Alex Lifeson Of Rush Talks About Different Stages

By Gerald Tan, Big O, October 1998

Alex Lifeson of Rush phones to talk about his band's new 3-disc live album, DIFFERENT STAGES, but is also asked... "So is the band breaking up?" "What's with the latter-day adventures of Tom Sawyer?" "Did the last Van Halen album suck or what?" "What's the Alex Lifeson Beer Commercial Theory?"

DIFFERENT STAGES isn't brought to us by a letter?

Ha... yeah, no letter this time, you're right, I didn't think of that... I guess we overlooked that.

Tell us about this new live album.

You know, we have a long history of covering different periods of this band's development with a live record... a sort of live thing that would be done for three or four records, and that was the intention with this particular package. But what happened was once we started recording these last two tours, for TEST FOR ECHO primarily and COUNTERPARTS as well, we were really quite pleased with the results we got soundwise and in terms of the performance. We were playing with a confidence and maturity that we'd never felt or heard in our playing before. So rather than just cover the last four records, we went back and had a representation of 2112 on there, and "Natural Science" and a repeat of songs like "Tom Sawyer" and "Closer To The Heart", where we'd had it on the three previous live records and its been quite different on each one. It's neat to have that kind of cool marker of the band... one particular song over the course of 21 years.

DIFFERENT STAGES is really two live releases in one isn't it, since one disc is actually from a '78 Hammersmith gig. How did that come about?

We were in the studio... the office was making some changes and they were taking their tape storage area to another room and and we came across these old tapes, we'd forgotten about them. We'd recorded these in February 1978 and it was for a radio program... we decided not to release the tape because Geddy had had problems with his voice that night, at least that's the way we remembered it. So we decided not to let them go, and the tapes were put in storage. 4 years ago we came across them, decided to give them a listen... we talked even then about the prospects of doing a live recording even though it was still a few records away. We took the tapes to the studio for a listen and thought that there was really something there, I don't think that we would ever have released the Hammersmith tapes as a single live release cos they don't really relate to anything and it was not really the best of nights, but it is a representation of one night 20 years ago and in the whole scheme of this package we thought it would be a really interesting contrast to have this from 20 years and the more current material. I think if you play them back to back I you get a sense of where the band was back then, how young and spirited we were, the level of energy, and then when you get into the more current stuff, you get the... to me, the maturity and confidence and majesty in the arangements. And also we made it clear to the record companies that in terms of pricing, the third cd would basically be a free bonus cd.

I believe you said before that the band had been less than enthusiastic about releasing live albums... but here you are with your 4th live release.

Well, I stand by that comment, I think a couple of years ago, I think we all felt the same way, we weren't sure wanted to release another live record. In the past we'd done it to cap those periods in the band's development, but we wondered really how revelent that was in this time, and this period of the band's growth and we probably felt more negative about the release of a live album than positive, but I think when we heard the tapes from the tour starting with COUNTERPARTS but more specifically TEST FOR ECHO, we were really quite pleased with the way the band was playing. We were quite pleased and proud of it, and the fact that we recorded over 40-50 shows a tour, it was such a source of material to pick and choose from. Even though its primarily from one show in Chicago on the last tour, there was still two different nights that we used, and I think Paul Northfield [co-producer/mixing engineer] did a terrific job of making it sound quite seamless, it really does sounds like it was all from one night.

So some of the songs were actually thrown in from a different tour or night?

Yeah... "Bravado," "Analog Kid" and "Show Don't Tell" were taken from the COUNTERPARTS tour.

I read you included those songs after hearing feedback from fans?

Well, they were mixed and we probably have another 5 or 6 songs already mixed from that show, that tour rather... but you have to cut the line some where, and in terms of pacing we felt like we had a pretty good show and both Geddy and I listened to it many times over to get a sense of how the whole thing was paced, and we wondered, particularly him, if we should include "Analog Kid." And then we thought about it and decided we didn't have anything representing PRESTO, so we decided to add "Show Don't Tell" to the package... and that was done just 2 weeks ago.

Were you guys very involved in the actual production of DIFFERENT STAGES?

I was involved in a minimal way, I went to the studio maybe half a dozen times in the whole process, maybe a little more than that, once it was established what the sound was going to be, and what the character was going to be for the whole record, then it's really a matter of leaving it up to Paul to mix it that way, the guy's a terrific engineer and he had a really great sense of what we wanted to capture live . So every 3 or 4 mixes he did I'd go in and check them and that was sort of my involvement, and to make a few decisions here and there. But I think the credit has to go to Geddy... he spent a lot of time in the studio with Paul, I think he needed that kind of focus to be in there to be a part of the whole thing, and for the most part he made all the major decisions. He got involved in the album jacket, which is something that is traditionally Neil's kind of thing with Hugh Syme. And of course Neil didn't have any involvement, and Geddy took that all on himself and this is really his project and I think it's great he did that, I'm very proud of him. It's a lot of work I tell you, it took 18 months to put together. It was remixed a few times, he just wanted to get it better and better and better, and that takes quite a commitment. And in view of the kind of year we've had, it was really something to build up the strength and go in and deal with all the stuff.

What kind of year have you been having?

Well to be honest I kind of lost the heart for it, I didn't feel the need to be that involved in it, and even when we started mixing it, half way into the last tour, when I was feeling terrific and great, I knew it was in very capable hands with Paul, certainly the old material from Hammersmith. I probably would have wanted to get involved with the more current stuff from the last tour, I just kind of lost my desire to be involved in the last year... and I also had quite an experience with VICTOR [Alex Lifeson's debut solo album]. I spent 11 months working on that... I spent every day working on it, it gave me a charge and a great sense of self-satsifaction, and I wanted Geddy to have kind of experience, because he'd never had that experience where'd he'd been in charge of a project by himself. Both Neil and I had done solo projects where we were the boss and I just thought that if he was willing to get into it, it would really be a good experience for him.

So contrary to rumours, the band's not breaking up?

Ah, no, you know what... I just OK'ed for the album artwork today, so that's going in to Atlantic [Records] tomorrow, and then it can go into production. As i said, 2 weeks ago we added 2 more songs to this package, so everything is just very fresh. Then we're going to let it get up on its feet and do some walking. In the new year we also have plans to do some video work, we taped one show on the last tour and though I haven't seen it, I hear there's some really great stuff on there. Perhaps we can put together an hour-long Evening with Rush thing together and then discuss in the new year what we want to plan for next year. By no means have we closed things down, we have a couple of projects now that we need cleared up then we can decide where we want to go and when we want to do a studio record or tour or what.

Was there mention of a computer CD-rom that would be released?

There was some work done on that, but in view of what's happened in the past year, it's been thrown on the backburner.

I've heard the next studio album will be released on the first day of the new millenium?

I don't know where that comes from, it's certainly not a plan of ours.

Rush has only released 3 studio albums in the '90s, compared to the 7 in the '80s... are you guys slowing down?

I guess our schedule has changed a little bit, we decided to take some time off between COUNTERPARTS and TEST FOR ECHO. We wanted to take a year off... it became almost 2 years between releases, and now we've been off a little more than a year... I guess we are slowing down, we're trying to take some time off, trying to enjoy some of the other things in life that we never got a chance to enjoy before... I guess we all kind of deserve it.

In the meantime, it seems some of your old stuff has gotten a life of its own. "Tom Sawyer" [from 1981's brilliant MOVING PICTURES] was on 3 movie soundtracks in 1998.

3 movies? I counted 2...


WHATEVER? What's that? Is it an American release? I have to check that out... I know WATERBOY has basically a straight version, and for SMALL SOLDIERS it was a hip-hop thing. From what I understand, the Beastie Boys are on tour now and they open their set with "Tom Sawyer."

Do you like it the remixed version from the SMALL SOLDIERS soundtrack?

I didn't mind it at all... you didn't like it?

Well, I noticed the guitar solo was gone...

Yeah, well, of course [laughs]... the first thing to go... I thought it was kind of unique, you don't hear Rush music on many major releases [laughs]... so i thought it was kinda cool, a hip hop version is so different, it was kind of fun.

You like Catherine Wheel's take on "Spirit of the Radio"?

Yeah... I thought it was really cool.

These old tunes of yours, being reconstructed so to speak by other people for younger generations, how do you take to that?

I'm quite flattered, actually. It's a nice compliment, to do a song of ours because they found something in it that meant something to them.

Listening to the different kinds of arrangements that come out, do you sometimes feel slightly impelled to try out different arrangements of your own songs on tour?

Not particularly... the reason is because we made a promise to ourselves years ago that whatever we did in the studio we would try to recapture live. I just remember when I was young going to concerts and not hearing the solo that I heard on a record and it really bugged me because you loved every note of that solo on the record, and if the guitarist didn't play it, you felt that he was copping out... like he couldn't remember how to play the solo. So we passed that law years ago that we'd stay very true to what our records were. I don't know if that's still true because when we prepare for a tour now, we don't sit down and listen to the records, we just remember them, play them a couple of times, and it all comes back. So maybe the arrangements change a bit, but for the most part we try to remain true to the record.

Is there then any attempt to reconcile that with wanting to be spontaneous when you're playing live?

Rush has never been a spontaneous group. We may be spontaneous in our writing, we may be spontaneous as individuals in our day to day lives... certainly I think am and always have been, but I think when it comes to Rush and our presentation of our music it's quite controlled. There isn't much room for movement and alot of that has to do with the pacing of the show and how we want to present it. A song like "Closer to the Heart" where we have that outro that we've always improvised abit on, and that's been our dose of that kind of thing.

It's interesting you mention "Closer to the Heart" because that song's often been a highlight for audiences hasn't it?

It's a very positive kind of song with different dynamics from alot of the stuff we do... it's a nice little ballady kind of song. That one song probably elicits more smiles from our audience than any other of our songs, and that's always a great thing to see... people clapping and smiling. It feels so good to see that, and when everyone leaves and talks about what a great time they had at your show... you really feel like you've delivered what you've had to.

Many bands have said that they've been influenced by Rush... Primus and Soundgarden amongst them, are the three of you in turn influenced by any music that you hear nowadays?

I don't think we are nowadays, we were when we were younger. We're quite established in what we want the band to sound like and what we want our music to be like, and that's not to say that we aren't influenced at all by music, I think we still are, I think we still experiment with textures and things like that, but I don't think there's an album or particular player that we try to emulate... we're kind of beyond that. I think that goes for bands that cite us as influences as well; I don't think there's anything in Primus's music that would lead you to believe that they were influenced by Rush, or Soundgarden... well maybe a little bit of Soundgarden, but not a great deal... Dream Theater maybe a little bit more... and Tool, Tool's another example of a band that I think maybe was infleunced by our approach to arrangement and writing, in terms of sections and how they link, but they certainly have their own sound.

So what kind of music have you been listening to recently?

You know I listen to all sorts of things... nothing specifically, I haven't been doing a great deal of listening. Rock music seems to be very fragmented these days, I can't say that I ever really hear anything that just knocks me over. There are a number of good canadian bands that put out great music... Big Sugar, Tragically Hip... Tool I like alot, Cassandra Wilson I think is a beautiful songwriter, and Kevin Breit, the guitarist that plays with her is a new acquaintance of mine... he's a wonderful guitarist.

How about old influences, would you still get off on someone like Eddie Van Halen?

I certainly appreciate Eddie and what he does and what he's always done. He's a typical example because he's left such a mark on all guitarists, but I don't know if I'd say if Van Halen as a group was something I listened to or something that moved me...

So you wouldn't want to hear the last Van Halen record?

You know, that happens and you can't really judge them too severely... I think they probably went into the studio and made the kind of record they wanted to make, something that was less poppy and maybe a little more rootsy, but perhaps in a commercial way that didn't work for them or wasn't the best idea, but they did it and they're living with it and they're out touring and working hard and trying to give it some life. But people are not too forgiving in the world of music... make one little mistake and that's it.

The three of you in Rush, on the other hand, continue to be lauded as musician's musicians and people go to your shows wanting to hear the band as well as each of you do your thing.

Yeah, we're so lucky and fortunate that our fans find something in our music that makes them so commited to us. You know, the opportunity to make records for so long and to play so long and to do whatever you want to do and have your audience with you, is really really special and I think that relationship we have with our audience and the respect we have for them is very unique in the world of music... also, they'll tell you if they don't think that you've done something good, and we've certainly had our moments when we've written songs or tried something that didn't work, but it's made for good converation amongst our fans [laughs]. I mean, you go to the internet and you can see all these conversations and arguments that our fans have about our music and that's wonderful to know, that people would take the time to be that involved.

Compared to that, how did your own solo album VICTOR fare?

Well... I think it ended up being more successful than I expected it to be. When I did VICTOR, that was something I did for myself, and if no one had bought a copy or heard it, it wouldn't have bothered me, it was something I needed to do, I had to get through the whole experience of making my own record - of writing it, recording it, mixing it, producing it, playing on it... the whole thing was my life for 11 months. That was a terrific experience and it was exactly what I needed for me to get on with my life cos I was at a point when I felt lazy and unmotivated. It threw me into an arena where it was like a question of survival - if I didn't finish this, I would never finish anything and I would lose so much self-respsect, and I got through it and that's what mattered to me. You know, on top of it, I had a very good reaction critically and I sold a few copies of it... maybe it wasn't as big a seller as I hoped [laughs], but it was a solo record and of course a record company doesn't treat it the same way as a Rush record, but they gave me a chance for a few months and it did okay. But I was mostly really moved by the number of good reviews that it got, and that was a wonderful thing.

It was refreshing to hear that record... it sounded different from Rush, but at the same time it had your trademark there.

Yeah, exactly... that's the way I felt about it too... I could recognize my playing, but it wasn't Rush.

Of course you wrote the lyrics too, and that lent it a totally different feel.

Yeah, that was a new thing for me.

So, do you think you'll be writing some lyrics for Rush on Neil's behalf now?

Oh, I don't think so... that was enough for me.

Back in the late '70s and early '80s, Rush had a huge audience worldwide with your big-selling albums... do you feel that you're now becoming something of a fan's band, or do you think you're still appealing to new audiences?

Well, judging by our record sales I'd probably say that no, I don't think so, not to the degree that we used to. I'd say we do reach somewhat of a younger audience, but I think for the most part that younger audience is picking our music up from a brother or sister or even parent, who is turning them onto the band. When I look out at the audience at some of our shows, I think we are reaching a younger audience... I see lots of people in their 30s and 40s, but I also see a lot of people in their young and middle teens, and that's definitely reassuring. I think we have something good here on this record, I think we're appealing to a broad group of people... from our older fans who get off on the songs and their presentation, to younger fans who might like the energy of the Hammersmith stuff, which would flow with the whole resurgence of rock music thing...

Do you think there's a resurgence of rock music going on?

I think maybe it's bubbling under... starting... maybe because people are bored or aimless or there's nothing that propelling rock music right now.

There hasn't been much of a movement since grunge, has there?

Well, yeah, for the last 3 or 4 years its been kinda quiet, and everything's so radio-based and commercial. It's all about having a hit on radio... and when you hear beer commercials on TV sounding like Bush or Nirvana or whatever, that's really the sign that that period's dead. And you know, that's the normal thing, that's the way it goes... you become popular, and everyone's on it, and there's no such thing as alternative, there never was... every new trend is an alternative trend, but not for long... right away the record company is going to find every band they possibly can and in the process sign maybe 20% of the greatest bands and 80% of the mediocre, and then it's going to get diluted and there's no growth... so young musicians don't get the chance to develope and grow and the older ones tend to become complacent.

Rush seems to have avoided that pattern... there never were too many beer commercials that sounded like Rush.

No... I think we're quite unique in that we do have our own sound and approach and we don't really care what's going on elsewhere... we've never wanted to be part of another trend or movement. The mainstream's been flowing along, but we've been sort of walking along the shoreline and following our own path, watching what's been happening but not being that involved in it, except to maybe go down to the river and have a drink every once in a while.