For years, Rush had an uneasy relationship with an oft-skeptical rock press. So fans got to know the band members’ diverse personalities largely from live shows, tour books, videos and drummer Neil Peart’s own prose. But as the band proved this month in their first-ever Rolling Stone cover story, they’re great profile subjects in a classic rock & roll mode, more than willing to get candid and irreverent. Here’s even more from their cover-story interviews:
There’s a reason there are few, if any, unreleased songs from Rush’s studio sessions. “That’s not how we’ve ever worked,” says Alex Lifeson. “The album is what it is. ‘We’re going to do eight songs. So let’s do those eight songs and concentrate on them and devote all of our time to them.’ Why would you write 20 songs and pick the 12 best? Does that mean that the other eight are just bullshit? You were wasting your time!”
The uniquely formal language of some of Neil Peart’s lyrics (“one must put up barriers to keep oneself intact”) stemmed from his literary influences.
“It was because my reading was so broad and so precocious at the time,” he says. “I was reading John Dos Passos. And a big influence on me was John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, which he never finished in his lifetime. It opens with a little preface that said, ‘Some people there are. . .’ I said, why? Strange turn of phrase. But he had obviously deliberately chosen it. And some of those formal phrasings were because I was very much driven by rhythm of words – and still am. A line will strike me just because of its drumming rhythm.”
Peart says all three members of Rush had moments of partying too hard in the Seventies.
“Oh yeah, we all did,” says Peart. “And I wrote about that one time and used Winston Churchill’s quote. I said, yeah, we went through everything. But Churchill said, ‘When you’re going through hell, keep going!’ We were lucky we had each other to ground us a little bit. If anybody got out of control, they would be sniped at. But we all went through all that together and just kept going and moved beyond it. Drinking and drugs just made me throw up. So that’s a pretty good way to keep yourself in line.”
Peart had trouble revisiting his Seventies playing on the band’s latest tour – because he’s a better drummer now.
“Doing stuff I would never do and with a clock that I have transcended now, it was hard. And then after having done it for a few days, when I came back to the modern me, I was playing along and I said, ‘Why can’t I settle into this? What’s wrong with me?’ And it was just that transition. I had immersed myself in the 40-year-old version of me and now when I come back to the modern me, it’s much more evolved – musically, time sense, touch, technique, emotion – all that stuff is so much better now. I look at the past with a tolerant smile now but it was unformed. Immature is the right word. I know I have a mature, hard earned mastery of the instrument now.”
Rush sometimes make up songs about crew members in their soundchecks.
“I provide the lyrics,” says Lifeson. “We had one that was great a few tours ago, actually quite a while ago, called ‘Sex Boy.’ And it was this kind of cheesy, Euro-trash, electronic music.”
Lifeson originally planned to give a real speech instead of his infamous “blah blah blah” moment at Rush’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
“I was going over my written speech on the way over,” says Lifeson, “and thinking, ‘My brain doesn’t remember anything. It’s going to be awful. Might as well get up and just go blah blah blah. Oh! Wait a second!’ We were sitting at our tables and everyone else was doing their thing, and I told my wife. I didn’t tell anybody else, And Quincy Jones got up and gave his speech, which was a very long speech, but sincere. She leaned over to me during that speech and said, “And you’re going to go, ‘blah blah blah?'” And I said, ‘Stop it, you’re making me nervous!’ When we were walking up on stage, that was really when I committed to it. I thought, “Ok, I’m going to do it. This could be terrible. But I’m going to do it.” I think it was OK. I don’t know. I’m glad I did it, though. It’s the fucking Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! You should be irreverent, rather than thank your lawyer and your accountant and all that bullshit.”
Peart is not a fan of the movie Whiplash.
“There is no blood in jazz drumming, and there are no bullies in jazz drumming. My teacher Peter Erskine was saying he feels ungrateful because it’s great there’s a movie about drummers, but why is it so flawed humanistically and in small technical ways that didn’t cost anything? It wouldn’t cost anything to have a proper jazz drum set and to show the guy how to use his wrists. And the bloody ice cube jug or whatever? Absurd! There’s a Band-Aid on my finger right now – yeah, I bleed. But jazz drumming, no, there is no bleeding.”
While Rush were recording 1989’s Presto, Peart announced that he was going to quit touring.
“It was still possible then to foster the illusion that you could make a living without touring,” says Peart. “So I came to the guys and I said, ‘You know what? Let’s make records, no touring, I’m done with all that.’ But then the more I thought about it, the true test of a musician and especially of a band is performing live. The band we are was made by live performance. We built our own relationship, we built our relationship with fans, we built our tightness, our chops, from touring. So after much wrestling in my own mind I came to the realization that if I’m going to call myself a musician, if I want us to be a vital band, then I’m going to have to perform live.”
Lifeson had three main influences as his style started to expand in the mid-Seventies.
“Steve Howe, Steve Hackett – and David Gilmour, although he’s more in that bluesy style, but how he uses spaces and creates those moods. Steve Hackett had such a great presence in the early Genesis music. He was up against a lot – strong drummer, strong keyboards, a very amazing vocalist, and he worked in all these tonal shades around the music that happening. Being in a three-piece, there’s lots of room. And then you’ve got to fill it up.”
Before they decided on their current tour, Rush considered recording a follow-up to Feedback, their covers album.
“We thought maybe we’d do another Feedback thing of cover tunes,” says Peart. “Never got motivated for that. And then when we started talking, it was about playing live.”
Peart would love to turn 2012’s Clockwork Angels into a movie.
“To me, it would make an amazing movie and I thought it would happen organically – that by now somebody would’ve been at my door with a big bushel of dollars: ‘Let’s make this happen!’ And it hasn’t. But we’ve got the graphic novel done and we’re building the world and the vision of it. It’s astonishing to me, really, that somebody hasn’t come to me wanting it. I thought, what a great semi-retirement project for the three of us, ’cause Geddy loves cinema, Alex for the soundtrack and me for the story. But I was hoping that’s a project that the three of us would undertake at some point.”
Geddy Lee sang in school choirs.
“I always was a singer somehow,” he says. “I never had a predominant role in the choirs, but I always was a soprano, of course. In bands, nobody wanted to sing, so they always said, ‘You do the singing.’ I liked singing, but I liked playing bass more and I still do.”
Peart has vivid memories of recording Rush’s first live album, All the World’s a Stage.
“My snare drum broke in the middle of 2112 and my playing got so intense because I was so mad. I was just so beside myself. And I learned a long time ago that anger is an excellent inspiration. I remember that the window of my car was broken, and I had to cover it with plastic – it was parked outside Massey Hall. I remember so much of the time and what it was like.”
Lee was reluctant to play the trippy “Jacob’s Ladder” on the band’s current tour.
“It sounded really naive to me,” says Lee, “and the lyrics are not our best. You could see Neil playing with alliteration, which is kind of an exercise really. And I really was afraid of doing that whole keyboard middle part. But when you start playing it, you start remembering what it was like when you wrote it, what you were thinking when you wrote it, and you can kind of get into it – because if we committed it to record it meant we were digging it. ‘Cause we always said if there’s a song we write that we didn’t dig we wouldn’t keep it on a record. It reflected who we were then. That’s exactly who we were. We were struggling with trying to be more concise and yet still in love with the long instrumental passages.”
Lifeson was disappointed after he spent some time listening to a college radio station recently.
“It was all this contemporary music geared for that audience, and it was so disappointing listening to it. Really weak songwriting, insipid vocals and productions. It was really discouraging. I was sorry to hear that. You’re waiting for something to happen, musically. You’re waiting for some great thing. Like every generation or every decade seemed to have that big thing that carried it through. There’s nothing now, at least in rock.”
It was scary for Peart’s bandmates when he started traveling from show to show via motorcycle.
“It was nerve-wracking,” says Lee, “especially for our manager. But now we don’t even think about it because he always shows up and he’s there before us. He’s got it down. He’s really super careful. He won’t ride in any kind of dicey weather and his bus is never far away.”
At least three singers helped inspire Lee’s vocal style.
“I was a fan of Steve Marriott who predates Robert Plant for that kind of singing. But Plant definitely was a huge influence ’cause I thought he was an amazing singer. And of course Jon Anderson also had a high voice but he didn’t have that kind of aggressive high voice.”
Lee and Lifeson were “outsiders” growing up.
“We connected and we bonded,” says Lifeson. “We were friends in grade nine, for example, in a class of 30 kids, and we were not friends with anybody in that class, except the two of us. So we were outsiders, but not in that sense of being ostracized or shut out or something. We just kind of hung out, and we felt like everybody else was a jerk. We were doing our own thing, and then we had the bond of music and all of that stuff. And also having the same kind of background with our parents. Yeah, we connected right off the bat. It’s amazing. We’re still the same. We’re best buds. We’ve lived close to each other for the last 20 years.”
Lifeson wanted Rush to resurrect the long-unplayed “Fly by Night” on their current tour.
“I was rehearsing it,” he says. “I thought it would sound great, like a modern version that would be much heavier and more powerful. I think Geddy felt that he’d really have a problem singing it. He has a challenge with “Lakeside Park” as it is. “Fly by Night” was just in that range, and we didn’t want to drop the key on that one. So the consensus was, let’s just pass on that.”
Peart didn’t enjoy critics’ early hostility towards Rush.
“It was shitty at the time,” he says. “I feel like we waited it out and the respect came around. It astonished me in the early Nineties to suddenly have musicians admit that they had been inspired and influenced by us. That meant a lot at that time. But of course, being human the. . . disrespect isn’t even strong enough a word, is it? The opprobrium was painful. Being popular and hated is not satisfying.”
There’s a reason for the mutated funk moments that slip into Rush’s music.
“When I started playing, I played in R&B bands,” Peart says. “I played James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and all that. When we were growing up, blue-eyed soul was the thing in Toronto at the time. All the significant bands in the Sixties all had great drummers and they were all playing that kind of music. And so we grew up with it, and I still draw upon that resource constantly just because that was formative and that was the style that we grew up with and the bands that we saw.
Lee originally wanted to be a guitarist.
“I had this attitude that nobody chooses to be a bass player,” he says. “The rest of the band decides that you’re gonna be the bass player – and that’s how it was for me. I was playing guitar in a basement band and our bass player’s mother wouldn’t let him play in the band anymore, so we had no bass player. So they all looked at me and said, you play bass. I said, well I don’t have a bass. They said, well go ask your mother if she’ll lend you some money. My mom loaned me 30 bucks, I worked it off in her variety store on Saturdays and I bought my Canora bass and that’s how it started for me. And then I fell in love with the idea of being a bass player ’cause nobody wanted to be a bass player.”