Guitarist Alex Lifeson and Bassist Geddy Lee revisit their stripped down, power trio roots on Counterparts, the strongest Rush release in years.
"It's about the three of us playing together," says Alex Lifeson. The Guitarist is talking about Rush's approach to their recently released album, Counterparts. "There was something very satisfying about making this record. It took us back to what we've always been about as a three-piece band."
Rush's 19th album does indeed find the band re-examining their signature sound, stripping away the studio slickness that had crept into their past several albums, in pursuit of the raw rock spirit at the band's core. "This time out, we really wanted to rock harder and present a more aggressive band sound," says Geddy Lee.
Adds Lifeson: "Playing with musicians like Geddy and Neil [Peart] has always been inspiring, and we really wanted to get back to the fun of playing, Which is what Rock and Roll is all about."
They may have sometimes wandered off the path a bit, but Rush has survived the many changes in musical trends to remain at the top of their field. Below, Geddy and Alex discuss just what it was they were aiming for in Counterparts, and also take some time to reflect on the spirit of Rush in grander terms.
GUITAR WORLD: It's been almost 20 years since the first Rush album. After such a long and successful recording career, did you have any new goals going in to record Counterparts?
LEE: Actually, this is one of the few records where we had very definite goals in terms of the sonics. Usually we kind of let the record take its own shape, but this time we wanted to change our sounds. There were a lot of things we liked on Roll the Bones and Presto, but there were areas where the sound could have been more aggressive. Both times we realized that when we got to the mix; we wanted the sound to be a bit bigger, or more intense, but it wasn't there [on the tape] to be had.
So we figured we needed a different approach. Part of that was using a different style engineer, someone who wasn't English, or enamored with the English sound, which is slightly more sophisticated, but smaller. So we used this beastial character named Kevin "The Caveman" Shirley [laughs]. He gave us a very natural, dry, aggressive sound.
ALEX LIFESON: Kevin is of the "plug it straight in, turn everything up all the way and record it" school. His approach to the drums was the same. He set up the drum mikes without any on-board eq, and just moved the mikes around 'til he got the sound that was in his head. That approach was refreshing for us. He's more primitive in his approach than some of the guys we've worked with lately--I wouldn't say he was a very sophisticated engineer--but he certainly got the results we were looking for.
GW: Did you both use different amp setups this time out?
LEE: Yes. I used this old, old Ampeg head, which I think is pre-SVT. I'm not sure exactly what it is, because it was out of its casing and belonged to the assistant engineer. I had tons of my own gear there, but Kevin convinced me to try the Ampeg, which was literally taken out of the garbage. We plugged it into these Trace Elliot cabinets--an 8x10 and a single 15 inch--cranked the shit out of it, and it sounded great. We miked those up, fairly close to the speaker, plus I went direct into a Palmer Speaker Simulator, straight into the board. It's a DI [direct input] sound, but not as sterile. Between the two of 'em we created the bass sound. For bass, I used my old early-Seventies Fender Jazz for the whole thing. It was really nice to play it again.
LIFESON: I changed a few things this time around. For the last 12 years of so, I've always worked in the control room, using a combination of Marshall 50-watt 2x12 combo amps, a Gallien-Krueger MPL 100 through a Crown Macro Series run into twin 12-inch Celestion cabinets, and a 4x12 Marshall cabinet with a 100-watt Marshall head. Between all of these different amps, I'd set up five or six different sounds, and we'd bring up different sounds in the mix, depending on the balance we wanted.
For this album, we went back to a earlier approach, which was for me to play in the studio itself, alongside the amps. I hadn't done that in so long I was apprehensive about it. It's tougher to hear things, and it's hard to get the mix in the cans [headphones] loud enough. I thought it wound be more distracting, but it was great. It took me a few days to get used to not being able to hear anything in the headphones, but as long as I could hear the snare and kick drums loud enough, I knew where I was. I could feel the guitar vibrating against my body, and it was easy to pick up feedback. The amps were really singing.
GW: Were the amps baffled at all?
LIFESON: No; they were wide open, and they were aimed at me! We were set up in kind of a triangle, and I had a Marshall 100-watt head with one 4x12 cabinet in conjunction with a Peavey 5150 head and another 4x12 cabinet. The Peavey sounded really great; it's a very, very, versatile studio amp. The Marshall had a rounder tone when we set it up clean, but the thing I noticed about the Peavey was that it was very responsive to changes in tonal settings. On the Marshall, the volume affects the tone even more than the tone controls themselves, but the 5150 was very sensitive it terms of tone. It sounded good instantly; it didn't take a lot of fiddling around to get something happening.
It had a very warm, tough sound that gave you a sense of the speakers working, and it was very smooth. I also had the Gallien-Krueger set up, but that signal was sent through the effects send on the other two amps, I really just plugged straight into the amps and played.
LEE: Kevin was able to pry some of the effects away from Alex's guitar [laughs], and Alex got a whole resonant vibe happening in there with his amps, creating this big, dry sound. I think that's the most significant change for us on this album.
We wanted to make sure we got very alive, aggressive performances on tape. You can always tame something down when you're mixing, but you can't make it more raucous; it's got to be there. You're never really quite sure what you've got on tape until you get into the mastering room, and I've been un-pleasantly surprised many times. You say, "Where did it go?" [laughs]
GW: Alex, how did you mic the amps?
LIFESON: We used both close and ambient miking using [AKG]421's and [Shure] SM-57's for most of the close-miking.
It was really loud, but I loved it! It's hard to explain, but we've had almost a problem of being too sterile in our approach--too organized and too clinical. I don't know if that's because we've been doing it for so long, or because we have a couple of very organized Virgos in the band [laughs], but I think we lost the attitude of just getting up and having fun, without worrying so much. With this record, we realized that it's just rock and roll, and that it's fun to be in a band, playing with people you like.
We needed to do something that felt fresh to us. It's something we've been aiming for since Hold Your Fire , which was when we first started talking about taking a more basic approach to songwriting and recording.
GW: It seems like this is more of a reaffirmation of the band's original spirit than a case of being influenced by the things that are happening now.
LIFESON: I think you're right. Our purely three-piece songs, even some of our earliest stuff, are always the most rewarding and satisfying songs to play live. That's when you can go all out as a player. You've got a lot on your mind for the songs that utilize sequencers and samples, and it ends up being a process that you go through rather than feeling free to play.
GW: You guys have always made things tough on yourselves, by trying to pull off very complex material as a three-piece unit.
LEE: We've had this unwritten rule that it would always be just us. From time to time, we've discussed the possibility of bringing someone else in, to allow us to be able to enjoy the performance a bit more, but Rush is like this club that no one's allowed to join [laughs], and we all treat it with an almost sacred attitude. A couple of albums ago, we seriously considered bringing someone in to play live with us, but we said, "Ahh, let's just do it ourselves." So we came up with these ridiculous stage setups where every foot has a job assigned to it! Trigger that, step on this, play this here...it's ridiculous! Half of the performance is playing, and the other half is choreography, to make sure we trigger everything at the right time, but it's got to be that way.
LIFESON: When you get stuck behind the pedals and keyboards, it certainly pushes you to the limits [laughs], but it's more from the head rather than from the guts.
LEE: Being a three-piece has certainly had its limitations, but I think they've helped to create the signature of the band's sound. It would be a lot easier to have someone else play keyboards and do backing vocals, but we can't do that! We'd be transgressing, crossing the River Styx.
Our attitude has changed in the studio as well over the last few years, though I don't think Neil's has; He's still very uptight about being able to recreate everything live that he does on record. That's why he'll never overdub any of his drum parts; they are all live. Even when he's using samples, he'll play the samples at the same time in the studio. It's a performance--every single drum track is a single track performance. Alex and I have loosened up about that stuff, maybe because we're overdubs, anyway. [laughs] We think, "Let's make a great record; we'll worry about that other stuff later." I think people will forgive us if we have to change some things for the live show.
GW: How were the arrangements worked out for this record?
LIFESON: We worked with something called Qbase Audio, which is a software package that allows you to record analog information onto it and then do whatever you want with it, much like you can do with MIDI information. Geddy's bass is plugged into the console, I've got a guitar, there's a vocal mic, the keyboards are all set up, and it all goes to Qbase Audio as well as the ADAT system. We'd work things out on the Qbase so we could move pieces of the arrangement around, cutting and pasting.
GW: That sounds like an exciting, versatile way to work with the material.
LIFESON: Yeah, it would be, if the system would only work! [laughs] It drove us crazy! It's a brilliant idea, but it wasn't quite ready. The great thing about it was that we were able to put down ideas and then move the arrangement around. We could add another chorus or take a line out of the chorus, and hear it back instantly, thus eliminating the need to play different versions of the arrangement to get a handle on the tune.
Also, you have an infinite number of tracks; you can only play four at a time, but you can track it up as much as you want. If you synch it up to SMPTE, you can run everything onto ADAT, and keep doing a few passes 'til you get all of the information on there, Once it was on ADAT, I would do all my guitar stuff, tracking up the guitars, trying different things, and working out the solos. From there it went to the 24-track.
GW: It sounds like, by the time you go to the 24-track, you're virtually done recording.
LIFESON: Pretty much, yeah. We just dump over the guides, and they often sound pretty good. We ended up keeping a lot of those tracks for the album--a lot of the guitar. The solos on "Cut to the Chase" and "Speed of Love" came from the ADAT.
GW: Alex, who are some of your biggest influences as a soloist, and how has your style changed over the years?
LIFESON: Certainly Jimmy Page was a big influence in the early days. His solos are so emotive, and not particularly exact. You sit in the studio and someone says, "That note's a little flat," or, "You really didn't hit the beat there." But I've finally come to realize who cares? It's all about feeling. Soloing shouldn't be about how fast or how many notes you can play, or how much "better" you can play than the next guy. It's got to really relate to the songwriter than just just being the guitar player, especially when you play in a band with guys like Geddy and Neil, where everyone has such a strong influence and impact on the music. It's really a much broader picture that way.
GW: Were there things that you wanted to do as a guitar player on this album that you hadn't done in the past?
LIFESON: I wanted the guitars to stand out more than they had in the last 10 or 12 years. I've had a problem with the guitar sound since Signals ; perhaps we had too many producers in the studio, all vying for their own little thing. It's often that way with us. Mixing is always difficult, because everyone hears their instrument a little differently, and one thing gets pushed, and then the next and the next, and it becomes a bit of a contest. Because we took a straighter approach to recording this time, there's less of a cloud on the tracks, and the guitar isn't always competing with the keyboards. I think our older records are great for their time, but I'm glad that I don't feel 100% satisfied with them; it's time to quit if you do!
GW: From the opening chord of "Stick It Out" it's apparent that this album is heavy. Following some slick feedback, you go into these really dense chords.
LIFESON: I've got the low E tuned down to D on that one, which always makes it a little heavier. I just wanted to write a song that was really heavy. There's probably four or five guitars on the opening; we tracked it up at that feedback point, and there's probably three guitars through the meat of it. A few guitars are in there just for effects things, hitting certain notes.
GW: One thing that distinguishes Rush from other progressive rock bands is a strong pop sensibility in the vocal melodies, I think that's been a big reason for your success.
LEE: I'm glad you said that. It isn't often discussed in connection with Rush, but it's something that I've spent more and more time working on over the last five albums. Vocal harmonies too.
For the last 10 years my singing was always "the last overdub." The voice was just another instrument. But over the last seven or eight years the songs have been written around the vocal melody, so it's usually the first thing I write. Neil also puts a lot of energy into writing lyrics which allow me room to play with the vocal. And I'm not afraid of harmonies; in fact, I'm really intrigued by the idea of writing them.
GW: Another big part of the Rush sound is the use of arpeggios...
LIFESON: Oh, yeah. You get all of that intertwined harmonic information over-lapping, especially with a little bit of reverb or echo repeats. It's a very effective technique.
GW: Geddy, how about you--were there things you wanted to hear from yourself on this record that you hadn't done in the past?
LEE: Sure, I wanted to make the tracks groove better, with more emphasis on rhythmic bass playing, as opposed to the standard "rock" style. Rather than just root the stuff, I wanted to help make the music move. In my formative years, I played a lot of funk-oriented stuff, but then we got into rock, with a straighter kind of a groove, and when we got into the more progressive stuff in the Seventies, there was no funk or groove at all. It was all math. The groove thing really appeals to us now. The marriage of rhythm and heavy rock is exciting to me; it makes it a little more seductive.
GW: Does this mean incorporating more syncopated lines into the music?
LEE: Yeah, but also using the instrument in a more rhythmic way. I tried to move in and out of the drumbeat and help push the rhythm, as opposed to just playing along with a certain drumbeat. I really pushed it on quite a lot of these tracks. I wasn't slapping and pulling [popping], but I was doing something in between that and normal playing, trying to keep the track moving, pushing and pulling the rhythm back and forth. The music is often quite segmented, and I wanted to make sure that didn't happen this time. It was great fun, to do this stuff, and I can't wait to do it live.
GW: Do you try to convey any sort of message through your music?
LEE: If our music says anything, it's that we make for ourselves, and we hope other people dig it too. That in itself is kind of a statement, or message: "Do what you like, what you think is right, and stick to it." That's what "Stick It Out" is about to us; there are a million ways to live, a million ways to write and play music, and you have to figure out which makes you the happiest, and stick to it. We've been lucky to get away with that; not everybody gets that chance. Luckily, there's been enough people out there that like what we do to keep us afloat for all these years.