"The thinking-man's hard rock band."
That tag seems to have followed Rush around almost since the Canadian power trio released its first album some 17 years ago.
Confronted with the description during a phone interview earlier this week, Rush's drummer-lyricist Neil Peart emitted a weary groan.
"Well, it's not exactly inaccurate," he admitted during a stop in Providence, R.I., on the band's current tour, which brings them to the Knickerbocker Arena tonight, "but I think that it perhaps sends the wrong message to the non-cognoscenti. To people who don't know very much about our music, it suggests a certain kind of pretentiousness, which is just not part of the equation for us at all.
"We have certainly over-shot ourselves sometimes, but, to me, being over-ambitious is quite the opposite from being pretentious. We're not pretending to some ambition. Rather, we're occasionally too ambitious for our own good," he says frankly with a self-knowing chuckle.
"We'll be the first to admit that our work has been uneven, and that some of our experiments haven't worked out. But that's the price of admission for us.
"We keep pushing ourselves and our music, and whenever you take chances, you run the risk of going wrong sometimes."
There's no denying that the Toronto-based trio -- which also features vocalist-bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson -- is indeed a smart band of rockers, but Peart doesn't think that Rush is too cerebral for its own good.
"Some people, I'm sure, think that we take ourselves too seriously, but again, I think that the exact opposite is true," Peart says. "We don't take ourselves seriously at all, but we take our work very seriously, and we think it's incumbent on us to do the best job that we possibly can.
"When we walk onstage, we're professionals, but offstage, we're just as goofy as any other bunch of guys in a band."
The three band members have made a conscious effort to avoid artistic stagnation and loosen up their musical approach with "Roll the Bones," their latest album.
"For such a long time, it was our goal in live performances just to try to play as well as we sound on the records. That was the highest challenge for us," says Peart.
"I think that we pretty much attained that, so then we stepped back and asked ourselves, 'Well, what's wrong with that?'
"We decided that we wanted to add some more spontaneity to our music. So right from the start of this tour, we started changing the arrangements and various instrumental bits, even on the brand new songs.
"With my own drumming, too, I know that I have a tendency to be too organized, too architectural about my parts. So for 'Roll the Bones,' I tricked myself. In spite of all the rehearsal I did before we recorded, I left areas that I refused to work out. Right down to the day that I recorded, I didn't know what I was going to play in that particular part of the song, so that something special might happen.
"I think that there's a intangible sense of being on the edge and not playing it safe that is communicated to the listener."
Peart concedes that thematically Rush's songs often deal with big issues, which sets them apart somewhat from so many hard rock bands, whose subject matter is usually limited to just three topics -- girls, girls and more girls.
"Roll the Bones," is no exception to Rush's ongoing exploration into the meaning of life. "We're trying to reconcile a random universe without being futile about it," explains Peart, who wrote the all of the lyrics.
"I've dealt a lot with free will in the past, and that's something that I continue to champion. But there is so much randomness, and as I was trying to deal with the idea of a random universe, that I was driven to the elemental question of 'Why are we here?'
"I finally decided that it was the wrong question," he says. "The reason why we're here is because we're here. There was a big bang and then a universe. Then a fish crawled out of the sea and walked on land. Then my mother and father got together, and I was born. It seemed self-evident to me.
"The real question ought to be 'What can we do about it?' There is so much tragedy in life that is just chance occurrence. That's why I included the lines, 'Why are little ones born only to suffer/For the want of immunity/Or a bowl of rice?' in the album's title song.
"The question is not 'Why am I here?' but 'How can I maximize my life?' It's not 'Why does this tragedy happen?' but rather 'How can I help?'
"Those are difficult questions to deal with because for a lot of people the concept of a random universe is terrifying. Obviously, the purpose of religion and a lot of political societies is to try to distance ourselves from that ultimate gulf.
"Yes, we can change things if we motivate ourselves along a certain path," he concludes, "but there are so many things that can go wrong along the way. There's an awful big element of chance in the world."