In the downtown Toronto offices of Rush's record company, Anthem, the anteroom is festooned with gold and platinum records, cassettes, and CDs, presenting a history of the biggest-selling band ever to emerge from Canada. But tucked away in the midst of all this is a plaque dedicated to Bob & Doug McKenzie's The Great White North, featuring Geddy Lee's soaring vocals on the classic, "Take Off."
"In America, in some ways," says Lee, as he sits back with a thermos of coffee in a spacious office, "it was the biggest hit I ever had, which is I think apropos, since my life seems to be a comedic event anyway. Why not be recognized for my moments in comedy?"
In recent years, there have been many such moments, including his appearance with the makeshift band Iron Diamond, made up of baseball players and writers for an ESPN commercial, his hilarious "tobogganing safety tips" video clip currently making the rounds on YouTube, and the various appliances with which he interacts onstage at concerts (from a refrigerator to a vending machine to a bank of Maytag dryers).
Rush's new album, Snakes & Arrows, may take on dark lyrical themes, but its recording, explains Lee, was particularly enjoyable. The trio's last studio album proper, 2002's Vapor Trails, was "14 months of a heart-wrenching experience," since they were reconvening for the first time after drummer and lyricist Neil Peart's family tragedies in the late '90s, as chronicled in Peart's book, Ghost Rider. This time out, Lee, Peart and guitarist Alex Lifeson were still charged up from recording 2004's Feedback EP. The set of covers of 1960s songs by the likes of Buffalo Springfield and The Yardbirds found them simplifying their usual ultra-complex approach.
"Rather than over-think the thing in production, [we need to] go in and just play live, and capture the spirit of the thing," admits Lee, who regularly tops rock bassist polls. "When we went to record [Snakes & Arrows], we took that with us and in some ways, it reset us."
They were also buoyed by the presence of American producer Nick Raskulinecz, a Rush fan who had worked with The Foo Fighters and Velvet Revolver and approached the band himself when he heard they were planning a new album. Lee describes the 36-year-old as "the most enthusiastic, lovable guy you'll ever want to meet.? His personality made everybody smile. For three guys who have been around, it's nice to have that in the room. I've never seen Neil laugh and smile so much in a recording session."
Both Raskulinecz and engineer Rick Chycki were armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of Rush's 30- years-plus recording career: "They're quoting lyrics all the time and having a hoot," says Lee, "and I'm going, 'Jeez, I don't remember that one. How do they remember it?' " While there are no suites a la 2112 or fantasy epics like By-Tor and the Snow Dog on Snakes and Arrows, many of the songs recall 1978's Hemispheres in using unexpected, angular chord changes. Coupled with Raskulinecz's hard-edged production, this makes for edgy material, indeed.
Which isn't to say Rush have lost their populist touch -- they're still writing anthems, some of which sound as if they were made to be a soundtrack for the progress of a Viking navy across stormy seas, while others would be perfect for blaring out of car stereos on long transcontinental road trips.
Neil Peart's lyrics, apparently, were largely influenced by the religious billboards he saw while motorcycling across America; he writes about fear, faith (or the lack thereof ), and the dangerous association of religion with war in both the Middle East and the "Middle West." Often, the push and pull of hope and despair in Peart's lyrics is mirrored by shifting textures in the music. A hard-rocking passage may feature an acoustic guitar, or a softer passage may be rendered tense by the layering of interlocking, subtly dissonant parts.
As preparations for their upcoming tour (which kicks off in mid- June) have reminded them, Rush don't have a habit of making life easy on themselves.
According to Lee, "I talked to Neil the other day, and he's just finished the first week of six hours a day pounding the skins. He said, 'I'm in a house of pain.' I said, 'I'm in a house of pain mentally, 'cause I'm trying to learn all these new songs and sing them at the same time for the first time-- that's a mental pretzel I have to figure out.' "
But for all of Rush's vaunted complexity, there's always been an element of the blue-collar party band to them. Lee is by his own admission a soft-spoken guy, and with his long, wavy dark hair, soul patch and tiny circular shades, the 53-year-old surely isn't your typical hoser, but the off-the-wall, fun-loving side that emerges onstage is certainly an incitement to beer-swigging audience revelry.
"Sometimes we need reminding that we are a rock band," he admits. "We make music, and it's an absurd way to make a living, if one is really objective about it. But it's also a unique opportunity to never grow up, to get your ya-ya's out, to rock on stage. I hope that we haven't lost that freewheeling thing, and that's why I think our music has always stayed kind of heavy, kind of loud -- that's the part of our youth that we cling to. We don't want to let go of that."
On filming ESPN's rock-opera fantasy baseball commercial with Iron Diamond:
John Kruk [Phillies portly outfielder-turned-ESPN analyst] was working the hardest of anyone. He had this leather suit; he had a bodysuit on underneath the leather that had all these fake tattoos, plus he had this breakaway business suit on. They would raise him on a platform, and he would tear it off, and of course it kept sticking, so he had to do it over and over and over again. I really felt for him-- they put him to the grind. I think they were a little surprised that a long-haired Canadian musician was so deep into baseball. The shock value was working for me.
On 2112's being declared a Masterwork by the Audiovisual Preservation Trust:
That's nice of them, but wasn't The Pig and Whistle [TV show] also dedicated a Masterwork? I think it keeps it in perspective. I can't tell you it's my favourite record, but it certainly was the record that in many ways made it possible for us to get successful.
On the synchronized air-guitar, air-bass, and air-drum teams at their concerts:
They're awesome! I love those guys, and they're really good -- you can't help but watch them all night, and see if they miss anything. And you know, we miss more than they miss.
On whether or not it would even be possible for Rush to alienate their fans:
Oh, I'm sure. We would just have to start stinking really badly. I don't know what they're going to like when we make a record. It's very hard for me to predict, and I'm certainly shocked they've stayed with us all these years.