Rush Knows How To Keep It Fresh

By Gary Graff, Detroit Journal, October 26, 1996

Together for 27 years, it's clear that the Canadian rock group Rush is no "Fly By Night" operation, to cop the title of its second album.

But during the three years leading to the release of its new album, "Test For Echo," there were alarmingly constant rumors that the trio was no more.

"It wasn't a concern to me because I was so involved in so many other things," says drummer-lyricist Neil Peart, who joined Rush in 1974. "I assumed it would come along in due course.

"You just don't worry about those things, really. You say 'O.K., it's time to get together and make a record,' so you do."

And what if somebody decides not to answer the call?

"Well, we've never had to deal with that," Peart, 44, says with a chuckle. "I don't get too reflective about things like that, especially when life is so reflective."

Peart says that Rush's time off, following a shortened tour for its 1993 album "Counterparts," was originally intended as a "paternity leave" for singer-bassist Geddy Lee. But, the drummer acknowledges, it soon become something more.

"It was the first kind of freedom we'd all had," Peart says. "It was an important time. It wasn't going away and lulling in a hammock for a year and a half in-between tours and albums."

Peart was perhaps the busiest of the three musicians. He took drumming lessons. He recorded the first of three intended all-star tribute albums to jazz great Buddy Rich. And he published -- privately -- a book about his 1988 bicycle trip through West Africa.

Peart says the musical studies were a particularly enjoyable part of his time away from Rush.

"For me, it was a period of music development," he says. "I changed almost everything about the way I subtly nobody would notice it. It's still me playing it, very aggressive, but it's...more about movement, about dancing around the drum set, a much more relaxed flow of the rhythm.

"One thing I loved about this period was life was reduced to such a simple formula. All I had to do to get better was to practice every day. It's not easy, but it's a simple goal."

On the other hand, guitarist Alex Lifeson's extra-band project -- a solo album under the moniker Victor -- had greater potential repercussions for Rush. When the album was released at the beginning of the year, Lifeson freely told interviewers that he had contemplated leaving the group.

Rush was working on "Test For Echo" by the time those comments were published, but Peart says he wasn't surprised by them.

"He was coming off the high of doing a solo record and being the big boss," Peart explains. "He wasn't sure he wanted to return to being part of the team.

"For me, I like the reward of seeing things improved. Everything is improved by going through the process of working on it with the three of us. I think Alex felt the same way in the end."

With a sign on the studio door that read "Individually, We Are A Ass/But Together, We Are A Genius," Rush recorded "Test For Echo" in a rural Ontario studio, not far from Toronto. With blizzards coming and going, the trio resumed its usual working arrangement, with Peart writing lyrics he'd then turn over to Lee and Lifeson to craft into songs.

"I have a melody in my head," Peart explains, "just to give me something to go by, rhythmically. But I don't try to express that to the other guys; it's better for them to take in fresh directions, and they often take it in ways that are surprising to me.

"The first time I hear a song, it's such a revelation. The words and phrases come alive to me in ways I couldn't have anticipated."

For its tour, however, Rush has opted for a fresh direction -- an "evening with" approach with an intermission and no opening acts. Peart says that format has been considered for awhile, but because Rush benefited from the opening spot on several key tours during the '70s, the group "hated to close that door" to other bands.

Still, this gives Rush a chance to do away with the song medleys it has taken to playing in recent years and to work up songs that have never been played live. Peart says that list includes "Natural Science" from the group's 1980 album "Permanent Waves" as well as the 1976 concept piece "2112," which Rush has never played in its entirety.

"In 1976, we were still opening a lot of shows," says Peart. "If we were playing a 40-minute set, we didn't want to devote 20 minutes to one song. So we had an abridged version of the whole piece...and just because of circumstances, that became habit.

"Now we have a chance to correct that. It's been great exchanging lists of old songs, ridiculous lists of things that hadn't been played before. It's such a fresh format for us...It makes it even more exciting for us to come out and play again."