(CNN) -- After an extended hiatus, Rush is back with a new album and outlook on the future.
CNN's Geneen Pipher caught up with Geddy Lee, the band's soft-spoken singer and bassist, as the trio prepared to release "Vapor Trails," its first studio album in nearly six years.
CNN: How does it feel to be out there with a new album?
GEDDY LEE: Oh well, it's, you know, it's a little surprising. I have been kind of had my head down working for the last two years, so it's kind of a strange experience to suddenly stop working and put your head up and see all these people kind of gathered around looking at ya. That's a little bit how I feel right now.
CNN: Alex was telling me that you're getting a lot more press on the album. Why do you think that might be?
LEE: I think it's a lot of reasons. Obviously we've got some people out there that were really rooting for us through the period that we've just gone through and hoping that maybe we would get through it and make another record. And I also think you have to face also the reality that we live in a 500-channel universe now and there's a whole plethora of online magazines and all these places need something to write about, so we're it right now, I think.
CNN: My impression of "Vapor Trails" was of three old friends getting together and just jamming ... there's a real sense of joy to it that's incredibly appealing. Can you talk about that for a minute?
LEE: Well, I think that's very insightful because you just really described our experience making this record. I mean it wasn't all easy and there was a lot of crafting that went in after the initial period of inspiration or spontaneous jamming. But a lot of these songs were born out of, I think, a desire to almost state to each other proof that we still have a great feeling and intensity for what we do. In a way, it is kind of a celebration of a return of spirit, which of course was a huge question mark for quite a while.
CNN: I've listened to the album extensively and there's something different, something new, and yet it's unmistakably Rush.
LEE: I am glad that is coming through. I appreciate hearing that. I mean we've worked really hard on it and sometimes when you finish it you can really see it for the ... you can't see the forest for the trees, you know? And with this one in particular it was so difficult toward the end to get all the technical things right that I had a hard time separating it from my nervous system. So it took me a long time to be able to hear it as music, you know? I just heard it as an extension of my nerves.
CNN: It's your first release in six years. Was there any point at which you thought, "we might not get back together"? And, if there was, were you OK with that?
LEE: Yes there was, of course. That thought always crosses your mind. After the terrible events of '97 and '98 ... of course it was impossible, really, to think about the future in terms of the band. [Ed. Note: In 1997, Rush's drummer, Neil Peart, lost his only child, Selena, in an auto accident. Less than a year later, his wife, Jackie, died of cancer.] Of course we were just hurting so badly that instinct takes over and it's like a primal need and desire to protect the people around you, so I think that's what took over in a way. We just circled our wagons around Neil and hoped that there was something we could do for him -- anything. Of course everything you do seems inadequate in some way because there is no way you can fill the gigantic void that suddenly appeared. So you just turn away from the future. I always, sort of, deep in my heart believed that there would at least be an attempt to resurrect some sort of musical reunion at some point, perhaps. But it was a very small feeling I had and, really, I didn't trust it very much. (laughs)
So it was quite likely that Rush would never be around again, and that was fine as long as Neil could find some reason to carry on in some capacity.
CNN: Between albums, did you see much of each other?
LEE: Well yeah. Of course, whenever we could see Neil, whenever he was in town or whenever there was an opportunity to go visit him we did, and as time progressed, they were kind of fewer and farther in between. He did a lot of roaming in that period and he was kind of elusive and hard to track down, but I would get the occasional postcard from someplace along the road, you know, just him checking in with me, letting me know that he's OK. And Alex and I, of course, we're very close and we see each other a lot socially, so our lives just carried on as the two goofy friends we've always been to each other all these years.
CNN: When you first got back in the studio was it tough to kind of get rolling again?
LEE: Yeah, it was hard. Alex and I had come out of very different projects and we had been working on our own, and when you work on your own you start to become very fond of your own opinion, and you're not sure that you can compromise that opinion. So we needed to talk a lot and try to set the boundaries and discuss the terms of what the relationship was going to be ... you know, the writing relationship. How should we work? What kind of musical vision did we share? What kind of record do you want to make? So we had to talk and argue some of these things out. (laughs) I don't mean arguing in a nasty way, just discussing ... having a pointed discussion about what the hell are we going to do? And then we started playing and some of the playing was uninspired in my view. I think we had a fear that we would just fall into a trap of writing something that was similar to what we had done in the past. I mean that has always been the fear that we live with is ... is repeating ourselves too blatantly.
So we just had to struggle through that period and I think that's where our friendship and our desire held us in good stead. We got through that initial period and we wrote a bunch of songs, even though we were kind of half-hearted in our belief that they were good or not. And we took a break in June of that year. I went away with my family for a month, and when we came back in July and we got together and we listened through the material it seemed very clear ... the haze had lifted and it was very clear what was right about the record and what was wrong about the record. Immediately some of the songs were thrown out and immediately we celebrated that we had a number of songs that were as good as we thought they were. After that, we carried on jamming in a much more inspired way and a much more focused way, and five or six more songs came out in a very short period of time after that. They are some of the best and strongest work we've done in a long time, I think.
CNN: One thing I noticed about your vocals on this record is that they really seem to convey the intense emotion of the lyrics. Were you making a conscious decision to try new things this time around?
LEE: This is the first record that I produced, recorded and sang all my parts on my own without the benefit of a producer, engineer, or peanut gallery. And it was a really satisfying experience because it's just me sitting in a chair with my computer and my microphone and totally focusing on what is the melody that serves the lyric best, and serves the song best. Of course, it caused me to get very passionate about which lyrics worked and which lyrics didn't work and drive Neil nuts going back and forth asking for re-writes of this and re-writes of that and, poor guy, I was pulling his songs apart and sometimes just ripping out the heart of a chorus or using two lines from a verse and asking him to write the song again about this, you know. He was incredibly professional and cooperative about all that stuff and I think he appreciated just the fact that I was getting off so much on certain aspects of those songs.
There were a good number of songs that I didn't touch lyrically. They were just delivered to me and I believed them to be very, very strong and was just happy to sing them. So I think all of that contributed and I think a lot of that came from the experience I'd had doing my own record and having to write lyrics myself for that. It gave me an insight into the way of shaping melodies that was maybe more finely tuned than in the past.
CNN: Let's talk about your bass playing. "Ceiling Unlimited" stands out to me. It seems you were just, to use your words, "getting off" and having a great time ...
LEE: Yeah. I was. (laughs)
There's a certain looseness about a lot of the stuff because it was recorded in a jam environment. A lot of the bass parts ... I took a lot of liberties with bass. A lot of those songs like "Ceiling Unlimited" (have) three bass parts playing at the same time, now, there's no other band on earth that would allow me to do that. (laughs) You know, there's no producer in the world that would let a bass player run rampant like that over all the tracks. (laughs)
So, there's quite a lot of bass on this record and Alex was very supportive of all that. In fact, a lot of the style that I write bass in now is writing songs while I am playing bass chords. It takes up a lot of room, but he liked that because it made him not have to be a rhythm guitarist. It let him come in at the song from a different angle. It freed us up to create something that was maybe a little bit fresher.
CNN: Was there a particular reason that you chose to bookend the album (with) "One Little Victory" and ... "Out of the Cradle"?
LEE: Well we went back and forth on the running order quite a few times and the one thing that we never questioned was the opening of the album with "One Little Victory." It always seemed natural to me to start the album off with the most positive spirit on the album. And, especially, starting off with the drums, which featured him playing in such a furious way. It's just too tempting to ... some things are just so obvious you have to just recognize them and go with it.
But, we went back and forth on ending the records with quite a few different songs and we went back to "Out of the Cradle" at the very, very last minute. And, I think it is just because the sentiment of the way that song ends seems to sum up our feelings about music and kind of our feelings about life, really, that you just have to keep being out there and doing it.
CNN: Besides the tour, what do you see in Rush's future? Have you discussed the future of the band at all?
LEE: No. It's ... I think from here on in it's going to be one step at a time for us. You know, we did this record and we made a commitment to it and we're really happy with it. And our happiness from this process made it easy to go into a live tour decision and then we'll sit back after that tour is over and see how we feel about continuing and then make that decision.
CNN: On the topic of touring. The last time around I remember the radio promos about how you'd be playing "'2112' in its entirety." What surprises do you have in store for your fans this time out?
LEE: Well I don't feel I am in a proper position to answer that question until I've got some rehearsal under my belt. We've got a few ideas of some songs we'd like to bring back ... that we haven't played in a while ... some of them have been requested by our fans, and we're going to see what works and what doesn't work for us. You know, some fan requests are possible and some are probably not possible for a couple of reasons. You know, some of those songs just don't feel right to play anymore. And sometimes you can have the best intentions to accommodate your fans but if you're not playing the song with any kind of feeling for it, then you're not really doing the song a service. So we'll try a few things and we'll see what works and what doesn't work and construct a couple of sets that I think people will be happy with. Our goal is to try to make the set quite different than the set of last tour. Even if it means dropping a few songs that people have been hearing for the last three or four tours. Some of them must be given a break.
CNN: Do you get tired of playing certain songs?
LEE: Oh yeah. You do intellectually. But on the night, of course, you just go for it anyway, and usually it pays you back.
CNN: In April, a website posted an illegal copy of "Vapor Trails." Can you give me your reaction to that? And your feelings on the Internet's place in the music business?
LEE: Well I think the Internet will eventually play an increasingly important part in how music is delivered to people. I think that is inevitable. But I am not happy about the condition of the sound of downloaded music -- at least when it is pirated anyway -- there's a certain amount of pride that every producer or engineer or musician takes in working hard on the details of a record to make it sounds as good as you think it should sound for people to appreciate it. And when that's disregarded in a very cavalier manner, and thrown up on a website that who knows how many copies have been made of it ... I think that makes you feel that a lot of your work has gone in vain, and that's not a good feeling. So I resent that. I don't like that.
As far as the free downloading of music, that's an issue that we're all wrestling with. I don't feel good about it. I work hard to do what I do. I spend time, energy, and money making great music ... or at least attempting to make great music. (laughs) And I don't think it's fair for someone to try to justify the stealing of that music or the downloading of that music just because it happens to be convenient to do so. I understand that it is very hard to resist and I understand that a lot of fans make copies of records after they've bought them and I have no quarrel with that. That's a time-honored tradition. You buy a record, you've earned the right to compile it with your other favorite records or take it in your car and listen to it. Nobody's bitching about that. But I don't feel very good about a lot of that happening. I mean I don't think, in a way, it hurts me as much as it does the next generation of young bands. It is basically setting up a dangerous precedent ... I don't know how a lot of these bands can exist on that level.
CNN: Your music has served as the soundtrack for many people's lives. Can you tell me some of the songs or artists that would be on the soundtrack of your life?
LEE: There are so many, going way back ... Certainly the Who played an important part in my early life. Joni Mitchell, in a way, I used to love her music when I was young. Neil Young ... so many artists. I was such a huge music lover when I was a kid, and I had an enormous record collection. I don't know if one message or one person's music helped me psychologically, but I know the music of many, many bands and many individual artists always moved me and made me want to be a musician, so in that sense, they affected my life very directly.
CNN: What kinds of things are you listening to now?
LEE: Well right now I am trying to catch up because I have been in a bubble for two years and I am a little out of touch. So I can't really say that I feel very current. I look on the charts here at the record company and I don't recognize half the bands. I am probably a bit embarrassed to admit that I am not very current, but I picked up some records the other day that had some very interesting music ... Laurie Anderson's latest record, I've been listening to this artist Duncan Sheik a little bit and I think is doing some pretty good stuff. And I never get sick of listening to Bjork's voice. She could sing to me all day long. (laughs) So, those kind of things, I listen to at home.
CNN: Alex said that you were going through some old albums ... "Fly By Night," I think he mentioned by name. Do you get a kick out of listening to your old stuff?
LEE: I don't generally, but this time I did and there were some things that I thought were shockingly interesting from both points of view -- some were better than I had expected them to be and some were weirder than I expected them to be. (laughs)
CNN: What are some of the weirder ones?
LEE: Well, you know, certain things like the sound of the "Presto" album. I really like a lot of the songs on that record. I never realized that it has kind of a strange tone to the record ... it's quite a mature sound, it's kind of a subtly keyboard-driven sound. So anyway, I was just shocked at how little toughness was on that record.
And, I don't know, things surprised me like "Hemispheres," how strong it sounded still to my ears and how it has really aged pretty gracefully.
CNN: Going back to what you're into now, some of the reviews I have read have actually compared the sound of the new album to bands like Tool and Staind. Was it a conscious decision for you to go in a totally different direction? I notice there are no keyboards this time around.
LEE: Yeah, we avoided keyboards. I think that was conscious, aside from that, we wanted it to be kind of a three-piece record. But aside from those generalities, there was no real discussion of how it should sound. I wanted it to be a very big sounding record, I think that was clear. That we wanted it to be bold. We wanted it to be ... to have a nice big fat bottom end to it. And we wanted it to be a rock record.
As far as those other bands you mentioned, I wouldn't know most of their records. I've never heard a Staind record in my life. I wouldn't know it if I tripped over it.
CNN: One last question about fans. You have an incredibly dedicated fan base, why do you think your fans are so loyal to the band? And do you enjoy reading the fan sites?
LEE: I have a Web site of my own that I started when I released "My Favorite Headache." And, I do enjoy going on that site and reading fan postings and, in some cases, communicating with them directly. I have found that to be a really great benefit of technology.
I can't really explain the fan devotion. But I can tell you that I really appreciate it and it is not lost on me. And I can only say that I think a lot of our fans are musicians, and a lot of our fans, obviously, feel some sort of comfort or questions that they may have ... they may find some, I don't want to say answers, but at least some sympathy or simpatico feeling in some of our music and that, I think, makes some sort of connection with us.
CNN: Well, it's been an incredible honor and pleasure talking to you, Geddy.
LEE: It's been nice talking to you too.
CNN: I appreciate your taking the time out to talk with me and share your thoughts.
LEE: Oh, it was my pleasure. It was a very nice conversation. Thank you so much for your kind thoughts.