Q&A: Rush's Geddy Lee On Finally Taking A Break From The Road

Bassist rules out 40th anniversary tour

By Andy Greene, RollingStone, September 23, 2013

For the first time in well over a decade, Rush have absolutely no idea what they're doing next.  They just wrapped a long world tour in support of their 2012 LP Clockwork Angels and have yet to seriously discuss the future. Their manager wants them to launch a tour next year to celebrate the 40th anniversary of drummer Neil Peart joining the group.

"That's not going to happen though," Geddy Lee tells Rolling Stone at the bar of a swanky downtown New York hotel. "My attitude is that as much as I'd like to celebrate 40 years, we need a break more than we need a 40th anniversary celebration. There's nothing wrong with celebrating 42 years." 

Geddy opened up about Rush's uncertain future, their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,  the group's upcoming live CD/DVD Clockwork Angels Tour (out November 19th), the new remix of Vapor Trails and why fans shouldn't expect to see a 2112 tour anytime soon.   

You guys just wrapped a pretty long tour. How do you pick the night you wanted to film for live albums and DVDs?
Sometimes it's a very concerted effort to choose a time and a place, as it was with Rio. We wanted to record in Brazil and we wanted that location. And when we chose Cleveland, there was a very definite reason for that because Cleveland was the first city that really embraced us. It was a full-circle thing. But this tour, we didn't make any plans originally to record it, but then after we saw that our work was paying off and we were so proud of the show, we thought, "Okay, we have to record this."

We had a second leg planned in the new year, and at the time we didn't know whether we would change songs or not. The feeling was, "Life is too unpredictable. Let's not record it next year. Let's record it now because at least we know what the show is." So we quickly found a venue that was appropriate, or really a couple of venues, and that's how we did it.

Did you film multiple nights and then pick the best one?
Yeah. We filmed a couple of nights and actually there were a few other nights that we went in and got specific songs. So, even though the bulk of it comes from Dallas, that are moments from other nights.

Does it feel different from a standard gig when you know it's being taped?
Yeah, it definitely feels different. It's hard to ignore, and you can see the cameras. We do have cameras every night for our rear screen projection, but that's a different purpose. You do get a bit of a tight-ass before you hit the stage when you know it's being filmed.

Some bands say they have a hard time delivering the best possible show under those circumstances.
Sometimes you play greater. It can be a good thing. The pressure really makes you play a little harder. 

Did you go back into the studio and overdub anything?
No, there's no overdubs. We have a couple of nights to choose from, so I think the mixers picked and chose the best moments from those two nights. So whatever wasn't 100 percent, we were able to use the other one.

That's great. I hate when bands go back into the studio and clean up live albums. You lose the feeling of a real show.
We've done that in the past for certain songs where we've had train wrecks. We have so many live albums, first of all, that we've had just about every live album experience. The first one was totally raw and totally live and it really bugged us for years that we didn't fix anything. And then with the second one, we fixed way too many things and it sounds a bit sterile in retrospect. And then you learn what to mess with and what not to mess with. You want to present the best possible show for people, but you don't want to get so nit-picky about it that you lose what's interesting about a live performance.

Is the band's plan to do a live album for every single tour now?
Yeah, I think that's pretty much how we do things now.

That's really great for the fans. We want to hear what songs sound like after the band has been playing them live for months and months. They start taking on a new power.
I think that's true. They loosen up too. And you learn more about them as you're playing them, and we had the added interest on this tour of having a string section on songs that we didn't originally have strings on. That was kind of fun for us too. So we really wanted to get it down on tape. For us, even more than an album, a DVD starts to represent an accurate document of that moment in our lives. 

And if you don't document it, fans will with bootlegs and the quality won't be there.
Yeah, exactly, and you can't control that, and God bless them. They're going to shoot on their camera phones and they're going to take their own personal memory away, and that's fine with me. But it's nice to get a properly produced and properly recorded document of the tour, for our own sake and for historical reference too.

I know lots of artists complain that too many people are using cameraphones at concert. Does it annoy you?
It doesn't really bother me. Sometimes there will be a guy who is holding a camera phone and recording the entire song (laughs) and you just want to look at him and go, "Really?" But for the most part, that's their own personal thing that they show their friends. I don't have a problem with that.

It just always shocks me that people pay for tickets to a concert, and they spend much of the time watching through this tiny screen when they can see it with their own eyes.
It's the same thing when I'm traveling with my wife on holiday. We're enjoying some wildlife or whatever and I'm sitting there taking pictures. She's always tapping me on the shoulder going, "Ged, why don't you just sit there for a minute?" It's because you're just seeing it through the context of composing a shot as opposed to just letting it be for a moment.

The string section was the first time you ever had anyone on stage but the three of you, right?

That's pretty crazy. I know back in the day you briefly thought about hiring a keyboardist, but that obviously didn't happen.
No, we were always afraid to do that because we thought it was just kind of us copping out, so instead we created this ridiculous system of pedals and turned into one-man bands. 

There are times I'm watching you onstage and I just can't believe you're doing all that stuff at once.
I know. All we're missing is the monkey and the organ grinder, right? It's crazy. It's mental what we do onstage. I would never recommend it to anyone, but it became our thing. It became a thing I do and now I've become a little addicted to complexity on stage. When I have a song where I don't have much pedal work, I feel like there's not enough going on. It's a real challenge to learn it all and organize it all. I sure feel like it would be real nice to play bass all night.

Are you enjoying the break now? That was a pretty long tour.
I am, yeah. It was the first tour I finished that I wasn't ready to finish, though. I think it's because I was in the best physical condition of my life. I worked really hard at being in shape for the tour. I was anticipating the difficulty of it. Our pacing is a little better. We had no back-to-back shows, and I spent my days off in the most boring possible way, just resting my voice.  So I finished the tour feeling good. I'm usually kind of dragging my ass home at the end of the tour. This time I felt like, "I've still got a month of gigs left in me." But Alex was done in and Neil has a small child at home. He had to get home. So, that's cool. I understand that it's time to knock it on the head.

How often do you worry about your voice? It's an obvious point, but so much rests on you being able to sing every night, and for a pretty long time.
I worry about my voice 24/7 when I'm on tour. It's like a pitcher and his arm. It's constantly the thing that my whole life revolves around. It's not getting sick, not getting too dry. My diet, my regime, the whole life I have on the road has always got that little bit of stress because I'm always afraid I'm going to get a cold. And it's just such a nightmare when you got a cold or an irritation and you have to do a show. It's just a fucking nightmare. So I live on constant fear of it.

Then there's things you can't control where you get a polyp or something.
Well, I've been lucky. I've never gotten a voice polyp. I've never gotten nodes. But I do get sick, usually every tour, and to varying degrees. Sometimes it's a sinusitis. In the previous tour, I had a really bad strep throat. And I had to do a gig that night in Hamilton, Ontario. I did it and I woke up the next day and my ear was so infected, the whole thing had gone into my ear. I had to fly to Montreal. This is kind of gross, but I had to go to a doctor and he had to puncture my ear. 

This was on the day of a show. I did the show, and I spent the next three days in absolute hell. I got through the show, but it was a nightmare. My worst memory ever on tour.

Did you think about canceling the show?
To me, canceling a show is the absolute last resort. I think we've only canceled one or two shows in our entire history due to illness. One time I broke a finger the afternoon we were going on. I obviously couldn't do the show, but the three of us pride ourselves with a "show must go on" pact. Neil has always gotten banged up in some way or another, tendinitis or something with his hands or whatever, but we just plow through.

The group really hasn't talked about the future?
Well, our manger is talking all the time about the future and we're choosing to ignore him. There has been talk of some sort of anniversary tour that might be the next thing we do, but we definitely have not decided if or when that's going to happen.

So is 2015 the soonest you can see anything happening?
I think so. Something like that. . . The plan now is to have no plans. We have had a great 10 years of tour, album, tour album. I can honestly say that the three of us enjoyed this tour more than any one we've ever done. We left on a high note, but we recognize that we need to pay attention to our families and recharge our batteries. So we decided that we're just not going to discuss anything for a little while.

What's it like knowing that your calendar for 2014 is blank? Is that exciting or just kind of weird?
It's exciting for me because I get to spend a lot of time traveling with my wife. We love to do that. I am officially an empty nester now, so my wife and I have time on our hands. We have all kinds of trips planned, things we wanted to do for years but we put off. This is going to be a busy year for us. I'm totally fine with that 

Fans are always dying to know what the next tour might be like. Let me run some ideas by you so I can hear your reaction. How about an anniversary tour where you play your music in chronological order? You can open with "Working Man" and go from there.
You know what? I never thought of that, but it's a cool idea. Obviously, you have a lot of dynamics to consider with a band like us, but it's a cool idea actually.

How about doing two albums in one night? Maybe 2112 first and then you rotate around a couple of other albums in the second slot?
It's very hard for us to commit to all of 2112. I would love to be able to say, "Yeah, we'll do something like that." But there's so much other music that we'll be arguing about playing. It's going to be hard to dedicate a show to just two albums. I think that fans, in the end, some would love it and some would hate it. It's finding a balance, and that's really hard when you have so many albums.

How about you learn 80 songs and then fans vote before every show? It would make the set change each night.
That can't happen. It's just too complicated. Although we did like shifting up the setlist on the last tour and we did shift it up. We had four different versions of the set we were playing. I can see something like that happening where we do more of that, where back-to-back show are quite different from the previous show. 

Also, in order for us to prep. . . we're really big on rehearsal. For this tour, we rehearsed probably for two months. If you have 80 songs, that's goodbye to your life.

That's certainly understandable. Do you think the next Rush project will be a tour as opposed to an album?
I'm not sure about that. Actually, the only thing being suggested to us is an anniversary tour. But we might find in eight months when we're talking to each other, "Hey, let's write something." When you get the itch to write, you just gotta do it.

Are you happy the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing is finally over? It means people can finally stop asking you about it.
Yes, but I don't think it's ever done because now I get questions like the one you just asked me. (laughs) It's just going to be one of those things. I will say that the night of the Hall of Fame, far beyond any of our expectations, was really a memorable and wonderful evening. I'm very glad to have had that experience because there was much fu-fufra about it, so much intensity with our fans. 

We had played it down to such a huge degree in our minds. We kept saying, "This is not important. This is not important." I was very glad to realize during the event itself that it was a milestone and it's something to savor. I walked away from it very happy, and I think my partners did as well.

What was the deal with Alex's "blah blah" speech. Was he knocking the whole institution or just joking about long-winded speeches? 

I had no idea he was doing that. Let me go on the record to say he didn't tell us he was doing that. In fact, I know he had a whole other speech planned. Neil and I thought he had lost his marbles when he was talking. You can see the look on our faces behind him going, "What the fuck is he doing?" And of course, we couldn't see him act it all out. We just kept hearing, "blah blah blah blah blah." 

I don't know what his pure intent was, but I think it was more a knock on speeches, the whole process of the hall of fame induction thing. 

I thought it was hysterical.
He's a mental case. And he's genuinely one of the funniest people you would ever meet in your life. But I wanted to kill him at the three minute mark. Neil and I were threatening to knock him on the head and drag him offstage.

It was one of those jokes that starts funny, slowly gets unfunny, and then gets funny again as it just carries on and on.
It was very Andy Kaufman.

I loved seeing you play with the Foo Fighters.
Taylor [Hawkins] and Dave [Grohl] are amazing musicians. They come off like good guys because they really are good guys. They're such great people. I thought it was incredibly generous of them to go to all that trouble. That was all them. That was their idea. 

The wigs, the kimonos…They really went for it.

They designed the whole thing. They approached us with the idea, "Would you guys be upset if we did this?" And we said, "Fuck no. Knock yourselves out."

Finally, tell me about this Vapor Trails remix. I've been hearing rumors about it forever. What finally made it happen?
It's kind of a long story, but there are essential building blocks to what lead to a remix. You have to put yourself back to that period of time. We had just gone through a very sad and dark four or five years after Neil's family was so tragically taken from him. When he reached out to us and said he wanted to come back and attempt to work together, we wanted to do it in an environment that was as comfortable to him as possible with as little pressure as possible.

At that time, we had talked to various producers and one of them was David Bottrill. In the end, Alex and I looked at each other and said, "I don't think it's fair to Neil to bring a stranger in the room when he's kind of in a delicate state." We said, "Let's get Paul Northfield. He's not only worked on many of our albums, but is a very close friend, so Neil is comfortable from the get go."

Neil had to learn how to play the drums again, how to get his confidence back. It was a lot of slow baby steps to getting back to us at our peak. The writing process took a really long time. Alex and I would work all day in the control room and Neil would practice and write lyrics. We kind of blocked out a small studio in Toronto and we were there for 14 months making this record. It was a long and emotional and stressful time to the end, because we were close to the finish but we had spent so much time on it. We were way too close to it. 

Had we been wise, we would have said, "Okay, we're taking a two-month break and then bring someone in to mix it when we all have fresh ears." We figured, "The show must go on! People are expecting the record now." The record company had been waiting and waiting for it. So we just pushed through and got it mixed. We went through two different people to mix it because we were so unhappy with it. We just believed in the record, but in the end we were just fried.

Everybody went their own way. I took the record to New York to master it. By the time I had a couple of weeks off to hear it clearly, I realized we had kind of over-cooked the record. The mixes were really loud and brash. The mastering job was harsh and distorted, but by then, it was out of my hands. It was already out. 

It's a terrible feeling that, due to lack of objectivity, you let an imperfect piece of work get out there. But the songs are very strong and people really responded to the record and people were welcoming us back. The sonic defects of it got lost in the excitement of the bands return to functionality. It's always been a bee in my bonnet. We had various people attempt to remix it and remaster it over the years, and it still didn't satisfy. 

After a while, it was hard to get people onboard. "Why are you obsessing over this one record? You have 20 records. Why the fuck do you care about this one record?" I just felt it was so pivotal that the songs required some justice. We gave it one last kick of the can, and Andy from our management suggested that David Bottrill have a go at it. I thought it was kind of strange/full circle that the guy we almost used in the first place is trying to save it. We were on tour and Neil didn't want to have too much to do with it. The album has a lot of very painful memories for him. We said, "Don't worry. We're going to let David just follow his instincts and he'll do it while we're touring."

David just got the record right away and started sending us mixes. Of course, we'd have comments here or there, but generally he understood what it should sound like. So, I'm very pleased with the end result. I think he's finally brought some completion and some justice to some of those songs we'd put so much of our heart and soul into.