RUSH may be the only band on earth to have made "fear of boredom" a primary musical motivation. Needless to say, they don't put it that way themselves. Neil Peart speaks philosophically about a "level of satisfaction" and the music's "repeatability factor," while Alex Lifeson uses terms like "intricate" and "complex" to describe the band's instrumental interplay.
But as Geddy Lee, sitting in his manager's office in downtown Toronto, finally admits, Rush's taste for tricky time signatures and harmonic complications has little to do with musical ideals or technical prowess: "We try to do those kinds of things just to screw it up. Just to throw a little spanner in the works, there.
"For a while we got really hung up on making something feel conventional that wasn't. We thought that was clever. Of course, people in jazz have been doing it for years, so it really wasn't that clever, but it was fun.
"We still like to do that. On this album, there's one song in 7/4 ['Superconductor']. Neil plays across the seven so it doesn't really feel like an odd time signature, and I think that's a great accomplishment in rock, when you can sneak those kinds of things in without anyone realizing. I've always felt it would be a personal victory to get a song on pop radio that was in another time signature." He laughs, and adds half-ironically, "A great moral victory."
Rush: The Band That Made the World Safe for 7/4.
Okay, so it's a fairly silly ambition. Then again, Rush isn't quite as determinedly serious as fans might imagine. "People have always accused us of being deadly serious, but we all can look back at our albums and see the jokes," says Lee. "I guess they're so inside that it's hard to find the jokes without a road map."
He's not kidding, either. "Some of the titles are street corners in town," he explains. "Kind of esoteric references. But a song like 'La Villa Strangiato,' to me, is enormously funny. Because the song is just one joke riff after another, some of them inspired by cartoons that we've seen. It really is glued together without any rhyme or reason." And more than anything else, he credits this lightheartedness to the fact that Rush, after some 20 years of playing together, has gained more than a little perspective on things. "It's funny," he reflects, "when you're younger you seem to have this intentional furrowed brow when you're writing your music. It's like, 'This is serious music!' God knows what serious music is," he adds with a laugh, "but when you're a little bit older, you seem to have a lighter hand."
As most fans are aware, the members of Rush used to furrow their brows considerably in the late '70s, when the band unleashed such conceptually ambitious albums as 2112 and Hem_spheres. In the very beginning, however, Rush was just another Toronto garage band-or, as Lifeson puts it, "a basement band. We played parties, and we knew a half dozen, 10 songs, and we'd play those songs over and over. We were terrible, but it was a lot of fun. We had a couple of outdoor concerts in our backyards. All the neighbors would go mental on the weekends."
This proto-Rush was essentially Lifeson's band, a natural progression from the young guitar-maniac's desire to capture the magic he felt when listening to the Beatles or Beach Boys. "l remember hearing 'I Feel Fine' with the ringing first note. It was a pretty cool sound back then. Little things like that were inspiring."
Lifeson's first basement bands "were mostly influenced by bands like the Yardbirds. Then the first Who album came out, followed by Are You Experienced?, and that changed everything. I never listened to that other music again."
As Lifeson grew more proficient at imitating his idols in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Cream, Rush was slowly taking shape. Still, there was one thing holding the young guitarist back: Tools.
"I had very, very basic equipment," he admits. His first guitar was a $10 Kent Classic "with steel strings about this high off the fretboard," he says, indicating a space large enough for a mouse to crawl under. And though he was continually upgrading his stock of guitars, he admits that "most of my equipment I would borrow. I borrowed amps from Ged. That's how he got in the band."
"He was a great mooch, Alex," laughs Lee. "He had quite a reputation. You knew when the phone rang and it was Alex that something was going to be borrowed, usually my amplifier."
Lee, of course, was a bass player, so what Lifeson wound up borrowing was a bass amp. "But in those days, an amp was an amp," says Lee. "You weren't picky. As long as it had volume controls and plugs and speakers, it was good enough."
One day, however, Lifeson threw him a curve: "I called him up and instead of saying, 'Can I borrow your amp?' I said, 'Can I borrow you?' Our bass player at the time had conflicting gigs. So Ged came out, and basically that's where it started from."
With Lee in the band, it didn't take long for Rush to start writing its own songs. "Within the first year," says Lifeson, "I think probably half of our material was original material. It was always a problem. We never heard the end of it from our manager, that it was impossible to get us bookings at high school dances and those sort of things. People just weren't familiar with our material. They wanted to hear Creedence Clearwater, that kind of stuff. By the time we got to the point of playing almost all original material, we were playing once or twice a month at best, and mostly drop-in centers rather than the high school dances. The drinking age was 21 at the time. It was impossible to get into clubs."
Fortunately for Rush, the Canadian Parliament-for reasons wholly unrelated to the woes of up-and-coming Toronto rock bands-lowered the drinking age for beer and wine to 18. "The whole world changed," says Lifeson. "We went from playing at best two gigs a week to playing six gigs a week and in some cases a Saturday matinee as well."
Rush still had a few covers in its repertoire, though Lifeson says, "We'd change them around quite a bit. But it didn't matter in a bar. People weren't dancing. They just wanted a band, they wanted live music. We played and they drank beer, basically.
"After a while we developed a following. The same people would show up at the clubs we played at. Within a couple of years, we were one of the more popular bar bands in the Toronto area and within maybe 100 miles of the city."
Outside of Toronto, however, the band was little more than a rumor, so Rush decided to do what any ambitious Canadian band would have done back then: go to America. "You could go and play two shows in Lansing, Michigan, and come back, and suddenly you're an international act," laughs Lifeson. "Or you're perceived that way in Canada."
Rush wound up getting its record deal in America. "We couldn't get a deal here," Lifeson complains. "We tried everybody and they said,'There's no potential for Rush, they're not going to get anywhere. The singer's horrible, the band's too loud.'
"So we figured if we want to have a record, we're going to have to pay for it. We went into the studio after hours when the rates were cheaper, spent a couple of days recording the whole album."
A couple of thousand copies were pressed locally, and one of them made its way to WMMS in Cleveland. "They played it and got a really great phone response. Within a couple of days we had an offer to sign with Mercury. It was done within a couple of weeks, we had a tour, and bang, we were leaving.We were on our way."
Suddenly, they were stars. "Back then, to go to Cleveland and Pittsburgh was a big deal," Lifeson says. "After the first run of three or four weeks, we came back and suddenly we were perceived as an entirely different act in Canada. 'Oh, they went to America, they made it!' Meanwhile, we're playing on a three-act show, playing for 20 minutes and the lights are still on."
There was one other change in the band by the time Rush saw release in America; original drummer John Rutsey had left the band, and was replaced by Neil Peart.
Adding Peart to the line-up was significant for two reasons. First of all, Peart, though he still had a day job "in the farm equipment business," actually had more experience in the band business than Lifeson or Lee. "Both of them really have only been in this band. I've been in quite a lot of other bands-small-time bands, granted, but still, quite a lot of other experiences. And I'd just come back from having been in England for a couple of years."
More importantly, though, Peart brought an elevated sense of musicianship to the band, a sense that appreciated the gut-level power of rock 'n' roll but also sought to make the most of every musical opportunity. Peart credits his first drum teacher with starting him down that road. "The first drum lesson, he played me the drum battle between Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa," Peart recalls. "To me, that was where I had to go. That was the goal. And when Michael Giles came along, who had all that technique but played it in a rock format, that really opened my eyes to what could be done with it, and gave me a sense of direction.
"The kind of music we play allows everything, so every style of music I like to play I get to do," Peart continues. "It sounds simplistic, but it's so important I feel like 100 percent of what I want to do, Rush allows me to do, and 100 percent of what I'm capable of doing, Rush will accept. It is an important thing. It's probably one of the two biggest factors that's kept us together this long-that and the fact that we don't hate each other."
Pursuing creative freedom was not without costs, and one of the band's biggest problems in the early days was figuring out how to cram all its nifty instrumental flourishes into something with pop accessibility. That's not to say the band was aiming for the Top 40, necessarily, but somehow all the ingenuity and expertise that went into those early Rush showpieces seemed to leave a lot of listeners scratching their heads in bewilderment.
What were they doing wrong? It was, says Lee, a problem of inverted priorities; most pop fans listened to the vocal line first, whereas with Rush, "the vocal line was the last consideration. It was really an afterthought."
Instead, what the band started with "was always a collection of rock moods," says Lee. "They weren't always riffs; they were sometimes chord progressions used as a line. We threw those together and we'd go through all kinds of different rhythms. And if it would work, serve the song, it didn't matter if it counted out in any particular fashion, any logical way.
"Then you'd throw in the vocal and make it work on top of it-which is what I think gave me such a strange vocal style," he laughs.
"I was listening to 'Red Barchetta,' a song from the Moving Pictures album," he continues. "We're thinking of doing it on the tour. I hadn't listened to it in ages, and I was playing along with it to relearn it-it's such a weird arrangement!
"It's all these little pieces. We used a lot of links to bridge two pieces that are of indeterminate length. There was no real reason, except maybe there were only three beats in the vocal line to go on top of it, so that's what we got. 'Oh, we only need three beats here, so let's write something that has three beats.' Boom, in it goes, and you're into the next part.
"I guess we did all that stuff second nature. Listening to it now, I can understand why it was such an unusual style. But at the time, it didn't feel unusual. It didn't feel like we were making something really unusual. That's the only way we knew how to work. Now it's completely different. I guess it's a lot more conventional. We work on the vocal/lyrical smoothness, in view of that idea first, and then orchestrate in a kind of traditional sense."
"Show Don't Tell," from the new album, Presto, makes an excellent example. Although the song's verse/chorus melodic structure seems simple enough on the surface, the band is able to convey a surprising range of mood and emotion both by carefully modulating the arrangement's dynamics, and by punctuating the relatively spacey verse and chorus with an energizing power riff. As Lifeson explains, "The chorus and the verse are quite dark, but that riff comes in with a real punch and dynamically lifts the track. It really has a lot more impact."
Part of that change for Lifeson is strictly timbral. "It's going from a more direct sound in the verses to a heavier sound for the bridge," he says. "I get an idea of what the mood is of that particular piece and then adjust the sound accordingly. For instance, that verse is quite a dark, almost bluesy kind of feel to it, except for the accented parts, the quick strumming. Immediately I would go to a more direct sound, maybe slightly chorused, some repeats on it just to make it rich and full-sounding, and then get the power at the chorus where you want the lift. I keep in mind the dynamics and the changes."
"That's an ensemble piece where all that matters is that the three of us are knitted together," agrees Peart, "and that there be above that an umbrella of unity.That was the hardest thing to obtain. It was easy for us to play a complicated riff like that in a unison sense, but it was very hard to get something above that, from a listening point of view- get a sense of continuity and a sense of flow to it."
As a result, he says, "that was one of the drum parts on the album that was hardest to come up with. Not the hardest to play, by far, but the hardest to refine down to the right elements, the right amount of empathy with what the other guys were playing, plus the right amount of departure to keep something else going in the groove."
Unlike some drummers who first try to find the ideal groove for a song and then build their part from there, Peart takes a far more structural approach. "For instance, with all the songs from Presto, I had a rough demo made to the drum machine," he says. "I had the opportunity to sit down by those demos by myself and work out the parts and refine them all.
"But I tend to work backwards. I put everything in and then subtract what doesn't work; that's why it's better to me to work by myself. I'm not driving everybody else nuts. I basically like to start with a clean sheet of paper and play the song through, jotting down everything I can think of that will fit in that tempo or that rhythmic structure. Then I see what feels good to play, go back and listen to it and see what sounds right, and then just start eliminating stuff.
"Sometimes I am forced to playthings that are simple to the point of moronic," he admits, "but if that's what works, I have to accept that reality. But I find ways to balance it out. The song 'War Paint' on Presto, for instance, the intro and the bridge sections are moronic, just so simple that they drive me nuts. But the chorus sections allow me to stretch out and play some really satisfying stuff, where I was able to find ways to play something complex but make it sound simple, make it fall right into the flow of the song. As I'm thrashing my way through the moronic part, I know there's a really cool part coming that I'm going to love playing.
"If it's a simple part rhythmically where all it requires is a beat, then I'll play the beat and find some cool little inflections that I can do with an opposite hand, or something to make it hard to do, something to make it interesting or difficult.
"It's not just the record I'm thinking about in a context like this," he adds. Wlth touring on the horizon, "I have to play that song again and again and again. That does become a part of the thinking, rightly or wrongly."
Time was, in fact, that Rush would work out its new material strictly with performance considerations in mind. "In the earlier records," says Lifeson, "we never recorded anything that we weren't going to play live, unless it was just a production tune we wouldn't play live. If we came to a guitar solo, the rhythm guitar always disappeared; if we came to a keyboard part the bass always disappeared and the bass pedals would take over." But when making Hold Your Fire, he adds, "we just went for it and decided to worry about it later, when we came around to rehearsing."
Thanks to sampling and sequencing, Rush was able to take those extra bits and call them up as needed. "It was just another step in the concentration level, getting all those things triggered and happening," Lifeson says. "We had, I would say, 85 or 90 percent of the things we had on record in the live show, and we knew that we could get around it no matter what."
Still, that sort of accuracy is only part of what Rush hopes to pull from any performance. "Songs change," says Peart, "and they sometimes need to grow and become interesting again or challenging again."
And as they develop in concert, the band gradually finds new ways of playing them, new twists to toss into each evening's performance. "Especially between bass and drums," he says. "Geddy or I will hint at a new twist in a song one night, and then the other one will pick it up the next night, like a call-and-response kind of thing. It can go on for five and six shows before it really develops into something. That's always an interesting thing to watch happen because it's never discussed, it's never verbalized at all. It's completely musical communication."
"I WAS MAKING a list yesterday of what I'd have to carry equipment-wise if we didn't have sampling," says NEIL PEART. "Actually, I'd love to do a composite picture of what my drum kit would look like if I had all the instruments for real: marimbas, thousands of African drums, Count Basie's big band and a symphony orchestra.
Instead, what Peart has are eight 3 1/2" floppy disks, which he feeds into Akai samplers, using either d-drums (fed into a Yamaha MIDI interface) or a marimba-based Kat MIDI controller. These electronic drums comprise just part of his wrap-around kit; he also is loaded with Tama acoustics, including "Two 24" bass drums; 6", 8" and 10" closed concert toms; 12", 13", 15" and 16" closed tom-toms; 6" and 8" open concert toms on the rear kit-because the rear is kind of a satellite with all the electronics."
To facilitate the acoustic/electric set-up, Peart's kit rotates during the show; consequently, Peart has a snare and high-hats set on each side, with an 18" bass drum anchoring the d-drums. "The little concert toms go with that," he adds. Like all the other cymbals (except for a couple Wu Hen genuine China cymbals), the high~hats are by Zildjian. His snare selection is a little more eclectic, with more than a half dozen sitting on the floor of the band's rehearsal studio. His favorites, however, are a 20-year old 5 1/4, Slingerland and a Solid Percussion piccolo.
Peart pounds all this with Promark 747s, played butt-end out, and his heads are mostly Remo, though he hates getting too specific. "l change on whim, basically," he explains. "All of those things I don't think are that important, and I think a lot of young drummers put too much importance on it, so a lot of times I try to downplay it." He likes Shark foot pedals, and his hardware is a melange of Pearl, Tama, Ludwig and Premier equipment, "just whatever happens to have the right series of angles and positionings."
ALEX LIFESON is a man of many guitars, but the ones he's most likely to pick up are Strat-style models made by Signature. "The guitars are built in Canada and they're assembled here in Toronto," he says with native pride. "I still use the first guitar that they made, that I got from them as a test guitar; it's my number one guitar." It has neck-through construction and contour tops; the pickups are by Evans, a Vancouver-based company. Lifeson prefers the active single coil models, though he's "fooling around with an active humbucker in the back position just to get a little more fatness and depth."
He also uses a Fender Telecaster, a Stratocaster and something called a Hentor, "which is basically a Strat that I've modified, put a Bill Lawrence L-500 humbucking pickup in the back position, changed the neck." His strings are Dean Markleys-.009, .011, .014, .028, .038, .048-and most of his guitars are outfitted with Floyd Rose tremolos. For acoustic live work, he relies on an Ovation Adamas, from the 1985 limited series, and in the studio chooses between a Gibson Dove, a Washburn and a Gibson J-5S with Nashville tuning.
Because he can't double-track in concert, Lifeson compensates by running his guitars through three separate amp systems. System number one feeds a Guy Cooper CPL 2000 preamp into a Series 400 Mesa-Boogie II power amp driving two Twin 12 Celestion GK cabinets. His second system runs a Bryston 2V into two other Twin 12 cabinets. He runs this system out of a Roland GP-16 multi-effect processor. "What I do is I switch that in in certain songs where I want to beef up the song, or want to get more of a doubled effect." System number three "runs a tap off the main system of mono effects and straight sound, plus taking a direct output from a second CPL2000 preamp for a clean sound."
Effects? Lifeson has two t.c. electronics 2290s, a t.c. electronics 1210 chorus and a Roland DEP-5 "primarily for reverb settings and effects." His effects are all digital, controlled by a Yamaha MIDI controller and a Bradshaw switching system. He's also considering a new DOD multiprocessor, but "I'm trying to keep it down to within the five-processor range; I've heard that going over five is asking for problems."
GEDDY LEE's taste in basses has gone through several cycles, including a Rickenbacker, a Fender Jazz and a Steinberger before arriving at his current instrument of choice, a Wal. "They're amazing-sounding basses. They're very well made, made with a lot of love." And though he confesses, "I'm not a funky guy," his strings are Rotosound Funkmasters.
Most of what we hear on record or in concert comes directly off Lee's bass, but for his own comfort he carries a stage rig including BGW power amps, Ashly preamp and cabinets loaded with 15" speakers of indeterminate origin. "I've used the same amp gear for so long," he moans. "I had to do my equipment list for the tour and I just couldn't bear repeating all that gear for like the tenth year in a row. It's all the same, just some big amps, you know?" Apart from a powerboost, he pretty much leaves the business of sound processing to the soundman.
On the keyboard front, Lee says, "On this coming tour, I'm depending quite heavily on brand new Roland S-770 samplers. They're not out yet; they're a prototype we've been testing out here, and they're really quite amazing. I'll also use a Korg M , a Sequential Circuits Prophet VS and Roland D-5Os, and I use Korg MIDI foot pedals quite a lot." Finally, Lee sings through an AKG C-414 mike in the studio, while for live work he simply uses what is put in front of him. "Whatever the sound guy thinks is his favorite of the month."