Keeping up with rock 'n' roll trends is hard for anyone. It's doubly hard for bands that have been around a long time. A number of veteran bands have been caught flat-footed by rapid change, but not Rush, the Canadian power trio that has incorporated new trends without being destroyed by them for the past 20 years. "We've bridged so many stylistic changes and technical ones that they've tended to help us rather than hinder us," says Rush drummer Neil Peart, whose group headlines the Worcester Centrum tomorrow and Saturday. "It seems kind of incredible that we've made it this far, because there's so many factors involved," Peart says. "The personal willingness is just one factor. Just because you want to have a 20-year career doesn't mean you'll have an audience for 20 years or have a record company. "But we never let ourselves get frustrated. Revolutions came along in the late '70s with punk and new wave: and all through the '80s with world music and electronic dance music: and the with the birth of real rock bands again and the whole alternative scene. Rather than being threats to us, they've all been nourishment. It's always been: 'Well, here's something fresh. Let's see how it can apply to us and how we can use it.' "
Rush's biggest hit was "New World Man" in 1982; and the title could also apply to their status in rock 'n' roll. Rush started in 1969 in the Toronto area with singer-bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, who wanted to create a power trio akin to Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. (Peart joined five years later.) But the trio has since broadened its style considerably, from a slash-and-burn instrumental unit in the early days to a sophisticated group with complex hard-rock arrangements surrounding Peart's lyrics about science fiction and world philosophy, as heard on the group's latest album, "Counterparts." It follows such hit albums as "Presto," "Power Windows" and "Grace Under Pressure."
"Technology kept tromping ahead and bringing us synthesizers and sequencers and MIDI," Peart said in a recent phone interview from Charlotte. "It allowed us to reproduce so much live that it blew the door open each time for us to bring more sounds into our music .... The key is not being slaves to the machines, but using the machines as our tools.
"Just watch what everyone is doing on stage," Peart says. "Watch Geddy and Alex's feet. Geddy is triggering keyboards, bass and vocals; and I'm triggering keyboards through drum-pads in my own area. All of this stuff takes an enormous amount of work just to choreograph. And it's all in the service of trying to reproduce what we do on record to the live stage.
"But the last couple of tours, we found that we could finally achieve that. So consequently, on the last tour we started opening it up a little more and introduced improvised sections and stretched-out instrumental sections. We were not quite so married to the recorded version of the arrangements."
Through it all, Rush has just tried to steer a steady course. "We weren't concerned about becoming more commercial or more popular or more flashy or any of those things," Peart said. "We truly just wanted to keep getting better. That's helped us keep moving along in the same direction."
It's also reflected in the positive attitude of many songs on the new "Counterparts" album. Rush has long believed in self-reliance and that again spills over to the new disc.
"I think the positive attitude of the record is necessary to counter so much of society's attitude now that says nothing is anybody's fault. You know, if you're a criminal, it's because your mom spanked you too hard. So self-reliance is an ongoing theme in our music. 'Nobody's Hero' and 'Everyday Glory' from the album are companion pieces on that. How ordinary people can be heroic," Peart said. "Some people are warped by their childhood and some people with bad childhoods come out of it fine. So l was trying to say, 'Well, you might have had a horrible childhood, but transcend it.' I believe in everyday heroism."
Peart also believes in hope for rock 'n' roll's future, thanks in particular to a bevy of new bands. "We've been pleased to see guitar bands come back with real drummers, not drum machines," says Peart. "I'm thinking of bands like Pearl Jam, Primus and Candlebox. Even Guns N' Roses. Love them or hate them, I think they're for real. And after the late '80s and the whole light-metal time of Bon Jovi, it was just a pleasure to see real bands play the music they wanted to play, the way they wanted to play it.
"There's a very pure sense of what these bands are doing. It's not for the A&R man [artist & repertoire] to tell them what to record or how to do it, because all those A&R people got caught with their pants totally down, which was beautiful. I love how the revolutions come out of the basement; and not from the head office. When Nirvana came out and broke so big, the record companies didn't have a clue, but all of a sudden they were running to Seattle to sign every alternative band there is. It was funny, but it was great.
"Record companies had thought they had everything formulized. They were sending A&R men into the studio to tell people how to make records. It was evil. Then bang, suddenly these people realize how stupid they are and how little they know and how impossible it is to control rock 'n' roll. That's the most gratifying thing."
UPCOMING SHOWS: Worcester Centrum tomorrow and Saturday.
BAND MEMBERS: Geddy Lee, vocals-bass; Neil Peart, drums; and Alex Lifeson, guitars.
ON NEW HIGH-TECH STAGE VISUALS: 'We have a three-screen and three-projector system now, so there's a more sophisticated movie scene going on behind us,' says Peart. 'This year, we really threw out everything - all our old movies and cartoons - and started fresh. We use a system which allows three separate pictures to become one or to play off each other. It really works well in the context of an arena-scale show.'
OFF-THE ROAD INTERESTS: 'I like to go bicycling, especially in Africa. Alex goes scuba diving, and Geddy follows baseball around the world. He was actually in the Middle East last year (to watch baseball).'
TOURING AS A TEST: 'We keep forcing ourselves out there, because as long as we are a vital band we need to put ourselves to that test. So touring does become necessary. It takes you out of a close circle of friends and a protected lifestyle and puts you out in the real world. Just recently, we were in Los Angeles and all of a sudden the earthquake becomes more than just an item on CNN. It's part of your life. It's something you've seen. You're not thinking of the world around you as an abstraction anymore.'