Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson - Off The Record

Off The Record with Mary Turner, 1985, transcriber unknown/edited by pwrwindows

Geddy: Any style done really well, I really like. Whether it be a big dense wall of sound or whether it be the minimalist school. It just depends on what the execution is like, and if it works. Around Grace Under Pressure time, we were really obsessed with that way. And if we should be that way too, we should be minimalistic and try to learn that way of thinking, that way of looking at your songwriting. I think it's very important for a musician to understand what the language of today's musician is. I think it's a bad thing to insist that your way of doing things is the only way. If you want to learn, and if you want to communicate with people today, you have to use the tools of today. And I think that was the desire - to stay contemporary and to stay in part of the main stream of things, the way things are going, that's how you become a dinosaur: by refusing to accept that things are changing, and refusing to accept that you can learn from this scene. I think it's very important for us to stay in touch and to learn. We don't sit there and go "Uhrg, this new music is garbage, there's nothing to be learned here." We say "Wow, this is great, this is something different, I never thought of that, maybe I can apply those techniques or these attitudes to my music and make my music better". So that's it, that's the desire, that's the goal.

Rush - Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart. If they weren't in a rock band they'd probably be philosophers, or members of 'Think Tank'. Actually, Rush is the closest thing you'll find to a musical think tank of the eighties: 'New World Man', 'Distant Early Warning', 'Freewill', 'Manhattan Project' - Rush is more at home writing about world affairs than about cars, guitars and girls. I'm Mary Turner, and for the next hour I'll be talking with Alex and Geddy, and we'll hear how they mix current events and power chords. Rush - Off the record.


Did you plan before you started to make this album? Do you sit down and discuss what you want to achieve or how you want the music to sound?

Alex: Actually, it's important to go back a step to the last album. When we went into the studio to do that one we wanted to work with a new producer. We'd worked well with Terry Brown for a number of years for all our records, and we just needed a break. Unfortunately things didn't work out quite the way we planned. We'd hoped to work with someone else at that time, and they just backed out. We were stuck with finding a replacement really, so we went through a list of people who were available at that time who we thought we would like to work with. We settled on Peter Henderson. It was a great experience. It was nice to work with someone else, but it wasn't quite what we wanted and we really wanted to work with a 'producer' producer, rather than with another engineer type person. This time round we said, "right, we're gonna make sure we get this organized and down pat". So again we had producer interviews and we spoke to a number of producers on our list and we settled on Peter Collins. When we went out to do the record we thought "Okay this is what we want from a producer: we want someone that has some sort of arrangement or musical input, someone who can give us a nudge and a push in directions that we haven't gone in before, and a fresh face more than anything". Peter worked out 150%, exactly what we were looking for. He never at any time tried to change the sound of the band, which was something that we were a bit afraid of with anybody - the band has always written its own material, arranged it and worked that way, and we weren't quite sure that we'd find anybody who was sensitive to that - but Peter was. He comes from a very musical background, rather a technical background. He was an engineer for a little while, he started out as an engineer. But he'd be the first to admit he was a very poor engineer. His interest was more in music and producing music, so it was a perfect marriage.


Geddy: We had a few songs we wanted to experiment with, with real strings, and he said "Well let's go for it, have you ever done it before?" and we said no, we've always wanted to but never thought it was right. It was a kind of experiment thing to do and we didn't know if it suited our band, and he said, "Why not? Your songs deserve whatever ideas come out of them; why hold back?" So, sure he put us in touch with Anne Dudley, who's a very talented arranger, and who'd arranged things for Trevor Horn and a lot of projects like Lexicon Of Love for ABC and such. She's also in the Art Of Noise, an interesting person, and we thought, "Great, it's nice to work with someone from that background". She did the string arrangements on four songs; only four because we had three hours of studio time booked and we saw three session song people and we thought, "Well, we're gonna get our money's worth out of them, so let's have them playing every possible second until the three hours is up, and then we'll take what we like and use what we like." And we just used a little taste here and there, but it was nice taste - it added a little to the way the record comes across.


Rush is definitely not a light pop band. Neil Peart, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson are serious. So when they pick Power Windows for the title of their album, the windows was a metaphor for the kind of society that was electricity rather than muscle power to open windows, right?

Alex: Well, actually no, it was a bit of a joke. We were trying to think up a title for the album and the underlying theme throughout the record is power: the different way it's manifested and comes into play in everyday life. And we went through some really horrible titles. We wrote them all down and they were overblown or pretentious, we had to be careful because we have a tendancy to be like that sometimes. We thought well, what the hell, why don't we have something like Power Windows? And we all had a laugh. Oh Power Windows that'd be a laugh...hey, Power Windows, that's not bad! And we stuck with that. It was a kind of humorous title for a change.


Do you have a kind of system that you use to write songs? Do the words come first? Do you and Geddy work on the music together? How does it happen?

Alex: Geddy and I will go in during the day...around noon, and we'll start working on musical ideas. We record our jams at sound checks so we have a whole library of snippets of ideas. I would say 80% of it is garbage, but the 20% that happens spontaneously has a value. We have to sift through the tapes to find those things and catalog them. I have a studio at home and I do a lot of writing on my own. Of course Neil works on frameworks of ideas. With this record, funnily enough, we just started from scratch, recording little things in a small portable studio and then developed songs or musical parts out of ideas. Then as the lyrics came in we started to fit lyrics to musical ideas. Some of them don't work so you try the next idea until you find something that blends properly. Then we just develop it in the evenings after dinner. We would rehearse and start defining the ideas together as a band, and that seems to be the arrangement we have had for quite a while.


You guys have been together for ten years now. Is it sometimes hard to stay fresh? Do you ever feel like you're going to run out of ideas?

Alex: Well, there's no shortage of ideas. It got a little tough during mixing, not to rewrite some of the songs. But, I mean, after you work on a project for that long, I suppose for some people they just work at it and work to the end - and that's finished and they don't think about it. For other people, on some of Trevor Horn's projects...extremely long projects, and half way through he decides he wants to re-do the whole thing. For us, we're constantly thinking of ideas and different things we want to do. Neil was saying at the end of the recording he was ready to start on the next record - take a couple of weeks off... I mean, the material after 6 1/2 to 7 months begins to sound old to you and you haven't even had the chance to play it on stage. I guess we love what we do, we really enjoy recording and writing probably at this point in our careers more than touring. It's fantastic to play live. It's a great buzz. But after so many years of the whole 'being on the road' lifestyle it gets to you,. Not that we're gonna stop touring but we'll probably lay back a bit.


Geddy Lee says there's no chance that Rush will ever start repeating one successful formula over and over.

Geddy: We get bored real easily, and I think part of it comes from being a touring band so much, and having to tour for so many years. If you were writing songs that were too simple at that time, and you were touring for ten months, you're gonna get real bored playing those songs. It's as a result that we had a tendency to overcomplicate our material just to make it more challenging to play night after night. That sort of became a desire: constantly to change, to constantly move, not to stay still, not to stay in one place. We were obsessed with that at one point. I guess through Hemispheres, A Farewell To Kings and all through that period we were very technical and very time change orientated. We wouldn't even play 4/4 time: it was considered to be 'not hip' to do that. But that was kind of naïve and since then we've come to appreciate how difficult it is to play something good in 4/4 time. You think it's easy to write simple songs, but it's not what we've realized now.


Geddy: A lot of how we are came out of what we play and the fact that we consider ourselves musicians first, songwriters second, performers third, probably. The musical values are still the most important things: the actual playing has always been the most important thing with us because we weren't real image conscious and we weren't real songwriters as such. We wrote sort of pieces of music and stuck with them. They were just vehicles for our playing for a long time. We tried to make it all meaningful through some kind of concept. That worked for a long time until that became less satisfying, it became a repeat of technical exercises. We got to the point musically where we could play that stuff, so we were going "How can all this be different if what we're doing is doing another technical exercise?" It became not enough. We then started to realize that we wanted to become better songwriters. We wanted to be able to write songs that have good melodies and a nice rhythmic feel; all those elements focus from the makeup of a good song. So we shifted from putting technical first to songwriting first, and we're still in that stream but now we've learned there's so many different ways to look at songwriting. There's so many different songs you can write, and now we're just trying to make different ones...see which ones suit us better.


Rush released their first album in 1974 on their own label, Moon Records. In 1975 they were awarded Canada's Juno award for the 'most promising new group'. In 1977 they did their first American tour. By 1978 they had another Juno award, three platinum albums in Canada and four gold ones from the United States. The next six years bring them more gold albums, concert tours and millions of loyal fans. That's what Rush's twelve year career looks like on paper, but how does it feel on the inside of the band? Alex Lifeson talks about the chemistry of Rush next...


A lot of time has gone by since you first started Rush. How have your goals changed over the last ten years?

Alex: If you get down to basics, it hasn't changed. When we first started the goal was to play a gig the following week and to have fun. And really that's what it boiled down to. I think at that early stage we didn't have any idea of a career, a long career. It was mainly to have fun and maybe make a few dollars and see some parts of the world. When things started to open up for us and we got the American deal, again it was not a long term thing. And I remember thinking back then "We could do this for five years and that'll be great, I'll have a riot and a really good time and something to remember for the rest of my life." And here eleven years later, for that point, we're still at it, still going strong. So the fundamental 'having fun' is still there, enjoying what you do and making records. I suppose back then to make a second album was a big achievement, and now that we are on our eleventh studio album I suppose we have met those goals and surpassed them.


When you work with the same two people for over a decade you learn to understand them perfectly. Alex says there are very few surprises or misunderstandings in Rush.

Alex: You know well in advance what the reaction from the other guys will be. But for the last eleven years we've spent more time with each other than most people spend with their families, certainly more time than I've spent with my family. It goes beyond being brothers, it's somewhere else. Geddy and I for instance have been friends for nineteen years. And throughout that friendship we've played together...before the band we used to sit in the basement, his or mine, both plug into one amp and play blues songs or whatever; and it's just an understanding I guess that we all have. A chemistry that works between us all.


Progressive is an old fashioned term, do you still think of Rush as a progressive band?

Alex: That's the way I would label us; that's the way we've always thought of ourselves. We're definitely a rock band, we've always been one. I don't think we've ever been heavy metal. I think possibly just the first record we were in our heavy metal stage, but we've always considered ourselves a rock band and we've tried to be progressive. We've tried to move to the next level, whether it's up or down we've always tried to move. And I think it's odd, I hear a lot from our fans or people who know the band who wish that we were back to the days of '2112'. I'm not sure if that's because of the music so much, as maybe where the people were at a certain point in their lives. I remember certain albums, where I was, and I feel very strongly about those records, even though the bands went on and progressed and tried to do many different things. I've always attached myself to that first record or particular album. I guess you can't make everybody happy all the time. We really try to make ourselves happy first before we try to make anyone else happy, and I think that's probably the most important ingredient of the band. And the true fans really acknowledge that and understand that. We have to push forward, and I will admit that sometimes we've gone a little downhill because we've tried things that haven't worked. Unfortunately, we can't try things in a studio or rehearsal hall and scrap it and then go again. You make a record and it's there for life. This has always been the key, and always will be...