Enduring Trio Earns Billboard's Highest Touring Accolade
Geddy Lee has just woken up in Buenos Aires, where he and his Rush bandmates Neil Peart and Alex Lifeson are preparing to close out the South American leg that wraps the band's highly successful Time Machine tour. Tours tend to sap energy, particularly for bands that have been rocking the house for some 40 years, but Lee is clearly still invigorated by the vibe thrown stageward by some of the most passionate fans in rock'n'roll.
Since Rush sprang from the Toronto suburbs to worldwide acclaim, the band has shrugged off critics and focused for decades on delivering arguably some of the most technologically pioneering rock shows the touring business has ever seen.
But the bandmembers don't sacrifice passion and musicianship in delivering the goods. Rather, they use technology to enhance the performance and stay true to their ambitious studio work.
On tour, Rush gives fans what they want, and the fans give back. This, in the end, is what keeps Rush returning to the stage, and what makes this band the 2010 Billboard Legend of Live.
Do you remember your first show you did under the name Rush?
The first show I ever did under the name Rush, I guess I must have been 17. [Guitarist] Alex [Lifeson] and the original drummer, John Rutsey, and another bass player, whose name escapes me this foggy morning [Jeff Jones], they were playing a local drop-in center.
A drop-in center?
In suburban Toronto, where we lived, they would set up these community centers for kids to hang out in. They would sometimes have live music or DJs, and they would encourage local kids to "drop in," get off the street. It was usually a community hall or church basement or something like that. Rush had been formed by Alex and John Rutsey and this other bass player, and they were doing a gig at this drop-in center. Their bass player suddenly couldn't make it, and Alex called me last minute.
He used to call me all the time to borrow my bass amp, because I was one of the few people that actually owned an amplifier. I assumed he was wanting to borrow my amp again, but he actually wanted to borrow me to do this gig.
So I came down to the church basement, we kind of ran over the 10 or 11 songs they knew, we did that gig that evening, and that was my first gig with Rush.
It must have gone pretty well.
It did. We each made $7, I remember, and we went to the local delicatessen to have a plate of french fries and gravy afterward as our reward for our hardworking show. Then the guys said, "Why don't you stay in the band? Because this feels good." So that's how it started.
When did it start to develop into the sound that became Rush?
In the early days, John, Alex and myself were influenced a lot by British blues, or the Brit rock musicians reinterpreting American blues, people like John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and the Yardbirds, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and then the early Who. That was the first wave of British music that affected us quite greatly, especially Cream when they formed after Eric Clapton left the Bluesbreakers.
We really tried to emulate that three-piece Cream sound in our early, early days, which was blues-based and a lot of riffing, a lot of player's music. Eventually, Alex and I got much more interested in progressive rock when Yes came along, and Genesis and bands like that, and that affected our writing style. And after John left the band and we were involved with [new drummer] Neil [Peart], he was much more of that same mind frame in terms of progressive music. So it kind of pushed us off in that direction.
When Neil joined, is that when you really found your footing as a band?
We had some fits and starts. Our first few records were really all over the map. Our first record ["Rush," 1974] was pretty much blues-rock based, and the second record ["Fly by Night," 1975], the first with Neil, took on a very different, more technical aspect to it. Our third record ["Caress of Steel," 1975] was kind of dark and experimental. It wasn't until "2112"  that we kind of zeroed in on a sound that was a bit of all those things that we'd been experimenting with.
Was the alchemy of the three of you onstage apparent early on when Neil joined the band?
It didn't blend immediately. We were so impressed with his abilities. When he came to our first audition, he was far and away the best drummer that had walked in the door. Alex and I knew this guy had mad skills, he was off the charts. We were kind of salivating, because we had wanted to play this more progressive music and here was a drummer capable of doing that.
But we had to get to know each other, and that took a little while--playing, and learning who we were, and trying to figure out a way to write together. The good thing was we were touring so much, we spent so much time together on the road, you've got nothing else to do but talk about playing, talk about direction, try to become a band. Those first few years were pretty important from that point of view. When we went on tour we had only known Neil for about two weeks, and he was quite an unusual character. It took a while for us to figure each other out.
At some point in crafting these ambitious albums it had to become more difficult to replicate those sounds onstage. Can you talk about how Rush adapted to that?
We took a few different approaches. In the early days, as our music got more complex, we limited what we did in the studio. We would basically direct the studio arrangements by how we could replicate it live. So, in a way, it limited our production capabilities in terms of the way we were making records. And so we would go on tour and play them the way we'd arranged them in the studio.
But once the technology started getting really interesting, the advent of MIDI controllable instruments and digital recording, we started to push the envelope a little bit and started trying to make the records sound as good as we could. If we needed to throw in a keyboard part, we'd throw in a keyboard part. If we needed some texture, even if it would be difficult to reproduce that [live], we started doing that.
So we started producing songs to benefit the song. And then we'd find ourselves in rehearsals saying, "How the fuck are we going to do this now?" That's when we started getting deeply involved in electronics, and we kind of designed a system.
I had started using bass pedals to fill in while I played guitar sometimes onstage if we needed a rhythm guitar; the bass pedals would provide the bass part. We would go from a three-piece to a four-piece. So we used that technology and expanded upon it. We kind of invented a system of MIDI before they had MIDI, in fact--a very complicated series of connectors that allowed me to connect my bass pedals to a synthesizer, which I would preset to different chordal sounds. Then I could play the chordal sounds with my feet, and suddenly now we had a keyboard player in the band even though I could still play bass. That was the embryonic stage of how we started introducing MIDI.
Fast-forward 20 years, you can now do anything you imagine with samplers and that kind of thing. But even if we sample a keyboard part or a vocal effect or a guitar noise, or a whether it's a string part, we still insist on triggering them live ourselves.
If you look at our stage setup today, each of us has a series of MIDI triggers, so for any given part of a song, if it's not a part we can actually play, we have to trigger it with my feet, with Alex's feet or Neil's hands, and we have to trigger that little section in time with what we're playing. So then it becomes performance-oriented.
It's not us playing, as many bands do now--by just synching themselves up to a Mac offstage and they play the show. We just weren't comfortable doing that. We'd rather have to survive or fail based on our performance skills. That's how we bring in little bits and pieces from our records now, by connecting to the way we're playing still as a three-piece.
Your fans have embraced that sort of delivery of the music.
At a certain point we said to ourselves, "Maybe we should just hire a keyboard player. We're starting to look like the guy who stands on the street corner playing a bass drum with his foot with a monkey on his shoulder and an accordion," like three guys in a one-man band. We had a real moment there where we decided, "You know what, I think our fans would rather see us up there using technology and keep the integrity of just the three of us rather than bringing in somebody to fill in."
So we kind of stuck by that through all these years. It makes our gigs more interesting, way more complicated and certainly way more nightmarish if you hit the wrong pedal at the wrong time. But it's not boring up there, I tell you. We have a full three hours where we have a lot of stuff we have to do during the course of the show, aside from singing and playing our main instruments. It's hard, but it's fun.
I guess it's a lot for your crew and techs to keep track of.
We have fail-safe systems. I have Tony Geranios, who handles all the synthesizer prep. He sits at the side of the stage and he has to load every song in advance. You look at my keyboard and my foot pedals and you see those notes, but they're different for every song; they may not even relate to each other note-wise. I have to memorize, and Alex and Neil have to memorize, a completely different "keyboard-scape," for lack of a better word, for every song.
So Tony preprograms that and, of course, if something loads incorrectly, he has to have a fail-safe so he can switch over to another system. Otherwise you get some very strange noises out there.
Rush has a very passionate, loyal fan base. Can you comment on the band's relationship with its fans?
They're incredible, honestly. I know it's true for Alex and Neil, so I can speak for the three of us without any hesitancy. We just pinch ourselves every night when we walk out there and they're there in greater numbers than ever before. They're so happy to be there, they're sending so much energy out to us onstage, and that just vibes us up and we just want to give them the best show we can.
They are really the reason we're still together after all these years. People ask us, "Why are you guys still together?" and you can say, "We love the music, we dig each other, we like what we're doing," you can say all those answers, but at the end of the day, if you don't have an audience waiting for you, there's no coming back out there. That makes it so much easier for us to keep pushing our boundaries, because we always know that they've got our backs, so to speak.
Does this band care about things like critical reviews or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and that sort of thing?
Obviously, you're always complimented by any award you might get. It's not something you think about very often, or seek, because it distorts your outlook on everything if you go searching for those things. And everybody likes to get a good review, although we don't trust our good reviews and we don't take our bad reviews that much to heart.
Does it have any particular significance to be honored for the live part of what you do?
Yes. That stands out for us because so much of what we are we owe to playing live. Here we are over 40 years later and the next few nights we're playing in two new countries to new audiences that have never seen us before. I would say in all candor I believe that as players and bandmates together, we're probably playing as well as we ever have in our history, and that makes me incredibly proud to take this show to new countries and new audiences.
It kind of drives the whole thing, in a way. Even though writing and creating is something you need to have to stay a band, the fact that we were kind of born on the road and are still out there says a lot about what made us what we are.