Interview: Geddy Lee, Rush


Seventeen years after the release of their first album, rock's most successfully enduring trio, RUSH, continues to captivate audiences with their innovative style, sheer professionalism, and never-ending ability to continue to produce music of the very highest calibre. From the symphonic slam of 2112 (1976), to the modernism of Moving Pictures (1981), to the melodically tenacious Hold Your Fire (1987), RUSH have completed three cycles of their development, which had seen them progress at an alarmingly rapid rate. After thirteen studio albums and three live albums, the odds would dictate that they'd be far from fresh with new ideas.

However, 1991 sees the release of their fourteenth work entitled Roll the Bones (their second opus for their new label Atlantic), which finds them once again tackling dramatic new musical territory.

Inaugurating a dramatic new phase in the band's exceedingly stable career, I asked bassist/ vocalist Geddy Lee at what stage of their latest cycle did their new album Roll The Bones fit in?

It's the second album of the cycle isn't it?
"Well, it kind of seems like that," affirms Lee. "It seems like a continuation on from what we were doing on our last record Presto, kind of a more organic approach to writing and playing. It seemed that before we did the Presto record we were going through a kind of, I guess, mini-rebellion against computer writing and synthesizer overload, and I think we've kind of carried on that vibe into this album."
You've gone back to a much more guitar-orientated sound, having experimented with keyboards, etc.
"I think that they're still very useful for us and the biggest difference is when you bring them into an arrangement. Now they're more important as an orchestration arrangement tool after the song has been written to kind of enhance certain moments of the song or to give a bit of variety, to create interest as the song goes on."
It's getting the right balance really.
"Yeah, and there's an infinite number of ways you can balance a song. You can change the perspective so easily by having certain instruments louder than other instruments. I think this album was a bit more of a trio album than possibly the last few."
So with Neil's writing on this album, what sort of lyrical themes has he tried to express this time?
"I guess," he continues, "if there's any kind of them on this record it kind of has to do more with the theme of chance and the kind of effect it plays on our lives and the random quotation that, I guess, figures into anybody's life, and the random quotient that, I guess, figures into anybody's life, and it's part of the equation that we don't give much credit to; that kind of unknown quality, the accidental things that happen and kind of change the course of our lives."
How did Alex and yourself approach getting this album together musically?
"Well, mostly again from the writing stage, the last two records kind of had a desire to concentrate more heavily on vocal memories and layering, and we tried approaching writing a song more from the vocals up, if you know what I mean, rather than assemble a lot of riffs and sections; start writing melodies, bass parts and vocals and build the song around that, and it's been a really interesting shift, a quite rewarding one from a melodic point of view."
How did producer Rupert Hine influence the sound this time?
"Rupert Hine did our last album. He's a great guy and a very experienced songwriter/ producer, so his influence is always very helpful. I think he, in particular, helped us achieve a looser feel in terms of the performance on this album. Something that he also influenced quite heavily on the Presto record was helping us feel a groove without kind of getting the microscopes out. I think he showed that everywhere is 100% played. It's a kind of a looseness, and I think that's kind of attributed to his influence."
It should be easier to translate the album live with that inherent looseness.
"I suppose so but it always seemed to be natural to achieve that kind of thing live," he affirms, "but in the studio you sit there, at least with us in the past; we've tried to hone the thing down so it was, y'know, everybody was playing so tight that it was kind of mathematical, whereas the last two records we've kind of loosened up in that area and I think it's helped create a bit more of a groove or vibe."
How important do you think the producer is in holding the ship together?
"I really think that depends on the kind of band you are. I mean for us, for all intents and purposes, I think we could produce ourselves and to a large degree I guess we kind of do, but there's always that kind of nagging doubt and that kind of lack of objectivity: 'Could this part be better or have we missed something, are we asleep at the wheel?' I think it's important for us to kind of have that objectivity to bounce ideas off. Because the personnel of this band doesn't change at all I think it's important to keep the people around us changing and keep some new ideas and new ways of doing things coming at you. It becomes a more educational process and a little bit more fulfilling."
Yeah, it's good to actually have someone out there who's not actually in the band to give an objective point of view. Geddy agrees.
"Sure, I think for other bands though, producers take on exceedingly different roles. For some bands, they become an intricate part of their writing and really kind of take over the project."
Some bands can't work without them.
"Yeah, some bands can't work without them. But I think, for us, we kind of look for a partner in the production as opposed to a dictator."
Going to the actual songs, which ones are your favourites on the record?
"Dreamline and Bravado are two of my favourite songs on this record."
Bravado has a real emotional feel to it much like Afterimages from your 1984 album Grace Under Pressure.
"That's an interesting comparison," he reflects. "Yeah, I'm a big sucker for that emotional mode but at the same time I like the songs that are really out and out upbeat."
The title track Roll The Bones has got a little rap section in the middle which is quite an interesting change for you.
"That song has about every style under the sun in it. We tried to make this real kind of melting pot of it."
Yeah, and you've got the acoustical side in it as well, which sort of harks back to certain characteristics of earlier periods of the band's history.
"Yeah, we hadn't been using acoustic guitar enough, I think. It's a great texture and it's something that we kind of overlooked in our electro-tech period. It's so funny. You get into this mode where you get very excited about a sampled acoustic guitar on a keyboard, so you'll use a sampled sound even before you even think of 'well, hell, we've got a guy in the band who plays great acoustic guitar,' never mind a sample," Geddy laughs. "I think you get enamoured with this faddish technology and sometimes you don't see the forest for the trees."
A lot of bands are indeed going back to their roots now anyway. It seems to be the general trend. Everybody goes through a stage where they have to experiment with different things…
"Well, it's kind of natural really. When these things come along you get very excited about them and the possibilities of what they can do to the music, then after a while you find yourself spending ten hours a day staring into a television screen and you go, 'God, am I still a musician? Does this make me a musician or just make me like a TV repair man?'"
The thing about RUSH, though, is that you haven't been afraid to experiment. You've tried virtually everything going. Each album has got a different musical atmosphere to it.
"Well, we try not to plan what's going to happen to us. We kind of just let it happen and I think for us that's been a very healthy and kind of interesting way of working. It's kept our career, from an internal point of view, spontaneous and natural. We kind of look at every one of our albums as a kind of time capsule in a way. I can look back to one particular record and go, 'Well, that's the kind of stuff we were experimenting with. That's what we were musically about. These are the lyrics and things that we were thinking about at the time.' They don't always apply two, three, or four years down the road, but they stand for where you were at that time."
Of the older albums which ones stand out the most for you?
"I have kind of moments on a lot of different albums," he continues. "I kind of think of moments on records rather than entire albums. I listen to parts of Moving Pictures and I think I'm really pleased with that or parts of 2112, which even to me still sounds like it's got something going for it today, or Subdivisions from the Signals album. There are kind of moments on different records that seemed successful and there's always moments on records that seem like they could have been better."
So, have you actually started touring in the States of Canada yet?
"We're not starting the tour until the very last week of October, beginning of November."
Is it going to be extensive?
"We're not sure at this point. We're going to take it as it comes and hopefully if everything goes well, we're going to stay out there for as long as we can."
Will the band's forthcoming marathon tour include some UK shows then?
"Well, we're talking about hopefully coming over in the Spring, I guess. Nothing is written in stone but we'd like to make it over to the UK this time."
RUSH have always had a very big fan base in the UK.
"Yeah, we've had some great fans there over the years."
I remember your last batch of shows over here. You recorded the live album Show Of Hands from that and the video as well.
"The last tour was a very satisfying one. We got to a point where we were not sure if we could still keep on touring, but I think on the last tour everything went so smoothly and was so rewarding that I think we proved to ourselves that if we're careful about planning our tours then we can still enjoy them and there's no reason to stop. We take these things really kind of slowly. We don't want to burn out, and that happens to us quite easily on the road."
RUSH have always remained detached, almost isolated, from the influence of outside pressures, be they fashions or criticism. What are the relationships within the band like between yourself, Neil, and Alex? Obviously you've been working together for quite a number of years now. How do you manage to get breaks from one another?
"Since we finished the album, for example, through the writing stage and the recording stage, we spent a lot of time together, obviously, but during the writing stage we take weekends off. Every few weeks we make sure we take a week off. But after we finish an album, after that kind of intense involvement together, Neil will go to his Summer place. We all kind of go in different directions. Obviously we're still in contact by phone. We get back together when it's time to rehearse and things like that. But I would say that through the last record there was a real very optimistic feeling and we really had a great time making it. I think when we finished it there was probably a closer feeling between the three of us than there had been in quite some time. I would say that the outlook is very optimistic at the moment."
Seventeen years after the release of your first album, what is the main catalyst that's kept RUSH together all these years?
"I think it's probably got to be musically based. There's got to be something in the fact that when we get together to write our goals always seem to be very much in the same kind of alignment. So I think the fact that we can get together and write something and still feel that we have something to say as musicians. I think that kind of felt so positive that it's kept us wanting to do yet another record. You always feel like you've got one more record in you. By the time we finish a record we're already starting to look at the flaws and thinking, 'well, next time we'll try something a little bit different.' I think it all stems from a healthy writing relationship and everything else kind of grows out of that."
I've noticed over these four album/ live album cycles you'll get a gradual change over that period but if you compare the first album of the cycle to the first album of the next cycle, they're sort of like completely poles apart.
"That's true," he agrees. "I think if we had problems with each other during the writing stage I think the whole thing would fall apart. I think the fact that that interest and that freedom to experiment is always there, I don't think that anyone feels confined or that their ideas or their creative interests are being overlooked. I don't think that exists."
Another thing about RUSH is that you've got a timeless and ageless band entity. Nobody really thinks about the age of the individuals in the band. People are more concerned about what you've got to day musically.
"Well, that's really the ideal situation."
Is that because you've allowed the music to mature? You've never rested on your laurels.
"We can't find them, I guess," Geddy chuckles.
Making albums for you seems like an endless process that has no definitive end.
"Well, that's kind of the attitude we take and I think – because we don't have any kind of hidden agenda or any great master plan – we just kind of do it as we do it. For us, inside the band, it's a real natural process. It's a very satisfying creative relationship."
So, what would you be doing is you weren't in RUSH?
"I have no idea. I used to drive myself crazy with that question."
It's an integral part of your life then?
"It's a bit part of my life, but the fact that it's not my entire life – it's part of my life – really helps me keep things in balance and keeps things in perspective. When the day arrives that I won't be doing this with those two guys anymore then I'll figure out what I'm going to do. There's almost no point in me trying to guess that at this stage."
It's been well publicised that you're a man of varied musical tastes. What sort of music do you listen to for inspiration?
"I don't listen to a lot of bands. I listen to a wide variety of things. In terms of bands I guess I listen to THE CURE, I listen to TALKING HEADS, and lately I've been listening to old TALK TALK remixes. When I listen to Metal I like to listen to METALLICA. I'd say my interests musically are quite varied. It's all pretty diverse stuff really. Bands like the CHILI PEPPERS and FAITH NO MORE, I think that they are great bands. They've got a great sound and fresh approach; really got a good spirit behind them. Who would have thought twenty years ago that there would be so many veins of rock music out there and all kind of co-existing and I think that's a really healthy thing."
All said and done, the fact is that, with the release of Roll The Bones, Geddy, Alex, and Neil have remained true to their instincts and unflagging belief in natural progression. RUSH continue to be the most articulate Heavy Metal band currently in vogue.

Mark Crampton
Rif Raff
October 1991

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