FACE 2 FACE with Alex Lifeson

By Stewart Gilray, Spirit Of Rush #27, July 1994, transcribed by Barry Simpson

click to enlarge

Late on Friday the 22nd of April I received a fax from Atlantic records. I thought what are Atlantic doing sending me a fax for then I read the fax.

"Dear Stewart,
Management have confirmed your interview with Alex to take place after the Albany NY show on Tuesday the 3rd of May. Please confirm this time by return of fax."

So on Monday morning I sent a fax to Atlantic, saying thanks for the fax and the times were ok. Also that the interview would be conducted by myself and Janet Balmer.

I was later to discover that Atlantic never told Sean Son Hing or Anyone else from SRO/Anthem about the confirmation. Incidentally Sean is the bands PA for this tour. To cut a very long story very short, only 1 media pass was forth coming. Because Atlantic hadn't passed on my confirmation. Needless to say when I got back to the UK I had a few words with them.

Below is the interview, I was told to expect about 30 minutes but I got a lot more than that.

I told Alex how we had flown across from the UK to see the first two shows of the tour in January, and how we were surprised that the second show had had some of the stage show missing.

"Yeah it was like one thing after another, Jimmy (Johnson) had probably the worst night ever. One thing after another with the guitars, I mean he's just always on the ball, he forgot a guitar change. He gave me a guitar that was out of tune he gave it to me, it was hoooo, just constant. That was a nightmare gig, and I wore these shoes, it was the only night I wore these shoes (points to a picture of the himself that was on the inside front cover of spirit 25), they're like huge giant shoes, I couldn't hit the peddles hooo (laughs)."

I went on to tell him about the grief I had with the passes. That there was only one pass when Atlantic said that there would be two, and how nobody knew what was happening.

"Yeah I noticed, I got a fax from the office a couple of weeks ago requesting the interview, I sent one back saying yeah I'll do it, then I didn't hear anything after that until this afternoon, when I was in the production office when you arrived."

Now that the general chit chat was over with it was time to get down to the nitty gritty and ask Alex a few questions about his equipment for this tour, and indeed his equipment at home. The first thing I wanted to know was why he changed from using Signature guitars to PRS's in the middle of Presto tour. "Yeah, they (PRS) sent me a couple of guitars to try, and I loved them straight out the cases, they felt fantastic, they played really well, they were really well built, it was all, all the things that Signature wanted to be, but Signature wanted to keep the cost down, and PRS's are very expensive guitars, and they just realised after a while that this couldn't be done, so they ended up cutting corners, then the company went out of business."

I went on to ask about his choice of pickups he used with the Signatures' and in the PRS he uses for Time Stand Still.

"I used Evans pickups exclusively back then as they have a particular sound that I like. The humbuckers, don't have that characteristic, the sound is very clean and very bright and very wirey which was at a place that was indicative of a place that I was at, sound wise."

I wanted to know if Alex is always on the look out for new guitars. So I thought the best way to ask him would be to ask if had seen anything about the new guitar by Laravee (The original manufacturers of the Signature guitars) which is due to be launched at the NAMM show in January 95.

"No. No I have no interest really, I have a good relationship with PRS, I have probably half a dozen guitars, currently from them, that I use for different things, I'm quite happy with the selection that I have, and I've brought my Les Paul back out and I use the tele and my strat and stuff like that in my studio, and my old reliable guitars, as well as the PRS's so I'm really covered and I'm not really interested at looking at other stuff. It's kinda funny to say that but, at this point it just happens to be how I feel. "

I guess you're happy with them.

"You know, and I kinda like. I was never a collector and now, just because we've been around for so long, the early guitars that I had, are collectors' guitars, so, yeah I've sorta become a collector with the first guitars that I had, there are odours of older antique' guitars."

The question I asked next led to an 'On the road' type story. You must have a hell of a lot of guitars by now?

"No, Yeah, But I've given a lot away to charities. Although the one guitar I'll keep for ever is the trusty old 335 (Gibson)"

Do you think you will ever bring it out on the road again?

"I kinda swore I wouldn't, after the PA fell on it (Laugh). At the Nassau coliseum out on Long Island, we were playing with Blue Oyster Cult, in seventy hmm.. seventy eight, seventy nine. Yeah it was Hemispheres, yeah that's right it was the Hemispheres tour. One of the horns slipped off the suspended PA and it fell back, didn't fall on the guitar or anything, but once it hit the stage it fell over the 12 string and that knocked the 335 over, and it took a chip out of the headstock. The 12 string was really screwed up."

The Gibson 6/12 double neck?

"Yeah it was the Gibson."

Has that changed colours over the years?

"No, not really, I had the 2 of them, the red one which was repainted black after this accident, I mean it sheared the strings of the 12 string, pulled a pickup out, took a chunk of wood out of the body. I had it all re-built. I also had the second white one I'm using now. Incidentally I gave that black one to Eric Johnson, last tour, we were going through Austin, we got together for diner, I've admireded him for years and I made a point of bringing the guitar down and giving it to him, and a couple of months later, I saw him, he said I'm really sorry but I've got to tell ya, the guitar was stolen. So somewhere out there's this guitar.."

Next I thought I'd ask about his rack and also the return of the Marshalls. I believe you are now using some of the new Digitech gear, namely the TSR-24 and the DHP-55, what do you think of them?

"Yeah, I like the Digitech stuff, I've been using the Digitech stuff for a while. Some of the effects units, are not for me, but these (TSR24 DHP55) replace a few older units I had, and I'm trying to rely less and less on them. Most of the stuff from the last record, Counterparts has very little in the way of effects, so it's really for the older material. But I find that it's good clean sounding stuff, they have a unit, that has come out with an analog pre-amp and effects built in to it, called the GSP 2101. I had a chance to, mess around with a beta version that they had, but I haven't seen anything since. I've seen advertisements for it, that sounded pretty good actually, I used it at home straight into the console so we had the benefit of a tube pre-amp and it did sound quite good. I was quite surprised to see that you've gone back to using tube pre-amplification after such a long time of using nothing but solid state stuff.

"Yeah, well it was convenient using solid state. I thought at the time, if you had a sound in your head you could achieve it through some diligent work, whether it's tubes or not, but once I got the Marshalls into the studio and the Peavey 5150 as well, I thought naahh you can't. There is just something about the valves that you just can't get with solid state. Now, I personally think that there are advantages to solid state over the valves. There is something in the sustain and something in the clarity you loose going back to valve, but definitely for the chunky, warmer distortion you can't beat it, and the Marshalls do look great(laugh)."

In your current rack system, are you using a pre-amp or..

"Nahh I'm just using the Marshalls. The other thing I like about the Marshalls is, I turn around, and I like what I see, this wall of Stacks."

I suppose you missed that.

"Yeah I did miss them. I liked the idea of being more compact, and you know having a pretty good sound out of a small system. But now I get off on seeing those cabinets back there."

One of the US magazines did an article on you, in there, there was a quote, something like, You liked standing in front of those stacks as you could feel your pants waving in the wind.

"Yeah,(laugh), yeah, I don't turn them up that loud, in rehearsals I did, there were a couple of days in rehearsals we cranked them up, just for the fun of it.

Next I thought I'd ask him about what B-Man had nick named 'Lerxst sound' in Visions. That's the guitar sound that Alex used through out HYF. What I got was an answer that led on to a discussion about recording.

"Yeah, that's not quite accurate. Lerxst sound was, I had a little 8 track porta studio, It was a travelling studio, we used to record at Toronto sound, so this became Lerxst sound, and we would do all our writing and preliminary pre-production, and recording on this thing, and that became Lerxst sound."

This time around on Counterparts you used a more up to date method for the pre-production work. You used some computer software, CuBase Audio, was that on the Mac system's.

"That was a nightmare for us, It was the first time, I think that anyone had every used CuBase Audio to that extent. For jingle stuff and small memory things it's ok, but we were putting so much data in to that thing. During editing and moving around we had a lot of problems, probably in eight weeks of total recording time we lost a total of two weeks on downtime, it was just continuous crashing."

Would you use it again?

"Well, in all fairness this was the second version I think that we started with and since then I think they've released four or five versions. So it's been updated all along, and protools is a much friendlier system than when we first started. Yeah I would use it, I mean its a great tool for song writing."

It has its advantages over normal recording. like Editing and messing with what you've just recorded without having to re-recording.

"Yeah, exactly you can do a variety of effects, and stuff, to see if it sounds you know good, with an extended chorus, or without a chorus, or move this bridge here, you can do a lot of your editing, and arranging that way, then hear it, without as you say, having to re-record it everytime which is what we used to do."

I heard lately that you know a have a full home studio, is that correct.

"Yes, I always, I've had one for the last 12 years, and at the home I live in now, for 9 years, yeah I guess 8 or 9 years, yeah I have a full studio. It started out as a full 24 track analog studio, now it's down to 16 tracks, very mobile digital studio. It's a lot more, movable, which is nice, the room itself is fully floating room built within a room, so I go down there and crank it up and no one can hear me upstairs(laugh). My son Adrian is actually taking it over, he has got the porta studio in there, and he's using my system."

Is he a guitarist as well?

"Yeah he has been playing for about 3 years, he's 17. He's into it, actually he made me a tape, and it sounded pretty good."

Oh no, another Lifeson(laughs).

"Yeah(laughs), stop that I want you to be a doctor(laughs)"

The next logical step was to talk about the recording of Counterparts. After listening to Counterparts I felt that you possibly had fun recording this record?

"Yeah, it was. It was also a bit of grind, you know at certain stages as always, but we find that we are so well prepared when we get into the studio. Neil did all the drum tracks in 2 to 3 days. Which is tough on me, because I like to use that time, to really develop all the guitar stuff. It gives me a chance to work on the song and come back to it, and familiarise myself with it, with 2 days for drum tracks and about 5 days for bass, it gave me about a week to get myself really prepared, but I was well pre-pared as it was anyways going in, so, it went well."

Do you work out all your guitar parts before you go in, or do you learn the basic, structures, record them then wing the rest?

"I used to prior to Power Windows, I used to have probably half the guitar stuff prepared, I had an idea at least in my head, and the fun was doing it in the studio, consequently you were in the studio for six months, doing stuff, but since then, certainly, through, Power Windows and, Hold Your Fire, having the keyboards built up to the extent that they were, I had to be very well prepared after that, there was no more fun(Laughs). Which is kind of a drag, but. In other words at this stage I'd much rather be well prepared and know exactly what I'm going to do when I go in, so there has been benefit. In our records like the last record, the guitar plays a much more prominent roll, I like that(laugh).

When you were touring UK last with the Bones show you did an interview, where you said, "I think the next record will see the guitar feature even more. Mind you, I don't know about the others, but that's my plan anyway." I guess "the others" agreed with you.

"Yeah, It's what we all felt about it, you know we talked about it on the last tour, many times on the bus we talked about what direction we wanted to go with, we didn't know specifically what we wanted to do, but we knew, we wanted to pull the keyboards back and push the guitar out more, we were listening to a lot of different stuff at the time, Pearl Jam was just starting to get on the wall, Nirvana and a lot of other west coast bands. There was something in that music that reminded us of our music, and they all sighted us as an influence, we started thinking about, what we were all about you know what was the core of the band, how, how much we enjoyed the three of us, just being a three piece together, Geddy and I facing Neil and playing that's what we got off on when we were a lot younger."

People, both in the press and people I've talked to have said that Counterparts is the best Album since Moving Pictures. You wouldn't take that view, would you? I guess to you each album you've just done is the best?

"Yeah, I would probably always say the most recent album is the best work, probably because it's the most recent work you've done, and your proud of that. But when I listen to records that we've done, that I haven't listened to in a long time, there are a lot of things I really enjoy about them. Because I haven't listened to them in a long time and I think they stand on those merits. Except for maybe Signals. I think Signals was the one record in the second half that suffered."

There are some great songs on that album, Analog kid, The Weapon and indeed Countdown in its own way. You haven't done a song like that since.

"Yeah, yeah they were never really developed to the point they should have been, that was really a turning point with Terry (Brown). We really needed Terry to sort of give us that direction at that point, like a proper producer and our relationship was too familiar, too easy, and it lacked. That was really, you know the reason for the breakup in our relationship."

Without trying to sound too critical, the production is a bit ragged in some places on that album.

"I hate it!! To be honest with you, when I listen to it now, I can't believe that the guitar, I have to blame myself for it, but we were trying something new at the time. My recollection of working on that record is not as pleasant as some other records. Just like Grace Under Pressure, was a very very difficult record for us to make. But when I hear songs, when I hear subdivisions, or I heard, Digital Man the other day on the radio, the guitar is so in the background, and it really, you can't. You know it really bothers me that it ended up being that way, but you know, you get so locked into it, it's tunnel vision, and you get used to hearing it a certain way day after day after day, month after month after month. After a while it seems normal to you, seems the way it should be. Now we're a lot more sensible about the way we do things."

I guess it's almost like your x months down the production line and you can see this light at the end of the tunnel, you just want to get out of there.

"Yeah, exactly your tired of being in the dark you want out."

I thought it was time to ask Alex about the current tour. About the set list and trials and tribulations of being on the road. To be completely honest with you Alex, I was a little surprised by the structure of the setlist. For example I thought you'd do an encore along similar lines to the one on the Bones tour, you know a few songs thrown together as a medley. It appeared that you enjoyed playing that sort of a thing. This time you're doing Force Ten and YYZ in their entirety with a bit of Cygnus tagged on.

"I really liked the medley on the Bones tour, I thought it was a really fun thing to listen too, for a listener and for me playing, I really enjoyed playing it. It gave you a chance to go through five or six songs and have fun with it, I think I maybe prefer that, the problem was that we ended playing more from Counterparts than we normally would have from a new album. We're playing six tracks from the album. Then trying to be representative of the other albums, is really really tough."

Your not doing anything from the first 4 albums or Grace Under Pressure.

"We did have had Distant Early Warning mixed in with the medley, but we had to cut it, cos we were running out of time, in terms of the length of the set. As it is we've added Bravado for this last run. That's just because we wanted to get it on tape, we've been recording all the shows since the beginning of the tour so that has been a bit of a problem."

What was the motivation behind picking the six tracks that you did from Counterparts. Obviously Animate and Stick it Out. Nobody's Hero as it was a single, Leave that thing alone, as it's the instrumental from the album, and the other two.

"Uhmmm, what are the other 2?!?!?"

At this point both Alex and I spend a moment trying to remember the other two songs.

"Cold Fire and Double Agent. Double Agent we ended up playing, I didn't think that we would do that live, but. It's kind of a quirky song for us, cos it's a little bit reminiscent of our older style, piecing different bits of music together, and then we had ideas for the presentation of it, I think that really made the decision for us to do it."

You have the film, the sync track, the mirrors, the general lights and the flames. We talked to Howard (Ungerleider) he said it is probably the most complex thing he's done production wise, because there's so much happening. By the way it works.

"Thanks. Exactly, with all that happening, and the reactions of the crowd we know we've made the right choice."

I was hoping you would do Cut To The Chase.

"I wanted to play that song but then again Geddy wanted to do Alien Shores, by the end of it we would be doing the whole album, and that isn't fair for the rest of the material, and we can't play a set anymore that's over 2 hours, as it is, I think we're probably about 2:15, 2:20 the way the set is now, and it's a little long in terms of pacing, and its a little long, in terms of wanting to play that much."

Cut To The Chase has a Hammond organ at the end of the second verse, it's subtle, it just creeps in there and out again, I think that really adds to the song, and maybe even gives the song the status of being a Rush Classic. It's also song where you can crank it up?

"Yeah, in the song, the guitar is fairly straight ahead, with choppy chords. We really tried to keep the keyboards as pure as we could, less samples and synth stuff, more Hammond, we even rolled in a B-3 with full Leslie and the whole thing. We really wanted to be a lot more organic again."

You are doing Time Stand Still on this tour again, and you have a keyboard and Taurus pedals out there. Wouldn't it have been easier to sequence those parts and keep your side of the stage clear?

"I suppose we could have sequenced it but, I like playing it, and it's kind of fun to have the keyboard standing there, for that, little moment."

I believe you had to cancel a show last week?

"Yeah, in Washington, we were playing in Washington to 15,000 people and Geddys voice was cracking up after the third song, and that's pretty tough for him, it's frustrating, it's embarrassing, so we knocked Hampton out. He was at the peak, I was on the other side of the peak, and Neil had just gotten this particular bug, and with 50 guys living together all the time, it's very easy for these sort of things to go through everybody like wildfire."

There's 3 shows to go now, Rochester, Montreal and Toronto. Are you looking forward to the Toronto show? It's your home town and it sold out in something like 3 hours.

"Yeah that's a nightmare gig. I stopped looking forward to playing Toronto in 1979 I think. It's just that it's home town. It's insane you get ticket requests, you know from people you haven't seen in 20 years. It's very busy backstage, it's really a nightmare gig."

Well now it's the part that you've all been waiting for. What are the guys up to next. I started by asking about his rumoured solo project.

"Well I have to do something for 3 months or so, Geddys' wife is having a baby, we cut the tour back. Normally we would be out until the beginning of July we cut it back to two months and we squeezed in three weeks or so worth of dates. So in a lot of ways this tour has been very, very growling for us, I mean a tough tour, there's a lot of flu and colds, and stuff like that."

You mentioned earlier that you've recorded every show on this tour, are you going to be doing a live album and video next?

"We haven't done any video stuff, the intention at the beginning of the tour was to record this material for a live album, which would be our next release in the new year, since then we've had second thoughts about doing a live album next. In fact we've had some discussions about doing another studio record first, then going out and touring that, pick up some other old material, we can't put Closer to the Heart on another live album, or Tom Sawyer, it's songs like that. It has really got to be made up of stuff, really from Presto on. So we thought maybe it would be wiser to do another studio album, then go out and tour that, come up with some more material, then come out with like a double CD of live stuff. That's just one alternative, there are a couple of others, we haven't really nailed anything yet."

What about the 20th anniversary tour, "An evening with Rush" that has been mentioned in other interviews?

"That coincides with the live stuff. There was talk about doing something from the first ten years in the first half, then take a short intermission and show a film covering the history of the band, then come back and do another set covering the next ten years. But we got to thinking. Saying that it's 20 years, is like saying it's the end of something and we never want to say it's the end of anything, we want to keep on going. Like the Grateful Dead(Laugh). That is another of the options open to us but, as I said we got to thinking, it has been 20 years as a recording act, but Geddy and I have been playing together for 25 years."

Well there you go looks like we're going to get another studio album first then a possibility of a European tour during '95.

I wanted to find out if there was any particular reason why there had been no single releases in the UK. So I did the logical thing and asked about the singles releases in the States. You've released Stick it Out and Nobody's Hero in North America and I understand your also about to release Animate as well?

"Definitely not. We did the first two purely as radio promo singles, and the accompanying videos. We feel that that, is enough. With the videos you have to make an interpretation of the song, and it kind of limits the viewer to the meaning of the lyrics. So instead of letting people come up with their own views it blinkers them."

We were surprised that East West productions in London didn't release any radio promos in the UK.

"What do they know we exist?"

After hearing this response from Alex I was a little surprised to say the least. So after getting over the shock of what he just I continued.

What do you mean?

"When we came across to the UK for the Bones tour we contacted them to get some information, and they didn't even know that we were on their books."

That's not really what you want to hear is it.

"Your telling me, there is other stuff as well, that we feel they could have done, or could do."

Anything in particular?

"I'd prefer not to mention anything."

I thought it best to change the subject here to something a little less political. For inspiration, do you ever get ideas for guitar parts when you're doing something completely different, like playing golf?

"You just do it, it's hard to really describe where it comes from, it's just something that you do. When you read the lyrics, or when you play a note or two, it triggers something, and it just sort of comes out."

The main riff in Stick it Out, with a drop D tuning, I wouldn't have thought that would be something you would come up with while just twiddling away on the guitar.

"No, but I did, that's exactly how it happened. I thought I'll have a screw around with some alternative tunings, I dropped the bottom E down to D, and just sort of played the riff. I have a cassette at home that is all de-tuned stuff when I was working on different ideas. The original version of where Stick it Out came from had some other really weird stuff in it, but it was a little too weird(laughs)."

I was a little surprised to see you use a Les Paul for Stick it Out live. As Les Pauls don't have tremolo systems, so obviously you couldn't play the original solo, which is full of tremolo.

"The solo does yeah, I used the Paul Reed Smith in the studio for the solo."

I thought you may have used the PRS for Stick it Out and the Les Paul for Cold Fire, as there is not a tremendous amount of tremolo in that, just subtle bits during the versus.

"Yeah, I used my tele for that in the studio, but with Stick it out live I wanted it to have a really, really heavy sound to it, and what better than a Les Paul." I read somewhere that you were trying to cut back on using the tremolo as you felt that you were relying on it too much, and consequently your finger bending was suffering.

"That's true, which is why I've reverted back to playing a D chord in the second verse of Force Ten, where I used to play the D harmonic on the D string. I also think that the harmonic didn't really translated very well, but if I played it with a D chord it just pumps better, instead of hitting that thing. It worked in the studio, hit the note, harmonic, fine, but I found live it needed just a bit of gusto, especially with the next part."

The solo in Double Agent is a bizarre little piece of guitar. I thought that at the start of the solo you were playing the A note on the G and using something like an IPS-33B (Guitar harmonizer) to get that sound. When we saw you do the solo in Pensacola at the start of the tour it was like ahh that's how it's done.

"It's just on the A string, start at the 12th and work my way down. The thing I love about it is, it's so simple, but it worked, it worked in the song and it's kind of cool, and there's a little tapping at the end which I swore I would never do, but it's not like it was(Laughs) just a little tapping not like a solo thing."

I wanted to find out if Alex had any views on the differences between American and European radio airplay. We ended up having a a conversation about how destructive shows like MTV are. Here in the States and in Canada you have dedicated rock music stations, but in Europe there are basically none, do you think that lets down rock music in general, in respect of publicity?

"I don't know what to think these days, you know with MTV, and with video, and with that whole thing, I don't just how important radio is any more."

It's unfortunate.

"Yeah it is unfortunate, because television can dictate a lot more to you, than just the music, and that's what the charts, and TV do, it's not representative of what the youth of today is about or the music. It's something, it's just a vehicle for selling millions of dollars worth of commercial goods."

kids just sit and watch MTV and get hooked on the imagery.

"Yeah! and they don't care about the music, which is a real shame, as usually the music gives greater images than the visuals."

Ok, Alex, well I'd like thank you for giving this interview, this late in the tour, and we hope to see you across in the UK, on the next tour. Whatever or whenever it maybe.

"Alright, I just hope the others don't mind too much about waiting for me(laugh)."

That was it just over 1 hours worth of conversation. I'd like to thank the following people for making it all happen, also for helping me out with the questions etc.

Alex Lifeson,
Sean Son Hing,
Kim Garner,
Erin Gilligan,
Janet Balmer,
and of course the Ed.