Alex Lifeson: In The Limelight

By Mike Mettler, Guitar, February 1996, transcribed by pwrwindows

"I needed something at this stage of my life that I could really force myself to work hard on," observes Alex Lifeson, who's spent the last 21 years (and counting) as lead guitarist for Canada's finest power trio, Rush. After finishing the Counterparts tour in May 1994, Rush went on an extended hiatus, and Lifeson promptly decided to record his first-ever solo album. "If I had let myself down on this, I would have let myself down for the rest of my life," he intones. "The prospect of taking a year and a half off and just sitting around the house or playing golf didn't appeal to me. I wanted to do something that really mattered."

The 42-year-old Lifeson is relaxing in an Atlantic Records conference room in New York City on a late fall afternoon, decked out in all-black and taking an occasional drag on a filtered cigarette. Today's topic is, of course, Victor, a powerful record that's sure to perk up the ears of any diehard Rush fan (and, hopefully, some new fans as well). Victor is a hearty, aggressive record, bringing Lifeson's well-respected guitar prowess to the forefront and-here's the kicker-unveiling his heretofore untapped talent as a genuine songwriter. (Lifeson's only previous lyric-writing credit can be found on "Making Memories," a track from Rush's 1975 classic, Fly by Night.) [Transcriber's note: Lifeson also penned "Lessons," from 1976's 2112.]

Today is also the first day that Lifeson's received feedback concerning Victor from people outside of his "inner circle," and so far the response has been quite good. "The recurring comment I've been getting all day is that no one expected this at all," he reports, "I think the record company even fell into that category. But I wanted to make something that was unexpected. I think that there's a preconception as to what someone in my position, from a band like Rush, would do, I really wanted to turn that around and do something that was quite different."

That's an understatement. After repeated listenings, it's clear that Victor stands tall alongside Lifeson's best Rush work-but it also stands on its own. Yes, a few guests do pop up here and there, including I Mother Earth vocalist Edwin and Primus' Les Claypool, but, rest assured, Victor is Lifeson's personal labor of love (even though the record company is billing it as Victor featuring Alex Lifeson). Abrasive guitar work slashes all throughout "The Big Dance" and "Don't Care," while the creepy title track unfolds the way a smoky Western would if directed by Japanese action/gore film maker John Woo. And then there's "Shut Up Shuttin' Up," a raucous scorcher where Lifeson's wife Charlene and her friend Esther make like the gals from Absolutely Fabulous and provide hilarious, er, running commentary about the often-sexist nature of guys as Lifcson blazes away uninhibited.

Lifeson recorded Victor over a 10-month period in his home studio in Ontario, with occasional input from his friend, guitarist Bill Bell (who usually gigs with fellow Canadian Torn Cochrane). For his "basic heavy sound," Lifeson drew on the mighty one-two punch of his '78 Les Paul and a '59 Telecastcr reissue, along with his gaggle of Paul Reed Smiths which were brought out for most of the solos. Acoustic strumming was done on a '94 12-string Ovation and a double-neck 12-string Alvarez that's 15 years old. But the most important ingredient for Victor's sound was the one that stares Lifeson back in the face in the mirror every day. "I wanted to work on a project that was going to push me to the limit," he notes. 'And this record was the fulfillment of that wish. I never realized how much work there was going to be, though. There's so many things that I never did before since we shared all of the responsibilities in Rush. But for Victor, I was the one who was ultimately 'on the line' for everything; I played almost all of the music myself, engineered it, mixed it, worked on the cover art-you know, everything. Ultimately, it was very rewarding."

Obviously, things unfold a bit differently when it comes to Rush's recording regimen. "The way our whole system works is that there's the three of us, and we all have our ideas, and we put them together, and hopefully we come up with something that's better than the individual parts." Lifeson explains. "The stuff that I give them [bassist Geddy Lee and drummer Neil Peart] always goes through some sort of transformation, but that's the nature of the way Rush works." Lifeson is quick to point out, however, that he would never dream of changing this arrangement; "I'm not dissatisfied with the way the band works at all."

He's certainly gotten some interesting reactions to Victor from his bandmates, though. "I gave them copies of the album as a courtesy, but I really wasn't looking for any comments or reactions from them," Lifeson insists. "This project really didn't have anything to do with them. But their comments were quite positive. Neil said he thought it was a dark record, very disturbing, and unsettling - and that's exactly what I wanted. With Ged it's somewhat more difficult, because we've worked together for so long that when he sits down and listens to the thing, he listens to it like he listens to a Rush record. He said it was hard for him to just sit back and listen to it like it was the latest record from somebody else he'd listened to for a long time."

One thing that's certainly stood the test of time is Lifeson's soloing technique, a unique barrage of arpeggiated figures, rhythmic textures, mixed meters, odd time signatures, and suspended chords. "I definitely agree that my use of suspended chords and my arpeggios are the most distinctive things about my style," he concurs. "In terms of soloing, I can't say that I've really heard anybody who solos the way I do. I think that I tend to be quite disconnected from the track itself. Some of my solos are more melodic and more tied into what's happening rhythmically, but I like to play outside of what's going on. I always like to think of a solo as being a piece that sits on top of everything, rather than inside it.

"The solo in 'Limelight' has always been one of my favorites, mostly because of its texture," he continues. "The sound itself is quite pure, and, with all of the dives and the falling repeats, it feels very, very fluid to me. On Victor, I think there's something that's really dark and cool in 'Promise.' That, and my solo work in 'At the End' - all of that bluesy stuff, especially at the end of it, is really emotion - packed. Actually, there's a really good story behind that one. I had a rough day that day. I'd had a couple of meetings that didn't go so well, and I was feeling uptight; I was really pissed off. So I plugged the guitar straight into the amp, said, 'Screw this,' and started working. It got really edgy. Bill Bell was there, and I said to him, 'We need a drink.' I went upstairs and got half a bottle of Jack Daniels and a six-pack of beer, and we sat there and drank the stuff down in a matter of minutes. Then we did some more takes. The next day, I came back downstairs to listen to it and I'm thinking, 'Well, we had quite a bit to drink last night, so maybe this one didn't turn out so well.' But I listened to it and went, 'Wow, this is great!'"

That kind of unbridled enthusiasm permeates the entire record, "There's a lot passion in my playing on this record, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that I did Victor all by myself," Lifeson offers, "Because I had an idea in my mind of what each song was saying to me, I could work more passionately in terms of the kind of performance I got out of myself. It's easier to bring those things out of yourself when you're in room without engineers, producers, or the other guys. In fact, I think some of my best guitar playing ever is on this record because of it."

While Lifeson agrees that Victor has a definite "guitar-player's mix," he doesn't think it turned out how people might have expected. "I think people have a preconception of what an Alex Lifeson record would be like," he reiterates. "Coming from my background, people think that this record would more than likely be primarily instrumental, with a lot of guitar textures and things like that. And that's exactly the album I didn't want to make. I certainly didn't want to 'prove' anything to anyone in terms of my guitar playing. I wanted to make a record that would stand on its own as a complete piece of music and be something that a lot of people could relate to. I wanted it to have some diversity and some variety, and, at the same time, I wanted to create something that would he unsettling and disturbing and would cause you to have a reaction to it. I'd much rather put out something that makes people think 'What's going through this guy's head?"'

What indeed? While love is the subject of every song on the album, the presentation is (thankfully) nowhere even close to the Mariah Carey brand of sap that gives love a bad name. "I thought that if I was going to write lyrically about love - something that's not all that original and has been done a million times before - how could I twist it into something different?" recalls Lifeson, who cites the most recent efforts from Soundgarden and Nine inch Nails among his current listening favorites. "So I thought of looking at it from the darker side and get into what passion, desire, wants, and needs can make people do in a relationship. Once I established that, it became easier to write the lyrics."

Does he get the feeling that people will interpret Victor's content as being his own personal statement? "I'm sure of it." Lifeson replies without hesitation. "You write lyrics, and, especially if you're someone who's never really written lyrics before, then that's the immediate assumption. That was something I thought of at the time; 'If that's what people think, that's fine, I'll deal with it.' I've never actually gotten into my personal life in my work, and after 20 years, I'm not going to start now. For a lot of these songs, I imagined what the situation would be like from a screenwriters point of view, or as a novelist who can write a passage in a book that's so horrific that you think this guy's nuts-he's gotta be twisted. But then you realize that, through your imagination, you can create a scenario that doesn't really exist in your own life, but it's so graphic that you can still relate to it in a weird sort of way. And that's what I wanted to do with the songs here, such as on 'Don't Care,' where I wanted to get across that sense of anger, frustration, loneliness, and sadness."

Oddly enough, the track "Start Today," which Lifeson says was written solely with a female vocalist in mind (in this case, the task tell to Canadian songstress Dalbello), sounds like it could have in fact been sung by Geddy Lee, "Some of the phrasing Dalbello used is reminiscent of Geddy from the early days," Lifeson admits, "but that was unintentional; that's just the way she phrased things. I think her performance is spectacular. She understood the gist of what the record was as a complete entity without even hearing the rest of it. That song goes through a lot of changes-it goes from a Zeppelinish sort of feel to a Grateful Dead kind of thing to I don't know what. But from the very beginning, I knew that I wanted this song to have a woman's perspective."

While Lifeson would dearly love to tour behind Victor, his schedule just won't permit it. Rush is already back in the studio, hard at work on their 16th studio album, which is due to be wrapped in April '96 and in stores by late summer or early fall. "And then, most likely we'll be back on the road again," Lifeson says with a grin. Whatever happens now, though, it's clear that the rules have changed somewhat, as Lifeson knows in his heart that he can make an album entirely on his own. Which begs the obvious question: Does Alex Lifeson think he'll make another solo record somewhere down the line?

The man's smile is as wide as the Grand Canyon. "Yeah ... oh, yeah. And the next time I do, I know that I can do it even better."