By Jeb Wright
Together since 1974, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart have built a band that's lasted longer than a lot of marriages. And if Rush’s new studio album and touring schedule are any indicators, the band has no plans to throw in the towel any time soon.
Rush has returned to its roots in many ways, as “Clockwork Angels” tells a story. For the most part, the music is hard rock with a touch of prog. Peart, Lifeson and Lee as Rush are, once again, a band where the sum is greater than the individual parts. Lifeson offers a more direct approach to his playing, leaving behind many of the thick textures he has experimented with over the last several years. Lee is flawless on bass, and his vocals sound as strong as ever. And Peart remains one of rock’s most talented drummers and lyricists.
Goldmine caught up with Lifeson, who shared a track-by-track view of the new album, as well as Alex’s Greatest Riffs.
Goldmine: Before we talk music, the album art is great. I love that the clock says 12 minutes after 9, which, if it is PM, means the time is 21:12. Where do you come up with this stuff?
Alex Lifeson: Hugh Syme is a very clever and able designer. He has done great work for us for many years. He is so inside that he is a member of the family. He works very closely with Neil on all of the artwork. He has done some really dramatic artwork for this record.
GM: Did you get what he was doing right away?
AL: I see all of those things, and, of course, it made me smile; I got it.
GM: “Clockwork Angels” is fresh, yet it hearkens to some of the hard rock you’ve done way back in the past. This is a very good album.
AL: We’re very proud of it. We spread this one out over a couple of years, and it ended up being a very nice way to work. We were not sure of it at the time, but in the long run, it has worked out really well. It gave us a bit of breathing space, as we wrote in groups of songs. I think that always helps to get a little bit of variety. When you get into the studio and you record everything together, then it brings that consistency through it. I think we really achieved an interesting dynamic. We have a lot of songs that are different from each other. I think a lot of the songs are very cinematic and part of the story.
GM: I never thought Rush would ever do another full-blown conceptual album.
AL: We did a number of strictly concept pieces, but a long time ago we decided that we’d run that format through. We moved away from that in the late 1970s. At the same time, all of our records are all thematic and loosely connected; sometimes it is broader and sometimes it is narrower. Nick [Raskulinecz, the producer] was really pushing for something like that — not specifically a concept, but a story. We sat down as they were doing lyrics, and Neil was talking about formulating this idea, and it came in little groups, but we had the concept. We did lots of rewrites, and five songs came out of it. We tend to work that way. A lot of lyrical ideas came as we were putting the musical idea together. The first batch we did consisted of five songs that we wrote several years ago. “Caravan” and “BU2B” were two of the first songs we wrote. “The Garden” came from that time, as well. When I think of the songs on the album, I think of them in the little groups that we wrote them in.
GM: Peart is such a great lyricist that I wonder, after all of these years, do you come to just expect his work to be excellent?
AL: There is really a lot of work that is involved. He writes a lot. He writes his travel logs, and he writes his novels, but he also has his website where he writes a lot. When it comes to lyrics, he will have an idea, and it will go through three or four major rewrites. Ged might say, “I am really responding to this one line; can we rewrite the idea based on that line?” To his credit, Neil never complains, and he does it. There is a lot of work that goes into those lyrics in every stage.
GM: Let’s go through the album track by track. The first one is “Caravan.” I wonder: Did the perspective of the tune change a lot from the demo stage to where it is today?
AL: I would say that the song stayed pretty true to the very early demo. We didn’t re-record anything from that first batch, but we did re-mix it so it was more connected to the sound of the album as a whole.
GM: “BU2B” is simply an amazing song. I love the guitar sound on that. How many tracks did you do?
AL: I think I tracked that one up quite a bit. I used my Les Pauls and my Telecasters, which is a combo that I used to use quite frequently. It really was heavily layered with guitars, and that was the idea for that song. The rest of the album, I really wanted to get away from that, and I tried as much as possible to keep it simple. I think that is one of the refreshing aspects of the record. It is not as dense or layered as “Snakes & Arrows” was. It has a lot of space in it, and you can hear the drums clearly; you can hear the bass and the guitar; everything can be loud at the same time. There is less competition when it is not quite so dense.
GM: “Clockwork Angels” has a killer little blues section in the song that at first does not seem to belong, but it ends up being one of the best parts of the tune.
AL: I was just messing around at home, and it was an idea that I brought in while we were writing. We worked on a bunch of stuff one day, and later that evening, Geddy opened up the file and had a listen to it. He was really keen on making a couple of small changes to it. Generally, that song is pretty much what I had written. I had that little section, and it is a good exercise for me to do at home. I go from the meat of that song to that section. In my demo version, I had images of pedal steel guitar and lanky sort of notes. When it came time to work it into “Clockwork Angels,” we made it more of a straighter blues section.
GM: It is a very emotional section of the song.
AL: I think the emotional content on the record is quite evident. There are a lot of moments where the record is quite emotional, and that is how we felt when we were making the album. We had a great time making this record; it was such a positive experience. Every day was a joy to go into the studio and write, and I think the music reflects that very positive and optimistic attitude that we were feeling.
GM: “The Anarchist” sounds like the drum interplay was the genesis of the song. How do you and Geddy write around what Neil is doing?
AL: Actually, it was the opposite. The drum pattern on that song is one that I put together, and he connected with it. It really was the starting point of the song. I think I come from a different place than Neil does, and sometimes he will find what I do as an interesting approach that he would have never thought of himself. It gave him a launching point. We’re all sort of like that.
GM: Have you done this throughout your career?
AL: When we are in the writing mode, the pre-production period before we start recording, I tend to work with Neil. As he is devolving his drum parts, I am usually the one who does that type of programming. He works more on the arrangements of the songs. We all have our little jobs and they do cross over, but it is very much a joint effort.
GM: “Carnie” is a song that is not your normal Rush song. When you come up with something that is outside of the norm, do you give it a second thought whether it should make the album?
AL: Not at all. We like to come up with different things that people won’t expect. This song is an integral part of the story. It has a heaviness to it that is really kind of refreshing and fun, and it is really where our roots are. When you get to the chorus, it feels like you’re at an amusement park and are on a carrousel or something. That is the kind of motion that we wanted to capture.
GM: “Halo Effect” seems to be included for the overall story of the album.
AL: It gave us a little bit of a breather, as well, as it was primarily acoustic. It was a very interesting arrangement for us to develop. I think there are some great melodies in there.
GM: “The Seven Cities of Gold” is the definition of a cinematic song.
AL: You almost get a sense of the protagonist seeing the city in the distance getting closer and closer. We used that to build the energy and to show how the city is chaotic and dangerous. If you put yourself in the character’s place, then you see he is from this small, little world, and he is now walking into this big city that represents the whole wide world, including all of the opportunity and all of the danger that exists in it. To my ear, I think we captured that, and you pointed that out. It is very cinematic, and I quite like that song.
Rush fans are used to seeing Alex Lifeson play guitar and Geddy Lee play bass. But during composition work for the “Clockwork Angels” track “The Wrecker,” the pair switched instruments.
GM: “The Wrecker.”
AL: On the original demo, Geddy played guitar, and I played bass. When it was recorded, Geddy played the bass but he learned my bass part. He said, “I would never play this song like this.” I learned something from him from the way he played the upstrokes on the acoustic, as I tend to use mostly down strokes. I found that with the Nashville tuning that the upstroke had a particular effect on the song and the shimmering quality. The song eventually evolved and became a different thing, but it is still great when you can evolve and influence each other on our instruments just by looking in a different direction.
GM: “Headlong Flight” is the best song on the album. Your producer said that you did that solo in one take.
AL: I can’t quite remember, but I think I did. I know it came very quickly. It could be a one take there.
GM: “BU2B” is a segue into “Wish Them Well,” which was a very tough song for Rush to finish.
AL: We loved the lyrics from the very beginning, but the music that Geddy and I were writing was just not happening. The first version was one of the original five songs. The first version was very airy, esoteric and had a lot of delays and things. We tried to make it work. We played it a million times, and we moved things around but it was not working. When we went away from it for a while and took a little time, we made a clear decision that it was not working, and that we loved the lyrics but not the music. We trashed everything we had done, and we started fresh with it. The second version was still kind of dark but it was a little heavier. We were still really struggling with it, and we wiped the slate clean again. Something finally clicked, and we fell into this strident kind of approach that was very straight ahead and had that classic rock sort of vibe to it. We finally got to the point where the music reflected what was happening in the lyrics.
GM: The last song is “The Garden.” I know this was one of the first songs written but, musically, it sounds like it was written to end an album.
AL: When we wrote “The Garden,” we only had those first five songs, but I think we knew this was going to be the closer. The sentiment was about resolution and about reaching a final destination. As the record came together then, it really became apparent we would close the album with it. Ged and I were working in that first phase, and I came in the next morning after we had spent the previous day together. He told me that he was really itching to do something the night before, and that he had done some things. He played the song for me, and he had that great bass intro. It was very blocky, but the verse and the lyric sounded beautiful against the simplicity of what the lyrics were; this was just Geddy playing bass and singing. Most of the song was written, other than the middle section. I totally saw what was going on. It was more intimate, so the acoustic made the most sense. The arpeggios in the bridges brought the intensity up a notch, and they lead into a very beautiful chorus.
GM: Now that we’ve discussed the new album, it makes me wonder how working together with Geddy and Neil today is easier than it was back when the band were just breaking big. Conversely, what was easier then as compared to now?
AL: Youth is a very volatile thing. When we were younger, we thought differently about our songwriting and our playing. We set a very high standard for ourselves, and we always wanted to reach our goals. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, and we worked very fast. We, generally, had very little time to work on our records, because we were touring so much. Everything that we ended up doing had this really giant ball of energy attached to it.
Today, we feel a very relaxed confidence about our music and our songwriting and also about our playing. We absolutely respect and trust each other now, more than we ever have. I think that is a very important aspect, working the way we work and how we put records together. You have to be able to trust each other and not hold your own ideas as the most precious.
We all try to do the best work we can do as a band. There is no one person more important than the whole. We’ve learned over 40 years that this is the key to our success and our integrity.
GM: Have you ever analyzed what it is about Rush that makes Rush Rush?
AL: No, not really. That is a good question, but the thing is, when you’re on this side of the fence, life is pretty normal. What you do is nothing particularly special. We set high standards, so we always try to do our best and play our best. We always try to do our best work. All of that percolates through to the rest of your life and how you treat other people and how you live with your family. You have the mark that you want to leave.
GM: Rush fans know how funny you guys are, but I think the general public overlooks that about you. I love the skits you do in your concerts on the video screens. The last one, featuring the band Rash, was hilarious. How will you top it?
AL: We will come up with some sort of stupid idea; we have no shortage of stupid ideas. We really love doing that stuff, and I have to tell you it is really a riot.
GM: I have always been a fan of your guitar soloing. I must admit a few years ago, I was irked, at you as you quit doing them on new music. Did you finally get to the point where you missed playing solos?
AL: I think you go through different stages. “Vapor Trails” was really the first album where I really limited the soloing. At the time, I truly didn’t want to bring the attention to that point in a song where the guitar takes over and it becomes about the solo.
I might have been wrong about it, but the way I was feeling at the time was that we were coming back from this very dark period, and I wanted a sense of unity where no one was showing off or standing out. I wanted it to really about the three of us. I kind of manifested that whole attitude by not standing out and soloing.
On “Snakes & Arrows,” I did a few solos, and there are a lot of solos on this record. In fact, there are two of the best solos I’ve ever done on this record — I am talking about “Clockwork Angels” and “The Garden.”
GM: The dark time was when Neil lost his wife to cancer and his daughter to an automobile accident. It is amazing he has been able to record. If, at that time, he would have said that he was walking away from the band would you have let him?
AL: I don’t think we would have had any choice. I think the feeling was that we were approaching the end of the third year, and things were not looking that good for the band, and we understood it. It was very sad. I think we were probably both disappointed, but there was nothing we could do about it. The conditions were very, very difficult. If Neil had said that he was done with it, then we would have just been done with it and moved on with our lives. The band really was not important at all during that time. It was all about helping our friend get back on his feet and learning to live again.
GM: I have a lot of respect for him being able to do what he has done. I can’t imagine the pain he went through.
AL: It was awful, but it happened, and we’ve moved on, and we are stronger for going through the whole thing. I think we are doing some of the best work we’ve ever done.
GM: I can’t pronounce your given last name [Zivojinovich], but I wonder where you came up with ‘Lifeson.”
AL: It is basically an English translation of my Serbian name. My last name is very difficult for people to pronounce, as there are a lot of vowels. My father certainly went through a lot with our name when we moved to Canada, and he actually thought at one time about changing our name. He didn’t do it, and I’m glad as that is my real name. Lifeson has been my professional name since I was, I don’t know, 15 or 16 years old. I seem to get about fine with both.
GM: From a historic perspective, which is more critical for Rush still being here in 2012: “2112” or “Moving Pictures?”
AL: I think “2112.” For us, that really bought us our freedom. It was at a time where we almost lost our record deal. We were not getting much support from the record company. They were very, very concerned, as sales were very poor on “Caress of Steel.”
GM: I hear you, but that is such a great album.
AL: When you look at it from their point of view, they invested a lot of time and effort in the band. The second album, “Fly By Night,” did OK, but the third album should have been the turning point. We took a step backwards, commercially, but for us it was very important for us to do that record; we learned a lot from it. We came back with “2112,” which secured our freedom and our independence, and we never had to look back after that.
GM: Your fans argue about eras of the band. Some say it was “Moving Pictures,” on back to the first album, and others say the band matured in the mid- to late ’80s. Do you get a kick out of the fact that your fans sit around and debate this stuff?
AL: Actually, it is neat that they do that. I think it is a wonderful compliment to us that people are willing to spend time to talk passionately about the band; it is quite a compliment.
GM: I have prepared what I think are Alex Lifeson’s Greatest Riffs. I am starting with “Spirit of the Radio.”
AL: That was a riff that seemed to work, cinematically, for that song and for the sentiment of that song.
AL: “Limelight” has always been my favorite guitar solo. There is a lot of elasticity to it, and it is very, very emotive.
GM: “Working Man.”
AL: Our roots are in that song. It is a long jam, and there is a lot of frantic playing. It is a real treat to play live. It is a great way to end our show. It is our one moment of free-form improvisation. We all let loose, and it is always a little different every night.
GM: “Fly By Night.”
AL: I guess that was an interesting departure on that record, as I used a very much cleaner guitar sound and a different sort of melody. It showed the different direction that we were moving.
GM: “The Trees.”
AL: During that era, we would develop long instrumental sections. We did that on quite a few songs, like “Xanadu” and “La Villa Strangiato.” “The Trees” were a little different, because there were a lot of different dynamics on that song.
GM: “Bastille Day.”
AL: We were a hard-rock band, and we were trying to spread our wings on that one.
GM: “2112 Overture.”
AL: That was a really fun way to assemble that whole album. We looked at it as an opera. We played all of the parts in one contained piece, and then we spread them out as the story was told. It was really a lot of fun to work on that and develop that. I still remember putting those pieces together.
GM: “Free Will.”
AL: Our three-piece band is one where the drummer and the bass player are very active. As a guitarist, you are always looking for the greatest mileage in covering the sound and making it as broad as you can. On that song, that is why I used those little suspended chords and left the open strings ringing out. It gives the impression of two guitars playing. It is really effective on that song and other songs. I think that really is my style, and that song shows how it developed.
AL: “YYZ” is just a romp. It was the instrumental song on that album, and we really stretched out on that song. Geddy and Neil really played great on that song. I quite like the solo, because it has a bit of a Middle Eastern flair to it.
GM: “By Tor & the Snow Dog.”
AL: “By Tor” was one of those compositions that was multi-layered and was very dynamic. There was stuff coming in and out. It had a lot of really aggressive parts to it, and it was also very emotive. I think that was an early experiment for us when it came to playing with those kind of dynamics. It really led to much that came after it.
GM: Rush has the advantage over so many bands of your era. There are no potty breaks during new music by your fan base. How many new songs will be in the set?
AL: We are not there yet. We’re still trading e-mails regarding the set. Right now, the set is probably somewhere around four hours long. Our target is about three hours and 10 minutes of music. We need to really pull it back.
There are a lot of older songs that we want to bring back for this tour. There are a lot of great classic rock songs that we haven’t played in a very long time. We don’t want to shortchange those songs, but, of course, you always want to play your most current stuff. It is tempting to look at “Clockwork Angels” as the whole thing but we will see. We start rehearsals next month, and we’ll have a better idea of how we want to approach that whole thing.
GM: I have been listening to your solo album, “Victor,” and I have to ask if there will be another solo album in your future?
AL: That was a lot of work. Geddy and his wife were having a baby back then, and he wanted to be home with the family. We were off for over a year, and I get very antsy sitting around, so I decided to do that record. Boy, was that ever a lot of work; I worked every day on that record. I mixed it, recorded it, wrote it, worked on the cover and really did everything. It was completely satisfying for me to do that.
I’ve got an hour or two of songs that I’ve written and recorded over the years for the sake of doing it and having fun with it. I might do another one day, but there are a lot of other things that I want to do in life, and it really was quite a commitment.
Having said that, it’s a lot easier to do two or three songs and put them out and then wait six months and do it again. You don’t have the weight of an LP doing it that way. Maybe I will; I don’t know, we’ll see.