Interview: Rush’s Geddy Lee Talks About New Live Recording

[Photo: Getty Images]

Ever since the release of 1976’s All The World’s A Stage, Rush has been thrilling fans with their live albums which have come out at regular intervals throughout their long career. With  their unparalleled musicianship on full display, the recent Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame inductees have used these recordings as bookends to their many different musical eras. The band is now poised to release the Clockwork Angels Tour DVD featuring performances from their 11 month 2012 tour for album of the same name and rarely performed classics from their past. The release will present 3 hours worth of Rush in concert including their first ever performances with a string section as well as a tour documentary and filmed comedy shorts. Rush singer and bassist Geddy Lee sat down with VH1 to talk about the new album and what place live records hold in the Rush legacy.

VH1: What’s the importance of live albums in the Rush discography?

Geddy Lee: Live albums are very important for Rush and they became sort of a closing chapter for us. And the way things used to work was we would do three or four studio albums and then we would do a live album and in that way kind of make it a historical document as to where the band was at in that period of time. We never expected that we would just keep going, you know, the lifespan of a band is unpredictable, and so it appeared for quite a while that every four records would be followed up with a live record and it’s a way for us to look back at that last period and see how our sound has changed and take a different approach to recording live every time.
But now the record industry has changed so much and DVDs have become such a fantastic souvenir of any one tour. And because it takes so much effort to design and put on one of our tours we feel it’s appropriate to record every new tour that we do, that has a new stage show, and a DVD seems to be the perfect outlet for that. It’s great for us as a historical document and it’s great for our fans as a souvenir of that tour that they came to.

Where was the new DVD shot?

We taped shows in Dallas (Texas) and Phoenix (Arizona) and we sort of used the best shots and the best angles from both those shows, but there are a number of songs that were rotated throughout our set and so some of those were taken from other shows. There were about six songs that were swapped out night to night and we wanted to make sure we had different versions of all those songs so the bulk of the show is, yes, Dallas, but there are bits and bobs from a few different cities.

[Photo: Getty Images]

Do the three of you ever disagree about what songs you want to play on a particular tour?

It’s always a bit of a negotiation. Most of the guys have favorites that they like to play but you know it’s a bit of a trade off. Obviously I am most resistant to playing the keyboard-heavy songs because that traps me behind them but for some reason on this tour we leaned quite heavily towards that period. There are a lot of songs on the tour from the Power Windows era. Songs like “Grand Design” for example, which I think is really kind of a highlight on this tour strictly because it’s a chance to play it again from a modern technology point of view. The last time we played some of those songs technology hadn’t evolved to the point it has now and it’s far easier to reproduce them accurately now as a result. Back then you had to keep switching instruments and you didn’t have synthesizers that would stay in tune for a whole song and it was a much hairier job so it’s kind of fun to revisit some of them now.

Rush is known for its different musical, from the hard rock of the early records through the progressive concept albums and then the radio hits of the 1980s. What’s your favorite Rush era?

Oh you know, it really changes. For me it’s all about the songwriting and what I could bring that was new and what I could get out of it that I feel was improved from the past. When we started we were a three piece band and it was all hard rock all the time and we could make our hard rock as complicated as we wanted to and that was all dependent on our proficiency as players. And then when the synthesizer came along it became a way of expanding our ability to write songs in a different way so that whole synth / experimental period was really challenging and quite interesting from a songwriters’ perspective. I gained a lot of musical knowledge during that that period as opposed to just being a bass player in a hard rock band. I learned how to be a composer and also the three of us learned how to produce music in a different way. It’s challenging to have rock and guitars and busy rhythm sections and all these keyboard sounds without stepping on each other’s toes and it’s not always successful but it’s always interesting. And I think what was really interesting about the post-synthesizer period was the fact that we had garnered a lot of musicality through that era and now we were trying to reapply it in a more basic three piece kind of setup. It’s interesting to come back to a place you were but you’re coming back to it with way more tools than you had when you first started. In many ways it’s harder to write a three or four minute song for me that still satisfies the thing you can satisfy in twenty minutes, if you know what I mean, because in a big long piece it’s all about being complex, right? But to try to make a song complex and have a lot of different shades, a lot of, you know, light and dark and different moves in a much shorter period of time, is difficult, and still make it feel like a song. We’ve been juggling with that idea for almost forty years now.

[Photo: Getty Images]

How has your approach to stage shows evolved over the years?

When we first started touring we had twenty six minutes to play. Get on, do what you can, get off. We were fairly new to the whole world of touring so we tried to keep it as simple as possible and it was all about our chops really. But as we developed our ideas got a bit more kind of cinematic and when we got into the sort of more proggy-concept records it became clear that it would be good to enhance our songs with some sort of visuals. The idea of stage sets didn’t really appeal to us so we relied more on the idea of video projections. Right around 2112, in 1976, we started introducing bits of rear screen projections and that became the beginning of a few decades-long love affair with rear screen projection and experiments with animation and that seemed to be our thing. It was a way we could express these ideas visually and yet still be on stage doing our thing as a rock band. It’s only in the last ten years where we’ve taken it to its natural extreme and added props and stage sets and that was just a desire to breakaway from the same look every time we go out and I think it’s fun for fans when they walk into the arena on the night you’re about to play and even before you’ve hit the stage they know the show is different, the set is different and it’s certainly fun for us to play in a new environment every time.

What are your favorite live albums, both your own and other artists?

Live records of mine are very painful to listen to because you always think you can do it better. I don’t think I have a single favorite one. I really love the Rush In Rio one just from the point of view that the crowd is so interesting and it was such an unusual evening, largely because everything was so delayed and there was so many problems that the night we went on, we went on without sound check, without camera check and we just kind of hit the stage and what’ll be is what it’ll be, and it turned out great and largely because the crowd was so exhilarating. But as far as other bands there are numerous live albums that influenced me when I was younger. The Who Live at Leeds was one of my very favorite albums. The Humble Pie live album I think was a game changer for a lot of young musicians like myself at that time. Stevie Marriot live is just a thrill, yeah, he’s so awesome. So those are two of my real favorite live albums.

With your induction into the Rock and Roll Hall ff Fame and the Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage documentary it seems like the press has finally realized what Rush fans have always known, that Rush are one of rock’s great bands. Is it strange to now to be so respected?

Well I don’t know, it’s a strange question to answer. We’ve been fortunate in our career that we’ve had such a loyal fan base and I guess what’s clear is a lot of those fans grew up and became musicians or people with an opinion that they could share. And so the Hall of Fame thing seemed to represent a coming together of all those closet Rush fans over the years coming out of the closet in a way and. It’s been real nice. I have to say that we didn’t expect the event to be a big deal but it sure turned out to be a big deal and there was a decidedly triumphant atmosphere at our concerts and the ones that happened after the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show than before so it’s been a very pleasant after effect.

[Photo: Getty Images]