Interview: Alex Lifeson

By Willebrord Elsing, Sym Info, November 1987, Dutch translation by Alex van Loon

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Hold Your Fire is the latest product from the band and well worth the wait. Digital perfection connected to sincere feeling and musical craftsmanship. An album where new ingredients are subtlety added to the familiar Rush sound to reach the perfect result.

Thank you. Honestly you think after each album: this is it, it can't be better anymore. I think you learn more from every album and we try to use that on the next album. This came out very well on this album. It goes back as far as Moving Pictures; you can find elements of all the following albums on this record: the directness of Moving Pictures, the compact sound of Grace Under Pressure, and the compositions are stylistically similar to Power Windows. We took the best elements of these albums and used it for this record. This album is very cohesive; you can listen to it from beginning to end and you know it is that same album. The last album didn't have that to me; it was rather unequal, there was more space and air left over for production. This production sounds more solid and dense, at least to my ears. I think that this is the best way to make an album. Certainly to us, we write in periods and the last album of every period stands for the best of that series records. It is time again for a new live-album.

What you just said is indeed an interesting aspect. The first stage went up to All The World's A Stage, the second up to Exit...Stage Left; may I conclude you are still in stage 3?

It is difficult to say which direction you go; you never know in advance what is going to happen. We take this live-album up different than the previous two. All The World's A Stage was recorded in three days and Exit...Stage Left in two that right? Yes it is; we did some recordings in England too. We started to record for a new live-album during the Grace Under Pressure Tour, and we have recorded every tour so it could be interesting to make a cross-section of different tours.

Does it ever happen you get so angry about something, you would like to express that in a lyric, like Neil has been doing in Rush for years?

No, not really. Not because I never get angry about certain things, but I haven't enough self confidence to do that. I wrote lyrics only a few times.

Chemistry on Signals...

Yeah, and Lessons and...something from the first is such a long time ago...Here Again! So, it has never been easy to me, it is very difficult to do such a thing. Even for Neil; if he is busy writing, his ashtray is that full of tag-ends (his hand moves 10 inches above a imaginary ashtray) and he has a pile of paper like this besides him (he indicates a height of more than a yard) with only one line on every sheet and his eyes are standing like this (he leans backwards and imitates a pair of Marty Feldman's famous eyes) as you enter the room, so even for him it is a hard job, although he has had great success with it. He makes high demands on his lyrics. He wants people to find different things in them. And what he has developed very well to my opinion, is his ability to write so you can take the things he writes about very personally while they are at the same time very universal. So if he has all those problems with writing then I know that I'll be worthless in it. So I prefer to concentrate on what I do naturally, and love, and that is writing music.
I am a very privileged person. Geddy and I have two very different ways of writing. He takes an idea and works on it time and time again, tries a hundred different things which he thinks are wrong; but he wants to hear it wrong before he hears it right. While I can sit and think oh, that way and (he takes an imaginary guitar) plink! and that will be the right one. But because our styles are so different, they fit together very well.
So to make this long story longer, we find that this is a very good arrangement, a happy and efficient arrangement.

Can you explain further how that works out in practice?

Sometimes Neil comes up with a lyric, sometimes Geddy and I give Neil a tape with some musical ideas, and he tries to feel the atmosphere of the music and to write an corresponding lyric. We always work together the three of us to discuss the music as well as the lyrics, before a song will be developed further than the basic form. Geddy sometimes changes the lyric a bit to make it more fluent, as he has to sing with conviction, he has to comprehend the subject the way Neil meant. And Neil gives his comments to the music.
It is in many respects a group project. The largest part of the day we work separately - Geddy and I together and Neil alone - we meet each other one hour before dinner and work on the arrangement, and in the evening after dinner we work together as a group to rehearse the songs. We find it important to play the songs first, because we must be able to do them live as well. Although we deviated from that a bit with this latest album...the last two albums we did things that we might not have done about 3, 4 years ago, but now the songs are more suitable. It isn't such a challenge. You only miss 10 percent of the song live but we compensate that with 20 percent more energy.

Does it sometimes occur that Geddy refuses to sing one of Neil' s lyrics because he totally disagrees with it - after all Neil makes pretty strong statements.

Certainly. To be specific this happens on almost every album we make. A lyric which doesn't come across, or a lyric about a subject which Geddy and I feel completely different about; that one won't make it. For this record...(laughs) - it is funny because it would be very topical now - there was a lyric entitled Holy Walter. It had to do with TV evangelists. I don't know if that matter reached the press here?

You probably mean the Praise The Lord-televangelist show with reverend Jim Bakker?

That's right, that lyric dealt with the complete...circus and we thought that was a very strong statement about a subject which we didn't want to make a statement about at all. And now it would have been perfect, after all attention in the media.

The style of Neil's lyrics has changed quite a bit since the science-fiction, sword & sorcery and fantasy based lyrics of ten years ago.

Neil's lyrics were a good vehicle for what we wanted to convey musically. But at a certain time we switched gears and we went in another direction. We wanted to say in four and a half minutes as much as we did in eight and a half. And Neil's lyrics have changed too. Neil is reading a lot, and he does not limit himself to a certain style.

Now we know where Neil gets his inspiration for his lyrics, what inspires you when you are making music?

Our music is something that comes naturally to us. When we are writing, we don't listen to what is popular at the moment. We write from our feelings and that is something very natural.
Writing is a strange experience to us because we spend most of the time laughing. When we are writing 80 percent of the time we are laughing hysterically, which is (laughs) an excellent way of working. We are very good friends; we have been for more than 20 years. And we are still the same crazy kids who we always have been.
It is something fantastic what Geddy and I share, something which I don't share with anyone else in the world. So we laugh a lot, but at a certain time we get serious, we read the lyrics maybe a thousand times, try a hundred different things and then it just happens. And then someone makes a weird remark and we sit down for ten minutes laughing hysterically again.

Your guitar style has developed too over the years. Especially in the beginning your playing was, I am sorry I have to say it, rather cliché ...

Absolutely, I agree with you.

Now you have developed into a guitar hero. The leading American magazine Guitar Player has listed your name as second place in the polls for years.

I have been number 1 for one year, I think it was in 1984. That was after Eddy Van Halen moved to All Star Hall of Fame status or something like that, because you can't be number 1 more for than five years. (Laughs) I am a guitarist with the greatest collection of second places, therefore I should get my own Hall of Fame. But alright, I will work a bit harder on it.
But indeed, I was very clichéd. The feat is to develop yourself through the years, so that you can play what's in your mind. I think I have indeed developed my own style, something that many guitarists lack nowadays.

You appear to be a well organized trio. You plan years ahead, reserve time for writing, touring, recording and a few months each year of spare time. Almost the three directors of Rush Ltd.

Hahaha! Alright, but without ...

Without affecting your music, for sure.

We have to be disciplined when we are writing and recording. The past has taught us that it is necessary. The organizing of spare time is absolutely necessary! Otherwise we won't get any. Three months off a year. A show on the moon? Three songs for 10 million dollars? Just try, you won't succeed. And with a family you must get disciplined. I have a studio at home now in the basement, so I can go downstairs in my pajamas with a cup of coffee when I want to record something. It is a part of growing up.

What everyone here would like to know is when will you come to Europe again.

We toured a lot in the Orient and the US. Besides that we decided to tour less with Power Windows. Three and a half weeks touring, two and a half weeks off, instead of three weeks touring and one week off. We have now decided to come to Europe again, in April.
We are going to mix a live album in March, so then we have a few weeks off.
Meanwhile all the equipment can be transported to Europe and in April we'll spend a few weeks or a month for a moderate extended tour.
We are looking forward to it, but it will be different because we are used to the efficiency of North America. We certainly are not such a famous band here as we are in Canada or America, and the venues are not the same here, they are a lot smaller. So the scale of the show must be restricted, we have to compromise. And that is not a thing to be happy about. Because you know how your show could be. The lights, the lasers and the projection screen are an integral part of our show, although I hope the music can stand for itself. It would be a pity if you can't put it all in the hall, if only to give people value for their money.