With the release of Different Stages this week, Rush continues its career-long tradition of releasing a live recording every five years or so. Drummer Neil Peart, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee have made a career out of touring and recording their live shows, and that's because their fans are as loyal as any band's in rock and roll. Most bands would come across as greedy if they released as many live albums as Rush has, but then again, there aren't many bands who improvise in a live setting like Rush.
"We started recording material on our Counterparts tour," Lee recalls. "We knew that sooner or later we would have to release a live project. It just seems to be a pattern with us that after every three or four albums, to update our live sound. After every live album, I swear we're never going to do another one, but we always do another. I think we're just trying to create some kind of record for having the most live albums of any band in the history of rock music.
"It was a big project," he continues. "It required a lot of work and a lot of methodology and planning to get it accomplished because of the volume of material that we have recorded. And because of the way that we decided we wanted to approach this live album, it was different from the past by recording on an almost nightly basis until we captured enough very natural performances."
The trio approached this multi-disc live set in a completely different way from what it on had previous live recordings. "What we wanted to do," Lee explains, "was to capture the band on one of those special nights, and when you go and record three or four shows you're almost trying too hard to create a special night. But if you're recording regularly, pretty soon you forget that the tape is rolling, and if you have one of those magical moments or a great combination of performance and audience feedback, it happens, and you're there to record it.
"That was our intention," he continues. "I didn't realize when we set out to do it that I would have to sift through over a hundred shows, but that's the penalty of trying to do something that way.
"For intents and purposes, I had a lot of help. We had good preproduction help from our live sound engineer, Robert Scovill, and Paul Norsefield was kind of my co-producer and mixing engineer and just invaluable in helping sort through all this stuff."
Like the Grateful Dead, Rush has been recorded live more than most veteran groups. Lee feels that the band's live performances are a special aspect of Rush's work as a musical entity.
"We don't record every show but a lot of them," Lee explains. "And a certain number of those shows are essentially thrown into the garbage due to technical glitches, which are inevitable when you record on a nightly basis. We're recording essentially 72 tracks every night, and if one of the machines goes down, the night's over, so there are a lot of great shows that you don't get.
"At the end of the thing, there's always some regrets. You have some songs that you never got, and some songs that you never got a version that you think is worthy of being on the album. It has its surprises and its disappointments."
The fact that Rush has released a number of live albums must mean that its members feel it is a live band primarily, as opposed to a studio band. Lee likes to think it's a little of both.
"So much of what we are was created in a live environment," he says. "We've always been, in essence, a touring band at the core of it, even though I would say in the last five or six years, that shifted to a studio-thinking band. There's something about live performance that strikes at the very core of what got us to do what we do. So we pay some special heed to that, and I guess essentially, regardless of your success or regardless of the style of music you're writing, when you boil it all down, we're concerned with how well we're playing. That puts it all back into a proper perspective for us."
Did he think the band would still be going in 1998?
"No way," Lee replies. "I had no idea what we'd be doing. Who knows where your life is going to take you, but it's been a pleasant surprise to be able to stick around for a while. Let's face it: It's a great job. I try not to take it for granted, and I try and protect it." As for the next Rush studio recording, Lee says, "We really have no definitive plans at the moment. I would say that we're on an extended hiatus."
Outside of Rush, Lee has been working with friends and musicians whom he enjoys. Producing other acts has become an interest, and he's always looking for new groups and solo artists. "I'm getting more interested in production," he explains, "and I've been writing with a few different people, some young people, and some older friends of mine. It's been great. It's been a great outlet for me and a great learning experience.
"I've really enjoyed the teaching experience of working with some younger musicians. I realize I have a wealth of experience that I can pass on to the younger band members and bass players and so forth. I never thought I would enjoy that side of it, but I have enjoyed it so far, so I'm going to pursue that a bit more."
Lee has an interesting perspective on today's music scene. Having been in one band for over 25 years, he scoffs at the latest musical trends.
"It's weird right now," he concludes. "There's a certain blandness that seems to have surfaced once again. We seem to go through these periods from time to time, but this is different in so much that there's a tremendous diversity of music right now--from trip-hop to metal and complex metals with bands like Tool and so forth. So you have a whole gamut of stuff that makes it difficult to focus on one style or another.
"Radio, I think, is very confused," Lee continues, "so what you're exposed to on a regular basis is fairly safe. But for the adventurous listener with time on [his] hands, [he] can go out and find a whole gamut of interesting and weird stuff to listen to. So I think it's good for the fans in one way, but it's difficult for the whole music business because nobody knows what end is up anymore. People get so confused that they seek the safe ground, and that's why bland MOR music is so popular."
Cleveland has always been a big market for Rush, and Lee has fond memories of playing here, all the way back to a show at the Allen Theatre. "Cleveland was probably the most important city in our development," Lee says without hesitation, "and certainly in our discovery. 'MMS, when Donna Halper was in programming, she played our first album as an import, and really that was to a large degree why we got our first American record deal. And our first concert in America with our original drummer, John Rutsey, was in Cleveland. It was the Allen Theatre. We opened for ZZ Top. We're talking '74, maybe late '73.