Veteran Toronto prog-rock band Rush is going through a major renaissance right now.
Together for 33 years, singer-bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer-lyricist Neil Peart are enjoying their most successful single in a decade, Far Cry, from the band's just-released studio album, Snakes & Arrows.
Meanwhile, ticket sales for the accompanying tour, which kicks off June 13 in Atlanta and hits Canada for a slew of dates in July and September, are up 35% from the last time Rush hit the road in 2004.
Lee said there were two key ingredients in making Rush sound fresh again: Recording the 2004 EP of '60s covers, Feedback, and recruiting Grammy-winning co-producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Velvet Underground) for Snakes & Arrows, which was recorded in the Catskills and mixed in L.A., where Peart has lived for the past six years.
"It felt fresh," said Lee, relaxing in a back room recently at Rush's management offices in Toronto.
"A couple of things happened. The way we recorded Feedback was so basic and so back to roots, you know the three of us just in a studio playing together, that made us realize how much more exciting recording should be, rather than computerizing the whole thing and belabouring it. And also, playing those songs from that period was a great way of reminding us about certain truths that existed about writing rock songs back then, that shouldn't have changed. But in our own way we got very dense about our songwriting, and that was a way of bringing us out of ourselves a little bit more and reminding us about some of the fundamentals that go into writing a great rock song."
Secondly, as you might imagine, when the trio, which has sold 35 million albums worldwide, sets out to make a studio album - the most-recent being Vapor Trails in 2002 - there are many willing participants. Lee said finding the right one is key.
"We were talking to a number of producers and they were all very accomplished but we remained unsure. And then (Nick's) name was put forth, so we asked for a reel to be sent to us, and his reel was really good. It was well recorded. All the songs were well-written songs and really well-arranged songs, which is a rarity. You'd be surprised how many producer's reels have bad songs on them and let me tell ya, if you hear a bad song on a producer's reel, it's not a good sign."
Raskulinecz was then summoned to Lee's house in Toronto for a first meeting.
"Alex and I were working at my house at that time and we just sat down with him and within an hour we were totally enamoured with him," said Lee. "And we played him a couple of songs and he really responded and made some insightful comments right off the bat and we just had a feeling that this was a good thing to be around."
Raskulinecz then went to meet Peart in L.A., and the drummer, whose lyrical explorations of religion and war on Snakes & Arrows was partially inspired by his motorcycle trips across America's Bible Belt, came away with the same good feeling.
It was only when they got Raskulinecz into Allaire Studios that they realized what a big Rush fan he really was.
"He was a very stealth fan, I didn't really know he was that big a fan when we met him," said Lee. "He kept it quiet. He was very professional. And slowly as we got working together, it started to seep out. And the engineer we worked with Canadian Rich Chickie, also knew a lot more about our music than he initially led me to believe. So throughout the making of the record there was this little relationship they were having, little obscurities, like certain lyrics would be quoted out of the blue, and they'd be riffing on our songs from the past that I couldn't even remember. And I'm going, 'What's that from?' And they'd go, 'That's from one your songs, dude!' You couldn't help but smile because they very sweet."
As for Peart, who lost his wife to cancer and 19-year-old daughter in a car accident in a 10-month period in the late '90s, Lee said it was good to see him laugh again in the recording studio.
"He's doing great," said Lee of Peart. "I mean, what he's gone through in his personal life, I don't think it's something that ever really heals, but you move on. I think having the environment we had in this studio session and working with Nick and Rich, just created the most pleasurable recording experience in many, many, many years. And I think that showed us all, and particularly (Neil), how much fun it is to make a record. To be in a rock band. There are many, many aspects of what we do that are work, job-like, and there's a lot of pressure involved in it.
"(But) the appeal that rock music had to us as kids, it made us want to do this. And it's important to remember that because your music needs it to really be 'rock.' There's got to be fun in it. There's got to be that spirit. It was great to see everybody in that headspace again."
When Rush launches its first tour since 2004 on June 13 in Atlanta, the band will be ready.
The veteran prog-rock trio from Toronto is as meticulous about gearing up for the road as it is about making albums - in this case the just-released Snakes & Arrows.
"This time we're rehearsing in Toronto," Rush singer-bassist Geddy Lee told Sun Media recently.
"Rehearsal kind of takes three different stages. We do a couple of weeks of rehearsing on our own so that we can know all our notes and get them all in right order. Then we do four weeks of rehearsal as a band in a small hall. That's where we fine-tune the music. Then we spend two weeks in an arena with the full production while everybody tweaks the audio-visual. At the end of that, the show's ready for public consumption."
Adding to Lee's already hectic work schedule is the June wedding of his 26-year-old son. Julian, a mere four days before Rush hits the road.
"I have to be around," said Lee of why the band eventually will be rehearsing at a Toronto arena. "We're cutting it close."
As for whether Lee will be bringing new appliances on this trek - for their 30th anniversary road trip he had both clothes dryers and vending machines on stage - he's definitely mulling over his options.
"That's a hard decision," he said. "Listen, if a guitar player can have a bank of amps that he doesn't really need, I can have a bank of things that I don't really need. It's a comment. People ask and you always have fun with it, 'Well, you know, we want that warm, dry sound.' I don't think I'm bringing dryers on this trip. I have a few ideas I'm working on right now."