. He was playing so well. And what a fantastic presentation! And he probably put the same amount of work into doing those three weeks that we would put into doing ten months. And that’s kind of cool, that you would commit that amount of energy and work to do just a few dates and that’s it. I can see us doing something like that.

Tickets for your current US tour have sold very fast.

Alex: They have. I think maybe a lot of Rush fans are anticipating that this may be the last major tour that we do, and they want to get their last dose in [laughs].

Led Zeppelin were such a huge influence on Rush in your early days. Can you understand why Robert Plant refuses to do a Zeppelin reunion tour? It’s a frustrating situation for Jimmy Page.

Geddy: I can see that. I understand how Jimmy Page feels. He still wants to do it, and Robert has moved on. But Robert is no less busy, he’s just busy with fresh things, he needs new stimulus. And I have total respect for that.

Do you also feel, as a singer of a certain age, that Plant has the most to lose if Zeppelin re-formed?

Geddy: Yes. It’s harder for the singer, in many ways. When the singer ages in front of the public, they can hear it. To be the singer in Led Zeppelin, it’s a fucking tough job. It takes a lot of discipline and a lot of work. So I understand his reluctance to want to do that again, whereas he is very creatively fulfilled with all these various projects that he does. Good on him. I’m happy for him.

You’ve done a lot of rehearsals for this US tour. Do you really need to?

Alex: Oh yeah. I started in January, playing more regularly. Through March I was at my studio four or five days a week for three or four hours of solid playing. Neil and Ged did the same thing a month before rehearsals. We rehearse for the rehearsals!

Why?

Alex: We like to be so prepared for that first show that we feel like it’s our twentieth show. It pays off. That first night, you feel confident. That’s the way we’ve always done it.

So what is in the set-list for this tour?

Alex: We’ve dug deep. We’ve pulled out some songs that we haven’t played in a very long time. We’ve pulled out some real fan favourites. And we’re enjoying playing them. We’ve revisited every era except maybe the mid-eighties era, which we covered in a good portion of the set on the last tour. We’ve not included anything from Power Windows or Hold Your Fire, but there’s something from just about every other record.

Can you be more specific?

Alex: We’re bringing the Hemispheres Prelude and Jacob’s Ladder and Cygnus X-1. It’s fun and exciting to play these old songs. Jacob’s Ladder sounds amazing! For years we’ve discounted it, although it was always a fans’ favourite. We’ve got three sets – A, B, C – which we’ll be rotating throughout the tour.

Geddy: It’s funny, some of those old songs sound so strange to me now, but when you start playing them you get back into that head-space you were in when they were written and recorded.

You fall in love with those songs again?

Geddy: It’s really all about your sense of perspective. A few years ago we brought back The Camera Eye [from Moving Pictures]. I never wanted to play that song. I never thought it was particularly worthy. And yet it was one the most requested Rush songs. I couldn’t understand it. How could people be so wrong?

So what changed?

Geddy: I realised I underestimate the moment in time – the context of that moment. When we started playing The Camera Eye, I thought, okay, there are a lot of pretentious moments in this song. It hasn’t aged well. But then I started re-learning the keyboard parts and putting together a slightly different version – instead of eleven minutes it clocks in at nine-and-a-half. And in the playing of it, yes, I fell in love with it again. And that’s where it becomes very subjective, and not objective. I stopped being able to tell if it was a pretentious song, and I just enjoyed playing those chords and I remembered why the song got recorded in the first place – I liked the chord progression and the vocal melodies. You can go back to that time and appreciate what you were trying to do. This song – it was a point in your life, and fans want to relive that point in your life and you can have fun playing it. I dig the hell out of that song now.

What else is planned for the tour?

Alex: Ged and I have gone crazy on bringing out all of our old instruments and buying up vintage gear all over the place. His goal is to play a different bass for every song in the show.

And for Rush fans in the UK, the big question is very simple: will you coming back?

Geddy: I’m always coming back. I spend a lot of time in London. I have a place there. It’s one of my favourite towns on earth.

You know what I mean – your fans in the UK want to see the band play live again.

Geddy: There’s nothing on the cards right now. I would say that there are those of us that would prefer to do some dates in the UK and even some European dates, and there’s an opportunity, once we get rolling, to see what we might want to add. But let’s just say that at this point that Neil’s made it clear that he’s good with this US tour being the last group of dates.

Alex: You never know. These past couple of months have been pivotal. It’s shown us, after a year and a half off, how much we really love doing what we’re doing. I think that’s really important in Neil’s case. But when you’ve only got so much time to play with it’s tough.

So you’re letting us down gently?

Alex: Well, like I said, you never know what will happen. But I’ll say one thing: Geddy feels it’s important that we go back at this time to the UK, to acknowledge the support you’ve given us for all these years. And I agree with him.

So what changed?

Geddy: I realised I underestimate the moment in time – the context of that moment. When we started playing The Camera Eye, I thought, okay, there are a lot of pretentious moments in this song. It hasn’t aged well. But then I started re-learning the keyboard parts and putting together a slightly different version – instead of eleven minutes it clocks in at nine-and-a-half. And in the playing of it, yes, I fell in love with it again. And that’s where it becomes very subjective, and not objective. I stopped being able to tell if it was a pretentious song, and I just enjoyed playing those chords and I remembered why the song got recorded in the first place – I liked the chord progression and the vocal melodies. You can go back to that time and appreciate what you were trying to do. This song – it was a point in your life, and fans want to relive that point in your life and you can have fun playing it. I dig the hell out of that song now.

What else is planned for the tour?

Alex: Ged and I have gone crazy on bringing out all of our old instruments and buying up vintage gear all over the place. His goal is to play a different bass for every song in the show.

And for Rush fans in the UK, the big question is very simple: will you coming back?

Geddy: I’m always coming back. I spend a lot of time in London. I have a place there. It’s one of my favourite towns on earth.

You know what I mean – your fans in the UK want to see the band play live again.

Geddy: There’s nothing on the cards right now. I would say that there are those of us that would prefer to do some dates in the UK and even some European dates, and there’s an opportunity, once we get rolling, to see what we might want to add. But let’s just say that at this point that Neil’s made it clear that he’s good with this US tour being the last group of dates.

Alex: You never know. These past couple of months have been pivotal. It’s shown us, after a year and a half off, how much we really love doing what we’re doing. I think that’s really important in Neil’s case. But when you’ve only got so much time to play with it’s tough.

So you’re letting us down gently?

Alex: Well, like I said, you never know what will happen. But I’ll say one thing: Geddy feels it’s important that we go back at this time to the UK, to acknowledge the support you’ve given us for all these years. And I agree with him.


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