Trent Reznor loves them. Soundgarden loves them. Primus, Metallica, and even Fishbone love them. And with a new album and tour, the members of Rush are finding a whole new generation of fans appreciating them as well. Greg Edwards hooks up with singer/bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson at their homebase in Toronto to find out why.
In 1968, when bassist Geddy Lee joined Rush and was told that he'd have to sing - a prospect he didn't relish - he probably never imagined that he'd still be doing it 28 years later. Especially a few months later, when they kicked him out.
But Lee soon returned, and with guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart (who replaced John Rutsey after their 1974 debut), Rush went on to become one of the most influential bands in rock. Individually, each member is respected as a top-calibre instrumentalist, against whom bass players, guitarists, and percussionists measure their growth (Peart, specifically, earned such stature that the phrase "a Rush-influenced drummer" is almost a cliche). But it's together that they've made the greatest impact, inspiring such bands as Primus, nine inch nails, and even Fishbone.
In fact, this past summer's Lollapalooza - given such nicknames as Metalpalooza (for its heavy content), and Larsapalooza (for Metallica's Lars Ulrich) - should've been called Rushapalooza: both Metallica and Soundgarden drink heavily from the fountain of Rush (the former comparing themselves frequently), while Rancid play the kind of punk that came about as a reaction to Rush's prog-rock ilk.
Oh, and Joey Ramone kind of looks like Geddy Lee.
Yet despite all this recognition as members of rock's elite, the band members remain modest.
"It's hard to put yourself in the position of saying, 'Oh, my music is influencing the way somebody else's life is going,'" says Lee. "You don't want to take responsibility for somebody else's life; it's hard enough taking responsibility for your own. You do feel complimented, and it does make you look at your own music differently, because it makes you feel like what you're doing has some value, but it doesn't bear thinking about for too long."
Not that Lee and his mates would think about such things anyway - they just don't have the time. They recently had to force themselves to take a vacation, and even then they were still busy: Lee and his wife added another child to their clan; Lifeson recorded a solo album, Victor, in his home studio; and Peart indulged in his latest hobby, cross-country motorcycling. And then they wrote and recorded Test For Echo, their sixteenth studio album (and twentieth overall).
A complex and mature but still heavy album, Echo is liable to surprise a number of people, especially those who gave up on the band when they expanded their guitar/bass/drums sound to include keyboards in the late '70s. It has all the Rush trademarks - Peart's percussive drumming, Lifeson's soaring guitars, and Lee's multi-rhythmed bass and distinctive vocals - but in more measured doses.
It also, like such recent Rush albums as Counterparts and Roll the Bones, has fewer keyboards than Signals and Grace Under Pressure. So few, in fact, that it's as if they got to the studio and asked each other, "Did you pack the keyboards?" "No, I thought you did."
"I think the attractive thing about Rush has always been the three of us playing together," Lifeson explains. "Over the years, maybe from the mid-'80s on, that whole perspective got much broader. But we just wanted to get back that emotional core that we had."
"Power Windows and Hold Your Fire were just drowning in keyboards," Lee adds, "because we found that to be a really interesting time for that kind of music. But now we're not as interested in that."
They've even entered into a completely different realm on the song "Half the World," which features a mandola, a Celtic-sounding acoustic instrument, kind of like a mandolin crossed with a hurdy gurdy. "I just wanted to try it," explains Lifeson, almost sheepishly. "So I just futzed around to get a feel for it, and it changed the whole personality of the song. I remember Ged when he first heard it was like, 'Whoa, I don't know about that.' It was so unusual for a Rush song to have that kind of texture. But it grew on him really quickly. I think it's probably his favorite part of the album."
"This was the first time we've had any time left after we've finished an album," adds Lee, "so I was still sitting down in the studio cutting it up and editing it and playing around it. But then, I would change it 'til my dying day; I'm always looking for that perfect arrangement. And how do you know when you've got the perfect arrangement for a Rush song? It's such a weird arrangement anyway. You can't judge it by conventional standards. It's why having a release date is a really important thing, because it gets it out of my hands.
"Though when we do finish an album," he continues, "I'm really high on it to a certain degree. But I'm also really pissed off at it because it didn't go exactly where I heard it go in my head sometimes [he taps his temples]. That's partially due to the democratic process, and partially due to the fact that it takes six months to make a bloody album, so by the time you've finished it you've already gone somewhere else."
Of course, some of it may also have to do with the fact that the band members don't get to work out the kinks on the road, playing their songs live a bunch of times before setting them in stone. "We did that a couple times in the late '70s and early '80s," Lee recalls. "But that's when we were touring all the time, and it was easy to slip in new material. But I don't think anybody would be into doing it now. These days, getting everybody to agree to tour is a monumental feat."
"If there's one aspect of what we do that's a little more difficult to deal with now than in the past," adds Lifeson, "it's touring. We all have different feelings about it. In Ged's case, he needs it - I don't know if he enjoys playing live so much anymore."
Which explains why Rush's upcoming tour is so sporadic. Two weeks on, two weeks off, jumping from place to place. And if you live in Europe, forget it.
But then, you probably already have. "I'm afraid that we haven't paid enough attention to Europe," Lee admits. "We have a lot of fans over there, and every four or five years we go over and do a token tour. But if you don't go over there like everybody else and tour every album, you're going to fall out of public consciousness - I think that's what's happened to us."
In fact, in the last few years the band even considered quitting altogether. Both Lee and Lifeson admit to having some doubts about whether they wanted to make another album, yet all hesitations were swept aside when the threesome started writing and found that the passion was still there.
Lifeson even says they've already got ideas for their next studio album, though they'll precede that with a live disc (every fourth Rush album has been followed by a live one). Still, as any Rush fan will tell you, with these guys nothing is certain. When asked point-blank if they'll split after the live album, Lee grins before relenting, "I can't say 100% for sure, but I doubt it. I think there's more music still to be written."