The Disasters of Rush

Music Maker (Holland), August 1979, translated and transcribed by Alex van Loon

The nice thing about concert discussions is that one has a completely different opinion than another. Both supporters and opponents of a certain group or artist express their opinion in overwhelming terms, whereby hardly any or no account is taken of the public reactions.

A striking example of such disagreements after the Pinkpop festival concerned the Canadian band Rush. The responses to the trio's performance were so opposite that you apparently have to be either a die-hard Rush fan, or an at least equally fanatic Rush hater. A middle way does not seem possible. In a certain way, a band is lucky with such contradictions. Those who remain are true fanatics. And they go through thick and thin. This was evident at Pinkpop by the presence of a crowd of banners and admirers with similar recognizable outfits. The members of the group were visibly surprised by this.

Initially there was no intention at all to interview any of the band members. The dedication and musical ability of the bass/keyboard player/singer Geddy Lee made me decide otherwise. He seems to be the driving force behind Rush. Apart from that, the Pinkpop festival went well this year. Rain spoiled it for a while but stopped just before Rush hit the stage. Still a conversation with Rush, with a kind of Winnetou look like Geddy Lee.


At the first meeting Geddy turned out to be a completely different person than the unsuspecting spectator would expect. During the show he acts rather effusive, with lots of head-shaking and sometimes a shrieking cry. As usually is the case, Geddy Lee is a completely different person backstage. He speaks softly and slightly tired, makes a civilized impression and he even tries to provide some banging fans with an autograph through a window. He also wears a pair of large size glasses. The initial image of an Indian chief disappears quickly to make way for an artistic but lost schoolmaster. The band members are tired because of the eight-month tour. Add to this the European tour was troubled with disasters. It started with the show in Paris. The initial show was canceled because The Who had a show on the same evening. To manage to play the show in Paris, the band decided to cancel some of the Belgian dates. Finally the show in Paris could last, but at the arrival, the hall appeared to be burned down. So still back to Belgium. In May and June the band played in Scandinavia. There guitarist Alex Lifeson hurt one of his fingers. His finger had to be perforated to release the pressure from the inside. Several shows were canceled, but just in time it seems to be cured enough for Pinkpop. But halfway down the show the disputed finger started to irritate which was a quite unpleasant situation for Alex. His fingertips were black and blue. We are not finished yet because Geddy continues with a tired voice what happened the same afternoon.

"This afternoon, one of our roadies jumped over a concrete wall with the firm idea that the ground behind it was at equal height. He didn't know that the level was split and fell 30 feet downstairs and broke both his feet! He was immediately carried off to the hospital. We missed him very badly during the show because we had a man short on stage.” Geddy Lee tells all previous and unpleasant incidents with a slightly resigned sound in his voice. The cause soon becomes clear: the tour is lasting for eight months now and gradually a considerable fatigue sets in."

“Eight months is too long. But after this period we'll take six weeks off and then we are going to prepare ourselves for the next album. Before we start with the recording we'll make a short tour to try out the new material and to see what the audience responses will be. When we've had all those activities, we'll pause to relax ourselves. An eight month tour won't be undertaken just for fun but for giving the band a better reputation as a live band. We've succeeded in that, although we've sometimes played for half full venues. But it was successful which was the intention.”

OK, let's switch to the musical activities.


Geddy, you have a lot to do during a show. You sing, play bass and keyboards. How do you co-ordinate that?

"It's just a matter of practice. I couldn't do it immediately and that wasn't necessary because it has slowly grown little by little. Meanwhile it has become quite a hassle, but I have a kind of rhythm inside my head, which tells me what to do at a certain moment. Today it wasn't that difficult because usually we give a two hour show. We were not permitted to play two hours here, so at the last moment we had to sort out a tighter program. But we gained one half hour because we told the organizer that our roadies were ready with the set-up before the half hour break."

Are you originally a bass player or a keyboard player?

"Bass player, I am not engaged with keyboards that long. It still has to grow yet. At the moment I play rather simple but I work hard on it."

Playing bass and singing simultaneously is not that simple, especially when you want to do both perfectly.

"It's just what I said before. It's all a matter of practice. We work so intensively that it goes all by itself in the long run. Besides that, you should not make the mistake to think you'll never make it. You just have to do it and you'll notice that one of the roles just happens automatically. Unfortunately that will be the bassline while you're singing."

Do you use tapes with pre-recorded chords?

"Only tapes with certain effects. We play the music live, to be clear, with the exception of a very short part of 'Hemispheres', where the whole band is pressed together on one little tape. It produces a very weird sound but it only takes just a few seconds. Otherwise we only have space sounds on tape. Like the beginning of '2112' and several other weird effects."

But you sound sometimes very orchestral. During one of the first songs you played synthesizer while the bassline continued.

"Oh, wait a minute. I know what you mean. Those are Alex's bass pedals. He has one set of Moog Taurus-pedals and I have two sets. His pedals are programmed to sound different to mine. Alex' set has indeed the sound of a real bass guitar."

How do you work that out in the studio, do you work the same way as on stage?

"When we are writing songs, most of it happens in the studio. So we have time to sort everything out well, and we are looking constantly what we can do live or not. We arrange everything very accurate so we will not be faced with surprises later. The past learned us that changing from this to that takes a certain time and during that time nothing else can happen. In the meantime I believe that you may call it a certain style. Many bands tend to overload the production. The result is that they can't play it live. We plan everything carefully."


Did you customize your Rickenbackers? The combination of a bass guitar and a 12 string guitar is very unique I guess.

"The only thing that's been changed to my Rickenbacker 4002 are the bridge and the snare mechanics. The bridge is from 'Bad Ass'. The rest is original because I don't have any reason to change more. The combination is very unique indeed. It is especially custom built for me. The 12 string neck is originally a regular 6 string design. They have put on another bridge and changed the head. They do make a combination of a bass guitar and a 6 string guitar."

Do they work as two guitars, so with two separate outputs which are connected with two different amplifiers?

"No, I had make a relay-system for that. It is built in my equipment while it is controlled by a foot switch. When I switch to my guitar, the whole system switches automatically to the other amplifier. But sometimes I make a mistake."

Are your keyboards still the same?

"I still use an Oberheim 8 Voice and a Mini Moog which are built in like a jukebox. The whole construction is placed on the side of the stage. Underneath is one of my two Taurus pedal sets. These are built in too and are connected with the Oberheim. I like that setup because I can operate the 8 Voice with my feet. It took us six months before we found out the right way to do it, but the possibilities are endless. The band is more flexible because I can play bass and keyboard strings simultaneously. The Oberheim contains a computer which can store several programs. I can control all those possibilities with the Taurus pedals, while I don't have to drop the bass."

You work hard on it.

"It is my profession. I do a lot of practice, and again one of those reasons why we still remain a trio is that we are afraid to end up in the same pattern as the other bands. A lot of musicians become idle at the time. And we wanted to avoid that at all costs. Satisfaction can kill you. We always wanted to be the smallest symphony-orchestra of the world. In fact that is an unpractical and pretentious attitude which is sometimes breaks us up but it keeps us working. When the Rush-period is over, we will be better musicians, because that is truly the reason why the band still exists."


The situation in Canada differs not that much from Holland. According to Geddy Lee it seems that they've always ignored their national product too. Geddy says that it has become better over the years because a few Canadians have entered the US with success. Yet Canada as a huge and wide country has a relative small market. The advantage of their musical artists is that the El Dorado of music (the States) is right next door. They are familiar with each other's language, which is a handicap for most European musicians. However well you master a language like English. It is still a foreign language, not the one you grew up with (though there are exceptions).

Have you brought with you your own PA?

"We hired a PA but we use our own mixer and stage equipment. Alex still uses his Hiwatt amplifiers and cabinets but I've switched to BGW solid state amplifiers (made in the US), Ashley pre-amps and JBL cabinets. I'm not so familiar with the origin of my equipment but the cabinets are called Teal Alignment Cabinets (there are only a few made). They are especially designed by Teal for Electrovoice. It's a very flexible system. My keyboards are going straight to the monitor system."

Can you always hear your voice clearly enough?

"Sometimes it is difficult to hear. I have a rather high voice, what really is the direct result of the volume of our music. We needed a voice which could cut right through our music. I often get critical remarks about it. A lot of people don’t appreciate my singing but you have to see it as an instrument, a sound which I play with. It's Just a sound experiment just like the rest. You could say that Rush is a never-ending sound experiment."

You write all the music together: Neil Peart writes most of the lyrics, and Alex and you take all the credits for the music. How does that work out?

"Neil writes 98% of the lyrics, indeed. Our working method can be very different. But in general we both have certain themes in mind which we work out together. In the past we didn't record anything before we went into the studio but in the meantime we all have recording equipment af home. I have a small studio in the basement of my home and there stands all the equipment we need. Even a drumkit which is difficult for me to play. It needs time. Nowadays I keep myself intensively busy with rhythmical notations. I have a quite rhythmical approach and I hope to take advantage with it. The more I know about drumming, the better ideas I get to play bass along. Even if I learn to count well. In rock music, the trend these days is to forget that a little. But especially for me in a trio, it is important to get a good view in several rhythms. Nowadays you often hear that a drummer and a bass player play a song within a song. The result is that the rhythm section and the soloists play completely separated from each other. Especially with three member bands this is often the case. Bass players usually do two things: they play as straight as possible or they try to play as many notes as they can, to fill up the empty spaces. The first thing is boring and the second thing doesn't make sense. It is a matter of thinking and especially a matter of taste. It takes time to develop this. Our music contains a lot of feel which is difficult to perceive because of the nature of our music. You have to sit down for it and listen."


How will Rush develop in the future?

"That is very hard to say. I think we'll become more and more strange. We've done so many things in the meantime that we just have to sort out what we should do. The last two albums (A Farewell To Kings and Hemispheres) are full of long songs. That probably will change on our next album because it is actually time for a change. I think the songs will be shorter. We should collect everything that we've done through the years and get started from that point. And the result is that we will write better songs with the experience from previous years. I think that every band will come to a point where the quality and expression of the songs reach their climax. It's a logical consequence of the previous years. But not every band comes that far. Sometimes they split up before that time. The key is, you have to be aware of getting satisfied with success."

The conversation continues with the necessity of (long) tours and how long you can or should carry on.

"Not too long, we might get exhausted. The usual procedure is that every band or artist who is getting successful once has to start with such an enterprise. The glory created from the records and the response from the media has to be consolidated by personal intervention. When that has happened, the policy needs to be changed again. Every year at least one album and certainly one single has to be released after which the band comes along with a perfect timed visit to raise the album sale. It's all a matter of planning and good promotion. That means for a band they are forced to stick together constantly, year after year, which can change best friends into deadly enemies. So there are more golden rules for a successful act; the members have to know each other very well and have to tolerate each other’s unpleasant character, or they have to tight up together in a contract in a very smart way so that liquidation of the group is very hard to realize. The last method is certainly not ideal. If there is anything to quarrel about then it's about the collateral disagreements, while on the other side half disagreements can lead to larger problems. So, usually a band which remains intact through the years, has the best opportunity to survive. To make a long story short, I have to compromise with the fact that there is often party formation within a lot of bands. Two versus two. When a band has an unequal number of members then member five, or in our case three, is a kind of troubleshooter. Both parties will try to convince the other so that the one occupies an important place within the whole. So bands with an unequal number of members: mind that the impartial person is one with diplomatic tact!"

The fact that this is (fortunately) not always the case, confirms Geddy Lee, although the first rule applies to Rush: they know each other for a very long time.

"For some peculiar reason we don't argue. The fact that we get along that well sometimes frightens me. But indeed, we know each other for a very long time, and we are very honest towards each other. And that's another reason why we've remained with the three of us. A fourth member would be an intruder. Also partiality within a trio is not that simple, it would be two against one, and that's not fair."


Reading notes isn't easy for Geddy. He really has to sit down for it but he feels that it will be necessary eventually.

"It is a means of communication between all musicians. I have had almost no musical education but I think that at some point I can't escape from that, just like everybody else. Everything I've learned is the result of years and years practice. In the end you have to read those notes as a kind of tool. It is a device to develop yourself further. You can see it as a language which you have to learn to control. You could compare it with someone who is living in a foreign country for years without speaking the language.”

Geddy illustrates his urge of learning by telling me that he has learned a lot from Rush’s support act during an essential part of the last tour. The band appears to be known as Max Webster and are from Canada just like Rush. From the discussed matter about reading notes, we return again to the subject of writing songs. Geddy tells that either Alex or himself suggests a certain context where they both are going to work from. When the song is more or less complete, Alex works out the guitar parts, while Geddy and drummer Neil sort out the bass and drum parts together. When Neil has finished his lyrics, the vocal parts can be done. So it is a typical studio method and Geddy admits that the song will get the definite form there.

"In the studio you have the time and rest for optimal concentration. I always have the feeling that my brains are going to run at top-speed as soon as we enter the studio. There we sit with the three of us with all kind of recording equipment. It often happens that a pre-written song which sounds well of that time, completely has to be changed. The pleasant thing of working with recording equipment is that everything becomes more clearly structured. I am looking forward to working with my own 8-track studio. You have so many possibilities. I can make a basic track and try out everything endlessly. The more you play, the more ideas you get. That's why it is important that you create a basis for yourself. Learning to play piano for instance."

The bass-parts in the music of Rush are basically finished, but there is always space left for improvisation. Geddy continues that he has the most wide ideas in mind at the start of a tour which come out after a while. Geddy tells me that he was working several months now on a bass-line in triplets. He tried to fit that into '2112' and declares with sudden shining eyes that he has succeeded completely just this afternoon for the first time.

"It is in the end of the song and it took me really eight months. When it finally works out perfectly, you are completely excited."


Geddy doesn't deny the proverbial volume of bands like Rush but he states that it isn't that loud nowadays.

"We are one of those bands who are delivered by the mercy of the hall. We must be careful because we balance our volume close to the edge. In a difficult hall it sometimes gets out of hand. It is no problem in the open alr but personally I don't like playing in the open air. There is too much distance between the audience and stage and there is no contact. Further you are delivered to the mercy of elements. In the open air, there are always a lot of things which distracts you. For example when a fly is buzzing around your head! And we had to drop our light-show on Pinkpop because it was broad daylight. We let home the largest part of our light-show and film-projections, which are actually very important to us, because we couldn't put it all on stage anyway. That was a hard decision, but you have to make concessions from time to time. We decided to go to Europe with minimal equipment. I think that it is a lack of self-confidence if you don't want to play with the familiar entourage. Honestly I have to admit that we didn't like it in the first place. A show like we are building up can create the atmosphere which affects our musical achievement. But we wanted to do it and we let half of the equipment at home. Just as nearly the complete light-show. The peculiar thing that happened is that several shows were the best we ever did! Only because we were reminded that there was nothing to hide. Just we and the music were important. I think the audience appreciates this challenge. You never may underestimate the audience. If you play well, that really comes over. I have seen a band with a terrible sound while the music was perfect. It don't depend on the achievement. The people feel what you are trying to accomplish."

With a sober observation that it always is raining during the open air concerts of Rush, Geddy tries to force a window in willing to provide the yelling fans with an autograph. Unfortunately the window is jammed and with many friendly hand gestures he let the fans know he has to disappoint them.

In spite of all disasters, the band is content, although Geddy modestly determines that to his opinion around thousand people really came for Rush. With a more satisfied smile he notes that at least more than those one thousand enforced encore after encore. Therefore Rush has come.