Rush at 40: Still Breaking Boundaries, Still Down with the Nerds
Legendary bassist, keyboardist, vocalist, and prog wizard Geddy Lee talks 'R40 Live,' nerd love, and why heavy metal was better in the Seventies.
Photos by Alyssa Herrman
Gary Lee Weinrib, better known to the rock world as Geddy Lee, was born to Holocaust survivors in the subdivisions of Toronto. He joined a fledgling version of Rush in 1968, and shortly thereafter, he dropped out of high school to make a career in music—and succeeded beyond all reasonable dreams or aspirations. He’s won Best Rock Bassist in Guitar Magazine six times. His band has recorded more consecutive gold and platinum albums than any other group besides The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He has been honored as an officer of the Order of Canada, and he's even been (lovingly) impersonated by Eric Cartman on South Park. Personally, I’ve been a passionate fan of Rush ever since my dad and I caught their R30 tour on a lark, a decade ago, and the following interview marks my first time speaking to a member of the band.
Rush has just completed its sold-out 40th anniversary tour—and as Lee told me over the phone last week, there were a number of women in attendence. The band's brand new R40 Live album artfully captures this retrospective on three compact discs and a DVD (or on a single Blu-ray). It was recorded and filmed at two sold-out shows in the band's hometown of Toronto earlier this summer, and debuted at number 1 on Billboard’s Top Albums Chart.
In honor of the occasion, I called up the legendary bassist, keyboardist, vocalist, and prog wizard to talk about R40 Live, how he’s down with the nerds, and why heavy metal was better in the Seventies. Keep an eye out for our exclusive debut of "YYZ" from R40 Live, too.
Noisey: Are you sick of talking about R40 Live yet?
Geddy Lee: [Laughs] Getting there.
Whose idea was it to play the set in reverse chronological order at these shows?
That was kind of my idea. I had a kind of devolution concept percolating in my mind when I first realized that we were going to be a doing a 40th retrospective at some point. But it didn’t really get fully realized til I sat down with Dale Heslip, our art director and visual overview person. Him and I hashed it out over a quick lunch last July  and really it kind of came together very quickly in terms of its basic concept. And then I got the feeling there wasn’t going to be a tour so I sort of shelved it. And it wasn’t until the band got together in November  that there was a go-ahead to do a tour, albeit a shorter one. That’s when we dusted the idea off and went full speed ahead with it.
Was there any resistance to adding all those epic songs in the second set? Or was everyone into it?
It’s funny. At first some of those songs we didn’t feel we could pull off—until we got into rethinking some aspects of it and rehearsing them together. And once we did, it became really a lot of fun to play them [laughs]. That sort of ended up being the dark horse of the whole tour because, for the fans, it’s certainly their favorite part of the show. And it sort of turned into our favorite part of the show, too, which was a surprise.
Well I mean, they’ve never all been played back to back like that.
No. And also, after the complexity of the first set, it’s kind of a bit of a holiday to play those mid-seventies songs [laughs].
So many of your songs come across heavier live than on album, especially synth tracks like “Between the Wheels” and “Subdivisions," they are just crushing because of the keyboard low end. And “Jacob’s Ladder” which is kind of the most metal moment in this current set. Can you feel that heaviness from the stage, too?
Yeah, I think those songs have improved with time. They have taken on a different kind of heaviness. I think at the time that we wrote those songs, we felt they were very complex in one way or another. But in context of the modern era songs, they’re actually freer in some ways, and not as densely layered. And in comparison and in context with those songs, they come off much heavier as a result.
You guys were almost contemporary with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Have you ever had a writing stage where you said, “Let’s just come up the heaviest thing we can possibly imagine?”
[Laughs] Well, every once in a while, we do seek the ultimate ‘heaviosity.’ That’s true. I know there were moments of Counterparts where we wanted to be very very heavy. But for us, it’s hard to stay heavy for an entire ten minute, twelve minute song, because we just get bored with it, and the dynamics seem to suffer after a while. So we invariably relent, and have some light and shade thrown in there with all the other heaviosity.
It’s funny how much it's been ingrained in us for so long that rock'n'roll was a young man’s game. And yet I’ve seen Robin Trower recently, and Uli Roth and I mean, as long as your body holds up, the musicianship just continues to improve. But it seems like age and vocal ability is something that changes on a physiological level.
Yeah, age can affect you negatively just in the fact that it won’t allow you to do what you want to do or what you were able to do. But if genetics have been good to you, then that’s not a factor. And experience actually improves the quality of what you’re putting together. So I feel like the versions of the songs that we’re delivering now are as good as anything we’ve ever been able to do. You can never recapture the abandon that you have when you record those songs 35 years ago. There’s a particular kind of ferocity that comes with youth. There’s a herky-jerkiness to our records that I listen to now that we’ve smoothed over. And for some people, they probably don’t like that.
The more recent albums have a lot more low-end and warmth, tonally. And at the same time, your voice has warmed and mellowed. It seems more accessible to me.
Right. But if you get it in your head that we’re not your cup of tea, we’ll probably never be your cup of tea. But that’s okay. I’m not bothered by the polarization that Rush’s music tends to send out. That’s fine.
One of the most beautiful moments I’ve seen at a Rush show was several tours back, right during the “Meek shall inherit the Earth” line—it just came off as a little bit flat, and Alex seemed to purposefully flub his arpeggio along with you in solidarity, and you guys just smiled at each other.
[Laughs] Well, we do like to have fun, and you can’t hide something that’s gone awry. I remember a fan came up to me and was telling me about some show they were at that we went off the rails for about ten seconds in a really complicated part and that fan was so happy he was there to witness it. But that sort of informed me that train crashes on stage are kind of appreciated in a different way. It’s all about the unexpected. It also shows, you know, we aren’t robots up there. We’re not playing to a tape recorder. We are human, and we will fuck it up once in a while.
It seems like you guys didn’t do any repairs to the audio on this R40 Live thing. It seems pretty honest.
We lucked out by recording two nights. I mean, the first night I think we were a little more uptight, but the second night, we kinda had our revenge on the first night, and we really really played well. I remember after the show feeling very thankful that the tape was rolling; because it’s very rare that you capture one of those nights for a live album. So that really helps avoid any kind of repair work, because, you kind of did it right.
Have you ever considered doing a solo album that was all synth?
All synth? No. I don’t think I could bear that. Synthesizers are not really good for your sense of humor. It’s like being in front of your laptop for eight hours straight. You don’t really feel very funny at the end of it [laughs].
I was reading Amazon reviews of R40 Live, and my favorite simply read, “My husband loves it!!!”[Laughs] Thanks, husband!
Have you noticed how many more women are coming to the shows in the last ten years, though? It really seems like something’s changed.
Yeah, I have noticed. And in fact a friend of mine told me at one of our shows this year that there was an actual line-up at the women's washroom, which is crazy. Breaking new boundaries! My favorite sign of a previous tour was a bunch of women holding up this giant banner that said, “Mythbusters—Women Who Love Rush.”
Weird Al had a number 1 album recently, and Rush is selling out tours. It seems like it’s never been cooler to be a nerd, and you’re an icon to nerds everywhere. How does that feel?
[Laughs]. I’m totally down with it! I have no problem with nerd love. It’s all good. You see them in movies. Nerds are the ones that save the day these days. You can’t have a spy thriller without the nerd back at mission control making sure everything happens.
I would never try to fit Rush into a genre category, but I think we could agree that Rush has an appeal to the metal sensibility. What kind of metal appeals to Rush?
Well, I don’t listen to a lot of metal. Even though there’s an aspect of our sound that can be quite metal, I sort of attribute it more to early metal, in the way that Zeppelin were metal and in the way that Black Sabbath were metal, and Blue Cheer were metal. And that’s the sort of tradition of metal that we took on. I like Metallica. I’ve got great respect for them. But, you won’t hear too much speed metal or death metal in my house.
I heard a rumor that you were asked to help produce Metallica's Master of Puppets. Is that true?
It’s sort of true. There was some discussion with Lars, back in the day, about working with them. This was before Master of Puppets came out, I think? There was talk, you know. I was friends with their management and I met Lars back in England. I remember going to see them here in Toronto when they played at the Masonic Temple. That’s when the original bass player was still happening. You know, before that tragedy. And, you know, we talked about it and I liked their band a lot at that time. But it just never came together.
It seems like you guys have accomplished pretty much everything possible. Is there any reason to even use pop-rock formulas on a future album? Couldn’t you throw all caution to the wind and just go crazy if you wanted to?
Yeah, I guess. But we kind of feel like we do do that anyway [laughs]. I mean, we write the kind of music that we want to hear. We don’t really feel restricted when we are putting music together. And there are always new goals. There’s always an aspiration there to do something better than what we’ve done in the past and improve upon the concept that is Rush. If we should be so fortunate as to get in the studio together to write a new album, I think that will appear as well.
In “Headlong Flight” you sing, “I wish that I could live it all again.” Honestly, what would you do differently if you had the chance?
Um, that’s a good question. I think I would focus on what key I was singing in…[laughs]…a little earlier in my career.
Nathan Carson is the biggest Rush fan in the world. Follow him on Twitter.