They've been called the biggest cult band in the world, but with sales of some 40 million albums worldwide, Rush are one of the biggest bands on the planet, full stop. Interview by Ian Harvey
The Canadian three-piece, best known in this country for the 1980 single Spirit Of Radio, lie only behind The Beatles and The Rolling Stones for the most consecutive gold or platinum studio albums sold by a rock band.
Still recording and touring to this day, Rush's Time Machine tour will beam down at Birmingham's LG Arena on Sunday, May 22.
Calling from Toronto, guitarist Alex Lifeson explained how the Time Machine idea was born .
"I suppose we were looking back and forwards. We're including a couple of songs from an album that's not yet completed, so we're looking a little bit ahead into the future," he says.
"It became a nice platform for us to do some visual stuff as well. We've always been developing the visual presentation of the band and with the advances in technology the rear screen stuff is now hi def and the level of animation that you can get from young animators is so creative and progressive these days so there's lots of room to do great things.
"The whole 'steam punk' kind of thing is what we're sort of leaning towards. It's a little bit like what the Victorians would have thought the future of technology would have been like."
So if you'd have had a time machine when you released your first album back in 1974 what would you have made of Rush's success in 2011?
"I never would have imagined in a million years that in 2011 we'd still be doing what we're doing. When we first started out, when we first got our record deal in '74 we all thought if we could stretch out for five years we'd have done great.
"That's what our deal was - a five-year deal with five records. A record a year for five years; that would have been a great run. Never would we have imagined that we'd still be at it on the cusp of our 60s."
One of the big attractions of the Time Machine tour is that it sees Rush playing all of their 1981 album Moving Pictures in its entirety for the first time. Moving Pictures features fan favourites Tom Sawyer, YYZ and The Camera Eye and is their biggest-selling album, marking the 30th anniversary of its release.
So how has it been playing the whole album night after night?
"It's been great," says Lifeson. "We wanted to play The Camera Eye on the last tour and we listened to it and it took the space of at least two songs so it just didn't make any sense to us at the time.
"Then the following year when Neil instigated the thing about doing Moving Pictures and suddenly The Camera Eye started to take a new life and as we played it, it started to sound different playing it live and it's the high point of the show for me – I love playing that song.
"It's a stretch, a challenge. And to play it well every night is a real challenge and the whole thing, the whole Moving Pictures segment, really works well. There's no chatting in between songs, we play it like the record."
All three members of Rush; Lifeson, bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart, are lauded as among the most technically proficient players in the rock world and the band is noteable for a sound which has morphed and developed through the decades.
"We've always tried to do that. We've always tried to look ahead and tried to be progressive," says Lifeson.
"We don't want to stay where we are and sometimes that's harder to do than to say. As you get older you become a little safer I think, and a little more set in your ways. But with our music we always want to make sure that we don't repeat ourselves, that we go to a new place."
So after almost four decades as a band, what is the secret of Rush's longevity?
"Well, first and foremost we get along really, really well. We're very close friends.
"Geddy and I have always lived five minutes away from each other. We play tennis together, we go for dinner together. Last weekend we were over at their place for dinner. We're not just business partners, we're pals and buddies and best friends."
In the late 90s drummer Peart suffered two family tragedies which almost finished Rush for good. First his 19-year-old daughter Serena was killed in a car crash, then, within a year his wife Jacqueline was dead from cancer. Peart himself has said that Jacqueline died of a "broken heart", calling it "a slow suicide by apathy. She just didn't care".
Although there was every likelihood Rush wouldn't continue it brought all three members even closer together.
Lifeson says: "It goes beyond friendship. I think with everything that we went through with Neil's tragedy we were always very close, but a new bond developed with that and it's just so solid."
Eventually though the band did reconvene, with the 2002 album Vapor Trails, followed up by 2007's Snakes & Arrows. A new album, Clockwork Angels, is due for release this year, with two new songs, Caravan and BU2B already released as downloads.
But with their shows stretching beyond three hours long, how does the band find the energy.
"We're all, you know, in our very late forties," deadpans Lifeson and you can imagine him winking before he adds, " I'm forty-seventeen currently."
"We take much better care of ourselves," he continues. "We travel with a chef who cooks organically, we really watch what we eat.
"We still have fun, Ged and I still enjoy a great bottle of wine after a show. We like to go to great restaurant s with great wine lists and that's sort of our thing that we do as buddies.
"The rest of the time we're hitting the gym and we're doing all that to stay in shape as best we can."
The conversation then turns to some of Rush's notable Midlands concerts, the Hemispheres tour at Birmingham Odeon, the Tour of The Semi-Hemispheres at Stafford Bingley Hall in 1979 as well as numerous appearances at Birmingham NEC, including the A Show Of Hands live album and video recorded there.
"I do recall that Birmingham gig," says Lifeson, "Because it was one of the largest venues that we were playing in the UK at the time. It left a big impact on us coming to the UK.
"The first time was, I guess in '76, when we were a relatively unknown band. I remember how exciting it was to come to the root of where our hearts lay in terms of music. There was The Who, for sure, and earlier on The Stones. For me it was always more The Stones than, say, The Beatles.
"But there were all those other great bands from the 60s. The Searchers were amazing, The Zombies were incredible. And then over the years came Cream, The Who, Zeppelin of course, Jeff Beck and then Yes - it just goes on and on and on.
"That really was where our musical tastes were centred. And I think that was more a Canadian thing as well. I think generally Canadians lean more towards the UK than they did to America. We had the benefit of absorbing from both sides.
"Pete Townsend for me was a huge influence. Because essentially they were a three-piece band and the way he structured his chords and took up a lot of space musically in the songs was really important to the way Rush developed. Geddy and Neil both were such active players and lot of the time we were all playing like crazy and it was too much and somebody had to reel it in and me being the faceless guy, I would do that," he laughs.
So, has this recent tour and taking a couple of new songs on the road changed how the album will turn out?
"Well, we'll see . . . I think once we get into recording we'll see. I mean we record every concert and we reference those recording every week or every second week, just to see where we're going, to see where we're maybe slowing down or speeding up, those sort of things. It's a very analytical listen.
"But I have to say that those two songs sound really good and they sound a little more vibrant, that's to be expected I think. I wish we could do that with the whole record, write the whole record and then just go out and play it for a month or two and then record it. But it's just impossible to find the time to do something like that. But I think it would be a great benefit in how the songs develop."
Band photos by Marty Moffatt - www.martymoffatt.com
Rush play the LG Arena, Birmingham NEC on Sunday, May 22, 2011. Tickets cost from £45 plus booking fees.