It's a funny thing - We got out there over the week-end, but we forgot about the World Series. Geddy, Alex, and Neil scored tickets from a scalper (what else is there to do in Milwaukee in October?) The Brewers won, the concert was great, and then ... Geddy disappeared. Oh, well. Neil and Alex were real cooperative, and we hope you enjoy their words of wisdom in this month's cover story.
The term 'progressive ' has been overused to the point of extinction. Every new act is a 'progressive band' that is 'opening new doors to the music of the (pick one): '80s, '90s, etc ...'
But, logically speaking, a progressive band should be one that does just that - progress and grow over a period of time, and a number of recordings.
RUSH has done this. Pegged for years as a typical Heavy Metal power trio ignored by "serious musicians", the band has evolved and grown musically until today, when Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart, and Geddy Lee can safely be considered three of the most accomplished players in Rock. The music has developed into a well-thought-out mix of art-Rock lyrics. A Heavy Metal energy and avant-garde time signatures, played with considerable technical virtuosity.
Upon the release of the first album, RUSH, the group toured the US and Canada, backing up bands like Kiss, Aerosmith, and Uriah Heep. It wasn't until the release of their third disc [sic], 2112, that Rush finally began to achieve the kind of mass acceptance and popularity for which they were striving.
As the technical aspects of the playing improved, the music changed drastically, the most noticeable evidence of this coming upon the release of Moving Pictures. The album was a breakthrough, eventually climbing to number 3 on the US charts (no mean feat for a Canadian band.) In fact, the song "Limelight" reached the top 20, and " YYZ" was nominated for a Grammy in 1982 as Best Rock Instrumental. This was a tighter, more technical Rush - a band with a style all their own.
The release of the newest album, Signals, marks another change, another direction for Rush. The LP debuted at number eight, and last time we looked, had climbed to number five.
IM&RW caught up to the band in Milwaukee, WI during their recent tour. Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart had some time to spend with us, and we talked about their views on playing, learning, music, and where Rush has been, is, and where they're headed.
When and where did you meet up with Rush?
Everyone asks that question. Don't ask that. Ask something else?
OK, what were you doing before you got involved with Rush?
Mostly just doing some studio work, and playing around in different bands. I didn't do any studio work for people you'd recognize.
How long have you been playing drums?
About 17 years.
Did you ever take any lessons?
No, I used to just play along to records and the radio.
Were you a heavy practiser? Locking yourself in your room for hours on end - that sort of thing?
I didn't practise or rehearse, I played. There's a big difference. Practising and rehearsing is working. I wasn't working, I was playing. I love to play. It's the people who think it's work who won't ever get anywhere. They'll never have the self-satisfaction of trying to live up to their own expectation.
Who were some of your influences along the way?
Everyone I listened a then was an influence on me. In fact, even people I listen to now influence me. I used to like to listen to Bill Bruford, John Bonham, guys like that. And Keith Moon - I liked him a lot. I thought he was an incredibly original drummer. I guess, though, I really listened to anybody and everybody.
The title track of 2112 was based upon a work by Ayn Rand. Do you tend to draw heavily on literary sources when writing lyrics? Who else do you read?
I like to read everything. I just like to read. I usually read a book every two days. It's where a lot of my lyric ideas come from but not all. I get a lot of my ideas by just listening to music.
I understand there were some problems in recording the album All the World's a Stage. What were they?
Look, that was five years ago. That's ancient history.
OK ... that album preceded your first European tour. How was the band received overseas?
We were greeted very well.
Any noticeable differences between European and American or Canadian audiences?
You can't just compare people like that - you can't make a generalization concerning 200,000 people.
A Farewell to Kings seemed to mark a major change for Rush, musically. Were you attempting to expand on the 2112 sound?
No. Actually, we were trying to get away from that 2112 sound. With 2112, we had reached a certain plateau - with A Farewell to Kings, we were aiming to get above that plateau.
What was the concept behind Cygnus X-I? Why was it made into a two-part story?
Well, I made it into a kind of 'space odyssey', with a black hole scheme I came up with. It became a two part thing because we ran out of room. Literally. We used up our 10 minutes, and I still had plenty more left. So, we just said, "Oh, well - we'll put it on the next one."
On the latest album, Signals, there is an incredibly complicated cut titled, "The Weapon". Did you have any difficulty with this tune?
Well , when Ged and Alex were working out this strange rhythmic pattern on the machine, which I then had to duplicate. It seemed as if I had to play backwards - my right hand had to do what my left hand usually did, and vice versa. Meanwhile I had to do a completely different thing on the kick drum. Imagine! Being reduced to learning from a machine! (laughs).
What's your favorite track on the new album?
My favorite to play is "Subdivisions", but I think if I was just a listener and not a player, my favorite song would be "Digital Man". It has that nice 'ska' rhythm.
What bands do you listen to these days?
I like a lot of bands. A lot of the newer stuff is great. Like King Crimson, Talking Heads, Japan ... people like that.
When did you switch from using Slingerland to Tama drums and why?
I made the change just after the Hemispheres album. I guess I switched because I didn't really like the sound I was getting from the Slingerlands ... I was looking for that deeper, sharper, Gretsch-type sound.
What about cymbals?
Zildjians. I tried Paiste for a while, but they sounded a bit tinny to me. The Zildjians have a much wider frequency response. They sound better, and I think the people at Zildjian really take pride in what they do.
What do you need to be a member of a band like Rush?
You need the decisiveness and the discipline to decide what you want to play, the technique to be able to play it, and the flexibility of character and generosity of personality to be able to interrelate with other creative musicians. The reason why a lot of bands and a lot of musicians don't survive is because their characters are incompatible with the rest of the human race.
Well, a lot of musicians get into music to combat an inferiority complex. It's true of myself, and many other people I know.
Is music an effective way to deal with a problem like that, do you think?
Unfortunately, some people overcompensate by becoming so egotistical, so narrow-minded, and so prejudiced that they ignore all other kinds of music, except for whatever they happen to be involved in in their little corner of the world. Eventually, no musician can stand to play with them.
Well, they're bitter at the world, because they're a wasted talent.
Can we talk a little about your views on how Rush started - the whole bit?
Well, the band started in September of 1968, which seems like years ago (laughs).
It was ...
We were all going to school at the time, and we were basically playing gigs on weekends. We worked two Fridays out of the month, for $25.00 a night. That carried on until around Christmas of '68, and we started to get a few more gigs. You know, the Junior High School, Drop-In Centers, things like that. We got another member in the band at that time - John Lindsey was his name, and he played keyboards and guitar. He was in the band up 'til spring of '69, at which point the band broke up for a few months.
Yeah, well, we got back together again and carried on from then basically up until 1974, getting more and more gigs. Let's see, the drinking age was lowered in 1971, I think, in Ontario, from 21 to 18. So, all of a sudden, we went from playing high schools to playing bars. It was much more full time at that point.
Had the band obtained its own sound system at that point?
Well, we had sort of a sound system. Traynor cubes, Peaveys with 1 x 12" speaker in each, Shure Vocalmaster PA - that sort of thing... We slowly built it up, though - got a couple more cabinets, a bit more power. Everything had to be gradual. I mean, we were making $800 a week for the whole band, and we had to cover the usual expenses - agency fees and that sort of thing.
What was the next step?
We carried on gigging, until we decided - with our management - that it was finally time to record some material. So, we started working on the first album, basically after gigs in bars. We'd tear down and go to the studio (Eastern Sound) and work until about 8am. We wanted to get the good news at night. At that, our management took the demos we had put together to various record companies to see if they were interested in signing the band.
That never really amounted to anything at all. So, we figured we would have to do it on our own.
What was your next move?
Well, we got some money together, and started our own record company, which is Moon Records, and released the first RUSH record, locally.
How was the reception to that album?
Actually, it did very well, locally. Then, a copy got down to a radio station in Cleveland, WHMS, and they started to give it some play. They got good telephone response to it, and from there we started to get our deal together with Mercury Records.
Were the original Rush personnel still intact at that point?
Well, at that point - the summer of '74 - Neil became a member.
Who did you back on your first tour?
On that first tour we were with - let's see ... Uriah Heep, Manfred Mann - we were special guests, you know?
How did you feel about being on the road for the first time?
Terrified. (laughs) Well, terrified because it was the first couple of gigs, but, you know, being on the road was such a treat - it really was a thrill. Going off to places like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and Cleveland was a real big deal for the first time. It's the first couple of years that are the real thrill. You're playing for 12, 14,000 people a night. The largest crowd we'd ever played to previously was 1,200 people at the Victory Burlesque Theatre in Toronto. And, I mean, 1,200 people at that time was a very nerve-wracking experience. To get in front of 12,000 - my God! Of course, after you get through the first few bars of the first song, you pretty well settle down and get used to it quickly. What was great was just the experience of being out on the road - being with people that we'd admired for a long time. It was really something.
Who were some of your early musical influences, Alex?
Well, right from the start, Cream, The Who, Led Zeppelin ... Hendrix, of course, umm ... Jeff Beck. Of course, I went through different influences as the band progressed.
There seemed to be more than a touch of Allan Holdsworth influenced playing on Moving Pictures. You were making heavy use of fluid runs and arpeggiated figures? Are you heading in that direction?
Well, I think there are a few things like that on that particular album, but I think it was basically an experimental thing. I was just starting to get into the Fender a lot more, and I used the vibrato bar quite a bit. Of course, Allan Holdsworth's a player I've admired for a long time, and I couldn't help but be influenced by him and his use of the vibrato bar - his whole technique, in fact, I think now, though, that my playing has gone more in its own direction, particularly with my use of Fenders.
What about training? Are you self-taught?
Yeah, I'm self-taught. Well, in 1972 I took classical guitar, and I did study that for a few months.
Rush was recording at Toronto Sound for a while, and then switched to Rockfield. Why?
Umm ... we wanted to get away. We wanted to go somewhere that had more of a rural setting, where we could work and not be bothered by anybody - you know, the day to day traffic of being in the city, like getting up and taking a cab to the studio every morning.
So, you escaped to the country.
Well, yeah. Up there it was great. Very bucolic area, very quiet. Of course, we'd never go back now - we know better. But, for a time it was important for us to make that kind of a move, and we enjoyed being in England.
What about now?
Well, we still get that same sort of removed feeling today by going to Le Studio. We're outside of the city there, we're not bothered, we can work without any sort of distractions.
Hemispheres was recorded at Rockfield, and I understand that it was a very difficult album for you to complete. How come?
It was the hardest one we've done. We went over to England two weeks before we were going to record, so that we could begin to write the album. We had nothing written except the verse line to "La Villa Strangiato". So, we got there, set everything up, and started working. We worked a full two weeks and finished quite a lot in one particular morning. At 10 o'clock that same morning, we started in the studio. It was like that for the whole time we were there. We'd hoped to be finished three or four weeks early, as we'd already made plans to do a few things in London, but we ended up going over in the studio by two or three days. It was amazing - we had only one week off the whole time we were over there.
So, the big problem was ...
Well, the material was just written so fast, there was so little time ... it was very hard to work that way.
On that album, you used one of the Roland guitar synths, right?
How'd you like it? Was it your main source of effects?
I didn't like it much, and as a matter of fact, I've gotten rid of the one I had. I have the newer model now - the GR300. I believe the one I was using on Hemispheres was the GR500. I just dabbled with it, I guess. It was something that I was sort of interested in at the time, but it was still very new - in its infancy at the time. As a guitar I didn't think it sounded very good, until I put DiMarzios on it, and that helped quite a bit. It was a hassle to play that guitar.
What about the newer model?
Well, of course, the new generation is much more a guitar than it is a compromise. So, the sounds are a lot more flexible. I prefer to get my effects through more conventional ways.
I use a Boss Chorus, a Loft Analog Delay, a bunch of other effects units.
Do you use any special sequencing for them?
No, not really. I have everything wired so that each unit is out of the circuit until it's punched in.
What is that rather unique pedal unit you were using on stage tonight?
Oh, that. That's a pedal board designed for me by the people who look after my guitars.
What are you using for amplification these days?
I'm using Marshall 100 watt amps. No preamps, no power amps. Very straight.
Tell me, Alex, how was Rush received on the first European tour?
Well, in England it went very, very well. We were going over basically to record, but they did stick a few dates in. I think we surpassed whatever we thought we'd do. So, it was a pleasant surprise for everyone concerned. England has always been very good to us.
You were always known as primarily an ES-335 player. Has that changed now?
I'll tell you - I really enjoy playing the ES line. I've always loved those guitars, and they're second nature to me. I feel very comfortable with them. But I'm at a point now where I'm also very comfortable with the Fenders.
Have you modified your Stratocasters at all?
Well, I've changed the necks, and I've put Gibson pickups on them in the back positions, so they can sound very close to the Gibsons, and the necks are a bit flatter so they feel closer. I do like the use of the vibrato arm, though.
Which axes did you use to record Signals?
All three of my 'Strats, my Howard Roberts Fusion guitars.
Any unusual micing techniques used?
The only really different thing we did with Signals was putting the amplifiers outside the studio, with a few mics on them for the solo to get that beautiful echo off the lake.
Basically the same thing that was done on Permanent Waves?
That's right, yeah.
How do you prefer the action on your instruments?
I would say medium to tight. I don't like strings too slinky, and I don't like the action too close to the neck. I've got big fingers, and if the action's too close-to the neck, they get the strings all fouled up.
The red Strat you were using tonight - isn't that the Fender Special Edition model?
No, it's not. It's a stock Fender, and I had it redone.
When you're recording, do you sit down and work out your solos note by note, or do you just improvise over the parts?
It's all spontaneous. We get the basics down, and then I start working on solos - you know, spend the afternoon trying to find a direction. Once you're locked into a direction, it's just a matter of trying to find out all different sorts of areas you might want to explore with it. Sometimes, you take pieces from different solos, and put it all together to make up a new solo.
Do you have a pick preference?
Well, they're nylon picks, and I've used the same ones for years now - they're made by Kay, and they're almost impossible to find. I got my last shipment about four years ago.
Are you kidding? I bought four gross. I mean, it was so difficult to find them, and I never see them around anymore, now. I've used them for about 10 years.
What about strings?
Continuing on in this trivial mode - do you prefer straight up-and-down picking technique, or do you use a circular motion?
Mostly down. I do a lot of hammers and pulls.
Is your recording equipment basically the same as your on-stage gear?
It is now. It wasn't in the past.
What were you using then?
I used the same stuff as I have now, plus other amps - some HiWatts, a couple of other Marshalls, Mesa Boogie, H/H - I always kept four or five different amps around.
But now you're standardized?
Well, I've had such good luck with the Marshalls ...
How does Rush write songs?
Basically, Neil writes the lyrics and Geddy and I sit down afterwards to write the music. That's the way it's always been done.
Tonight, at least, you seemed to be doing more in the way of singing and playing than I've seen you do in the past. Any special reason?
Well, I've been getting into the Moog Taurus Pedals more. I've had them interfaced with a couple of Oberheim synthesizers, so I'm basically working with the same sort of set-up as Geddy is. So, I can take over some of his work load, which allows him to concentrate more on his bass playing.
Who are some people you like to listen to now?
Lots of people. I like lots of different types of music.
Well, Signals seems to have more of an almost ... Reggae flavor than previous Rush albums.
Well, you pick up things from all the music that's around. We're always trying to move on. Trying to keep up with the '80s (laughs). Especially important for a band that's been around for 15 years.
Are there any special guitar techniques or tricks that could be called "Alex Lifeson Specialities" - little bits unique unto you?
Oh, shit. I don't know. (laughs) That's really a hard question to answer. You'd have to listen to everybody, and see if something is really original, or if you picked it up somewhere. I really don't know.
Gibson Howard Roberts Fusion
Gibson SG Standard
Gibson 1175 Doubleneck
Ashly SC-40 Preamps
Ashly SC-66 Stereo Parametric Eq
Marshall Combo amps
Hiwatt 1005 wi 2-4~ 12" cabinets
Roland 301 Echo
Advanced Audio Digital Delay
Morley Volume Pedal
Moog Taurus Pedals
Basses & Guitars:
Fender Jazz Bass
(2) Rickenbacker Double-necks
(4-6 and 4-12)
BGW 750B Power Amps
2-2x15" Thiele Cabinets w/E-V 'M' speakers
(2) Ampeg V4B Cabinets w/JBL speaker
Yamaha Guitar Amp
Oberheim OB-l, OB-X, OB-S
Two sets of Moog Taurus Pedals (interfaced w/OB-S)
Roland Digital Sequencer
Electro Voice EV-D535
Tama Drums w/wooden shells which are "Vibra-Fibed" by Percussion Center of Ft. Wayne, Indiana.
2-24" Bass drums, 6, 8, 10 and 12" Concert Toms
12, 13, 15 and 18" closed toms
5 1/2" x 14" Slingerland snare.
Tama "Gong Bass Drums"
8" and 10" Splash
13" Hi Hats
16, 18, and 20" Crash
Remo 'Clear Dots' on Bass and Snare
Ludwig 'Silver Dots' on Concert Toms
Evans 'Looking Glass' and 'Blue Hydraulic' on top and bottom of Closed Toms
Clear Remos on Timbales and Bass Drums
Ludwig Kick Drum Pedals
Pro-Mark 747 Drum Sticks