Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart have served notice that Rush’s 40th-anniversary tour — which stops at Montreal’s Bell Centre on Sunday, June 21 — may be the legendary power trio’s last major run of live shows. Lee spoke to the Montreal Gazette’s Jordan Zivitz about why Rush may be putting an end to its road trips, and about his cautious optimism for the band’s future. Here’s a full transcript of the conversation.
The remaining tickets for Rush’s Bell Centre concert are priced at $58.50. Call 514-790-2525 or order at evenko.ca.
Montreal Gazette: Just to be a pedantic jerk: since the first album came out in 1974, was there any thought given to calling this the 41st-anniversary tour?
Geddy Lee: (Laughs) Yes. Yes there was. But 40 had a nicer ring to it.
MG: Do you measure the band’s progress in these kinds of milestones yourself?
GL: No, not really. I try not to think about myself in that kind of large context. It’s just an odd way to think. I just try to think of it in terms of what there’s still left to accomplish, and when I look back I’m pretty proud of all that we’ve done. But it’s too big a context to ponder, I think.
MG: So what do you feel is left to accomplish, if that’s your standard of measurement?
GL: Well, if this tour is any indication, we’re playing really, really well together, and I’m very proud of the show that we’re bringing around. It does give one pause to soak in everything we’ve done over the last 40 years, but I still feel like we’ve got some mojo. And even though we have no idea what the future holds for us, I remain optimistic.
MG: I’m glad to hear that, because a lot of fans — myself included — were freaking out a bit when the tour was announced and the notice went out that it would probably be the “last major tour of this magnitude.”
GL: Yeah. Well, I think that’s probably true — and the key words there are “tour of this magnitude.” Everybody in the band has sort of a different attitude on this. I say I’m optimistic — I’m not sure my bandmates and pals would state it exactly the same way. I think you have to take that for what it is — it’s my view, not necessarily the band view.
MG: Are you willing or able to speak for the other two and what you feel their outlooks on this are?
GL: I think it’s a bit in flux, to be honest. I think before the tour started, there was a decided mood of the end of our touring life. And I know how much we’ve all enjoyed it so far. There’s been no complaining and some very, very good playing. Maybe that’s changed, but I don’t feel comfortable speaking for the other two guys.
MG: Did the tour almost not happen at all? I remember last year Alex sounded like he was very interested in the idea of some anniversary dates, and then you tempered the optimism about a tour happening at all.
GL: Oh, yeah, it was very much in doubt until November, I would say. At one point I started planning the tour and I had to stop doing that, because I didn’t feel my partners were in the same headspace. So the decision kind of came in November that we would go ahead and do it.
MG: Was there any particular thing that led to that decision?
GL: (Pause) It’s a complicated subject, but there are a couple of issues at stake here. Neil has a young daughter, and he doesn’t feel 100 per cent comfortable leaving her so much right now. This is kind of a second kick at the can for him, having a family. And rightfully so, he takes his responsibility as a dad very seriously. So that’s an influence. Alex has had numerous health issues, but the overriding one seems to be that he has arthritis, as he’s said in interviews now. And he’s not sure how that’s going to affect his ability to play at the top of his game. And it is in his hands, and that’s every musician’s nightmare. So those are two factors that I would say are the critical factors in whether we are able to continue to tour or not.
MG: If you hadn’t known Alex’s situation, would you be able to tell — as somebody who’s played with him for more than 40 years —that he’s suffering from arthritis?
GL: No, he’s playing great. But I know he’s also in pain. So it’s not so simple. He’s able to rise above it, but it’s not going away. So I think that was a reason for him wanting to tour sooner than later.
MG: If the decision to tour was made in November, when did you start rehearsals?
GL: I think we all sort of started at different times, but I started in February in earnest, and as a band we rehearsed in March and April.
MG: So there are rehearsals for rehearsals for the tour.
GL: Yeah, that’s right. We all have our own way of getting ready. I usually do two, three weeks on my own, as does Neil. And Alex, I’m sure, does the same thing. So that when we arrive to do band rehearsals, we know what we’re doing. (Laughs) We just have to put it together. Because playing on your own is one thing — playing all three together, as tight as we want to be, is another thing.
MG: How long does it take for you to get to the point where you’re as tight as you want to be?
GL: It takes a few weeks. Because it’s one thing to sit in your home studio and get your fingers ready; it’s another thing to build a set list that’s 2 ½, three hours long, and be able to physically belt that out and do all the choreography that’s required when you’re in the world’s busiest three-piece band. (Laughs) You know, that’s a complicated thing, and there’s all kinds of keyboard-organizing that has to go on from my point of view, and Neil as well, and Alex — there’s lots of technology that needs to be wrestled with, and then there’s building up the stamina to play fluently for 2 ½, three hours. That takes a different kind of physicality that maybe a lot of people don’t realize — especially from the drummer. (Laughs)
MG: So if somebody was to walk into your rehearsal space on the first day you were all playing together and hear even a well-oiled song like Tom Sawyer or The Spirit of Radio, what would they be hearing?
GL: Well, we don’t play the easy ones first. (Laughs) We start with the hardest ones. And we work up to the ones we’ve been playing for 30 years. So Tom won’t come into play for a while. Not that it’s easy to play, but it’s one of those songs that’s embedded in your synapses pretty well. We start with the most recent material, and we start with songs that we’ve never played on stage. Those are the ones that require more work. So the first day, you’ll hear a lot of flailing. (Laughs)
MG: I’ve been studiously avoiding the set lists because I want to be surprised ...
GL: Good! That’s way more fun.
MG: Yeah, I find it kind of depressing that you can go find it all with one click.
GL: I know. It’s my bane, really. I spend six months designing a tour and planning the set list with the other guys, and you build it all so that the show will unfold in a particular and mysterious way — and people just love being famous by blabbing it online. (Laughs) They can’t wait to tell the world. I understand that too, because they have this connection to the rest of the Rush community, but I love it when they don’t talk about it, because to me there’s a sort of magic being in the audience and not knowing what’s going to happen next.
MG: So without spilling the beans, how did you go about selecting the songs for this tour?
GL: Well, I had a very simple attitude. Everybody came in with kind of a different agenda. My attitude was: This is an anniversary tour, so we should really celebrate our most popular songs. And in order to do that, you have to have the discussion: Well, popular by whose metric? (Laughs) By what metric are you measuring it? If you look at some of the hardcore fans and their requests, they want the more obscure, deeper tracks. So we tried to strike a balance, and it actually came together pretty quickly — for the most part. There were a few details we had to work out, and that’s why there are a few different versions of the show that we play on different nights. Trying to satisfy everyone is impossible. So we just try to strike a balance between the most popular songs of our past 40 years, or the most “important” songs of our past 40 years, and throw a couple surprises in.
MG: That sounds almost diametrically opposed to what Alex was saying before the tour was official, where he kind of said he wanted the show to be for the hardcore fans.
GL: Yeah. Well, I don’t think it’s fair just to do that. You can’t just cater the show to the most vocal fan base. You have to consider all the fans. And you have to consider what you love to play, too. I think we found a really nice balance on this tour, and we have in fact three different versions of the show that we play on a rotating basis. So if you want to hear them all, you have to come to more than one. (Laughs)
MG: On the Clockwork Angels tour, I was impressed at how deep you reached into your 1980s material, but it meant there wasn’t a lot of room for songs from some other eras. This being an anniversary show, did you try to spread the song selection out more across all four decades?
GL: Oh yeah. We’ve tried to give equal weight to every period of our history. Which is kind of the theme of the show, really.
MG: Are there any albums that when you go back to them in preparation for a tour, you just can’t connect with them anymore?
GL: Well, it’s funny, because that is always how it feels at first. And yet once you start playing it, it’s amazing how you can put yourself back into that mindset of how you felt when you wrote the song. You can reignite a point of view and a good feeling about playing it, even though initially your instincts said: “Oh, I can’t play that song anymore — that’s too dated.” But you can. You can go home again, as they say. (Laughs) You can put yourself back in that space and embrace it. And of course, your experience and, I guess, maturity as a player since that time allows you to bring a different thing to the song — a different level of expertise, I guess.
MG: And I’ve rarely had a feeling of nostalgia at your shows — except when that’s the goal, like on the Time Machine tour. Even the oldest songs still sound very alive.
GL: Yeah. Well, I’m really happy with the way this show turned out, and it’s making new fans and old fans very happy, so we must have figured something out and done it right (laughs), because they seem very pleased.
MG: Are there any songs you wanted to play on this tour that you couldn’t convince the others to do?
GL: Not really. There were a lot of songs that we just didn’t have enough time to play. Because we decided that we can’t play a full three-hour show anymore, just to ease the physical demands of the tour. So we cut it down to just over 2 ½ hours — two hours 40, something like that, depending on which night you come see us. So that eliminated some of those songs right off the bat. We just knew we wouldn’t have time to play everything.
MG: A lot of bands of a certain vintage bury a token track or two from their new album in the middle of a show, but especially on the Snakes and Arrows and Clockwork Angels tours, you were really displaying those new songs with pride in the set list. Did you take it on faith that most fans would be on board with that, or was fan reaction not even a consideration?
GL: Fan reaction is not the first consideration, but in a tour like this it sort of is. I know that sounds contradictory. Normally it’s not how we try and put a tour together. We try to do a combination of emphasizing the new material and then see how many fan favourites from the past we can put in with a straight face, so to speak. But because of the fact that it is a retrospective, then that’s what it’s all about, is playing fan favourites. So we try to accommodate that by playing the most popular stuff, and some of the fan favourites that the super-hardcores haven’t heard, or haven’t heard in quite some time.
MG: Do you feel like you have another album in you?
GL: Absolutely. Again, I don’t know if my partners agree, but I think they probably do. Yeah, I definitely do.
MG: So I’m sorry to harp on this, but then even if this is the last tour of this magnitude, right now can you envision smaller-scale tours for a new album?
GL: I can certainly see us writing together and putting a musical project together. I cannot really tell you how that would present itself in a live situation. I don’t know that there is the will from my two partners to do any kind of tour. But I wouldn’t exclude the possibility of doing a set of dates, or some one-off things. I don’t mean to be evasive, but I can’t really answer the question about any future touring, because I don’t really know. And the other guys — it’s an ongoing conversation, and I would say that it’s a decision that’s in flux.
MG: I know you were all especially proud of Clockwork Angels, and it was certainly very well received. If the opportunity to make another album does present itself, at this point would you only carry through with it if you felt like it topped what came before?
GL: I don’t think we try to top our previous work. We just try to do something as good or different. I think it’s a matter of outlook. A band like us doesn’t exist this long trying to one-up its previous work. It’s all about a body of work. And so there has to be something about it that feels fresh in order for us to do another record. I would say that’s the most important ingredient: we have to feel like we’re breaking new ground. You don’t know how good that is in comparison to the rest of your body of work — not when you’re right in it. But if it feels fresh and it feels original, that’s amazing. That’s great. That’s what you’re after.