It's been a long, long time since Canadian megastars RUSH made anything approaching a hard rock album, but their latest, 'Roll The Bones', is certainly heading back in that direction again. In fact, ALEX LlFESON and GEDDY LEE tell PAUL HENDERSON how hi-tech flesh is now taking a backseat to rib-rattlin' 'feel' and even - el gaspo! - 'looseness'. Is this the end of techno rock as we know it? And will the band, when they play the UK next Spring, get skeletons like 'By-Tor And The Snow Dog' out of the closet?
DOMINATED BY the CN (Canadian National) Tower and the golden towers of the Royal Bank Plaza, Toronto's skyline shimmers in the heat-haze. Down at street level, from the indifferent suburbs to the avante garde architecture of Eaton Square and the O'Keefe Centre, the pace of life continues to slow as Canada's second largest city gently sizzles in a heatwave and its population wilts under a dense, suffocating cloud of humidity rolling in from Lake Ontario.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, behind Rush's management office, where 'crack alley' bleeds on to the elegance of Carlton Street, Rush's Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee lean against a fence, continually changing their expressions and body-angles to the barked commands of the Kerrang! photographer.
After two hours of stoically enduring this veritable sauna of a climate for the benefit of Halfin's lens, the one-time time-signature twins flop wearily into the welcoming oasis of their office. Its atmosphere is air-conditioned cool and revitalising, its walls and shelves festooned with Gold and Platinum discs and other awards - the most recent being one for Group Of The Decade ("Which decade?!" -Alex), presented by the Canadian Music Industry - for countless sales of albums spanning 17 years of music-making.
THE LAST time I spoke to Rush - at the beginning of 1990's 'Presto' tour - there were pointers suggesting that the future of the band was in some doubt. After the illness and other difficulties of the previous ('Hold Your Fire') tour, which left them exhausted, the trio were certainly ready and willing to give their suitcases to Oxfam and put the tour bus permanently into mothballs. The prospect of Rush not even existing as a recording unit post-'Presto' could not be completely written off.
18 months or so later, I find myself listening to a new Rush album that is certainly the best thing they've done in years. With 'Roll The Bones', Rush appear to have reevaluated what they are about, turned over a new leaf and, in a sense re-discovered rock 'n' roll. It's back to basics. Back to simple, good songs, cracking riffs, inspirational (still highly accomplished) playing and, perhaps most importantly, the confidence to go for the 'take' with the killer vibe rather than the one that's computer-verified as perfect?
It's even back to touring! And yes, unlikely though it may sound, Rush will finally be playing in Britain again, with plans to bring the full production of the still-on-the drawing-board 'Roll The Bones' tour here and to Europe in the Spring - that's official. Blimey! Who would have thought it?! I think back to when the "Presto" tour looked like being in the final chapter in the Rush story and wonder , 'So what went wrong?' Or, conversely, as I put it to Messrs Lifeson and Lee, 'What went right?'
Geddy Lee: "When we got back into the studio to start writing for 'Roll The Bones', there was still a very optimistic atmosphere which had somehow carried over from the 'Presto' tour. Throughout the making of the album, I think we were much more of a band than we'd been in?maybe seen to 10 years!"
Alex Lifeson, It affected us in a lot of ways. All of a sudden we looked at our future as being a long-term think and not a record-to-record think. That includes touring, which was definitely on the back-burner a couple of tours ago. We we finished the 'Hold Your Fire' tour, I felt that there wouldn't be another Rush tour after that?
"With this new album, we were really feeling very positive about the whole idea of the band - everything. A lot of it had to do with 'Presto' and how well we worked together.
"'Roll The Bones' was finished two months earlier than we expected, which for us is unbelievable! We finished 'Presto' a couple of weeks early,; but fo finish two months early was something else. Now we've had a good chunk of time off, everyone's looking forward to going back on the road!"
MOTIVATED BY this new feeling of optimism, the making the new album proved to be such an enjoyable and satisfying process that drummer/wordsmith Neil Peart was moved to comment in the Rush bio: "suddenly, we feel a new conviction, a rebirth."
How, then, is all this reflected in the music and the approach to 'Roll The Bones'?
Alex smiles: "We've taken a step sideways, and kind of re-evaluated what the band is all about - what it was always all about. We came to realise that we really like playing hard rock music.
"We've kind of made a few detours here and there, which I think were all important and valid, and I wouldn't want to have it any other way. But I think when we boiled everything down. we're a three-piece hard rock band, and I think that 's what we wanted to get back to with this record.
"I think we realised that we really have a lot of fun playing in a band, which we'd maybe lost touch with. Now, we've sort of re-learned how to do it."
Have Rush become a rock 'n' roll band again?
Geddy peers over the top of his faintly tinted glasses: I think that's pretty accurate. I think everybody wanted to rock a bit more. I think that was true with 'Presto', too, although it took a couple records to streamline the sound again - to get a handle and to be ... I guess bold enough to do it.
"The shorter, riff-based songs are a function of going back to writing with guitar, bass and vocals, which again is something we started doing with 'Presto'. We ignored the computers and sequencers until we had the song, and then we asked ourselves how we could use this stuff - this technology - to enhance this part or that part."
Alex: "We're also not being as 'microscopic' as we have been. We used to be very particular about takes - about how perfectly tight things were. When I look back over the years, in retrospect there have been times where we've had songs that have had great feel that we've ended up re-recording because they weren't exactly tight. To my ear, we lost something from those songs. With this record, we did takes where, if it felt good, we'd say, 'Yeah! That's it! If It's a little loose, who cares?'"
Geddy: "I think I have to credit Rupert (Hine, producer) with a lot of that?"
In the past, Rush developed a reputation as a 'musos' band' - something they were also crticised for.
"Yeah sure!" Alex laughs. "I think that's the way we looked at ourselves. The music was the motivating force, and with every record we tried to out-do ourselves from the previous record. Right up until?probably 'Moving Pictures', that was the goal. Even with 'Permanent Waves' we tried to change a bit, but I guess 'Natural Science' was the last song of that kind of approach. Now, of course we approach it much differently.
"I think we're just more mature in our playing and in the way we approach everything. You still try to play the best that you can, but you don't feel the need to play as fast as everybody else, or in the weirdest or most complicated time signature you can think of, or do something that's just an exercise in being indulgent. We've gone through all that.
"ANOTHER THING is that a lot of stuff on this new record was lifted straight from the eight-track demos that Geddy and I did.
"For instance, the guitar solos in 'Bravado' and 'Ghost Of A Chance', they're probably my two all-time favourite solos that I've ever done. And those were just one-take solos - two at the most - whipped on while Ged was out grabbing a coffee or something."
"'Bravado' has one of my favourite solos Alex has ever played," enthuses Geddy. "That was a magic solo. I think there about three solos on this album which we just flew in right off the eight-track, and I guess that says something about being loose,
with no pressure on him - just ripping off the solos. That's something I'd like to see Alex do more of."
Listening to 'Roll The Bones', this album sounds as if it was made in a more 'inspirational', less 'crafted' way than might have been expected from Rush.
"It's hard to say, really," says Geddy. "There are certain tracks - like 'Dreamline', 'Face Up', 'The Big Wheel' to a large degree - that kind of flowed out rather then being crafted. 'Bravado' is a good example: I sort of keyed into a vocal melody for a starting point, and the song grew out of it so naturally. Whereas some of the other songs were crafted, with bits and pieces attached and woven together.
"If I look back to 'Presto' and look at the song 'The Pass', which is one of my favourite songs we've ever done, to me it was a breakthrough song as a writer in that it was a song that rolled out.
"All the parts rolled into each other as opposed to kind of ... bludgeoning into each other, which has been one of our trademarks! Not that I mind that way of writing. It has a great effect from time-to-time. The song 'Roll The Bones' is a good example of it. It's very much pieced together, but I like the way it's pieced together."
AS MENTIONED earlier, apart from resulting in the best album Rush have recorded in years, their new-found optimism has also rekindled enthusiasm for touring.
Alex: "We're planning on coming to Britain in the Spring, and that's because we've changed everything so that we can tour in a much more sensible and reasonable way.
"We'll tour for a couple of months and take a month off; go to Europe for a month, take a few weeks off, then come back and finish up in America.
"We'll be finished mid-next year, and we'll have done it in such a well-paced way that we're not exhausted by it, we've covered all the places we need to cover ... and we've had fun!"
Putting together a set from 14 albums' worth of music can't be easy ...
"Yeah, choosing which songs to play does get more difficult each time," admits Alex. "I mean, the new album is the stuff that you really wanna play, but lately we've become more cognizant of certain songs that are expected of us. On the 'Presto' tour we brought in some of the older stuff that we hadn't played in a long time that were real favourites - like 'Xanadu', for instance, and 'Free Will '. I guess we have to include 'Tom Sawyer'.
"But we're looking at some of the other older songs from the late '70s/early '80s that we can do that we haven't played in a long time." (Does this herald the return of 'By-Tor And The Snow Dog'? Hope so! - Sword & Sorcery Ed.)
Geddy: "lnvariably it will be a combination of keeping the songs that are on the one hand the most requested, and on the other the least boring to play after 10 or 15 years - the ones that still have some kind of vibe about them on stage.
"We 'recycle' now - we're very 'green'! We'll put a song away for a couple of tours then we'll bring it back, and that kind of keeps it a bit healthier.
"When we were rehearsing 'Xanadu' for the last tour, which we hadn't played in I don't know how many years, we were all feeling a bit kind of self-conscious about playing a song that seemed to be tied so much to a time period. But it turned out to be one of the best parts of the show. It felt fresh; it didn't feel like an old song."
"WE DO feel very guilty about not coming over to Britain," confesses Alex suddenly, sounding genuinely concerned. "We've had a very strong following there since 1976, and some of our best tours have beer over there - not in terms of money-making, but in terms of really wonderful audiences. And now, that we've resurrected 'Xanadu', we really do have to get back to Britain to play it there at least once more before it's filed away for ever!"