After making music for over 20 years with hardly a break, the three wise men of Rush decided to take a vacation - and came back more inspired than ever. Paul Semel welcomes 'em home.
In the basement of Alex Lifeson's suburban Toronto home - amid the clutter of guitar picks and patch chords - is a picture of him with former President George Bush. "I'm taking your advice," the inscription reads, "I'm changing my name to Harry." There's also a shot of Alex with the Pope ("We should get together when you come to town"), Alex and Liz Taylor, and, over by the desk, Alex with the Queen of England.
That the pictures are fake doesn't matter. Nobody's going to mistake the still boyish-looking guitarist of Rush for the Secretary Of The Interior, one of Liz's ex-husbands, or a member of the Royal family.
But as a religious figure...well, after 20 years on the job in one of rock's most influential bands, Alex and co-workers Geddy Lee and Neil Peart have earned the right to be treated like gods. Or at least to be honored with one of those "On the eighth day God created..." bumperstickers. Especially now that the band has emerged - along with Black Sabbath, Neil Young, and jazz as a whole - as one of the formative influences on modern music. Primus and Metallica are obvious Rush disciples, "In The Mood" and "Tom Sawyer" have both been sampled for rap tunes, while nine inch nails, Soundgarden, Faith No More, Fishbone, Dream Theatre, silverchair, and many other bands have given Rush a big high-five.
Even pop diva Paula Abdul paid homage to her favorite band in the chorus of the song she named for them: "Rush, Rush, ooooh what you do to me."
Okay, mayber not. But most musicians in the last 20 years directly or indirectly borrowed ideas from Geddy's bass playing, Alex's guitar playing, or Neil's drumming. In fact, Neil has shown so many drummers that there's more to it than just bashing out a rhythm that he's become the Eddie Van Halen of the drums.
"When you pick up an instrument as a kid," explains Rob Dickinson of Catherine Wheel, who covered Rush's "Spirit Of Radio," "you gravitate towards music that's accomplished because it gives you something to aim for. And when me and Brian, the guitarist, first started Catherine Wheel when we were about 15, we were fantastically in awe of Rush."
Such recognition hasn't come cheap, though. While most bands take time between albums to enjoy the sands of Hawaii or that European beach they saw whiz by the bus window on their last tour, the longest vacation Geddy, Alex, and Neil ever took was just barely long enough to kiss the wife hello, feed the dog, and maybe (in Neil's case) climb every mountain.
Which is why, when Geddy was told that he'd soon have another kid calling him "daddy," the band decided to take a break.
"Over the last ten years, my private life and my family life has become increasingly more important," Geddy explains from another, slightly messy basement (this one in his manager's office). "So when I found out that another child was coming, I was adamant that I would be around more for that whole experience, for the sake of my child, for the sake of myself.
"It was also necessay for me to reevaluate what I wanted to do -whether it made any sense to make more Rush albums, whether Rush's music means anything to anybody any more. I wasn't sure whether it would be fun. These are questions that are really hard to answer when you're right in the middle of it. They're hard to answer anyway, and I can't say that I've answered all of them, but when it came time to start the band up again, and it had been almost two years, I was really kind of excited about it. And I was really happy that I was feeling the way."
Alex expresses similarly renewed enthusiasm for Rush, though he also had his doubts. Especially since he'd spent the vacation making his first solo album, Victor, in the studio he built in his basement. "The whole point of this year and a half off was to separate ourselves," Alex says, sitting in his backyard. "We had to stop thinking about the band as the center of our little universe. I don't think back in terms of what was I doing in '87, '88, or '74, I think, 'What album did we have out then?' or 'Where were we on the road?' Those are my connections, and those have been my connections for 26 years, and I really needed - as Ged did and Neil did - to just get away from that.
"That first week back was really tough. I really wasn't sure if I wanted to do it anymore. We went to the same place to write, the set-up was all the same, but having the experience of doing my own album was so fresh, and to be in control was a new experience for me, so that first week Ged and I...I think we spent three-quarters of our work time just sitting outside talking about a lot of different things: how we're developing as people, what interests us, what's becoming important, how our priorities are shifting. And we kind of left it at, 'Let's see how the first couple of weeks go and if it's not there we won't do it.' And the following week we wrote five songs. We came back in so pumped."
The same could not be said for Neil. At least that's the theory. The man's notoriously unavailable (he doesn't do interviews until the tour starts). To be honest, Alex wasn't sure where Neil was during the break. "Ged and I have known each other for a long time, since junior high, so in the time off we'd get together and play tennis or go have lunch, or at least talk a couple times a week," he says. "With Neil it's a little different. The tour ends, and I might get a fax from Neil on my birthday, and then that's about it for a year. I think I only saw Neil a couple of times in the whole break. He's got a million things that he wants to do. He's into motorcycling now, and he's doing all these cross-country motorcycle trips. I think he just did one across Tunisia. So in the time off he did a whole bunch of things. We're just not sure what they are."
Still the enthusiasm is evident in the end result, Test For Echo, Rush's 16th studio album. Though it's as distinctly Rush as Moving Pictures, Permanent Waves, or any of their other classics, Echo could be one that shocks Rush fans fond of uttering the cliche, "We like their older stuff." Not since Geddy started experimenting back on 1977's A Farewell To Kings has there been a Rush album with so few keyboards. It's only on the dramatic "Resist" that synthesizers play a major role; from the heavy title track and the wriggly and percussive "Virtuality" to the guitar-driven "Time & Motion" and the instrumental "Limbo," (which would've been the title track had 'Rush: Limbo' not been too goofy), Test For Echo is the most basic Rush album in years.
"We seem to gravitate towards something, like keyboards," Geddy explains, "and then we reject then violently. There's little rebellions going on all the time. Like right now, we're just not interested in doing anything that isn't really guitar, bass, and drums oriented."
This might sound like a step backwards, but Alex doesn't see it that way. "The attractive thing about Rush has always been the three of us playing together." he says. "And I think we just wanted to get back to that. We were headed in that direction with Counterparts but I think with this album we nailed it. This sounds like the three of us are right there playing."
Back in the basement - among the mixing board, DAT machines, and sound equipment - Alex is digging through a walk-in closet. Along one wall are dozens of guitars, all carefully labeled and none of them dusty. On the other side, a number of shelves are stacked with assorted musician paraphernalia: boxes of guitar strings, more patch chords, a reel labeled "work tape" or something in thick black marker. He used to keep his gold and platinum albums here, but finally hung them on a basement wall because "they were taking up valuable storage space."
"My wife keeps bugging me to clean up this room," he mumbles, pushing aside some other award. It probably doesn't occur to him that by mentioning his wife he has doubled the number of things most people know about his personal life. Rush have been nearly legendary for their privacy; more is known about what happened to Jimmy Hoffa than how many kids Neil has (just one, for those keeping score at home).
"Early on we just didn't really think about it, "Geddy says. "But when we started getting successful we got really kind of ...paranoid about our private lives. We had this kind of attitude, 'it's about our music, it's not about us.' So we structured our organization around that attitude. "But that period came and went," he says, leaning back. "And since then everybody's way more relaxed about that stuff. Still, we don't go out of our ways to discuss our families. We're reserved people, and privacy is very valuable to us."
Rush's newfound mellowness has extended into their attitudes about music. "When you get a little bit older," Geddy says, "you see the big picture a little more clearly, and you appreciate your opportunities more. You'll often hear 40 year-old ball players say the same thing when they're invited to the All-Star game, "Wow, I was here when I was 19 but I didn't appreciate the gravity of the situation.' I think that's true to a large degree for me at this stage in my life. The fact that I'm in a band that writes music that, I feel, is unusual, and that I'm able to do that and have an audience that appreciates that - to me, that's a real opportunity. And I think I appreciate being able to do that more than maybe I did five, six, seven years ago."
Having been friends for so long, the way they deal with each other has also evolved. "Rather than jump on each other right off the bat," Geddy explains, "we allow each other the manners to develop our parts on our own. This never use to happen in the early days; everybody was so full of ideas and always making suggestions right away. But our comments are more measured now. You've been playing with the guy for 20 years, the guy's an accomplished musician, give him a few minutes to get his shit together. And invariably it arrives at a point that you want it to arrive at, and if it doesn't then you make a comment. There's a lot more trust and a lot more respect for everybody's role in the band."
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the lyrics. Unlike most bands, who force the singer to pen his own words, Rush's lyrics come straight from the mind of Neil Peart. With a minor detour through Geddy's fingers.
"A lot of conversation and a lot of thought goes into any song we write," the fingers explain, leaning forward so his eyes peer out from his glasses. "I have to sing convincingly. I have to sound like I wrote the lyrics, even if I didn't, because that's what makes the music compelling; it's got to have a degree of conviction there. And if I'm not comfortable with something then I won't sing it. Sometimes I don't feel that what Neil is trying to say is actually coming out. I look at myself as his editor to a certain degree."
One song that didn't require discussion was the second track on Echo, "Dog Years." "In a dog's life, a year is really more like seven", Geddy sings. "And all too soon, the canine will be chasing dogs in doggy heaven." "I love the lyrics to that song," Alex giggles, himself the owner of a fine pooch, Cody. "They're very clever. I smiled the first time I read them."
But while "Dog Years" is, well, goofy, if it's a Rush song it must have a deeper meaning, right Geddy? "Well, it's a metaphor isn't it?" Uh, yeah, a metaphor for how fast time flies, and how seven years can slip by like they're just one and all that. It's a metaphor for Rush, for how they felt time was going by so fast and that was why they took a break....But it's also about a dog. "Yeah," Geddy laughs, "it's also about a dog."
"We have a lot of fun doing what we do," Geddy continues, leaning back in his char. "And our jokes have been pretty inside. But because when we talk about our music we talk in very serious tones, and because the nature of our songs - when we first started we were quite heavy handed, lyrically as well as musically, I suppose - there's this 'serious' image that's lived with us. Though as we've grown, as we've moved along, there's been more and more humor injected into our music."
In the basement of Alex's house - among the clutter and that closet his wife wants him to clean up - is one of those instrument magazines. And staring up from the cover, from underneath the picks and patch chords, is the grin of ex-Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro. When asked, Alex yells something from the closet along the lines of "Yes, I am aware of who Mr. Navarro is and I enjoy his work." Only a lot less cynical. Like, "He's really cool" or something. Of course some people would be surprised to learn that Alex knows who Dave Navarro is. But while Geddy thinks, "I live in a kind of weird tunnel these days, and my interests have taken me so far out of what's going on," both he and Alex are surprisingly hip.
"I like Bjork," Alex says, "I like listening to nine inch nails - I thought Downward Spiral was a great album. Garbage, Soundgarden. I really like Soundgarden, always have."
Adds Geddy, "If you look in my CD collection, there's a whole range of crap I listen to: Soundgarden, Massive Attack, I like the Garbage album. I never thought I'd like Bjork, but I think she's amazing. I love her voice and I love the ways she writes."
Geddy even goes so far as to say he's more interested in creating new songs than playing the old ones. Sort of. "To me," he says, "writing is what it's all about. It used to be playing on stage was what it was all about to me, but's that's not true anymore. I'm really intrigued by it, I'm intrigued by the possibilities.
"Though I don't think it would be Rush without touring. We're kind of created on tour, so much of our sound is born in that kind of venue. Even though it becomes really difficult the longer a tour gets, I'm still excited by the prospect of getting out there and playing this material live and hearing what it sounds like live because a lot of the songs we write in the studio are never really played live until we get out there. The thought of not touring makes me panic."
"We all have different feelings about touring," Alex points out. "Neil goes back and forth. A lot of times he feels okay about touring, but most of the time he doesn't. He enjoys playing, but I don't know if he enjoys playing live so much anymore. In Ged's case, he's really anxious to get back out there because, I think, it goes back to the whole 'getting back to work' thing. And I'm really looking forward to this tour because I feel very positively about the album and about myself and where I am in terms of my life, and it's all a part of that growth."
"It's not like we're 25 anymore." Geddy concludes. "We're in our early 40s, and everybody's got a lot of crap going on. Touring is just one of those things."
Still the guys don't mind whipping out an oldie but goodie now and again. "I like playing some of the older stuff," Alex says, "especially songs we haven't played in a long time. On the last tour we brought back parts of 'Cygnus' and 'Hemispheres,' and hopefully when we make the set up of this tour we'll bring back other things we haven't played in a long time."
He even thinks they might change a few of those classics this time out. "Y'know, when we heard Catherine Wheel's version of 'Radio' we thought, 'Hey, that pretty cool. Maybe we should do their arrangement of our song'."
It's an intriguing idea, especially since it's one they haven't had to face much. It's another Rush cliche, one that still makes Geddy laugh, but most musicians think Rush's songs are just too hard to play. As Rob from Catherine Wheel says, "The way we all viewed the song was that it was a great pop song....a pop song with lots of complicated words and a riff that was far too difficult to play. It's only four minutes long, but it appears to have hundreds of different sections. I just wanted to make it a pop song because underneath it is a pop song."
It will take some getting use to for Rush to play it the Catherine Wheel way, though; something called practice, which Alex neither does nor wants to do.
"It comes back fairly quickly." Alex contends. "There are other things in life to do than to be very disciplined about practicing. I only have a few months where I can do the other things I enjoy doing, now I just like to relax."
Geddy's not real big on practicing either. But he does it anyway. "I never thought I'd see myself sitting in my basement playing my bass for an hour or two on my own," he says. "I use to think that was the most boring thing I could do. And playing bass on your own can be quite boring, heh heh heh. But the older I get, the more I practice. I'm a very lazy guy in some ways, and I hate the fact that I've proven to myself that practice makes you better 'cause now I'm fucked."
And what of fair Neil, who's been busy driving his motorcycle across Tunisia or wherever while his bandmates have to entertain some nosy journalist? "Neil has gone through a major reinvention of his drumming style." Geddy says, as if that won't send shockwaves through the drumming community. "There was a certain aspect of his playing that he wasn't happy with, so he was seeing this drum teacher in New York, and he spent about a year and half playing two hours a day, every day, developing this style. We were originally going to record earlier, but Neil wasn't ready; he felt he needed another six months of working out these things."
Which should've been time enough for Alex to clean up that basement like his wife has asked nicely so many times. But he didn't get to it then, and probably won't for a while, especially since the tour starts in October, and you know how men are when they start touring. It's probably a good bet that Alex won't get to that closet until the house gets sold, which, if he had his way, would be real soon (the "For Sale" sign has been out front for a while now). With the kids slowly leaving the nest, the house has become just too big for one man, his wife, his dog, and his guitars. But wherever they move, Alex says he's bringing the studio with him. After all, he needs a place for his picks.