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January 23, 2009

Alex Lifeson Interview

by Skip Daly.

Alex Lifeson

Alex Lifeson. Photo credit: Andrew McNaughtan.

Over the course of its 40-year history, Rush emerged as a rock band to become an institution of rock culture. They are one of the few bands that have not only survived for over four decades, but have done so with the same line-up of band members. That feat is a true anomaly in the turbulent and ego-driven world of rock music.

With over 30 million records sold worldwide, award-winning videos and legions of hardcore fans, perhaps the most impressive thing about the band's career is the manner in which they have navigated their own course. While other bands worried about mainstream success, Rush focused on mastering their instruments and musicality to make the best records possible.

Rather than focus on radio airplay, the group committed to making music that was, first and foremost, exciting to them, trusting that their fans would share their instincts and excitement. While other bands allowed themselves to be steered by the demands of record labels and business executives, Rush followed up a commercially failed “art rock” album with an even more artsy endeavor, and steadfastly refused to allow their management in their studio sessions.

My own ongoing journey with the band’s music began over 20 years ago, and they have not only provided a “soundtrack” to my life, but also hours of both inspiration and comfort. It’s impossible to express in words all that the band has meant to me over the years. So, it was with no small measure of excitement (and trepidation) that I picked up the phone to talk to guitarist Alex Lifeson [Alexandar Zivojinovich] about Rush’s newest DVD release, Snakes And Arrows - Live (Rounder/Zoe, 2008).

Being a fan that has made it a point to catch at least one or two shows on every tour since 1990, I can tell you that the new Rush video does not disappoint. The camera angles around nicely and the audio is superb, even when held up against Rush’s typical high standards. The set list is well thought out, including both the showstopper hits and obscurities that are Rush fan favorites.

Alex and I covered a lot of territory during out conversation and I found him to be very gracious, as well as confident, yet humble, in his thoughtful responses. I was reminded again of another reason that I’ve followed the band so loyally over the years. Music aside, these three guys have always come across like level-headed people. Following a band in the way that I’ve followed Rush over the years is a bit like rooting for a sports team, and it’s a lot easier to root for someone if they seem decent. Be it their 1997 Order Of Canada honors, or the millions of dollars that they have donated quietly to various charities over the years, the members of Rush have plenty of inspirational credits to their names, outside of the music world. And that counts in my book.

But, enough of this, let's see what Alex had to say...

* * *

Rush. Photo credit: Ross Halfin.

Skip Daly: First, I guess congratulations are in order – I just heard that your acoustic song “Hope” has been nominated for a Grammy.

Alex Lifeson: Yeah, thanks, it did, that’s very nice. I think this was our third or fourth time.

Skip: Well, hopefully this will be the lucky one. Rush just completed a major world tour in 2008 that spanned 13 months. Has the band been feeling re-invigorated about road life in recent years? Is touring easier than it used to be?

Alex: Well, if we were feeling re-invigorated about it, certainly this tour completely changed that [Laughing]. We did about 120 shows on this last tour, and it was exhausting, I have to admit. We really enjoyed it and I thought we played the best we’ve ever played. We were in a really nice pocket.

You know, I think with age comes a maturity and a confidence in one’s playing, and we’re really hitting that stride right now. But, we all found it a little exhausting this time around. We’re a bit older, and you just kind of notice that. We stay in great shape. We eat well, we have a chef that travels with us, we exercise a lot, and we do all the right things. But, it can be grueling doing a three hour plus set.Having said all that, we did really, really enjoy it. We’re going to take a long break now, and I think that will recharge our batteries, and we’ll come back into it truly re-invigorated.

Skip: I attended three shows on the Snakes & Arrows tour, and I thought they were all great. I have to say, the film clips have been quite amusing. I love that clip you used to open the show, and the outtakes on the DVD are absolutely hysterical.

Alex: Yeah, we had a lot of fun doing that stuff. And you can see on the outtakes that we were just in tears most of the time, laughing at how stupid the whole thing is.

Skip: Yeah, it’s funny on the outtakes, there are places where you can see some of the crew members walking by in the background wiping tears away themselves. I was thinking “They’re either having fun or else they’re frustrated, because they’re not getting anything done!”

Alex: Well, you know, there are the outtakes from where we were doing the "What’s That Smell" thing with Harry Satchel, and I was the border guard, and I’m stopping Geddy at the border and asking him where he’s going. We did a whole bunch of takes of that, and there were some takes that were good takes. But, we couldn’t use them because the director was by the camera, and so close by, and he couldn’t stop laughing. It ruined the audio of the take! So, I thought that was a pretty good sign, when you’ve got the director laughing so hard that you can’t use a good take.

Snakes & Arrows

Snakes & Arrows - Live

Skip: I’d like to talk for a minute about this newest DVD, Snakes And Arrows Live. The accompanying album is the band’s seventh live album, by my count. I’ve heard that the band considered “All The World’s A Stage” to be too ‘raw’ and “Exit…Stage Left” to be too ‘sterile’…with subsequent live albums having more of a balance. Were there any ‘repairs’ made to the raw tracks on this one, or is it “warts and all”?

Alex: No, actually…let me think…there might have been a couple of vocal things. Certainly there were no guitar things or drum things.You know, we had the benefit of doing a second date, so if there was a section that maybe felt better in a song on the second day, we may have put a couple parts in. But, I’d have to sit down with Rich [Chycki – engineer], and ask him.

Those two gigs were pretty consistent gigs. I thought we played well both of those nights. It was at the end of the tour, and by that point in the tour we’re pretty set with all of our tempos. Neil has a metronome on his drums that gives him a tempo reference at the beginning of a song. It’s just a light that pulses, and it gives him a tempo reference. He’s very solid.

Skip: That’s very interesting. I’d always wondered about that, how he started the songs at the right tempo. I knew that he sometimes played to a click in order to sync up with the films, but I wondered if he might play to a click [Through the in-ear monitors] just to make sure he was starting the songs at the right tempo.

Alex: No, he used to play to a click for some stuff where we needed to sync with film, but we haven’t done that in years. There’s just no need for it anymore. He’s just so locked in and so tight. You know, the difficulty is if you’re playing a song with a quick tempo, and then you’ve got to pull it back for the next song, and sometimes it’s hard to just shift your brain from something fast to something mid-tempo. So, that gives him a chance to catch his breath. He looks at the pulse, he gets that tempo into his head, he turns it off, and then he starts the song. And he’s extremely consistent.You’d be shocked, actually.

Skip: Yeah, well, I remember Geddy [Lee - bassist] saying once that Neil [Peart - percussion] is the only person he knows who “rehearses to rehearse”.

Alex: Yeah, exactly! That’s exactly right. He rehearses for about two weeks on his own, before we actually start rehearsals. But, then again, it’s different for a drummer of his caliber, and the kind of music that we play – he’s got to be in great physical shape before we actually start rehearsals.

Skip: As I watch this DVD, certain tracks have really leap out, and one of them is “Mission.” I always loved this song, and this version is quite different sonically - the guitars are really beefed up, and it has a nice, thick sound. It made me wonder if we can expect you guys to revisit more of the "Power Windows/Hold Your Fire" era songs in the future? It’d be interesting to hear how some of the deeper cuts from those “keyboard era” albums would benefit from the band’s current sonic approach.

Alex: Yeah, I’ve thought the same thing, and I would hope that we would give that some thought the next time we go out. I mean, there are some great songs from those albums, and it would be great to address them, as you say, with this sonic approach and the much beefier guitar sound.

Skip: Yeah, there are songs like “Marathon,” or even deeper cuts like “Middletown Dreams.”

Alex: Yeah, ”Grand Designs.”

Skip: Yeah, exactly! I always loved those songs. But, the recordings are obviously kind of rooted in the '80s, in terms of the production.

Alex: Yeah, totally.

Vapor Trails

Vapor Trails

Skip: So, shifting to something more recent, are we going to see a remix or remaster of Vapor Trails?

Alex: You know, Rich Chycki just remixed a couple of the songs for the retrospective that’s coming out [Retrospective III], and he did such a great job that we’re so tempted to just remix that album, because we’ve never been pleased with the mix, and particularly the mastering on it. It’s a dangerous precedent that you set by doing that, because you want to go back and re-do a bunch of things.

We were never happy with that one. There are a lot of reasons for that. We’re to blame for a lot of that. The way we recorded it was very impulsive. We didn’t spend a lot of time on getting sounds, and we used a lot of the stuff that we did in the writing phase, rather than re-recording things. So, to maintain the pure energy of what those ideas were, we gave up a bit on the sonic end. But, Rich just has this way of mixing and hearing this band that translates so well into our heads. He did a great job. He remixed “One Little Victory," and “Earthshine”.

They sound so big and powerful and heavy and thick and round. Whereas, the original recordings are very compressed, and a little bright and scratchy. So, we listened to those and we thought “well, look, what is the point in remixing it really? We would just be doing it for ourselves…and…so…well, ok why not - let’s do it!” So, we’re sort of toying with the idea, when we have some spare time, of just remixing that whole album, just for our own peace of mind.

Skip: Well, I think the fans would love that. In fact, before I did this interview…there are a couple of Rush fan message boards that I hop on once in a while, and I mentioned that I’d be interviewing you, just to see if there were any questions that I hadn’t already thought to ask, and the one that was hands-down the winner was, “Will there be a remix of Vapor Trails?

Alex: Yeah.

Skip: Speaking for myself, I love that album, and I’m not so much an audiophile. But, I know that a lot of people were complaining about it. I guess it’s kind of a trend in mastering these days, where everyone pushes the levels so high that everything ends up clipping and distorting.

Alex: Well, that’s exactly what happened, and it kills all of the dynamics. That record was a very emotional record for us, and it was very fragile. From the heavy stuff to the more melodic stuff, it was a very fragile representation of the band, in the way it was recorded. In mastering, unfortunately that’s exactly what happened. It was a contest, and it was mastered too high, and it crackles, and it spits, and it just crushes everything. All the dynamics get lost, especially anything that had an acoustic guitar in it.

Anyways, it’s something that we’re thinking about. We’re kind of busy right now, we have our hands full. But it’s certainly something that, once we have some spare time, we could get Rich working on. He and I are doing a lot of stuff together these days.

Skip: Shifting to a couple of “gear questions” for a moment - on recent tours, you’ve often played traditionally acoustic guitar parts on your electric, presumably using some kind of effect or emulator to get an acoustic sound (e.g. "Closer To The Heart," the intro to "Natural Science," etc), yet at times you still play a real acoustic on stage (e.g. "Entre Nous," intro to "The Trees"). Why the combination of approaches there? How do you decide which acoustic parts to play on the electric?

Alex: The ones that I play acoustic on are the ones where I do have a little bit of a space or a gap where I can switch from acoustic back to electric. But, when I’m using the piezo, it’s really in songs where I don’t have that flexibility, or else I want to mix in an acoustic sound in with the electric sound. That’s really what it is, basically.

Skip: While we’re on the topic of “gear”…in terms of equipment, what do you see as the greatest technical advance in the last 10 years? And, when it comes to music, is technology overrated?

Alex: Well, certainly digital recording has been the most powerful influence. It’s affected the whole industry in so many ways…how we listen to music, how we share it, how it’s affected the sales of artists’ work, how it’s recorded. I mean, I think that’s the major thing. It’s killed the studio industry. Look at how many studios have died because of it. It’s not just a matter of trying to keep up with the new trend. Now, home recording is so much simpler – you can have a little setup in your basement for 20 grand and make world class recordings. I think that’s probably the biggest influence. It’s great and it’s fantastic in so many ways, but we don’t know how to recover, or how do we change the model.

Skip: You need to allow me to “geek out” here for a moment - I’ve always been curious what live recordings might exist that have not seen light of day yet. Specifically, do you guys still have any recordings in the “vault”, even just board recordings, from the earliest days of the band, prior to Neil joining? I’ve got a couple books on the band that talk about old originals like “Slaughterhouse,” “Run Willie Run,” “Tale,” etc. Any chance we might get a Live from the Gasworks official bootleg release at some point, or something else that would offer insight into what the band sounded like way back then?

Alex: You know, it’s funny that you mention that. I was up at my studio…I’m upgrading and changing my control room around a little bit. Rich and I have sort of “moved in together” in there. And I was cleaning up the back room…I’ve gotten rid of a bunch of stuff over the years…and I just found a case that was way up on the top shelf, and at the bottom of this box were a bunch of reel-to-reel, unlisted, unmarked, recordings…and I can only imagine that they’re pre-‘74. So, they would probably be from between ‘70 and ’73…recordings from that period. So, they would probably have songs like “Run Willie Run,” and “Slaughterhouse,” and “Garden Road,” and all of those early songs that we wrote and played during our bar days.

Skip: Oh, wow. I’ve got to tell you that I think the fans would eat that up, even if it was just something put out via the web site, in digital form, as an “official bootleg series” or something.

Alex: Yeah, I’ll see what sort of shape they’re in. I know a couple of the reels were…you know those small reels, and I’ve got to think that even spooling them might be a problem, never mind me playing them. Anyway, I just discovered them, so who knows? There may be something in the near future.

Skip: Along these lines, I been corresponding recently with a guy named Ian Grandy…

Alex: Oh, yeah!

Skip: Who I think was actually Rush’s very first roadie, and he says he recalls setting up three microphones to record Neil’s audition for the band, back in July, 1974. Any chance that recording still exists? That’s the kind of thing that Rush fans would love to hear, if only for historic purposes.

Alex: Oh…I don’t know…

Skip: Probably lost in the mists of time…?

Alex: Oh, I’m sure it would have been, or it may have even been recorded over. We couldn’t afford too much back then, so if we had a reel, it probably got used for a lot of recording…

Skip: Do you guys have at least some kind of recorded documentation from every tour, even just soundboards?

Alex: Certainly there were recordings made during sound checks. I don’t know about gigs so much, in the earlier days.

Skip: I know that, for collectors, the Caress of Steel tour is just a huge black hole – nobody has anything from that. And there have been people dying to know - what did the band sound like then? What did they play? And that’s the kind of thing…it’d be fabulous if you guys released a recording from every past tour, maybe via

Alex: Yeah, I just don’t know if any of that kind of stuff exists.

Skip: Moving on to set lists for a minute. Can you shed any light on some specific songs that almost made the set list in recent tours, but ended up not getting played? Are there any other rarities that the band talked about resurrecting, and maybe even rehearsed, but which ended up not making the set?

Alex: Well, for this last tour we talked about “A Farewell To Kings.” We’ve discussed “Camera Eye” numerous times, because it seems to be a fan favorite and we’re not unaware of that. Ged and I sat down before the Vapor Trails tour, and we had a listen to “Camera Eye”, but we just weren’t ready to attack it. But, I think the way the songs that we did on this tour, like “Circumstances” and “Entre Nous”…and “Ghost Of A Chance” is probably the best example…the kind of new life that we breath into those songs by messing a little with the arrangement, by just playing them now, so many years later, with a slightly different feel, I don’t know…it’s almost like – it’d be great to do a whole bunch of songs like that that we’d never considered before.

Skip: Hear, hear! That’d be fantastic. And it’s funny you mention the “fan requests”, because I should also fess up that I’m actually the guy who runs the fan request web site.

Alex: Oh, ok…you’re the one!

Skip: Yeah, I’m the one. I hope you guys have found it useful. It’s probably misnamed as a “petition”. It was never intended to be an obnoxious thing.

Alex: Oh, not at all. In fact, it’s very helpful. We’re just changing our whole opinion on those sorts of songs. Stuff that we wouldn’t have considered in the past…now, all of a sudden, with the success that we feel we’ve had by rearranging some of these songs and playing them live, now it would be exciting to address some of these older songs that aren’t as close to our hearts I guess you could say, and bring them a lot closer.

Skip: Getting back to gear for a second, what is the most important thing in your studio and live set ups -- the amps, certain effects? If you had to pick, what do you think would be most integral and important in your setup?

Rush In Rio

Rush In Rio

Alex: I don’t know. I don’t think it’s guitars. I have so many guitars and they all feel different to me, and they all respond differently. I use them like tools, for different things, one guitar will be better suited than another, whether it’s for performance or for the sound. And amps, think you could have a wall of amps and get a good sound out of any one of them.

I don’t know how much emphasis I’d put on the technical end of it to be honest with you. I’m pretty confident that you could give me any amp and any guitar, and I’ll get the kind of sound that I’m searching for.

Skip: It’s interesting to hear you say that, because you’ve definitely had a reputation as being sort of the “musical scientist” in the band, in terms of experimenting with different gear and effects over the years. So, it’s an interesting insight to hear you then say “Well, you know, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter that much”…

Alex: Yeah, well, I have a short attention span. And I like to explore. I’ve always been that way. So, like I said, I’m confident that I would get whatever I would require from any kind of equipment, and I guess that’s part of being a professional, you know? You have the skill and no matter what kind of tools you are given, you will get the job done.

Skip: I know Neil has really pushed himself into some different areas, doing some big band playing, and studying with a couple teachers. How do you find ways to push your playing into new directions?

Alex: I go through periods where I don’t play for a little bit and then I play a lot, and I find that when I go back and play a lot, I go into different areas. I think alternate tunings, for me, are a wonderful way to stretch out and have a clear slate. All the rules are gone, especially with the more bizarre tunings you can come up with, that are a lot more restricting. How do you push those boundaries and make them a little more elastic? I find that’s a great challenge.

Skip: When you’re at home just messing around, are you more likely to pick up an acoustic or plug in an electric?

Alex: Well, I have to admit that these days…these last couple of years…I tend to play acoustic a lot more. I’m sitting here in my office at home, and I’ve got my 1976 Dove here, and a Ramirez classical. I’ve just got a Karol guitar, a baritone six string. I’ve got my Les Paul here, for a gig that I’m doing next week. But, generally I pick up the acoustics, and I’ve got a couple different tunings, you know, everything’s sort of easy to grab and go.

Skip: Shifting gears again, last May, Rush fans were saddened to hear of the recent passing of John Rutsey [the band’s original drummer; he died of complications from diabetes on May 11, 2008]. Were you still in touch with John? It’s always been a bit of a mystery what he was up to after leaving the band. Did he ever come to a Rush show after leaving the band? Did he and Neil ever meet or hang out?

Alex: No, I’m not so sure Neil and John ever met. I can’t remember if he ever came out to a gig. He might have, but he never came backstage or anything. After he left the band, we saw each other a little bit, you know once in a while when we were back home, at a party, or at somebody’s place where he happened to be. It wasn’t like there was a falling out or anything. He didn’t want to do what we were doing, so he quit. In fact, that last year, in 1973, we had a substitute drummer for a while because John was really sick. We had some gigs we had to play, and so we had this substitute drummer. Jerry Fielding was his name.

And then John came back in, but when the prospect of touring and all of these things that were suddenly happening, all of these good opportunities, he just wasn’t into it, which was really odd at the time, because we were so excited about it – it was a dream come true, but he didn’t really want to be a part of it. So, once he’d decided to leave the band, we had a couple of month’s worth of club gigs that we did, and we had a riot. We had a great time together. John and I were childhood friends, but after we left, we left a lot of stuff when we hit the road. We were gone a lot. It changed the whole nature of the relationship with a lot of our friends at that time who were moving on and getting married or whatever. It kind of changed all of that.

I saw John over the next several years once in a while, through about 1976, and then I didn’t see him or hear from him for about ten years, and then we sort of reconnected for a little while…for a couple of months I was off and we worked out together and went to dinner a couple of times, and then I lost touch with him again for another three or four years. And then I didn’t really hear from him since about 1991 - I got one phone call in all of that time.

And with Ged, it was even less communication. I don’t think he and Ged really had any connection for probably the last 30 years. I mean, that’s the way it goes. There were no hard feelings or anything – everybody just moved on with their lives. We were very saddened to hear that he passed away. It was inevitable with him – he had juvenile diabetes, and it took its toll, as it does, unfortunately, for many people. And it was sad, as it always is, to hear of a friend of yours passing away. But, to be honest we weren’t really that close.

Skip: There is a rumor currently going around, and I’m guessing I know how you’re going to answer this, but there’s a rumor going around that the next Rush tour will be the last. Is it too early for you to confirm or dispel this?

Alex: Well, first of all - what do you think I would say?

Skip: What I think you’ll say is “Well, we’re just off of a long tour, so right now we’re just concentrating on resting, and we don’t make plans that far ahead…”

Alex: There you go. Rumors are rumors. I guess that’s an easy rumor to get started.

Skip: It’s probably been a yearly rumor since around 1985.

Alex: You know, we did 120 shows. We are beat. We’ve worked really hard since the time off that we had when Neil was getting through that hard time in his life. We’ve worked solidly from 2001 until now. We’ve done, what, four tours, and a bunch of dvds, four records, I mean we’ve really worked hard and we want to take a break. We’re tired. So, we’re going to take a year off, at least. We’re not going to do anything until next fall, at the earliest. Now, Ged and I might, in the spring or sometime, get together – we’re only five minutes away from each other, and we get bored, and we like to sit down…we love writing together – we might just casually do some writing, and who knows – that might get the juices flowing and we’ll get going.

But, I have a feeling that we’re not going to do anything until next fall. Now, we’re planning stuff. We have a list of things that we’re very, very excited about doing. That includes touring, that includes a record, and that includes a lot of different things. So, we just want a little break, and we’re completely dedicated to the idea of continuing working. Who knows when the last tour will be – maybe the last tour was the last tour!? You just never know where life takes you – that’s one thing we’ve learned. But, we’re certainly making lots of plans for the future, and I don’t think it’s going to be anytime soon that we’re going to be retiring.

Fly By Night

Fly By Night

Skip: In terms of outside interests, you’ve been a licensed pilot, and avid golfer, a SCUBA diver, a painter, and an inventor. Are you still active with all of these things? What do you do these days when your get bored with your guitar?

Alex: Well, I kind of shift in winter. Living in Canada, it’s hard to play golf in December, so I kind of shift from golf to tennis. Geddy and I are both avid tennis players, and we probably spend five days a week at the club playing, doing clinics, and running around on the court. I don’t do too much SCUBA diving, just haven’t had the opportunity.

My kids are older. We used to do annual diving trips, but now that they’re out on their own, we don’t seem to make that effort, or just don’t have the opportunity like we used to. Flying, I love flying, but again that was something that I had less and less time to do, and I think it’s something that requires your full attention. I go once in a while. I have some friends with some small planes, and we tool around for the fun of it, but not too much of that these days.

I’ve got two grand kids that I spend a great deal of time with. I love being a part of their education and their development, so I do spend a lot of time with them. I’ve been so motivated and inspired lately to really start working on my studio, spending more time there, and working with other artists. I’ve been slowly compiling a list of people that I’m going to meet with.

Skip: As in, doing some production-type work?

Alex: Yeah. It’s been tough times for producers lately, and I’d kind of lost the drive, but I don’t know, lately I’ve been really fired up about it again, and I’ve been listening to some stuff that has come through our office from some artists that sound very interesting and very diverse. So, that’s something I think I might like to get into, since I have the year off.

* * *

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