Interview with Alex Lifeson

By Ted Veneman, Harmonix, January/February 1983

[Transcribers Note: This is an interview conducted by Ted Veneman, the owner of Veneman Music in Rockville, Maryland. He and Alex had been friends for many years - you will still find images of Rush in the store. The music store published a music paper / ad supplement for quite a few years (I don't think they do any longer) called "Harmonix" in which this interview appeared. On the front page there is a photo of Alex on stage with his black strat; within the body of the interview are five photos of Alex during the interview (wearing a T-shirt from The Commons). The interview took place during the Signals tour.

Remember that Ted Veneman is a music store owner and NOT a journalist - the interview is reproduced here (without permission) exactly as it appears in the paper - punctuation, grammar, and the rest. I hope you enjoy it.

Alex Lifeson, Rush's dynamic guitarist, was raised in Toronto, Canada and began his career much the same as everyone else -- from basements to bars and eventually, after many years of hard work, to the concert stage. He is talented, yet down-to-earth and quite unaffected by his success.

Alex and I had talked about doing an interview for nearly a year. Actually, we both prefer to call it a conversation that took place on tape. Over the years he's done many interviews, all of which brought up the same old questions: How old were you when you started playing ... who were your major influences ... what do you like about this guitar ... etc., etc. He really wasn't interested in another typical interview and frankly, I wasn't either so I suggested that we just have a conversation with the tape rolling. We don't see each other that often so it was a convenient way to catch up on lost time. Our conversation runs the gamut from life on the road to cars and food and even the space shuttle. I hope you enjoy this different look at one of rock's finest players, a real gentleman and good friend.

You were saying that you can't wait for this leg of the tour to be over. What are you going to do?

It ends on the 15th of December and I welcome the rest that's coming. We've been away so much. Actually the problem is we went down and spent a week on Neil's boat in the Virgin Islands. So that put us two months away from home.

That's not a bad way to be away from home.

No, it was great. We had a riot and it's a fantastic thing to do. But, had we been home at some point in there and then gone away and done that, it would have been different. I mean we had a great time. I don't know if we'll get around to doing it again but it was fantastic and we all got really close on the boat and drank more and laughed more -- I think we had the record of non-stop laughter. But like I said, it was tough not being home. Everybody's got families and we'd like to spend some time at home. Then we played in Toronto and that was really crazy. It's always crazy when we play at home. The backstage area is packed, there are ten thousand people backstage that you haven't seen in a while. It's a tough thing to deal with. I don't feel relaxed at all.

So, even when you're home it's almost like being away.

I mean even being home for one week once a month there's so much stuff you have to catch up on that you really have to get your scheduling together and decide how much time you are going to spend with your family or what time you are going to allot for your family so you will not be distracted by anything else. That's tough when there is so much to do. But listen to me complain. It's not that bad. It's all relative.

A lot of people would trade places with you in a minute.


What do you think you'll do when it's all over? Have you thought about that?

I don't know. I've been working on the studio at home and I'm just ironing out the last few bugs in electronic things. I'd certainly like to try my hand at a solo project, which I've been saying for quite some time now. We've worked together for so long that it's not easy to just sit down by yourself and write everything. There isn't someone to bounce your ideas off of or to tell you whether it stinks or whether it's a valid idea worth pursuing. That's another thing that takes time and patience.

I remember you talked about a solo album. Did you sort of put that on hold?

Yeah, it's on hold. There's just not enough time. I thought I would get some work done on it in the summer because we initially planned on having at least two months, maybe two and a half months, off. As it turned out, "Signals" took a month longer. I got home, I relaxed for the first week. The second week started getting hectic and than we went into rehearsals soon after. Plus, we did a month here and a month there late last fall. It was really hectic getting everything together again, so there was no chance to work on it then. When I'm home for a week I try to get downstairs and work for two or three nights out of the week spending four or five hours after the kids go to bed.

You do everything yourself -- all the parts?

Well, so far I am because it's late at night and I'm not really committed to doing something right now. They are just rough ideas.

Are you playing anything besides guitar?

Well, the synths are out on the road and when we're off the road I usually take them home. Right now I'm using a Roland drum machine and I play bass and guitar. When I get the synths back I'll plug them in and give them a whirl. Having a studio gives you lots of flexibility, but sometimes it's distracting because you get hung up on one little sound or one little effect that you're trying to achieve and you end up spending two or three hours trying to patch it in the right way. In that sense it's distracting, so I try to work on the basic ideas with a Teac 244. I get a good idea and I can do some overdubs on it and it gives me something to listen to for awhile. Then I can put it down on a multitrack if I want. I haven't gotten to that point yet, but a lot of the last album was written like that -- just ideas on a Portastudio. Putting down idea after idea and then, for the fun of it, overdubbing a bass or guitars. I sort of shelved that when we decided to go back to work. We realized that both Geddy and I had done so much work on our own in the meantime. Why not use that for the album? It made writing easier on this last album.

Do you think that the solo effort, when it comes, will be similar to what you're doing now or be radically different?

It's hard to say until you really sit down and do it, until you formulate some kind of concept.

You don't have a concept in your head?

No. I don't. But I think probably the single thing that I do have in mind is something very different. More a rhythmic kind of new music sort of vein. It's hard to say, maybe something a bit jazzy and I'd like to do songs, proper songs, not a really indulgent kind of guitar album. That doesn't really appeal to me.

I think your role in Rush for so long has been a member of the group, not the guitar player per se. It is a group -- everyone contributes and everyone has to gel.

That's certainly the way I look at it.

Listening to Rory Gallagher tonight -- the band's built around him and Rory stands there and just tears up the guitar. That's great, but that's his way of doing it.

Exactly. That wouldn't work in the context of this band. I think it helps that everyone sort of diversified. We went into keyboards and a little more percussion for Neil. Bass pedals for me. It shifts the focus a little on what you're doing and makes it more of a band effort.

Do you think you'll sing on your solo effort?

I'd love to try.

Are you a shower singer?

It's kind of weird with me. I've got excellent pitch I must say. I can heart something if it's out of tune even slightly. I have that ability. Even something that's slightly out of tune can be very jarring to my ear. But when it comes to singing, I can't get into pitch. It's just very difficult for me. I just don't lock in on it. Maybe it's a physical inability.

I've often wondered why over a period of so many albums that Geddy sings exclusively. Why hasn't someone else experimented?

We have. We've tried. But it just hasn't worked out. Maybe in the future. Maybe some coaching will help. Again it's a factor of time. But then again, I'm sure it wouldn't hurt to go for two or three weeks during a summer break or a winter break. Maybe two or three times a week -- I've got my studio at home -- go down there, lock the door and practice.

Everytime I see you, you're constantly changing. I mean personally. You're growing, expanding, trying new things. Maybe singing will be the next thing.

It would certainly add another dimension to the band and Geddy wouldn't mind sharing the load. I know that.

You once said, and this is a quote, "We're not out to be stars. We're just out doing what we like doing." Do you still feel that way?

Oh yeah, that's the way we've always thought about things. You know us pretty well, and even though we don't see each other often I think you can sense that. With the crew it's family. It's indicative of the way we feel about what we do. Aside from the pressure, the stress and anxiety that are a part of long tours, we really enjoy what we do and we try to do it the best we can. Not so that we end up number one in the polls or go on some kind of trip. We just really enjoy what we do, and we're normal people.

Do you consider yourself a star?

No, the thought embarrasses me. It's weird, that's my reaction. Really, for all of us, the adulation that comes with doing this -- it's embarrassing at times.

Do you find that you're detached from the adulation?

I don't know because it has always been like that for us. I suppose you can only go by what you see in other bands and how they react to that kind of thing. I try to make and effort to be polite and try to take some time and talk to people, because I know it's important. It was important to me when I was in their shoes.

Like it or not, you're now an influence. There's a certain responsibility. You can say screw them, let them buy the records.

Yeah, you do that and people never forget that. They never forget that one exchange they had with you.

I think your audience on an average is at an impressionable age. A lot of people would categorize your audience as being a little on the restless, perhaps a little on the violent side. How do you feel about that?

I don't know if I really agree with that. Perhaps in the first few years that we started getting some kind of notoriety, that was possibly the case. But now our audience seems to be subdued but very energetic. You look at an audience that goes to a Van Halen concert for instance. I realize that there's a cross between our audience and their audience, but on the whole their audience is much more fired up. The whole gist of a band like that is different than what we're about. With us, I think, possibly our music is a little more important and people come to see the band play.

How do you feel about the readers' polls in musicians' magazines?

It's flattering for one thing, especially in the case of "Guitar Player," because it really is your peers. On the other hand, I don't know if I'm really worthy of that kind of position.

I remember "Guitar World" magazine did you on the cover and said, "Alex Lifeson -- is he too good for rock?" Did they tell you they were going to do that?

Oh, no. For that I did an interview with John Swenson in the hotel room and that was that. I don't think I even knew I would be on the cover of that particular issue. That's something they do to catch your eye. To go back to polls, with a lot of people you get in a position where you become very popular and people think, "Yeah, I like that band and that's the guitar player. I'll put his name down because he's pretty good." It's all so relative. You go into some bar and you hear a guitar player that makes you feel guilty that you're not in your room practicing ten hours a day.

Since you don't consider yourself a star, do you consider yourself successful?

Oh, certainly. We've considered ourselves successful for a long time. It depends on how you measure success. We felt we were successful for a long time before we had any kind of financial satisfaction. We were hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. It was difficult to pay rent but we had control over what we were doing at least. We had control over the way we wanted to project ourselves and in that we found a lot of satisfaction. It's nice to have the money but we worked hard for it. We were quite happy with what we had before we had any kind of financial success and that's really only been a fairly recent thing. It's very difficult when you're touring to make money.

Just from touring, it's true. A lot of expenses.

A lot of expenses! You have a crew of thirty people that you're taking care of and they add up. If you're not willing to work a lot, then there's no way you're going to come off the road in the black. Even though we worked a lot we had to break a lot of ground for ourselves.

Where haven't you played that you'd like to play?

Japan is one place. Actually, Japan is about the only place.

Why haven't you played in Japan?

We just haven't had the time. It takes us a good six or seven months to tour in North America. We have to do Europe for about a month and then a couple of months off and then recording. So we haven't been able to get that together. Plus, we've gone through some record company changes in Japan. It's different to go over and blow a couple hundred thousand dollars doing a weeks worth of dates there.

Is that all it would be -- a week?

For our first tour without any kind of record company support.

Does that mean that you're not that strong in Japan as far as record sales?

We're not as strong in Japan as we are in North America or England, but I think that if we went over we could probably do a lot for the tour and break a lot of ground.

A lot of groups have taken the reverse philosophy and decided to start in Japan.

Or go there as a last ditch effort to stay alive.

Are you still allergic to Japanese food?

I am, but I eat it anyway. Who cares. I got a twenty or thirty pound tuna that my brother-in-law got in Vancouver and brought frozen to Toronto. We sliced it up, bought the proper rice and made sushi. It was fantastic.

This is a very bourgeois question, but why does the band drink only Dom Perignon?

We really don't. It just happens that we got a deal on Dom and we bought Dom. Everybody is very budget conscious this tour and rather than going through promoters or in-house caterers, we stock our own and eliminate it from the rider.

How elaborate is your rider?

Ours is not very elaborate really. I suppose some promoters would say it probably is, but ours is quite straight forward. All we ask for is meals for the crew; breakfast and lunch when they're loading in; fruit, vegetables, nuts for us and then after the show some hot hors d'oeuvres.

I've seen some riders where they've asked for a sit-down dinner for fifty.

That doesn't happen much anymore.

When you're on tour are you responsible for any kind of advertising? As an example, the last week before you arrived in Washington, two popular rock stations were both claiming each was the official welcoming station for Rush.

That's totally outside of what we do.

They claimed they had interviews lined up, etc. I don't know who they're interviewing, but I don't think it's the guys in the band.

No. I can tell you it's not.

I imagine there was a time in your career when radio stations were important.

Yeah, they were. Or at least they were made out to be important to us. A lot of times we went to a station and did an interview and they didn't play any of our songs because we weren't on rotation at that station. For a long time we did anything that we had to do and then we made it a policy that we would only go to stations that supported us. We went to those stations for a few tours and now there's just no time, so we don't really do those types of interviews. We do some newspaper and telephone interviews. We haven't done an interview at a radio station in years.

On the new album, it seemed that you guys had a baseball theme. Explain that to me.

There's a bar called "The Commons." It's in an old hotel in Morin Heights and it is really the only bar in town. It is a crazy raging place and in the number of years we've recorded up there we've gotten to know the people who work at the bar. They have a girls softball team so when we got up there they challenged us to a game. Everybody got baseball gloves -- we got all set up for this game. We had a bit of field practice and we played them a game and we beat them. Then the guys team offered to play us. All of a sudden we got a little too busy. (Laughs) So it started there and then when we were doing the credits we thought let's put in everybody's position from that game, and that's exactly what we did.

You also mentioned Warren Cromartie, who is a player for the Montreal Expos.

Warren Cromartie, oddly enough, was really into the band and through some friends in Montreal called and asked if we'd mind much if he came up to the studio while we were recording. So he came up and we met him. He was really into the band and we were really into the Expos. Geddy's a baseball nut and he was well aware of Warren.

Is he a musician.

Yeah -- he's a pretty good drummer. Neil, of course, is a great influence. He came out on the road with us for a few days in Chicago and St. Louis and we've become good friends.

Another thing on the album that seemed to be a real influence for you was the Space Shuttle launch.

Oh, yeah.

I know you flew down there to see it. It obviously made quite an impression.

It was incredible. We went down there the first day and, of course, they postponed the launch and we went back down a couple of days later and watched the launch. It was an amazing thing -- an amazing sight to witness. I've never heard anything so loud in my life. Your pants are flapping, you could feel the ground vibrating and this was three miles away. That's the closest you could get. We decided right then that on the next album we'd like to do something. We've become good friends with a couple of people at NASA that have been really helpful. I think you were here when Gerry Griffin was down. I guess it was the last time we were here. He's a director at NASA. They've been very cooperative and quite friendly.

They've provided you with some excellent footage.

Yes, they did. It's not easy to get that kind of footage. It's very difficult. I know Carl Sagan had a problem looking for some footage.

Was it just a matter of asking?

Gerry knew that we were writing a song about the space shuttle. Like I said he's been very, very cooperative all along the way with any information that we've wanted from NASA. Our office approached him about possibly getting some film and they said, "No problem." They got it all together and we had it like that.

A lot of people have gotten on a waiting list to go on the shuttle. Would you go?

I'd love to. It would be great. It is something that can't be written off because of budget cuts. It is really an important project.

Are you still flying?

Not as much as I like to. I haven't flown in about a month. I'd like to get my instrument rating but I'd like to be a lot more current on it. I'd like to be able to keep it up.

Have you started working on it?

Actually I have about ten or twelve hours instrument time logged on fairly big twins. I have some hood time, but I'm not really current on all that.

When are you going to start flying the band around?

That's a heavy responsibility. At the end of the night you don't really feel like sitting down and getting your flight plan together. Plus it takes a lot out of you and if it is a long three or four flight and you're going through lousy weather, who wants to really deal with that. We have the busses and they're comfortable.

Have either Geddy or Neil flown with you, just the two or three of you?

No, but they've flown in the aircraft when I've been flying with a co-pilot. We flew to St. Catharines once in a Cherokee and we went up to Neil's and hung out for the day. When he drove us back to the airport we said let's go up -- you fly the plane. He's not too keen on flying. He flew the airplane and he really got off on it. We just flew around for half an hour and he really enjoyed it, but that's the only time we've ever done anything like that.

Geddy stays on the ground?

Pretty much. He's not afraid of flying or anything. He drives his turbo.

What are you driving these days?

Actually, I'm shopping around for an "E" Type. Something that I can work on as a project car. I've always enjoyed doing that. I've had cars that I've taken apart and worked on myself.

The British syndrome.

Yeah, you have to. I had two MG's that were like that -- constantly working on them. But the "E" Type is a very sensuous car.

You're still not a big German car fan?

Well, I have two German cars now. I drive a Mercedes and we have a second one.

You told me once you thought the seats were too hard.

Teutonic seats! I like the car. It's a great car and extremely reliable but to get into something that's hot, fast, outside of something like a Porsche; I'm not really too keen on Porsches. I like and respect them and I admire them, but I don't think I'd want to own one. It is just a matter of personal taste. I've had English cars and I like the smell of the leather and way they feel and sound. It's quite different.

I should probably get going.

Listen, I really appreciate this.

Finally we did it -- it was great. It was just too bad it had to get so late. We started getting into some good things.

I'm going to make you a star Alex!