July 19, 2002
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Nearly a year in the making, the latest album by everyone's favorite
Canadian art-rockers and musical wizards is a welcome return to form--up to
"Vapor Trails" finds Rush rocking harder than it has since the "Moving
Pictures" era, with the virtuosic Neil Peart finding catharsis after
enduring the deaths of his wife and daughter by returning to the drums with
The disc isn't everything a longtime fan could have hoped for--Peart
continues to favor vague philosophical musings in the lyrics over the
science-fiction parables of the early days or the biting social commentary
of the trio's middle years--but the energy bodes well for the band's summer
I spoke with bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee as the group made its way
across the United States on a tour that brings it to the Tweeter Center on
Q. There's a perception among fans that Rush is rocking much
harder on this album. Do you agree?
A. It's hard for me to see that so clearly as someone outside of
our little circle would see it. I guess for us, we just wanted to make a
record that had some passion and emotion. It was an emotional process in a
lot of ways, and I guess it came out in us being a little harder-edged. And
we did want to make a rock record. All of those things combined, it did turn
out that way.
Q. While there's more of a rhythmic drive and fewer keyboards,
there's also less soloing by guitarist Alex Lifeson. What was the thinking
A. He just felt that excessive soloing was kind of a dated
concept. It was not something he was comfortable doing at this point. There
were a few moments where we encouraged him to solo on different songs that
we felt would definitely benefit, because he's a great soloist, but he was
very determined not to do that. He felt it was wrong and he didn't feel
comfortable with that whole stepping out front thing. He'd rather help
create more of an ensemble, instrumental middle section than do a guitar
Q. I suppose it can become a cliche: "There's a hole in the
song here, let's solo!"
A. Yeah. He tried it a couple of times and he did not feel
inspired to do that. We would even say to him, "Keep going, you're just
starting to get warmed up!" And he would just kind of lose the vibe of it
and say, "It doesn't feel right to me. It feels like a very dated approach."
Q. Let's talk about what you were trying to do vocally by
creating textures from layering different parts. It sounds like your were
really having fun singing.
A. It is a lot of fun; singing is a wonderful way of expressing
yourself. I experimented a little bit when I did my solo record, and I just
carried over that kind of free approach when we started to do this record.
Specifically with Alex really not wanting to get too deeply into keyboards,
it gave me an opportunity to try to provide some extra melody and texture
using my voice instead, which really did the same thing as pulling out a
string sound or something.
Q. It seems as if you used to sing one way, basically up
through "Hemispheres," but you've sung another way ever since: Those
infamous higher-register parts are gone. Was that a physical change in your
voice or a stylistic choice?
A. It was a stylistic choice. I would say that in some ways, there
were some experiments I was doing vocally, learning about songwriting, and
as our songwriting changed stylistically, my vocalizing changed. When I look
back at some of those experiments, some of them were successful and some of
them weren't. When you're in the middle of it, it's sometimes hard to see if
you're utilizing your voice in the correct way or not. I felt with this
record that I spent more time thinking about what keys the songs were in and
trying to make sure that I presented my voice in a more complete way, and
that meant bringing back some higher singing. It was a tool that I was
essentially ignoring for no real good reason. There's more of a balance on
Q. When you're thinking about that, do you consider the
hardcore fans who gripe about, "How come he never sings like he did on
A. Not really. [Laughs] What struck me when I was listening back
to our last couple of albums, there were a couple of songs on "Test for
Echo" and the previous couple of records that sounded like I was singing in
the wrong key--like the melodies were great but I didn't have enough power
behind my voice. So, I tried to find registers that gave me both, that were
not simply histrionic but that were a little higher, and where I was able to
shape the melodies that I wanted to shape.
Q. I've always been fascinated by how you interpret Neil's
lyrics. Older songs such as "By-Tor and the Snow Dog" are like science
fiction or fantasy stories, and those would seem to be easier for you to
convey than the lyrics on the new album, which are really about his personal
philosophy. I know you've been kindred spirits for 30 years, but the way he
sees the world can't be exactly the same way you see the world.
A. No, certainly not. It's a really interesting evolution. I think
when he first started writing lyrics, I was so relieved to have someone
other than myself writing lyrics that I just sang whatever he gave me. Some
of them, in retrospect, were fairly awkward and wordy; I don't know how I
fit all those words per second in there! But as we grew, some songs were not
comfortable for me and I would lay off. In more recent years, it's been more
important for me to be able to identify with what he's talking about, or at
least if I view myself as an interpreter, I have to be able to understand
his point of view so clearly that I can express it as, say, an actor would a
On this particular record, where a lot of what he was writing was
personal, there was a lot of back and forth, and though the lyrics were
coming quite regularly from him, they were a little more difficult for me to
deal with. We had to examine them and talk about them a lot more, and some I
was not comfortable with. That's always the case; on every album, there are
a few songs I'm just not comfortable with singing, so I just kind of don't
go there. But some songs where I feel there's a lot of strength in what he's
trying to say, even though it's not comfortable for me, that's when I'll
pull certain lines out that have really struck a chord with me and I'll say,
"Look, these four lines really work for me, and they really work in the
context of this song I'm trying to write. Can we develop the song more along
these lines?" He's quite cool to do that, and he's really a very objective
Q. The fact that Neil was going through such a personal
catharsis, and you were having to interpret his lyrics and discuss what was
working and what wasn't, it almost sounds like you were in the position of
being his therapist.
A. Well, listen, that relationship existed already. I mean, in
order for us to go back to work, he had to feel comfortable. We supported
him and were right with him through all of that time. None of us would have
been comfortable to start working again if we didn't feel that he was ready
to do that. So, yeah, there was some discussion, but really it was already
Of course, I was a little surprised how many of his lyrics were as
personal as they were. I knew that in some way or another, the lyrics for
this album would naturally have to express what he'd be going through. But
as the lyrics started coming out, a lot of them were in the first person,
and that's something that I discussed with him a lot: "This is so intimate
an expression, I can't express it in the first person because it's your
story, not my story." So we worked on a lot of those songs to change them
out of the first person into something easier for me to interpret. And I
think they benefitted from a little more universality.
Q. The last time I interviewed Neil, circa "Counterparts," he
was talking about being embarrassed by some of the science-fiction themes of
the earlier songs. But I like stuff like "By-Tor and the Snow Dog"! I love
"2112," and I find something new in it every time I listen to it.
A. [Laughs] It's interesting that Neil said that then, and I
totally understand it. You've got to remember that for the last 10 years,
he's been working hard at being a writer of books. I think he comes at that
from a writer's point of view, and he looks at some of those lyrics and
thinks, "Some of that is silly." In fact, we're playing "By-Tor and the Snow
Dog" on this tour. It was one of the suggestions on our long, long set list,
and he was kind of cringing a little bit: "I don't know about those lyrics!"
And I was like, "You have to remember how much fun we had putting that song
together. Those lyrics were all about fun. Yes, they were a little silly,
but we were trying to be a little silly. I think it will be fun and a little
silly to play it live." Sure enough, it's one of our favorite things to do
live right now.
I think you can't forget the spirit with which you wrote the song. The
same thing happened last tour with "2112" when we played it in its entirety.
At first, it felt a bit weird, but after we played it a couple of times, the
spirit of it came back, and it put us back to that time and it really became
one of the favorite things of that last tour that we did. You just have a
tendency to get so serious about your present that you forget the spirit
that you lived in.
Q. Well, nostalgia is the most insidious enemy of great rock
'n' roll. The fact that Rush doesn't indulge in it is one of the band's
charms. Yet the group has this incredible history and you can't ignore that,
A. Well, we tried to dig some different things out of the closet,
and we pulled out a whole range of stuff that we love. We've tried to pay
attention to Rush fan sites that have requested certain songs like "By-Tor."
That's the challenge of a set list for us now: How do we create a little
journey? We do a three-hour show and we've got two sets to work with, so we
try to make both sets quite different, and we try to ease into the show and
have it develop. At the present moment, it's really working well. We are
able to visit the past with the same enthusiasm that we're playing the new