Most bands in Rush's position would be content to coast on reputation alone. Hell, any group whose very name is synonymous with a genre (as theirs is with progressive rock) can rest assured that boxed sets, concert recordings and tribute albums with their moniker on them will always generate big bucks. But then Rush isn't like most bands - and never has been - so it comes as little surprise that on their new album (#19, for those keeping count), Counterparts, the Canadian trio (Geddy Lee, bass/vocals; Alex Lifeson, guitar; Neil Peart, drums) is once again exploring new territory. Raw and hard-edged, Counterparts marks the return of Lifeson's axe and the departure of Geddy's synthesizers. The album bridges the gap between the aggressiveness of older Rush and their kinder, gentler sound of more recent years.
"No matter how sophisticated we'd like to be - or pretend to be - sooner or later we remember the thing we enjoy most, and that's playing hard," says Geddy Lee. "It's a form of music we respond to emotionally." I caught up with Lee on Rush's rhinestone anniversary (their 20th). At this rate, they'll probably still be around in 2112!
Do you think Rush fans have accepted the metamorphosis of the band over the years?
Some have and some haven't. I think it's more difficult to be a fan of Rush than it is to be a member of Rush! Most Rush fans have their favorite period, and they want us to stop what we're doing and stay in that era. That goes against our instincts. Our "changing" over the years isn't a contrived thing; it's an uncontrollable thing. And while I think that's difficult for certain fans. there are other fans who welcome the curiosity of our next venture.
The fans who prefer the older pieces, which do they usually seem to favor, the Hemispheres era or the 2112 era?
It's funny when you talk to most hard-core Rush fans, they're very much into the Hemispheres, high-tech, sorcery stuff. Then there are fans that like other things. It's hard to say.
Was it a band decision or a push from one individual to get away from all the tangential stuff and into something more concise, like Moving Pictures?
I think we all kind of reached that desire at the same time. We felt we were limiting ourselves by having to do concept albums. We wound up reacting against that, much in the same way we reacted against synthesized music on this album. After Hemispheres we felt we had worked the idea of concept albums to death. I mean, we're very proud of Hemispheres but we felt like we were lost in a world of technology, to a certain degree. It was very refreshing to break away from that.
After recently listening to all your albums in a single sitting, I would imagine Hemispheres was the most difficult to make.
You got that right.
Were all the parts to that album written before you went into the studio?
Most of it was written on the spot.
Yeah, I think that's why it took so much out of us to make it. To tell you the truth, I don't think we were ever the same after making that record.
We rented a house near the studio, which was in Wales, and we wrote all the material in two weeks. We started recording right away, with very few ideas prepared. We had really unrealistic expectations and ended up going out of our way to make it as difficult on ourselves as possible. We wound up spending months making this record. Everything that could go wrong, did. It was a mammoth task. In the end it seemed like we had poured so much of ourselves into that record we just couldn't look at making that style of record again afterwards.
You blew your load.
Yeah, I guess you could say that.
Can you listen to stuff like "By-Tor and the Snow Dogs" [sic] or the thematic side of 2112 without shaking your head and saying, "What were we thinking of?"
Strangely enough, that stuff doesn't make me cringe.
Is there anything in your catalog that is difficult for you to listen to?
Oh, tons of it. I can't listen to anything from Caress of Steel without cringing.
The only thing I still like is "I Think I'm Going Bald" [laughter]. There's a lot of older stuff that sounds really weird to me, usually from the second or third album. But I'm really proud of 2112 I like that a lot, even though when I listen back to it, I can hear our age at that time, our youthfulness. I can excuse that, because so much about it still works. Every once in a while, though, a song will pop on the radio, and I'll go, "Argh! What happened?"
Excluding Counterparts, what's your favorite Rush record?
Moving Pictures. Permanent Waves is also pretty memorable.
How difficult was it to go from doing ten-minute-plus songs to getting across what you wanted to say in less than half that time?
It's still a tremendous challenge every time. I think the reason we stopped doing those longer pieces was because it seemed so easy for us. One would think that doing a ten-minute piece is difficult - and I guess it is - but once you get into that area of ten minutes you throw all the rules out, and you can do what you wish. In that sense it's easier. For us to do a five-minute piece and still keep those stylistic things that we've grown to love is very challenging. While we try to make the melodies more memorable and the musical changes more subtle, at the same time, every once in a while, there's a moment in a song that we want to be completely in your face. That's the challenge.
As far as playing live, how do you build your enthusiasm for doing something like "Tom Sawyer" for what must be the millionth time?
That's called being a professional. People want to hear that song, and you have to have enough respect for your fans to say, "I owe them a decent version of this song, 'cause they dig it." But that's as far as we ever go in terms of concessions [laughter].
Does making records still excite you like it did when you were starting out?
Writing still excites me. Making records doesn't excite me like it used to. Making records is a lot of work. Writing songs is the most meaningful part of the whole process. To be able to spend months writing and perfecting songs is why I do it.
Are the roles of the band members so defined that you and Alex don't even bother to write lyrics?
Unfortunately, that is the case. I think we've taken our roles a little bit for granted. Even though Alex and I have things to say from time to time lyrically, we prefer to present them to Neil and let him do his number on it. I guess on one hand it's out of respect for Neil's ability, but on the other hand it's just a case of extreme laziness on our part.
How do you balance the responsibilities of being Geddy Lee of Rush and Geddy Lee, family man? Touring and interviews and all the other things that go hand in hand with being in a band must have lost much of their appeal by now.
You have to take a practical and kind of professional approach to the whole thing. For me, as time goes on, I make less time available for Rush and more time available for my family and other interests, and I don't have any problem justifying that time. Fortunately, I've been successful enough to do that without worrying. There are things you have to prioritize, but you can't just ignore the practical side of promoting a record. I look at it like, "I spent seven months of my life making this record. The least I can do is make sure it has a fair shot at reaching all the people who might enjoy it."
What do you attribute Rush's longevity to?
I don't know. Maybe the refusal to give up on a bad idea. That's probably the question I get asked most, and I guess that comes with being together for 20 years. I think you have to look at a lot of different elements and attribute it to our being able to stay together. Part of it has to do with our vision, which is remarkably similar. Another part has to do with our personalities, which blend very well. There are a great number of rewards that we get for what we do, and that keeps us coming back.
Critics in the mainstream press have never been huge Rush fans. Why do you think they've given you such abuse over the years?
I think it was more like that in our early days. In the past five to ten years the press has been much kinder to us. In our early days we were very derivative, and critics could see that. Plus there were elements of our sound that were very crude and extreme, like my voice and the type of complexity we tried to put into what many critics viewed as pure rock music. I think there were a lot of purist critics when we first came along. Our music was definitely not purist, and they objected to it. I was thinking recently how vindicated I feel listening to a lot of these alternative bands. There's such a mixture of influences in their sound, and so many interesting things going on. Now it's normal to infuse one style with another.
You mentioned your voice. Over the years you've been singing lower and lower. Is that because of the critics or just a matter of preference?
Over the years I've had a stronger desire to learn more about singing and harmonies and layering of vocals. For a long time we wrote in keys that forced me to sing quite high. It wasn't until Grace Under Pressure that someone said, "You know, you can change the key you're writing in, guys. There might be other keys that suit Geddy's voice better." That was a real awakening for me. I would say that from Power Windows on, every album has been a different experiment in terms of singing.
Have you ever been at a point in your career where the drive to play with Rush wasn't so strong?
Well, my ambition has waned tremendously over the years.
Because you've already done everything you set out to do?
Yeah, and certain aspects of ambition are exhausting and require a tremendous amount of energy that comes and goes. I'm always very ambitious when it comes to writing, but the practicalities of the music industry don't intrigue me very much - although I will do my share. I always kept Rush such a strong priority in my life that it kind of exhausted the ambitions I have in other areas.
Do you foresee a time when you'll say, "I'm just not going to do this anymore?"
Inevitably that will happen. I choose to look at Rush's existence as an album-by-album thing, along with the temperament of the band. I'll make my life plans based on that. I think it would be foolish to do so any other way.
What's the most important thing you've learned about success?
I guess the most important thing I've learned is that it really helps you get good seats at the ballpark.