Rush - Astronomicon

By Steven Blush, Seconds, Issue 25, (~January/February) 1994, transcribed by Gregg Jaeger

Cantankerous Canadians explore space, starting with Uranus

It's more than a coincidence that RUSH is Canada's most important contribution to modern rock history. Technicians of euphonius great white major-league hard rock for nineteen albums over twenty years, the mild-mannered trio of vocalist/bassist GEDDY LEE, drummer/lyricist NEIL PEART and guitar god Alex Lifeson has quietly made its multi-platinum mark by producing populist aural tomes of proficient, honest, working-class-hero arena prog metal for the masses. Tastefully removed from the rock biz tabloid hit/media machine, and far purer in their intent than any loud-mouthed soap-box punk politico scenester, these enigmatic sci-fi musos will never win over flavor-of-the-month rock critics or zombified dance-ready Top 40 fans or virtually anybody who considers themselves 'hip.' Some may wince at their low-brow/middle-brow/high-brow classicisms and Peart's Ayn Rand-inspired doggerel lyrics, and may may wanna strangle Geddy for his trademark cat-scratch-Zeppelin vocal squeal, but most of these people, from the dazed and confused generation to present, are probably just hung up on the fact that Rush reminds them of all the pimple-scarred burned-out high school assholes who've made the band rick and famous. But that's okay cuz after two decades of anti-pop virtuoso expurgations, this trochaic triumvirate is laughing all the way to the bank, with their unyielding artistic integrity firmly intact.

Furtively focused and creatively self-centered, Rush is back for more with Counterparts (Atlantic). With a 'now' sound unrivaled by the majority of its grunge-bandwagon-jumping metallic contemporaries, this release is easily the band's finest studio effort since early-daze Ford/Carter-era 70s somniferous classics like Fly By Night, A Farewell To Kings, or 2112. From the opening gunshot of "Animate" and "Stick It Out" to there ethereal glow of "Nobody's Hero" and "Alien Shore" to the machine-like execution of "Double Agent" and "Cold Fire," Rush shows the MTV-driven caravan of Johnny-come-lately, faux-gnarly-dude franchise bands like Bland Lemon and the Stone Gossard Pilots a thing or two about texterity, sincerity and bombast. Shit-hot overkill for all the right reasons, tasteful state-of-the-art studio wizardry with class, Lee, Peart, and Lifeson have rattled and hummed our collective craw with one of the great unexpected sonic gems of recent memory. Imagine King's X or Alice In Chains abandoned at a Canadian Star Trek convention, or Super Dave Osborne In Utero, and you've got a good feel for the latest din emanating from these forty-something men of steel.

They say whatever goes around comes around, and now the time is right for the proper historical re-evaluation of Rush. From the return of progressive tendencies exhibited by popular 90s roadhogs like Faith No More and Primus, to the post-Floyd/Kraftwerk astral daze of ambient space travelers live The Orb and Ultramarine, to the rise of impressionable bell-bottomed rock product consumers too young to realize that most of the 70s supergroups really did suck, these low-profile album-rock tycoons deserve their just due as the Led Zep of Generation X, the ELP for Reagan's kidz, and the reason punk rock has survived since Johnny Rotten first wet his bondage pants seemingly ages ago. Simply put, in an industry dominated by sell-out whores and disco dandies, Rush continues to display grace under pressure. Sans pop or circumstance, Lee and Peart discuss the battle of the heart and mind, free will, and everyday glory. For these self-effacing three stooges, all the world's a stage.

Seconds: One thing I noticed about your latest album is that it's progressive, but in a 90s context. Is that an accurate assessment?

Lee: I think we're consciously trying to stay current. There's nothing worse than a band like us which profess to have progressive tendencies sounding like some outcasts, an anachronism from the 70s or early 80s. I think there was a concerted effort from a sonic point of view to sound more current. I thought our last few records were very sophisticated, and in some ways it suited certain songs, but in other ways, I felt the band really wanted to be more aggressive and reckless; however, the nature of the way we were recording didn't really allow for it. When it came to the mix, and we wanted to make the sound more urgent, it just wasn't there. There was a concerted effort this time to move away from that sound, and use examples of some current American bands that are doing more ballsy, reckless, drier-sounding things. So, the sonics of the record were influenced by contemporary American production more than individual bands; there was a very concerted effort to get heaviness into the sound, to make it rhythmically active in a groove-oriented way. All these things were fun for us to try, and in certain instances they worked.

Seconds: It seems to have a more contemporary feel than some of your other records. Where did that all come from?

Peart: It's awfully complicated how you add all that up because in some ways, the so-called modern style is retro. It's a noisier approach to recording, with a drier approach, and a crusty sound around the drums. It's almost not new, it's a nod to the past in the style of alot of bands. Even the 70s sound to its ugly extreme is becoming a fashionable thing. The nature of being progressive, it's hard to define what that means. I guess the values are still the same. The musicianships all in there, there's no way we're going to play something that's insulting to us.

Seconds: Has that progressive label ever held you back?

Lee: I'm not sure what it does. We're such a weird band. We've evolved into this entity, and I really don't think there's anybody else within our area of music right now. So it's really hard to say if it's held us back or not. I think what it's done is created a sound for us that's unquestionably us. I don't know whether it's just a question of the fact that we've outlived everyone else or that we've been successful with blending other things into our music.

Peart: It's carried an unfortunate freight along with it, so it's probably a word that you tend not to use very much because of that. I don't think it's hurt us, and how could it really? It hasn't changed our values, there's just no way we'd let down the standards we hold ourselves to. It's still important for us to have challenging parts to play and to play them well, really, simply as instrumentalists.

Seconds: Your first big break was opening for the New York Dolls. What were your impressions of them? You didn't have anything in common with them, did you?

Lee: We were a band coming out of the bars. So many times when we played these bars, we had to put on a show. We went through a phase when we were a very glitter-oriented band. This is going way, way back, when we were eighteen or nineteen years old.

Seconds: You dressed the look, too?

Lee: Yeah, we had the whole schmear. Shiny clothes, big shoes. I see pictures way back then every once in a while and it's pretty embarrassing stuff. We'll write it off to the exuberance of youth. That was our pre-history, just trying to get our shit together.

Seconds: That first album is reminiscent of a great lost Zepellin album...

Lee: Yeah, they were big with us. The first record was influenced by all those great British rock bands.

Seconds: How did the sound change when Neil came in?

Lee: The change was inevitable - suddenly we had a different chemistry. When we made the first album our interests were very much about being a simple rock band. When we made the second record, already between that time, Neil's interests in music became aligned with mine and Alex's desires, so we wanted to make our music more complicated. Our old drummer John was never really into that. That was one of the reasons he left. When Neil came in, he was the third piece to the puzzle and he confirmed all the stuff we wanted to do. We started fucking up our music.

Peart: There was a little more racket coming from the drum kit. Part of the conflict and tension with the previous drummer was that Geddy and Alex were starting to think in ways that he either couldn't or wouldn't keep up with. From the time I joined, all those ideas were floating, and the very first day we jammed on the parts of what would become "Anthem." It was just a natural thing. In some ways, I guess I opened them up.

Seconds: What about those sci-fi influences? That style comes out of the English progressive, intellectual rock scene, right? And Neil's reading material was the basis for your lyrics?

Lee: Yeah, a lot of them were Neil's ideas, sure. We handed the mantle of lyric-writing over to him. We noticed during our first tour how much he read and how he had a good grasp of the English language, so we figured here's our out. We hated writing lyrics, we just wanted to write music - "Neil, run with the ball, it's yours!" He started coming up with all kinds of thought-provoking stuff. We liked the ideas, because at the time we were looking for ways to make our music more interesting, and here was some sci-fi-based lyrics that sparked our imagination, and we were able to push our music into a different context. It was a great catalyst.

Peart: I was never a sci-fi nerd kid and didn't watch "Star Trek" or read science fiction, but then when I was in England, I was poor and couldn't afford to buy books. So, I was ransacking the closet where I lived and found alot of sci-fi. It reintroduced me to the genre and made me realize it wasn't all about numbers and integrated circuits. It refreshed my idea of what the style was, and that lead me into fantasy. It was a whole lot of reading at the time, of being young and interested in fantasy and science fiction and alternative universes. That was all in my reading, so naturally it reflected in the lyrics.

Seconds: You're one of the only long-lasting three-piece rock bands. What has been the key to your success in that regard?

Peart: We probably have the Guiness Book of World Records for the longest lasting band with the same members. As I outlined before, there are certain elements of our individual progression that happen to be parallel, and that was important. The biggest factor is with the songwriting. The input is so equal; the responsibilities and the satisfactions are also equal. Nobody feels slighted, nobody feels like they write all the good songs, as often happens when you have a one-songwriter band; that tends to lead to resentment and bitterness and arguments, I've seen this happen to so many bands. I'd have to think that's one of the big factors. I've seen bands get torn apart by those kind of stresses. It's such a fundamental ego thing of self-pride: "Am I the important guy in the band or am I just one of the bums?" Those conflicts tear apart more bands than people think.

Lee: I guess it depends on your perspective. If you look at The Who, they were a three piece band, instrument-wise. More than any band, they've been a model of admiration for myself because they're such good songwriters. They weren't wimpy, even when they were melodic. They had this fantastic urgency to their music. They were able so survive because of that songwriting quality. Ironically, it's probably our musicianship that's kept us afloat more than our song-writing, but I think the two have grown hand in hand. Circumstances have allowed us to flourish by comparison. We were considered a very crude and not very adept rock band early on. Then punk came along and that was even more crude and inept, and suddenly we looked like brilliant players; that spurred us to become better musicians, and we rode on that for awhile. What we have evolved into has always been in context with everything else that's going on around us in the scene. The fact that our live shows have always been of high quality and that kids who've come to see us walk away pretty happy, that's created the base of our existence and brought us time to evolve. We'd like to think that we keep getting better.

Seconds: Many people have criticized your use of Ayn Rand references, particularly her supposed fascist agenda. But I've always seen her work as the ultimate in libertarianism.

Peart: Absolutely. We've just been through a federal election here in Canada. Anytime certain buttons are pushed, people went wild. You'd just mention something like free trade and everybody just lost their minds. It's the same thing with fascism; it's like a sampler, you just keep pressing that button, "You're a fascist! You're a fascist! You're a commie! You're a commie!" You can just see a rap record going back and forth on those kind of stupid labels. It was genuine at the time. It just reflected the reading I was doing and the thinking I was doing, and what I thought was a very dramatic setting for a piece of music. It was so innocent, but I certainly never anticipated causing any controversy whatsoever. Like so many people getting labeled with an influence like that, I was just reading Camille Paglia last year and she said that anytime she mentions Freud, people automatically think she buys into every word that Freud ever said, which is far from the case for almost anybody with regard to their mentors or exemplars or early heroes. They're inspirations, it doesn't mean you buy into every single thing that they say. Most of us are independent enough to take a selection of different people's ideas and meld them together into something of our own. It was just simplistic labeling at the time, and thankfully I think it's died out.

Lee: I couldn't agree with you more. I don't view her as fascist, I don't think Manifesto is a fascist manifesto. She's not trying to dominate anyone. Her views, to me, were aimed at giving people confidence enough to fight for their own ideas. I always thought those fascist remarks were way off the mark. I found Ayn Rand's work at a certain time in my life - this is going back to '76-'77 - to be a great liberator and a great relief because her artistic manifesto was so strong and inspiring. Her views on art and the sanctity of individuals were very inspiring to young musicians in a band, fighting for their own identity. I look back now many years later, and some of the songs and ideas are a very severe way of looking at living, but when you consider her life and where she came from, the life that she lived, and when you take an educated look at her, it makes alot of sense.

Seconds: When someone throws out words like 'fascist' or 'bigot', you can't say anything.

Peart: There's no defense. One of the parties here got tarred with that brush. They were arguing for immigration control and that became racism. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't - but the fascist/bigot button came out and they're tarred with that brush forever.

Seconds: Do you ever get that 'fascist' tag anymore?

Peart: No, I don't think so. Political consciousness has changed so much, that polarity really doesn't exist anymore. That was a 70s thing, especially in Britain where all that controversy began. And since the radical left wing is so discredited now, it automatically seems to defuse the radical right wing.

Seconds: Your band's name is vernacular for a drug experience. How has your view of drugs changed over the years, especially as a major player in the rock business?

Peart: I got a similar question from an English journalist: "Is Rush a dodgy drug reference or what?" People can't reflect back to earlier times, but in the late 60's when that name was applied it kind of had that connotation, but at the same time it was more innocent. You would talk about an adrenaline rush. But words like 'bummer' have passed into our vernacular. I'm amazed to hear grandparents use the word 'bummer,' and that's without any drug connotations. Sure, that's the root of the metaphor, but that's not what it's come to mean. Those things have just passed into the language in a different way. At the time the name Rush was instituted, it had a much broader range of possibilities.

Seconds: How about your views on drugs?

Peart: People should do what they want and not hurt me. Left-wing libertarian is what I call myself, because I do believe in the safety-net aspect of society. I expect that to be voluntary, but unfortunately my experience with human nature has led me to be somewhat skeptical of that. I've decided that as a libertarian benevolent dictator I would institute social programs.

Seconds: Over the past few years there have been many Rush fans coming out of the closet, especially withing popular-post-indie bands. What do you think of this crop of artists who are progressively-minded but weaned on punk rock?

Peart: I think it's wonderful. It can't do any harm. I think I mentioned earlier the affirmation we felt about that. The angst and directness of punk seems to have survived, but at the same time, nobody's pretending that they can't play or that they don't want to play well. Those values were so short-lived because the people who adopted that pose felt that it didn't matter how well you can play. Then the serious ones among them started to get better and became successful, so both of their poses of being impoverished and untalented disappeared. Suddenly, they started getting better and they started getting wealthy. That was the demise of punk rock, because it was an untenable position for musicians to be in. I was saying before about how bands were being honest and playing music they liked, and hoping that others would like it too - the premises under which we've always worked - but of course, we're practically unique in that basis. Almost every piece of rock music, especially through the 80s, was made specifically to a formula, usually with the A&R man sitting in the studio telling the band how to make it radion-friendly. That' s what we were up against in the 70s. To come into the 90s now, with the big musical explosion in Seattle, everyone in the industry was caught unaware. They didn't know how to fomularize and package it. I was suprised last spring in Europe - there'd be all these junior imitation Nirvana and Pearl Jams, and it's still happening now. It will inevitably become cheapened by that approach, but at the same time it's evidence to the continuing power of music on its own; it can't be predicted, it can't be controlled, it can only be reacted to. Now bands are coming out with the musical values that have been dealt out over the last twenty years. Those standards still exist and that's the wonderful thing, and if that happens to be a style that's retro or something, what does it matter? It's not like trying to be Buddy Holly or trying to be Johnny Rotten, it's not about that at all, it's just about keeping those values of rebellion alive, and that's a pretty important part of rock.

Lee: The greatest compliment you can be given is for somebody to come up to you and say, "You influenced the way I play," I think that there's some great bands out there now, bands who are weird as hell. There was a real hole in the American rock scene at one time, there were all these glam metal bands coming out of L.A., but there really didn't seem to be anything happening. There's a lot of musicians here and alot of the music is very explorative - bands like Primus, Fishbone, Soundgarden - these are bands I feel are really doign interesting things. They're helping to create another generation of musicians who will keep exploring what you can do with rock. Pop bands like the Chili Peppers, and Nirvana, to a certain degree, although they're a little overcooked right now, at least it's good stuff. To me, Nirvana aren't any different from the The Police. They're just The Police with a grungier sound, it's good pop, nothing wrong with it. But I don't know what made us cool suddenly. I guess this is what happens when you hang around for a long time.

Seconds: What were you thinking when punk came?

Peart: Amusement, really. I know a lot of musicians around at the time felt threatened by it. We happened to be recording in England when the Sex Pistols first came out, and when I saw them on TV, I was so entertained. There was no denying the charisma that John Lydon had, singing, "no future..." At worst, it was amusing, and at best, an amazing spectacle. As the bands started to get better, when more thoughtful bands like Talking Heads came out and later the new romantics, I embraced it totally. It was an irresistable force at that point, it was just rock music that could call itself new wave.

Lee: Some of it was fun. We were real musos at that time. We were real into the math of music, we were time signature freaks - which by the way, I see that stuff going into now too - and maybe that's an answer to your previous questions. Perhaps that's why some of these bands have credited us an influence, because we put so much emphasis on the technical side of playing, and a lot of this music that's happening in America right now is player's music: it's not just pop, it's not just glam music for chicks to freak out over. Back in the late 70s, when punk was going on, since we were heavy into this muso vibe, punk seemed very weird to us. We couldn't take it seriously, because we were players and these guys couldn't even play. It was comedy.

Seconds: Speaking of comedy, Rush always gets accused of its being too serious and indulgent, but is there a humorous side to you? You did your SCTV appearance and song for instance.

Peart: Do you know how much it costs us to have The Three Stooges on our album cover?

Seconds: So there is a humorous side to the band?

Peart: Not in the work, certainly, We're not comedians and we don't try to be. I remember Roger Waters once saying that on Pink Floyd records they used to put in little jokes, but by the time it went by them twenty-five times, they just didn't want to hear it anymore. Comedy doesn't survive like music does. There are very few people who manage to do both and it takes a really special talent of a Frank Zappa, or in Canada we have Barenaked Ladies, who manage to be funny and good at the same time, but it's really not easy. Frank Zappa was obviously a unique creature of the millenium. If what you're trying to do is just make good music; there's alot of great paintings that aren't funny, there's a lot of great novels that aren't funny, it's not the ultimate value of the universe. Humor is certainly great and we have alot of fun with our music.

Seconds: You're Canada's official ambassadors of music. How does that impact on your image as a hard, brash rock band?

Lee: I don't know how respectable we are. Again, it's all context. We've been a band for twenty years, so people respect us for some reason. I guess they respect our ability to survive and be successful, in spite of our goofy sounds. I don't really know what the hell it adds up to, or what it means. I certainly don't feel like an ambassador of music. I think alot of people in Canada don't really know what to do with us, so they keep giving us awards. "You're the greatest, most ridiculous band of the decade, the band that's been around and been succesful, even though we can't figure out why" award of the year. It's a strange station we're in.

Peart: Well, the respectability is not to be overrated. We haven't ahd a lot of it. We're slowly creeping into respectability, just through sheer longevity though. It's a fortunate thing that if approval comes after twenty years from respectable quarters, it's just a tribute to your survival. In those cases, our fans can be proud of having achieved that, rather than just having it given to them. There's no perception of us crossing over to the business sector. We've proved we would never be puppets of the industry, so therefore, if we do get associated with an award, it can't reflect badly on us at this point.

Seconds: In retrospect, what's your best and worst work?

Peart: See, I don't listen to them everyday. Then you get colored by playing them live. I tend to be more excited to hear the songs that we don't play live. Hold Your Fire is one of my recent faves. There's a mood about that album and a strength in the songs that if I were outside of it all as a Rush fan, I think I would rate that album very highly. There are bits of all of them that I like, and it always tends to be a diminishing rating system. Each one I like less than the one after it.

Lee: I guess 2112, Moving Pictures, Permanent Waves, Roll the Bones, I think that's some of our best work. Some of our dicey work is Caress of Steel, Grace Under Pressure, although times have been kinder to that record than I imagined.

Seconds: Were there certain outside pressures going on that hindered you from creating those great Rush albums?

Lee: I think it's just part of the process. Sometimes you make a winner, sometimes you don't, it's all hit or miss. With a band like us, we don't really know what we're doing until we do it. It's not contrived, we don't ask anyone's opinion of it, there's no refractile input in our music, aside from the producer, engineer, and the small team that we work with. It's very much an insular organization. Maybe we missed something that somebody else might have pointed out to us. We don't have any regrets because you can't get to C from A without going through B, and that's the way we work. Whatever we go through that's negative as a band, we learn something about making records from it and hopefully it'll surface on the next record, and we always believe that there is another record. It's a long-term view.

Peart: No one has the right to exert any pressure on us. We've never allowed anyone else in the studio. No record company people are running around offering opinions and no one hears our demos but us. It's very much a closed shop. Sometimes we get off on tangents, but without those tangents, we wouldn't learn what we applied later. I consider all the albums worthwhile. There's nothing I look back at and say. "I wish we didn't do that song" or "I wish we did that record a different way." In every case, they were approached so honestly, there was no other way they could've been done. In every case, all three of us came together on day one determined to make the best record, and there were no obstacles put in our way except our own. Sometimes we have high hopes for a song that just doesn't translate in the final analysis. If we've gone to the trouble of rehearsing and arranging it, we tend to be behind it whole-heartedly. When we finish a record, it's amazing how our songs are rated for ourselves compared to people's responses later on. It probably takes us longer than anyone else to get a sense of perspective on which are really the successful songs and which aren't. By successful, I mean having reached the audience we wanted to, people who like our music. Hold Your Fire, for instance, was not one of the biggest selling records, but the people that like it really like it alot. That's the same way with Grace Under Pressure before it. It was not one of our more commercially successful records, but I think it was on of the most successful in reaching our audience, and those are the records that you tend to hear passionate responses from people. 2112 is like that too. There's so much passionate conviction in there and somehow it manages to get unified enough to make a single piece of work feel that way.

Seconds: Have you paid attention to the development of ambient techno acts from England like The Orb and Ultramarine?

Peart: The Orb I was listening to for awhile. I don't think it's necessarily progressive, I consider it more of a backwater. Like industrial or all these things, they do contribute to the ongoing flow, but I don't think they direct it. It's interesting for the people that do it, I think, but there doesn't seem to be much drum action in there.

Seconds: It's rather faceless and introspective, the opposite of arena rock in many ways.

Peart: I bet it would translate to the arena or stage the same way Pink Floyd did or the Grateful Dead do, they really are all offering the same spacious drone to drag you away.

Seconds: Do you see that as a viable music scene?

Peart: I don't think it will direct the future of music, but it's a really nice influence. I love when things range from every facet of musical styles without being focused on one thing. Grunge became really tired really fast because it was all there was in the hip universe; where in healthier times before and after big waves like that, things tend to be the most satisfying because there's so much music to choose from, and even the charts will reflect a broad stylistic input, whether it's from R&B to country to techno, all that stuff seems to find an audience somewhere, even among the fringes. Sometimes the fringe is where the action happens. That's why I'm not denigrating what I said before about backwaters and tributaries. That is where everything happens, and by the time it makes it to the mainstream it usually becomes a formula.

Seconds: What's the biggest misconception about Rush?

Peart: This band is so private. It's not like we're out in the public eye and our acts are being misjudged. People are just guessing at something they have no way of knowing. Our work is serious in nature. But just because we take out work seriously doesn't mean we take ourselves seriously. That's the distinction that we make, and that would cerainly represent an important distinction. Our concerts are important to us, and it's a time of great intensity being on stage. Making records is the same way, we apply everything we have to doing it, but it doesn't mean that we don't laugh afterwards.