Geddy Lee has the admirable ability to reflect on the past without sinking to maudlin nostalgia. Having spent most of his professional life swimming upstream against musical fad, Rush has not yet reached its spawning ground where, ultimately, it will either die or lay a few million eggs.
If Rush hasn't moved as quickly as the name implies, it's more a sign of the indomitability of their spirit than any trepidation towards progress.
Few bands with more than a decade under their belts can claim the consistency of Rush and the stability of its line-up. With eleven albums in as many years, Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart created the bridge between progressive rock and heavy metal that eventually blurred the distinction between two contrasting seventies styles. Originally immersed in "Sword and Sorcery" imagery with elaborate lyrical fantasies and complicated musical compositions, the band developed the kind of loyal following politicians would kill for. The people who read only science fiction would elevate Rush as the one band that could articulate their baroque cosmologies with a rock sensibility.
Preaching to the converted is tedious, but changing horses mid-stream is downright dangerous. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since Rush made their quick-change out of their Merlin robes into their street clothes, but the reverberations are still evident in the direction the band has taken and their open-door policy towards any and all influences.
On the eve of rehearsals for their up-coming tour, Lee is relaxed and soft spoken. Dressed in black t-shirt and pants, his clothes don't reflect his mood. With the latest record completed, the band has dispersed around the world (Lifeson in New York, Peart cycling through China). Lee, in Toronto, has the same aura of serenity about him that one would expect to see about a seasoned soldier the night before going into battle.
When Rush made The Great Leap Forward at the time of Permanent Waves (Lee says he gauges time by tours and albums rather than months or years) some of their "loyal" followers felt abandoned. When Lifeson put on a skinny tie, Peart shaved his moustache or Lee cut his hair, the hordes bristled with betrayal.
"It was easier in the early days," Lee considers. "We had a cause: to come out with our own sound. We wanted to be just different enough that we didn't sound like anybody but once we did we wanted to sound like everybody. We're very influenced by what we hear." Having established their own identifiable style, built from a foundation of early Zeppelin, Who and Yes, the boys wanted to express their own musical diversity, something they earlier expressed by heaping ideas together. "I have a tendency as a songwriter," Lee claims, "to just stick things together: 'This end note goes with the beginning note of that section so I can glue it together.' Songwriting is partly that, always will be, but all the best songs don't feel like they've been stuck together. They flow from beginning to end." Where they used to create a structure for a whole album, they now concentrate on constructing the perfect song.
Perhaps more than any Rush album, Power Windows is made up of eight very different songs. "I don't know if it's a step forward, backward or sideways," Lee says, "but it is definitely a step." As always, there is a theme alluded to in the title. The songs, different as they are, all refer to various sources of power and their complicated ramifications. Even still, there is no grandiloquent statement made, but rather some canny observations made more explicit by the varying points of view. As a lyricist, Peart is at his most accessible and possibly most vulnerable, but the music composed by Lee and Lifeson has become more involved than ever before.
Lee explains: "It's very easy for us to write long pieces of complicated music. That's second nature to us. As a result it's become pointless to do so. Our goal is to try to balance that with a good song, in the classic sense, with good melodies and an interesting rhythmic construction. We learned, along with our producer (Peter Collins) that it doesn't have to be simpler to be a better song." It's a lesson well learned. Saga, another Canadian band with a pomp-rock heritage, intended their latest, Behaviour, to be what drummer Steve Negus described as "less grandiose". It ended up taking twice the time and four times the cash to make than any of their previous records.
In the search for the perfect song, Rush enlisted the help of Collins (Nik Kershaw, Blancmange, Tracey Ullman) who was rooted in an English pop, rather than progressive, sensibility. "He's sort of a left-field choice for us", Lee says, "because he has nothing to do with the style of music that we play." Since moving away from long-time producer Terry Brown, often referred to as Rush's fourth member, the band drifted aimlessly, part of the struggle that resulted in the "desperation" of Grace Under Pressure. They had originally planned to work with Steve Lillywhite (who marshalled U2 and Simple Minds to the top of the charts) but at the last minute, he got cold feet and they shifted their own unsure footing towards Peter Henderson who had made several Supertramp albums.
Lee: "We knew the easiest thing we could do was to get an engineer and produce the record ourselves. Basically the record we did with Peter Henderson was like that. We don't feel that our songs get the benefit of the doubt unless there's someone else there pushing us. I think a band like ourselves, one that is so full of ideas, needs someone to make sure we don't fall asleep at the wheel. Grace Under Pressure was called that for a lot of reasons. It was a difficult time for the band. It was our first venture on our own and we wanted so much to make a great record that we couldn't see the forest for the trees a lot of the time. In the end I think we had some good songs and some songs that could have been great had they had the kind of input they needed that we were unable to give ourselves. It's why we made the move to get another producer."
Having established a bench mark for technology-oriented music long ago, Rush has been astutely side-stepping the style lately. "Sure Rush is a technical band", Lee shrugs, "and Power Windows is a technical record, but our music values are very high. I think our recognition that we were techno-heavy has made us more song-oriented. Through Hemispheres and around those times it was technique we were trying to show. Now we've got to balance that. Most of the bands in England (where Power Windows was recorded) aren't players, they're stylists and programmers. It used to be, 'Let's capture a sound', now it's 'I've got an idea!'"
One thing that hasn't changed over the years is the writing process itself. With Lifeson and Lee in one room and Peart in another, the Rush sound is, if anything, more durable with age. Lee explains that, "Since we've been more autonomous we've become more sensitive to each other". While considering the democratic nature of their collaboration ("nothing is written in stone, we all participate"), he laughs off the thought of the reactions a "no" vote receives: "I think Neil takes it better than we do. We hate re-writing more than he does."
Though the other two are far away, Lee's obvious respect and affection brings them into the conversation regularly and un-selfconsciously. When speaking of anything other than his own singing or playing he talks in "we's" rather than "I's". He, somewhat gravely, turns the interview onto himself and says: "You think, sometimes, 'Oh well, I've spent half my life in this band. Is that sick or what? There's got to be more things out there to do than hang around with the same two guys every year 'til I'm 80. Should I be out on my own, doing my own thing, making my own statement?'"
He answers with a broad smile: "Fuck no."
"I heard Sting talking about how he can't understand how anybody could want to be in a gang their whole life, comparing that to being in a band. Now I can understand that it's a mature thing to say, but I don't agree. I love it. It's fun. Everything I've experienced I've experienced with my two pals."
While other established acts have disintegrated or generated splinter projects, the members of Rush have stayed oddly insulated in their own organization. Lee has produced (The Boys Brigade) and once did some session work, "just to see what it felt like", on a Marie-Lynn Hammond record, Peart recently recorded with Jeff Berlin, and Lifeson played on Platinum Blonde's Alien Shores (Lee: "I think he's chums with the guitar player"). Peart echoes Lee's words practically verbatim: "I'd only make a solo record to work with other musicians. There's nothing I want to say or do, personally, that I can't do in Rush."
But if Rush revolves around a nucleus of three, what of the input of that last arbiter of style: the fan? Having shaken up the multitude in the past, it's become easier for Rush to broaden their musical horizon. Peart will cop the odd rhythm from a King Sunny Ade record, Lifeson will reflect some guitar-star stylings, and Lee will hear something from Howard Jones and use it.
"Our tastes," reflects Lee, "aren't that different from our fans'. I think the mentality of the Rush fan is that they'd probably like something we like. We just assume that they are the perfect listeners. We don't really consider the fan until a record is finished because our first and foremost loyalty is to satisfy our expression." If that means mixing some reggae and jazz with the heavy metal then so be it. Diversity is the main goal as well as the main source of inspiration. There are miles to go in search of the perfect song."
"Marathon": It's the most trio oriented song with the least overdubs. We used a lot of sampling, but we also used a real string section and choir. We wanted to work with Anne Dudley (who is half of the Art of Noise and arranged ABC's Lexicon of Love) at Abbey Road. It was a tremendous experience listening to thirty grown men play our music. Peter Collins wanted to add the choir, we'd already used everything including the kitchen sink. Most people won't notice, it's all in the last thirty seconds, but I was there and saw pregnant women and old men sing our song. I'll never forget it. You can replace the real thing but sometimes it's better not to.
"Manhattan Project": Andy Richards (who played on most of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's tracks and with Propaganda) had a lot of input in this song. He uses a PPG 2.3 MIDIed to a Super Jupiter, and he uses a Yamaha QX1 Digital Sequencer. All the tracks were laid down on an SRC time code reader that acts as the intelligence for the sequencers. We used sequencers for the basic parts. If you have a simple boring thing that's necessary, it's more fun to let the sequencer do it.
"Emotion Detector": It's one of my favourite lyrics. We used a PPG a lot on this one. It's probably the most player-friendly synthesizer on the market, as well as the Emulator II. We tried to hide the sound of the Simmons drums on this, and the whole album. They're not very fashionable in England these days. We did a few experiments. On "Big Money" and "Grand Designs", we sampled Neil's voice on an AMS and played it along with the Simmons.
"Mystic Rhythms": Probably the most synthetic track on the record. Everything in it is going through a synthesized something. We spent a day sampling African drums, tablas, roto-toms and all kinds of bizarre sounds. We found four appropriate ones, locked them into four different AMS's that were triggered by Neil playing his Simmons kit. There's a very unique guitar sound, too. It's an Ovation acoustic guitar going through amplification and it comes off with a very synth-like sound.
"Territories": The "better beer" line is an inside joke. People are very chauvinistic about their beer. I swear everywhere you go they say: "We have the best beer." One thing particular to the drum part is that Neil used no snare. In the middle section we sampled my voice saying "Round and round".
"Middletown Dreams": For the intro we gated a synth sound to play in time with sequenced tablas. It had quite a nice "big city" sound. We used a Roland JP8 in the middle eight and the intro. It was a very warm sound. There are real strings in chorus III.
"Grand Designs": The opening sequence has one of my favourite sounds on the album. There's an acoustic guitar on the PPG mutilated beyond recognition. It has a sort of sitar sound. Every chorus features extensive sequencing. Chorus I is a looped guitar sequence. Chorus II is a maniacal grand piano sequence with a brass cluster. It was Andy's idea. It sounds like The Attack of the Grand Pianos. Andy brought the level of sound up. He's a great translator for me. He had a profound effect. It was a good first venture into stretching the boundaries of production.
"Big Money": The most rock oriented song on the album. Some of the percussive sounds are from the JP8. On this record Alex by-passed a lot of his effects. He usually uses the same set up as "live". On a lot of tracks, especially this one, he went back to straight guitar-to-amplifier. He could get a cleaner, more classic guitar sound. We all wanted the guitar to have a very contemporary sound, even though some of the guitar sounds are old, they're very fresh.