Alex Lifeson appears misty-eyed after yet another long bout of grueling brain-bash sessions, sorting out material for the forthcoming Rush opus due out in late spring. To add confusion to confusion, Lifeson is pulling double-duty. During construction of yet another piece of musical genius with 'Ged and Neil', he's in the midst of pulling promo stunts for his first foray into the solo world, Victor.
The setting is a gorgeous French-styled 'hotel' just north of Toronto. Gently placed in the barren winter wilderness of Ontario, such mesmerizing visions and peaceful soundscapes are destined to make an impact on a musically-led mind. After fetching his coffee we make our way to an ornate living area with bay windows facing a gorgeous backdrop of foliage and fresh-fallen snow. With laundry swirling in the background, Lifeson comments about the normality of living and craving a taste of city life once again. His monstrous abode has been on the market for two years.
Victor was created and recorded entirely in this place of meeting; a comforting home studio that met joyfully with Lifeson's idle hands. "I think I've always wanted to do something like Victor." Lifeson relishes thoughts of creation outside of his lifeline. "With the demands that recording takes from Rush, I really needed to have a good block of time which was equal to what we'd take with the band. That is normally eight or nine months from inception to final mixes. Geddy wanted to take a year off with his baby, Neil had things on his agenda for an additional six months. I looked at an 18-month period and said 'here's my opportunity to do something'. As it was, it took ten months to do all the recording and we finally finished the project on September tenth of last year Then I had a couple of weeks off and began on the next Rush record. It was ok 'cause I get bored easily and I find I need to be focused on something to make me happy"
With over 20 years of professional musicianship under his belt, Lifeson is a rare breed of rocker, balancing intellectual stamina with powerful outbursts of the strings. Victor's youthful aggression harks back to a time in his career when Rush were poignantly categorized as the thinking man's metal band. "I suppose the cynical world is full of anger," he reaches for an explanation. "But I wanted to make a record that was dark, disturbing and unsettling."
But Victor's variety and full-bodied nature lies deeper than simple unrestrained power. "I wanted to do a lot of different things. I wanted to have a song or two that would be considered as very heavy and some other more sad, lonelier moments. I wanted to try and do a narrative over a song that had no guitar on it (the title track). It wasn't born out of some dissatisfaction I had with Rush. This was something that I purely started from my brain and my heart and carried through with no consideration with Rush at all."
The shocker, first and foremost, is the raging fury of social downfalls Victor recreates; mainly the harsher, more violent aspects of relationships gone bad. "I hadn't written lyrics in 18 years so I was scared shitless about that to be quite honest. Once I got a direction, it came pretty easily and quickly. I wanted to deal with a topic like love but approach it from the darker side. The anger, frustration, violence and angst that is created in relationships which start as loving relationships and end up as terrible nightmares or go beyond that and I become stronger than they were in the beginning. Looking around me, a lot of people I knew were going through some kind of crisis in their relationship, or an individual emotional crisis. I felt like I had a lot to draw from - just from observation and experience."
Through Victor's blatant forcefulness and unrestrained temperament, someone could easily misconstrue the lyrics as being from one's own household. Did your wife throw a plate at you before she went to work today? "She wouldn't dare, because I brought the plate to her in bed," he retorts with a glow. "She gets breakfast in bed every weekend. I've never spoken about my personal life in any interview that I've done with Rush or otherwise. Our personal lives are very private and we try to maintain that privacy as much as we can. Every relationship has its highs and lows and I'm not immune from that. My relationship is excellent and I don't think I could find anything in it that I'm missing. But looking around at a lot of friends I have, they have been together as long as I have with my wife (incidentally Charlene was his high school sweetheart when he was fifteen) and I thought that their relationships were stronger, but they collapsed."
The second nature of Rush fans dissecting the lyrics leaves no doubt they'll be tearing apart Victor. "My lyrics don't have anything to do with Rush lyrics. Neil writes on a whole different level than I do. I'm much more direct and simple in my lyrics. I'm dealing with emotional things. With Neil's lyrics, they are very multi-layered and you can take them in many different ways. But I think with my stuff it's a little more direct and hopefully it marries well with the music, and that the music creates a soundscape that the lyrics can sit on comfortably."
While all early demo work was created by Lifeson himself, he called in a trio of local session players: guitarist Bill Bell, drummer Blake Manning and longtime bassist Peter Cardinali (the former two, Lifeson had met at the Kumbaya summer festival). Other guests include famed bassist Les Claypool (Primus), acclaimed vocalist/songwriter Dalbello and Colleen Allen (sax player from local jazz/blues nest The Orbit Room).
However, the immediate focus player, apart from Lifeson, is raucous vocalist Edwin from I Mother Earth. Lifeson strived to have a proper "band for most of the record". Alex recreates the sessions with Edwin: "He was in the writing phase of the new I Mother Earth album, working 'til seven p.m. He came up and we met, went over the songs. He'd be here by eight o'clock, we'd work until two or three in the morning. We did that for a week. It was great working with a singer who was very open to direction. There's something inside Edwin that's very intense. Edwin got inside the characters very naturally. We could have spent hours and hours getting every note in pitch, but you lose something - you lose the rawness of it. That is one thing I've come to realize with myself. The spontaneous and instinctive things that I do are the best for me. With Edwin, when you catch those first few performances, you've got it. If he starts thinking too much, like most people, you lose something. The essence of passion gets diluted. That's just something I recognized in him and that's why I thought he suited this project more than anyone else."
A pair of instrumental tracks 'Strip & Go Naked" and 'Mr. X', tie up Victor's loose ends, particularly when Rush fans may have expected a full-blown guitar album. Lifeson's priorities were more on songs than riffs. 'Strip...' was more of an exercise because it's going to be for this guitar CD (Part II of The Guitars That Rule The World album, set for release in the spring). Bill and I talked about it and we decided to get as many elements as possible into the song. Start off with some twelve-string acoustic and use some electric, then some bottle-neck so it takes it to a bluesy sort of thing from a folky Celtic thing, and then into this soaring guitar line. We just wanted to create a lot of different textures and levels. It's really honest and pure and it came very quickly. We basically wrote and recorded it in a day. On 'Mr. X', I was fiddling with keyboards downstairs, then Pete came in with this great walking bass line throughout the whole song I just threw some guitars on and I thought 'this is my chance to do a little playing on my own and to have a little fun with it'. To me, it's a really fun song and it picks me up. There are so many dark points on this record, I just wanted to get a little lightness here and there. That and 'Shut Up Shuttin' Up' (the humorous stab at males, led by the chattering of Lifeson's wife and her friend Esther) became those two things - to dynamically pick the record up so you don't start crying by the end of it."
Greeting Lifeson after a noon-hour shower on a Saturday, he's quick to point out that "the nights have gotten late over the past couple of weeks". Rush are deeply rooted in creating new material. With 21 years of road life under their belts, they want to remain close to home. After a year-and-a-half of relatively stable home life, Lifeson is yearning to continue that process. However, the basic tracks are scheduled to be done at Bearsville, New York. Everything else will be recorded in Toronto between January and April, with a planned spring release. Eleven songs, perhaps one instrumental, all produced by the guiding hand of Peter Collins. "There's no deadline and we're going to work at a nice easy pace. We are very meticulous in our preparation. Neil and I are Virgos. We're always too anal about how we prepare ourselves. Everything is very ordered. We've reached a point in our career that we can take our time, for just purely financial reasons. At the same time, you impose certain demands and restrictions upon yourself. I think it's a big step forward from the last record." Lifeson provides an exclusive, early description. "We touched on a couple of things with Counterparts. Coming back to the core of what the band is about - being a three-piece. So far I'm really happy with the material. It has a real sense of power to it but at the same time a great feel and sense of melody And that comes mostly from Ged, that's his forte. Whereas I'm more on the heavier side. This whole writing experience has been great. We've become really close. Having this big break away from each other and disconnecting ourselves from Rush and everything it represented. Going out and taking in quality living in that time has brought us back in a better head space."
During the late 80s, the constant road spells Rush endured were taking a terrible toll on the band to the point that a break-up was mentioned. Lifeson is the first to agree that Rush are a massive cult band. No air play/video play and sparse editorial. Beloved throughout the world, Rush have learned to grin and bear the fact that they are forced to tour. "I wasn't sure during our first week that I wanted to continue," the blond-haired icon continues in a somber tone. "I was still disillusioned by what I just accomplished with my record and I didn't know if I wanted to get back into the same old thing that Rush represented. Ged and I spent that first week just talking about where we wanted to go as human beings in our lives. We had a very varied discussion about so many things. We kind of left it as 'let's see how the first couple of weeks go and if my heart is not in it, I have to say I can't'. Then we started playing and all this great stuff started coming out. There's a sense of passion and feel again that I haven't seen in a while on our records. At this point, all the pieces fit together very well."
"Ultimately there will be an end," Lifeson places things much more in perspective. "If it's next year or ten years, I don't know."