In this exclusive interview, RUSH guitarist Alex Lifeson talks about his first solo project...and the exorcism of some demons.
RUSH is one of those bands that 7 out of 10 musicians will cite as having had some sort of influence on their playing, whether it's the precision bass playing of Geddy Lee, the adventurous percussion of Neil Peart or the intricate guitar work of Alex Lifeson.
Rush has been on an 18-month hiatus (Geddy Lee is a proud new Dad and wanted to be with his daughter as much as possible during her "formative years.") but rather than just sit around the house, Alex Lifeson decided it was time to take on the solo project which had been brewing in him for some time. Victor is the result and it is a tribute to Lifeson and his individual approach to rock.
Although he wrote, recorded and produced pretty much the entire CD, Lifeson managed to recruit some impressive players for Victor, most notably Edwin from I Mother Earth, Les Claypool (Primus) appears on one track ("He took it way outside," says Lifeson.) and one of the finest female vocalists anywhere, Canada's Dalbello.
I must admit that as a certified Rush fanatic from the late seventies and early eighties, this day would be a highlight in my life. And yeah, I know that they aren't the band they once were but their last couple of recordings have been excellent works and they are currently working on their next CD, which Lifeson says is "the most exciting Rush recording we've done in a while ." And you know what, they have one of the most loyal followings of any rock band. To this day, a Rush concert is sure to draw a minimum of 15,000 people in any city. They have a world-wide following and constantly "reinvent" themselves. They are in fact, timeless.
So why do a solo project? After all, Lifeson is in a band that has recorded 19 albums with sales in excess of 30 million copies. Certainly it would be easier but as in any band, there is a certain degree of compromise involved and for once, Lifeson wanted total control. For you see, this is an intensely personal recording from start to finish. It speaks of the pain of love and the things it can drive us to do and say. It is drawn from the personal experiences of Lifeson and there is a degree of honesty in this recording that demands his personal stomp. It's that good...
You have some great players on this record. Dalbello's vocals on "Start Today" are incredible...
She's great isn't she? She's actually been around for a long time. She's very well known in Europe (and Canada) but she hasn't done much in the States. She moved to Los Angeles and was doing a lot of stuff with different songwriters. She did some writing with Queensryche and she also did work with Burt Bacarach, so her experience IS really broad.
She really has an incredible voice...
It's just...there's such a sense of dynamics. When we did ("Start Today") she was very specific about the direction I wonted in terms of the dynamics of the performance-going from that aggressive, almost cocky performance in the earlier verses to that real plaintative quality where she just reaches in and touches your heart. It's got everything - all the qualities - everything I wanted it to be.
You spoke of the compromise involved with being in Rush but I have to ask; Was there any compromise in working with Les Claypool?
Not at all because I was in charge of the whole thing. When Les came up, he played on "The Big Dance." Originally when I talked to Les, I was going to get him to play on the whole record. They (Primus) were finishing up their record at the time and they were getting ready to start a tour so Les said "Man, if I can find the time. Send me the stuff, I'll work on it, I'll come up and we'll do it." Once I started putting things together at the demo stage and I started recording, I had put guide bass lines on it and I said 'Man! This is kind of fun! I think I'll play bass.' So I ended up doing that but I always reserved "The Big Dance"' for Les. So Les came up and he was really no different from any other musician on the project. I was very clear and specific about what I wanted. I knew Les would take the song a little outside and that's what I really wanted for that song. So it was just a matter of using his style, or flavoring, on the music I already had in my head. So as long as the direction was clear, there was no compromise involved. And at the end of the day, I could always say, 'I'm sorry but I don't like it.'
Edwin from I Mather Earth appears on a couple of tracks. How did you hook up with him?
They opened one of the shows we did here in Toronto on the last tour. Although I didn't meet Edwin at the time, I met the guys in the band. They're from Toronto and they all grew up with Rush so when it came time, I had always had Edwin in mind. I just thought there was a quality in his voice that I wanted on my record. He can be very menacing and that's the kind of effect I wanted. at least on a couple of the songs.
We got together and went over the material and he said, "There's only one problem, right now we're recording the new material for the "I Mother Earth." So he was in rehearsal with those guys from noon till seven every day and then he'd come up to my place at 8 o'clock and we'd work until 2 or 3 in the morning and he did that for like a week and a half. So he gets major points for effort. He really worked really hard.
The greatest thing about it was, just the commitment all the players had. Blake on drums and Bill Bell - Bill and I co-wrote a lot of the songs together - and he was almost through the whole project. It was great to have someone there that was enthusiastic.
Did that help you with the...continuity of the record?
Yeah I think so. All the songs sound like they're from the some record, even though they're quite different from each other. I really wanted to get a sense of that. I wanted the variety and the diversity but I didn't want to make a unidirectional sounding record. Having the benefit of working at home', and working every day, I think that also makes a difference.
Was the planned hiatus from Rush the motivating factor in doing Victor?
I've always wanted to do a solo record but I knew just from experience that it was something I needed a lot of time to do. It wasn't something I could do in a 3 month break which is typically the kind of break that Rush takes. With looking at 18 months of free time, I thought, 'OK, here's my opportunity. Put up or shut up.' So I kind of dove into it then, without having a plan. I took it day by day and whatever I felt like, I worked on that day. I think that helps for the variety on the record. If I felt like rocking out that day I would. If I felt like being a little more atmospheric and textural, I would work on a song like that.
Was there a sense of freedom with this project?
It was liberating and yeah, I did feel that sense of freedom. When I set out to make the record, and when I finished the record, I sat back and I thought. 'You know, I wrote the stuff, I engineered it, I mixed it, I produced it , I arranged it, I paid for the whole thing, I worked on the cover artwork' So I didn't even have a record deal at the time, but I thought, 'If nobody hears this record, that's OK. I did it for myself. I needed to push myself. I needed to prove to myself that I was capable of taking on a project this size. I'm really a bit lazy...
With all the work you've done over the years, I find that a bit hard to believe...
Well, I am, at least I was. I get really excited and enthusiastic about things - not just music. It's just a part of my nature and you can ask my kids! (laughter) I don't know how many projects I've started with them that have remained unfinished all of these years. For some reason, I just lose interest in things and I let them go. And that's always really bugged me so I knew when I started this record if I got to the point of where I'd done a lot of work and then I stopped, I would never complete anything again in my life.
Did that have something to do with the title of the CD? You won out over a personal demon?
Partly. I did feel like the victor at the end of it. I'd gone into battle and managed to live through it without any cuts and bruises. More importantly, the connection is to the song, "Victor" and what that song is saying, taking the whole idea of the dark side of love and putting it to an extreme, where love, which is a joyous and beautiful thing to most people, can turn into something as horrific as murder. That song kind of...encapsulated the whole theme of the record .
Was there a specific event that sparked you to take a look at this?
There were a number of events. You know, I really don't talk much about my personal life...
Well I don't want to pry...
No, it's OK. I guess it's a little unavoidable considering the content. It's like, (pretends like he's crying) 'This guy, this poor guy! (laughter) The fact is, I'm in my forties and I've been with the same woman for 25 years. We met in High School and we have kids and we were taking the relationship for granted. And I have to admit that it was mostly me who was taking it for granted. I'm on the road playing and having a great time and then I come home and I do what I want to do. Then here's my wife - she's father, mother, housekeeper, lover, cook, all those things and I really took it for granted. We went through a crisis in our relationship where we had to re-evaluate what our roles were and it's like I never had this relationship with this woman. It started fresh. And we're deeply in love. We've always been but it 's more than we've ever been. At the same time, we have friends who are going through a mid-life crisis and relationships we thought would last forever are starting to crumble and our friends are breaking up.
Since we're talking about new material, how is the new Rush record coming along?
Great. We went to Bearsville in New York and we're planning on being done in April. The material is really strong. It sounds great. There's a power and a groove and a feel to the music that I don't think has existed in Rush's music before. There's also a very complete feel to the material - it all feels very connected so it concentrates the power and the energy. I haven't felt this good about a Rush record in...12 years.
How did Geddy (Lee) and Neil (Peart) react to your doing a solo project and did you consider using them on Victor?
Well, I didn't go to them. I said, 'By the way, I'm working on my own record." I didn't feel that Victor had anything to do with them. Geddy and his wife Nancy had a baby girl the week after the last tour ended, so that was his project. Neil of course always has a million things on his personal agenda that he wants to do. So looking at 18 months, I wasn't prepared to sit around. They really stayed out of the picture through the whole thing. I don't see Neil very much - you know he travels quite a bit when we're off. When we get back together, we pick up where we left off...and it 's great. We talk to each other a couple of times over the course of the year when we're not working. With Ged, I talk to him weekly, or we get together and have lunch or play tennis or something. We maintain a connection that way.
Well, you two were the original members...
Right. We were in Jr. High together so we have a long track record. He knew that this was something that I needed to do for myself. He knew that I was going through some personal things and that I needed to sort all this stuff out. Out of courtesy he would ask how things were going but he would leave it at that. He didn't wont to influence me or make any comments on material he'd heard that I had written early on. So basically, they didn't hear anything until the finished record. I gave them copies - obviously they were the first two people I gave it to and when we got together to make the Rush record, they made their comments and they were all very positive and supportive. You know, Geddy said to me the other day, "You know, Neil and I always felt that of the three of us, you should be the one to go and do something like this." It really felt great. It really touched me, and I realized how much I...it's really corny but, how much I love those guys.
How do you feel about today's music scene?
Well, some of it I really like and some of it, I don't put much merit in. One of the things I've come to realize is how easily we become judgmental of what other people do and are. I think my experience over the past couple years has really tempered that. If I think something sucks, that doesn't matter. It's how the people that are doing it feel. With music, if you want to go out and play, and you're not very good, big deal! It's still such a great thing and such an important thing. The way record companies take advantage of opportunities and trends is another thing and it's something that's driven by business.
You know, if you pick up a guitar, and you've never played one before, and you put a band together and create this "thing," it's the best thing in the world. Sometimes I get topes sent to me and if I write back, I always try to be constructive in my criticism. You know, 'keep at it, keep practicing. You'll only get better.' 'Cause I know how it feels to have written something - especially in those early stages. It's funny, our first drummer, John Rutsey, we went through a period where we hung out together sometimes and he got out these old tapes from when we first started. We had such a laugh. I remembered thinking that at that time, these were the best songs in the world. Of course, they weren't. But they meant that to me then.
Has there been a newer artist that you've met, one who claims you as an influence, and it came as a surprise to you?
Yeah, somewhat. That happened a couple of years ago with Soundgarden. I went up to see them and asked if it would be OK to meet them and say hello. I always feel uncomfortable going into someone else's dressing room because I know what that 's like - it's the inner sanctum, the only private space. So I stopped and said 'Hi guys, I really like your music.' They ended up inviting me in and I was there for like an hour and they're telling me which songs they liked and how we recorded them (laughs). It was great! I mean, I really look up to them and respect their musicianship. You know, Rush has been around for so long and we've done things the way we do them. I think that in many cases, it's not that these bands want to sound like Rush but, I think there 's an aspect of the way we've done things, of the integrity we've maintained over the years, that they want in their music.
RRRRR ("Classic" rating)
Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson took time out from recording the next Rush record to put out his own little project. If you are a Rush fan, you will love it. If you are one who loved Rush music, minus Geddy Lee's vocals, this one is most definitely for you.
Victor isn't one of those guitar masturbating records, like some solo-projects. That 's not to say it isn't filled with tasty licks, because it is. The difference is Lifeson recruited some help. Edwin (I Mother Earth) handles most of the vocal work. He gives the songs a mysterious touch. Les Claypool (Primus) plays bass on "The Big Dance" and gives it the Claypool stamp of approval. While Lisa Dalbello belts out a gem on "Start Today". She sounds like a young Geddy Lee.
From the open track, "Don't Care" to the last "I am the Spirit', Lifeson and co. take you through a musical ear emporium - Lifeson even has his wife heckling on the Zappa-esque "Shut up Shutttin' Up". You could go on forever about Victor, but I recommend that you pick it up and find out for yourself.