In the early 90s, Rush were the biggest cult band in the world. The rise of grunge and then nu-metal had no impact on them. With such a huge and loyal following, the band could still sell out arenas, and their 90s albums – Roll The Bones, Counterparts and Test For Echo – all went gold or platinum in the US and Canada.
In the late 90s, however, drummer Neil Peart was shattered by the death of his daughter Selena in a car crash and the loss of his wife Jacqueline to cancer. In the aftermath of those tragedies, he informed his bandmates – bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson – that he had retired.
It was only after Peart had remarried, to photographer Carrie Nuttall, that he returned to the group in 2001. It led to the comeback album Vapor Trails in 2002, an acclaimed follow-up in 2007’s Snakes & Arrows, and then, in 2012, the band’s first full concept album, Clockwork Angels.
What these three albums represent is the rebirth of this legendary band. In this exclusive interview, Lee, Lifeson and Peart talk about the last great era of Rush, the relationships between them, and how this band has stuck together more than 40 years…
2002 – Vapor Trails
Alex Lifeson: At the end of the 90s, it really seemed like it was the end. After the tragedies in Neil’s life, the band just didn’t seem at all important.
Geddy Lee: I spent a couple of years working on my solo record (My Favourite Headache, released in 2000). It really didn’t look like the band was going anywhere.
Alex Lifeson: I did some music for TV and worked with a couple of other bands, just small projects. Time wore on. It was a good three years before we got back together. After Geddy had done his solo record, that was when Neil came to us and said that he was willing to give it a crack. He wasn’t sure if he could do it, but he was willing to try at least.
Geddy Lee: It was a strange time. We sort of had to get to know each other again. And it was strange for all of us. Coming back to Rush after doing that solo record, I was kind of in a different headspace, less of a rock band headspace. Added to that, Alex and I had to rediscover how to write together.
Alex Lifeson: It was just really tough for us to make Vapor Trails. Our emotions were very raw. But there was something about writing and playing that music, putting it down in a take even though it was a little scratchy or distorted here or there – there was something right in that. The whole idea was that this is how we’re feeling right now and there it is.
Geddy Lee: It was certainly very difficult to get through that record. We worked on it solidly, in the studio, for a few months. Then we took a short break – just a few weeks off. And that helped when we went back in.
Alex Lifeson: There were no tours coming up or anything. We could take our time. And after that break, when we went back in and started rewriting stuff, we felt much more positive and focused. We didn’t go back in and re-record it a hundred times to get the perfect drum take or this or that. But Neil had really come around. His paying was getting stronger and stronger. We were getting out of the awful grey months of winter into spring, so there was that feeling of renewal, and you could feel that the momentum was building up.
Geddy Lee: Sonically, there’s something uncomfortable about Vapor Trails. But the sessions were uncomfortable, the time was uncomfortable, and I think it really echoes that.
Alex Lifeson: That record was always a bit problematic. It didn’t sound great to us. The production was not up to the standards that we usually set for ourselves. But in the end, we were just kind of relieved to have got through it.
2007 – Snakes & Arrows
Geddy Lee: Snakes & Arrows was the first time we worked long distance on a record.
Alex Lifeson: Neil had moved to LA. Ged and I were in Toronto. We live five minutes from each other, like we always have. Neil was very busy. A lot of things were going on his life at that time. But he would send us lyrics that he’d been working on. And all the time, Ged and I were working on music. It was convenient way to start writing.
Geddy Lee: With Snakes & Arrows, Neil didn’t actually hear any music until we’d written five songs.
Neil Peart: Out of necessity, we had to work separately. And what happened was a kind of synchronicity.
Alex Lifeson: You can do so much in the comfort of your own home, and that’s the way our writing developed. Neil sent his lyrics from his office in Los Angeles or his place Quebec if he was up there. Ged and I would do our own thing. And then, eventually, when we had enough material, we’d get together and start working on the arrangements. And that was a lengthy process too – there’s a lot of involvement when we all get together in one place.
Neil Peart: In one room, Geddy and Alex would be working on music. In another room I’d be working on lyrics. I remember with the song Far Cry, I was working on lyrics and brought them in at the end of the day and Geddy looked at them and went, ‘Wait a minute!’ It went with what he had been stitching together that day – an arrangement. So that song, certainly, was inter-created. It grew organically. And most of our songs have grown that way, from way back when. Writing songs is really an exchange of ideas. And the synchronicity between us is remarkable sometimes.
Alex Lifeson: In one respect. Ged and I took a different approach to writing on Snakes & Arrows. We wrote it all acoustically. It was really quite different, and it produced a different sounding record.
Geddy Lee: We also had a producer, Nick Raskulinecz, who really pushed us to be true to ourselves. I think we were headed there anyway – some of the best songs on Snakes & Arrows were already written before we met Nick – but he helped push us in a certain direction. There’s a confidence in our playing on Snakes & Arrows, which was missing on Vapor Trails. In that sense, I think Nick had a catalytic effect – a confirming effect.
Alex Lifeson: When we finished that record, we really felt that its closest cousin was Moving Pictures. To us, there was something about it that had the same feel that Moving Pictures had. We were very happy with Snakes & Arrows. And that level of confidence was something we took into Clockwork Angels.
2012 – Clockwork Angels
Geddy Lee: The goal with Clockwork Angels was to attack the concept album with all that we’d learned over the years – the advancements we’d made in songwriting, arrangement and production. We had to wrestle with the concept, and we were excited about doing that. But when we started out, we didn’t say it was a concept album exactly. We really weren’t sure whether we would be able to pull it off, so we were hedging our bets verbally.
Alex Lifeson: We also knew that our fans would be really excited about the idea. We didn’t want to say it was a concept album before we knew for sure that we could make it work.
Geddy Lee: We loved he story that Neil wrote for Clockwork Angels. It’s the story of a boy who is raised to do as you’re told, and follow the scripture. He believes, naively, that things will just work out for the best, which means that he is blindly unprepared for the traps and the pitfalls in his life. This was great material for Alex and I to work with musically. But we were also very aware that you can let the libretto weight this thing down – you’ve got this heavy concept and some of the songs aren’t living. That was definitely something to avoid with that record. I wanted every one of these songs to be vibrant and singular, where each song could be pulled out of the concept and stand up on its own, not dependent on the other pieces.
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Alex Lifeson: The writing for Clockwork Angels was really the opposite of what Snakes & Arrows was. We didn’t write anything acoustically on Clockwork Angels. It was all grungy, dirty guitars and lots of strumming and rhythmic stuff. It came from the gut.
Geddy Lee: We took our time. Alex and I would jam and construct the songs, and then Neil added his input on the music. What we learned, over the years, is that rather than labour over a song and then record it, we work hard to put a song together, do our own version of a demo, and then leave it, let some time pass, and then come back to it and see what we’ve got. Time is really a great revealer of all that is wrong with a song. It will show what’s wrong if you let it sit and then come back to it fresh.
Alex Lifeson: We wrote six songs for Clockwork Angels in 2010, before we went out on the Time Machine tour. The intention was to come off the road and go direct into the studio to continue writing and start recording. There’s an advantage to going into the studio when you’re at your peak playing-wise.
Geddy Lee: We were ready. We’d already gone through that whole vetting and rehearsing of the songs, so we were able to record very efficiently and very quickly. The whole idea with Clockwork Angels was to go back to the way we used to record – it was all about grabbing that performance.
Alex Lifeson: We are very proud of that record, all of us. We accomplished everything that we set out to achieve.
Geddy Lee: For me, certainly, it’s one of the best records we’ve ever made.
2016: The future…
Alex Lifeson: I’m proud of the body of work we’ve created, and the longevity and the level of proficiency that we’ve been able to achieve. Looking back, I’m not embarrassed by any of our records.
Geddy Lee: I’m often asked if there is anything in the vaults. Well, there’s nothing. It never made sense to us to write twenty songs and pick the best ten. Why not just write ten great songs?
Alex Lifeson: I think, in the end, the strength of the band is that we’ve always been so secure in knowing we have a strong following. I’m not sure I ever really felt competition with another band. It doesn’t work like that. We just enjoy playing together. And that’s why we’ll know when we’re done. I don’t want to play when I can’t. I would hate to go on the road and just be a facsimile of what Rush once was, with people saying, ‘Oh God, they’re hobbling around on stage and he can’t even play the guitar solo in La Villa Strangiato!’ I would hate that. I would rather people say, ‘Oh man, remember how we went to the Rush show three years ago and they were amazing?’ That’s how I want this band to be remembered…