Rush At 40: Geddy Lee Talks the Past, Present and Future

Music Features Geddy Lee
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Rush At 40: Geddy Lee Talks the Past, Present and Future

Since I was a kid beating on the arm of our couch with markers along to MTV, Rush was in the periphery. It started there with the videos for “Tom Sawyer” and “Limelight.” Later it was the smoking section at my high school—the burnouts and their 2112 patches on their jean jackets. And, of course, classic rock radio. But it wasn’t until about eight years ago that I finally got it. I bought a couple records on the cheap, and it all started to make sense. Geddy Lee’s voice became soothing, not grating; the synthesizers interesting, not silly.

Since that time, I’ve seen Rush three times, and I’ve purchased several more albums. I get it now. But even if one doesn’t get the songs, the synthesizers, or that voice (or why Rush fans seem to love Dungeons & Dragons and air-drumming), you can’t deny the fact the band has always done things the way they wanted—for 40 years—and worked hard at it. That deserves the utmost respect.

Rush wrapped up their massive R40 tour this year, and just released R40 Live (available on CD, DVD and Blu-ray), which was recorded over two nights in Toronto. This along with stellar, must-listen vinyl reissues of their entire catalog, which have trickled out over the course of 2015, has kept bassist-vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart busy this year.

Things look to be slowing down, but to what end is still a little unclear. Rumors that Peart was retiring recently made the Internet rounds, but this conversation—done before any announcements were made—sheds a little light on what the future holds. Lee also looked back on the past 40 years, discussed the “geek culture” associated with Rush, and dug into the band’s masterpiece 2112, which turns 40 next year.

Paste : So, is this really it?
Geddy Lee: Well, I don’t know, I can’t tell you. Its intention was not a farewell tour; its intention was a look back and a celebration of 40 years of music. We happen to find ourselves in a very differing state of mind in terms of doing major tours. Neil is not up for the kind of work that it takes for him to be ready to put out a three-hour show the way we have for the last 20-odd years. So his interest in this kind of touring has dwindled. And that’s sort of where we’re at. It doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t do another record together, and it doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t play another concert together—it just means that for the moment we cannot agree on doing a big tour.

Paste : I get it. I mean, there are bands just starting out that can’t even play three hours.
Lee: [Laughs] You know maybe something will happen where we can come up with some other idea about how to tour. But at the moment it doesn’t look good.

Paste : I saw you guys back in July, and it was a phenomenal show—both the setlist and the stage design. I assume it’s all conceptualized by the three of you?
Lee: The concept for this tour began with an idea I had about devolution. And I thought it would be kind of neat to do a retrospective at some point, where we began in the present day and went back in time. Last July [2014] I shared this concept during a creative meeting with [art director] Dale Heslip, and he started expanding upon it, and suggested the idea if we were going to go back musically in time, why don’t we go back physically in a more theatrical sense.

Paste : It was great. My friend and I were at the show, and we were talking about it, how it had the feel of rock-and-roll theater. It was subtle, but it definitely made you pay attention.
Lee: Good, I’m glad you enjoyed it. We’ve used theatrics in many different ways over the past 20-30 years. And a lot of it has been sort of self-contained and either on film, or done with technology. And we thought it would be great to have a visceral element, and a living element to it by using a theatrical approach. I’m a big fan of the theater; I go to a lot of theater, and I wanted to bring that element out.

Paste : And I especially liked the little nod bringing out the cardboard cutout of KISS.
Lee: [Laughs] Some of those little things were adlibbed by our crew as the tour went on. We give a lot of our crew guys complete latitude to come up with something that they want to add to the show. And there are a few guys who spend a lot of time in each town trying to devise some sort of surprise for us onstage, and the KISS thing was one of those ideas.

Paste : What kind of prep went into this tour? It seems like, with a few exceptions, you could play any song in your catalog.
Lee: We were more driven by the fact that, if you are celebrating 40 years of your music, you have to include a lot of what would be considered high points. Not just the high points in terms of mass appeal, but the high points in terms of songs that were most influential, and helped stand you apart from other bands. As we went back in time that included a lot of instrumental music, and a couple songs we haven’t played in quite a long time. Those were things we knew our fans would really love, and would love to hear again.

Paste : Well, you guys pulled it off.
Lee: I mean, some of the songs were really difficult to relearn [laughs]. And we are fanatics about rehearsal, and we rehearse an awful lot for each tour. We usually begin, I’d say, with two solid weeks of us just rehearsing on our own, remembering the parts of the songs. Then we spend another month, month and a half rehearsing as a band, and that’s where we make a lot of the final cuts as to what songs make the grade—what songs can I still sing in that register [laughs]. And then we finish off with about two weeks of full production rehearsal where you’re rehearsing the full monty with all the theatrics. It’s quite a lot of work, but quite a lot of fun at the same time.

Paste : From the outside looking in it seems like you’ve always been in complete control of your careers—creatively and business-wise, etc. Was there ever a point where you didn’t feel like you were in control?
Lee: I mean there are certain things that are out of your control. That is who, if anybody, wants to come and see you play. Who, if anybody, wants to play your music on the radio. Who, if anyone, says they’re willing to open their pocketbook up and buy something you produced. So, we just worry about what we can control, and that’s making music that we want to make. And we’ve always done that to satisfy us first, and hopefully it does the same for our fans.

Paste : Rush is often seen as the antithesis of the rock star. Do you, Alex or Neil possess any rock-star eccentricities that maybe people don’t know about?
Lee: [Laughs] Well, I think we all have our rock-star moments; I think we all like to use our name to get a good table in a restaurant. You know, we all have our excesses. Neil loves very expensive sports cars. Alex is very proud of his fine collection of marijuana [laughs]. And I’m sort of proud of my wine collection. We all have our own ways we indulge ourselves, and that’s based on the fruit of the success that we’ve had. And we’re very thankful for that. But we are essentially pretty down-to-earth guys.

Paste : Rush has also always been embraced by “geek culture.” Any idea why that is?
Lee: I think there’s this whole image of those people who are into sword and sorcery, fantasy-meets-technological music…that the fanboy who loves all that stuff is a geeky nerd—hence, all Rush fans are all geeky nerds. And I’m sure there’s a huge cross-section of our fanbase that’s not too far away from that descriptor [laughs]. But I think that’s also selling it short, because there’s a whole range of other—and increasingly so—female, and even folks that may consider themselves slightly hip [laughs].

Paste : [Laughs] Yeah, that seems to be the running joke, that the line to the women’s bathroom is always short at a Rush concert.
Lee: I’ll have you know that on this tour someone came up to me and told me there was an actual line up to the women’s washroom at one of our shows. So we’re making progress in that area.

Paste : This is sort of a broad question, but what’s the biggest thing you’ve learned over 40 years of playing music?
Lee: Gee, I don’t know; that’s a hard question to answer. You know, I’ve been really so fortunate in my life that I found great partners that wanted to start a band with me, or continue in a band with me. And we were able to, in our own way, indulge our selfish side by writing players music for so long. And along the way we kind of figured out how to be decent songwriters at the same time. There’s no question when you listen to our music, it’s player music, player-driven. But I think we sort of adapted, and we were able to continue to adapt for over 40 years. I guess our ability to adapt is my takeaway from it.

Paste : When you and Alex started the band all those years ago…I mean, did you think it’d just be this project you did before you went to college?
Lee: No, we were going to be in a rock band for 42 years together—that was our exact plan [laughs]. We didn’t know what the fuck we were doing, let’s face it. We wanted to be in a rock band together, and we wanted to make it big, because that’s what every kid who joins a rock band said. We were really no different than any other garage band on the planet Earth. We had delusions of grandeur. We thought we would grow up and be successful, but we had no idea what that meant. And we had no idea how to make it happen. We were just fumbling through our post-adolescence trying to write rock songs.

Paste : And then you found yourselves.
Lee: Yeah, after time. The more diverse your influences become, the less identifiable they also become. And the more you can impose your personality on your music, the sooner you can create your own sound. It just takes time, and it takes growing up.

Paste : The 40th anniversary of 2112 is coming up in February. That record was such a huge leap forward from previous records. I mean, with Caress of Steel, you were moving into prog territory, but what was going on at that time that led to such a progression sonically and conceptually?
Lee: Well I think 2112 was such strange time, because we’d just finished up a tour that was an absolute disaster for us, and we’d finished an album that was reviled by the record company, and didn’t sell very well. People were starting to look at us as a bad return on their investment. So we were pretty disheartened, I would say—the quality of our gigs was going south, not north. So when we put [2112] together it was kind of a way of saying to each other, “Look, if we’re gonna go down, let’s go down doing what we want to do, what we believe we’re meant to do.” So, rather than abandon the concept album, which is the pressure everyone was giving us after Caress of Steel, we decided to just do another one. And, fortunately, we were much better at it [laughs]. I think some of our desperation and some of our passion came through on that record; it was more streamlined and had a clearer focus. And I think it was part of the learning process, but also very much a reaction to the pressure we were under to commercialize.

Paste : And obviously you’ve been asked about the influence the writings of Ayn Rand had on 2112. In your view, what’s the disconnect in how, say, Neil perceived her work 40 years ago versus Joe Conservative in 2015?
Lee: Well, I think there are a lot of messages Ayn Rand’s writing puts out there. And some of them are messages about individualism, and some of them are interpreted as very much a political statement of non-government involvement. For us, her point of individualism was more appropriate and influential in terms of compromise as an artist—her story of The Fountainhead, in particular, is a story of an architect who refuses to compromise his values and his aesthetics. And when you’re a young band that’s in a greedy business like the music business, and there’s so much pressure on you to compromise your music and write three-minute love songs, when you read a book like that it has a profound effect on you in terms of reinforcing your belief that it should be about making the music you want to make, and not the music someone else wants you to make in order to line their pockets. I mean, you can be Rand Paul and go out there and use Ayn Rand’s writing to justify why you cut taxes down to nothing. But that’s not what the fuck we’re talking about [laughs].