"We have simple goals," says Rush singer and bassist Geddy Lee. "Get better."
The genial Lee could be talking about his chops, and the chops of his bandmates Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart, which were impressive 30 years ago, and have only improved since. He could be referring to the group chemistry, and the looser, more playful feel the band has cultivated over the past decade. And he could mean the group's writing, which reached a new peak on "Clockwork Angels," released in June - an ambitious and wholly realized concept album that, in theme and tone, echoes the classic Rush sets of the '70s and '80s.
Most of the band's progressive-rock peers have fallen apart or turned to less demanding styles, but Rush's dedication to excellence has kept the group supple. The farthest thing from a legacy act, Rush has continued to evolve - and on recent circuits, the group has been seized by an improvisatory spirit. Lately, the group's persistence, playful humor, and unquestionable virtuosity has been winning over a new generation of fans and converting old detractors who found the band's earlier output too serious.
"That's the benefit of a long-term musical relationship," says Lee, 59, who formed the group with Lifeson, a friend from childhood, in 1968. (Peart joined in 1974.) "The three of us have put in the work. There really is a lot of truth to Malcolm Gladwell's '15,000 hours of practice' theory. There's greater facility when you've been at it for some time. You just have a whole lot more confidence in what you can and can't do, and you can start playing outside that strict structure that used to be your vanguard.
"Sometimes we surprise ourselves that it's become as fluid and loose as it is."
Rush is enjoying a renaissance - but the band had to overcome adversity to get to it. Peart, the group's drummer, lyricist and principal conceptualist, lost his daughter in an automobile accident and his wife to cancer in the late '90s. As chronicled in the remarkable documentary "Beyond the Lighted Stage," he coped with tragedy by dropping out of sight and motorcycling across North America. Rush went on hiatus, and Lee and Lifeson thought the run might be over. But after grieving, Peart rejoined the group, and the trio hasn't looked back since.
"We all like and respect each other so much," says Lee. "We've been through the wars and back, and we do enjoy each other's company. Because our relationships were born around work, our friendships are not stressed by work.
"Some guys become pals first and then decide to collaborate. We've always been in a band, and we were bonded by playing together. Even Alex - although I knew him from high school, our friendship was really born inside this band."
Lee testifies to the faith and trust he's cultivated over the years with Peart, whose elaborate narratives - many of which draw on philosophy and literature - have added so much heft and gravity to Rush's collective personality. It's Lee who brings Peart's characters to life onstage, and who often matches his drummer's poetry to melody.
"He's a fantastic professional songwriting partner," says Lee. "He'll send his first versions, and by no means does he give you any kind of mandate. Sometimes it'll speak for itself, and sometimes there'll be only four lines or so that I'll pull out, set to music and say, 'This is where I see this going.' Then he'll go back and and rework the song to suit what he wants to say and incorporate the directions I'm pushing in."
On Saturday night at the Prudential Center, Lee, guitarist Lifeson and the creative team they've assembled around Rush will once again provide vivid sonic illustration for Peart's storytelling. Lee won't spill the beans about the elaborate sets and films he's bringing along, but is promising it'll be spectacular. He also assures fans that the group's sense of humor, which has been foregrounded on recent tours, is here to stay.
"It's always been there," says Lee, who acknowledges that his group hasn't always called attention to it. "On some of the early tours, we had this little intro music that was part 'Three Stooges.' Even when we were doing songs like 'By-Tor and the Snow Dog,' our tongues were firmly planted in cheek. But because you're young and you have so much to prove, you backpedal from that kind of thing. You put your musicianship in front of it.
"As we've gone along, we've found ourselves unable to stop that other side - the side that keeps us a band - from seeping into the tours. Then, we've noticed that people are digging it."
It's helped casual fans realize what the hardcore have always known: The three members of Rush are endearing guys, and even at its most demanding, the music they make is emotionally resonant. Even the rock establishment, long resistant to the Toronto band's charms, has caved. After years of campaigning by fans, Rush finally earned a nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - prompting some zealots to suggest that the long-snubbed trio should tell the selection committee to take a hike.
"That's not very Canadian," says Lee, laughing. "It's an honor, and any time somebody wants to honor you, you should be gracious. But it's never been something that's been super-important to us. Awards are outside of you. We're aware that it means so much to the fans, and since it does, it has to mean something to me. I almost feel like they're vindicated more than we are.
"It's hard to put into words what it means to us that our fans have been so passionate. It makes us want to play all the better. They've invested so much - we try very hard to make the shows worth it for them."
Rush Where and when: Tomorrow at Prudential Center, 166 Mulberry St., Newark; Monday at Barclays Center, 620 Atlantic Ave. at Flatbush, Brooklyn; both shows at 7:30 How much: $41-$169 for Newark; $50-$192 for Brooklyn