This week on BBC Rock Hour, we feature an interview with the elusive Alex Lifeson, lead guitarist and composer for the rock band Rush. Let's join John Seargent and his very special guest, Alex Lifeson, as they discuss the bands nine album history.
Rush is a sort of unusual group, right? You've been around for six, seven years now?
Well actually, the band's been together for thirteen, but we've been touring the States for the last seven, and we made personnel changes. Neil joined the band then. So yeah, really it has only been seven years.
Yeah, but you said thirteen years?
Yeah, thirteen. The band started in September of 1968, and we played basically high schools and drop-in centers and things like that for the first few years. Then the drinking age in Ontario, the province that we lived in, from 21 to 18, and that opened a whole new avenue to us. Also, there were all kinds of rock clubs that weren't there before, and that's really the point where I think we became professional and we gut steady work, and we'd all just turned 18, so we could play the bars!
How did you get together?
High school. John (Rutsey) and I had known each other since we were ten. We lived across the street from each other, and Geddy, I met in school, in junior high and we just got together and fooled around and thought we'd make a go of it.
Were you emulating someone at the time?
Yeah, there were a lot of people around then that we were into - Cream, Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall - people like that. Mostly the English blues scene of the late sixties, and then Led Zeppelin was a big influence on us later.
There's only been this last album really, for the American audiences right?
Well 'Moving Pictures' did take off, but I think probably '2112' was the turning point as far as establishing something in the U.S. for ourselves, and since then it's been a gradual climb. The last two albums, 'Permanent waves' and 'Moving Pictures' have taken big jumps. There was a gradual climb with each album and it seemed that with 'Permanent Waves' that it went a little bit beyond what we'd expected and it sort of caught us off guard. And I suppose we expected the same jump with this album, but again, it exceeded what we'd expected - which is a nice surprise.
Why did that happen?
I don't know. I guess I like to think that the music is getting better with each album. I think the production on this album is by far our best. All the sounds are very clear, and they have all the power that we've always wanted to have, and like, maintain a good balance of instruments. It's just what you really want the mix to sound like, and I think we've achieved that on this album. With each album, you sort of listen to it and then a month after you think of all the things you could've done or should've done and this one has lasted a lot longer, even now when I listen to it, I'm quite happy with it. So I guess the combination of that and maybe a few catchy songs has made it a little more accessible for people that weren't really into the band before.
You say catchy songs?
Yeah, 'Tom Sawyer' I think, seems to be an apparently catchy song. Not that we thought of it like that when we recorded it. I don't even remember when we were getting the stuff together to go back on the road, that wasn't...one of our favorite songs to play off the new album.
'Rush' came out in '74. It was released in Canada in March '74 and then here (U.S.A.) in August, and that took about a year to record. We were a little tight for cash. There was nobody interested in recording the band at that time. Ray (Daniels), our Manager, went to other companies two or three times trying to get deals. Nobody wanted to hear about us, so we decided that we'd do it on our own. And we saved up a little cash did some gigs, that sort of thing, then go in the studio for the day and wait 'til we'd built up enough again to go back to the studio.
We were going in when the rates were a bit cheaper. We'd finish a gig at 1:30, pack up, go to the studio until about 8 or 9:00, and the crew would take our gear back to the club, set it up and we'd go down and play. If we were lucky enough, we'd do that for two nights in a row. I think we had two nights off in a row a total of three times in the course of 5 or 6 months.
When was the last time you listened to that album?
Oh, I can't remember. It's been a long time - years!
Oh yeah. I can't imagine playing that album at home.
Do you remember a tune off it?
I remember a lot of tunes. I remember how to play everything. We still do a couple of songs from that album.
Well we still do 'Working Man', which is an ancient song for us, but it's more in a medley now. It's cut down from about ten minutes to about two minutes.
What was the first major success?
It was '2112', which was our fourth album. That was really the turning point. That was the one that really took off. The album previous to that 'Caress Of Steel' was not a success commercially, but artistically it was a very important album for us. It was a stepping-stone for us and we tried out some ideas that we needed to test, to see if we could do them. Working in a concept mode, using one side of an album for one theme throughout a whole side and continuing another mini concept, the 'By-Tor' story that we had started on the second album. By-Tor was a character from one of the songs on the second album called 'By-Tor And The Snow Dog'. They were just two characters, there was a mythical battle that they were having, these two characters. But we continued it in the third album. So there were all these little things that we wanted to try out and maybe it didn't come off in the sense that it worked commercially, but we learned a lot from it.
It was a very low point after that album was released. We were getting a lot of static from the record company and it really didn't look very good, and we had to decide - "Well, do we pack it in, or do we do what everybody has to do and become really commercial, or do we do just what WE want to do?" and we decided on that and came back with '2112' - came back with a vengeance. The album has a lot of energy on it and it comes on really strong and powerful. There's a lot of anger on that album and it shows. All the playing is aggressive, the sound is aggressive and it really kind of cooks and pushes through a lot of the material on the album.
'2112' and then what did you do?
Then there was a live album, 'All The World's A Stage'. It sort of ended an era in the band. We had four albums out and we wanted to pursue some other things at that point. There was talk about adding another member. We decided not to add another member. We decided to take on the other instruments ourselves. Geddy started playing synthesizers, Neil added a lot of percussion stuff to his kit and I started playing bass synthesizers and double-neck guitars and that whole thing, just to add a little more dimension to the sound. Geddy spent weeks and weeks just sitting in the tuning room figuring out all the ins and outs of the mini Moog that he had, the synthesizer that he had, and working on a little line that we could fit into a song which was 'Xanadu' which came out on 'A Farewell To Kings' which followed the live album. So the live album really ended that phase of the three piece, the purist three piece of bass, drums and guitar, and then we moved on to opening up the sound a little more, experimenting with different instruments. That was 'A Farewell To Kings' and from that album we went to 'Hemispheres' which again was a concept piece and that album was a killer album to do.
It took us three months. It was hard work. We went to England for two weeks to write the album; we had no material. When we toured we went over to write it. The day we finished rehearsals, we weren't even quite finished the album. We went into the studio, we finished about 5 a.m., the crew got up at about 8 a.m., packed the gear, moved it down to the studio which was a couple of miles down the road. We came in around one or two in the afternoon and started working right away and we worked at it, we didn't take any days off. We worked really long hours. We got to a point where we just got so frustrated that we did finally just cool it after dinner. Nobody wanted to go back into the studio and we went out and got very drunk and we really needed to do that! And then of course, got back into it the following day.
We had hoped to finish a bit early in the studio. We had five days off between studio time in Wales and studio mixing time in London, and Neil had planned on going to Egypt and I was going to go to Yugoslavia and we made all those great plans for those five days. As it happened, we ran over. We killed the whole five days - we were still in the studio. We went to London and started mixing, and the mixes were just not happening. Finally Terry 13:09 9/27/2011 (Brown), our producer, he thought we were going crazy. He took the tapes of the songs that we'd mixed and he ran around three or four different studios. He finally ended up in Trident and said: "Look, can I just come in and have an hour just to listen to this please?" and they gave us the time. He went in and suddenly everything that was wrong with the mix was apparent. We went in and started mixing and everything was cleared up and we settled down and it was okay. We had a handle on it and we knew what was wrong, we knew what we had to do.
We finished the album and came home after three very long months. So that album it's, it's a hard album to listen to, I mean it sounds okay, but you know you can't help but think of all those days and all those short nails - biting nails and stuff.
What's the most indicative thing when you listen to it. If you listen to it?
Well, I personally like 'The Trees' a lot. I like the feel, especially the middle section, but I'd say the whole of 'Hemispheres' side, it really captured the mood, certainly, of our time there, for me anyway. When I hear it, I can feel it on my skin. We really felt like we sweated on that album and there was no unhappiness, it was a relief to finish it after three months. To give you an example, the following album 'Permanent Waves', when we did that, we did it in Montreal. It was the first album, in a couple of albums, that we'd done at home, and we recorded it just north of Montreal at Le Studio. We had five weeks booked recording time. We figured that we could probably do it in that time. We were a little more prepared. We rented a farm a couple of months before, we went up for a month and wrote the material...Oh, actually two and a half weeks, went out on the road for a month, rehearsed it, got back into shape and went into the studio and had a riot. We worked every day from about eleven in the morning 'til about two the following morning. So we were on fairly scheduled hours, rather than with 'Hemispheres' we'd go in around one or two in the afternoon, work 'til seven or eight in the morning, then it got progressively later and later, to the point where we were waking up at eight o'clock at night; your first meal would be dinner, then you'd go and work in the studio until two o'clock the next afternoon. That got crazy! We were on that schedule (for 'Permanent Waves').
We finished about a week and a half early. We've NEVER finished early on an album. We were finished early, we were in great spirits, it was fun to do. We were getting basic backing tracks done in one day rather than three days, and we breezed through it. Then we went to England and mixed at Trident again. We had two weeks booked, we finished in nine days, and we breezed through that. It was a whole different feel about that album and working on that album and of course it reflects. You're just satisfied at the end of it, but you go home feeling a little happier.
Do you work all this stuff out on the road first?
No, never. We don't do any writing on the road. The last album and the one before 'Permanent Waves' and 'Moving Pictures' we, well 'Permanent Waves' we decided that "Let's go to the studio and write an album in two weeks", 'cause it's never complete! When you record it, you finish recording and you go: "I play this a lot better now than I did then", and we like to take our holidays, don't think about it at all, and then rent some time in a really nice location and work for a few weeks writing the material, then go on the road and get the fingers back into shape, get the material into shape, refine it and really learn how to play it and go directly into the studio, take maybe three or four days off, go in the studio and bang, bang, bang, bang, just put everything down, and that's what happens. You get basic tracks done in the matter of a day, and it's a great feeling, you go in early in the morning, and you get a basic track done, and you go to bed knowing you've finished one song.
Everybody says you're a hard band to get along with!
We can be, I think. We're not rude or anything, it's just that if we don't have to do an interview, we'd rather not do them. I'd rather sit in my room or go out for a drive, than sit and talk about the band quite honestly, and I think we all feel like that. There are times when you do them and obviously we've been sitting here talking, and it's been really nice, but there are times when you just, you don't want to be in that world. If you know what I mean? I got my pilots license in January and I fly whenever I get a chance. On a day off I'll go out and I'll go for a check ride, then I'll go wherever, if there's some place nice to look around or fly to another airport nearby.
Do you rent a plane?
Yeah, and that's really something that I love doing. It has absolutely nothing to do with the band or with this lifestyle. And I get up at eight o'clock, and I have a shower and have a nice breakfast, and I get up to the airport early and think airplanes all day, and it's really great. It's nice to have that escape and that's exactly what it is for me, an escape.
Do you like cars?
Yeah, I had a really nice Jag. It's kinda funny; we decided a long time ago, if we ever got to the point where we could afford it, the first thing the band was gonna do, is buy nice cars for everybody. I was still living in an apartment up in a suburb of Toronto, and I got a Jag - I had an XJS, and Neil had a Mercedes SL and Geddy got a Porsche. We were all pretty much in the same boat, living in apartments and stuff, with these flashy cars. Of course, the only way we could afford them was that the band was paying for it. The band - that entity out there somewhere that covers you. Unfortunately mine was stolen recently and smashed to pieces.
And no insurance I'll bet right?
No, I had insurance. That's another story!
So you like to speed, is that it?
I like fast cars, I like fast airplanes. I tend to drive fast. It keeps me a little more alert and on my toes.
Well, thank you.
I'll let you take off to your planes!
Okay, yes. I guess I should get going.
Fast planes, fast cars and fast women!