LOS ANGELES, Calif. – It’s been a long week for Rush and a long time coming, their long-awaited induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the unusual schedule it’s created. The typically press-shy band has sat in front of camera after camera, explaining why the honour means so much to fans and guessing at why they were excluded for so long, while at the same time preparing for the daunting evening and, simultaneously, an upcoming tour. Geddy Lee sighs that it’s been a “crazy” few days.
And yet, as they sit down for another interview at a glitzy hotel suite in Los Angeles, the power trio from Toronto seem relaxed to the point of goofiness. Lee, the band’s formidable bassist, keyboardist and frontman, is jokingly squawking in a comically different register while he and Neil Peart — probably the greatest living rock drummer — laugh about the dangers of slouching on camera.
On the couch for an interview or onstage for a performance, the trio feeds off one another. But amid the craziness of the week, the members of Rush admit that the magnitude of this particular honour has begun to sharpen into focus. While they were steadfastly ambivalent through all the years of apparent snubs, and even to a certain extent upon first learning of their induction, they can’t help but be flattered now by their band finally receiving its due.
“It’s a lovely attainment, an elevation to arrive at,” said Peart, pointing to the number of luminaries they’re joining. “It’s a constellation and we’re one little spark of light up there.”
“You can’t help but reflect on your career and what it means,” Lee added. “If you’re that kind of person that thinks about context.”
“If you’re a reflective sort of person — which we’re not — but IF we were,” adds a laughing Peart.
“If we were, you can’t help but think about your context and all that we’ve done together, and what it’s been like to be a band for all these years,” finished Lee. “And to receive this nice pat on the back.”
Of course, it’s the amount of time it took for that pat on the back that has given fans such chips on their shoulders.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame began honouring performers in 1986 and Rush was first eligible to join back in 1998. Since then, thousands of fans have signed hundreds of petitions, and could only stew while countless other acts were marched into the shrine instead of Rush. In the 15 intervening years between Rush’s eligibility and their admission, some of the artists who were welcomed into the hall include Aerosmith, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Steely Dan, the Talking Heads, Jackson Browne, ZZ Top, the O’Jays, Blondie, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Ronettes, Madonna, Abba, the Hollies, the Comets, Donovan and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Rush was hardly alone among the supposedly snubbed. Yes, the Moody Blues, Kiss, Kraftwerk, Joy Division, Chic, Duran Duran, Black Flag, Cheap Trick, Journey and Bad Company are among the thus-far excluded artists often cited by disgruntled critics of the rock institution.
So, why was Rush ignored for so long? Theories abound: the rock hall is biased against progressive rock, evidenced by the absence of Yes and the Electric Light Orchestra; Rush was remarkably consistent but never scored big singles, with only 1982’s “New World Man” cracking the U.S. top 40; and Rush was never a critical darling, with the band only earning the begrudging respect of many music scribes through their stunning longevity and instrumental virtuosity. For a long time, they were also considered just a little bit uncool.
Lee, certainly, has had cause to ponder that question over the years.
“I think there’s a lot of reasons to it,” he said, behind a pair of round-framed sunglasses. “Progressive rock is not accepted by this group of people who make this decision. Yes are not in the Hall. That’s an error. Deep Purple are not in the Hall. That’s an error. Moody Blues are not in the Hall. So prog-rock is viewed as a kind of lesser art form by the powers that be.
“So that’s part of it,” he adds. “And of course, we are not really a mainstream act.”
“We’re not an ‘act,'” Peart interrupts, jokingly.
“You’re not acting?” Lee shoots back.
Ultimately, however, the counter-arguments for Rush’s inclusion were more persuasive.
Their consistency is remarkable. They released 19 straight records to reach gold or platinum certification in Canada. As one would expect from a band that put out its debut the same year Richard Nixon resigned as U.S. president, Rush’s music has navigated through several distinct stylistic phases without ever entering a prolonged slump: the bluesy, experimental early albums, which proved their ambition if not their eventual skill for songcraft; their heavy prog late ’70s output, transcendently deep both lyrically and musically; their commercial heyday of the 1980s, when the band’s hard rock was infused with the sparkling synths of new wave and such resultant classics as “Moving Pictures,” “Signals” and “Permanent Waves” permanently elevated the trio to collective arena-God status.
After their synth-fuelled period in the ’80s began to bring diminishing returns, the band returned to a more pummelling guitar-driven sound with “Presto” and “Roll the Bones” as they entered a darker period in the ’90s, but unlike other bands of a certain vintage, they successfully steered through the all-consuming tempest that was alternative rock (even fortuitously aligning with the genre to some degree with 1993’s stripped-bare “Counterparts”) before returning to their hard-striking sweet spot in the late ’90s.
A pair of personal tragedies befell Peart (the deaths of his daughter and long-time partner in less than a year) and left Rush’s future briefly in doubt, the only time in its existence it seemed unlikely the band would stay together.
Instead, they endured and flourished, eventually entering an unlikely creative renewal with 2007’s “Snakes & Arrows” and 2012’s energized “Clockwork Angels.”
Yet, Peart wonders if the band’s tendency for following its creative muse and tinkering with new technologies and sounds might have frustrated fans.
“From our fans’ point of view, we must be maddeningly inconsistent,” he said. “Because we’re experimental and necessarily — even for Thomas Edison — not all experiments succeed. But if we believe in something, we see it through to the end…. And maybe we’re disappointed in the end, but a number of the experiments succeed keep us going and we build on those.
“From a listener’s point of view, there might be parts of albums they don’t like, there might be whole albums or periods they don’t like…. It’s not like one consistent drive in any given direction. There’s so many tangents.”
Interjected Lee: “Yeah, we do have a tendency to drive sideways sometimes.”
As much as the band’s ear for threading melodies through songs and Peart’s cerebral, sci-fi-influenced lyrics are central parts of the group’s appeal, perhaps the band’s instrumental mastery has insulated Rush from the deep ruts that have seized most bands with as much history in their rearview mirror. No matter the musical trends holding sway on the pop charts, Rush’s committed audience can count on Lee’s skyrise vocals and his nimble skill on the bass and synthesizer, Lifeson’s complicated and eclectic guitar work and Peart’s epic prowess behind the drums.
Maintaining that level of instrumental complexity is daunting (especially with live shows that often range past the three-hour mark), and requires the band to stay in good physical shape for their tours. And they’re the first to admit that they can’t always realize their lofty ambitions with every show.
“Oh yeah, we have trainwrecks,” said Lee. “They’re hard songs to play. And our arrangements are pretty much like choreography: you have to be in the right place at the right time and hit the right button … We’re all triggering electronics all at the same time. And sometimes it can go disastrously wrong.
“The only bright side to that,” he added, “is that I think fans love it when they’re at a show and there’s a trainwreck because they talk about that forever.”
Oh yes, the fans. Rush has notoriously intense fans, who follow the band closely on their arena tours, meticulously dissect Peart’s layered lyrics and generally hold the group to a high standard.
Lee, an unassuming type who does not seem to relish the spotlight the way many frontmen do, sometimes struggled to deal with that as the band first started gaining wide notice.
“There was a period early on where I was uncomfortable dealing with fans,” he recalls. “I kind of taught myself to just relax about it…. It doesn’t serve you well to think about what the fans are thinking, good or bad. I love them, I’m happy they’re there, and their being there has given us so much confidence to continue the way we work, to experiment. And they support our musical progress in that way.”
In fact, that support was crucial in letting the trio know that they were doing the right thing along the years. After all, Rush was routinely pilloried by critics who savaged what they perceived as ponderous lyrics and self-indulgent music. Often, Rush was called pretentious.
For some acts, the criticism might have been cause to change course — so how did Rush soldier on, seemingly undaunted?
“You develop a thick skin,” Lee said. “You believe in what you’re doing. And yeah, you accept that it’s not perfect and you hope to get better. So you try to just remain immune to the barbs that come flying at you, and there were quite a few in the early days.
“And it’s nice that we’re getting better reviews now, but we still don’t trust them anyway.”
To what does Lee accredit the newfound critical respect?
“We’re slow learners,” he quips.
One gets the sense that the trio was collectively able to shrug off the persistent negative feedback because their tight bond shields them from almost any outside input. Lee and Lifeson have been friends since attending junior high together in Toronto, and Peart — who joined the band in 1974 weeks before their first U.S. tour — was clearly a kindred spirit.
Lifeson calls 1976’s “2112” the “ticket to our independence,” because from then on, no one from the record company has ever been in the studio or a session. Even the band’s manager has only been in a couple times while they were mixing — and, as Lee points out, “we don’t let him say anything.”
“I don’t think we ever felt any kind of external pressure after a while,” Lifeson said. “It was always an internal pressure to be better.”
Few bands with as many miles behind them have accumulated so little baggage. So, what’s been the secret to such long-lasting unity?
“Nothing better to do?” chimes in Lifeson.
“We still are trying to make each other laugh all the time,” replies Lee.
Peart answers more seriously.
“There’s a mutual pride,” he said. “It’s important to point out that some bands really are focused on one individual as the creative force or the face of the band. We’re all equally engaged in it, equally rewarded creatively, all of us feel pretty much satisfied by the entity in every way. That’s pretty exceptional.”
They also feel as though they’re getting better. The three bandmates agree that their most recent album, “Clockwork Angels,” is also their best. Peart says it’s only been the past few years that the band has hit upon “a new level of understanding, a new level of groove, a new level of unity.”
Really, they’re in the midst of a tour right now, with their next engagement coming Tuesday in Houston and a six-city Canadian jaunt coming in July.
As much as they’re trying to enjoy the hoopla surrounding their induction into the rock and roll shrine, it’s clear there’s somewhere they might rather be: together, on the road, again. For Rush, reflecting is hard, but forging forward really never has been.
“Our reflection is we keep coming back to this tour — where we are now, what we’re creating,” Peart said. “It’s kind of great timing to be in the middle of a tour, and we’re going from this event back on the road, back to normal life in a way.”
“It’s a normalizing presence that’s getting us through the week,” Lee agreed.
Added Peart: “Yeah, let’s get back to our real jobs!”
“‘Let’s get back to work!'” laughed Lee in response. “Who thought we’d ever say that?”