There comes a time in most bands' development when they begin to feel the limitations of either their equipment or their personnel.
Never is this more so than with a Three-piece. No matter how much technique they have, the music can at some point demand extra depth that cannot be achieved by three men alone without one guy devoting all his time to a bank of synthesisers, and this arrangement again limits the kind of style you can work in.
This was the dilemma facing Rush after the 2112 album, their last with the straight guitar, bass and drums line-up. Neil Peart, Rush's tireless drummer, spoke to me after their recent concert at Bingley about the decisions they made and how they've integrated their equipment to assist them, not forgetting, of course his own role with that huge kit.
'It was a musical dilemma. We felt we had to make the choice between a new member and new gear to be able to progress.'
'The deciding factor was really that the expansion we needed was more textural than anything else. The music demanded depth rather than growth.'
Geddy Lee has an Oberheim polyphonic, an OB-1 and Moog Chorus Bass Pedals to play now, quite apart from his bass work, and Alex Lifeson is kitted out with the Moog pedals as well.
'All these are background things, though,' continued Neil. 'Geddy is no way a keyboard player and Alex is so busy on guitar that it could be no other way.'
'I was going to experiment with a Minimoog or even get into tuned percussion work, with a xylophone, maybe, or vibes, but I'm not a percussionist. Vibes require a lot of technique, and although I've got wind-chimes, glockenspiel and so forth, I'm not into the way, say, Bruford is. in the same way that the synthesisers are background, textural effects rather than a focus for the arrangements, all my tuned gear is supplementary to my main function as a drummer.
Neil's mammoth drumkit - is a Tama kit, all wood shelled, which is not so common these days, consisting of two 14x24in bass drums, 5xl4in snare, concert toms of 6, 8, l0, 12in, tenor toms of 8x12, 9x13 and 12x15, floor tom 16x18in, a 14x14in tymbali, Premier tympani, Paiste gong and Zildjian l3in hi-hat and cymbals. Peripherals include an assortment of wind chimes picked up on tour, temple blocks ditto, Deagan tubular bells, a glockenspiel and sundry other devices which owe their use to the simple efficacy of their sound.
'Some of the band's gear was obtained as the need for a certain effect became evident in a particular song. For instance, I'd never felt the need for a gong until we came to "Hemispheres" . It just didn't seem justified for one little sound. Well, not little, of course, but a single, isolated effect.
"Hemispheres" needed a gong, though, and a tympani, so that was added. Now they are naturally part of the arrangements in anything else we do. It's not always that way round. Alex got a Roland guitar synthesiser one day and we wrote some new songs as a result of that.'
There are always problems when it comes to adding new equipment, and even more basic than their correct musical use is the logistical side of things. Anyone who has studied a Rush performance will se how swiftly Alex Lifeson's guitars are swopped around, but the simple act of taking one off and putting another on takes a lot of time in musical terms.
'We pay close attention to writing and arranging for live performance. That doesn't mean we don't use double-tracking in the studio, but there's more integrity in structuring our songs for stage work, and we're always conscious of how it would work on stage, even down to switching instruments or the time it takes me to pick up the hammer for the tubular bells.
'We have acoustic intros to some songs and they have to be written around the fact that Alex has got to be able to change guitars after that section. When I use the gong on "Hemispheres", I couldn't do it unless I had the guy there holding the hammer ready for me - all this is taken into account. We rehearse using all the effects we have on stage so we know we can reproduce it, although you've a lot more time in a studio, of course.'
Isn't there a danger of compromising the music for the sake of the mechanics of playing it live?
'No, we don't feel that way. Live playing is part of what music is all about. We do have to compromise the original idea sometimes - stretch a bar here or put in a pause there - but that's as valid as any other musical device.'
Neil started off with the two bass drums, four toms and a few cymbals, and it's naturally becoming increasingly difficult to fix extra bits in. Does each addition call for rearrangement of the kit?
'The first addition was concert toms. Once I understood those, the windchimes came along, then the glockenspiel. The basic arrangement hasn't changed, though. I fit bits in around everything else according to their use.
'The glockenspiel is in tight on the left so I can run straight off the drums on to that, using the sticks. The chimes are more isolated, musically, and I have to switch to hammers which means a time-lag, so I don't need them close by.
'The tympani, again, need to be accessible so I can run on to them with the sticks, so they are tight in, too. The point is that if I have everything in the familiar places anything new can be added into the system I play to and becomes part of the whole. That way it's building rather than changing. Most of these are just textural effects and the must used bits are where they've always been.' 'The sticks are Promark 747s, but they're not the same as the ones presently being marketed under that tag. Mine bend a little. Being slightly flexible they give a bit which prevents them breaking. That's good because I can chuck them out when they get worn instead of suddenly being interrupted by a break. They start to fray in the middle about half way through the set and I know that's the time to change them.
'My electronics are Eventide Instant Phaser and DDL and a Mutron phaser. They're controlled from offstage. The drum solo is to a fixed pattern, so I don't need triggering in the drums or anything to achieve those effects.'
Was Neil going to tell me he started playing with pencils on the dining table at the age of three?
'It was almost as cliched as that, yes! We had some chopsticks I hit things with - that sort of thing, but my folks gave me drumming lessons.'
'You were lucky,' I said. 'Most of us were forced to take on violin lessons!'
'Oh, I got that, too! Not violin, Though, but some very boring piano lessons. Mind you, I came out of that with a useful musical grounding - just the basics, but it hasn't hurt to know.
'I was lucky with my drum teacher. He encouraged me to explore apart from teaching the fundamentals - 99.9% of what I know has been learnt since, but those lessons have been a foundation for all of that. I learnt a lot from other drummers, too. I've been told I'm too busy but it's right for me. People can say Jon Hiseman is too busy but he's a joy to see. I've learnt to play around the kit and try not to repeat myself. Keith Moon brought it home to me that you don't have to end every roll with a cymbal crash and you can make a particular move last a bar and a half if it feels right. Mitch Mitchell has an approach. I use my kit as another and Michael Giles gave me a new direction. He's very technical, but once again shows so much freedom with that.
'Mind you, there's nothing wrong with the functional approach. I use my kit as another instrument rather than something to give a kick to the rhythm, but many drummers simply fulfill a need. I love listening to the work done by Stuart Copeland of The Police. That is minimalistic in approach, but it works just right. I wouldn't make any judgments on anyone's approach, or anyone's music for that matter, but I know what's right for mc.'
Rush play a very long set lasting two hours or more. How does the man who works hardest in purely physical terms handle that?
'I don't find any need to pace myself for it. If I were to lay back in anticipation of a heavy section I wouldn't be giving my best all the time, which is what l do. I think your stamina adapts to the set required as you get used to doing it, but we don't juggle the set around so I can have a break from time to time because it's not necessary Our music naturally gives me easy spots at times because we include a lot of dynamics, contrasting passages, and they're an inherent element of our musical style. I know what you're going to say, and everyone I talk to says he paces himself, too - it's worrying sometimes!'
How about writing?
'There's no formula - nothing comes first every time. It can be an idea from Geddy that sparks words in my mind, or some lyrics of mine that Alex translates into music, or anything. Generally, it's Alex who turns it into sounds between him and Geddy, and I work around that with a lot of verbal involvement. I do the lyrics, really.
'There are two criteria for our writing. First, it must generate a level of excitement for us, and, second, we must be able to remember it. We don't work from written music - I can read for drums, but only taking it phrase by phrase - and if we can't just remember a bit, well, it wasn't good enough to be memorable. We've got to enjoy being able to play it over and over without stagnating, or getting fed up with it.
'The sci-fi bit came along because we had to fight out of the artistic repression we felt. It's the ideal medium for ideas because there are no pre-conceptions. You can put abstract ideas over in physical terms. We did "Cygnus X-l" without any idea how we'd finish it - it just seemed it would be nice to have "to be continued..." after it and pick it up on the album after next, but Geddy had this idea for "Hemispheres" that was totally unrelated to "Cygnus" until we'd worked it out further when it felt right to link the two. With sci-fi we can put across our thoughts in understandable terms. I don't read much sci-fi myself, though.'
A review of the complete Rush set-up would go on a long time - that's for the future, perhaps, not forgetting the unsung hero of the light show, Howard Ungerleider, as much an artist on lighting as the band are on instruments. Here we'll settle for a list of Alex and Geddy's gear, although they'd have as much to say as Neil about their own particular jobs as part of Rush.
Alex Lifeson - Gibson twin-neck, ES 345, ES 355, B45-12 acoustic, Fender Stratocaster, Epiphone Classical C60. Dean Markeley strings for electrics, ProStar for acoustic, Roland guitar synth, two Roland Space Echo, Cry-Baby Wah, Morley volume pedal, Moog Taurus Bass Pedals, custom effects rack containing Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress, Roland Boss Chorus and Maestro parametric EQ. Also Ashley preamps and parametric EQ into two Hiwatt 100s and a Fender Twin Reverb which is kept low for a clean sound.
Geddy Lee - Rickenbacker bass and twin-neck 4- and 12-string, Minimoog, Oberheim Polyphonic and OB-1, Moog Taurus Bass Pedals (interfaced with Oberheim), Ashley preamps, BGW power amps into custom Teal-designed cabs for treble and V4B Ampeg cabs housing 2x15in JBLs for bass.