For nearly 40 years, Toronto-based progressive power trio Rush have been the thinking man’s rock band.
On the way to refining and defining themselves as peerless musicians, vocalist/bass player Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer/lyricist Neil Peart have stayed true to their artistic vision across 20 studio albums while thrilling live audiences around the world. The trio’s legacy and sphere of influence were the subjects of Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage, an acclaimed documentary that received a GRAMMY nomination for Best Long Form Music Video in 2010.
The newest chapter of Rush is centered upon their latest studio album, Clockwork Angels, a steam punk-inspired tale of searching for personal fulfillment in a world of disillusion. The album resonated with fans, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in June.
Just prior to the launch of a North American tour to support Clockwork Angels, Lee discussed the challenges of touring today, his creative relationship with Peart the lyricist, the secret to Rush’s longevity, and what he feels is the ultimate musical compliment.
Your first concert for the upcoming tour is Sept. 7 in Manchester, N.H. Is touring easier these days?
Easier? I find it more stressful than when I was younger. I think the physical part of it takes its toll on me, and the other guys I know for sure. Staying healthy becomes a more difficult challenge, and as the tour winds on, nerves fray in a different way than they used to. Although, you have more confidence than when you were younger, and more command of your instrument [and], as a result, more command of your audience’s attention, which makes it easier. There is kind of a physical price you pay as the tour winds on, whereas when I was younger I could be in almost any condition, get out there and bang it off. I’m grateful for the audiences that we have, wherever we go. But it’s a difficult thing for me to do right now.
With a new album and such a vast catalog, how do you choose the set list?
Oh man, it’s hard. You rehearse it all and then you start whittling it back. It just becomes tougher every year. It’s a good problem to have because it’s the result of a long career, but it’s hard to pick the songs. You don’t want to disappoint people by leaving their favorite song out. At the same time, you try to [play] a [new] old song. Trying to keep the balance is tricky.
When Neil approached you with the Clockwork Angels concept, how did you personally relate to it? Do you have to identify with it in order to compose the music for it?
Yeah, and it’s always a different experience. Some of his lyrics I respond to right away, and really don’t require a lot of discussion because I can just feel what he’s trying to say, and I can instantly see a way of expressing that musically. And sometimes it’s very hard for me. Sometimes I just cannot get into the same headspace, and that’s when either I just can’t make that happen, or it requires a lot of conversation and a lot of editing back and forth until we get on the same page. It’s a wonderful relationship because Neil is completely open. When I get into it with him, we can talk quite openly about where it needs to go.
What do you think is the reason for Rush’s longevity?
It’s a little mysterious to me. There’s a particular obvious chemical reaction we have with each other as players. We all like making the same kind of music, which I think is the one thing that kills a lot of bands: the fact that their tastes start changing, and the thing they want to put in their music is not something the other guys agree with. We don’t have that problem here.
The other thing that breaks up most bands is interpersonal relationships. We don’t have that problem either, because we do get along well and we respect each other. Most of the time the biggest concern we have is, who is going to say something funnier? Where we get into one-upmanship is in the comedy department, not the music department. I think those things combined have really helped keep this band going.
Rush have been nominated for seven GRAMMY Awards, including six in the Best Rock Instrumental Performance category. Would it be a career milestone to win a GRAMMY?
I think it would be nice to win one. It’s nice that we get the nomination, and the rock instrumental category seems to be the only one that really kind of suits us. Of course, winning any award is a huge compliment, but it’s not something that you set out to do. It’s just kind of a nice bonus that says your work is well-received.
When a group like Rush has influenced and inspired so many musicians, I imagine many of them bring it to your attention.
We get musicians coming to our shows all the time. They want to come back and say, “Hi,” and share their Rush experience growing up. To me, that is just the ultimate compliment as a musician. You cannot get a higher compliment as a musician than from another musician. That is always a treat for me, and it’s a great way for me to meet the younger players and hear what they’re all about and share some of their experiences. So all around, it’s very beneficial.
(Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based journalist who has written for The Toronto Star, TV Guide, Billboard, Country Music and was a consultant for the National Film Board’s music industry documentary Dream Machine.)