He has trimmed his long golden locks and has actually been seen on stage wearing a loose tie and a sport jacket, but Alex Lifeson is even more so the virtuoso guitar player. Rush has always been an incredible band capable of sweeping, powerful music that defies the fact that there are only three players in the group. Their current album Signals is the highpoint of a very brilliant career that has always been forged by the individual and collective artistic integrity of the band members. In the last interview with Record Review, Alex had said that the band has never intended to compromise its music or sound because of anyone else's prejudices. They have steadfastly remained true to their mission to pursue their art. The fact that the music is so well received is a blessing for both them and the record buying public.
When Signals came out and word was out that the band would soon tour to support the album, I tried to make it a personal mission to get a hold of Alex and see what he could tell us about the band, the tour and the album. My dream came to fruition when arrangements were made for a phone call interview. The band was playing in near Cleveland and I knew I would only get a certain amount of time to speak with someone whose career and playing has always interested and excited me. As usual, Alex was extremely polite, helpful, and informative. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.
Alex Lifeson: Hello, Jon. How are you doing?
Record Review: Great. I'm glad you called. Good.
The most asked about question out here is when is Rush going to make it to Los Angeles and the West Coast?
I think we're going to be out there about the beginning of February. We're going to take some time off just before Christmas and start up the last week of January and do the West Coast.
I've noticed by looking at the band's itinerary that you're playing three or four days, taking a couple of days off. How are you scheduling the shows?
We like to play three days in a row as the maximum, a day off and anywhere from one to three days on. Last tour it was three days on, one day off, four days on, one day off. We would prefer to play three days, have a day off, play one day, have a day off ... like that.
Do you space the concerts like that to make the shows better musically, or do you do it because it can get so exhausting?
It puts you in a better frame of mind, that's for sure. After doing it for so many years it gets hard. The tour stretches out for eight months as it is. It is better to space it out.
What do you do on your days off?
Tennis mostly. Geddy and I have been playing a lot, including on working days and in the early afternoons before soundchecks. We'll try to book four or five hours court time ... maybe do some flying. We try to do a lot of things on our days off.
Do you have a pilot's license?
Oh, yes, I've had one for quite a few years now.
How much flying do you do?
Not enough. I guess most pilots will say that (laughs). I've got a couple hundred hours but I haven't done much flying lately. Of course we got held up a month longer than we expected in the studio and I lost a month off my summer holiday. The one month that I was home it was just too crazy to go to the airport.
Have you flown to any wild, exotic places?
No, I haven't. Mostly just little local trips from the airport. It's fun just to get away and do that.
I'd really like to ask a few questions about Signals if I could ... The main thing that I noticed about the album was the greater amount of keyboards on the album, the greater number of instruments on the album. Did this cause a conflict for you as a guitar player? Geddy's presence seems to be even bigger than last time.
No, there was no conflict. I wanted to go for something a little different from previous albums. In previous albums we've always approached it with a thick, large guitar sound that sort of covers the whole listening area in the sense of the stereo sound. This time we wanted to get a certain guitar sound and leave it at that and slot it in at its position. This left more room for the keyboards. I don't think there are any more keyboards, it's just that they have a little more presence to them and are more dimensional. It was something we considered fight from the start; we really wanted to approach production in a different way.
How do you mean, by having more sounds, instruments?
Not so much more instruments, but more the positioning of the different instruments. In the past I've double and triple tracked guitars, and there was a formula where we put the guitars, keyboards, vocals, that kind of thing. We tried to mix things up a little bit more, the guitar sort of steps back a bit.
From reading some of the excerpts of Neil's diary about the album I noticed that the songs were written over a great geographical area and at different times, yet the album runs so smooth together. The subject matter is very close together. Was that a conscious effort?
We started putting stuff together on tape at sound checks towards the end of the last tour. At the end of our days on the roads, we had thousands of cassettes. A lot of the stuff was just garbage, mostly just little checks but every once in awhile we'd lock into something.
Geddy spent a good part of the summer going through the tapes. He came up with two sets of tapes; one had good stuff and another one that just had things that were possibilities. He was working at home writing and I was doing the same, mostly getting material together on our own. When we got together we saw some of Neil's writings. It was really spread out of quite awhile. We spent the whole month of March arranging the material and were very well prepared.
Isn't that a little unusual for Rush? Haven't you done most of your writing when you and Geddy were together?
Yes, we usually do that. We didn't use anything that either Geddy or I had written alone. We put things together, at least to give us the basis of an idea. It was different. We usually aren't that prepared. We take a certain amount of time, the two of us, where we will sit down and Neil will go off and write his lyrics for a couple of weeks and we'll get together and rehearse in the evenings. This time we did our homework, we were very prepared.
Was Signals an easier album to make because of that?
From the writing angle it was easier because we had all of these ideas and we sort of refined them to put them together as songs. The recording seems to get a little harder every year. We had to stay an extra month in the studio.
I would think some of the reason would be the standard of recording quality these days. It is so much higher.
Oh, that's very true.
If you're serious about your music, you have to do it.
Oh, of course. Production wise, sound wise, we were doing some experimenting; that's why we took so much time.
Signals is quite different from anything else Rush has done, I think that's one of the band's blessing, that it can change so much. Do you ever worry about alienating any of your fans with the changes? Is the first consideration always yourselves?
Oddly enough, I was just talking to Neil about this today. Our goal has always been to grow, evolve and change. That is what we try and do. I would be more nervous and afraid of repeating something, which would be very easy to do. If you reach a certain point and life becomes a bit too easy, everything is very nice, you might not want to lose that. If you fall into that situation it can be very dangerous.
I think that's a very healthy attitude creatively. I can see where record companies wouldn't like it, but how much sense it makes.
If I could compliment your playing, the one thing that makes Alex Lifeson special to me is your ability to make your guitar do so many things. Each solo is unique and has its own individual personality. Is that a conscious effort? How do you go about writing your solos?
The solos are actually very spontaneous. We'll have the basic tracks done and I'll spend a couple of weeks just mucking about trying to figure out what the solo should be and what it should sound like. Then it's just a matter of doing it over and over again. It's the only way I feel happy doing solos. I know Michael Schenker once told me that when he's in the studio he gets the basic tracks done and takes a cassette home and writes a solo exactly the way he wants it, rehearses it, and goes back in and does it just like that. That's fine if it works and you're comfortable like that. I find it works much better for me if it's spontaneous, basically I'm that type of person.
It sounds exciting and a bit more of a gamble working that way.
Yeah, but again if it works for you, great. I think you can show more of your emotions by doing it this way.
There's a lick at the beginning of "Analog Kid," a series of triplets that I thought was particularly nice. I was wondering if that was the original riff the song was built around or if it was added later.
It was right in from the start. It was from some tapes I had done at home. It was just an idea, I really don't know how to explain it but the song wasn't built around it, it just fit real well into that part of the song. That song was built in parts, Geddy had a couple of things and I had my ideas.
What songs are you doing on this tour?
We're doing all of Signals except "Losing It." Mostly recent stuff, we dropped "Working Man" which we've done for 78 years (laughs). That was kind of a big step.
I've heard that you have a 'medley' worked out for the end of the show.
Yeah, we do. It starts out with 2112, goes in Xanadu, a little La Villa Strangiato ... that's been in our set for only 76 years.
Was it hard to put the medley together?
At first it was. From an arrangement point of view it sounded a little weird to us, but it has smoothed out.
Rush music started out so hard and heavy and has since then progressed out of that genre but there is still a heavy metal type following the band. You can still get the denim brigade coming to your concert. How do you explain someone coming to your concert with a Motorhead patch on his jacket? You get them hooked early and they won't let go?
(Laughs) I like to think they still like the music.
Oh, that they do.
I guess it does stem back to the fact that we're basically a heavy metal band, we were in the beginning. That was really a very long time ago. We started experimenting in 1975. I guess this audience has just stuck with us all along. The band is a bit more contemporary and it has moved out of that particular vein of rock-music but it can still get pretty heavy at times so maybe there is still that appeal. I like to think we are unique as well.
I've heard that there are a lot more film sequences and visual happenings because Geddy is tied down behind the keyboards more. What are they?
For "Countdown" we have some friends at NASA that have sent us some film of the launch of the Columbia that we use for a visual version of that song. It shows the shuttle blasting off, it really follows the lyrics well. It turned out really great.
We also have something put together for "Subdivisions" and a few other things here and there. It's something that's always growing. You can really go wild with film.
Does anybody in the band have any desire to get into film other than just the normal video work for albums?
I'm sure that Geddy, one day, would like very much to get into film. He's always been very interested in film, from a director's viewpoint, I think. I don't know ...
I'd like to give a try to acting.
That'd be fun.
Oh, it would be a riot.
It seems to me especially on the last album that Rush is a band that paints these big pictures with the sweeping music that it would only be logical to paint the visuals too.
Yeah, it makes sense. That's exactly what we did with this "Countdown" film.
How was the blast off when you saw it?
Oh, it was incredible.
It must have been so tense and exciting at the same time.
Oh, it was. There were so many people on edge. When it did blast off everyone was screaming and you couldn't hear anyone. Then there was solid applause for 10 minutes afterwards ... it was great.
How many people get to be there and see the real thing?
Plus the film we got for "Countdown" was really excellent footage, stuff you don't normally see. There were shots of ignition, the shuttle blowing away, and going up. There was another camera that was placed so you could almost see in the cockpit.
I'd like to ask you about the equipment that you are using now. I see that you're still using the Howard Roberts Fusion guitar and a Red Strat.
I have a few Strats now actually. I have the white Strat and a red one, the only difference between the two guitars is the white one has a vibrato arm on it and the red one doesn't. It has all five springs on it and it's screwed right down. I also have a black one that I've had for four years. I'm using them a lot more. On the black and white ones I have Sharp necks, which is a company in Canada that just makes the necks. There is no finish on them at all, it's just bare wood. It's a nice feel. I have a humbucking in the back position and two standard Strat pickups and just move the toggle switch to the bottom horn. That's about it.
What about amplification?
I'm still using the Marshall combos. Actually I've got four of them and I run them at different settings and different volumes so that Jon at the board has different sounds. When we go into the studio we'll set up a few amps with a number of mikes and different settings.
I read where at one time you had some of your amps on Geddy's side and he had some of his amps on your side, but now your amps are separate.
Yeah, we did that right up until this tour. We get a wider, fuller sound this way now. It has its problems in that there is too much sound coming off stage at this point. The PA is so efficient that it can really handle that load, so we separated the two. I hear Geddy's bass through my stage right monitor. I think that the loudest thing on stage is Neil's drums. This new plan was a big step for us. It really cleaned up the overall sound of the whole band. We made a move to smaller amps.
To get a cleaner, more distinct sound?
Yeah, and it's a lot more controllable.
I keep hearing Jon Erickson's name. Is he your head sound man?
Yes, he is.
How do you mix the solos live? Do you turn up your guitar, overbalance the mix towards the guitar or what?
He'll do it different ways. As far as I'm concerned I just turn the guitar up and solo using whatever effects I want to use. He may just turn it up or tweek a certain frequency to bring it out more in the mix. I don't know how he goes about this, but those are the two obvious ways to go about it.
Do you have meetings specifically about the live mix?
Before Jon worked with us he worked with a band we respected that always sounded really good. We knew that Jon had a good ear and he has a lot of studio time. He's up to the studio with us right from the start and he knows what we are trying to achieve. He knows the way we hear things and he knows we want to hear our sound, he carries that on and adds his own touch to it.
There is so much on the new album I really wonder how you're going to do it live.
We're very careful when we're in the studio not to do something we can't do on stage. I'm playing a lot more bass pedal synthesizer and I've got mine interfaced with a couple of Oberheims. I'm allowed the kind off flexibility sound wise that Geddy has. I'm doing some of the parts he was doing in the past. I look over sometimes and see both hands and feet going.
I don't see how he does it.
I'm surprised too.
When you're on the road do you ever get a chance to practice your playing much?
Well, we have soundchecks and the show is a couple of hours long and usually for the first couple of months I'm just getting back into the swing of things. I don't do much dressing room rehearsing but I'm going to get back into it. Tonight actually I was thinking about setting things up.
Right now we're taking French lessons, the Berlitz course and that's taking up an hour and a half of our time after dinner. We have that and we all read. After seeing Rory Gallagher play for the last couple of months I better start rehearsing (laughs).
He's great. I swear I've seen him play songs where it looked like there were 65 or 70 chords in them. He hasn't changed much, but he sure is good. Why did you pick him to open for you?
He's available, and we prefer to work with people we like both musically and personally. So we got together. He was only going to do the first few weeks but after a little convincing he's decided to stay on a little while longer. I think he'll finish this end of the tour with us. At least I hope so.
Will he come out here with you to the west coast?
I don't think so.
Have you considered doing a two and a half hour show on your own without an opening act?
Yeah, we have, but we have mixed feelings about it. Ticket prices are pretty high these days and an opening act gives people a little bit more for their money plus the way we came up was from touring as an opening band and it really wouldn't be fair to play on our own and not have an opening act. We tour a lot and we have to keep up that responsibility.
I think that it may keep people from getting complacent.
We don't really worry about that.
I've heard you mention solo projects for both you and Geddy, are those viable working projects?
Oh, yeah, I think it'll happen, it's just a matter of finding the time. Neil has a couple of things that he wants to work on and get serious about his writing. You can't go home for a six-week break and expect to start working on anything. It takes a couple of weeks just to unwind and then there are all of the things you miss out on during the year that you want to catch up on. We need to set aside some time to let everyone work on the projects they want to work on.
What kind of writing does Neil do, is it fiction? Doesn't he have a very detailed diary of the band's history?
He's got a few things in mind. He's been writing some fiction and he's been writing things since "Farewell To Kings," so he has a lot of notes he'd like to put together into a book. He just sold a piece to Omni magazine which he is pretty excited about. He's really getting into that. A good deal of the time he's concentrating on that. I must admit I feel the same way about solo work, I'd love to do it. I have ideas I've been building for the last few years down in the studio, but it's going to take a month to go through all of the material and arrange it, then start recording. It would take a few months and I've got two kids and a wife I like to see (laughs).
Do you see them much when you're on the road?
Not really. We're usually out for three weeks and home for a week. I did fly home one day, October 14th. It was my older son's birthday and I surprised him. We went out to dinner and I took him to the arcade, that's his favorite thing, and then I went back to St. Louis for the show.
How is the show being received?
The show is doing really well. I personally think it's the best set we've ever had. The pace is very quick and very comfortable. It's very easy to play. It doesn't have any of the low spots and it seems to be going over very well. I haven't really read any reviews, although that wouldn't really matter all that much.
By the time you could even get to them if you cared you'd be out of town.
Yeah, right. Everybody seems to be enjoying the show. We've made some adjustments in the sound system and the lighting and the whole appearance of the band. It has been a year for change in the band.
With Geddy getting tied down behind the keyboards like he does, do you feel any more of the spotlight on you?
I feel a little pressure to take up some space but I try not to let it really bother me. Some nights you feel like jumping around and dancing and going crazy and other nights you don't. You have to play it by ear. You're right, he's quite tied down there.
What about the future? Do you expect to take some time off after the tour and work on something new? Do you have any sort of timetable worked out?
Well, I think we're going to be busy for the next three years (laughs). We'll be working until the 15th of December, take the holidays off and the rest of January. Then we'll tour to June, take June and July off, start writing material in August; get back into shape and go back into the studio in September. We should be in there until nearly 'til Christmas. We'll probably take off for the holidays. I don't think we'll release the album until that March. I think that will give us the time to get serious about our other projects.
Do you have anybody in mind that you'd like to work with on your solo album?
Not specifically. There are some people I'd like to play with but I don't have anybody in mind. I would like to do most of it myself. It will take a lot of experimenting with drum machines, I'm not a very good drummer (laughs). There's such a vast number of drum machines you can get today that I'm sure I can find something.
It would seem that it would be sort of awkward for both you and Geddy in a solo setting simply because you've only played with each other all of these years.
It will be strange. It's weird just to sit down and write stuff on your own. I found it very difficult because I had no one to throw ideas at, bounce them off. I felt really in a corner sometimes. I didn't know if I was doing something fantastic or whether it sucked (laughs). All you can do is sort of hang onto it for a couple of weeks and listen to it.
There's one song on Signals, "Chemistry," where I heard that Terry Brown, your producer, didn't like the song and kept telling you that it wouldn't work. What went through your mind when you were battling him about that song?
You try to be as objective as you can even with a subjective subject. Terry has always been a fourth ear and we value his opinion, but we were just so dead set on it. He came around to our way of thinking after a while.
Is this a common occurrence?
Actually it happens quite often. He'll come up and tell us something is great or it might need a bit of this, a different arrangement. We discuss it among ourselves and if we agree, great. If we feel strongly among ourselves that it is absolutely right for the song we'll stick to it.
Does the situation ever occur when a song becomes an album track and isn't necessarily a 100 percent agreement between the band members as to how the song should be, or is it always a total agreement and commitment by all three band members?
I hate to say it but that's the way it is. We've never had any kind of problem like that because we discuss everything. We know when we do something it doesn't matter how many times we've done it, we have to do it until we get it right.
To give you an example, I spent a day and a half doing a solo on "Digital Man." It was hard work putting the solo together. I was happy when I finished it and I lived with it for a week. No one said anything but there was something very odd about this solo. It just didn't fit anywhere on the face of this earth so we took the time to go in a whole new direction. We spent a couple of days to do it over. It's something you could become very sensitive about ... Your immediate reaction could be 'What? You think my solo sucked? It was great!' (laughs). We all knew it wasn't right for the song so we decided to pursue it and put it all back together.
Who broke the ice? Who brought it up?
Geddy came to me and said, 'there's something weird about that solo' and I said 'yeah, I know, I've been feeling the same thing for the last week.' It was just too off the wall, too bizarre; it didn't fit in the song. So we canned it and Terry agreed with us after we spoke to him.
As long as all of the communication lines are open like that, it seems that there will be far fewer problems over the long run. It seems like everything would work its way out.
How technical are your soundchecks? What do you do?
So far we've been making sure Rory has time to set up. I'll go in and do my acoustics, Neil will do his drums, we'll both do guitars. Then we'll do "Chemistry," "Weapon," and "New World Man." That's usually what we've been doing. Only the last couple of weeks we've started to get into some jamming. It's been pretty straightforward.
Have you had any equipment problems?
Oh, there was a nightmare in Denver. There was something weird with the power and one of Ged's synthesizers went out. We were going to switch to my synthesizer so at least he'd have something, and I'd just play bass pedals. Then my synth wouldn't take his program, they got a rental in and the power didn't work. It was like dominoes, synthesizers were going down. We didn't get on stage until almost 11 o'clock and didn't finish until one in the morning, but the crowd was great. They hung out for the whole show. It was weird as hell on stage that night.
Were you apprehensive about the next night?
Oberheim sent out some replacement parts and the problem was taken care of. They put together some power filters so we won't run into that problem again. We were terrified that night.
Do you feel any pressure to keep up with all of the new electronics coming out?
Not pressure really, I have a healthy, keen interest. There's so much stuff coming out every few months, something is obsolete. I try to stay on top ... you're always trying to pursue a better sound. I have a lot of effects, so I'm looking for things that make my sound a little more efficient.
I think Rush has been as good as anybody in incorporating the new technology into their sound without losing the feeling. I do have this fear for rock and roll that the guitar will be hurt and lost in the shuffle.
It's really diverse these days, but I don't think it's anything to be fearful of. If guys like Rory Gallagher are around you'll have nothing to worry about.
Is the tour selling out all over?
Yeah, I think so, we're pretty fortunate. A lot of bands are having it rough.
It's hard times and there's a lot of competition. People tour a lot more than they used to. You're pretty good about it, touring every album.
We have to, we always do. It used to be you could get on a tour, work a few months and headline, going back to the same places like that, building it up. Things being very tight, it's very difficult to get a start.
I hear horror stories about bands losing money on the road.
Oh, it's very easy to lose money on the road, we know that.
I had heard your contract was up with the record company.
No, we signed a new contract last summer. There's always renegotiations, though. We really don't get into that. We'd much rather spend the whole time worrying about the music.
Well, I've taken enough of your time for several Rush fans. I wanted to say thanks for the opportunity, and I'm really anxious to see the band and the show when you make it our way.
Oh my goodness, it's a quarter 'til four. I'm late. Thanks for everything. We'll be talking to you soon.