Q&A: Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson Talk 'R40', Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Future of Rush

They'd also really like to be on 'Between Two Ferns' with Zack Galifianakis

By Brian Ives, Radio.com, November 18, 2014

Over the past two weeks, Radio.com have premiered two live versions of two previously unreleased Rush songs from the band's early era: "I've Been Runnin'" (and our interview with guitarist Alex Lifeson about the song). Then there was "The Loser" (and our accompanying interview with bassist/singer Geddy Lee).

Fans of any artist can be expected to get excited over lost and rare tracks. But within the Rush catalog, very few rarities exist because, for decades, they've only recorded as many songs as they've needed for their albums. There are no B-sides or non-album tracks to be found.

However, in the band's early days, when the lineup featured drummer John Rutsey, they wrote several songs that weren't used for the band's 1973 self-titled debut. And once Neil Peart replaced Rutsey, those songs were pretty much scrapped; in fact, Lee and Lifeson barely remembered either of them.

But both of those songs were performed by the band at a televised concert from the Laura Secord Secondary School in Ontario in 1974. And that entire set is now included among the two hours of bonus footage on R40, a new six-BluRay disc compendium compiling of all of their live concert films from the past few years. It includes 2003's Rush In Rio, 2005's R30, 2008's Snakes and Arrows Live, Time Machine 2011: Live in Cleveland and last year's Clockwork Angels Tour. The box set is available now.

In separate interviews with Lee and Lifeson, we discussed some of the other bonus footage: namely the band's 2013 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (including Lifeson's infamous "blah blah blah" speech, which deserves to be in the Comedy Hall of Fame), as well as their increasingly production-heavy comedy videos, Lee and Lifeson's acting resumes, their under-the-radar charitable efforts, and of course, what Rush will be doing in 2015.


Radio.com: Among the extras in the box set is footage from your Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. The Hall of Fame is very much a product of Rolling Stone magazine, who, up until a few years ago, didn't really recognize Rush. Much to the chagrin of your fans!

Alex Lifeson: Yeah, well, I don't really know what the deal was there. They didn't like us at all at Rolling Stone, in fact, I think it sort of bordered on hate. They were a "hip" crowd from an earlier generation. I think we were eligible for 14 years before we finally got in. They just did not want us in there at all. But after a while, they didn't really have much choice, because the other inductees - other artists - voiced their opinions about us not being in, and voted for us.

It's not lost on us that they used to have the induction ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, and our year it was at an arena packed with Rush fans paying a ridiculous amount of money for tickets. [Note: that was actually the second year it was open to the public; the previous year it was held at Cleveland's Public Hall.] We had to smirk a little bit at that. The Hall of Fame is a money making proposition. And that's fine. I think we were ambivalent going into it. When we were nominated, it came as a bit of a surprise to us, because we thought we wouldn't get inducted unless it was over Jann Wenner's dead body. But he was still quite alive!

Lifeson: I have to say that at rehearsal the night before, we had the jam rehearsal for the closing jam, and all of those great musicians were there on the stage. We were jamming to "Crossorads," and I'm looking around at Tom Morello and Chris Cornell and Dave Grohl, all the players that I really admire, and it felt like such a community. It struck me that this is what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should really be about. At the end we were all high-fiving each other, and it all felt so right and so good. So, any kind of negative feelings that we had dissipated after the rehearsal.

Geddy Lee: It was a great moment, I didn't want it to end, I could have played that song forever. After all that was said and done about us and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, all the tension, and how long the evening was...but at the end of it all, to have this moment, with just musicians making music, and the common denominator being such a classic blues song - and the whole theme of the night was kind of how the blues gave birth to rock and roll - it just seemed appropriate, it was just one of those perfect moments. It was total heaven for me.

And you guys don't jam with other bands too often. 

Lee: I'm not one to jam much. Usually when bass players jam, they play the most boring s-t, but that was a special one.

I was in the building for the actual ceremony. I noticed that at the beginning of the night, when Jann Wenner came on stage to welcome everyone, he was greeted by resounding boos, obviously from the Rush fans. That part didn't make the HBO broadcast!

Lifeson: I guess a lot of people enjoyed that moment. What blew us away was when he introduced the inductees. H saved us for last, and he said, "And from Toronto, Canada…," and the place - you were there, you heard it - it blew up. It was unbelievable. And that wasn't lost on Jann either. We were holding back tears. It was incredible, I'll never, ever, ever forget that moment.

Lee: We all teared up at that moment, it was quite something to see. It became apparent pretty quickly that a large portion of the audience was there for us; it was a Rush crowd that night. But that moment took us as much by surprise as it did Jann. We really didn't think a lot about what we were going to experience that night. We had no idea of the magnitude of the moment. It's a moment that I'll always remember.

There was some poetic justice that one of the guys who did the speech for you - Dave Grohl - was the drummer of Nirvana, one of the most critically lauded bands of the past few decades. 

Lee: It was really sweet that Dave and Taylor [Hawkins] wanted to do that, they're such fantastic people, as well as hugely talented musicians. I don't think people realize how rare it is in this business to meet musicians of that caliber who are just normal guys who you would want to hang out with.

Obviously you guys had to rehearse with them to perform "2112," but did you know they were going to be dressed in full "2112" garb? 

Lee: [laughs] No, they didn't tell us that. They came down to our rehearsal space, and they played the song, and it was so furious and so amazing. I have a picture of the three of us - Alex, Neil and I - just sitting on road cases watching them, we've got these s-t-eating grins on our faces, it was just unbelievable. Dave just nicked all of Alex's parts, exactly. Even the parts that Alex can't play!

Alex, let's talk about your now-infamous acceptance speech.

Lifeson: [laughs]

Is it true that you really didn't tell Neil and Geddy what you were going to do before you did it?

Lifeson: No, I didn't! I had a real speech. During that whole "blah blah" thing, I pulled my "real" speech out of my jacket. Ged thanked the fans and the crew, Neil thanked family and friends and I thought, "What else can I say? It's already been said. In fact, every acceptance speech since the beginning of time is the same thing, over and over!" So, as we were walking up the steps to the stage I thought, "I'm gonna do this."

When did you get the idea? 

Lifeson: In the car on the way there, I was rehearsing my [real] speech, and I thought, "With my fading brain, I can't remember anything. I should just go, ‘Blah, blah, blah.'" And then the lightbulb went off over my head. "Ding! Yeah! That's what I'll do!" And then as I got up there I thought, "Oh my God, this could go either way: it can be horrible or it could be funny." I'm not sure which it was in the end.

Lee: Yeah, he didn't warn us about that. Neil and I couldn't see his facial expressions, so we didn't see him acting it out. We just thought he lost his marbles. We were conspiring, "How do we get him off the stage? You hit him and I'll drag him!" But it turned out to be very well-received.

Geddy, last year you told me that you'd be voting for Deep Purple and Yes; neither of them got in, and this year they aren't even on the ballot. 

Lee: I am really disappointed that Deep Purple and Yes aren't inducted already. I think they both deserve it as much, if not more, than we do.

Alex, this is the part of the interview where I'll ask you to justify the film Suck and your role in it.

Lifeson: [laughs] It was a very small-budget film, and they did a pretty good job, all things considered. I was asked to play that little role, and I had some friends in it, plus Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper were involved in it, and I thought, "Sure, I'll do it."

Your role had a little bit of a nod and a wink, given that you were wearing a badge...

Lifeson: Yeah, I think that's why they asked me. It was fun!

Geddy, tell me about how you ended up in Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.

Lee: That was through a producer who I know. He thought it would be funny: There's a character in it who is under a hot towel in the local barber shop through the entire movie, and you never really see his face. So he thought it would be a nice tongue-in-cheek Canadian moment if it was me under the hot towel. I loved doing it.

Over the past few tours, you guys have had some funny video components to your concerts. You've done stuff with Jerry Stiller and the I Love You Man guys [Paul Rudd and Jason Segel], plus there was the South Park video. And "Rash." Those must be fun for you to work on.

Lifeson: We really do those for ourselves. I think our fans get it. They allow us that indulgence. But we have such a riot doing those things. The outtakes are funny: We have some outtakes where the director laughs so hard it ruins the audio. That's a great compliment! Even if we didn't use them at our shows, I think we would still make them.

Lee: Our fans are just happy to see us make asses of ourselves. At the same time, some of the production values are getting quite lofty! They've becoming rather expensive to do. But they are fun to dream up, and they're a lot of fun to put together. Everybody digs it, and when it turns out that the fans enjoy it, it puts a big smile on our faces.

Have you guys started thinking about the next album?

Lifeson: Not really. For me personally, I've worked on a couple of projects, and I've been writing stuff at home, just for the fun of it. Geddy is a mad collector of bass guitars, and lately, six-string basses.

Lee: I feel I owe it to my craft to learn more about the instrument that's brought so much into my life. And to learn about the art and craft of these musical instruments. I would say that I'm a big fan of the beautiful, well-crafted bass and guitar, and I'm indulging in that. I'm just looking for interesting vintage instruments that have something about them that speaks to me, whether it's the custom color or if it's a rare kind of bass.

Lifeson: Up until now, we really wanted to take this time off, to catch our breath. We had a really busy four-year period, where we went from studio to tour to studio to tour. And we really needed to take a break and clear our heads. We'll get something sorted out in the next couple of weeks.

Lee: Everybody's kind of been all over the place. I've been playing a lot at home, and I know Al has also. We really haven't talked about it with Neil, but he's coming to town so we'll probably sit down and figure out what kind of work we want to do and when.

Do you think you'll tour again before going back into the studio?

Lifeson: I don't know. Some days I feel like being back out on the road and taking advantage of the fact that it's our 40th anniversary, and on other days, I kind of sit around here messing with musical ideas and I think, "We've got to get together and start writing." I think that whatever we do, it's not going to be until next year. I was over at Ged's the other day, in fact - he's just redone his little [home] studio, [and] we were both chomping at the bit to get together and start writing. He wants to try out his millions of new bass guitars that he's got now. So we'll do some writing, and we'll see where that goes.

Lee: I just want to play. I wouldn't mind going back on tour. I'm really dying to play, I have all of these new old instruments that I'm dying to try out. My curiosity tends to lean towards playing live.

Now that you've done a tour where you played Moving Pictures from start to finish, are there any other albums that you'd like to try that with, like Fly By Night or 2112?

Lifeson: Until we did that with Moving Pictures, we didn't really think about that. But that tour did so well that we would definitely consider the concept of doing a whole record. I'm not sure which one we'd do. It was really a lot of fun doing it.

Lee: I guess so, yeah, I guess that's something for us to talk about.

Alex, I read a rumor in a Rush online forum that there was supposed to be a second Victor album [Lifeson's released one album in 1996 under the name "Victor"] that might or might not include Sarah McLachlan as a featured vocalist. True?

Lifeson: [laughs] This is me laughing. Sarah McLachlan? She's a very different artist, who lives in a different world. If she was to call me and ask me to play on one of her tracks, I'd be like, "Yeah, sure!" But to put her on a Victor record, that doesn't make sense to me. Regardless, as far as side projects, if I was to go through all the little bits of tape and cassettes and DATS and files, I'd probably have enough for five or six albums. I really enjoy doing it for my own sake. Most of it I keep for myself. It's a fun exercise: It's like a painting that you keep for yourself. Maybe I would consider something on the next long break. I've been playing a lot of acoustic guitar lately, and it's been a lot of fun. I've also been playing in alternate tunings. That'd be a cool thing to explore.

I know Les Claypool played on a track on the first Victor album, and Primus opened for Rush at one point. Besides the obvious - you're both trios featuring bassist/vocalists - I felt that your bands were kindred spirits.

Lifeson: It was great touring with those guys, we all became very, very close friends. Every day after dinner we would jam. Every day! The rule became: You had to go out and buy an instrument that you couldn't really play and bring it to the jam. I got an accordion in a pawn shop, and a flute. "Ler" [Primus guitarist Larry LaLonde] had a clarinet, Les played drums - everybody just tried other things, and it was a riot. We taped these, and I have no idea what happened to those recordings! There was a really good one in Berlin, we jammed in the back parking lot area. There are some cool pictures from that.

Those jams were so much fun: We'd do them in hallways, in the backstage areas, or in dressing rooms. Those guys were so great to be with, we really connected with them. We still stay in touch and see each other when our paths cross.

Lee: Everyone would kind of just gravitate around the Primus dressing room about an hour or two before they went on. Les would sometimes have a stand-up bass or a guitar, drums, whatever was around. I remember one jam just playing drum sticks on gym lockers. In Berlin, I was playing a garbage can. Neil was playing guitar, and he can't play guitar. It was fantastic. I love Primus, I love Les.

I love a good pun, so I laughed when I saw that you guys were involved with a charity effort called "Grapes Under Pressure." Tell me about that.

Lee: Grapes for Humanity approached me over 15 years ago. They're a group of well-heeled wine lovers who wanted to do some good; they combine their love of wine and food and try to turn that into events that could benefit the less fortunate. It appealed to me. I'm always a little skeptical about these things, but I went to a couple of meetings and saw some of the good things that they were doing. The nice thing about it is, we don't set our sights too high; our goals are achievable. We identify a need, whether it's an orphanage in Cambodia or building a prosthetic clinic in Honduras, a school in Guatamala, and we get a request for a particular amount of money. We hold an event and we raise that amount of money, which goes directly there. It's very gratifying to see that work. And there's no real administrative costs; 96 cents on the dollar goes to the need. It works.

Lifeson: This year, it was in support of people in the Philippines who were affected by the enormous destruction from the Haiyan Typhoon.The events that we do are always connected to something to do with wine - we have wine auctions, or events where we might bring in a winemaker to give a talk. We've done three of these events. We take 100 people on a train, from Toronto to the wine country; we take a bus from the train station to the winery; we have lunch there, and we go to the vineyards. We watch the grape cuttings, we collect grapes, the wine-makers discuss what they do, and we have a small auction, and we're back to the city by 6pm.

Get people drunk and then have them bid on your stuff for charity!

Lifeson: Exactly!

Rush fans may not know that they can purchase a limited edition print of a self-portrait of you for the Kidney Foundation of Canada. Tell me about that.

Lifeson: I got involved with the Kidney Foundation about eight years ago through our road manager. He had a connection to them, and they had this program called "Brush of Hope," where they send a small canvas and paints to celebrities and they paint something to raise funds.

Fortunately for me, because of our fans, my paintings have done really well. I'm not a trained artist, but it's been a lot of fun. I've raised probably around $175,000 for the foundation, which I'm really proud of. This week, I'm going to auction a painting of Geddy and myself in a restaurant in Paris from our last European tour. I think Rush fans will like that, and we're hoping that will raise a few bucks. [Note: it raised more than "a few bucks": the winning bid was $10,100.] 

Lee: He's so talented, it's an incredible painting. I took him to one of my favorite restaurants, and we got completely wasted [laughs] and had a fantastic meal, and someone took a picture of us. He's always loved that photo, it's a really nice memory, so he did a painting of it.

Back to Rush: How would you like to see the next tour take shape?

Lifeson: I think it'd be more of a 40th anniversary celebration, much like R30 was. A fun trip back to the past with maybe some looking forward. In my mind, ideally, we'd go out with a couple of new songs, and revisit some old stuff, maybe stuff we haven't previously played.

What would you want to revisit?

Lifeson: That's a dangerous question, because there are a couple of songs that I would mention, and then fans will interpret that as, "They're definitely gonna play that song!" I think there are songs that are real fan favorites that we've avoided for a long time. And I think if we plan to go back out, we would have a very close review of some of those songs.

When you played, say, "Vital Signs" during the Moving Pictures section of the Time Machine tour, people went crazy.

Lifeson: That's the thing. When we bring back some of these songs - I wouldn't call them "obscure," but songs that have been performed less often - they really go over well. "Jacob's Ladder" is one that, every tour, is on everyone's wish list. It's a long song, and it would take up a big portion of the set, we just weren't sure whether or not it would be interesting to do that. We thought the same thing with "The Camera Eye." We avoided playing that live until we did the Moving Pictures thing. And that ended up being our favorite song to play. Never mind if it went over well or not, we loved playing it every night. I would love to do "Fly By Night," for example. I said, "for example," by the way. I think it could be really great live, if we did a heavier version, because it's really poppy and clean.

If you were in charge of producing the funny video for the next tour, what living comedian would you choose to work with on it?

Lifeson: Jack Black would be awesome, and he would be fantastic. That would be perfect.

Lee: I'd love to do something with Zach Galifianakis, I think he would be pretty interesting. We're into self-deprecation. I love Between Two Ferns.

The Allman Brothers Band recently played their final concert. Have you guys ever discussed an endgame for Rush?

Lifeson: No, we don't really discuss that. I think we're of the opinion that if you're enjoying it, and you can still do it physically, then why not? We're all in our 60s now, we've had 40 years together, and it's been a remarkable run, a remarkable career. If we were to end it now, I don't think we would feel badly about it. I don't think anybody else would feel badly about it. Having said that, I can't wait to get back on the road, and I think Geddy feels the same way. We'll find out from Neil how he's feeling shortly.

Lee: Maybe the other guys would have a different opinion on this, I don't know, but I like to think that we work when we need to work. When the time comes that that no longer seems like a fun idea, then we'll stop. I'm sure that everybody has a different idea of how to say goodbye when that time comes. I'm not good with goodbyes, so I'd rather just fade away.

Lifeson: As long as we're healthy to get out and play for, whoa, three hours, we'll do it. We've been doing three-hour shows for a long time. And I think we're playing really well. I think that we're playing the best we've ever played. But then, I hear some stuff from the past. In this package, there's some stuff from 1997, and when I hear that I think, "Wow, we played pretty good back then!" But I think we're at a good stage right now as far as our playing and our performance. So, why would we stop, if we still enjoy doing it?