Rushing Ahead

Are they hip yet? After 20 years, rock's eggheads discover love and sex

By Brett Milano, Worcester Phoenix, March 11, 1994

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The song is called "Animate," and it sounds for all the world like a model of cutting edge, alternative metal. Lyrically, it's a Jung-inspired dialogue between the singer and his anima, or the female within - great post-modern concept, right? And musically, it's the sort of thing that Stone Temple Pilots or Blind Melon would kill for: big, crashing guitar chords: earnest and convincing vocal, nice blend of '70s arena tricks and modern pop twists. Just the sort of song to give a band Alternative Nation credentials for life.

Only one problem: "Animate" is not a new song by a hip-and-happening, MTV-approved band. It's the lead-off track from Rush's Counterparts, the Canadian trio's 16th studio album after 20 years together, and still sporting the near-original lineup of singer/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart (who replaced John Rutsey after the band's first album). Now that a substantial portion of alternative rock is turning into a rehash of the '70s, sometimes it takes a bunch of smart warhorses to show how it's done. The band make their semiannual visit to the Centrum this weekend for shows on Friday and Saturday.

So is Rush finally getting hip after all these years? "I'm sure we are for some people, but there's also lots of people who will never consider us hip - so I'm sure we're safe from that accusation," laughs Lee by phone from a soundcheck in Orlando, Florida last week. "I keep hearing about younger bands that are quoting us and supposedly sounding like us, but I can't say I've really heard one that sounds like us yet."

Then again, Rush doesn't operate like a lot of veteran bands. For one thing, they're letting their 20th anniversary slip by with little fanfare - not making it the hook for the current tour. Instead of doing a retrospective, greatest hits show this weekend, they'll be focusing as usual on the last few albums, saving the oldies for encores. (Lee says they've re-learned a few old tunes they haven't played in a long while, but doesn't want to reveal which). He also promises "more of an audiovisual element" than before, with new projections, film, and lighting designed by the band and its associates.

Even the best '70s bands seem to exist these days by pulling the same strings they pulled 20 years ago - whether by proving they can still-come off like young punks (Aerosmith have that market cornered), by doing sequels of 20-year-old albums (stand up, Meat Loaf), or by playing mostly old material (as Pink Floyd will undoubtedly do on their coming tour). Rush are one of the few '70s bands who keep moving ahead: they've never gone more than two years without a new studio album, and the newer stuff invariably out-classes the old.

"The most important thing for us is to keep writing - not to do the usual thing and say. 'I'll see you guys in 10 years after we've done our solo projects,' " Lee says. "You can only go so long without needing to write something, and I'll start getting pretty itchy after a year goes by."

Like most of their albums, Counterparts was largely written in the studio with the clock running. Rush didn't have any songs finished until the sessions began.

"Something will always come out when the three of us get together - it may not be any damn good, but something comes out. I think we're pretty confident that we can put a record together in almost any circumstances, but it helps if you've got a good producer and a lot of ideas flying around. This time we were fine-tuning things until the very last minute, and Neil would still be working on words while we were recording."

Non-singing drummer Neil Peart continues to provide all of the lyrics, and he's been responsible for the weighty concepts that have gotten Rush pegged as an egghead band (they got official egghead status last year. when Harvard named them "Band of the Millennium"). Peart's gotten more down-to-earth in recent years, but he still builds the albums around unifying themes - power struggles on 1986's Power Windows, aggression on 1988's Hold Your Fire, the nature of God on Presto, and chance and gambling on 1992's Roll the Bones. For Counterparts, he approached the theme of interpersonal (or in the case of "Animate," inner-personal) relationships, which allows for a handful of songs about love and sex - the two most common subjects in pop music but practically the only subjects that Rush had never written about.

"It's true, those subjects seemed really trite to us in our early days," Lee says. "We were always thinking, 'The people we hang out with are not hung up on these subjects, so why should we be?'; and the idea of doing love songs seemed a bit banal. This time there was a great desire to attack those subjects in an atypical manner. After 20 years you have to start saying, 'I wonder if I can really tackle this subject?' Maybe that's what all the people we couldn't stand 20 years ago were trying to do."

Can Lee always make sense of the lyrics that Peart gives him to sing? "No, not always. He never tells us what anything's about, he'll just hand us a lyric and either we like it or we don't. And that's where the process of conversation begins. Sometimes the thread of what he's getting at isn't clear to other people. I think I have a pretty good track record, though. A lot of times he'll use me as a sounding board to see if the ideas are going to get across. Sometimes he'll hand me something I love, and my interpretation might have nothing to do with his, but that doesn't matter to me.

"Even when Neil wrote about love and relationships on this album, he approached it like Mr. Spock would on Star Trek - 'Hmm, let me do some r&d on the subject.' He was still doing a lot of reading and exploring a lot of philosophy. I think it shows people a side of him they haven't seen before, and they can still appreciate that a lot of it is open to great interpretation."

Musically, there have also been some changes made. A lot of people still associate Rush with 15-minute songs and science-fiction epics, but they haven't done either since the '70s. With the Permanent Waves album in 1979, they stripped things down and brought in a slight new-wave influence. Some listeners even mistook the single "New World Man" for a Police record. The '80s found them adopting a high-tech approach, notably on the Hold Your Fire and Power Windows albums, on which Lifeson's guitar took a back seat to computerized layers of keyboards, sequencers and synthesizers. The real quantum leap happened with 1989's Presto album, which brought in some superb pop hooks, a textured, back-to-guitars sound, and even vocal harmonies (for the first time on a Rush record). Counterparts continues along those lines, turning the guitars up further and phasing out the synthesizers altogether.

"We got sick of the digitized sound around the time of Presto, and whatever we planted then came to fruition on the new album," Lee says. "I also started getting into the simpler, more soulful aspects of songwriting, and that's where the harmonies came from. We couldn't have used them before, with the density of the music we were pursuing. I've been listening to more American rock music than ever lately which may have, something to do with where we've gone - then again, I've also been listening to Billie Holliday, and I'm sure you can't hear that in Rush. But oddly enough, I think Neil's current interest in opera has given him more respect for what I do as a singer, and influenced him to keep things simpler."

Since there have been nothing but short songs on the last batch of Rush albums, can they see making another stab at an epic-length piece? "That's possible, though it seems to me like a gargantuan objective to put everything we want into a four-or-five minute song. Those long, self-indulgent pieces are absolutely the easiest thing for us to do, and that's the stupid thing about us as a band - that we don't do what comes easiest. 'Double Agent' on the new album really threatened to go in that direction. That could easily have been a 15-minute piece if we hadn't held ourselves back."

Just because the new music is simpler, Lee says, that doesn't make it easier to perform. "If you're playing uptempo or intense music on stage, the whole thing can be dictated by the feel, so you can cruise along on that. The new stuff is a bit different rhythmically, so you have to approach it with a more relaxed attitude, and let the songwriting dictate the groove."

The band have resisted the urge to make things easier by bringing extra musicians on the road, and, despite their polished sound on stage, they're not using tapes either.

"We do have an incredible amount of keyboard equipment on stage though, and we're triggering a lot of it with our feet. A lot of it is incredibly complicated to deliver technically. We've got three people on stage, which means that six limbs are always occupied doing different things. But hopefully people won't be seeing us do everything; they'll just be saying, 'Hey, that sounds just like the record.'"