Alex Lifeson: The Art Of Preparation

By John Stix, Guitar For The Practicing Musician, May 1991, transcribed by Erik Habbinga

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Having put together three live albums over the course of their 23 year career, the members of Rush are as much polished craftsman of the arena canvas as students of the slash and flash assault it takes to push it across the footlights. Intense and demanding when it comes to their line of work, they always put in far more than what the form requires. Alex Lifeson, whom we welcome into the GFPM Hall of Fame with this interview, took great pains to illustrate the preparations that go on behind the scenes at a Rush concert, and in the process, revealed quite a bit about what goes on behind the scenes in his own vision of himself as a practicing guitarist.

When you guys get together and rehearse for a tour, do you end up playing old Rush songs to warm up, or do you get together and immediately go for new material?

Rehearsals for us start a few weeks before we actually start playing. Everyone would basically take the last set that we played on the previous tour, and re-learn all the stuff, or practice on all the old stuff, play all the new stuff, and get together and make up a set list and start playing there. So we do a lot on own before we get together.

What do you do to prepare for a show, and what goes on inside your head?

Typically, the soundcheck for us is around 4:30. During recording for a live album, we had it down a little bit early that we would be on-hand. We would head down about 3:30, 4:00. We would take turns. Neil would spend a fair amount of time going through each of his drums for his levels. Then it was bass, followed by keyboards, and we'd spend a bit on guitars. On the Presto tour we did two or three songs once the tour got going. We found it was more fun to go in and smash around for half an hour and do those few songs, like "War Paint", half of ""Manhattan", half of "Subdivisions." We did three or four extra songs during soundcheck for the last live album. We did "Turn the Page", "Mission", "Subdivisions", "Manhattan Project", "Big Money."

Did these songs represent different sounds that needed to be checked?

Yes, especially for Geddy. He's got three microphones and he's got to do a song at each, and then a couple of songs for different keyboard levels.

What do you hope to get out of the soundcheck?

(laughs) I was trying to think of a witty answer, and couldn't come up with one. My sound is basically unchanged from night to night. I don't put anything through the monitors; I rely on my backline, and I'm quite comfortable with that,so I don't really need to get anything out of the soundcheck , other than to loosen up a bit. That's the most important part. Those extra three or four songs that we do, during the recording soundcheck, always help. As we go along, we'll break there, go in, have dinner. We usually have dinner around 5:30, 6 o' clock. I tend to skip the crew meal. Occasionally I'd have crew meal, but I tend to skip it and eat more after the show, and from that period after dinner until showtime, it's usually sitting around the dressing room reading. It's mostly novels, but occasionally magazines and stuff. It's killing the time. I hang out quite often with Guy and we would talk to him about any things that he'd noticed in the truck, how the sounds were coming together, any opinions he had. And then I practice for an hour before the show.

Do you practice on the guitar you're going to use onstage?

No, for the Show of Hands tour I used a black modified Strat to warm up with, which was quite different from the Signature guitars I started using on the Power Windows tour. They felt quite good, sounded good, quite different from the modified Strats that I'd had before. But they stayed onstage, and I've never felt comfortable taking a guitar offstage, back to the tuning room, back to the stage. I prefer to have them tuned and sitting and waiting there. Unfortunately, Signature guitars no longer exist. So I got a Paul Reed Smith and couldn't believe what a fantastic guitar it was. I asked them if they could build me some guitars based on what I'd been using with the Signatures, using single coil pickups. I use the single coil PRS onstage and a different PRS with two humbuckers on it for rehearsing.

How many do you have revved up onstage?

I really cut back. I used to have four Signatures ready to go. The last tour I had two electric PRS's and the Ovation. For the first month only, we did "Big Money," where I tune up a full tone (F#), so there was a Signature guitar tuned up to that.

Are the two PRS guitars similar?

They feel the same. They are cosmetically a little different. My number one is more of a grain finish, tobacco sunburst style, and the other is a black finish. They sound quite similar. It's the first guitar that felt just fantastic right out of the case. They were built very well and they were vert smart about some of the things they did, like the fact that they don't use a locking nut. The strings go straight through the headstock, so the strings go over the nut and remain straight. They are not angled at all, which cuts down the need for something like a locking nut. Because there's no fine tuning on the bridge, it's much more comfortable to me.

What about pickups, tremolo bar, head pegs?

I wanted single coil active pickups. They do double coil pickups with a selector. It's an interesting sound, but I find the active pickups have that little bit more clarity. I use active pickups by Evans and the PRS vibrato system and tuning heads. For strings I still use the Dean Markleys.

You said you use your backline for your sound. Is that rare these days, or is that becoming more common?

I'm really not sure; I haven't seen that many big acts, or comparable acts, and how they have their setups, but I would have to guess that it's less common, that people tend to rely more on monitors. It's all quite state-of-the-art these days, so you're probably better off to do that.

So why did you switch?

I just like the feel of it. I like to feel the sound behind me. I run my gear in stereo, and there's a particular area of the stage that I like to be in, and a lot of times I'm stuck by my pedal board, or bass pedal or whatever, and it gives me a nice point to get the full impact of what my setup is. I can hear the stereo clearly, and the sound tends to get a little bit bright up at that end of the stage. I'm still using the GK CPL-2000 preamp, which I love, through a Macro series Crown power amp. The power amp goes into two twin 12" Celestion GK cabinets. Offstage, we've built dog houses which are completely isolated boxes with one cabinet in each box. There's a feed from ny setup through the CPL-2000 that goes to one speaker in one box and one speaker in the other box. Then I use a Roland GP-16 through another Crown amp that goes to the other speaker in each of the boxes. So we had good separation, and there's a baffle built between the speakers in each box. Under the lid, it's angled to cut down any standing waves. We had much better separation, plus it was isolated from the drums and ambient noise. We came up with a much cleaner and more definitive guitar sound. I don't think my outboard gear has changed recently. I have a Bradshaw system. It's very clean, very orderly. It's rugged; it's sensible, more than anything. it makes sense the way they've done everything. They've kept noise down to a minimum, and they've kept everything very efficient. We got a new sound man for the last tour, Robert Scoville, who worked with Def Leppard. he was brilliant. he came up through studios and live mixing and he knew how to achieve certain sounds. He developed the dog houses. That was strictly for my backline, and he gave me a great combination of sounds by using the Roland GP-16 and my regular setup. We had two different guitar sounds that blended together quite well. The basic sound stayed the same, but the GP-16, depending on the song, would be preset to different kinds of sounds. He had a little more flexibility for what he could deal with on the guitar and the presence of the guitar. Isolating it from the stage sound added clarity and made such a big difference in the guitar sound. On the last tour we dropped the direct sound after a few weeks.

Let's get backstage before the show. The manager goes, "It's 20 minutes before the show, everybody out. Just the band in here." What happens then?

Not a whole lot. We've never really felt the need to get psyched-up for a show. Quite often ten of twenty minutes before we go on, we'll change, sit around, have a laugh, and then go out and hit the stage.

Is there a song, somewhere in the first half a dozen tunes, that tells you if you're gonna click that night? A barometer of how the night is gonna go?

We started the set with "Force Ten" on the last tour. It's a very strong song to start with for us. It got us off to a good start and we stayed there for the whole set. For the Show of Hands tour I can't remember specifically there being a song, but "Manhattan Project" was about four songs in. You could sort of gauge from there what the audience was gonna be like. It's a song that goes over well, and it either goes over well or it goes over really really well, and from that point on, if it does, there's a good pace to the set, and it just drives it along, and the momentum created carries through pretty well for the rest of the set.

If it doesn't go over well, how do you get yourself beyond that?

You do the best you can do. It's never been a problem for us.

What have been some of your favorite songs in a set?

I really like playing "Marathon" and "Limelight." I like the solo from "Limelight." It's always a treat to play that. "War Paint was a lot of fun to play. "Show Don't Tell" was one of my favorites to play. It's got a lot of nice dynamics in it. I like playing "La Villa," and recently one of my most favorite established songs to play was "Mission," because I like the parts, I like the broad chords that are in it, the spaces, and the mood, and finally, the solo at the end. It's a really nice tempo to play over, a sort of laid-back tempo, kind of soaring.

Have you ever had a problem onstage, and how did you solve it?

I do remember one time it was terrible! It was in Denver, when Steve Morse was opening for us. I have an allergy to certain foods. It's not really severe, but it can get kind of rough at times, and we'd gone out the night before and had dinner. We took those guys out to eat at a Moroccan restaurant. We're all sitting on the floor, on these rugs, with a towel draped over our shoulders, eating with our hands, drinking lots of wine. We had a great time. They were a lot of fun to be with, and it was a perfect way to cap off the tour together. The next day I didn't feel too good from the reaction that I have. So I'd taken an antihistamine, and I have a problem with them. When I take a decongestant, I get really shaky and nervous and edgy, and it lasts for about 18 hours. It's a horribly uncomfortable feeling, and I'd taken it sometime after soundcheck, because I wasn't feeling that great, and about an hour later I thought 'I can't go on. I can't do this.' So I got up and I started to walk around. I went into the tuning room, picked up my guitar. I could barely play, I was shaking so badly, and I just sort of hid in another room, until it was time to go on. I felt so awful, I swear the whole set was terrible.

Was there anything you could do to try to make it the best it could be?

I tried not to think about it. I tried to just concentrate on playing and absorbing the environment around me, so I'd get out of my body, but it was very, very difficult to do that. I remember playing "Closer To The Heart," and I could barely pick the strings with my right hand. It was just a terrible feeling. It was like torture. I remember a time, when we were opening for Sha-Na-Na at a college in the Baltimore area and it was a dress-up greaseball dance. All the girls had ponytails, all the guys had slicked back hair. We came on and did our opening number, which I think was "Finding My Way," a song from the first album. So it's pretty raw and raging, and it's like 'Da-da, da!' (sings ending) Silence. Nothing. "Okay, good evening ladies and gentleman." So we went on to the next song, and then after that it was like, "rrrrr." And the third song it was "RRRRRR!" and by the forth or fifth song it was "BOO!!! BOO!!!" (laughs). So we couldn't wait to get offstage for that one.

Is there anything you can do when you have equipment problems? Do you grin and bear it? Does the audience know the difference?

When you get to this level, you have so many backups that it's not a common occurrence for stuff to really go down badly. I've had problems, some nights, where I've broken three or four strings, which can be quite annoying, but you have spares. We have a system down where I take off the guitar, I toss it, the next one's on as I'm tossing the first one, and I'm sort of out of the picture for three or four seconds. It happens so quickly. It's not too bad. There was an occasion, again in Denver, a few tours ago (what is it with Denver?). There was a storm and a power surge came down the lines and blew all of Geddy's synths, except, I think, the mini-Moog. The guys were running around trying to get things to work. The got the spares up, and none of the spares were working right. Something had happened to the whole system. We were running about an hour late. The audience had been great up until this point, but now, of course, they were getting a little impatient, and we had to make a decision whether we were either going to cancel the show right there, or just say 'Ah, screw it, let's just go on and we'll just do the best that we can.' We didn't rely on the keyboards quite as much then as we do now, but they played an integral part in the show. So we decided we can't stand around anymore. Let's go for it. We played the first song, which I think was "Tom Sawyer." and has very basic keyboards. Geddy explained our technical difficulties, 'The equipment's blown up, so if you hear any weird sounds, we apologize for it.' The night ended up being fantastic! It didn't sound quite the way it was supposed to sound, but after a while we got comfortable with it and were able to forget it, and we played our hearts out! The audience was really behind us, and it was a great feeling to be up against a real serious problem and finish it off, coming together and being positive. We did play well that night.

It was a challenge that you don't often get.

Exactly, and that's when you tend to shine most.

It sounds like something that more bands should have to face, or you should force yourself to face. It's sort of the Bob Dylan thing or rearranging your songs a million different ways.

Well, it keeps your interest going, in that sense. It also keeps you on your toes, and it reminds you of where you came from, 'cause way back then you always had problems. You never thought about it. Your equipment was the only stuff you had. You couldn't afford to fix it, so it was constantly going down. So you just did the best you could.

You now have three live albums out. I'd like to read you some things you've said to me in the past regarding live albums. :Live albums are a difficult thing. It's hard to get excited about them." "Live albums give us breathing space to cleanse ourselves and start something fresh." "We don't go crazy over live records, and I don't know if you'll ever hear another live album from Rush. We enjoy the studio recordings much more than we do the live ones."

Yep. Live albums haven't been as satisfactory. I guess Exit was a bit of a weird album. In retrospect, it's a little bit too clean. It's not 'live feeling' enough, and I think it fails in that way. It sounds almost like a studio album. And we sat down and talked about it for a long time, what sort of mood we wanted to create with a live album, and how it had to be live. If there were rough edges, they were important to be in there. Not necessarily rough edges, but a rawness to it, that maybe Exit was lacking. And, sitting in a studio listening to the same stuff over and over again, that you've already heard for the last eight years, gets to be a bit tough. When we put up the multi-tracks from these shows, there was a really nice energy to all the stuff. Our playing had improved a lot since Exit. The way we used the synths, and the new instruments that we've added in the last couple of albums, came across well live. There was a really great energy, and as the mixes started to come together, it became more and more promising all the time. It wasn't a burden, like it can be. I never really thought we'd do another live album, to tell you the truth, but a lot of different things forced us to do it. We felt like we were coming to the end of a cycle again. We wanted to cap it off somehow, and it made sense to do a live album; that was one thing. We started recording dates a couple of tours ago, just for the sake of recording, and it was a great way to capture something from a particular tour, or from a particular time in the band's history, and we were also coming to the end of a record deal. We were left with a choice between a live album and a Best of, which did also come out, but I think a live album is a lot more satisfying.

In the past, when we talked about live performances, in particular Exit, you said they were well recorded but not great performances. Was Show of Hands your equivalent of the Allman's Live at the Fillmore, or is this a good live Rush album?

I think the first live album, All the World's a Stage, really captured that off-the-floor kind of youthfulness. It has a lot of flaws, but there's an energy to it, so that it doesn't really matter. There's something that's rough, or something that's untight, or whatever. It still makes it because there's all that energy, and everybody's really going for it. Show of Hands was a lot more mature in its production and in its playing, and in that way, I guess it gets right in the middle of the two other live albums, and achieves the better parts of both those albums.

Very often, when it comes to a live album, artists say they go with the performance that's right, 'cause the one that had the sparks had parts that were out of tune. When you have a catharsis, it's not always pretty. I like a catharsis on a live album; the other day, I listened to Johnny Winter and Live, and that's sloppy as hell, but it's got the fire that you want out of a live album. Most people say to me, 'They were good performances, but not the great one.'

No, no, no, no. The performances always come first, on that album. We went through a million takes of everything, from different tours, from different years, different trucks, different consoles, everything. It was a very difficult thing to go through all of that stuff, and a lot of times decisions were made based on performance rather that what was technically the best take.

How's "Distant Early Warning" compared to the other live rendition you gave to the Stars record?

I think the one on Show of Hands was probably better. The sounds would be better, and probably the playing is better. I haven't heard that other version in a long time. I think it was from the Grace Under Pressure tour, recorded in Toronto for a video.

On Show of Hands are there any patchwork performances?

As a matter of fact, no, there aren't. There were a couple of bass patches that were required because of a problem with the console. There was really bad clipping on the input on some of the bass tracks, so we repaired them as best we could from existing bass parts from other takes of the same song that we could fly in there. It's amazing, when you consider that most live albums are almost all, or a major part, overdubbed.

Was that a band decision, or would you have overdubbed if you needed to?

We talked about that, and we really didn't want to. We wanted to keep it as pure as we could, only because it's more natural, and I think you can tell. you can feel it.

Judging from the fact that there are at least three different places that it came from, is there an ebb-and-flow to the concert? If you have a totally high concert in Birmingham, or at the Nassau Coliseum, I would have assumed that you would have done the entire concert from one place. You didn't, which means that there really is some sort of tidal effect during the show.

Yeah. Sometimes you can have a spectacular night in one place. When you get the tapes back, it doesn't translate on tape the way it did live. There could be something in the hall, or there could have been a technical thing. It's very difficult when you have to go through so many takes from so many different nights. Some stuff, you feel it right away, and other songs, it takes awhile to get the most out of it.

Is there anything that you recorded that you could point to on the different places you recorded that was special about that night? I mean, what do you remember about San Diego, L.A., or the U.K.?

San Diego: there's an example of a hall that's generally notorious for bad sound. It's a very, very boomy, loud, metallic sounding hall, and it's really tough to get a good sound in. After we recorded there we thought we didn't have a particular good night. When we got the tapes, we thought it's gonna be a waste, and we listened to them, and some of the songs, I don't remember which ones now, sounded really really good, and yet the hall was horrible, and it was tough to concentrate, and you're worried about recording and all that stuff. It was quite a surprise. In L.A., the Forum has a good sound. I like it, anyway. Most of the material from those three nights was pretty good, so it gave us a lot to choose from. It was good to have three nights that were quite similar. SO we could pick from one of the three nights, juggle it around a bit, and it would still have the basic continuity of being in one place. Birmingham was a bit tough, because we started using a different truck in the U.K. There's an example of three nights that were totally different from each other, yet it was in the same hall. The engineer was tweaking stuff and changing things as he went along, and you can hear it from night to night. Most of the nights were really quite good, so it gave us, again, different nights to choose from in the same place. But they had a different sound to them, or a different character, depending on which night it was.

When you know that you're going to record a live album, does it effect your presence onstage?

Absolutely! You're worried about it, you're thinking about it, and you don't want to make mistakes. Onstage, sometimes you feel freer, and if something goes flat that wasn't supposed to come by, it doesn't matter. It's all part of the live show. You might take a run across the stage. A little thing like that is all part of the live show. But i t all comes down on tape, and you hear it on tape, so you tend to hold back things like that. It's like being in the studio. I can sit around and play something fine, or even perfectly, and as soon as the red light comes on the tape machine, it's like you make the stupidest errors, or you're concentrating so hard that you fall off your path of concentration, and it's like that live.

So, during a recording tour, in some ways you don't go for it, 'cause you know you're doing a live record.

In some cases you tend to restrain yourself a bit. At least during the first few shows that are recorded. Then you sort of settle in. You get used to the truck, you get used to all the extra mikes. You don't even think about it after a while.

Is the restraint you mentioned found on your live albums?

I think so. Show of Hands much less so than maybe the last record, as an example. I think generally the performances were pretty natural.

Show of Hands brings us the third rendition of "Close to the Heart." Is this the ultimate Rush song?

There was a feeling that the song had changed a bit. It opens up into a bit more of a ham towards the end. It probably translates better live, visually, than it does on the record. But there is an energy to it, and it's a very positive song. It's been connected with the band for over 13 years.

I'd like to see you go back and do a set that you did 15 years ago. Or approach the current songs as you would when you were a wailing guitar player, rather than a textural guitar player.

I think it would be a lot of fun, to tell you the truth. I have a studio here at home, and starting with the preparation for Presto, I made a rule that I'm not gonna plug into a single synthesizer or keyboard, though I use a Roland G-10 for drum patterns. Any work that I did here is going to be just straight guitar, and maybe I'll try my hand at some vocals. The stuff that I've been doing just on my own has been really raw, no chorus on guitars, no echoes. It's been kind of straight in, and it's refreshing to me, that approach. For the new record I wasn't quite as prepared as I was for Presto. We started from scratch. We had about four songs lyrically written that we could pick from as far as direction. We dove into it. I think that;s better for us. "Show Don't Tell" was quite prepared before we came into writing. I had done of work on my own on that song. We made some changes in the chorus and that was about it. It think our best stuff is when Geddy and I sit down and start playing. It's a little more immediate and instinctive. I think that's an important key and we're lucky because we have the time to do it. We can set aside eight weeks for writing and come into an environment where we can dive into it and everything is around us. We have a Tascam 8-track for SMPTE and we have seven tracks to fiddle around with. It's ideal. We talked about direction before we did Presto and knew we wanted to get back down to a bit more of a three-piece core and just kind of thin out some of the keyboards. We're about to go in for the next album, and so far we've downplayed keyboards again at the writing stage. How it develops we'll see, but everything is pretty much for the trio. We've taken the direction of Presto a step further along that road. I think all three of us tend to play and write more aggressively when it's just that three-piece core. I think we've ended the development of keyboards and texture. It's taken us a few albums to develop it to the point where Hold Your Fire really captured all that stuff. It really came together for us with that album. There could be some argument whether it's a little softer, possibly too smooth for the 'old' Rush school. But we needed to try it. we were quite happy with it, but now it's time to move on to something else, and what we needed to do was take a step back and re-examine what the core of the band was, and what's always fired us along. That's been the bass, drums and guitar.

What kind of live music gets you charged up?

When I go out to see a band it's usually to a club. You get this feeling like you just want to get up onstage and play, and it doesn't matter if it's in a rock club or if you're in the Caribbean at some little place where there's an unknown band playing. It just gets you fired up. I've never actually done it; I always feel a little self-conscious. I can play stuff by ear, but I don't really know a lot of obscure little songs.

Could you sit in on "Rock 'n' Roll Hoochie Coo" with Rick Derringer?

Oh, something like that, yeah, sure, but if you wanted to go through a Beatles medley sitting around the campfire, that's tough, although it would be fun.

Steve Lukather has this little band and they jam every night just so he doesn't have to be in Toto all the time, or in the studio.

That would be great! I got together with a friend of mine, who used to be in a cover band here in the Toronto area called Tres Hombres, that did ZZ Top material. He came up, and we sat in the studio, and neither of us had played in a while, and we thought it would be nice to get together and spend the whole day jamming like in the old days. So, after a couple of hours warming up, we turned the tape machine on, and recorded about 30 or 40 minutes of our ramblings. I've got a bunch of stuff programmed on my Macintosh, and we jammed along with that-some bluesy things, some ethnic things, some African rhythm things. There was one thing that we jammed along with that had a very Slavic kind of feel to it. We took a break, had dinner, and came back downstairs and listened to what we had done, and when we came to this Slavic thing, we sort of looked at each other and started laughing, We thought, wouldn't it be funny if you took something that had this rhythm, feel and mood, and you added some really tight, heavy guitars, or you did something to give it a rock edge, but with that central European character to it. We said, 'yeah, let's do it', so we threw something down very quickly on the 8-track and it sounded great. It got us thinking that this would be a great thing to do as an outside project. Maybe do four or five songs based on those rhythms and moods, and just spruce them up. If you want to put lyrics to them, put lyrics to them, fine, or just keep them instrumental. But it really had an interesting effect. It was tough and modern sounding, yet it had those age-old accordion rhythms and bass rhythms that made it happy, that got your foot tapping almost immediately.

Making a long story longer, then we talked about how great it would be to go and play for free in a club, with just a small set-up. Not a big fancy rock club, but some small bluesy place. There are a couple of little clubs here in Toronto that would be great for that. I thought, you could do a one man show! Take the Mac, program your bass and drum parts on there to do 10 or 15 songs, and then sit in a corner, out of the light, and play for a whole night. It would be great! Id' love to do that. I think I'd much prefer to do something like that than to get up on a stage and jam with a band for one song. It made me realize how much I missed just being a guitar player. Just a guitar player. I think that's what it is. I have no desire to get up and jam with another band, onstage, for a song or two songs, because I don't feel comfortable with that. I'd rather just be playing in a corner.