Geddy Lee called into Rolling Stone earlier this week to chat about the new Rush DVD Time Machine 2011: Live In Cleveland. We previewed “Tom Sawyer” from the package earlier this week, but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk to Lee about Rush’s new album, the possibility of a 2112 tour, the band’s surprising presence in mainstream culture in recent years and what the future holds for the trio.
Did you gain a new appreciation for Moving Pictures after playing it so many times on the last tour?
There were parts of Moving Pictures that we hadn’t played in quite some time –particularly “Camera Eye.” We felt that it hadn’t aged very well. It’s also a tough song to learn because it’s so long. But we approached the song with the sensibility we have now and we kind of reinterpreted it and made it our own, 30 years later. We really did enjoy playing Moving Pictures every night. I looked forward to that part of the show and I saw how much it meant to fans to hear that song live. That really was the most requested Rush song on all the Rush petition sites.
Do you pay much attention to what the fans want on the Internet?
I try not to. I don’t like to go on those sites. I think it kind of warps your sense of yourself. But certainly it comes to our attention through people saying, “Well, fans are asking for this.” We do try to bring one or two songs back every tour that we haven’t played or that are a little obscure. That is fun for us. I think the mainstream fans want to hear the big songs, but the fans that are really dedicated to your entire catalog, they want to hear the obscure stuff. It’s fun to pick out a couple of songs that maybe we thought got overlooked or songs that, x number of years later, we thought we could probably do a better version of.
Do you ever think about doing a tour where the setlist changes a lot from night to night?
Well, we have talked about that. But it’s a three-hour show, and it’s really hard to remember as it is. There were a couple of tours where we did multiple days and we would switch off. I think we had three or four songs we were switching from night to night. And it kind of wreaks havoc from show to show, because so much of the lighting rig and choreography and films and everything are computer programmed. It definitely keeps everyone on their toes to switch up from night to night. For us, the amount of work that goes into one of our shows is kind of challenging enough without making it even harder on us.
Do you think you guys might perform another album on a future tour?
I think we would. I would love to try that idea again. I thought it was really fun. And given the fact that we play for almost three hours, you can do that and still have lots of time left over to play other stuff. We had time for our newer songs and we had time for more obscure songs. So it kind of works in the way we present ourselves.
I’d love to hear 2112 straight through.
I think that’s something that would be fun to try.
Do you think it’s possible?
Oh yeah, it’s definitely possible.
There are times I watch you onstage and I just can’t help but think how taxing it must be to sing all the songs, while playing bass and keyboards.
Yeah, it’s hard. But it’s fun. I like a challenge every night. And certainly as the tour winds on, you feel the pressure to continually do it as well every night to keep that level up. But I think that’s also part of the pressure for me in a way. You don’t get bored. You don’t have time to get bored, and you feel really good when you’ve hit all your marks and you’ve changed all the instruments and everything sounded correct.
Have you ever thought, “Screw it, we’re getting a keyboard player”?
Well, we’ve had that discussion many times, believe me. There was a while when we were doing a lot of heavy keyboard-oriented material where it was getting a bit much for me and I would suggest, “Let’s bring in a keyboard player and free me up to play bass more.” I was getting a little resentful because I consider myself a bass player first, and that was starting to become a problem for me. We talked it through and said, “Well, look at the technology that’s available for us. Let’s just figure out a way we can bring in more technology into the show.” We think our fans would rather see the three of us wrestling with machines rather than adding another member.
I know people that don’t even like Rush that have seen that recent documentary about 10 times. I’d say that it’s probably one of the best rock documentaries ever created.
A lot of people have come up to me, who are unexpected, and have commented that they liked the story. It’s hard for me to be objective and it’s hard for me to even watch because there’s so much of me talking in it.
What’s funny is that it doesn’t have the usual rock documentary cliches of drugs, sex, horrible infighting, break-ups, reunions . . .
We’re still young. Give us time [laughs] . . . The one thing I said to the director when they approached us about doing the film was, “I don’t want you to come crying to us when you discover how boring we actually are.” They said, “Let us worry about that.” And I said, “Fine, knock yourself out.”
You guys have seemed more present in the culture these past few years than ever. It sort of feels like Rush are bigger than they’ve ever been, even around the time of Moving Pictures.
Yeah, I think that is sort of true. There is certainly more mainstream awareness of us. I think our core fans have always been there, and it’s thanks to them that we exist, really, but I think you’re right. I think we kind of reached a broader marketplace around the world.
That’s gotta be gratifying.
Oh, totally. And it keeps us going for sure. It’s one thing to say you’re in a band and you love to play and you’re doing it for the love of it, and you certainly are. But if nobody cares, if nobody is out there waiting for you, it makes it harder to continue. But the fact that we know we have a lot of fans and increasingly our fans are growing and there are more cities that want us to come, I think that helps to spur you on. It makes you want to play your best.
What’s the status of the next album?
We’re almost finished writing. We wound the machine back up about three weeks ago. After a sluggish start, we’ve had a very fruitful couple of weeks in terms of writing. I’m very pleased with the direction that the material has taken. And I think we have one or two more songs that we’d like to write, and then we’ll start recording in earnest. Hopefully we’ll have all of the recording done before Christmas. Then we’ll mix it some time in the next year, and then get it out.
Wow. So it’ll be out sometime early next year?
Yeah. I hope it’ll be out by the spring anyway.
Is the sound of the album similar to Snakes and Arrows?
I think it’s a little different than Snakes and Arrows. It’s not finished so it’s hard to say exactly what it will sound like in totality, but I think that the direction of “Caravan” and “BU2B” sort of points in the direction that we’re going.
With a new album in the spring, will you be touring in the summer?
Well, there will be a tour. I can’t tell you exactly when. Maybe the summer or maybe the fall. We need some time to organize all that, but we have started to do that at the same time. But yes, there will be a follow-up tour to support the record.
I think back to the late 1990s and early 2000s when there was essentially no Rush. It would have been hard to imagine that a decade was coming with so much activity.
I think that it’s a good time for us right now. We feel invigorated by the success of the band. We feel invigorated by the quality of the material that we seem to be able to write. Frankly, I think we’ve come to a point in our lives where we feel like we’re playing the best we’ve ever played as a live band. You don’t know how long that’s going to go. Rock and Roll does have its limits as far as the aging process. You want to go out there and play while you’re at your peak, right? I think that’s encouraging us to keep going out on the road – to maximize the playing at the moment.
I sometimes check out the fan forums and there’s just an incredible amount of activity. Are you ever stunned by the level of fan devotion to your band?
Yeah, I’m constantly shocked by that, frankly. There is no accounting for taste, I guess. [Laughs]
Most bands with a cult following can’t go our and play arenas and stadiums all over the world. You sort of break the mold that way.
We’re a hard band to explain, I think. Some of our detractors scratch their heads and they don’t understand why we were such a success in the first place, let alone 40 years later. I don’t try to understand it. I just try to enjoy it, frankly.
You guys aren’t even nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. If I had any say, I’d bring in you guys, Yes, King Crimson, Deep Purple, the New York Dolls, Joy Division, the Smiths, the Replacements, Devo, Peter Gabriel, New Order, Black Flag . . . I could talk about this forever, but it just makes me crazy you aren’t even the ballot.
[Laughs] I appreciate the good thoughts. Maybe we’ll get in one of these days.