After innumerable one-nighters and countless record sales in both North America and Europe, Canada's Rush continue to draw lightning. Comprised of Geddy Lee (bass, synthesizers), Alex Lifeson (guitars) and Neil Peart (drums, lyricist-in-chief), the controversial power trio is currently riding the crest of Signals, a relatively sublime LP that marks an evolution-via-synthesizer in the band's development. In anticipation of Rush's November Cleveland appearance, the eloquent Lee spoke in depth about Signals, his newly chosen form of expression, conceptual roots and the future.
What exactly were you going after with Signals?
The only specific thing we wanted to do was to be different in terms of attitudes and structures in recording. We were totally aware of how easy it would be to make Moving Pictures all over again. The thing to avoid was playing it safe.
What then would you say are the major differences between this album and the last?
In the past, we tried to establish a broad and deep guitar sound that wouldn't interfere with the bass and drums, fitting everything else into the huge guitar sound. So ours was basically a guitar-oriented sound with the rhythm section poking through and an occasional synthesizer line enhancing it. This time, though, we decided on more synthesis. Rather than using multi-tracking as we had been doing, we wanted to get one real guitar sound that sort of assumed its own spot, and a drum sound that took up a lot of room but had a natural sort of ambience to it. Instead of setting up as a power trio, we wanted to set up as a four-piece band without using a lot of overdubbing to achieve that.
Did that present any unusual problems?
There were a number of problems. Because we are a trio, there were times we wouldn't use keyboards and go back to our trio format. But we'd have this one guitar that would sit there on the left-hand-side of the stereo, and there'd be nothing on the right except for the occasional drums and some echo off the voice. It took a while to get used to that and not having it feel empty. We had to mix constantly so that things weren't dropping out of the sound picture, but changing dynamically into a different field. The temptation was great to start overdubbing with the guitars.
Was there any difference in the compositional process this time around?
Not really. With our music, a lot of discussion goes on before anything goes down so that in the end, although the credits will say, "Neil Peart, lyrics; Alex Lifeson/Geddy Lee, music," there's plenty of input from all sides. Nothing gets accepted unless it's agreed upon and we all feel positive about it.
After a progressively steady use of synthesizer on your part, how do you react to its use by other bands?
It's like anything. When the electric guitar first came out, there were loads of people who couldn't play it. The synthesizer is a wonderful thing in that it opens up so many areas of expression for people who don't have the technique a keyboardist might have. You really don't need technique because with a synthesizer you can use your own technique. As long as you have a sense of how to write a melody, you can use the synthesizer to express yourself.
When I first started, I used a synthesizer bass pedal to fill in the empty spaces in the band. Then I got a mini-moog, and then bigger stuff, and as time went on, the more I learned about the use of sound. I still don't consider myself a keyboardist, however.
Throughout Signals, there seems to be a strong underlying theme of futurism and its effect on man. Was that a conscious choice - to have one continuous theme?
The more we talked about the scenes surrounding individual songs, the more they appeared to connect. So, yes, there is a connection in a thematic sense. Some of the connections are thin, but others are strong, like the one between "Analog Kid," "Subdivisions" and "Digital Man." But it wasn't as conscious as it appears.
An album is like a hunk of time in your life that you freeze. The things that we talk about on Signals are things that were on our mind and things that we feel are worth bringing to the public consciousness.
I get the impression that synthesizers can be addictive.
It is in the sense that as soon as you buy one, it becomes obsolete. Before you turn around, there are so many easier ways of accomplishing what you want to accomplish. You have to constantly trade in and improve upon your collection. The flexibility is limitless right now, there are so many amazing sounds on the market.
On Signals, the song "Countdown" poetically recalls a NASA spaceshot. Had you ever been down there to witness firsthand what you wrote about?
While they were developing the shuttle launch, somebody arranged a VIP tour for us. At the time, the director of the Kennedy Space Center took us around, giving us the full treatment. He was very friendly and was just as interested in what we did for a living. It was a sort of mutual curiosity. We stayed in contact, and when it came time for the launch, we were invited down.
Also on Signals, "Digital Man"'s use of ska is intriguing, especially for Rush. Is that an area you intend to explore?
Sure. From a rhythm section point of view, it's a great thing. Rhythm is a field that's become more important with the band just because it's different and so much depends on feel. It's all about the placement of notes rather than the complexity within the part. The complexity is all rhythmic. So it's very appealing to us because we're Canadian white boys, and establishing that feel ain't the most natural thing.
Now that you have a new direction mapped out, what does the future hold, or is it still too soon to tell?
We're not even thinking about the future. We're at a stage where we've worked very hard on an album and not really sure what we have. Some things you immediately like and others you can't see from looking at them for so long. So we're enjoying the rare opportunity of having just finished an LP and not having to think about the next. This is my favorite time - playing and touring without the pressure.
In looking back, which Rush album has given you the most personal satisfaction?
That's a tough question, but Permanent Waves gave me the most immediate satisfaction because it was an enjoyable project to do, it was a positive time for us and it was easy. And it was a breakthrough in getting us away from the rut we were starting to fall into. That second wind has carried us right through to the present.
Do you ever critique your past work for its shortcomings?
Yeah. I don't go out of my way, but when I do hear past material I think, "Why'd I do that?" or "Why didn't I spend more time working out the bugs?" On the other hand; I'll hear a song I've totally forgotten about and think, "I didn't know we could do that. That's pretty good!" It all balances out.
After reading the back cover of Signals, is it pretty safe to assume that you guys are big baseball fans.
That is a safe assumption.
You're also a big Warren Cromartie fan, I take it, having named an imaginary secondary school after him.
You might say that. We had the great pleasure of meeting Warren when we were doing the album. He's a rock drummer himself, a big rock fan, primarily a fan of Neil's. He came to visit us and loved being able to see the studio where we work. After the year he's had, if anyone deserves to have a school named after him, it's Warren. (Note: Montreal Expo Warren Cromartie batted a below-average .252 this past season as his highly-touted team failed to make the playoffs.)
Finally, and this is the most important question, what did you do with the ten dollars you got from the Hosers to play on "Great White North"?
I spent it right away. Bought a carton of cigarettes with it.
Thanks for the "exclusive."