After 20 years on the prog-rock scene, this Canadian trio - the fathers of progressive metal - still manage to explore uncharted musical avenues with their new release, Counterparts (Atlantic). As they enter their third decade together as one of prog-rock's premier forces, this Canadian power trio is putting the past gently behind them and forging forward.
Who said progressive metal was dead? Who said nine-minute, self-indulgent opuses were passe? And who said neo-jazz hard rock arrangements were no longer in vogue?
Rush said that. Of all groups.
Pioneers of progressive metal, kings of alternative hard rock and quintessential pretentious rockers - all these labels have been affixed to Rush at some point in their 20-year history. But now, only six years away from the 21st century, the original prog masters are reinventing themselves again. And just when hordes of up-and-coming bands were copping Rush's licks.
Geddy Lee, Neil Peart and Alex Lifeson dig Queensryche, Dream Theater, Faith No More and all the rest of the Rush wanna-bes, you see, and they acknowledge the Influence they have had. But they refuse to sound like the young guns because that would force them to repeat their own sound, This trio has always pushed the boundaries of rock 'n' roll convention, exploring what was possible with three, four and five chords, so why stop now? Their latest record, Counterparts (Atlantic), sounds a little like the old Rush - it's powerful and thoughtful, politically correct and innovative - yet the 1990s version of Rush is just as much heavy pop (four-minute songs) as it ever was pretentious suites.
All three members of Rush hail from the Great White North (that's Canada, for the geographically impaired), and when this mighty triumvirate made its way south in the early 70s, "progressive rock" was in its heyday, with bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake And Palmer having enormous success. But Rush was always different; darker and more moody than the others (except Pink Floyd, of course). Rush combined the innovations of prog rock with the slice and dice of metal. Some of the band's landmark albums (A Farewell To Kings, Moving Pictures, 2112, Power Windows, Exit: Stage Left and Permanent Waves) yielded monster FM radio hits while pushing the limits of music expression.
During the mid-to-late '80s, however, Rush's focus turned to shorter tighter arrangements. And while some fans accused the band of abandoning their progressive roots, Rush was simply searching for new directions and trying to figure out where a power trio fit in the ever-changing musical landscape.
Still, Rush's legion of loyal fans have followed the band through its many incarnations without losing a beat, so to speak, and have made Counterparts a resounding success (the album debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts). Geddy Lee, the enigmatic and highly introspective lead singer/bassist, didn't even try to explain his band's success or why so many have continued to support Rush's constant musical adventures when we spoke with him just before the record's release. He simply thanked everyone for their support and talked about what he knows best: singing and playing in one of the world's great rock bands.
After so many years of playing together - the albums, all the live dates - does it ever get boring to be in Rush? Do you ever feel the need to break out and do something completely different, like a country album or a gospel thing?
Actually ... No, it's never boring being in this band. If anything, there are more challenges now, after two decades, than there ever have been. We've created so much music - which is great because that alone cuts down on the boredom factor by giving us so many songs to play in concert - that we have to constantly explore new directions. Because who wants to put out the some album year after year? That's boring. And by the way, I can't sing country or gospel that well!
Actually, I'm sure there are millions of people who would be quite content for you guys to put out Moving Pictures year after year.
Or 2112 or Permanent Waves or any of those older records. You know, some people key into a certain sound and a certain period and that's their favorite. And that's the way it should be. I know when I look bock on the Stones or The Who (not that I'm comparing myself in any way to those legends), I know I have a favorite period of their career or an album that's my favorite. But that's cool. That's why we continue to play "Tom Sawyer" and "Limelight" and "Closer To The Heart" and all those golden oldies. It's a way of paying tribute, of reliving our history.
And you know, when you're a fan, as I am with so much music, if you got into Rush, say, in 1977 or in 1985, then that period defines you as a fan. It's a sort of badge of honor and a way of telling your status. I don't mean to make too much of this, but some people feel that way. "Well, you know, I was into Rush since 19-whatever" is how it goes. And that's cool. With a band that's been around as long as we have, I'm grateful for that kind of loyalty!
It doesn't seem a burden at times, living up to expectations?
No, because I think one of the things people respect about what Rush has been able to accomplish over the years - and this may be simply my own hallucination - is that, ultimately, we follow our instincts and have retained a level of sincerity and honesty that's, quite frankly, rare in most of today's music. You have to, in the end, please yourself. If you pander to your audience or that segment that cries for nothing but "Tom Sawyer," then you do everyone a disservice. And then you burn out and fade away. You must write about what you feel and sing about what's inside you, otherwise you're dead in the water.
So how do you continue to find inspiration? Like with this new album: What was important to you to convey to your audience?
Hopefully, if you're a creative person and you stay healthy mentally and physically (which is, admittedly, a very difficult thing to do over the long haul), you should be able to find inspiration everywhere around you - life, your family and friends, sex, war, the economy, just everything. But sometimes you can't.
The luxury Rush has, because of the success thing, is that we can go off and sort of gather up our thoughts and come back when we feel we have something to say. Like with Counterparts, we knew we wanted a certain sound, a specific sonic quality to the music.
The whole record sounds harder edged, rougher, more raw. Not grunge, exactly, but certainly as tough-sounding as anything you've done in 10 years.
Well, thank you. That was one of the goals, definitely. You mention grunge. Well, we weren't influenced, per se, by the whole Seattle thing, but how could you not sit up and take notice? You had to! So it made us look at our sound again - something we really haven't done in a while - and realize that, for the past few albums or so, we've been focusing on different aspects of our music - the lyrics, the harmonies, the melodies - and we haven't allowed Alex to crank up, really. You wear a lot of different hats, you see, and we just put that hard rock hat back on! It felt natural, the right thing for us to do. We wanted the power that comes with that intense guitar thing. And we really got it this time out!
Was Counterparts an easy album for you to make?
Counterparts was easy and difficult, like with every record we put out. There were certain things we wanted to say, like about homelessness and love and family matters, that we haven't had a chance to do before. So when you know what you want to say, it's easier!
But with the sound, we knew we wanted to stretch a bit. We're always going to sound like us, you know? With my voice and Alex's guitar and Neil's drumming and lyrics, Rush is always going to be Rush. But we wanted to push things closer to the front, so to speak. That's why we worked with Peter Collins again, who helped us produce Power Windows and Hold Your Fire. Peter is a wonderful sounding board, as a producer should be. He knows our history and he helped us to achieve that refinement we wanted without losing the spontaneity.
Will you go through an extensive tour again in support of Counterparts? And does that ever get to be a drag?
Sure, touring is a downer at times, but only because of the travel and being away from our families. Being in front of people, playing our music, hearing how much the crowd is into what we're doing - that's the best part of playing live. That immediate reaction - that approval, if you will - from the audience ... It keeps you going. We've been around now for 20 years. We need that approval to stick around for another 20!